The Caribbean islands are basically a bunch of volcanoes that exploded and cooled off. Eventually, the islands were exposed by the receding ocean and poof…tropical paradise – surrounded by razor sharp rock called Ironshore. This stuff fascinates me. Ironshore is black and porous, jagged and deadly looking. It was used as a way to keep slaves from trying to escape the island – all you had to do was take away their shoes. NO ONE can walk on Ironshore – not even the birds land on it.
But there are places where the Ironshore has been smoothed out, by days and weeks and years of moving ocean. I see the ocean like life – day after day events happen, choices are made and we are washed with the waves of these events, thoughts, incidences and choices. Over time, and over many many waves, the roughness of our exterior is worn down to a smooth more approachable material. However, on close inspection you will find that Ironshore is deeply beautiful in all of its contours and curves, fine sharp edges and black to white variegations.
The Caymanian people come from a long line of pirates as the ships crossing the Caribbean would crash and wash up new residents on the shores. In the years of slave importation in the 1700’s the islands were settled by British and Scottish gentiles and pirates alike who would go to west Africa and import humans as slaves to populate and work the sugar plantations on the islands. Eventually, the slaves and non-slave populations mixed up together, creating as in Cayman an island full of Scottish black folk – quite a mix of cultures I’d say. I met a man named Chris Mactavish once who at 6 foot tall, with dreadlocks down to his knees and skin the colour of beautiful mahogany, showed me a picture of his first cousin in Scotland, a short little skinny white guy who practiced accounting, wore dark socks with sandals and a big wide smile with curly red hair. I said the family resemblance was startling. He thought I was funny.
I like Island people. I get them and I feel comfortable around them. Their rules are easy; When you are respectful and polite, you do well with other people. On the island there are real rules in as to how to treat your elders, using for example always Sir and Ma’am. For native Caymanians, time has not passed so quickly as it has for their American counterparts, and many still live in the same way people did a hundred years ago. In my travels I meet so many interesting people. The conversations are usually the same from one interaction to another; where are you from? How long are you here? What do you do in your “real life” – cause we all know vacationing is pretend life. One lady I met will leave an indelible impression on me…
She called herself Mrs. Shirley Jackson. She is comfortably seated in a wheelchair and is equally brandishing a cane. A younger man pushes her chair slowly. We are standing over a pool of sharks, talking politely like vacationers do. I tell her I find these two sharks very interesting and gentle – nurse sharks they call them. They are like gigantic toothless bottom feeders. Anyways calling a shark a nurse makes it seem so much more friendly.
She tells me boldly that she is 80 years old and asks how old I am. I tell her 48 – and make the appropriate “no way!” response in regards to her age – but really she looks 80 right now. She tells me she has just buried her husband yesterday, and the man pushing her wheelchair is her son. A white man with a Caymanian accent – I think that is so cool. He looks at me with sad eyes and nods. I tell her we saw the grave site, and without knowing who they were said a prayer as we drove by. She thought that was nice and smiles a wide grin at me. She has a nice smile.
We talk about Island stuff. She almost treats me like an “insider” because I have pretty good knowledge of the place and an obvious love for the culture and people having been many times. I have a particular love for the Caymanian people who sadly are being over run by the prolific American culture which has infiltrated the Island in the past 15 years with hearty investments and real estate development. Cultures are like spices, if one is too strong and overbearing you just wont taste the others, and the taste of Cayman is being covered in ketchup.
Mrs. Jackson and I spend a long time on the shark bridge sharing travelling stories. She asks me if I have ever eaten Barracuda, I white lie and say I don’t eat anything with a face. That’s not entirely true because chickens and fish have faces, but I wouldn’t eat a barracuda. Everyone has limits.
She thinks I’m funny, and I think that’s a good thing because I would not want to be the one to piss off Mrs. Shirley Jackson. She is a lady who speaks her mind.
She tells me she has travelled the world, and although she is American she feels much more Caymanian. I agree with her, because I can see she loves the people and doesn’t want to mold them into an Americanized image of herself. I like Mrs. Jackson. She has moxy.
She wants to know about me, I tell her I am Canadian (everyone loves Canadians you know), and that I like to write and I am a musician. She smiles and says “good for you!’, it’s important to do what you love in this life. I agree – although not always the easy route, I say – she agrees.
She tells me she is a published author and would like to write another book one day. She tells me about her sister, a nun and bush pilot who lived in Northern Rhodesia in the 1940’s and 50’s who helped ferry out the frightened nuns through jungle and bush when the revolution and massacres began. Even when her license was revoked when she was told it was inappropriate for a woman and a nun (imagine!) be doing the work she was doing. But that didn’t stop her. I could see Mrs. Jackson admired her sister’s stoutheartedness.
I love stories of bravery. I tell Mrs. Jackson I’d love to write her sister’s story. She agreed and said almost jokingly I should come stay with her for a month and we would write it together. What a lovely idea.
She says she published a diabetic cookbook years ago and felt very proud of that, but that writing a real story is on her bucket list. She is the third person I have met in the past day that says they want to write a book. I think everyone has an amazing story to tell that should be written. I have an idea; we can create a series called “Life”, and each novella is a kind of memoire, where people can reflect on their experiences and what they have learned. My imagination runs wild.
About 45 minutes have passed I think and Mrs Jackson and I are reluctant to leave each other’s company, having enjoyed our exchange so much. I give her a hug and wish them an easy bereavement. She tells me again that every woman should marry a Caymanian man as they are culturally raised to be so gentle, kind and respectful of women. She will miss him so much, she says. Her son and his wife now have gathered behind me and look at me with mournful eyes I am far too familiar with. Is it strange that I feel a kinship with people who are grieving? Or maybe it’s that people who are in pain have less shielding to hide themselves and I find them comfortable to be around.
I share about my own grief with my mother’s death and how the past year has been a blur of unpredictable tears and strange emotions that I refuse to disallow because I know that if grief this big gets all caught up unexpressed inside of me “I will surely explode and be dead”. She smiles at this and says yes, this is the right approach. And she adds that if people around me can’t handle my sadness, then I should “just tell them to bugger off”. I like Mrs. Jackson. She isn’t a time waster or a bullshit artist.
The best part of travelling is the people you meet. Even the ones that give you pause for concern, like the man from Chicago at our condo that was verging on extreme racism in his attitudes towards the Caymanian people. I kept wanting to tell him that Buddha said the only sin is ignorance, but I realized that nothing I would say would ever change his mind. It takes all types to make up a world, but admittedly I could do with more Mrs. Jacksons and less dummies.
Cayman is quintessential example of the direction of the developing world and at times it makes me feel hopeless for our planetary direction. It is being torn apart because of greed for grand landscapes and unbelievable beaches. As a tourist and a business destination, there is probably no more temperate and pleasant place to be. But the island is mysterious and two very distinct worlds exist. There are unfortunately many people on the island that come from other countries, often America, to develop a “new America” complete with all the luxuries and indulgences of home. Deep fried mars bars are easier to find on west side than a decent mango, which on the east side can be picked freely dripping abundantly from mango trees. Two different worlds.
I sound like my father when I start griping about “how the world is changing so fast”. My conclusion after travelling most of the world in my short life is that development and moving forward seems to be our human compulsion, but it is not in anyone’s best interest.
I will keep collecting stories of hope and goodness and to the best of my ability will put aside the evidence I see of a developing nation out of control. I am grateful that people like Mrs. Jackson are around to keep things real.