|Wed 2nd Feb, 2005.
Days 120-127: Havana to Grand Cayman and home.
Flew from Havana to Grand Cayman in a 737 belonging to Cayman Airways, where they served complimentary rum punch. Very nice. Browzing the in-flight magazine on the short flight, I noticed the statistics that Cuba is long (about 1200 kms) and not very wide (about 30 - 120 kms) with about 1600 islands. That surprised me, but as soon as we left the south coast of Cuba, we saw hundreds of small islands made up of coral, presumably, in the shallow Caribbean Sea. Flying in to Grand Cayman, it was possible to see a lot of blue tarpaulins still covering the damaged roofs. Further damage was not immediately evident other than an absence of the lush vegetation which had covered Jamaica and Cuba.
My friend Dick met me at the airport, and drove me the 4 miles to his apartment. Along the way, he pointed out some of the worst examples of the effect of the hurricane. There wasn't a single roof without some sort of damage to it, some had been blown off completely. Just outside the airport was a bare patch of ground with a huge pile of dead trees and bushes. The storm surge caused by the hurricane had covered the island with sea water to a depth of at least 5 feet (it is a very low-lying island - the highest peak is 60 feet above sea level), and the salt water had killed off the vegetation that was still standing after "The Breeze" as the locals call it.
Dick was extremely lucky, in that his apartment out of 24 on the development, had suffered minimal damage. The windows had held firm, although some were cracked, and the water had not been able to get in. I would have thought homes above the ground floor would have been all right, but almost all of them on the island had at least one window blown out, which allowed the rain to get in (15 inches in the 36 hours of the worst of the storm). This caused severe damage to walls and furniture, and loads of homes are still being dried out almost 5 months after the event. Ivan was the most severe storm in the western Caribbean ever, and Cayman suffered so much because it slowed right down just as it got here. That meant that the island suffered winds above Tropical Storm force (Force 11+) for over 36 hours, and hurricane force winds (Force 12+) of 150-165 mph for over 16 hours. A lot of buildings will have to be demolished, which they thought was going to be the fate of the block of apartments next door to Dick, but only yesterday workmen arrived to start repairing it. Work on Dick's block continues with a complete replacement of the roof, including some damaged timbers, and then all the windows will have to be replaced, because even if they withstood the ravages of the storm, they had all flexed so much that the double-glazing seals had broken in a lot of them, and they would probably not have survived another hurricane. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life in the season June to November, that at least 10 storms of category 4 or 5 will hit some part of the Caribbean. I think I would be very nervous next hurricane season!
Dick was in England when the hurricane struck, and didn't go back until the beginning of December. His apartment was habitable, but the infrastructure was not. A huge amount has been done, but you can see by the piles of debris, including trashed cars, by the side of the road, that lots more needs to be done yet. The trees that were still standing had had all their leaves ripped off, but they are now beginning to appear again, and the first staying tourists reappeared just before Christmas. They have only got to 10% of their normal number, but then there isn't much accommodation for them yet. Luckily, the cruise ships started to come back in December, and each day there are 4 or 5 huge vessels, with 2000 - 2500 passengers each, moored off the small harbour. They bring hugely welcome revenue to the island. It is almost impossible to imagine, sitting in the bright sunshine with the azure blue sea sparkling benignly away, how different it must have felt on Sunday 12th September 2004. Just think, I had planned to come out here on Sept 23rd. I can now see why my presence would not have been at all welcome - in fact I wouldn't have been allowed anywhere near the place. Even residents couldn't get back for a while.
I hadn't been in Dick's apartment for 20 minutes when the phone rang. "It's Felix" said Dick. (That's his son.) "Where are you?" he asked Felix, as I heard a key in the front door, and it opening. "I'm at the front door!!" said Felix, coming into the house. He had decided 24 hours previously that he didn't want to miss out on the fun, so bought a ticket and came out. It was a great surprise and delight, because we are good friends, and of course Dick was delighted as well. Neither of us knew anything about it. Dick is the most delightful and attentive host. He has been used to helping out for a long time, because his wife Mary, who died in 2000, had polio when carrying their first son, Merrick, who is now 56. He is not as robust now, being 84 years old, and not as fast as before, but fiercely independent, and generous to a fault. I have had a fabulous time here, with an early morning walk along the beach, an occasional swim (although for 3 days the wind picked up and turned from the north, making the water a lot colder as it mixed up) and some sun-bathing when possible. Meals out every evening at some very good restaurants, all on the ocean-front, completed a lovely stay. I can't have been too bad, because I have been invited back again, and I shall certainly return when I go back to Cuba. Thank you, Dick, for making my time in Cayman so much fun. See you in Paignton in July.
And so the end has come to my journey, and I really don't want it to. I have been traveling since Oct 6th 2004, and have visited USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Jamaica (briefly!) Cuba and the Cayman Islands. I have taken 23 flights with 10 different airlines, hired cars in 5 different locations and driven a total of 8,500 miles. I have met hundreds of new people, almost all of them nice, and some very nice indeed. I jokingly said that I was hoping to meet a rich Kiwi widow, but instead met women of all ages from all walks of life. I had hoped to dance Salsa all over the world, but ended up only doing it in New York and Sydney. My especial thanks to Gill in Sydney, who is not a rich Kiwi widow, but a lovely Australian divorcee, for taking me to Salsa spots in the city, and introducing me to Ceroc dancing, and to her mad friends. I started off very lonely, but soon started to realise that people are very friendly on the whole, and began to enjoy myself. I have done things that I wouldn't have thought possible a little while ago, and made a lot of new friends. I have also got to know a few cousins a lot better, and met some others for the first time.
I am not looking forward to getting back to the UK in the middle of the winter, and having to plunge straight back into selling the house (hopefully our buyer is still there, despite the delays in getting all the legal bits and pieces tidied up). I have got used to a life of idleness, and am seriously thinking of disappearing for each English winter, if not settling in the Antipodes for good. Who knows? Anyway, I am really looking forward to seeing all my old friends again, and catching up on all the news and gossip. Thank you for reading this far - I'm sorry if I have been a bit too verbose in places, but it has been essentially a letter home to my daughter Alex, and you have been along for the ride!
10th Feb 2005.
PS: I am really thrilled to be able to report that Milly, the English girl traveling round NZ with her friend Jen, who then went back to the UK and then out to Sri Lanka for a Christmas holiday, survived the tsunami unscathed. 10 minutes before the first wave, the family had left the hotel in a 4-wheel drive to explore the jungle interior. Not until they got back did they realise what had happened, and found their hotel extensively damaged. Talk about lucky!
PPS:- Please note my email address now reverts to: firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks.