Saturday, February 1, 2014

Carnival on the Caribbean - Dodging Rays in Grand Cayman

The busiest city in the Caymans is populated by stingrays and nervous tourists. We moored this morning off Grand Cayman, the last destination of our week-long Carnival cruise. The Liberty used a more organized system of sequenced tender times to get people onshore this time around, and it resulted in an efficient exit. The line for a sticker denoting our tender grouping moved fast enough for people to actually stay in it.

Our scheduled excursion was not until afternoon, so Stacey and I had a couple hours on our own. For US$5 each, we hopped on a bus from the Georgetown port terminal for a ten-minute ride to the famous Seven Mile Beach on the west side of the island. Buses wait for absolute capacity before departure, so we lost some quality time as the driver scouted for possible singletons to fill the one remaining seat. It was hot and cramped in the van while we waited, but I wasn't going anywhere with a substantial lady in the aisle jump-seat next to me.

Once we arrived at Seven Mile Beach, it didn't take long to separate ourselves from the noisy beach clubs and find a quiet, shady spot further down the strand. Six days into vacation and we'd finally had our beach walk. It really is a beautiful location. The water is waist deep for hundreds of yards out, and the underlying white coral sand gives it the classic aquamarine shade characteristic of tropical shores. We waded for a while, and I combed through bits of coral in search of a couple good souvenirs. Stacey started to doze in the sun, and we decided to head back to Georgetown before we napped through our excursion.

Seven Mile Beach

If Stacey stood up she would have been waist deep.

We caught a ride back to Georgetown with a blissfully ignorant red-headed kid "from LA, Lower Alabama sir." Apparently, that means Florida. I liked him immediately. He asked us where we were from, and then where Toronto was, and then whether that's from a long way away. He thereupon rattled off an endless series of inane questions for the poor driver of the van, who answered with stoicism. Thereon, we were all reminded that, no, the main island road is not called an interstate, hurricanes do not wipe the island out regularly, that building there is a condo, the building in construction next to it will be a condo, taxi drivers aren't the only people with jobs in the Caymans, that crane helps move shipping containers at the port, native islanders lived here before the "white settlers," and that building over there is another condo. We were back before the driver's grip on the wheel tightened enough to cause irreparable damage.

In Georgetown, we grabbed a generic bite to eat at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. While we ate, the deafening party director offered a free cocktail to the first man who could lift a female on to his shoulders on stage. Ever creative in the face of free liquor, one parrot-head try to haul his young daughter up. Taken by surprise and probably a bit freaked-out, she resisted and another couple accomplished the feat first. Upset that Dad didn't get his free booze, Mom pulled her daughter over and gave her a rough swat. A celebration was in order for a couple from Dallas, however, and the party continued unabated. Then it was free shots poured directly into the mouth for everybody, just because. Stacey and I were on a tight time schedule and left. I enjoyed Spring Break while I was in college and felt no need to contribute to the education of all the kids at Jimmy's family establishment. The parents were doing a good enough job.

Places like this or Planet Hollywood--designed so you never really leave the domestic comfort of a tropical theme park--are as common in the artificial resort environment as Walmart in Anytown, USA. Only at Walmart, the alcohol is cheaper and customers take their vices home. I didn't take this picture, but the subject is such that I don't think I could have improved on it. (  
We made it to the meeting area for our excursion at the prescribed time. You could tell we were well into the vacation by the look of most fellow Caucasians, a variably-blistered lot of scarlet pink men, women and mummies. A couple young girls were complaining about peeling skin "ruining their base" while Mom clucked about needing to build an even, protective layer. Like treating a heart attack with exercise, those painfully over-seared poulticed themselves with copious amounts of sun lotion in a vain attempt to soothe second degree burns. Some of the fattier cuts of Homo sapiens only lacked color below the spare tire, but there are always a few bad cooks.

That left the naturally black people and us. I had the empty feeling of missing out on the communal precancerous experience while guiltily slopping on a fifth layer of sun protection over my still-ghostly hue. Stacey's spray tan had by now worn off, and she was paler than when we started. I could feel stares of disapproval and sympathy from the once-white people but, sensing that naturally dark-skinned folks aren't flattered by a poor imitation, I resisted the siren of pigmentation.

Six days in the tropics and we have conquered the sun's rays. Now we would explore rays of another sort.

Our destination was an area known as Stingray City sandbar, in a wide bay on the north side of the island. It is probably the most popular day trip in Grand Cayman. Attracted by worms and other food natural to this sandbar nestled behind a barrier reef and bolstered by decades of fishermen cleaning their catch, the local grey stingrays became used to human contact. Now it is a place where the rays--some are females with wingspans of over five feet--glide in and out among tourist's legs and hope for handouts. There is also the opportunity to feed and hold them. Before arriving, I wondered how many stingrays starved to death after the passing of Steve Irwin, but the hysteria has passed in the 6 years since, and the bar was crowded with pleasure boats and touring craft.

Our experience was provided by Marineland Tours. Several guests were too nervous to venture off the boat, $55 well spent. The rest of us trod carefully out of the boat into choppy, waist-deep water and were given a safety briefing--simply keep your feet on the ground, don't hop and don't yell. One boy, maybe 10 or 11 violated all three rules continuously and almost pulled his mother under water from behind, all the while with a little smile. After about 5 minutes of his staged histrionics, I began to fervently hope for a misstep.

This contraption took us back and forth to Stingray City sandbar.

Our guide, Bert, also gave a bit of a natural history lesson, including how to differentiate the sex of the smaller rays (anything over a two-foot wingspan was a female). Very knowledgeable, he did disseminate a few impossibilities such as how "unborn pups suck milk from one of a female's six teats prior to live birth." I desisted from any argument on milking a fish. Histotroph doesn't have the same emotional resonance as milk.

Bert was a magnetic guide, bringing alive the lure of the islands and his fondness for the animals. He patiently showed everyone how to gently handle and hold the stingrays, chest to the face of the animal, gently supporting the wings and keeping its eyes immersed. The biggest challenge was simultaneously keeping footing in the choppy water. Many of the rays had broken barbs, and I wondered just how many had lodged in tourist's feet or elsewhere. My question was partly answered when we met a young local girl who had previously been stung in the chest. I noted the experience was not enough to keep her away from the bar, and last I saw her she was gently guiding a small male ray to her father's boat for show and tell.

The rays get a little frisky when they sense food scraps.

We also fed the rays pieces of squid, which was a bit like being sucked on by a vacuum cleaner and only mildly disconcerting, though the suction was derived from a mouth. Though there is no risk of injury, Bert showed the proper way to feed the rays--thumb tucked away, holding the food above a fist--to prevent having fingers sucked into the animal's mouth. The suction power of the fish was illustrated when one teenager in our group had the hair vacuumed off a patch of his arm by one overeager stingray in a hurry to beat out the swarming competition.

Bert instructs Stacey on how to handle a ray.

We did have snorkel masks available, but I found that did not add to the experience. Either squatting or bending over to peer through goggles tended to make you lose your footing. Stacey could have stayed at Stingray City all day. For me, the thrill and novelty of interacting with the rays had just about worn off after 45 minutes, when it was time to return. The best way to avoid stepping on one of these partly buried living land-mines is to shuffle slowly, and I noted some of the blue-rinse set were most efficient at it as we angled back to the boat.

I'm usually ambivalent about beer, but a local Caybrew was the perfect thing on the ride back to the island. Even Stacey, no beer drinker, enjoyed a few sips. We took the next tender back to the Liberty after arrival at the port terminal.

Always try the local brew.

Cuba is a big obstacle in the way of return to Miami. I had wondered whether we would take the eastern or the western route around the island, which look equidistant on a map projection. Either way, the Cuban navy is the closest help for nearly a full day. Lately, it's good to know your options on a cruise ship. During dinner we settled the question, heading west toward the setting sun. For six days we've dodged its rays in caves, beneath palms and behind liberal amounts of sunscreen. But it's been a game of cat and mouse, where it's good to get caught in the warm, turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

Grand Cayman was our last destination on the Carnival Liberty. She was a pleasant home for the week.

April 25, 2013

Postscript -
We went to the Liberty's main show last night after dinner, a comic juggler named "Edge." I had very low expectations going in, but this guy was very, very good. Apparently, he used to headline for Ringling Brothers. Before the show a group of teens started "the wave", and after a few minutes they had the entire auditorium going in a semi-circle. The show made for a nice nightcap.

On previous evenings we went  to a couple of the Punchliner comedy club routines. The comics have been different, which makes me suspect they trade off between ships at port.