Last night I arrived back home in Miami after a nine day adventure in Grand Cayman. Needless to say, it was the best experience of my life. When people hear "Cayman Islands", more often then not what is pictured are beautiful beaches, cruise ships, and fruity drinks. These things are fine, but the islands have so much more to offer.
I had the more incredible opportunity to travel to Grand Cayman with twenty other "Miamians" on a missions trip, two of which are my best friends. It is considered a more relaxed missions trip, but I still wasn't sure what exactly to expect. We flew down on Cayman Airways, and had to make a short stop in Cayman Brac before headed to Grand Cayman, our final destination.
We stayed on the southern end of Seven Mile Beach in a condo a few yards away from the sandy shores. For being on a missions trip, I was quite surprised by our lovely accommodations (short 2 minute walk to the beach, kitchen, patio, pool, etc). Half of the team was located in the condos where I was, and the other half was at a beach front rental home on the other end of Seven Mile Beach.
Of course, first thing we did after unloading our luggage was running out to the beach, which was absolutely beautiful. Soft waves, crystal blue water, white sand. Typical of what anyone vacationing on the island would experience. But we were not typical vacationers, if you will. Although we of course were there to enjoy the island, we had a different purpose.
The church we were working through for the week, Boatswain Bay Presbyterian Church, lent our half of the team the church van, a stick shift, 15 passenger van that looked, felt, and drove like the real-life struggle bus (thus became its nickname). And of course, us Americans had a few mishaps driving on the left side of the road rather than the right… but no accidents occurred.
So our mission of the week was to run a VBS (vacation bible school) camp for the children of the West Bay community, which is where the church was located. Sunday after church, our team spent the entire day transforming the place into "Mount Everest", the week's theme. For the rest of the week, we spent our mornings and early afternoons running this VBS camp; one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.
The typical day:
My friend Susie and I woke up at 6 each morning to run/workout on the beach before leaving for the church at 7:45. It took a day or two for our calves/feet to grow accustomed to the barefoot running but now I think its safe to say we're pros. After the workout, I showered and changed and crammed into the van with the rest of the team and headed to the church.
Seven Mile Beach is full of towering resorts, hotels, and condos, but that is not how the real Cayman is. Once you get past the commercialized beachfront and go into the island, you begin to see how it really is. The homes are fairly small, some incredibly run down. There are a few small plots of land with cows, wild dogs and chickens roaming the streets, Caymanians walking or biking down the road, or standing in their yards. Very different from the glamour of Miami.
We pulled up to the church and quickly unloaded the van, carrying a bottle of water with us because the water in the true Caymanian part of the island isn't safe to drink (unless you want to be doubled over over a toilet for the entire trip). The van was then used to go pick up children through out the villages to bring to VBS. Each of the older crew members from the Miami missions team (yes, including myself), was a "crew leader". This meant we would be assigned a group of kids ranging in ages from 4-12 for the week, and would be responsible for them during the VBS hours. My two best friends and I along with one other girl also led the songs each day in the opening and closing. That part was so cute because the kids all came to the front to do the motions with us.
I fell in love with my kids, and they fell in love with me. I had eight total, 6 girls and 2 boys: Aiyanna, Mishka, Ciara, Michaela, Ruth, Kaileigh, Haldon, and Joshua. Absolutely precious. I wish I could have stayed in the Caymans just to be with them everyday. I already miss them after one day! Anyways, we had various stations – games, snack, craft, Bible, and video/sharing – preceded and followed by the opening and closing for each day as one big group in the sanctuary. The disciplinary vibe/structure is very different from the U.S., so it could get loud at times but I truly feel the kids grasped the heart of the lessons each day. Sometimes, things may look like they aren't working on the surface, or it may look like what you are doing isn't making a difference, but in a different light or different perspective, the difference is astounding. Like for example, Haldon (the cutest little 6 year old boy you will ever meet) couldn't read very well so he had me help him memorize a few of the simplified verses so he could try to get a poster. A few of the kids in my group would also sing the songs from the opening and closing, which have lyrics that reflect God's power and saving grace. Its the little things like that, that can end up making a huge difference in the life of a child.
We also had the chance to host a youth night on Tuesday evening for the girls in the community. We had about 12 high school age girls show up, and we had a great time. My friends and I shared some verses, and got all the girls journals and bracelets which they were extremely appreciate of. Cayman is in an interesting transition because you can definitely see the rough sides to it, but also there is the typical technological/social media issue prevalent there just as it is in American society. I became good friends with a guy named Tim who is about the same age as I am. It was interesting to talk to him and learn about his island home and just see a fresh, different perspective on life and the world. Now we are even following each other on Instagram so we will always be able to keep up with eachother. Its funny to see how different, yet how similar variant cultures can be.
My VBS kids were absolutely the highlight of my trip. Being able to work with kids from a completely different way of life from myself was eyeopening. It allowed me to build relationships and come to a much greater appreciation of the Cayman culture that tourists on the island never get to see. But an even greater way I got to experience true Cayman culture was dinner. Each night, different people from the church hosted our Miami team for dinner. We got to hear stories from different Caymanian, see the homes and how it is really like on the island, and of course have the most amazing food in the world. Freshly butchered beef, jerk chicken, "the million dollar cake", homemade plantains, potato casseroles, vegetables, Caymanian fruits, barbecue chicken, rices, beans, the list is endless. I'm surprised I didn't gain 20 pounds from all the amazing dishes I had every night. The two most interesting dishes however were turtle and cassava. Yes, I ate turtle. It has a texture almost like pork, just slightly more chewy. It was excellent (I had seconds) and is a famed Caymanian delicacy. Cassava is another Caymanian dish eaten for dessert. Its is a cake made from yucca with spices and had an extremely unique texture that many on our Miami team didn't like, but I found it delicious (may have had thirds on it oops).
Saying goodbye to my kids was so hard. We went to church on Sunday before our flight out that afternoon and I was so surprised when 6 of my crew kids showed up. I don't think may of the regularly go to church but they said they came because I was there. They all came up and sat by me, hugging and cuddling me up the entire time. When the service came to an end and they all had to go, they didn't want to let go. I didn't want to let go either. Its crazy because I just spent a week building an incredible relationship with these kids, sharing with them and nurturing them in a positive environment and now I may never see them again. I don't really know what their family life is like, if they'll ever come to church again, or what may happen to them in the years to come. Its crazy to think that way, but its true and all I have now are the memories and the power to pray.
Tourists don't experience the island like we did over the past nine days and it is a shame. There is no way to say you have truly visited or experienced a place unless you've experienced the real culture. When I travel, one of the main things I look for is an experience that will truly allow me to connect to the culture I am temporarily a part of. It allows for such a greater appreciation and respect for others, and makes you a better person as well. Of course, we had our fair share of typical "tourist" Cayman adventures as well, but that is for the next blog post. Peace out my friends, stay rad.