01 July 2007

back in the saddle again

Well, my week in the Caymans is now done.

One week in which I did not see the internet, did not send of receive any emails, made two phone calls and received none, opened no mail, read no news, saw nobody I knew aside from own immediate family... I basically sat on my ass and read, or snorkeled or swam or ate. And just looked at this view and grinned (taken while eating a sandwich on the patio of our condo).

The Caymans remain an odd mix of overlooked Caribbean paradise and (increasingly) hyper-luxurious accommodations for that class of people for whom "price" truly is never an issue. Beachfront condos sell for 2 and 3 million. Bill Gates owns a penthouse in the biggest fanciest place in town. Paul Allen's 150-foot yacht sails into town a few times a year. Half the folks you spot are wearing wristwatches which cost more than an average family sedan.

Seven Mile Beach is being developed at an incredible pace, with new construction going pretty much anywhere they can manage to get a crane onto the site. Hurricane Ivan supposedly devastated the island back in 2004, but you'd never know that unless you drive away from the beachfront area around to the less touristy sides of the island where you see things like cinderblock shells of homes with the roof entirely gone... huge fallen trees tumbled into stands of driftwood facing an impossibly gorgeous line of surf... ramshackle huts made of corrugated tin and plywood where native families play in yards of freshly swept sandy soil.

The Caymans were discovered by Columbus in 1503, and in some parts of the island it looks like nothing has changed since: tangled mangrove swamps, white sand beaches facing sky blue shallows protected by reefs and rocks 300 yards from shore, almond trees hanging out over the water, royal blue waves smashing into hellish ironshore rocks that slice through your sandals like a hot knife. It wasn't until the development of an international banking scene in the early '60s that anyone other than sailors and sea turtles had much any reason to even notice the place.

Now... hardly a day goes by that you don't wake and find three or four monster floating skyscraper cruise ships have pulled into Georgetown Harbor during the overnight, and armies of sunburnt plodding tourists are marching down the beach and down the main drag, plastic shopping bans in hand as they buy shirts and rum and jewelry and lotion and head out for a day laying on what surely has to be one the most perfect beaches in the world.

At our condo, a pair of manmade rock breakwaters extended 100 yards out from the beach, providing cover and habitat for all sorts of sea life. We found that if we paddled 30 yards past that into the open water and then turned right, there was a reef circling all the way down Seven Mile Beach at a distance of 50-200 yards from shore, in water between 6 and 20 feet deep. One day we trekked down to an especially gorgeous spot on Seven Mile—"Governor's beach," next door to the Governor's Residence—and spent the day paddling around a particularly gorgeous coral head where we'd be surrounded by a hundred silver chub and yellow-striped sergeant majors. Three-foot long emerald parrotfish crunched at the reef. A 6 foot stingray glided by at one point, a small shoot of foot-long squid patrolled alongside me for 10 minutes, and a four-foot barracuda glided past just six feet in front of me at one point. I popped to the surface at one point and realized I was alone, in the ocean, in 20 feet of water, a quarter mile from shore. I giggled, and dove back into the water.

Stingray City remains simply one of the coolest experiences on earth. A totally clean and barren sandbar submerged in four feet of crystal clear water in the middle of the central "bite" or bay on Grand Cayman, tour boats anchor and people wade into the swimming pool like waters to find themselves surrounded by 50 or more southern stingrays who are now so familiar and comfortable with humans that they swim up to you and bump into your chest and back, clamoring for handouts, the oceanic equivalent of stray cats or park squirrels. The rays are so unthreatened that they are content to be handled and caressed and even lifted from the water by visitors. I had a large 4 foot ray that seemed to like me, so I lifted her in my arms and kissed her on the point of her snout as she gently flipped her wingtips and stared at me with those odd cat-like eyes common to sharks and rays. There are other places where swimmers can interact with dolphins, and surely that is a wondrous experience and one which I would love to know one day, but there's something just so damned alien about these rays... they look like something from another planet, and as i was sitting there dancing slow circles with this creature, I couldn't help but wonder if she was as fascinated by the weird creatures she was seeing as I was.

Or, hell, maybe she just likes the free handouts of chopped squid. Whatever—it's an amazing experience, and I was thrilled to see all my kids in the water, giggle and getting these bizarre creature and getting one of those memories that sticks with you for the rest of your life.

Another great day involved a 3 hour jaunt around the beach side of the island onboard "The Anne Bonnie" a three master pirate ship crewed by guys in pirate garb who growl and make the kids swab the decks for a few minutes as they hear tales of the real pirates of the Caribbean who were among the first to find any profitable use for the Caymans. We dropped anchor in 40 feet of gin-clear water, they ran out the prank, cued up the music, opened the bar, and we spent 90 minutes diving from the plank (and the upped deck rails) into the Caribbean. As my oldest said, "if you'd told me that at some point I'd be jumping off a pirate ship into the open ocean and not even thinking about it, I'm not sure I would have believed you."

All in all, a pretty damned excellent adventure, made all the more excellent by the daily return to our condo where I was free to crack open a beer from our fridge and think about how excellent it all was as I looked at sunsets like this one (where the Anne Bonnie sails past on a sunset booze crooze loaded with cruise ship visitors...).

Sometimes... life ain't too shabby.


Julie O'Hora said...


Ryan Rasmussen said...

Holy Buckets! So there is a Gentle, Traveling Brett. Sounds like a great way to escape and recharge. I'd love to meet the rays someday.

Welcome back.

Team Brindle said...

NICE! :-)

Unknown said...

I don't know whast you've done with the real Brett Nicholson but I quite like this one so feel free to leave him bound and gagged for a while longer.

PS - Steady on, old man. That kind of enjoyment is how babies happen.