Origins: Grand Cayman - #116

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.

The motto on the national emblem of the Cayman Islands reads: “He Hath Founded It Upon The Seas,” which is an excellent description of the place and its history.  Three islands -- Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman -- make up the country, which is a crown colony of Great Britain.  No point on any of the islands is more than a few minutes’ drive from the sea.  The first people to take any interest in the area were sailors who stopped in during the 1500s for fresh water and turtle meat.  Fishing and shipbuilding were the main businesses for hundreds of years, as well as sending young men off to join the navy and the Merchant Marine.  Then a tourist business based on people who loved water sports, particularly underwater sports.  And finally, the development of an off-shore banking industry.  The Cayman Islands are definitely “founded on the seas.”

One of the leading authorities on the history of the Cayman Islands is Dr. Philip Pedley, who is the director of the Cayman Islands National Archive.

DR. PHILIP PEDLEY:  And this is a small, charming map from a French source.  And it says here: “Iles de Cayman.”  This is what I call the first European picture or image of any of the Cayman Islands.  It’s almost certainly a picture of Cayman Brac, dated 1590.  And you can see the turtles that Columbus himself saw.  And you can see, eating up the turtle eggs, the “caymanos” (sic) after which Cayman is named.  He was a large crocodile that lived, as the accounts say, both in the sea and on the land.  So it was aquatic and terrestrial.

Now what we’ve got here is two of the images -- two of the pictures -- that go along with this picture of Cayman Brac.  And Columbus, when he passed the sister islands in 1503 called this Las Tortugas, but that name gave way in the next thirty years or so to this creature.  On this map you can also see, interesting enough -- and this is one of the things that confirms that it is Cayman Brac -- the bent trees...

BURT WOLF:  Oh, yes!

DR. PHILIP PEDLEY:  ...bent over by the wind.  Now, that’s sort of significant in the history of Cayman Brac because shipbuilding was a strong industry over there -- a strong tradition.  And the shipbuilders would simply go up onto the bluff, which is a hundred and forty feet above -- rises to a hundred and forty feet above the sea level -- and select the exact curvature of the wood they were looking for.

            And here we have a very interesting little booklet, which I call the first example of tourist literature in the Cayman Islands.  It’s a letter written by the commissioner, Commissioner Cardinal, to the rest of the world: “Dear Sir of Madam” wherever.  And it’s an invitation to come and enjoy an unspoiled paradise.  And it’s signed by “the whole of Cayman.”

These days, Grand Cayman is divided into five districts.  George Town is the smallest.  It’s also the seat of the government, the center of the nation’s banking and business interests, and the most populated.  It’s on the sheltered western side of the island with the best port.  The duty free shops are here, so you can do your duty and shop in an almost guilt-free environment, justifying your expenditures on the basis of how much you saved.

ANITA EBANKS:  Well, I want to introduce you to George Town and the harbor.  And at one time this was called the Hog Stys -- the whole area.

BURT WOLF:  Because they kept pigs here?

ANITA EBANKS:  Yes.  And supposedly all the people on the island had them penned in in a certain area.  And on a bad day if you were downwind from was very smelly.  So it was called the Hog Stys... And then sometime during the early 18th century, Governor Bodden decided it would be good to name it George Town in honor of George the Third.  And I guess if it hadn’t been changed, we would be sending post cards and letters from Hog Stys, Grand Cayman.

BURT WOLF:  Doesn’t sound like a great place to go for a vacation.  George Town is a great improvement.

ANITA EBANKS:  This is Fort George.  This was the first of several batteries around the island -- the first line of defense against Spanish marauders from Cuba.  You know, this was Hog Sty Bay, so they’d probably steal some of their hogs and maybe some of their turtles and poultry.

BURT WOLF:  You can actually see the outline of where the old fort was.

ANITA EBANKS:  Yes, it was about five feet high on the sea side.  The land side was only about two feet high.  And the walls were about three feet thick, and they had various embarcadiers for about maybe ten cannon.  Most of the cannon were about four- or six-pounders.  And the two that are there now are recreated there out of cement in fact, and they are replicas of six-pounders.

In the early days people would go down to the beach and go beachcombing to find whatever might be washed up so that they could use to just help with their way of life.  I mean, we were very isolated, so it might be a favorite piece of wood might be washed up.  And one morning back in about 1846, a Mary Webster from Frank Sound supposedly was doing some beachcombing early in the morning, and she saw this strange kernel on the beach.  And she planted it and it grew into an almond tree.  And supposedly that’s where all the almond trees that you find on the island today are descended from.  I think they’re really lovely -- various shades of orange and red.

The most unusual house in George Town was built by Carroll Henderson.  In 1935, he started buying conch shells.  When his collection passed the 4,000 shell point, he used them to construct his dream house -- conch shells anchored in a twelve-inch thick concrete wall.  He could only set thirty shells a day, so it took over two years to build the place.  But when it was finished, it was so well made that during the second World War the U.S. Navy used the house as a bomb storage depot.  Today, it is the home of Mike Henderson, who is the son of the original builder.  It’s a private residence, but Mike doesn’t mind if you come by to take a look.

Next to George Town is the northwest part of the island, which is known as West Bay.  The old Bothwell residence is in West Bay and it stands as a typical example of traditional Cayman architecture... gingerbread trim...  and a sand garden.

The central part of Grand Cayman is called Bodden Town.  Bodden Town is the home of the oldest building on the island.  It was built in 1780; rock walls three feet thick, nice view up top, underground dungeons below.  What else could you ask for?  It’s called Pedro Castle.

The Cayman Islands National Trust has an extensive program for preserving historical information about the islands, and making that information available to visitors.  The Trust publishes a series of booklets that outline historical walking tours of both West Bay and Bodden Town.

In one of those bursts of creativity that often overcome early settlers, the eastern end of Grand Cayman is known as East End.  It’s one of the least populated parts of the island and still has a very rural lifestyle.  Tourists drive over to the district to take a look at the blowholes.  Waves dive into the underground caves.  Holes in the top of the caves allow part of the wave to escape in a plume of spray.

If you’re in the neighborhood on Friday, Saturday or Sunday and you’re thirsty, you can walk across the road and get some fresh coconut water.

LINDO PARSONS:  The coconut water is what you drink direct from the coconut.  The milk is gathered by gratering the coconut into small pieces.

BURT WOLF:  Grating.”

LINDO PARSONS:  Or today in modernized equipment, we put the small pieces in the blender, chop it up in smaller pieces, take it and wash it in water, and strain it through a strainer.  What comes out of there is the milk.  What remains is what is called “trash” locally.  That is converted into candies and coconut tarts.

Just down the road from the blowholes is a stretch of beach from which you can see what’s left of a group of ten British ships that foundered on the reef in 1794.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The event became known as the “Wreck of the Ten Sails.”  The lead ship that was doing the navigation sent back a signal to the rest of the fleet that read: “stay clear.”  The sailor who interpreted the signal read it as: “all clear.”  Talk about losing something in the translation.

The next district on the island is called North Side.  It was the last part of Grand Cayman to be settled and it has the smallest population.  North Side also has the most fertile land and the island’s best farms.  For many years, the lack of roads kept it isolated from the rest of the island.  These days, however, the roads have improved.

And there’s a public ferry from the busiest part of the island at Seven Mile Beach to the tip of North Side.  The ferry goes up and back throughout the day and will deposit you on Rum Point, which is considered by many to be the most beautiful beach on the island.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Rum Point appears to have gotten its name as the result of a ship that wrecked on the reefs in front of it.  The ship was carrying a cargo of barrels filled with rum that floated ashore.  When they were discovered by the local residents, they also got wrecked.  These days there are a number of bars and restaurants on Rum Point that will help you recreate the experience.

About two hundred yards to the west of Rum Point is one of the most interesting underwater attractions in the world.  The area is called Stingray City, and it offers snorkelers and SCUBA divers an opportunity to hang out with a couple of hundred stingrays.  I went out to the city on a sixty-five-foot catamaran named The Spirit of Paloo.

DIVE INSTRUCTOR:  One of the nicest places for you to touch a stingray is on the underside of his wing.  You could also touch him on the top, but it’s not quite so smooth, it’s a little more leathery.  You do not have to worry about the tail stinging you when it’s touching you -- they physically have to do this.  Okay?  So you can touch the tail if you’d like.

VANESSA BELLAMY:  Their mouth is on the bottom, their eyes are on the top and we feed them squid, that’s how we get them up on the surface.  You might have noticed as you’ve been watching me, they come close and their nose is at the front.  Everybody says, “Oh, they seem to like you.”  No.  They swim forward, that way we can hold on to them better so everybody else can get a good look at them.  The only thing that’s dangerous about a stingray is they do have a little bit of a barb on the end of their tail that they sting with.  But the only way they do that is when they settle in the sand to rest and somebody comes along and steps on them, then they come up and sting them.  Here, the rays here, they’re very, very nice.

Going out on the Spirit of Paloo is a very modern experience -- but if you would like to slip into a recreation of the past, you might ship out on the Jolly Roger.

PIRATE:  Okay, she was built back in 1986, it’s a replica of a seventeenth century Spanish galleon.  She’s sixty-seven feet in length, she weighs sixty-two and a half tons, has fifty-seven fully working pieces of rigging, including eight sails. 

You guys are here to enjoy yourselves!  Therefore, no long faces!  Like yours, you scurvy dog -- SMILE!

Okay, I’ve got two containers down on the sides as well; the small one’s got fruit punch, the big one’s got rum punch.  Please just go and help yourselves, guys.  Now, this rum punch is very delicately flavored; it’s got parrot droppings in it, battery acid, I think it’s got some gunpowder in there, as well.  We haven’t seen the ship’s cat in about a week, so if you find some fur in your glass, you’ve found the cat.

NO LINE DANCING ON THIS VESSEL!  This does include the Macarena, and the Electric Slide.  Any line dancers will be shot.  Oh yes!

Being the world’s fifth largest financial center, it’s fair to assume that Grand Cayman is home to a fair number of people who are hungry for wealth.  Ahh, but there’s also a large number of people who are just... hungry for good food!  And fortunately, there are dozens of places on the island that can meet their expectations.  One of the many spots that I liked is called The Cracked Conch.

The Cracked Conch has a number of things going for it.  The most obvious is a great location on the shore of Northwest Point.  Wonderful views and an almost constant breeze that makes it a pleasure to eat out on the porch.

The next thing you’ll notice is the owner -- Susie Soto, who is not only a distinguished restaurateur and the president of the Cayman Restaurant Association, but most significantly she was the first runner-up in the 1997 Glamorous Granny Contest!  She has sixteen grandchildren.

And finally, the good food.  As usual, the crew ordered the restaurant specialties.  Emily Aronson, our executive producer, had turtle steak... Rob Weller, our cameraman, had turtle burger... John Blackman, the soundman, had a bacon cheeseburger (for which the restaurant has a local reputation)... and I had the conch chowder.  For dessert: key lime pie... coconut cream pie... Sinful Chocolate Brownie Sundae... and the Mud Slide Pie.  I don’t know what the other guys had for dessert.

The Lighthouse at Breakers is a good place for lunch or dinner.  It’s on the south shore of the island, right on the water.  Big screened-in porch with excellent views.  One of the owners is from Italy, and you can see his influence in the menu.  Many of the dishes are a blend of Italian and Caribbean tastes: penne pasta with local lobster, and Swordfish Positano.  But the proximity to the U.S. is also apparent -- Jerk Chicken Caesar and Pizzaiola Burgers.  For dessert:  Tortuga Rum Cake... Phyllis’ Nutty Starfish... and Mont Blanc.  They also have cookies to go -- Rum Raisin, Tropical Granola, Chocolate Walnut Biscotti, and Coconut Shortbread.

This is Seymour’s Jerk Centre.  Seymour spent some years in Jamaica mastering his recipes for jerk pork and jerk chicken.  And he’s built quite a following.


CUSTOMER 2:   One order of jerk pork.  You really eat the hot sauce?

CUSTOMER 1:  Yeah, I do; I love the hot sauce.  Oh, lots.

But his real fame is based on a drink that is somewhat short on taste but long on side effects.  It’s called “Mannish Water.”  It’s made from goat heads, goat bellies, goat feet and, uh...other goat stuff.  But taste is not the source of its strength.  Mannish water’s power derives from its real or perceived value as an... “energy builder.”

MAN 1:  As the olden days, as the olden people would say, “it gives you stamina.”

MAN 2:  Your stamina!

MAN 3:  Yah, mon, give you good stamina.

SEYMOUR: Gives you that extra boost that you need.

It’s a potent beverage, and in spite of its lack of caffeine, it seems to keep people up at night.

As you snorkel along Seven Mile Beach, you might do yourself a favor and come up at the new Marriott resort.  Great beachfront property, and an excellent beachfront restaurant called The Peninsula.  It’s completely open to the beach on three sides, and the dishes are inspiring: Turtle Fingers... Cayman Black Bean Soup... Blackened Mahi-Mahi... Tortuga Rum Shrimp... and for dessert, Passionfruit Tiramisu... and Key Lime Mousse.

And now for a plate that is completely different.

According to our latest geological information, the earth is made up of a series of huge plates that float on top of a hot liquid core.  As these plates bang into each other they change the shape of the earth’s surface.  Now there’s a piece of information to make you feel secure.  The geologists also tell us that a few million years ago the plates that were floating around under what is now the Caribbean Sea pushed up a mountain range that formed Cuba and the Cayman Islands.

125,000 years ago the sea level around these islands was twenty feet higher than it is now.  Then an Ice Age came along and sucked up a lot of the water on the planet.  The sea bottom, which was made of coral and sand, was suddenly exposed and turned into rock.  Over the centuries it eroded to the sharp pinnacles which are now known as ironshore.

There’s a particular form of ironshore that was formed on Grand Cayman over two million years ago.  When one of the early British commissioners was shown this area, he said that “This must be what Hell looks like.”  The name stuck and the district is officially known as Hell.

One of its main attractions is a post office that will stamp your cards with a postmark from Hell.  There’s also The Devil’s Hangout, a gift shop run by Ivan Farrington -- who will do everything he can to make your visit a living Hell.

IVAN FARRINGTON:  Well, I’m great, young man.  How the hell you doing?

BURT WOLF:   Oh, I’m doing fine -- I had a devil of a time getting here.


BURT WOLF:   I understand at one point you tried to change the name to Paradise?

IVAN FARRINGTON:  Yes, and business went straight to hell.

BURT WOLF:   What do people buy when they come in?

IVAN FARRINGTON:  Most of ‘em buy t-shirts, and all of ‘em buys postcards to send back to their friends.

BURT WOLF:   So you can really say, “I’ve been to Hell and I sent you this card.”


BURT WOLF:   Well, I actually came here because I was wondering, do you have a good recipe for Devil’s Food Cake?


But I do!

If Ivan Farrington clearly draws his inspiration from Hell, then Miss Gladwyn Lassie Bush clearly draws her inspiration from Heaven.

Miss Lassie is an untrained artist who has been free to develop without influence or interference from the professional art world.  The first evidence that Miss Lassie was at work came to the notice of her neighbors, who passed her home and realized that someone was painting visionary scenes on the building.

Miss Lassie is what’s known as an intuitive artist.  She draws her visual understanding of the external world from deeply religious inspirations.  She paints her internal visions.

MISS GLADWYN LASSIE BUSH:  Well, all of my paintings is naturally what comes to my mind’s eye.  I can’t paint physically.  I have tried it, but I have failed.  But if it enters my mind’s eye, I can really imitate what I see in my mind’s eye.

BURT WOLF:   You started by painting your house.

MISS GLADWYN LASSIE BUSH:  Yes, I did.  I did.  I started my painting because it was all I had was the wood to paint on.

BURT WOLF:   People thought that was a little strange.

MISS GLADWYN LASSIE BUSH:  Oh!  They said I was crazy.  Two of my friends said that I was crazy -- disfiguring the windows with the foolish paintings.

BURT WOLF:   Is there one or two paintings that you like the best?  Favorites?

MISS GLADWYN LASSIE BUSH:  I love my “Betrayal” which is on glass.  The “Betrayal” which is there.

BURT WOLF:  Why do you think that you have these visions and most people don’t?

MISS GLADWYN LASSIE BUSH:  I don’t know.  I wouldn’t say that some people don’t or other people don’t, but just as I tell you what I see, is as plain in my mind’s eye as looking at you physically right now.

BURT WOLF:   It looks like you’re getting famous.  How does that feel?

MISS GLADWYN LASSIE BUSH:  I can’t make that go around my aged head.  To be like how I would be if I was the age of some of these young folks, maybe I would be a fool, jumping up and down and rejoicing.  But, to me, it’s just a natural way.  Now, I’ll be frank with you;  I am glad that my painting has found a place in the world -- very glad of it.  But I can’t make it really settle in this old, worn, gray head.  I might go real crazy if I done it.

BURT WOLF:   If you start believing what people say about you, you’d go crazy.

MISS GLADWYN LASSIE BUSH:  Yes, yes, yes, yes.

BURT WOLF:   Yes, I think that’s true.

MISS GLADWYN LASSIE BUSH:  So, I should keep myself in control.

BURT WOLF:   Do you think that there’s one really important message that all of your paintings send?

MISS GLADWYN LASSIE BUSH:  My chief paintings is concerning the great son of God.  Of all the paintings I love them best.  I am a great sinner, but I believe in Him.  He’s not going to condemn me for my beliefs.  I might be rejected for some of the sin, but not for the unbeliefs.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s a brief look at the Cayman Islands.  The story of these islands is definitely the story of the sea.  And I hope you will see your way clear to join us next time as we travel around the world.  I’m Burt Wolf.