Serendipity and spontaneity are the unexpected pleasures of travel, especially welcome at popular tourist destinations that normally offer few surprises. There is nothing quite like stumbling onto an unscheduled, unpackaged experience that offers a priceless insight to a people and a place. For us, it was a magical night of traditional, Caribbean storytelling in Miss Olivene Welcome's yard.
This small Caribbean island, shaped like the stylized profile of a whale and located south of Cuba and northwest of Jamaica, is a regular stop for large cruise ships. On a single day, more than 6,000 tourists can be disgorged from their floating hotels, swarming ashore at the capital of George Town for the day. Those cruisers who don't spend their time in the duty-free shops lay out on fabled Seven Mile Beach near the quay or take a short, glass-bottom boat ride. The more adventurous visitors can taxi up to the north side of the island to visit a turtle breeding complex, the hamlet of Hell or, in the island's interior, the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Garden, famous for its curly-tailed, blue iguanas.
With the luxury of a week's stay, our family was able to hit most of these tourist highlights. We stayed on the quiet, windswept eastern end of the island with our children and my wife's parents. The attraction of this part of Grand Cayman, which has thus far escaped the burgeoning development, is its wild, natural beauty and its isolation from the tourist hubbub of the rest of the island. But for our children, without other friends at the resort, this charm wore thin by midweek as blustery weather kept them out of the surf and famed snorkeling areas like the shallow bay called Stingray City.
Our luck changed one afternoon as we were driving along the Queen's Highway, the coast road to Rum Point, to catch the ferry across to George Town. My wife, Sallie, noticed a small yard sign, set among a thicket of sea grapes, red birches and tamarind trees, that advertised a night of outdoor storytelling later in the week. Normally, I am not a big fan of dramatic storytelling, but this was an intriguing opportunity. My wife and I and my in-laws have done enough traveling around the world to be familiar with "cultural presentations" prepared for Americans with short attention spans. This looked like something entirely different, so we decided to give it a try.
Although the only location listed on the poster was "Miss Olivene's Yard, East End," the site was not hard to find. As we approached, we saw cars parked thickly along the unpaved shoulders of the road and people streaming to the packed-earth square between the home of 75-year-old Olivene Welcome and a Presbyterian church hall. Folding chairs had been set up in front of the portable stage, set on cinder blocks and lit by floodlights. A lone young pine about the size of a Christmas tree formed the backdrop. Nearby, volunteers prepared fried fish and fritters on an open grill, smoke and sparks swirling up into the dark, and served free, along with "swankie" (lemonade). Reflecting the island's population, most of those in the folding chairs were black. We were among about a dozen white visitors.
The surprise was that the event was not the ad hoc gathering we first suspected, nor was it in any sense unpolished. Rather, it was part of an annual series of free performances called "Gimistory," short for the children's bedtime cry of, "Give me story." The evenings are staged on beaches and in yards around the island and its little sibling, Cayman Brac, and sponsored by the Cayman National Cultural Foundation. Alan Ebanks, a teacher and author, wearing a straw hat and a shirt tied at his waist, welcomed the crowd of about 100, equally divided between children and adults. From time to time throughout the evening, he would engage in call-and-response with the audience, asking, "What do you want?" They would shout: "Gimistory!"
STORIES LIGHT UP NIGHT
The stories, from more than 20 performers, spanned a wide cultural range, from folklore and history to mimes and tall tales and poems about the foibles of human nature. Several of the night's tales dealt with the "duppie," the island's traditional bogey man, used to scare children into doing the right thing. Samantha Pierre, from Trinidad-Tobago, captivated the children with stories of magical youngsters, and Phoebe Spence, 93, recited a poem about the love of money.
Percival "Will" Jackson, 78, a local author, columnist and retired Seventh-day Adventist minister, recalled that most island conflicts involved land or women. Property disputes often led to fist fights, stabbing and lawsuits. Domestic matters were settled more amicably. Island men were often cheerfully willing to "lend a hand" while neighboring husbands were away at sea, leaving parentage of children a mystery, he said, but the marriages remained intact.
The night of storytelling in Miss Olivene's yard took place near Gun Bay, a part of the island with its own colorful history. Just offshore is Ten Sails, where in 1794 during the dark morning hours of a stormy February morning, 10 ships of the British Royal Navy wrecked on the reef. The high seas and surf kept other ships of the convoy from coming to the aid of survivors clinging to wreckage miles from shore, but islanders in fishing boats were able to save all but eight sailors and passengers, including women and children. For their heroic efforts, the legend goes, King George III granted Grand Cayman tax-free status by the crown, a benefit that is enjoyed to this day in the shops of George Town.
VOICE OF HISTORY
As our week's visit unfolded on Grand Cayman, we seemed to run into storytelling wherever we turned, beginning with our visit to Pedro St. James Castle, a restored, 18th-century landmark and park. The stone and wood structure, the home of an early island leader, is considered the "birthplace of democracy." On its steps, a British officer reenacts the reading of the proclamation in 1835 that freed the slaves. The video presentation at the site's visitors center that presents the colony's history is in the voice of an old storyteller. The remainder of the presentation, a polished sound-and-light show, told the story of the island's history, from the time it was sighted by Christopher Columbus and, later, by Sir Francis Drake. This approach clearly entranced a busload of young Caymanian schoolchildren on the drizzly day we were there.
Oral history also is the centerpiece of the Cayman Islands National Museum in George Town, a former courthouse, jail and meeting hall that is considered one of the Caribbean's finest museums. It was closed for renovation during our visit but now is open.
For short-term visitors, it may seem that there is little to distinguish the island from dozens of palm-fringed ports of call with white sand beaches and warm, aquamarine water, where the music of Jimmy Buffet and Bob Marley is ubiquitous. In fact, this generic Caribbean quality has made the Cayman Islands attractive to movie companies. Parts of John Grisham's 1993 movie, The Firm, were shot here. During our visit, L.A. Law's Amanda Donohoe was making a British film called Jimmy Fizz, set for release this year.
However, our family -- from my 10-year-old daughter to my 81-year-old father-in-law -- came away from Grand Cayman with a lot more than vague impressions, a tan and a bag full of T-shirts, trinkets and straw hats. We took with us vivid memories of a breezy evening of stories from the heart of the Caribbean, which we will not forget.
IF YOU GO
Cayman Airways and American Airlines have regular flights from Orlando to the Cayman Islands. Other connecting carriers to the island include Delta, Continental, Northwest and US Airways. Many cruise ships call regularly at George Town, the capital.
"Gimistory," the Cayman Islands International Storytelling Festival, is held for one week each November; this year's date has not yet been set. Other storytelling events are scheduled throughout the year. For specific dates, times and locations, contact the Cayman National Cultural Foundation, 345-949-5477; online, check www.artscayman.org/gimistory.
For more information about visiting the Caymans, contact the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism's Miami office, 305-266-2300; on the Web, check www.caymanislands.ky.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun