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w January 09, 2004

Tropical Toddler

Two days ago the Hoffmans returned from a week and a half sojourn in the Florida Keys and Caribbean. It was the first time in either place for both me and Bean, whereas Gene had spent rather a lot of time in the Keys as a boy; my parents and sister met us for a belated celebration of my mother's 60th birthday and Christmas. We have friends living on Grand Cayman who kindly offered us their hospitality as well as the loan of their nanny so that Gene and I could goof off a bit.

We left San Francisco for Miami, via Atlanta, on the 27th of December. Needless to say, we were flying Delta, and just like all the minions of hell, had to endure the Atlanta-Hartsfield airport transfer. The flight out was on a 767, which meant we didn't have the luck of a separate seat for Bean, but we did at least get the two-fer along the window. She did quite well for the first hour and a half, smearing me with goldfish cracker drool (I very sensibly had worn a white shirt), playing with toys, listening to "Moo Baa La La La" fifty thousand times (Alysia, if you're reading this, THANK YOU)...then the meltdown started.

She is now at the age or quirkiness point wherein she needs to stretch out to actually fall asleep. This is not an easy thing to accomplish while flying coach on a full flight, but a very astute flight attendant suggested we flip down our tray tables, lay a blanket across, and keep a hand on her. It worked a treat, and we managed to get about 45 minutes worth of a catnap in. Landed in Atlanta just about on time, and thought, great, easy transfer to the Miami flight. Well, let's just say that we had to slog down about three terminals...to discover the gate had capriciously changed during our hotfooting. Such fun! We bitterly ran back to Terminal B, along with other confused passengers, and discovered to our relief there were no more gate changes to be had.

Atlanta to Miami was a bit squished as it was a 757 and packed, and it was one of the few times I've felt excessively old on an airplane. Every other person seemed to be about fifteen and sadly, not exactly on speaking terms with personal hygiene. Nonetheless, it was only an hour and twenty minute flight, so we survived...barely. Bean had had it by this point and while she wasn't exactly screaming, we were working hard to keep her amused. It was gorgeously warm as we exited the airport and eventually caught the Avis shuttle. Apparently everyone in the known universe had also decided to come to Miami and it took us an hour to get our car. I don't think I've ever had to wait more than fifteen minutes to get a rental car, but at least we weren't in Minneapolis or Fargo.

Desperately needed food, so hit Miami Subs, rejoicing in a bit of nostalgia from our Chapel Hill days, and struck out for the Keys. I talked Gene into listening to the salsa station, and we indulged in a little en route merengue. As it was close to 1:30 am, there wasn't a great deal to be seen, but the road did slow down to a two lane, 45 mile an hour ramble, so it felt appropriately resorty. My parents and sister had arrived at our rented condo about half an hour ahead of us (driving from upstate New York), kindly picking up diapers and other toddler necessities for us on the way. Grandparents and aunt were able to get Bean time in quickly before we all gratefully fell into bed.

We did a great deal of piddling over the next five days, drove down to Key West (veeerrrrry slowly with everyone else in the world), bummed around, ate Key Lime pie, grandparents took Bean back to bed and the three of us stuck around town to try and feel like adults, did a little shopping, a little Cosmo drinking, went to the dolphin research center on Grassy Key and got to make friends with two of them...bloody amazing creatures. There is one called Delfi that does this hilarious alligator imitation by snapping his jaws together, but the best part is, he basically does it when he feels like it and not necessarily when the trainers ask him to do so. It didn't feel at all like MarineWorld, more like a rather mellow experimental school where the kids are encouraged to do their own thing, with guidance. A great deal of fun, and dolphins are lovely to pat, like wet glass. Our other wild animal experience was literally outside our front door...all these condos are on canals leading into the ocean, and as we lazily sat on the deck drinking coffee the first morning, Gene exclaimed, "there's a MANATEE out there!" Ran down, and I'll be damned, it was a manatee, and a friendly one at that. My sister, being the brave one, stepped down the swim ladder and scratched our visitor behind the ears with her foot...s/he just kept swimming gently around looking for more attention. Amazing.

Embarrassingly, we didn't make it to the beach until the last day, but it was a lovely experience nonetheless...and Bean had the greatest time standing on the sand with my sister, letting the surf wash over her toes. She is definitely a water baby...must be her father's influence. I like to LOOK at the water, but it can stay where it is.

New Year's was droll, but a little odd. My parents offered to babysit after we had all had dinner, so Gene and Erin and I went looking for whatever it was that Marathon, Florida, had to offer in the way of festive entertainment. We ended up in the not-exactly-tiki-tiki bar, or the restaurant attached to it, something like that. It was nice being on the patio next to the water, but we were literally the only people there. Still, the staff gave us silly party hats and leis and Gene and Erin proceeded to work their way down the frilly drinks menu (I was mildly sick, so was the designated driver)...I got drunk on way too much smoked salmon and cream cheese. At 11:30, we ventured inside to see if anyone else had shown up...nope. It was a little disconcerting, but we couldn't figure out what else was available, so we took second helpings of the party favors and noisemakers and tried to make up for the lack of people at midnight with our cheers and the ilk. There was one more table, but it was hard to tell if these were just locals who hadn't necessarily left their seats in a few weeks. Still, they were having fun. At any rate, we rang in 2004 and tried to call friends back on the west coast to tell them how last year they were.

Parents, sister and Pippa the dog left about 4:30 on the 1st, Gene, Bean and I stayed until the next afternoon as our flight to Grand Cayman wasn't until 4:30 out of Miami. Gene had the sense to get us leaving an hour earlier than we had planned...traffic was so bad getting off the keys, we got to the airport a scant 45 minutes before the flight departed. We were scolded by a charming woman manning the counter who took great pleasure in telling us that while we "might" make the flight, our bags likely wouldn't. There was another flight later that evening, so we ignored her as best we could...not easy considering she had actually kept us waiting for about ten minutes while she slowly finished up her phone conversation.

Hustled down to security, hearts sinking...and then the welcome question "anyone for Cayman Airways?"...we got to slip under the barrier and get into another, thankfully shorter line. Made the flight easily, along with the maybe fifteen other people joining us, and the best news was, so did our bags. Take that, evil slug check in woman. With such an empty flight, Bean and I took a row and Gene moved across the aisle, so she was able to snooze for the short hour and fifteen minutes it took to get there.

Cayman Airways is a cute airline...all 737s (four of 'em!), staffed by what seemed like mostly Canadians and Jamaicans, and their signature drink, Tortugas rum punch, is complimentary. Sir Turtle is the mascot...a pirate turtle wearing an aviator scarf. I'm serious. One gets plantain chips instead of pretzels or peanuts, and the inestimably curious experience of flying over Cuba. It looks as though it must be a very beautiful island, and it's a lot bigger than it seems on maps. Apparently, Cayman Airways was originally to be called Cayman Islands Air until someone realized that a) CIA was already taken and b) flying over Cuba as CIA mightn't be the best idea.

Landed at Owen Roberts International Airport (I guess everywhere is international once you're in an island group) with a minimum of fuss, and basically backtracked on the runway to get to the gate. There is no taxi lane, but then, neither are there zillions of flights lined up to land. We had to wait for our "gate"...which wasn't a gate, but a moveable stairway. I guess we needed to wait for a spot on the tarmac, but. The airport itself looks very island, sort of rustic and sweet with an outdoor observation deck...it's awfully tee-ninecy, but bigger than St John's, Newfoundland, at any rate.

Customs and Immigration was a snap, everyone loves a sleepy baby. Our friends zoomed up and packed us in, and we fetched up at their house quickly...this is only a 22 mile long island, and the vast majority of population is concentrated in the southern and western areas. Their house is gorgeous, right on the beach, and there was something ultimately civilized about lazing around on a deck chair sipping a cocktail, listening to the waves and rustling palm trees. We ended up going out for sushi (taking advantage of their lovely nanny who immediately scooped Bean up and deposited her into the bath) and even walked on the beach for a bit as a hors d'oeuvre.

If it is possible, we were even more slacker in the Caymans, but it was virtually impossible to do anything else. Did a little shopping, went out to eat a few times, enjoyed the beach and the accompanying frothy drinks, garnered even more Christmas presents for the Bean (we had to borrow a duffel bag to get everything home). I can't really compare Grand Cayman to any other Caribbean island, but I get the impression that it is this little rariefied world that in no way typifies the true Caribbean. For one thing, it is populated mostly by expats from Canada or the UK (some Americans) or Jamaicans...I'm not even 100% sure there are any "real" Caymanians there, although officially they are somewhere. Every store is one that you could find in Canada, the UK, or the US, and everyone speaks English (it is a British Crown Colony, so that makes sense). You drive on the left, but none of the cars would look out of place in the States. The money is appropriately colorful, but worth more than the US dollar (80 cents US to $1 CI). There are chickens roaming freely, but everyone seems to live in either a fairly nice medium sized house or condo or some enormous tropical palace. You're either on a work permit and hence have little status or you're a resident who isn't allowed to work. Or you're one of those elusive native Caymanians, I guess. You can get Jamaican patties at the gas station, or exceedingly good sushi at the hip moderne deluxe bar called Bamboo. It's not dramatically beautiful like other, lusher islands, but it has way more money and it's always, always pleasant from a weather perspective. Our friends call it The Truman Show, and I'd have to agree. I don't think anything ever changes, but everyone seems to like it.

It's an utter conundrum, but oddly appealing.

Flew back to Miami and spent the night, watching tv and eating pizza...neither of which we had done for a number of days. That too was oddly appealing.
Had to get up far too early for the flight to Atlanta, but it was basically uneventful; the Atlanta-San Francisco leg was blessedly uncrowded so we commandeered an entire row and were able to get a two-hour nap out of our world traveller. I actually read an entire book, cover to cover. Extremely exciting stuff. While it was sort of sad to be back in "real" weather (cold, rainy, foggy), it was terribly nice to be home. Travelling is fun, and it is getting easier and easier as Bean gets older, but when all's said and done, I am a boring homebody and have been just sort of pottering around the house for the last two days, happy as clam.

But I can highly recommend going to the Caribbean if you get a chance. It feels so decadent and jetsetty.

by Heather Hoffman at 7:22 PM