There are standard tourist experiences that are pretty cut and dry—almost everywhere you go in the world you’ll probably get a similar taste. There’s an exclusive, all-inclusive resort on a tropical beach. The sands are a white gold, the beach extends as far as the eye can see. The turquoise blue waters blend into shades of azure and topaz as the sun makes its journey across the sky. The smells of fine dining, succulent steaks grilled to perfection, king crab, lobsters, scallops, sea bass and all the fine treasures the sea has to offer. In the late night bars beautiful tanned (or sunburned) people mingle and laugh as club music pounds into the night.
This is the scrubbed-down ex-pat life without blemishes, the life that western culture sells as the perfect tropical getaway. Let’s be honest here, it IS actually a nice getaway. There is a reason why these getaways sell so well. They are an enjoyable, pampered experience and for a small price, you can escape your life for a few days.
Cayman sells these packages by the thousands.
But just down the road from the resort along the same stretch of beach are the icons of true island life. A weather-beaten shack, a dark tanned man passing the morning watching people taking morning walks along the beach. Or in today’s case, he watches teams of volunteers sweeping the beach for garbage. Today is earth day, and to celebrate we joined up with the Cayman Islands Earth Day efforts to clean up the island. Our designated spot was the shoreline and road by the South Sound Community Center.
It’s here that we encounter Carey, a man on a quest to break a Guinness World Record. Carey is the owner of a weather-beaten shack which happens to occupy a spot on a beautiful stretch of the South Sound shoreline. The shack is a muted grey and from the main road the only interesting thing about it is the wooden sign that hangs above the entrance reading, “The Bikini House.”
“There’s a serious lack of bikinis for a bikini house,” I say to Natalie as we pick up shards of broken Heineken beer bottles along the roadside. It’s not until we’ve made our way back to the beach we see Carey talking to a group of our coworkers. We approach as they hurry away, and there is something in the way his shack is nestled in the bush, chickens pecking their way through the sand, that prompts me to stop and ask if I can take a picture.
What I get is more than just a picture.
“Of course, of course! Come on in!” Carey says, and waves me in. A little startled, I follow him into his shack and into a shack full of more women’s underwear than I’ve ever seen outside of a department store. Carey explains that this is his collection, and that he’s trying to break the world record for women’s underwear. He assures me that it’s nothing rude, crude, perverted. All the underwear is donated freely. Hanging from the ceiling in this shack are row after row of women’s panties, or thongs as he calls them. Lacey lingerie, swimsuits and sportswear dangle two feet above our heads.
On a wooden plank nailed to the ceiling are police and fire department patches from all over the United States. Some of the patches read from places like Boca Raton, Pleasant Valley, Dallas, Santa Clara, Oakland County, Indiana, and New York. There are badges of deputy sheriffs and fire marshals. Along the walls are shelves full of jars of marbles and beads. Each jar has its own spot on the shelf, a place carefully marked with lines and an X. Magnetic strips of iron hold the jars in and from these strips sunglasses and keys hang. A confederate flag is pinned to the shelves, and above it held by four clothespins is a purple thong that stretches the length of two shelves (or 13 jars of marbles).
There are a thousand questions I have about this collection, and there are likely a thousand stories to match it. But there’s a garbage bag full of cigarette butts and a bag full of broken bottles waiting on the shore and the tide was coming in.
Carey points to a wooden sign painted black with the numbers 1149 and red hearts. “People donate their thongs to me, and I write down their name and give them a number and add it to my collection. I’m looking for 1149,” Carey explains. He then points to a display case with inch long black tubes, “It’s not for free of course! If someone gives me a thong, I give them a piece of black coral, and I will carve the number 1149 into it. Black coral is important to the Apache Indians, and it’s a symbol of longevity to them!”
And now I have questions about Apache Indians.
The shack is as much a collection as it is a workshop. In the corner is a workbench with all manner of pliers and stacks of books. A wooden shelf above his work bench bears the inscription “Dear ‘God’ please guide my hands” next to a ream of wire hung from a nail, and a glued-on fading picture of a bearded cowboy. Carey hand makes knives that he sells for $2000 apiece. These are carefully tempered by hand, without the use of a forge.
“Where are you from?” Carey asks, “Philippines?”
“Canada,” I reply. The more time I spend here, the deeper my tan gets. The deeper my tan gets, the more people think I’m Filipino. “Did you grow up on island?”
“No man! I was born here, but I grew up all over the world. There are only two places I haven’t been in the world,” he says counting on his fingers. “New Zealand and Cayman Brac.”
“You haven’t visited your own backyard!” We both laugh.
How does a man like Carey fit into the picture-perfect island vacation? In all reality, he doesn’t. But it’s people like Carey that bridge the remarkable distance between the image of island life and the reality of island life. It’s people like Carey that remind me that island life isn’t about the mojitos at sunset, or the heat of the tropical sun on the beach, or the shade of a well-timed coconut tree. It’s about the stories beyond the tourist experience.