Little Cayman

Arriving from Vancouver and Vegas to Grand Cayman made it feel like I was flying to a tiny, barely inhabited island, in the middle of nowhere. After a week there, its busyness surprised me, but I started to see the same people, recognize  all the main streets, and finished visiting every where there was to visit (some places, more than once). This made it seem smaller and smaller as time passed.

Then I flew to Little Cayman Island, which really is a tiny, barely inhabited island in the middle of nowehere, and it couldn’t really get much smaller  with time.

 

Little Cayman from the air

It has a resident population of 120 people, its about 12 miles long and one mile wide, and only 90 miles from Cuba. To get there, one takes a 35 minute flight in a 12 seater plane, with the luggage stowed away behind the last row of seats. Though there was only 9 passengers traveling, they still managed to forget one of my bags, which was a waterproof dive bag and carried my books and a volleyball called Wilson – three very important things when on a remote Caribbean island (ever seen Castaway?).

Out of the 120 residents, few are Caymanian, and the island blends a mix of ex-pats who refuse to live in colder climates. They host and run an expensive tourism industry, fueled by scuba diving, snorkeling, and most recently, kite surfing. Visitors stay at one of the resorts, enjoying hobie cats, kayaks and hammocks, and add a fluctuating 80 more to the population number.

the ultimate beach pad

Resorting isn’t really in my price range, and the only 2 couchsurfers on the island couldn’t host, but one dive master tipped me off on a fun fact – the bartender at Little Cayman Resort was Icelandic. I asked some questions, found him on facebook, had a mutual friend, and three days later, arrived in his skyloft to crash with Marieke, my host from Grand Cayman.

He was an excellent host, taking us on many adventures. The first was a kayak expedition to abandoned Owen Island, against fierce winds and white water waves. We walked the last 200m after capsizing, but made it back down wind in no time.

We learned how to Hobie cat sail. Well, we watched him hobie cat sail. We

Owen Island by Kayak

snorkeled. We played dodgeball. We biked to the end of the island. We tried to kitesurf, but failed when the wind calmed. I tried fire dancing.

Our biggest advneture was a 2 am mission to Owen Island on his friends boat, which we grounded twice in the shallow water. Or it may have been the excess wait in the boat (we were 8 in 5 seats). Or it may have been the pitch darkness, although there was an eerie glow from the full moon which made everything seem like a Pirates of the Caribbean scene. We tried (and failed) to light a bonfire of wet palms and bamboo, and almost used all our spare gas trying, but managed to avoid getting stranded.

Ingvar was working most days we were there, but it made no difference since we ended up at his bar every evening anyway to hang out. This was also where we had most of our meals, and met half of the Island since people came thru all day long. Some were iguana-walk tour guides, others were kitesurfers, the dodgeball guy and his dog, and even the airport arrivals guy who was better known as ‘ninja’ (he was an incredible fire dancer).

fire dancing by the failing bonfire

When we had to leave the island, we simply walked to the concrete strip of road they cal their ‘airport.’ Noone was there til 20 minutes before our flight departure, and he just showed up with our boarding cards and luggage tags and handed them out to us standing around. He knew who was who, didnt care what we had packed, checked no ID and didn’t even have a security check for us to go through. It seemed to quick and easy (if only all air travel was that laid back), but, magically, they lost my bags again, somewhere between Little Cayman and Grand in that 45 minute window, on that tiny plane…

I stood in Georgetown trying to make my connecting flight to New York, and when they told me my bags would have to arrive a day later, I begged not to be sent to New York without them. I was wearing flipflops, shorts and a shirt, and had nothing else until getting back home to Iceland, where it was -15 degrees and snowing. They agreed that was tough, so delayed my flight by one day, upgraded me to business class, and let me have one last night in Grand Cayman. I could certainly think of worse places to be stuck…

Grand Cayman Island

Grand Cayman is a mixed up place. Its a British Island, unrecognized as a sovereign state since its an overseas territory, but Brits need visas to live and work there. They have the Union Jack in their flag and the queen on their coins, but their Caymanian dollar is pegged to the US dollar at a 1.25 exchange rate. Apparently Americans and Canadians don’t need a passport to travel to the Cayman Islands, but Im not sure I believe that since it doesn’t quite make sense. I showed up with my Canadian passport, which they stamped, and counted it as my 78th country, because I certainly can’t say I just spent the last 2 weeks in the United Kingdom.

Marieke on the beach - not your typical British scene

The slow-paced, easy going “island time” battled the hectic bank scene; the income-tax free laws gave George Town a rat-race feel you’d be used to in downtown Manhattan, since a 9-5 work week and traffic rush hour reminded you what line of work many come to Cayman to do. But as soon as you got to the beach, everything slowed down again, and then you met the other half of Caymans working population – expats from the US, Canada, and other British countries who work the restaurant, bar and nightlife scene.

shaking hands with Copernico

There’s also a booming tourism scene, with cruise ships dumping thousands of passengers into George Town for 8 hours of crazy consumption -mostly  souvenir and jewelry shopping, eating and drinking. There’s also a turtle farm and a dolphin park, where I got suckered into going because I wanted a kiss from a dolphin and to cuddle some turtles.

The culture there is also an interesting melange. You hear a mix of Jamaican, British, and North American English accents, plus a lot of Spanish and Spanglish from the large community of Hondurans living there. The food ranges from American BBQ to creole, west-Indian cuisine, with good jerk chicken and seafood available almost anywhere.

baby sea turtles

The cost of living is abnormally high, especially when you’re expecting a cheap, Caribbean vacation. Food, alcohol and gas are the most noticeably overpriced, since those are necessities I’ve gotten used to comparing between countries.

I spend ten days in George Town couchsurfing with a girl named Marieke, who was also an interesting mix. She was a British nanny, working once or twice a week for a couple of hours for her fulltime salary, yet had lived there for 2 months without ever going out or making any local friends. She was great company, always a bundle of giggles, and provided me with endless entertainment by the silly things she did and said. My favourite was when I had to convince her that stop signs are not optional, since she had been blowing them all without realizing why people kept honking at her.

beach volleyball players training

In our week together, we went out every night and literally met everyone in George Town. Our most memorable friends included a salsa dance instructor named Kirk (the name Kirk is very famous and used in so many business names), a Caymanian/Honduran named “Ish” (short for Ishmael), a Scottish bartender named Jamie, a friendly Canadian named Marty, and the best male beach volleyball player from the Cayman Islands who advanced to the next round of Olympic qualifier games at a beach volleyball tournament we watched. Its such a small place, that you feel you can get to know everyone and everything on the island very quickly, and the island starts to feel smaller and smaller.

But, with 50,000 people, I wanted even smaller, quiter, slower island time, so we booked a trip to Little Cayman, the sister island with 120 residents.

(to be continued….)

Road to Zion

I’m not quite 25, but Clio is, and though she’s probably the worse driver, we decided to rent the car under her name since there’s a $25 surcharge per day for drivers under 25. To save more money, we named our own price on priceline, and got a car for $16 a day. Then Clio lost her drivers license card before our trip started, and we had to cancel that booking. Since it was Thanksgiving weekend, other companies were out of economy cars, so we rented a no-name car from some no-name company, for closer to $60 a day, under my name, and got extra insurance. T’was just a minor speedbump in our roadtrip plans.

our car, on the road to Utah

We left Vegas Thanksgiving day in our shiny-red, brandless hatchback and headed to St. George, Utah. We drove through deserts, canyons and red rock scapes that made me feel like we were pioneering an expedition through the wild wild west. From inside the car, the sun looked scorching. But when we stopped for pictures and got out of the car, it felt cold enough to snow. We took a jumping picture by the “Welcome to Utah sign,” and made it into St. George by sunset.

Welcome to Utah

Everything was closed except a few gas stations, but the Cracker Barrel restaurant was open and serving Turkey dinner for $6.99. Our couchsurf host Mason worked there so we asked to sit at the bar to wait for his shift to finish. “We have no bar” said the host.

“Oh, but you serve beer?”

“No” she said, with a sneaky smile that meant she knew we hadn’t been in St. George long enough to learn how rare liquor licensed establishments are. The turkey dinner was still delicious, and the pumpkin and pecan pie desserts included with our meal more than made up for the lack of beer.

We spent our evening having deep philosophical debates, talked travel, and discussed complicated medical terminology. Mason was a retired mormon, and shared his PBR’s with us at home while explaining only a couple bars exist in the city of 73,000. The highlight of the visit was a little off-road experience, when he “jeeped it up” in his yellow truck and almost crashed the car only because I grabbed his steering arm while he was trying to get the car back on the road. Silly me.

Zion National Park

We visited Zion National Park the following day, a beautiful canyon tucked between the Colorado Plateau, Grand Basin and Mojave Desert. We drove the 15 mile scenic road through the canyon, stopping for 3 hikes to an emerald pool, a weeping rock, and a riverside trail. The sandstone cliffs were red and beige, and all the deciduous trees were half way between turning colours and losing their leaves, creating a picture perfect autumn day.

We had another turkey lunch at Mt. Carmel Junction, then visited Jacob Lake, a small community at the northern entrance to the Grand Canyon. We assumed the road was closed to the North Rim, but when we got there, realized it was still open, despite the ice-covered patches and snowy, skeleton forests. We drove 45 miles to the park entrance, when we realized we were out of gas and all services in the park had been shut since October 15. But, a ranger saved our butts when he told us about a self-service gas station we could use.

North Rim

We got to the North Rim in time for sunset, and had an incredible view over the canyon. It is so much bigger than you can imagine, so immense and far-reaching that you can’t really see it in three dimensions. It looks like a painted picture, without any scale or point of reference to understand its depth.

The following day we visited the South Rim and had a similar experience. We spent the whole day there, getting as many different perspectives of the canyon as we could, taking too many photos that couldn’t quite capture what we were seeing with our naked eyes. There was no snow at the South Rim, but I was still cold under my toque, gloves and Cintamani layers.

South Rim, with Clio and couchsurfers for scale

We had company at both rims. In the North, a couple Russian-speaking tourists followed us around with a crazy canon lens, taking pictures on the ends of cliffs that made you feel like you were floating in a space above the canyon. In the South Rim, our couchsurf hosts joined us, one being a tour guide for the park that snuck us past some ropes and down some unmarked trails to have more intimate canyon moments.

We stayed in Flagstaff, Arizona, couchsurfing with a couple different hosts. Sam and Carl were a couple living in a house with a revolving door of awesome young folk coming in and out, including another couchsurfer from France. There was room for us all, and it felt totally normal to show up as strangers and then feel like regulars seconds later. We also stayed with Jack, a local brewmaster and outdoor enthusiast. His house was heated by a wood-burning fireplace, had a kitten curled up beside it, and 4 or 5 strewn bodies on the wrap around couch who became our second group of local friends. We heated ourselves some more in his hottub, and realized we had to come back for some of his tourguiding expertise, as we learned more about Havasupai falls and the local skiing mountains he regularly frequents.

the last sliver of sun at sunset, with the Colorado River behind

This is a common ‘problem’ with travel and couchsurfing alike – I never seem to stay long enough in the places I visit, as wishes of extending my trip constantly tempt me to postpone my next travel plans. I never stay long enough with my stranger-turned-friend host to feel like I’ve gotten to know them well enough, and invitations to stay longer make me feel rude to turn down. I used to think of traveling as a to-do list to tick off – go down the list til I’ve been everywhere. But, every place I visit, I leave with the intention of going back, so my travel list grows bigger the more places I go. And the more couchsurfers I meet, the more people I have to visit, and to host, so I’m not sure how I’ll manage being in two places at once to visit and host all these new friends.

 

Sin City

Two of my very bestest friends in the world live in the states, so to see them we meet “halfway” somewhere, which is never really half way between us. To get my fill of Clio, who lives in Minneapolis and has already come to Iceland twice, we decided Vegas was the most “central,” not geographically, but financially. Flights to the Caribbean were too expensive, Vancouver was too cold, and we’d already met in New York before.

We’d also met in Las Vegas before, but that didn’t matter. We roadtripped there for my 21st birthday and spent the majority of our 3 days there waiting for me to turn of-age, so couldn’t really say we experienced “adult” Vegas. We didn’t want to gamble, we just wanted to experience some nightlife in one of our world’s most renowned party cities.

the Volcano show at the Mirage

There was also culture tourism to enjoy. American culture is a strong and unique super culture, a mix of very different states, accents, and skin colours, but still a unified, identifiable place and people. But, Sin City is a specific sub-culture of Americans on holiday in a place built for gambling, girls and getting drunk around the clock. However, I don’t overlook the amazing shows and sights, including the crazy casinos you can never find our way out of or what time it is, and the themed hotels that can temporarily transport you to Venice, New York or a treasure island full of battling pirates.

Me and Clio joined my mom to see Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Ka,’ probably my favourite cirque show, based on a story of oriental warriors orchestrated to rock-n-roll on a stage that rotated 360` in every direction. Sand, sea creatures and warriors slid off it whenever it overturned, unless they grabbed onto one of the hundreds of spikes that could pop out of the ground, miraculously without impaling anyone. There was an underwater scene that captivated me so fully I didn’t realize until after that I had held my breath the entire time I watched the girl swim to the surface, even though she was just moving up a black backdrop with projected bubbles.

the fountains at the Bellagio are my favourite

We also got tickets to the Lion King, a show with the most incredible costume designs. People were convincingly dressed to look and move just like giraffes, hyenas and warthogs. Although the Lion costume for little Simba was leopard patterned and the baby Simba in the opening scene looked more like a plastic monkey than a furry cub. But that was kindly forgotten with the captivating songs and sounds transporting you to Eastern Africa’s wild plains.

Our nightlife touring we did mostly without my mom, although she joined in for some ladies nights and wristband all-you-can-drink events. We had our first night at XS in the Encore, a club appropriately names after the excessive glits and glamour décor. Steve Aioki dj’d, with a big yellow blow up duck mascot. It was poolside, with an outside area big enough to host thousands of people, which apparently happens on the regular. We ended up at a VIP table with AFL football coaches from Australia, who kept us entertained with peculiar behavior – like the guy in the toque who kept scooping icecubes on top of his head for no apparent reason.

Our second night got a little bit more ridiculous, after we ended up at Pure nightclub in Caesar’s palace with 5 or 6 different stamps splattered up our arms to get all access to every corner of the roped-off club floor. There we met a couple beautiful girls, who may or may not have been hired by the older, uglier men with them, who actually made it rain in the club. Me and Clio stood under a shower of dollar bills falling from the sky and filled our fists with exactly $26.  We ended up at an afterparty in a Bellagio suite with what I suspect was French royalty, but I can’t confirm for sure.

Dada Life!

The last night we were back at the Encore for a Thanksgiving eve party at Surrender. Dada Life was disc jockeying, and I ended up dancing with the tallest German man I’ve ever met. He was staying at the MGM too, so we split a cab back, and Clio wanted to play more penny slots on our last night. We had a difficult time waking up a few hours later, and the morally conflicting decision whether or not I was ready to pick up our rental car at 11 am when I was potentially still inebriated. I was worried about going to Vegas and overeating, but with only 1 buffet in 3 days, we were more ready for an alcohol diet, so sobered up and headed to Utah and Arizona for a roadtrip. And, when we arrived in Mormon-ridden Utah to find out almost all the liquor licenses are bought out by the church, we knew we wouldn’t have a hard time keeping our diet.

(…to be continued)

 

2 weeks in Vancouver

As of late, my travel plans have been slightly more spontaneous than usual, since I was expecting to move to France, then substituted that with a euro trip for 3 months, then cut it 6 weeks short to go to Miami where I had 2 unrelated obligations. Then from Miami I basically flipped a coin between St. Croix or New York.

Heads. New York. But I didn’t really have anything to do in New York. But I did just find out my little sister got engaged, so I used it as a stop-over to get back to Vancouver. I could have just changed planes at JFK, but a few days in New York never hurts. I had some relatives, a best friend, and a friend who just visited me in Iceland who owed me some tourguiding hospitality. He lives in the financial district, a stone’s throw away from the World Trade Center Site, and works near Grand Central Station. My other friend there is a male supermodel. Both very clichéd Manhattan careers I’d say.

So Vancouver. I lived there for nearly 4 years but every year that passes since, going back to Vancouver makes me feel more and more like a visitor. With every visit, I know fewer people living there, as all my UBC friends graduate, get jobs, or marry elsewhere. Walking around the UBC campus makes me feel like an old creeper. Downtown even seems less familiar, with all the construction and development disguising familiar streets.

I don’t miss the rain, the long, dark, dreary nights, or how expensive it is to drive (parking, gas, insurance). But I miss the cosmopolitan feel of the city, the vibrant, young, international mix of faces you see, not to mention noticeably beautiful faces. I love the cheap, easily-accessible and readily available sushi everywhere. I love Stanley park, English Bay and the surrounding, snow-topped mountains. I really miss Whistler – the feeling of riding the gondola to the very top and knowing you can take up to 2 hours to get back down without riding another chairlift.

I spent my 2 weeks there wedding dress shopping with my sisters. Ruth didn’t know what colour her bridesmaid dresses should be until our second outing, and still came out with a slightly indecisive choice. “Off-white. Or cream. With or without a pattern. But no one should wear the same dress.” We didn’t get very far with that for me or my older sisters dress hunt, but she managed to find her dream wedding dress. It was a whopping $1200 plus 12% HST and $200 for a belt wrap. She didn’t feel right about the price, so instead bought 2 wedding dresses she liked a little less each, but in total only cost $150, and together, could tailor into something perfect.

During the day, every day, I worked with an old-time friend and long-time professional colleague, Yashar. He hired me full time to work as his campaign volunteer leader in the North Vancouver municipal elections. This job consisted of me sitting between 8 – 10 hours a day in an office where only other Persians worked, organizing his Farsi-speaking only parents to lead volunteer events, and then distributing a handful of about another 20 volunteers (also, all Persian) for random, miscellaneous jobs to help market Yashar as a city councilor. I realized how much I love Persian hospitality, and how alienating it is to be the only person not speaking the common language of your immediate surroundings.

I also spent quite a bit of time with a traveler friend named Murray, who calls me the girl version of him. We seem to lead parallel lifestyles, both insatiably wanderlusting, and irresponsibly quick to pack up and go at the flip of a coin. We lamented about how hard it is to keep relationships, but how inconsequential this seems when we realize how much we appreciate the lasting friendships travel has given us instead. We empathized how lonely travel can get, but without referring to any negative connotations of the meaning of the word. We wondered out loud how we stay so busy doing nothing, and joked about the endless moneytree that people seem to believe feed our travel funds. But, we concluded that our lives are somehow less expensive and more sustainable than our alternative life-options, and also decided we weren’t abnormal, since 2 people living the same lifestyle simply defines a different normality.