Sunday, November 30, 2008

Moving in

Unlike Canada, most houses here come fully furnished. House hunting in the Cayman Islands brings a whole new, as in literal, meaning to 'what you see is what you get'. This works really well when the furniture is nice and, more importantly, to your taste. No need to worry about whether the stereo cabinet will fit here or there, or where to put the beds and couches. However, we also saw how having furniture can definitely limit your market, as when we toured an exquisitely furnished home. The appliances and furniture were obviously of very high quality, but it was also obvious to us that this home was furnished by a couple well into their 70's. And of course there is a difference between visiting your grandmother's home and actually living in your grandmother's home.

But of course you can also buy a house with little furniture, or one like ours, that in words of the real estate agent himself was full of "garage sale furniture". We were not quite sure if that meant that the previous owners took all their original furniture with them and filled the house with garage sale items or if they actually lived with 'garage sale furniture'. But the house also had some magnificent pieces, like the big armoir or 'entertainment unit' in the family room, which I think looks just like the little cousin of Marlene's Dracula...

Cardboard Boat Race

It weighs as much as a small house and is of very high quality. When you open the glass doors and smell inside, it smells just like .... my grandmother's home. Remember those days when everyone had solid wood furniture? It just smelled different, I swear.

But it did not really matter to us because we had brought very little from Canada, and figured this was our opportunity to furnish a new house with things that we could both agree on! Our previous house had a definite 'his' and 'hers' feel to it, and reflected the fact that we bought much of what we owned previous to getting married. Richard did not like my green EQ3 sectional, I didn't much care for his Duck's Unlimited prints, so I think you get the drift.... But we also found that there is an area in the middle we very much agree on - and if you live in Grand Cayman, you would know what that is when we mention Woods Furniture.

But back to the house - we spent most of August trying to avoid going outside unless it was for a swim, and getting used to our new surroundings. One of the highlights of that month was the arrival of our 20' container from Canada. To give you an idea of the kind of downsizing we did prior to moving to the Caymans, let me tell you that when we moved from Winnipeg to Milton, Ontario two years ago, we arrived in a 53' container (which is also higher than a 20' container) that was packed to the brim. When the idea of going to the Caymans became a distinct reality, we figured this was the opportune time to get rid of everything we did not 'really' need, which turned out to be a lot of stuff. We sold and gave away more than half of what we had. And find we really aren't missing that much after all.

Our 20' container was still packed to the brim, but it took the guys only a few hours to unload it and place everything in the house. I was really amazed how well they worked, considering how hot it was. Below are a couple of shots of 'men at work'.

Cardboard Boat Race

Cardboard Boat Race

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Our house and yard

On our first trip to the Caymans we included several days of touring houses that were listed for sale. We were not completely sure we wanted to buy, and in fact many people advised against buying right away, but we nevertheless wanted to get a feel for the real estate market. We are both the type of people who like to own rather than rent, so naturally we were leaning that way even before we came to visit in June of this year.

It did not take us long to figure out that the Cayman real estate market was unlike anything we had ever experienced in Canada, both in the duration of a listing and the prices. Houses are easily twice what you would pay in Canada (this coming from someone who is familiar with Toronto pricing), plus you would also have to get used to the fact that it would take a year on average to sell your house. The average number of days for residential listings, as per CIREBA (Cayman Island's Real Estate Association) is about 370 days, so just over a year.

Having said that, a Cayman house is not exactly like a Canadian house. Houses here are made of solid block construction, and the furnishings (which generally come with the house) tend to be of much higher quality, even exceeding what I am used to seeing in Europe at times. And other than canal front lots, which I remember to be somewhat smaller, many times the lots are easily three times the size of your average suburbian GTA lot at about .3 of an acre. Plus, backyard pools are commonplace, so it's not quite like comparing apples to apples, as it were.

The way we saw it, there were about four geographic areas we could live in - on the sea, on the canal, off the water near Georgetown or 'out in the country', better known as Savannah. Of course, on an island of this size (about 20 miles long and 4 miles wide), calling anything the 'boonies' is a bit of a stretch, but you'd be surprised how 'far' Savannah - a 20 minute trip without traffic - seems once you get used to living near Georgetown and being everywhere in less than 5 minutes. There are of course places on the island that are further away than Savannah, but the fairly long commute to Georgetown do not make them suitable places to consider for people who work in Georgetown.

On the sea
This is of course the quintessential Caribbean dream - living in a mansion on the sea, drinking your morning coffee on the patio as you meditate the meaning of life to the sound of waves gently washing on the beautiful white sand that is your backyard.....

But as with so many things in life, even beachfront living has a certain ying and yang aspect to it, meaning that with sand often come ants, and with water often comes algae. We found out about the ants from a helpful hotel employee who advised us that ants love to be near the sand, ergo in houses near the sand. And some beaches are nicer than others - yes, plenty of beautiful white sand beaches, but also beaches which require a bit more upkeep because algae tends to wash up constantly and has to be removed on a continuous basis. Beachfront buildings and equipment are also more vulnerable to wear and tear because they are closer to the salty sea air and water.

And of course, living on the beach can be a bit more hazardous for the simple reason that in periods of slightly windy weather (like a hurricane for example), water does not have far to go once the waves start moving inland. This does not apply to all beachfront property but a certainly a good chunk of it. Having said that, the risk of being flooded, and of having a major hurricane come through really is relatively small, so for most people the benefits of living on the beach still by far outweigh the risks. Even I still dream of meditating my mornings on my seaside deck.....and the real estate market seems to confirm this as seafront property is far pricier than anything off the sea and will likely stay that way because living on the sea is one of those dreams that just won't die. And no doubt there is a lot to be said for the atmosphere and natural beauty of living on the ocean.

On the canal
I should preface this little section by saying that I am not a boater, which makes me somewhat predisposed against canal homes. The name already says it all - you are on the water but not on the beach. Homes in this area are generally not quite as pricey as beachfront property, but not much cheaper either, as listings in the nicer areas can easily reach the million dollar mark. What I did not like about canal front homes were 1) the fairly small back yards, because after all, you buy the home for the canal front, not the yard; and 2) the fact that depending on where you lived on the canal (preferably as far back as possible), you'd have a lot of traffic (and smell) from other boats. And we are not talking little canoes here, these boats are mini-yachts in some cases. Also, a canal is not moving water so let's just say it does not look like your typical azure-blue and transparent Caribbean water ....

Canal front homes are subject to some of the same hazards as beachfront property - such as their relative proximity to water in case of a hurricane. I think we heard just a few too many "we only had 3 feet of water during Ivan" to convince us that we wanted to be on higher ground.

Forgive me if my assessment of canal homes sounds a bit negative - I am obviously not the type of person that would love a canal home for its inherent advantage - access to water. And in that regard I am definitely out of step with where the market is. Canal-front property has a very exclusive character to it, and some of the most beautiful homes on the island can be found on canals. And as I alluded to before, canal living is great if you love boating, because you literately walk into your backyard and you can take your boat out on the ocean, which of course you cannot do if you live further inland. For quite a few people, this is still a big attraction, and of course, somewhat of a status symbol. Say you live in Governor's Harbour and people right away have a very definite picture of you. Sort of like saying you are from Winnipeg's Tuxedo or Toronto's Rosedale .....

For an idea of what such a home looks like (and sells for), here is a link to a Cayman real estate website.

Inland near town
That's where we ended up! We ran the gamut from absolutely having to live on the water to canal front homes to sitting down one day and deciding that living inland made the most practical sense for us. This is incidentally where a lot of Caymanians live (it's a real mix of expats and Caymanians actually), and there are very many beautiful properties not too far from the ocean. In our case, our planning was driven by the need to be near schools (so we would not need two cars or an elaborate driving schedule) and something else we learned as we toured all the other houses - you want to be on high ground. So we searched for a home that was not only close to town but also on high ground. There is a ridge that runs through the southern part of the island, which is about 15-16 feet at its highest point, and that's where we chose to settle. Our thinking was confirmed during our first hurricane experience (Gustav in late August 2008), when everyone parked on our road, trying to make sure their cars would not be flooded (which was never an issue as it turned out, but more on that later).

Living inland has its advantages, although it would not be for you if you absolutely have to have immediate access to your boat and water or you need to hear the sound of the waves every day. And one other issue - you don't get the nice breeze you get on the ocean, which is a definite plus for oceanfront properties. In the interior (i.e. anything more than 500 metres off the ocean) it can get quite stifling during the hot summer months, as we found out. But prices are very reasonable, and many of the yards are very spacious and absolutely beautiful. Here is a picture of our backyard (or actually about half of our backyard):

Here is a picture of the front of the house:

And another shot of the backyard, this time facing the street:

And speaking of the street - here is the street. The first photo points towards the end of the street (away from the ocean):

The other side of the road, leading to Walker's road (the container is ours, this picture was taken on the day the container arrived and we were getting ready to unload it).

And last but definitely not least - Savannah and environs
I loved Savannah. Or should I say, I loved certain things about Savannah. Having grown up on a farm, there was something about the natural beauty and certain ruggedness of this area that really appealed to me. As I mentioned to someone once - it is a bit like the Interlake except with palm trees. And I always loved the Interlake! The soil is loamy, almost reddish, and the shore is hard and rugged, looking more like a lava field with fossils abound. This is not the place to stretch out your towel unless you are training to become a fakir.....but it makes for great photography, doesn't it?

Houses here are considerably cheaper due to the distance from town, and there are a number of very lovely developments. Plus, a lot of Savannah is on fairly high ground, an added benefit. The one drawback, as you may have guessed, is the distance from town. Of course, coming from a part in Canada where driving to work for an hour was the norm, it seems a joke that driving 20 minutes would be considered a 'commute', but down here it is. And when traffic does back up, that 20 minutes can also quite easily turn into one hour, although that would also apply to someone commuting into downtown from West Bay of course. Nevertheless, Savannah is still considered a fair distance from all the happening places, and when you have children in school, it definitely makes for a demanding driving schedule, something we were not prepared to do.

Fish, mangos and coconuts

Fish and mangos - how did I ever come up with that? The name of my blog is actually based on my farm background, or at least I think it may explain my natural tendency to want to live where I could feed myself if all else failed. The Caymans does not quite seem to fit the bill on the surface, because most of what is consumed here is actually imported from the US, however, that is not to say that one could not live off the land....or rather the sea. And fruit grows here too, including the popular mango and various types of bananas and plums and apples (with the latter being an apple in name only as I found out ...).

And so I made the offhand remark one day, without really thinking about it, that if all else failed, we could always live off 'fish and mango(e)s'.

When we arrived on this island and got off the plane, I was breathless, quite literally. It was so hot and humid that my nostrils immediately closed up as an emergency measure and my whole body was covered in a sweat barely a few minutes after leaving the plane. I think my exact thoughts at the time were something along the lines of "No one can possibly live here!". Of course, two months later I am walking the dog at night and feeling rather chilly at 24 degrees Celsius, which goes to show what an amazing thing the human body is in its ability to adapt to virtually any environment.

As it was, we ran the A/C non-stop for the entire month. The next hydro bill brought us to our senses almost as quickly as our body's own temperature adjuster and we now find that we are quite comfortable at temperatures much warmer than we would have ever imagined!

But I am getting ahead of myself. This was just my first blog and when I started, I did not even know what to write.....and all of a sudden 1,000 words or so appear out of thin air, as it were.

As for the structure of this blog, I am hoping to have a topic of some sort for each blog, such as people, the climate, food, traffic etc. I often think of things to write as I drive around the island, so there should not be any shortage of topics in the next little while. But before I go, here is a picture of another island 'fruit' with our yard as a backdrop.

Cardboard Boat Race