Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas 2008 - Continued

This Christmas took some getting used to, no doubt. Of course it's not easy when you go to such extremes as we did, exchanging what would have been another storm-blasted Ontario winter for Christmas on the beach, quite literally. Last night we went to midnight mass, and I think the organist, who hails from Scotland, pretty much summed up what I was thinking when he said that he had lived here for some time and was still adjusting to celebrating Christmas without the cold.

So if we couldn't have the cold (not that I really minded, to be honest), we were going to enjoy the nice weather. And so on December 24th Mimi and I drove into town, and checked out the cruise ships that were coming into Georgetown harbour.

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Here is a shot of some of the buildings that line the Georgetown harbour front:

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There were a lot of tourists, posing for pictures at the water, with the blue Caribbean as a backdrop, and I remembered how entranced I was the first time I saw the harbour, especially the cruise ships, which I thought were absolutely gigantic. I never quite did lose my fascination with them, because after months of driving into town in the morning I still marvel at their sheer size.

But today it was Mimi and I, going for a cruise. After Georgetown we decided to drive around to snap some nice pictures of the area, plus I wanted to get some up to date pictures of Mimi, as a lot of people had been asking how she was growing up. So without further ado - here are some new shots of Mimi!

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Cardboard Boat Race

Cardboard Boat Race

Cardboard Boat Race

On December 25th, we decided to go to 7 Mile Beach (the most beautiful stretch of beach on the Caymans) and go for a swim. We went later in the day, when a lot of people had left to get ready for Christmas dinner, so we had a fair amount of beach all to ourselves. In the water there was still a lot of activity, as you can see here:

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On the beach, people were celebrating Christmas by drinking from Champagne glasses, just hanging out with their friends,

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or practicing their soccer skills:

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Even I took a dip - amazing how buyoant you are with salt water!

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For a final shot of the day, Richard took this beautiful picture of a catamaran at sunset. Merry Christmas!

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Plants and all that green stuff

When we first moved into our house and I inspected my new garden, I was overwhelmed to say the least. My previous backyards ran the entire gamut from 3 acres with wild bush and wiry grass at Pigeon Lake to a tiny Ontario suburban backyard in a new development with no vegetation whatsoever.

And now I was standing in my new backyard which had enough different plants to make even an experienced gardener's head spin. But that's not what scared me - it was the fact that other than something that looked remotely like a fern, I had no idea what any of these plants were called, or how to take care of them. Of course I recognised the palm trees, but what did I really know about palm trees? I laugh now, but when we moved in, the palm trees had a lot of dead leaves on them, and I was convinced they were dying, until I learned that they were just dropping the old leaves as the new ones were growing....you never see these things in resorts, where plants always look immaculate and frozen in time, as it were.

Speaking of - I think a lot of people, myself included, have this notion that on a tropical island things just sort of grow by themselves. With sun and plenty of rain, how could things not grow by themselves? In fact, a beautiful tropical garden is a lot of work, and that not just 4 months of the year but 12 months.... Why is that, you wonder? Well, FIRST of all, heat and humidity create the ideal environment for bugs and various types of pests, some of which are actually works of art themselves, as you can see below.

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Cardboard Boat Race


These caterpillars can eat an entire bush in about two days, and I know that because I literally watched them make quick work of a large leaf in less than 20 minutes. They seemed to multiply just as quickly, and so I was a bit torn between admiring these fascinating and beautiful creatures and hoping to find a way to make them go away. Looking at one up close, they actually look hand painted, and reminded me of the song 'God must have spent a little more time on you'. Alas, my fascination had its limits, and in the end I decided I liked my (intact) shrubbery more than the caterpillars...

SECOND - not only is the growing season 12 months of the year (although things do slow down in the winter months when there is less rain), but plants also grow faster down here, I swear.

I was pretty oblivious to this when I first contacted some nurseries about a regular garden service. The idea of paying someone to do my garden seemed a little foreign to me at first, but I warmed up to it when I realised that my tropical garden knowledge was a bit like my knowledge of computers - just enough to do a lot of damage.

So I heeded the advice and invited several nurseries to view the garden and quote on a regular service. I was having a conversation with one of them about planting new fica bushes, and I asked him how long it would take to grow to full height (about 6 feet). He thought for a while and then, with a tone not unlike a doctor trying to break bad news gently, advised me that I shouldn't expect too much, as this would take a fairly long time. My Canadian brain heard "a fairly long time" and converted this into about 3-4 years. Still, that seemed pretty reasonable to me. He laughed when I told him what I thought, and said, oh no, I was talking more like one year. I couldn't believe it, but as I thought about it, it made sense, because growing season never really stops here!

In some ways I am in heaven - I like garden work, and living down here means that I never have to stop gardening. And you even get a bit of a break in the winter when things don't grow at break-neck speeds. Having said that, you never get a full break from gardening - you know, the snow kind of break where you can sit inside and not feel guilty about not working outside...but I don't mind.

So what exactly do I have in my yard, you wonder? Here is a little selection.

Ficas

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The fica hedges I wrote about earlier look a lot like the Alpine Currant hedges we have in Canada (maybe they even are the same). I just planted some new ones and am going to see how long they take to grow... They are very common down here, and almost exclusively used for hedging. Curiously, front fencing is not as common here, as there are bylaws limiting the height of front fences to about four feet. This is based on the traditional Cayman style of fencing whereby the house and yard are supposed to be visible, and I think it also has to do with the fact that at one time this was a very small community, where people socialised and looked out for each other. This rule does not seem to apply to hedging, such as fica hedges or oleanders, which can grow quite high in many places.

Travelling Palms
I first thought these were fan palms, because of their shape, but learnt that they are called travelling palms because they literally travel the ground as they grow, with new shoots starting continuously. Here is a picture of a smaller one, followed by a palm that has obviously been there much longer - see what I mean?

Cardboard Boat Race

Cardboard Boat Race

The gardener I eventually hired for a while thought we were crazy to like the second palm the way it was, as it looked so awful in his opinion. People down here like their gardens very manicured (although I think that might just be the expats), and the thought of letting something grow naturally was anathema to his whole business, I guess..... So needless to say, the first palm is the 'desired' shape, whereas the second is what happens when you don't have a garden service or you are like us and like things to look 'natural'.

Cayman Palm

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I think these are lovely, although I am not sure they are actually native palms, notwithstanding their name. I was told that most of the palms on the island are actually not native, and some of them (like the Casuarina palm) are actually damaging and do not provide habitat. The same goes for a lot of other vegetation, like the hibiscus (on the left), for example.

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I don't really like this plant very much, but obviously our predecessor did, because we have about half of dozen of them. They are also susceptible to a pest called the mealy bug, which seems to have got this name because it looks a bit like a small cockroach that took a dip in a flour container. The mealy bug is to the Cayman Islands what the elm bark beetle is to Winnipeg - deadly stuff. So far we seem to have fared well, as I have not seen any bugs or symptoms yet.

Olive trees

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Absolutely gorgeous tree, non fruit bearing, but with a habit of staining anything under it, like our WHITE swimming pool concrete. Once, after a windy day, I went outside and found the entire pool bottom covered in little rust-like dots. I thought we had just ruined the pool somehow, until I realised it came from the trees. When I called the pool service, they advised that the chlorine would eventually eat away at the stains, and sure enough it did. The last hurricane did not much like the trees either and knocked one of them down.

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However, given that the tree's root system was lateral instead of extending deep into the soil (what soil?), the tree was simply put back up!

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And now, a good month later, the tree is doing well and sprouting like one of those little pots with faces which you feed and watch grow a full head of greenery....

And last but definitely NOT least - our mini banana plantation.

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When we moved, I thought this was just another palm variety until someone told me this was actually a fruit tree. Once the plant bears fruit it dies and another one shoots up, so if you have enough of them, you can have a fairly constant supply of bananas. Having said that, these are not the large bananas you might be used to seeing, but rather about a third of the size - they are called apple bananas and are supposed to be very sweet. I will know in about a week or so, as they are currently getting ripe on the kitchen counter....

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas 2008 - Cayman style

You know something is not quite right when you have just attended a beautiful Christmas service, singing about how much fun it is to ride a sleigh, and you feel like you have just started to get into the spirit when you walk outside and realise that it's warmer outside than inside ...

Thinking about Christmas on the Caymans was a bit like thinking about hurricanes - you wonder what it would really be like to experience something so foreign, something that up to that point you would have just read about.

The first sign: a neighbour's beautifully lit up yard (in red and green of course), but instead of strands of light hung around bulky and snowy bushes, they ran up and down long lanky palm trees. And then there was the guy driving on the highway, with lush vegetation all around, and a REAL Christmas tree strapped on top of the car.

But that's not to say it doesn't feel real. Actually, at 25 degrees, Christmas here is probably more like that long-ago actual event in Bethlehem (where today it's 15 degrees by the way) than bundling up in Winnipeg at -30 degrees to go to midnight service. But of course it's not about what's real, it's about what you are used to, isn't it ....

And of course there is nothing like singing to get you in the spirit. Upon moving here, I joined the Cayman National Choir, which is about 40 strong, with a surprisingly large contingent of male voices which, if you have ever sung in a church choir or similar, is somewhat unusual. Men are not usually known to clamour for an opportunity to join a choir. Which is a shame because male voices lend such a regal atmosphere and depth to any piece. The choir is directed by Sue, a British music teacher who has held this position for about 10 years, and who is an excellent choir director with the right mix of people skills and authority. Not to mention that I like her music picks.... She obviously loves what she does, and sometimes entertains the choir as much as she directs it.

But I digress. On December 15 and 16, accompanied by the Cayman National Orchestra, the Cayman National Choir held its annual Christmas concert at Elmslie United Church, which is located right on the harbour in Georgetown. It's a pretty - I am tempted to say cute - little church with several very beautiful stained glass windows and an interesting wood ceiling, which I have never seen before.

Cardboard Boat Race

Cardboard Boat Race


The program was a mixture of instrumental, choral and chamber choir pieces, and here are some pictures of us in action...



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The church was full on the first night and packed for the second night, and I really enjoyed it. The last time I sang in a larger choir was in my graduate student days, when I sang in the choir of Ottawa's Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, which is a completely French-speaking church (did wonders for my French skills), and which also meant that all the choir practices were held in French. As a matter of fact, all the songs were either sung in French or Latin, unless it was Easter, which meant it was time to bring out Haendel's Messiah, which was actually a nice break ... speaking of breaks, it's time to break off this blog and wish you all

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hurricanes

Stepping off the plane in July, little did I know that just barely four months later I would be writing this blog as a hurricane veteran of sorts. Up to then hurricanes were something you read about in the news or watched on TV - you know, something that happened to other people.

The official Caribbean hurricane season starts in May and ends in November. During that time, people generally stock up on hurricane supplies, such as canned and dry food, and lots of water. Grocery stores have entire aisles dedicated to hurricane supplies, and the sheer variety of canned food is pretty overwhelming. For example, I never knew you could get Vienna sausages in a can ...

Apparently, sometimes the worst thing about a hurricane is what happens or doesn't happen after the hurricane has passed. As in, if the water or power don't come on for a while because the infrastructure was damaged. Considering that hurricane season also coincides with the hottest time of the year, being without power for weeks on end was truly a scary prospect. However, also a relatively unlikely prospect. The last hurricane to inflict heavy damage on the Caymans was Ivan, a Category 4 or 5 (depending on who you talk to) which came through in 2004. It damaged 90% of the buildings and caused heavy flood damage because it did not merely pass through the islands but rather decided to stick around for a while and whip up a lot of water....remember what I said about living on the ocean earlier? Having said that, Ivan was the first major hurricane to hit the islands in something like 100 years, so perhaps we are safe for a while now.

But I was fairly oblivious to all that when I started stocking up on supplies. And I have to admit there was a certain amount of curiosity about whether I would be experiencing a 'real' hurricane.

Our first encounter with a hurricane was Gustav, which struck at the end of August, August 29 to be exact. We were not expecting a direct hit, and the hurricane was slated to be a Category 1 storm, hence no one seemed too concerned. Nevertheless, people started to board up their homes, if they did not have shutters, because you never knew if the storm would change course or intensify. We had already ordered our new shutters but they had not arrived, so we were forced to put up the plywood our predecessor had left in the garage. Needless to say we had no idea what to do, as putting plywood boards on your windows is not something you usually do as you are preparing for a winter storm on the Canadian prairies....rather, we'd be using the plywood to keep warm! So Richard's puzzle skills were put to the test, he did not disappoint, and SEVEN hours later we had the house all boarded up.

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The local church also boarded up one of its windows with a sign that had obviously been put to another use previously. I think it's such a funny picture because it looks like heaven is having a garage sale....

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And then the wait began. We kept watching the news and following the storm on www.stormpulse.com. And I noticed how it was becoming rather noisy outside - no, not the wind, but people parking their cars on our street. Remember how I wrote about being on high ground. On the Caymans, at 15 feet above sea level, we were definitely high ground (my dad laughed when I told him that 15 feet above sea level was considered 'safe', I think he thought I was mad). Our usually quiet street had a definite street party character to it for a while, and started to look something like this:

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The storm hit in the middle of the night. Between the block construction of the houses and the plywood on the windows it was pretty much impossible to hear anything, and I did not even know there was a hurricane until my radio and battery back-ups started beeping as they were being starved of power. That's when I started hearing the wind, and went back to sleep praying that the plywood would hold up because we really had no idea if what we did was good enough for a hurricane...

The next morning we went to inspect the damage. Here is a before and after picture of our yard:

Before:
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After:
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Unfortunately we also lost a tree, although that was not altogether surprising. It had been uprooted during Ivan and was just starting to come back but was obviously much weakened. Here is a picture of the Neem tree we lost that night:

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All in all, we got off lucky. Apparently the hurricane switched to a category 2 as it went over us, and there was no damage on the island as far as I know.

The next hurricane, Paloma, was much more severe, although damage on the island was very light, with trees down here and there. However, it did not look like we were going to get lucky this time, as the hurricane was headed straight towards us and was slated to be a Category 3 by the time it hit the Caymans. I actually was not worried until our neighbour, a Caymanian who obviously had some experience with hurricanes, offered that we could come by if we needed help as he had a generator and ample water supply. It was when he said "we are supposed to get it pretty bad" that it dawned on me that this wouldn't be no Gustav... But the hurricane changed course literally before hitting Grand Cayman and headed east, straight towards the smaller island of Cayman Brac which bore the brunt of the damage. I think by the time it hit the Brac the hurricane was a Category 4, and it did very heavy damage.

And we did not even lose power.

Which brings me to my last point - Tilley hats off to the Caribbean Utilities Company and the Cayman Water Authority. I was amazed that we never lost power - the wind was howling outside, the palm trees were bending to the ground, rain came down in buckets, and we were inside as if nothing was happening, tracking the storm on the Internet and still writing e-mails. Someone told me that the power lines are rated for 100 mph winds, and we must have hit those numbers that night for sure. And the next day the crews were out fixing what needed to be fixed. They do an excellent job.