Crisis and a Moment of Kindness in Cayman Brac

The Cayman Islands may be better known as a banker’s holiday paradise — but a chance encounter with a boat of Cuban refugees reveals the Islands’ real character.

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Jason Heaton

The La-Fé hardly appeared seaworthy, a rusted hulk that looked more like hurricane flotsam than a passenger vessel. But Spot Bay, the small village on the northeast corner of Cayman Brac, was abuzz with the boat’s arrival at the cement boat ramp. The presence of local police, immigration officials and an ambulance brought a crowd of curious onlookers.

“Cuban refugees”, said our guide Keino, who was charged with showing us around the island. “These boats arrive about once a month.”

This was hardly the kind of stop the Department of Tourism recommends, but I persuaded Keino to stop the car and as I stepped out, the midday heat was a shock to my air-conditioned system. I walked down the jetty to get a closer look. Sprawled in the thin shade of a concrete wall were La-Fé’s brave and desperate passengers, their plastic bags of belongings strewn about them alongside jugs of drinking water. The boat’s crew was working in the sun, patching gashes in the bottom of the boat, which was hauled out on makeshift bamboo rollers. A diesel truck engine was La-Fé’s only propulsion and its heat, combined with the exposure of the open deck and nauseating swells of a long Caribbean crossing, must have made for miserable sailing.

As a police officer looked the other way, I watched a Spot Bay local discretely hand one of the refugees a bag with fresh fruit.

Cayman Brac happens to be en route to Honduras, a common destination for Cubans leaving their homeland, and boats stop here regularly. The Cayman government has an agreement with Cuba to not offer asylum or aid to these sailors, but the reality is often different. Cayman Islanders are a kind lot, often going out of their way to help strangers. We had experienced this the night before our arrival on Brac when a couple we only just met at a dinner drove us around George Town in search of a late-night pharmacy for some much-needed cold medication. The memory of the kindly wife, whose name even now escapes me, marching down a supermarket aisle at 11 p.m. with us in tow is as indelible as sandy beaches or a Cuban refugee boat.

As a police officer looked the other way, I watched a Spot Bay local discretely hand one of the refugees a bag with fresh fruit, and another was on his hands and knees offering advice on the hull repair project. I guiltily snapped a few photos and returned to our vehicle to continue down the coast. Keino had the engine running and waved to friends as we eased out of the parking lot. Stopping here was not part of the Tourism Department’s program for our tour, but it might well have been. After all, the Islands’ official slogan is “Caymankind”, and this impromptu display of it was right on message.

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