Cayman – The treasures of Hell
By TLB Contributing Author: Ken LaRive
Author’s note: If one has aspirations to live the island life, no other book explains it better than “Don’t stop the Carnival.” But just like most everything, experience is exactly what you make of it. Answers to questions, and life, will come to you in like kind. You make of life what you want of it…
Two years exploring the Cayman Islands above and below showed me that even on a tropical island, with a mean temperature of 82 degrees, there was indeed a change of season. My time off was spent exploring, blazing a trail with my English friend Nigel, and exploring the hundreds of reefs scuba diving. Brac and Little Cayman were just over the horizon, and strings of little islands spilled into the Caribbean like emerald jewels.
I have seen islands where every tree had been cut down a hundred years ago, and they never returned. Shiploads of lumber went back to England to build exotic furniture, and I’d like to believe they had no idea of the true decimation of their acts. There are birds, reptiles, and animals that were indigenous only to that particular island, so the loss was far greater than cutting old growth trees… I also saw a beauty there that defies description…
The following is my attempt to describe what I saw in the interior of a desolate part of Cayman, close to the community who got its name from the blackened ironstone cliffs the Pirates of old called Hell. Few expats saw this area because it was only accessible by boat.
Cayman: The treasures of Hell
My borrowed cat beached from the calm aqua-blue lagoon to rest solid on the white band of sand. With momentum I jumped ashore leaving patterns of tennis shoe rings among the scattering fiddler crabs. Large bright purple pincers warned me off as they went scurrying into round wet holes.
I climbed the nearest powdered dune and stretched the hours and sea miles from my legs. A crescent wall of verdant leaves arched to the horizon, and the mix of coconut palm, sea-grape, and mother-in-law’s tongue glittered wet from a recent shower. A hot Cayman sun toasted my shoulders, and reflected from the sand in heated vapor.
Adjusting my straw hat I put on my finger printed Ban-Rays for a better look. It was a deserted stretch of beach, littered with a few plastic milk bottles mixed into clumps of rust-colored seaweed. It made a thin colorful line along its length and the jungle pushed to the sand in a wall of lush vegetation. Parrots of velvet green flashed among slow swaying branches, dripping like diamonds in a cool Caribbean breeze, leftover from a westerner no longer seen.
Riots of perfume fragrances combined like sugar and salted spice. Wet vegetable decay, flowers rich and sticky, fermenting sea-grapes, sun baked coconut, drying sponges and sea-grass, and the unmistakable odor of life, permeated the air. I stood there taking deep breaths of the intoxicating mixture.
Crystal clear wavelets tinkled like chimes on the gleaming sea-shelled beach, sparkled from the great golden orb that hung above an immense and cloudless blue sky. Seabirds circled, and their shadows moved slow and silent from dune to dune.
I felt and saw this all in a moment. My mind was fevered with excitement! I had fought the waves and current all morning in my quest to explore this part of the island, and here I was, legs braced, and ready for it. With adventure in mind, there is a most curious tendency for putting aside thoughts of potential and uncertain danger. Besides, treasure is always turning up from shipwrecks to small stashes found in the sand. Every adventure should have a reason for being, and I suppose that is as good as any.
The natives called this bit of island “Hell”, and with the knowledge these men had explained to me over tequila and rum at the pool bar, I felt ready for a kilometers worth.
Machete in hand, I moved past knee-high reeds and low vines of purple trumpet flowers, and cautiously plunged headlong into a depth of moist green shade. Under, through, and past its emerald walls, I entered leafy doors and dark shadowy halls. Carefully I picked and pushed my way through, squinting in the gloom. Cold drops of water splashed down from the high canopy, shivering the salted contours of my hot, suntanned back.
The forest-jungle floor opened as a mass of splintered sandstone and calcium carbonate, sculptured into fantastic shapes by ancient sea and relentless rain. Slivered blades, some high over my head, protruded between twisted and scarred mahogany and spiny cactus vines. Fossilized seashells and coral were embedded there. and displayed by bright patches of escaped sun from the glowing umbrella canopy overhead. Thin and sharp, they rang like some strange musical instrument, touching it for balance with my long knife.
Confiscated whelk shells were filled with hermit crabs. Glowing lavender and orange claws clicked shut as I approached, and dangled like ornaments from bonsai-like bushes. I traveled painfully slow from one outcrop to another in jerking, labored movements, and realized that few, if any large animals could move through this maze of glass-like daggers. Somehow this thought gave me little comfort, as I knew from experience that it was the small things that could hurt you in a place like this, some unseen. The heat was oppressive, and not a breath of a breeze stirred in this deep purple shade.
I slapped away the growing cloud of mosquito and a few loud horse-flies, and moved on carefully, thankful for the layer of sun tan oil.
Deeper I found molding and rotting tree-trunks eaten by termite, their nests hidden in a thick abundance of leaves. Like a fat cigar, they were protected high into the trees, a molded castle of chewed leaves the size of a man.
Long fine tubers with clusters of lavender and gold orchid flowers danced on long stems in the humidity. Air plants filled with reflective water and multi-colored tree frogs hung tightly from mossy nooks and crannies. They sent out rich red and blue-purple flowers high in the branches, like fireworks. Strangle vines struggled upward for light like copper wire, and I was told these vines had a protective white milk-sap that gives a caustic burn. I knew first hand, as the skin first turns black, etched by alkali, and then with time peels off the upper epidural to the white underneath. I give it a wide clearance.
Butterflies of painted glitter floated and scattered in the sun’s rays as I disturbed them, darting with flashes as they sparked from shadow to dapple between the trees. In pools of black water, giant mangroves sent roots deep into black mud. They were covered with tiny bejeweled flies, and blood sucking mosquitoes crawling up from the muck.
At eye-level I observed a mossy trunk where gray and orange fur balls glinted on long shiny red legs as they marched in line between masses of amber egg casings. These casings were systematically being cut and transported by lines of dark ruby-red ants, carried along with bits of leaves; flower peddles, and quartered insect parts. They traveled on what looked like well-worn trails through sodden lawns of sumptuous blue-black sphagnum-like moss, wrapped in a tangle of thorn vines.
A giant black fly hummed like a buzz-saw for a moment around my head, then disappeared in the gloom.
Mopping the sweat from my eyes, I spied a marbled water snake sitting motionless on a wet slab next to a blue-black rain-pool. Jade flecked eye-slits gazed emotionless at my movements and its tongue flickered to identify me. An old gardener at the hotel told me there were no poisonous snakes in the Cayman Islands, and with that bit of faith, I moved past without fear. It sat unmoving like a guard on duty, but in a flicker it was gone with hardly a sound, disappearing under the dark tannin water in a blur.
Strings of succulents with fleshy wax leaves looked like rosary beads, draped in single strands from the arms of huge century plants. These plants in turn sent poles of white bell-shaped flowers thirty meters high into the vaulted ceiling of rubber and breadfruit trees. One by one their petals fell like so many tropical snowflakes as they settled on the sultry forest floor.
Gobi rested on water sprouts, fat from feeding on chrysalis of larva and worm. All transitions could be observed with these insects as they pushed from the water tension to dry and test new wings. Some took flight in rainbow flutters to disappear above, and as I squatted low for a better look, I saw that most were snared by silky threads by every conceivable type of bantam predator. Below this tangle of refracted light, rust-spotted salamanders, camouflaged tree frogs feeding with long sticky tongues, black chrome beetles that pushed past the base of these woven silken threads, beading in stands, evenly spaced, little pearls created by humidity. Spiders would scramble across these sticky strands, and wrap their struggling prey like a mummy, fresh for a later snack. I sliced my way through this tangle, letting the black critters escape.
I peered over the abyss of an ancient blow hole created from the ebb of some long ago ice age. Its gray edges looked like a yawning mouth of rotten teeth. In its gaping gullet floor of shells and dried leaves were the bodies of several land crabs that could find no escape. Suddenly, there is a warning hum and vibration just beyond my sensory vision, and primal hairs stood on the nape of my neck. Down that dark tunnel would have been a great place to hide treasure, but the vibration grew louder as I peered over the rim. But for that sound I would have climbed down as I had done on other parts of the island, but that little voice told me something was well hidden in the washed rock folds. Slowly I moved closer to the lighted fringe of beach in case running was necessary, if it was at all possible through these blades, remembering the warning of killer bees.
A sounding thrill of some exotic bird’s echo was answered by a piercing cry just over my head, shocking my already overloaded senses. More flickers of movement just past my range of sight, and I feel the need to withdraw. I had seen enough. Escape was quick through a six foot stand of “tongue”, and I ran to a clean mound of sand glowing in the sun.
Ah, fresh cool air! I run across the beach and plunge into the cleansing sea. I shook the salt from my eyes and splashed to the old cat, bleached and chipped, as its yellow patched canvas sail flapped a friendly greeting.
With hardly a glance back, I set sail in the gentle wind. In moments, the jungle and its hidden treasure were just thin ribbons of green and white on the horizon. In the slanting light of afternoon sun, the experience seemed more like a dark dream.
Rounding well out from the key and surf I could already see Georgetown’s colors in the distance, and three great cruse ships in harbor. Tightening the sail, cold spray washed over the bow, plowing clear wave lenses that take your breath away. Several flying fish skimmed the surface, like skipping rocks.
I shivered, and pushed the ice chest of six lobsters, one trigger fish, a dozen shucked conchs wrapped in banana leaves, and a large Tupper of sea-grapes with my foot. These could be shared, but I knew that some experiences was of a personal nature, and hard to explain. There would always be something missing in the telling.
I crossed the inlet and passed one white ship’s stern, and a wall of waving arms greeted me. They thought I was a local.
How quaint a picture I must have made with skinny brown legs in cut-off jeans, bubble glasses, and hair slicked back with salted oil. I waved back, showing white teeth. I ducked beneath the sail, and tacked diagonally to the beach.
A miss-judged wave lifted me up and over the reef and almost filled my boat with clear water and foam, and my ice chest floated beyond my grasp. I was lucky it didn’t open, and in a moment a group of tourists brought it back to me.
That afternoon, while holding my evening sun-downer of Pimm’s Cup on 7-mile beach, as my Cajun Cooker smoked my catch with salty driftwood on the veranda, I told my day’s adventure to my daughter Laura and her friend Caroline. Maddy played volleyball close to the water’s edge with kids half her age, and her laughter filled my heart.… But lying on the sand before me were two golden angels lit by a late Saturday sun, and the eight-year-old wonder in their eyes put icing on my amazing day. I knew then that I already possessed the most valuable treasure of all; waiting for me on this very beach.
Maddy Scuba Diving
Laura and I during Pirate’s Week.
Ken LaRive – Facets: It’s a simple but beautiful metaphor. Our soul is likened to an uncut diamond, pure, perfect, and unrealized. Each learned experience cleaves a facet on its face, and leaves it changed forever. Through this facet, this clear window, new light, new questions and ideas take shape and form. This process is our reason for being …