Machetes and Stingrays. No Problem Mon
When I go on vacation, I always take a lot of pictures. The Nikon is around my neck, iPhone tucked away in my pocket, and my waterproof Pentax ready to get wet. My family says I’m obsessed with it. “Dad, put the camera down. That’s enough. No more. You’re embarrassing us. Stop it.” The boys are always pleading with me. But then I usually hear them say, “Hey, let me look at that picture. Cool. Text it to me.” Just enough to keep me shooting more. A lot more.
Besides the usual family snapshots and obligatory sunsets (see a few of them at the bottom), I like to capture the locals in action. On a recent cruise I met several fascinating natives. During a stop in Jamaica, we visited a small beach resort. One of my friends waves me out of the water to where he’s standing on the sugary white sand in his flip-flops. “Hurry, grab your camera. You gotta meet this guy,” he yells.
The Jamaican is holding a machete in one hand, and a much smaller, but equally as sharp knife in the other. “Come with me mon. I want to show you something.” It sounds more like an order than a request. “No worries mon.” Sure. My friend is smiling. He must know something I don’t. So I trust him, and follow. My camera clicking the whole way. Just in case police need the pictures later as evidence I thought. After I vanish. I’d been to Jamaica before. Witnessed a drug deal go down right outside our cab. Saw men walking down the road with machetes like they were holding up an umbrella. Machetes make me nervous. They’re sharp! So why do I follow this guy? Curiosity? Stupidity? Maybe a little of both.
Stingrays and Simon
Stingrays are a lot like machetes. Their barbs are sharp. They too make me nervous. I’d been to Stingray City off Grand Cayman years ago to swim with the spaceship-looking sea creatures. But that was before wildlife expert Steve Irwin died after being pierced in the chest by a stingray barb.
I blindly trust Simon much like I trusted that Jamaican carrying the machete. Simon’s face, with its dark leathered skin, deep crevasses and long white beard, has the look of experience. I can tell he’s survived a few storms. Hurricanes. His lean, tan body though defies his true age, which I guess is somewhere on the other side of 70. Years of swimming, pulling up anchor, and tacking the catamaran helps. And a daily diet of blue marlin and yellowfin tuna doesn’t hurt.
Simon is Dexter’s sidekick. Dexter operates Dexter’s Fantasea Tours. His catamaran ferries tourists, 20 or so at a time, out to Stingray City, often twice a day. It’s about a 45 minute ride from Grand Cayman to a sandbar where you can touch, feed, and even kiss the stingrays in warm crystal clear chest deep water. A purely idyllic setting.
From the first moment I point my camera at Simon, he repeatedly asks, “Are you taking my picture?” “Of course not,” I would say. Click, click, click. After awhile I deflect his expected query. “Simon, I’m just pointing my camera at you. I’m not taking your picture.” Click, click, click. Simon knows better. I can tell he likes the attention.
Back to the stingrays. X-Ray, Gamma Ray, Darth Vader. Simon knows the names of most of the couple dozen that swim around the more than one hundred tourists. He reassures our group that they’re harmless, and only use their barbs if they feel threatened. I keep that in mind as I touch their velvety skin and they suck cut up pieces of squid out of my fist. I figure we’re safe. If there were rogue stingrays here, Stingray would have been shut down years ago. A headline like “Tulsa man stabbed to death by Darth Vader while on vacation” wouldn’t help tourism here.
Captain Dexter has been sailing his catamaran to this spot for 25 years. Simon has been his first mate the past three. They work well together and make the four-hour stingray and snorkeling tour an unforgettable experience.
Sugar cane and star apples
Click, click, click. The machete wielding Jamaican leads my friend and me to a sheltered spot away from the beach and the other tourists. He wants to show us his private stash of ….. star apples and sugar cane. Relief. Another headline averted.
I discover the Jamaican has a name. 55-year-old Bertram Oates deftly cuts up the sugar cane and star apples with his knife and machete, and holds out the loot for us to eat.
Click, click, click. Bertram is a groundskeeper for the resort. For the past 40 years, as countless cruise ships unload their passengers to enjoy a few hours of the Jamaican sun, sand and surf, Bertram has been in the shadows, wielding his tools of choice, trimming bushes and trees. Click, click, click.
I yell to my boys and their friends to share the sugar cane and star apples with them. They love Bertram’s machete more than the treats. Click, click, click. Bertram wants something in return. He asks my friend to sneak him some of the all-you-can-eat grub that comes with the admission price. “No problem mon,” my friend tells him. And he asks me for my pictures. I take down his address. He also asks for my phone number. Probably doesn’t think I’ll ever send them.
Not five minutes after getting home from my trip, my cell phone rings. Caller ID says it’s from Jamaica. “You home yet mon?” It’s Bertram. We chat a few minutes. He wants me to look him up when I come his way again. “Sure mon.” And he wants those copies of my pictures. I imagine him holding his machete as he asks for them. “No worries mon,” I tell him. “They’ll be in the mail soon.” Sharpen your letter opener.
(While in Jamaica I asked Bertram several questions, including what he thinks of all the cruise ship passengers who pour onto his beach, and what he’s most proud of about his country. Here’s what he had to say:)