Once upon a time, if one were to research possible vacations, one would have to do it in a place called the public library. So, in 1991, when information was scarcer and money was the scarcest of all (we were college students), that’s what my cousin Jill and I did.
Jill’s dad, my Uncle D, worked for Northwest Airlines as a technical instructor. Because of his position, Jill could fly for free. And he gave me a buddy pass, so I could fly for free too, escaping my books and worries for an adventure with my cousin. Our chosen destination? The Cayman Islands.
On September 9, 1991, Jill’s Chevette was in the shop for a lemon squeeze (a.k.a. the installation of its fourth starter), so her mom, my Aunt A, drove us to the airport to catch our flight to paradise. Jill had recently returned from teaching English in Japan, and her international travel savvy came in handy. On the flight to Miami, she chatted in Nihongo with a Japanese man, and on the flight from Miami to the Cayman Islands, she helped a flight attendant translate emergency procedures in Spanish for a woman named Maria who sat next to us. I chimed in with my limited high school foreign language skills, and the woman’s eyes sparkled as she nibbled away a smile. Maybe we helped Maria; we definitely entertained her.
From our limited understanding, Jill and I learned Maria was a follower of Hare Krishna. For religious reasons, she couldn’t eat certain things. She pointed to an ingredient in her lunch, vegetable oil, saying, “No.” Was what we were hearing true, and she could only consume Coke and cheese?
“Give her your cheese,” Jill whispered to me.
I shrugged, handed my cheese to the woman, and she gave me her entire lunch in exchange for it.
Maria talked about her life while we ate. She wore a “NWA WOVT” badge (was she being deported?), came from Dominica, had traveled to the United States to visit her brother who worked for a Spanish newspaper in New York City, had seen (or wanted to see?) her ex-husband and two teenage children in Atlanta, lost her luggage somewhere along the way, and was now headed to the Cayman Islands for vacation—although she already wore a shirt with a Grand Cayman restaurant logo on it.
We scratched our heads and did our best to absorb Maria’s life story until the landing gear dropped and our ears plugged. The plane came to rest at Grand Cayman’s small airport. After the trek through Customs, Jill and I fetched our behemoth suitcases (did we really need all those clothes for a brief tropical vacation?) and strode to an information desk. The woman behind the counter phoned to reserve us a room at Grama’s Bed & Breakfast, then called us a taxi.
We stepped out of the airport into paradise, squinting in the early afternoon sun. Ernest, our cab driver, waved to us. While he heaved our luggage into his car, Jill and I gazed at our surroundings. Could it be we had made it to heaven without dying first? It seemed so. Lush blooms dripped from trees, and the air draped us in balmy sweetness.
But was that an animal sunning itself nearby in the airport’s grass?
“What is that?” I said to Ernest, pointing toward the creature.
“It’s a cow,” he said, his accent reminding me we were in a place where the turquoise waters and strong sun could make us forget everything—maybe even the word “cow,” if we stayed long enough.
Ernest drove us to the bed and breakfast owned by Graham and Madge Ebanks. The daily rates were fair: “US $60.00 with ceiling fans; US $65.00 with air conditioning.” With our light wallets, ceiling fans would do just fine.
Grandma Madge showed us around the homey property, her place as welcoming as our own grandma’s house. We unpacked with haste, our eyes fixed on the azure waves on the horizon. We tugged on our swimsuits and scrambled down to Seven Mile Beach. The sand—as white and soft as table salt—edged the aquamarine sea, the color of its water rivaling that of a swimming pool.
We frolicked on the lonely beach, basking in the island’s off-season emptiness. So what if it was a less popular time of year due to hurricane season? We owned the place, and we would enjoy the bliss the others had left behind.
We swam in the shallow blue-green sea, marveling at the clarity and warmth. We were too young and free to be held back by something as pesky as spandex, though, so we hatched an idea. All bets off—and our swimsuits too—we floated for an hour in the world’s happiest bathtub, our smiles as bright as the sun.
Jill drew in a deep breath and dove to the sandy bottom to explore. She resurfaced seconds later. “Hey, look what I found.” Grinning, she held a snorkel in the air. “Just what I needed.”
Starving from our long swim in the Caribbean Sea, we finally got out of the water. A sign jutted from the sand near our beach towels: “No skinny dipping!” So, we pulled on our swimsuits and walked home.
That evening, Grandma Madge dropped us off for dinner at Liberty Restaurant where Jill and I dined on conch fritters and turtle steak. Turtle—one of Cayman’s national symbols—is red meat, and this one came with a gamy flavor and mealy consistency.
Sated, we strolled back to Grandma’s to the slow beat of the islands, passing a few salamanders who were savoring life and making their way home too.
The next morning, we showed up for a poolside breakfast in swimsuits. But like little kids too distracted to eat a meal in one sitting, we munched on fresh papaya from the platter of fruit Grandma Madge served us, then jumped into the pool. We splashed around for a while before climbing out for mango and bananas.
After breakfast, we caught a van bound for Georgetown in the heart of the island. On the way, a woman with a baby got out. The driver waited for her as she entered a little pink cottage. A few minutes passed. He honked. She reappeared—this time without her baby—and sauntered back to the van. She boarded, and off we went.
At the next stop, two boys waited by the road, one holding a fish. The van driver pulled over.
He lifted his chin toward their scaly companion. “It’s really fresh, isn’t it? So it won’t smell?” The boys nodded. “If it does, hold it out the window.”
“We don’t have any money, but we’ll give it to you later,” one of the boys said, hope flickering in his eyes.
“Sure, I’m easy.” The driver motioned for them to get in.
The boys sat with their prize, the driver mashed the accelerator, and the van rolled on. Caribbean breezes billowed through the open windows of the van, tussling our hair. And on the drive, we could hardly smell the fish at all.
In Georgetown, we shopped for souvenirs and lunched on trail mix and tuna we had brought from the United States to save us money, and a grocery store along the way provided us with cheese, crackers, and plums that we washed down with a tropical barley glucose drink we realized was carbonated after we shook it.
A vacationer to a sunny location can’t go more than a few hours without swimming. Or was that just us? Good thing we had worn our bathing suits under our clothes on our day trip to the east end of the island. We hustled to the beach, and in our freedom, we plunged into the crystal blue.
On the way back to our towels, another “No skinny dipping!” sign greeted us.
Next time, we’d do better. Or at least we’d try.
*Come back next week for the second (and final) installment of the story.