In the main street of Palenque I said goodbye to my Mexican travel buddies Renee and Ben and ventured into an Internet cafe (remember them?) to waste about eight hours before my overnight bus to Cancun departed. I used the time to chat to friends, have my last proper Mexican meal (tacos al pastor and a guanaba drink), and buy some last minute snacks for the bus. I had some night-time pills for a cold that struck me in Mexico City, so I took two and actually slept on the bus ride – which was astounding considering the narrow Yucatan b-roads and constant stopping at army patrols and tollbooths. Not to mention the speeding up behind trucks and overtaking with only a few feet to spare before oncoming cars roared past. I woke rather proud of myself, and to watch the sunrise over the low jungle near the coast of Chetumal. Just over there was Guatemala and Belize. Now I was in the American tourist zone, a Bali-esque equivalent: cheap, boozey, gringo-focussed and a safe ‘exotic paradise’ for those who don’t actually want to deal with another culture on holiday… No… That’s too judgmental. …But I’ll leave it in.
I laughed as I past through Mexican airport security – they have signs saying “Keep Your Shoes On!” – a jibe at the States, whose security is so over-the-top and officious, prolonged by asking a long line of people to take their shoes off. It endeared me to Mexico even more; I could understand their frustration at being so close to the behemoth of the States, being looked down on figuratively and geographically. Cancun airport exemplified the forced adaptation to US culture, where the most popular food outlet was a Johnny Rockets. The staff were all Mexican, visibly hating every American customer and resenting the fact that they’d been trained to say, “Will that be all? Have a nice day!”
At every interaction I felt like saying, “I’m Australian” or “Soy australiano” and rolling my eyes at the rude American ordering an upsized shake.
My next stop on the trip was visiting my friends Tom and Chaea on Grand Cayman – the largest of three islands that make up the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. Chaea had applied for and got a job there with an accounting firm that she’d worked with in Arizona, and they’d moved there a month after I left the country. I took a convoluted route there: Cancun to Miami, Miami to Grand Cayman; flying right over the islands to eventually return there. When I arrived I smelt of two-day old clothes, but was excited by the fact of being somewhere like the Cayman Islands. The only reason I’d ever go there would be if I knew someone. The Caribbean has always seemed a bit too religious, a bit too touristy for my liking.
I always describe Tom and Chaea as my most eccentric friends. They are completely unpredictable in their lifestyle choices. The last time I visited them overseas, Tom was teaching English in Langfang – a ‘small’ town outside of Beijing: a small town that had population estimates anywhere between 100, 000 to 1 million people. Tom was later joined by his girlfriend Chaea, and when my friend and I visited them in 2005, they’d found their niche, a group of friends, and had learnt enough tricks to survive in a crazy place like China. The next thing I knew, Tom had entered the green card lottery online to live in the States, and won. They then moved to Phoenix, Arizona to start again. Some of the stories they told of their time there were what I based my expectations of the States on – even though they sounded so far flung. That’s the thing about these two, though: they don’t make this shit up.
When Chaea won her job in the Cayman Islands, I promised I’d visit: partly because I didn’t get a chance to visit them in the States during the two years they spent there – and partly because I was curious to see the curious couple in an even curiouser place.
“We met a real pirate,” they tell me as we drive back to their house from the airport – their house: a five minute walk to the beach, next door to a swimming pool.
Here we go, I think.
“He used to be a part of the Hell’s Angels,” they continue. “He showed us a photo. We’ll have to take you to meet him.”
“A real pirate?” I ask, trying to hide my incredulity.
“Well he told us about this one time he got so drunk in Venezuela that the last thing he remembers is trying to pick up some hooker, then waking up with a black man’s arm around him, holding a machete to his throat, but asleep. He showed us the scars from the resulting fight.”
“Ahuh,” I say.
“But the funniest thing is he was the first person on the island to try to rob a bank. Something he’s proud of now.”
“And kind of respected for,” adds the other.
“We’ll take you to his shop. He fashions black coral into jewellery and sells it at a premium to unsuspecting tourists. He’s also friends with Larry Flint, and hanging from his ceiling are over two hundred used women’s thongs…”
“Thongs?” I ask. “Like, bikini bottoms?”
“Yeah… And they’re all numbered. There’s a photo of each woman in a folder he keeps by the till. But don’t try to give him a new one. He can tell if they’re used or not.”
The car whips past coconut and date palms, locals and tourists carrying snorkels and flippers, and a tourist road train. Three enormous cruise ships are docked in the impossibly deep harbour of George Town – so close to the shore, it seems like an illusion. American tourists swarm around the shops. Shops that all seemed to sell exactly the same things: crappy souvenirs, conch shells, jewellery, rum cake, rum, and potpourri-themed beach paraphernalia.
“We’ve got the week planned a little bit,” they tell me, “because this is the first time we’ve had time off since coming, so we’d love to do all the touristy things with you too.”
Chaea holds up a print out of a schedule, but hesitates to show me. “Oh, actually, we’ll keep some of these activities a secret.” She laughs her infectious giggle and says, “What do you think, Tom?”
“Maybe we’ll just not tell him about Thursday night,” he says. They agree and my mind reels at what possible surprise they could have for me. Wednesday night is yoga on the roof of the Hilton.
Our days were mostly spent relaxing. We snorkelled among the coral and I saw a vast array of fish I never thought I’d see up close: fish of all colours and sizes – and a school of them kept following me, cheekily grinning every time I turned around to check where my friends were.
One day we explored some mangroves in the north-west of the island, and I asked if I could drive down the canal-lined dirt roads. To my delight they said ‘yes’ without pause for considering their insurance claims, and added that they had already discussed letting me try it out, anyway. I still don’t have my learner’s permit, so this was a big deal. The last time I’d attempted to drive was when I was ten in a car park, so I was equally excited and scared to take the wheel. Thankfully, it seems that seventeen years of intently watching other people drive have paid off, and I took to it without many mistakes. Tom and Chaea were patient and complimentary and it gave me such confidence, that I reluctantly switched sides when we came back into real traffic.
On Boxing Day we joined a catamaran cruise out to a place called “Stingray City”, and joined masses of tourists who were turning the crystal clear water into a spandex soup. They shrieked as the giant, beautiful creatures glided in and out of their legs. I made Steve Irwin quips, and added a “oh I’m so going to Hell” remark at the end of each in the hopes Karma/irony wasn’t waiting in the wings – no pun intended. We were then taken to Rum Point, where we all drank too many fluorescent cocktails for our own good. Tom and I waxed lyrical about the architecture styles favoured by ‘new money’ and trespassed onto an open block of land to see what view the owners had. At that moment, with our drinks in hand, police cruised by but didn’t give us a second glance. I suppose on a tax-free island, revenue raising isn’t a major concern.
“There are a lot of iguanas on the island,” they tell me.
“Oh cool,” I say, “I’d love to see one.”
“Oh you will… definitely,” they reply. “There’s one.”
Iguanas are everywhere on the island – and they’re not small either. Some I saw were almost three feet long. The blue iguana is endemic to the island, and we headed to the Cayman Islands botanic park to see them. The park was astounding, full of plants I’d never seen before. One in particular, the Sand Box tree, is one I’m now dying to see when in bloom:
The iguanas of the park were not shy. At one stage of our walk we had a female blue iguana follow us for a while: she seemed more interested in us than we were of her. What started off as cute turned into a little scary when you noticed their long, sharp claws. Just how friendly were they?
At every new discovery I thought about the stories Tom and Chaea would tell future visiting friends, and how unbelievable it would all seem. Especially because Tom has a nonchalant, whimsical story-telling manner. I was telling them this after we had lunch on the patio of a restaurant overlooking the sea, when Chaea suddenly exclaimed she could smell smoke. We looked around, and sure enough, not a couple of metres away, a tree had smoke rising from one of its branches. I poured some water on the branch, but that only seemed to make it bellow some more. Soon the wind started blowing ash onto us. We looked at each other wondering whether to tell the waitress, or whether we were witnessing the famous ‘Burning Trees of Cayman’. We alerted the waitress (just to be sure), and unperturbed (and slightly distracted) she said in her sing-song Caribbean accent, “Oh, you’re right, dat tree is on fire.” She picked up our jug of water and poured the whole thing on it until we could hear the embers fizzle out. “I’ll get you some more water,” she said and left, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world.
I could already here Tom relaying the story to someone else, starting with “You wouldn’t believe it, but…”
My surprise, and Christmas present, came on Christmas Eve. After some complications the night before (the mysterious meeting point had changed location), the mysterious ‘tour’ guide apologised and waived the mysterious fee of the mystery. Because of the mishap, Tom and Chaea spilled the beans and told me they had arranged for us to kayak to a place where the water was naturally bio-luminescent. However, even knowing the surprise couldn’t prepare me for the genuine amazement when we got into our kayaks.
We had all assumed the water would be in one particular spot – that we’d have to kayak a long way out to it, be underwhelmed, kayak back, and say positive things about it like, “Well, wasn’t that… something?”
The reality was much different.
As soon as you put your oar in the water, the water exploded into electric blue hues. Anywhere a foreign body touched the microorganisms in the water, they exploded into colour, surrounding the kayak, the oars, your hands – it was out of a dream. The newest comparison for this phenomenon is “Mom, it’s just like Avatar!” but for me it was more like Tron: In the Sea. The guide told us to plunge our hands into the water and then raise them to let the water trickle down our arms, an effect he called “Alien blood”. It was spectacular. My favourite thing was watching the fish dart about just under the surface. Zigzags of blue lightning pulsed its way through the water – I supposed they swam so quickly because it would be very easy for birds to go night-fishing in this protected inlet. The whole bay was like it, too, not just one particular part. It felt like we’d stumbled upon another planet, even though these rare bio-luminescent bays have been known about for ages. It seems odd, though, that early explorers only ever called it “milk water” – when it seems like something much more alien and magical. We gave the guide a tip and nattered like excited children on our way home, watching the Christmas fireworks sparkle in the dark blue above.
The next day I met the pirate. The ceiling of his shop was, indeed, filled with used thongs.