We needed to use up some leftover airline credit before it expired and hadn't enjoyed a good week-long sweat for a while, so we went even farther Down South for an impromptu, early summer vacation without really planning anything, which was kind of the point. This time we voyaged to the southernmost part of the continental United States, more or less. Key West sounded like an interesting gathering place for artists, writers and other like-minded weirdos like us, and we needed some ocean time, even if we couldn't really afford to go scuba diving, so off we went.
The trip began when a disappearing cab appeared outside our apartment to take us to the airport but then vaporized before we discovered that it hadn’t been our cab in the first place. The next one that showed up—ours, a little late—was driven by an Ethiopian guy who wasn’t buying it when I told him I’d like to visit Africa someday. I told him that Ivory Coast sounded nice, but he countered that I should go to Kenya and see the wildlife.
I was a little bummed that he didn't suggest Ethiopia, but I didn't ask about that. As someone who’s only seen Africa in photos or films, it’s hard to argue with his recommendation. Kenya’s landscape and wildlife are always spectacular in National Geographic, even when the news is of rampant illegal poaching and other horrors, and who could forget the cinematography filmed there for Out of Africa? Even if you hate that movie, you can't hate that scenery, can you? Well I guess you can hate anything if you try hard enough. Damn scenery.
The Kenya scenes in Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s motorcycle travelogue show, Long Way Down (2007) were great stuff too—up close and personal moments with gorillas and elephants. If you haven’t seen LWD or its predecessor, Long Way Round (2004), I’d recommend them both highly. Old friends Charlie and Ewan decide to plan and execute cross-continental motorcycle adventures, with a cameraman on a third bike and a documentary film/support crew in an SUV trailing a couple hundred miles behind. They stop along the way for charity events and random encounters, crash their bikes, experience tourist spots and remote outposts alike, eat all kinds of interesting things like yak testicles and MREs, cross streams and mountains and other seemingly impassible terrain. It's a thoroughly entertaining adventure. Then again, it’s hard to beat Planet Earth on blu-ray for stunning film footage of Africa and from all over the globe, but I was talking about Key West, right?
Of course there’s more to a good trip than beautiful scenery. For us, it’s usually about the experience--actively doing something different that we aren’t able to do elsewhere--like watching obscenely huge monster fish writhe in bucketfuls of chum in the ocean by the docks when the fishing boats come in, or drinking free rum punch in airport lobbies. It’s also about exploring a new place and escaping from the mundane, the rote and the expected, like air conditioning and dry clothes.
Leaving our fair city with a genuine desire to retreat from people, only to realize that some of the best parts of any trip consist of meeting and engaging with new people from distant places and cultures, is a routine paradox that we always welcome. As long as they’re not loud as hell and partying on the other side of the walls, floors or ceilings when we’re trying to go to sleep. To that end, this time we decided to avoid hotels and motels and investigate the possibility of renting a small, private home. Being the often sleepy working folks that we are, we like to get a solid night’s rest, and if you’ve read this blog much, you know how we feel about loud, inconsiderate neighbors. It’s no different on vacation.
After being thoroughly patted down by various uniformed, blue-gloved TSA troops, doing the full-body-scan dance sans shoes, belts or pocket change and passing the random chemical-residue-on-the-hands test, we cleared airport security, disheveled but fully intact. With all our gear (two backpacks, two dive bags) and two tiny, ripe tomatoes my wife had grown but could not bear to leave on the vine for the duration of our trip, we made it to the gate. Air travel is challenging enough without trying to check luggage, so we just don't.
My lovely wife never misses the chance to admire a cat, and as we sat waiting to board our first flight, she spotted a black bag near us that seemed to meow. As luck would have it, we ended up sitting next to the carry-on cat, and she made friends. We discovered on the plane ride that we had left the name, phone number and address of the homeowner we were renting from (along with the area map, our postcard stamps and our list of interesting things to do) on our kitchen table, each thinking the other had grabbed it.
Luckily, the carry-on cat's owner was kind enough to loan us her smart-phone for a quick email check, and once again we figured out where we were going. For her troubles, Cat Lady received one tiny, ripe, delicious tomato. Is it weird to give a stranger a tomato on an airplane? Yes, we both still use dumb phones. While at times it's definitely tempting to have the world of information in our pockets, it's also expensive, and we generally feel like we spend too much of our lives staring into glowing screens already, but I doubt we'll be able to hold out forever.
After two flights, we arrived in Key West and crossed the boiling tarmac into the tiny airport underneath the peculiar, multicultural mannequins who were gathered on the roof with a replica of the southernmost point buoy, which isn't really a buoy itself, and well, isn't really at the southernmost point, either, but the mannequins are standing next to it and pointing at it enthusiastically, as if it could be missed if you were standing right next to it.
Determined not to take a cab, we set out on foot from the airport, gathering absolutely wrong directions from the nearest cop but realizing it and going the opposite direction from where he pointed us. Immediately we noticed the turquoise sea, the wild chickens roaming everywhere and the deeply tanned woman who narrowly missed us on the sidewalk when she blew past on her bicycle, the word WENCH printed clearly on the butt of her shorts. It took us an hour and a half to walk 2.5 miles with four bags at 97 degrees fahrenheit and 79 percent humidity, but we took our time, soaked up the scene, and sweated through our clothes.
We were stoked to land our own private cottage on a quiet residential street, several blocks away from the party zone, surrounded by a high wooden fence on all sides, ensconced in palm trees and tropical plants, a quiet and secluded, romantic enclave with bamboo floors and shelves, an outdoor shower, a screened-in porch, ceiling fans throughout, full kitchen and bath--visited frequently by curious little lizards and ignored by virtually inaudible, invisible neighbors.
Owned by an elusive Frenchman and his gracious Haitian bride, the little bungalow was decorated sensuously with international art, sheer fabric or beaded curtains between rooms, exposed beams and functional, simple furnishings of reclaimed wood. Stocked with kitchen necessities, incense and candles, it was a mellow vibe indeed, and just what we needed. Most folks were really damn nice in Key West, and not in the George Carlin way. I can't ever use the word nice in person or in print anymore without imagining Borat or George Carlin speaking it.
We walked a lot every day, as we enjoy getting to know a city on foot when feasible and didn’t even consider renting any of the omnipresent screaming, whining motor scooters or bicycles piloted by drunks on sidewalks. It was so humid that we were sweat-soaked almost every time we ventured out, and though there were intermittent heavy thunderstorms, we were only caught in one once, and it was so hot that the rain felt pretty good. We went out on a boat, seven miles into the open ocean and jumped off for some snorkeling for half a day, which only made us wish we had gone scuba diving instead, but it was pretty fun anyway. We spotted a couple of stingrays and some tropical fish, dove under and swam around...and longed for scuba tanks.
We thoroughly enjoyed being a minority in such a global melting pot. It seems that in the off-season (summertime), nobody in Florida is from the states. Most people spoke English as a second language. We met folks from India, Scandinavia, Poland, Brazil, Haiti, Russia, France, Germany, Sweden, Wyoming, Ohio and Memphis. We befriended drunks, drag queens, grocery baggers, British Alpha Romeo collectors and artisan potters from Michigan. We met divers, painters, gallery owners and MTV Party-To-Go-ers.
We chatted with north-Floridian fishermen, a Haitian chef, and shared a concerned look at the troubling news from Egypt with an Italian pizza baker. We lent our ears to eager stories from recovering alcoholics, traveling Winnebago enthusiasts, reluctant Jet-Ski instructors, French Key Lime pie enthusiasts and a Sri Lankan family from Norway who insisted we move to there and visit them. We watched an old man with leathery tanned skin, huge headphones and a blonde ponytail throw Frisbees back and forth across the beach for hours, aiming them at garbage cans as tourists and chickens bobbed and weaved around to dodge his discs. That night another man rode a bicycle that was lit up like a Christmas tree and blasting funk music as loud as a one-man carnival along Duvall Street.
We experienced the most multicultural fourth of July celebration we have ever seen, a giant, international beachside barbecue pulsing with the music and cuisines of a plethora of diverse peoples from all corners of the globe, alongside colorful, thoughtful memorials to fallen slaves and AIDS victims. We took in a fantastic fireworks display from a pier on the beach, so close to the launch that ashes fell on our heads. We got a lot of reading and artwork done in our quiet time when the tropical storms hit, as they did intermittently, which was also quite nice.
We went to the grocery and made our own minimal breakfasts and dinners and mostly ate lunch out. Cuisine highlights included steamed shrimp, Mahi tacos and burritos, ceviche, Thai basil and super-fresh sushi. We had Polish beer, Puerto Rican Rum, Argentinian wine and French baguettes.
Soon after we returned home, I read Jeff Goodell's article in Rolling Stone about how Miami and the rest of south Florida are quite simply doomed to be buried at sea. This kind of puts a wrench in my buddy's suggestion that we open a brew pub in Islamorada, but anyway, I hope Florida doesn't sink anytime soon.