Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017
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The Grand Caymans

Welcome to the quirkiest islands in the Caribbean

"Hi there!" smiled Claudette, lifting the lid off a huge blackened pot bubbling on an open wood fire. "I've got the best fish on the island!" The ramshackle open-air kitchen with its picnic table on West Bay beach was worlds away from the five-star resorts and huge cruise ships visible across the Georgetown harbour. But then the rapidly changing Cayman Islands are full of such contrasts.

Until the 1970s the Caymans were a sleepy British Caribbean outpost. For generations they were "sailors' islands," as one old timer described them to me. Men went to sea in war and peace, others built boats, caught fish and turtles, and the women made baskets and rope. People were poor but didn't know it because everyone was the same. It was a time of sharing the little one had with others.

Since the population has tripled in the last 30 years, those days are looked upon a little nostalgically now -- at least, by some people. As a stable British Dependent Territory, the Caymans have developed as the world's fifth largest financial centre as well as a booming tourism mecca. According to a recent government report there is "no sentiment for independence" on the islands. That's not surprising when Britain is still referred to as "the Mother Country." Every few years the Queen appoints a new governor, dispatched from England complete with a gold braided uniform and plumed helmet right out of The Pirates of Penzance.

Offshore banking isn't something the casual visitor will likely encounter, other than noticing the nameplates of some of the 575 banks and trust companies registered in the Caymans. But the islands have been equally aggressive in developing a different type of offshore resource: the stunning coral reefs that surround the islands.

I wanted to find out why the eyes of scuba-divers glaze over when the Caymans are mentioned and put the question to Greg Clayton, an ex-banker who manages the all-inclusive Spanish Reef Resort on the edge of the Caymans's famous North Wall.

"Well," said Greg, contemplating his cigar for a moment. "There are certainly places with bigger and brighter fish, clearer and warmer water, better coral and better drift. But I don't know anywhere else in the world that has 90 percent of those things in one place. That's what makes the Caymans unique." Less than half the people who stay at the Spanish Reef are divers but anyone is welcome to take introductory courses from the resort's qualified instructors. "The best diving off Grand Cayman is right there on the North Wall," said Greg as he pointed seawards. "And you can just swim out to it from shore."

GARDENS IN THE SAND
The most concentrated resort area on Grand Cayman is Seven Mile Beach, a dazzling stretch of palm-fringed fine white sand. The top resorts here, the Westin Casuarina and the Hyatt Regency, have everything you could ask for. At the north end of the beach, just off West Bay Road, is Boggy Sand Road. Here are some of the finest remaining examples of traditional Cayman cottages with their verandas, gingerbread trim and sand gardens. Taking the place of lawns, sand gardens originated in Africa, but islanders added English flowers to them. Adorned with bougainvillea, hibiscus and shaded by palms and breadfruit trees, the meticulously raked white sand is set with bleached conch shells. Unfortunately, these unique houses are an endangered species. The Cayman Islands have no national register of historic properties and with no taxes collected here, there seems no way to protect these architectural treasures.

Other efforts to preserve the islands' past have been more successful. The most spectacular example is the re-creation of Pedro St. James, the site of a meeting in 1831 which resulted in the first Caymanian elected assembly. The Great House, built in 1780 and abandoned after being struck by lightning in an 1877 storm, has been rebuilt by the government. Opened in 1998, the restored Pedro St. James National Historic Site is under the loving care of Attlee Ebanks, yet another banker who changed careers. Attlee is particularly proud of the site's recently completed audiovisual presentation, as well he should be -- it's one of the finest I've ever seen. The prelude to the dramatic presentation is the re-creation of the raging storm that destroyed the house, complete with lightning effects, gushing rain spouts and the feel of spray on your face.

 

Another Cayman attraction acquired by the government is the world's only commercial turtle farm. About 40 percent of the 8000 hatchlings raised here each year are released to the sea when they're a year old. "Some visitors get upset at us raising turtles to eat," said Ken Hydes as he showed us around, "but Caymanians will find a way to get turtles anyway and it's better for them to get them from us than to take them illegally in the wild." The farm is also the best place to see Caymanian iguanas and native parrots. Near the turtle farm we stopped briefly to mail some postcards from the village of Hell.

While the turtles are a popular attraction, one of the most exciting experiences in the Caribbean takes place at "Stingray City." Here a dozen or more Atlantic Southern Stingrays gather in only a metre of water, gently nuzzling the legs of enthralled participants who hold out scraps of squid which the rays suction into their mouths. The stingrays will even flop into your arms, allowing you to caress their sandpapery upper surfaces and pale, velvety undersides. The enchanted looks on the faces of the people mingling with the rays says it all.

Our glass-bottom boat returned us to Rum Point, one of our favourite spots on Grand Cayman. It's the sort of place where Jimmy Buffett would feel right at home. Hammocks sway gently beneath the palms, tanned waitresses in swimsuits make sure you don't have to wait for a piûa colada or a cold Stingray beer, and at night dinner is served in one of the most delightful atmospheres on Grand Cayman. Rum Point is not a place, however, where you will encounter the island's most fascinating artist.

LOCAL COLOUR
"You must meet Miss Lassie," said islanders when we asked about special Cayman people. After calling ahead on a quiet Sunday morning we drove to her house on South Sound Road. The tiny house is priceless, not from its real-estate value which with its sandy beach must be a million dollars or so but from what Miss Lassie has done to the place. Twenty-two years ago, Miss Lassie, whose full name is Mrs. Gladwyn Bush, suddenly began painting the religious visions she had in her dreams. "Hear me straight, young man," she said. "I see the pictures in my dreams as clearly as I see you now." She began by painting on any surface close at hand: the windows, doors, walls and ceiling of her house, pillows, an old Chevy windshield -- even the front of her refrigerator. "When I started painting, people said I was crazy," smiled Miss Lassie, now 85 years old. "They even said that in the newspaper. But it didn't bother me. A person can't hurt you by what they think."

Miss Lassie's "visionary intuitive" paintings have been sold around the world and the Queen recently awarded her the Member of the Order of the British Empire. Last year the government bought most of Miss Lassie's remaining work to ensure it would stay in the Caymans. "They want this house too," she said, "but they can't have it. I'm going to be carried out of here." Just as we were leaving, Miss Lassie presented us with a beautiful Queen Conch shell.

Not far from Miss Lassie's house, we visited Ira Walton, the last of a vanishing breed. Like his father and grandfather before him, Ira is a boat-builder. Working at a bench saw in front of his small building shed, Ira gestured ruefully to a missing finger. Nearby was a rare sight, a recently completed traditional Cayman "cat boat," the type used for turtling by generations of islanders. Sixteen feet long, it was built of cypress and local pop-nut and painted in the standard colours of blue, white and black. The cypress for planking was imported but Ira took his templates into the swamps at Red Bay Pond and searched for pop-nut wood already bent as close to the shape of the boat's ribs as possible. An old Newfoundland boat-builder once told me he did exactly the same thing. I asked Ira if he was teaching anyone the old skills so they wouldn't be lost but he shook his head. "I've tried to get help from the government," he said, "but they just don't seem interested." Ira is 74 now and after a lifetime that has included stints as a member of the legislature and a private detective he plans to retire soon to his beloved Cayman Brac.

We too were bound for a few days on Cayman Brac, one of two small sister islands that lie half an hour's flight from Grand Cayman. But before we left we went back at sunset to Claudette's kitchen at the end of Boggy Sand Road and dined on grilled mahi-mahi, fritters and onions.

BACK TO BASICS
"The Brac," as the locals call the second-largest of the three Cayman islands, is not for everyone. But if your soul yearns for solitude along with sun, here it is. The only sounds you'll hear at night lulling you to sleep are the constant roar of waves breaking on the reef 100 metres offshore. Cayman Brac is a place to lay back and relax or dive to your heart's content. Most of the small resorts cater to scuba-divers and snorkellers. Witness the scores of painted mementos on stones and driftwood left behind by people from around the world.

In our wanderings on the Brac we stopped to chat with Tennyson Scott, a local artist. He took us across the road to see an Indian Mulberry tree, also known as the Pain Killer Tree in parts of the Caribbean. The juice from the unusual looking fruit, called noni, has been claimed to stimulate the immune system and is the primary ingredient in many natural healing preparations in much of the tropical world. "But it's the most awful-tasting stuff you can imagine," said Tennyson.

Cayman Brac, with about an equal number of churches and bars, is the way Grand Cayman must have been 30 years ago before all the realtors' signs started sprouting. "You can't help but slow down here," said Terri Scott, a Texan who has lived on the island for 14 years. And if the pace of life on the Brac is slow, I can't imagine what it's like on Little Cayman. We touched down there on our return to Georgetown and found ourselves bumping along a gravel landing strip. Now that's really getting away from it all.

 

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