The plane only had about 30 people on board. It was the bi-weekly LACSA flight from Miami to Grand Cayman and on to Costa Rica. I remember only nine of us stood up to get off at the Grand Cayman stop. It was 2 January 1971, I was 21 years old and I was home. I was met on the tarmac, ushered through customs and immigration, picked up my bag in the quonset hut and into the Airport Lounge for a cold greenie in under ten minutes.
The next day Mr Bostock processed my work permit at the counter while we waited, under ten minutes. I had come to Cayman to work for Bob Soto as a dive master. The water was warm and blue with 200 foot visibility every day. A big boat trip was six tourist divers. The Big Tunnel and Trinity Caves had not been discovered yet. Spanish Bay Reef dive resort in West Bay had no phone or power. Contact was a CB radio to the Four Winds Esso and the owners had to generate their own electricity. It was very special to go out on the North Sound with Solie, Marvin, Frank or Gleason.
Teacher McField found out I had a teaching degree and he chased me around trying to recruit me to teach at the school. I made $300 a month and never wanted for anything. Mini mokes provided transportation – no traffic, congestion or stop lights.
When it rained you pulled over, grabbed the rags on the floor of your car and washed your car. No one was speeding, except for Larry C the street racer.
There was no crime, you left your doors unlocked and you put your car keys on the floor of the car so you knew where they were. Seven Mile Beach had the Royal Palms, Coral Caymanian, West Indian Club, Beach Club, the Caribbean Club and the Galleon Beach Hotel along with several private homes. There was no Holiday Inn or condo projects yet and Hads were just completing the Caribartel complex now Harbor Heights. East of West Bay Road was considered swamp land. If I had the money I could purchase North Seven Mile Beach for US$75 per linear foot.
I was welcomed by all Caymanians, many of whom are life-long friends. Uncle Rayburn and Aunt Celia watched me grow up. A big night started with a greenie at Delworth’s followed by a movie at the cinema with no roof or on the veranda at the Galleon with Dave running the projector. A really big big night was the Mighty Sparrow at the Royal Palms.
We ate well from the sea. Wahoo was a big treat and we ate barra only after the old timers tested the fish for poisons. The closest thing to fast food was the Nineteenth Hole Restaurant but Wellie’s Cool Spot was the better choice.
Getting your status was an extremely important day. You had to learn Cayman history, take a written examination and swear allegiance to the Queen in front of Mr Orman and the rest of the board. Miss Annie and Misters Benson and Craddock were passionate leaders for the people and the country. We were classless and quality of life was paramount. The Cayman Islands government budget for the year was seven figures.
In the late 70s and into the 80s our idyllic life started to change. Private planes with sacks of money arrived daily. The private banking, legal and accounting services should be given credit for quickly organising themselves to create in-house policies that curbed the ‘deposit flights’ that were arriving. The professional services were maturing very quickly. Mister Jim was putting CAL and tourism on the map.
The BAC111’s were shuttling back and forth from Miami and Houston. Lizard skin Houston Oilers blue cowboy boots were seen in the banks and law offices. The developers were here and the condo boom was in full swing. The pioneer developers used the local trades and some grew into general contractors.
Expats with money in the Cayman Islands were able to purchase condos on seven mile beach only to upgrade into the next project in two years. Wednesday night and the Sunday afternoon BBQ at the Galleon was the happening place. Cruise tourism had arrived in Cayman but the focus was still stay-over tourism. The Holiday Inn was firmly established and the Hotel Association had a group of dedicated hoteliers pushing the Cayman Islands. The condo stay-over tourism business was at its peak. CAL, Republic and Eastern Airlines were shuttling the tourists down on full flights.
VHS tape clubs, big white satellite dishes and the new cinema were introducing residents to the good, the bad and the ugly from the US. In the 70s it wasn’t uncommon to stay ‘on island’ for two or three years at a time. Now travel to Miami for shopping trips and the Dadeland Mall was becoming common place. Bigger and better condos, beach land prices were souring and the swamp land East of West Bay Road was becoming attractive to developers.
Dredging was common but there always seemed to be some common sense from our leaders about the environment. Plans to dredge a canal from West Bay Beach to the North Sound were squashed quickly. We still had some great leaders who were passionate about leading the country. MLA salaries were reasonable and being a politician was not a ticket to financial comfort yet. Serious crime was uncommon but we were seeing ‘copy cat’ petty criminal behaviour probably due to the VHS tapes and US television. No longer were we one big family, we were breaking up into groups and districts.
The late 80s and the 90s saw permanent change for our Caribbean paradise. No turning back. Being a politician and getting elected provided an excellent salary, benefits and an unbeatable retirement programme. It also opened up an office buildings worth of doors for politicos to enter into business deals and transactions. At first it was simple, no more than being the 60 per cent Caymanian partner without capital investment to make the company legal locally. Soon district and island projects grew to the magnitude where conflicts of interest couldn’t be avoided, so they just happened. As this situation developed gifted politicians took the system to a whole new level, while walking the fence and relying on the wonderful Caymanian trait of forgiveness.
Cayman tourism, financial services, construction and real estate were booming. The cruise ships were embedding themselves permanently into our economy. There was a slow almost unnoticeable shift from stay-over to cruise tourism. It was sort of instant business gratification from momentary tourists. US fast food franchises were bloating our people. Less fresh fish, fruits, vegetables and rice in the diet.
West Bay Road was becoming ‘mini me South Beach Florida’. Traffic congestion was growing to an out of control situation. Everything was moving to bigger is better, more instead of less, instant gratification, working and borrowing more and through all this stay-over tourism, small Caymanian businesses and most importantly the youth of Cayman were suffering badly. Crime was growing and we seemed destined to repeat Caribbean history. Running the country took a half a billion dollars a year.
Flash forward to today. Cayman has fought back valiantly from one of history’s worst hurricanes. A direct hit with a hovering ‘Hurricane Ivan’ tested the fabric of Caymanian society which did not tear. The US and global economic situation is now testing Cayman once again. Our wonderful people and country is struggling for a new identity after so much change in only four decades.
Cayman and her people have some huge hurdles to get over in the next few years. Re-inventing the financial and legal services to adapt to the new global economy, stabilising the political system and removing the blurred lines between the public and private sector business interests. Protecting the environment and managing growth, balancing stay-over and cruise tourism and getting small Caymanian business owners back in front of the visitors. Most importantly, taking the original core Caymanian values that keep pulling all Caymanians to the three isles: friendliness, warmth, family values, hard work and forgiveness and start parenting our children back from the brink of US materialism. Coupled with parenting let us educate our youth and give every Caymanian the skills to prosper from the economic development of Cayman.
Our whole family misses Cayman. We correspond and speak with friends all the time. We communicate and commiserate with displaced Caymanians as well. The Cayman magnet keeps drawing us back. To all our friends we wish you well and miss our home every day.