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Cayman Islands, Grand Cayman

Uncommon Attraction: The Dirty Story Behind the Cayman Shoe Tree

Uncommon Attraction: The Dirty Story Behind the Cayman Shoe Tree
Cayman Shoe Tree/SBPR

The Caribbean is not perfect. Oh, I know we make it sound that way, but believe me, we West Indians are well aware of our warts. One of the biggest that has always disturbed me is litter.

When I was a kid growing up in St. Croix, I remember once getting a ride home from school with a family friend who tossed a soda can to the side of the road like it was no big deal. This was a guy who used to be like an uncle or older brother to me, but our relationship was never the same after that. It was the late-70’s and the environmental movement hadn’t quite arrived in the islands yet, but even now we as a region have a long way to go when it comes to dealing with trash.

I mean, how many times have you been disgusted to find old beer cans on a secluded beach, or cigarette butts lining a remote rainforest hiking trail?

It’s not that litter is everywhere, all the time. It’s just that in islands as beautiful as ours, it shouldn’t exist at all.

During a recent visit to Grand Cayman, I came across another strange, unexplained attraction started by concerned, former Cayman residents who couldn’t agree with me more.

It’s called the Cayman Shoe Tree, and as you can see in the photos, it’s actually two trees with a bunch of old shoes nailed to ’em. At first glance, the Cayman Shoe Tree may seem to be exacerbating the litter problem. It certainly stands out for all the wrong reasons as you make the scenic seaside drive along South Sound Road just steps from where I captured the last photo in this post.

So, what is the Cayman Shoe Tree? How did it start, and why?

That's one trashy tree!/SBPR

To get some answers, I tracked down the couple who started the whole thing, Wolfgang Brocklebank and his fiance, Giovanna Inselmini.

Wolfgang, who hails from British Columbia, Canada, lived in Grand Cayman for nearly four years following the passing of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. An electrician by trade, he was more than happy to leave the cold and snow of Canada behind for a few years to help re-build the island. His fiance, Giovanna, is from Switzerland, where as Wolfgang puts it: “They are crazy about recycling.” The couple met in Grand Cayman and fell in love, both with each other and with the island.

As young couples in the islands are often wont to do, Wolfgang and Giovanna would often spend their free time searching for secluded beaches.

“We always used to go out to East End. One beach we found past the Mortiz was our favorite. It was small, with ironshore on each side and nice sand in-between.”

The only problem: you guessed it, litter.

“Every time we went, we couldn’t believe how many shoes we’d find. One day we thought, let’s start collecting these shoes, put ’em in garbage bags and do something with them. No one was going to clean them up, so we thought we should do our little part.”

The couple soon discovered, though, that their little part was actually quite a large undertaking.

“We picked up 333 shoes on that first day. This was over just four hours on a small 200-meter stretch of beach. No two shoes were a perfect pair either.”

After living with the shoes at their house for a few days, the couple decided to make a statement about litter and the need for more recycling in Grand Cayman. They picked a dead tree at the side of a much-traveled road just south of Seven Mile Beach to ensure as many tourists and locals as possible would see it. Then, one night, they started tacking the shoes to the tree.

“That first night we worked for four hours and got six feet up the tree and we still had a ton of shoes left. By the third night, other people started leaving shoes at the base of the tree, and I knew we were on to something.”

A Facebook page was soon started, and people kept leaving more and more shoes. Knowing that they were going to leave the island, Wolfgang and Giovanna eventually left a metal box at the base of the tree with nails and a hammer so people could carry on the tradition.

Now, back in Canada, Wolfgang speaks with equal parts pride and surprise over the growth of the Tree and the change he hopes it achieves.

“If you go to any beach that nobody’s been, it’s amazing how much garbage you find. There just isn’t a lot of recycling in Cayman, but hopefully the Shoe Tree can raise awareness.”

If one dirty tree can yield miles of clean beaches, then I’m all for it!

For more on the Cayman Shoe Tree, visit the Tree’s Facebook fan page here. To help out, please remember to leave our pristine Caribbean beaches as you found them. That is, of course, unless you find trash on ’em. If so, then by all means lend a hand and pick it up.

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  • Deborah

    I remember the signs on the side of the roadways on STX that said “Don’t Trash Your Living Room” and featured a photo of one of our pristine beaches. That one always stuck with me.

    Enjoy our island(s)….but please leave only your footprints………….

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  • Jo_ker95

    To throw a bit of truth on the trash story. These people came to live on this Island AFTER hurricane Ivan. Did you research the story of how Ivan impacted the islands? Grand Cayman, was submerged by the seas. I know, I was here and lived through it. So fact one, there was and continues to be a lot of “stuff” including whole houses, restaurants and apartment complexes that housed shoes and other things that became “trash” that were carried out to sea.. A lot of this stuff continues to be washed back to shore to this day. I am not saying some of it is not recent rubbish. However, before Ivan and the large influx of people who came to “HELP”, our beaches were kept by the Caymanian people in pristine condition. Now we get all manner of riffraff’s who trash our beaches and then talk trash about our country. We are not perfect, but we are aware of what our shortcomings are. 

    • uncommoncarib

      Thanks for reading and for your comment.  In answer to your question, yes, I do know the story of how deeply hurricane Ivan impacted the Caymans.  I was working at Air Jamaica at the time and there was great concern for the people of Grand Cayman.  Second, I point out that Wolfgang and Giovanna came to Grand Cayman AFTER hurricane Ivan in paragraph 9.  I can also sympathize about the post-storm ill-effects of hurricanes as I’m from St. Croix, an island of similar size to Grand Cayman that was destroyed by hurricane Hugo in 1989 and further suffered, to a degree, at the hands of those who came to “HELP.”  The story does not designate any of the rubbish as recent, nor does it say anything about trash on Grand Cayman’s beaches prior to Ivan. It mere recounts Wolfgang and Giovanna’s experience (as told to me by Wolfgang) about the trash they encountered and the statement they tried to make with the tree.  I am a proud West Indian myself who is not ashamed to say that our region is not perfect, particularly when it comes to recycling.  If the Cayman Shoe Tree can help to encourage clean-up and recycling efforts in all our islands, I think that’s something we can all get behind.

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