Origins: The Cayman Islands - #102

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

As Christopher Columbus was sailing back to Spain at the end of his fourth and final voyage to the New World, a storm came up between Panama and Haiti and pushed him off course. It pushed him to the west, directly into the islands that are now known as Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. His ship’s log for May 10th, 1503 reports the following:  “We came upon two very small islands full of tortoises, as was the sea around them -- so many tortoises that they looked like little rocks.” Columbus marked the islands on his map with the name Las Tortugas -- the turtles.  Las Tortugas has become The Cayman Islands, and now there are three of them:  Grand Cayman... Cayman Brac... and Little Cayman.  They lie about 180 miles west of Jamaica and 480 miles south of Miami.

The total population of the three islands is about 30,000 and the people come from a mixture of African and European backgrounds. The residents of the Cayman Islands have one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. The average household income is almost 70,000 US dollars per year. The government is stable and the country’s banks, insurance companies and mutual fund operations have made it the fifth largest financial center in the world.

The nation’s banks are significant, but the nation’s beaches are even more important. The Cayman Islands are actually the limestone tops of three mountains that come up from the bottom of the sea. The limestone is so porous that none of the islands have any rivers or streams, and therefore no runoff from the land to the sea. The absence of runoff gives the water around the Cayman Islands a clarity and visibility that is over one hundred and twenty feet. The islands are also surrounded by coral reefs that protect the shores. The areas between the reefs and the beaches are perfect for snorkeling. And just on the far side of the reefs are dropoffs that go down for thousands of feet and create ideal conditions for diving.

DIVE INSTRUCTOR:  First thing you want to do is make sure a mask fits to start.  And the way you do that is you expose the seal...

The modern snorkel is a J-shaped tube with a mouthpiece that is attached to a face mask.  It was introduced in the 1930’s and it allowed swimmers to cruise the surface of the sea, face down, while they looked at what was going on below.  But the idea of using some kind of breathing tube while working underwater goes back for thousands of years.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Alexander the Great had a team of underwater divers who used reeds as breathing tubes.  They would swim into an area underwater and clear it of any barriers that had been put in place to damage Alexander’s incoming ships.  The ancient Greeks also had a team of snorkelers that became famous for sinking an enemy fleet.  One night, they swam underwater to the fleet, cut the ropes that held the ships to their anchors.  The ships floated away and crashed on the nearby reefs.

An ancient Roman writer described soldiers who held one end of a leather tube in their mouth while the other end floated on the surface. He compared the apparatus to an elephant lying on its back underwater with its trunk extended to the surface. Our modern word “snorkel” comes from an old German word that means “tube” or “scroll.”  It’s a perfect description of the equipment being used.

The 1930’s also saw the introduction of fins or flippers that increased a swimmer's speed, and weight belts that allowed divers to dive deeper. But the breathing equipment really didn’t permit the divers to stay down for very long and there wasn’t any clothing that would protect them against the cold. And those two problems limited the sport.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Which brings us to the story of SCUBA, five letters that stand for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.  Now, most of the technical problems of staying underwater for a long time and doing some useful work down there had already been solved by 1819 when the diving suit was introduced.

It consisted of the familiar round metal helmet with a glass window in the front, a metal shoulder plate and a waterproof leather jacket. A tube connected the helmet to an air pump on the surface. The pump supplied the diver with an unlimited amount of fresh air. Towards the end of the 1800s a vulcanized rubber suit lined with twill was substituted for the leather jacket. It kept the diver drier and warmer. Eventually modern conveniences like telephones and electronic air compressors made the system safer and more practical. These suits worked well for industrial divers and they set the standard for underwater-wear until the Second World War.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The naval technology needed during the Second World War led to the development of some new underwater gear.  Basically, there were two systems.  One was known as a rebreather.  It consisted of a cylinder of fresh air and a canister of lime.  The diver would take the fresh air in from the cylinder and exhale it into the canister.  The lime in the canister would remove the carbon dioxide gas from his exhaled breath and then the clean air was recirculated.  The system was wonderful because it was completely self-contained; no bubbles would rise to the surface and that made it very difficult to detect a diver working underneath.  The rebreather systems were issued to crews on German U-boats in case they needed to escape.  There was, however, one major disadvantage.  The system didn’t work very well at depths below 30 feet.  So if your submarine sank in a swimming pool you were all set; otherwise you were in deep trouble.

The second underwater breathing system had an open circuit that allowed the exhaled air to escape. There were tubes for inhaling and exhaling and valves that connected the tanks. This system was good down to a hundred and thirty feet and sometimes even deeper.  In 1942, a young French naval commander named Jacques Cousteau took out a patent for a piece of equipment he called an “Aqua Lung.”  It was based on the open system and featured a series of tanks that contained compressed air. They were strapped to the back of the diver. This was the first modern SCUBA setup.

Soon depth gauges, underwater watches, and wet suits were added. Divers were warm, comfortable and free to move about. When the war ended, SCUBA diving became a popular sport.

BOB SOTO:  Well, I was the first SCUBA diver on this island.  I came here to start a SCUBA diving business because we had about a hundred and thirty rooms on the island and the people just laid around the beach or went fishing, and I thought this would be a wonderful pastime for them to spend the day SCUBA diving.  Of course, everybody thought I was crazy and that these people was going to drown and I was going to drown myself.  And I started with six tanks, it took an hour and twelve minutes to fill a tank, and I had six tanks, so I was up half the night filling tanks to go diving the next day.  Once I introduced somebody to the water, it just blew their mind because they hadn’t seen anything like this in their life.  You got people from all over the U.S. coming here, and they had such a great time because they had beautiful reefs, and caves, and shipwrecks, and turtles, and stingrays -- all sorts of marine life and it was very accessible from the beach because it’s only a couple hundred yards offshore and you’ve got any kind of reef and marine life you would ever dream of seeing.

Water filters the color out of sunlight and by the time you get down to a depth of fifty-two feet everything is green and blue.  Cousteau pioneered a system of artificial underwater lights that allowed a diver to record the extraordinary colors that are found below the sea. Underwater photography began to develop, which made the sport even more popular. And one of the most popular places in the world to practice this sport is in the waters that surround the Cayman Islands.

The most recent innovation in underwater breathing equipment for the sports diver is a combination of SCUBA and snorkel --  called SNUBA.

SNUBA INSTRUCTOR:  What we’ve done on this is very similar to SCUBA diving, the only main difference being that we’ve put the SCUBA tank in the raft, okay?  The raft follows you on the surface, floats on the surface, follows you wherever you go.  You can be connected to it with twenty foot long hoses.  All you’ll be wearing is your fins, mask, small weight belt, and this regulator right here.

The turtles that Columbus saw as he sailed by Cayman turned out to be the basis of the island’s first commercial enterprise. One of the traditional routes for European traders heading home from the Caribbean took them past these islands. The turtles represented an ideal source of fresh meat for the sailors. As long as turtles are supplied with sea water they can stay alive for weeks. The ships would stop in, stock up with turtles, and move on.

These photographs were taken aboard the turtle schooner Adams, which worked in Cayman and the Mosquito Keys during the middle of this century.  Turtling was a major business in this area until 1975, when the United States passed a law against the importation of all turtle products.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   This is the Cayman Turtle Farm.  It was originally set up as a commercial enterprise for the sale of turtle shells and turtle meat.   When the U.S. government decided to ban those products it shifted most of its efforts towards conservation.  It uses a breeding and release program.  Each year it raises thousands of hatchlings and sends them back to the sea where they end up with a survival rate that is actually better than the rate they would have had had they been born in the wild.

Until a few years ago we knew very little about the green sea turtle. Mating takes place at sea. The males rarely leave the water and the females only come ashore to lay their eggs. As soon as the hatchlings are born they head to the sea. Our information was limited to what we could learn from watching the females as they nested on the beaches, and from tagging them as they returned to the sea.  In 1975 the Cayman Turtle Farm began a twenty-four hour watch of green turtle breeding habits, and since then we’ve learned a great deal about these extraordinary creatures.

These days the turtle farm is a major tourist attraction. There is a self-guided tour that takes you through the nursery area where tanks hold thousands of turtles in various stages of growth. There’s even a tank with turtles who appear to have been selected because of their willingness to be photographed with visitors.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Everything’s pretty informal around here right now, but I’ve been told that things may be changing.  They said that two of the more attractive turtles in the photography tank have already been in touch with Cindy Crawford’s agent, and the big guy over here is already friendly with the manager for the Ninja Turtles.  Now, I wouldn’t have believed any of these stories, except when I came over here to photograph the giant turtle, that piece of paper floated to the surface.

“Show me the money” appears to be a valid request for many people, but my own lead question would be “show me the good food” -- which would soon lead us to a place called Hemingways. The restaurant is named for Ernest Hemingway, who once lived in the Caribbean. It sits directly on the beach, it’s open on three sides, and it has some of the nicest views and best food on the island.

Hemingways is part of the Hyatt resort, which has been built as a low-rise structure in British Colonial style.  Pastel colors.  Open walkways. Lots of gardens. Imperial lions.  A nine hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.  Four freshwater swimming pools, including one with a swim-up bar.  Interesting.  Every country I have ever been to has laws that regulate drinking and driving but none of them seem to care about drinking and swimming.  Personally I’d never go to a swim-up bar without wearing a flotation device.

The Hyatt also has a private waterway that  leads out to Grand Cayman’s North Bay. A public ferry runs up and back across the bay and will deposit you on a fantastic strip of beach called Rum Point.  It’s open to the public and makes a great day trip. The restaurant next to the beach is called the Rum Point Club. It’s operated by the Hyatt and it’s the perfect place for me to get David Brown, the resort’s executive chef, to demonstrate a few recipes.

His first recipe is for a chicken breast stuffed with banana. Very tropical and very easy to prepare in advance of dinner.  Half of a boneless skinless chicken breast is cut almost in half and opened up into a butterfly shape. Then a piece of plastic wrap is placed over the chicken. David uses a pounder to thin out the breast and even out the thickness. A little salt and pepper goes on. A banana is peeled and placed onto the center of the chicken. The ends are folded over and the sides are rolled up. Then it’s into a piece of plastic wrap and off to the refrigerator for an hour.

When it comes out of the refrigerator it’s dipped into flour, then into a mixture of egg and milk, and finally into bread crumbs. Make sure that the chicken is well coated with the crumbs.

Next the sauce is made. Two ounces of butter are melted in a saucepan. A teaspoon of chopped garlic and a teaspoon of chopped shallots are added. Then an apple that has been peeled, cored and cut into small cubes. A little cooking and a little stirring and three tablespoons of curry powder go in. Followed by three tablespoons of flour. Two minutes of cooking and mixing and a cup of chicken broth is added. More cooking. More stirring and another cup and a half of stock which goes in, in half-cup additions. That’s the basis of the sauce, and it simmers for fifteen minutes.

While the sauce is simmering a tablespoon of vegetable oil is heated in a sauté pan. The chicken comes out of the refrigerator and goes into the pan. The bread crumbs are browned on all sides. Then the chicken goes into a 450-degree Fahrenheit oven for ten minutes.

While the chicken is cooking the sauce is finished by pouring it into blender and blending it into a puree. At which point it is run through a sieve and back into the pan to warm up. David adds two ounces of light cream to give the sauce a richer finish, but this is an optional step. A little salt and white pepper are added and the sauce is ready.

The chicken comes out of the oven and gets sliced into rounds. A mound of rice is set into the middle of the serving plate. The sauce goes around the rice. The chicken goes onto the sauce and a there is a garnish of cilantro to complete the dish.

David’s second recipe is for a tenderloin of pork that’s been prepared with a nutty crust.

The tenderloin of pork, which has been trimmed of extra fat, is rolled in flour, then dipped into a mixture of egg and milk and finally coated with a crust of mixed nuts. David is using one third macadamia nuts, one third pecans and one third hazelnuts.  A little vegetable oil is heated in a sauté pan and the loin is sautéed on all sides until the nuts are browned. Then the loin goes into a 450-degree Fahrenheit oven for 15 minutes.

While the pork is roasting, a sauce is made. A cup of pureed mango goes into a saucepan followed by a cup of chicken stock. Now, David is actually using veal stock and if you have veal stock in your kitchen you should be teaching this recipe, not watching it!  I will be using canned chicken broth which will be lighter in color and a lot easier to come by. The sauce simmers for a few minutes to thicken up.

A few snow peas and a sliced red bell pepper get heated. Then the pork loin comes out of the oven and is sliced into rounds. The snow peas and peppers go onto a serving plate. The sauce goes around the snow peas. Then the pork slices. David tops off the dish with a mound of sliced leek and sweet potato that has been deep-fried. It’s a nice touch and easy for anyone with a fully staffed professional kitchen. Not that I’m envious or anything...

Each year hundreds of thousands of people show up on the Cayman Islands to enjoy the sea and the sun, but the idea of sunbathing is very new.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): In societies where the majority of the population was light-skinned, it was fashionable to do everything you could to avoid getting a suntan.  Only common laborers who were forced to work outside, like farm workers or television reporters, ended up with a suntan.  And if a woman had a suntan, it was a clear indication that she was from a lower station in life.  When women of society went out, they did everything they could to avoid getting a suntan.

During the 1920s, however, things began to change.  Lots of people were getting rich and looking for new and fashionable places to spend their money.  The yachting crowd arrived.  And what was the point of owning a great yacht if you couldn’t walk along the deck in plain view of your friends -- or even more important, in plain view of your enemies?  And then there were the promenades at the new seaside resorts along the east and west coasts of the United States and in France.  Designers started to show collections of beachwear.  During the 1930s, railroads introduced special trains that would take people to the beach, and real estate developers began building beachfront resorts.  Bathing suits became more revealing, and for the first time in history it was suddenly fashionable to have a tan.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   But when a suntan turns into a sunburn, you’ve got a problem.  And this became an increasingly significant issue during the Second World War for our troops fighting in North Africa and the Pacific.  The United States government felt they had to come up with something that would protect the skin of our troops.  The agent that seemed to work the best was a red pigment that was left as a residue after gasoline was extracted from crude oil.  One of the people working on this experiment was a man named Dr. Benjamin Green.

Dr. Green believed that their was a huge market for a product that would protect people from the sun and at the same time help give them a tan. After the war, he took the technology that he had helped develop and produced a creamy white suntan lotion scented with jasmine. The product gave the user a copper-colored skin tone, which led Dr. Green to call his new invention Coppertone.

Sunbathing as a leisure time activity is very modern, but some of the people here are passing their leisure time with an activity that is 8,000 years old. It is a board game called Waurie, and it is played with slight variations around the world.

WOMAN #1:  The object of the game is to get all of these seeds, like, in this pouch.

WOMAN #2:  It’s the other person’s turn unless your last seed ends up in your own pouch.

WOMAN #1:  But you have to go all the way around the board

WOMAN #2:  And you skip the other person’s pouch.

WOMAN #1:  And when you pick them up, you’re dropping one in each one as you go around. 

WOMAN #2:  And since I -- I’m just telling you -- since I landed on this one, then I get to pick up all of hers across from it since it was my only one in there.

WOMAN #1:  Okay.

WOMAN #2:  I win!

These particular waurie boards were made just down the road by a woodcarver known as Caribbean Charlie. But Charlie Ebanks’ claim to fame really comes from his birdhouses. Charlie makes them and his wife Elaine explains them.

ELAINE EBANKS:  We make several different kinds of birdhouses... like this one is called “Fences.”  And it’s called “Fences” because it has the gardens and the hand-painted fences that go all the way around.  Each one is signed and dated on the bottom.  We primarily work with the colors of the Caribbean: pink is for the conch shell, green for the sea, blue for the sky, and yellow for the sun.  This is a traditional Cayman roof.  You know, we have no city water at all out here, we totally rely on the rainwater for our water supply.  And this roof line makes it easier for collection.  Each old-time house had a little gingerbread on the roof, a palm tree, and a hammock.  So this is Charlie’s version of a Cayman house.  He does try to do a different one every year for the people that collect his houses from year to year.  Couple years ago, he started his version of the old Rum Point Bar.  We put on it everything that we felt the old bar was famous for.  Charlie numbers his larger houses, everyone signs for their number, and we know where each and every house went.  This year’s house is the dive shop.  And we’ve made it to mount on the wall, and the owner’s name is put on top of the dive sign to personalize.  Of course, that’s numbered and accounted for also.  All the houses are made of wood, they’re all nailed, countersunk and filled, nothing is glued on them, they’re all painted with exterior house paint, they are weather worthy. 

Burt, I’d love to show you my garden.  Come on through.  Let me show you what grows here.  This tree here is a breadfruit tree.  Breadfruit is round and green; it’s very much like a potato.  You can bake it, mash it, boil it -- it’s a starch.  The leaves... we wait ‘til the leaves -- the brown leaves -- fall to the ground, harvest them, wash them, and brew them in a tea, for a tea.  Everything in nature has a reason for being.  God put everything here for us, it’s up to us to find what it’s for.  The breadfruit leaves, they say, are very good for high blood pressure.  And this is the breadfruit tea from the breadfruit tree that we spoke about.  I hope you enjoy it.

BURT WOLF:  Thank you.  Thank you, Charlie.


BURT WOLF:  I feel my blood pressure going down already.

Well... that’s a brief look at the island of Grand Cayman and its history. Five hundred years have slipped by since Columbus passed through the neighborhood but the turtles are still here. The kind of treasure that Chris was looking for wasn’t here during his visit but it sure is now. That gold is in the banks.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): For me the real treasures on these islands are to be found in the natural beauty of the place and the attitudes of the people who live here.  I could actually settle down on this beach for quite a while, but I hear the call of the wild.  In this case it’s my crew that’s going wild because I am stalling this segment -- I wanna see the sun go down!  But now I must join them, and I hope you will join me next time as we travel around the world.  I’m Burt Wolf.