Years ago, before rebreathers and rap music, I set out to conquer the Caribbean. One of the first victims of my crusade was Grand Cayman. The airplane banked around Cayman's northwest point, cruised along Seven-Mile Beach and approached directly over Georgetown Harbor.
Now that's a harbor, I thought as I gawked against the window. The seawater in that basin was clearer than the ice cubes in my punch.
Those were the early days in Cayman, when spearfishing was dying and live-aboards were just popping out of the womb. My contacts were none other than our modern live-aboard architects, Anne Davis and Wayne Hasson, who were kick-starting the Aggressor Fleet. Of course, at that point, "the Fleet" consisted of one boat.
In the center of everything, though, was Georgetown, the capital of the Cayman Islands, and a place with two economic tenants offshore banks and near-shore reefs. Since Uncle Sam couldn't buy a bucket of KFC with the money he got from me, I wasn't into the tax haven thing. But the rest was hot. Every resort catered to divers and around every corner was a hip dive store or Tiki bar. Wayne introduced me to a bunch of cool dive operators and before long, they'd tossed me onto the West Wall, North Wall, the East End, the wrecks of the Oro Verde, the Balboa and everything in between, including a site with stringrays in the North Sound, which at the time didn't even have a name. In between I dug my toes deeply into Seven-Mile Beach. Life wasn't too shabby.
I found it comforting to stroll the town and see my brethren everywhere, kind of like being a Packers fan in Green Bay. In Georgetown, every other car had dive flag car tags. Every boat was geared for diving and every flagpole proudly flew the old red and white. But the kicker was the tattoos. That, I will never forget.
I'd been on island for about a week and heard about a free buffet every Friday night at a place called My Bar. The thatched hut sat on the western shoreline just below Sunset House Resort. My Bar's killer view served up fresh sunsets every night. The words free and food were as dear to me as cold and beer, so I made my play. My Bar was also the hot spot for locals to end their work week. I joined in and, as luck would have it, met a small, energetic man named Adrien Briggs. He happened to own the place.
Adrien's one of the friendliest people I've ever met and I don't say that just because he bought me a lot of drinks. Back then he hung around My Bar a lot, buying pina coladas for folks, laughing contagiously and celebrating life. Being so nice, as well as a frequent drink buyer, made him electromagnetic. On that night, three pretty young ladies from Dallas had gathered around to trade stories and enjoy My Bar's frozen magic. Out of sheer courtesy, I tagged along to pass out drinks.
As the night progressed, amid dominoes smacking down on wooden tables and stars sparkling off the calm sea, the conversation turned to tattoos. Before I knew it, one of the girls I think her name was Debbie suddenly revealed her tattoo. There, emblazoned near her cleavage, was a perfectly inked dive flag. The pina coladas continued to flow and Debbie tried to persuade us all to join her in the ranks of the tattooed.
"It'll be fuuun," she kept saying. And it really don't hurt a bit. Come awn, y'all!"
That's all I remember. Honest.
The next morning, as I dreamed of stingrays, French angels and Debbie, I heard giggling in the distance. I slowly roused from my stupor and realized it was Anne and Wayne. Between laughs I heard a camera shutter. As I looked up, Wayne was aiming the camera and Anne was smiling.
"Nice tattoo," Wayne said with a chuckle.
"You're a real diver now!" "Dang those girls," I gurgled.
A few months ago I made my way back to Cayman for the umpteenth time. Like an innocent little brother who struck it big on Wall Street, Georgetown has grown up, with the convenience of everything from Pizza Hut to a Ritz Carlton. And these days, scuba diving has so permeated the core of Georgetown that it's the fabric of life's everyday wardrobe. For every Anne and Wayne of old, there are a half-dozen kids from Seattle to Sydney, who've landed in Cayman, bought a van and a boat and started a dive operation. Some are destined to become the next Bob Soto's, Don Foster's or Fisheye Photographic.
But you can still stroll the boardwalk and admire azure water in the heart of the harbor. When night falls, you can find a hole-in-the-wall pub with an acoustic guitar or dance to a sweaty beat or lay footprints on a moonlit beach or watch the game on a big-screen TV at the Lone Star Grille. It's all good and, in the end, it's all about the dive.
As my ritual demands, when I'm in Grand Cayman on a Friday night, I always find my way to My Bar for the sunset, fritters and pina coladas. Last time I even paid for the drinks myself. In the corner I saw Adrien with a jovial crowd. He winked, waved, smiled, and I returned the greeting. Some things never change. But I guess I have. I calmly finished my drink, loaded my wife and kids in the rental car and drove happily back to the Hyatt, speeding up as I passed a tattoo shop.
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