The Cayman Islands had never been on my Must Visit list. In fact, to me they
seemed more like a location for a James Bond novel than a tourist destination. I knew
little more than the fact they were in the Caribbean and had relaxed tax laws—and the
only reason I knew that was that a former accountant who was known for siding with the
client on anything in doubt had renounced his Canadian citizenship and relocated to the
Cayman Islands. That did not give his former clients a great deal of confidence in how
things would go if they ever faced an audit, but at least they knew he would not be there
to explain their returns.
When the cruise docked at George Town on the big island (Grand Cayman), I
leapt at the chance to go ashore and explore.
The first thing that struck Sandra and me as we made our way into the city and
did a quick walk about was the number of chickens wandering the streets. This was not
an odd hen here and there. This was a considerable population of hens and judging by the
number of young chicks out and about, a significant rooster presence as well. It wasn’t till
much later in the day that I questioned one of the locals about the birds. She explained the
phenomenon was the result of a hurricane hitting the island several years earlier,
destroying many of the pens. The poultry escaped, and when you didn’t have a house
yourself, recapturing them was not a high priority. Having been freed by nature, the birds
were now strutting on the city streets.
The city did live up to its reputation as a reduced tax area, offering a mall of Duty
Free Shops along the walk from the pier to the city. There was everything you could
imagine in a duty free shop. It was my finding that the prices in these shops had nothing
to do with taxes or duty; marked at a slightly lower price than the victim/customer paid in
their own country, the goods were a deal. (That is fair and I understand the concept; you
don’t have to tell me a story about it being duty free and how this is the only location in
the world that can sell this quality item at a price like this.)
We had just one day there, so Sandra and I decided to split up in order to cover
more of the country. She chose to do her research on the country from a shopping
perspective, while I would go downtown and explore the international business side of
the city. Before we parted ways we did take a tour to Hell. I have heard tourists refer to
some excursions they have taken as being pure hell and a lot of things going wrong, but
this was not like that at all, this was a tour to hell.
Whether the place had been named by some early explorer and the locals decided
to capitalize on it in recent years, or whether it had been named recently so that vendors
could capitalize on the name, that was more than I could ascertain but the place was
indeed called Hell, and had a post office to prove it.
Hell, Grand Cayman is an area of very sharp gray rocks, protected from tourists
and souvenir seekers by rails and fencing. Officially referred to as phytokarst, the rock
formations are made of dolostone, an uncommon variety of dolomite formed by acid rain
and carbonate eating organisms. They do provide an interesting image and vendors do not
miss a trick in marketing this feature. There is the huge painted sheet inviting you to
stand behind it and show your face with a devilish body painted below it. There are t-shirt
shops with the ‘I have been to Hell’ slogan in every colour of the rainbow, and of course
the post office offers over priced post cards and stamps so that you can mail a post card to
your friends and it will carry the cancellation mark from Hell.
I sent one to myself and it arrived in Manitoba about three months later. Not bad
considering I don’t live that close to Hell.
After the tour we divided forces and Sandra set out to conquer the shopping mall
with its countless duty free offerings and visa accepting tills.
For me it was off to the city centre where—when I turned my sights on the
downtown, the first sign I saw was CIBC First Caribbean on an office building.
Downtown was a cosmopolitan city with more modern buildings than most. The
only place that it reminded me of was Brasilia, an entire city of glass and steel with none
of the old character buildings we expect in a downtown.
My visit was mid afternoon and things were hopping—it was a business centre
and my visa was 2013—before the days of complete electronic transactions.
The modern steel and glass buildings made the chickens seem even more out of
place, but the incongruity served to make me aware of how not everyplace goes through
the same process that our part of the world did, and so development happens at a different
rate. This was a place that boomed as a tax haven after the numbered Swiss bank account
had lost its shine and so provided a strange mix of homeless chickens and international
business centres. I had seen enough and had no intention of opening a bank account so I
headed back to meet Sandra at the pier.
The day was far from done and we happened upon a place that again capitalized
on the duty free concept but this time, specializing in rum, and rum cake, and rum t-shirts
and what ever else could be soaked in rum. They had a great pirate statue on the deck and
we posed for a pic with the Buccaneer wearing a banner emblazoned with ‘Tortuga’.
The story was that the shop had been opened by an ex-pilot, whose wife started
baking the rum cakes sold by the store till the demand out-paced what she could do in her
domestic kitchen. They had now gone to a more commercial size operation, running a
thriving export business, which specialized in the island’s traditional rum cake. The stop
was an interesting diversion and right next door to an aquarium featuring a dolphin show,
along with an opportunity to kiss what will forever in my mind be a derivative of Flipper.
I found the iguanas more interesting than the possibility of kissing a sea mammal,
but others preferred the dolphin.
The tender was waiting and it was back to the cruise ship, the Grand Cayman
safely stored in our memory bank.