Friday, October 27, 2006

Travel Journal: Key West

My favorite grandpa in the whole world used to say that no trip should be picture perfect nor without troubles, because how are you going to ever remember it? If everything went according to plan, you’ll have nothing, he used to say, to remember around the fireplace at Christmas and talk about when you’re older. Nothing. So, some “adventures” are absolutely required in order to make a trip interesting – he used to say. And I never took him seriously, until my trip to Key West! This trip surely had its share of freak happenings (in more ways than one), and the oddness of some will always be imprinted in my memories! They all made the trip more interesting, and kept my alert level to an all time high! I was never prepared for whatever the next corner had reserved for us. But that was where all the fun was, too – mostly!
I started getting suspicious weeks before the trip, when we couldn’t find our Hertz reservation online, although we both remembered making it, and it showed up on our credit card! We were reassured all was well, re-confirmed, when my friend called them, but I was not so sure. Yes, I tend to get overly paranoid when I attempt something new. You never know, right?!
We left my house late for the airport, and not only did we get lost on the way there, because we thought we were getting onto a shortcut, when we got stuck on this one lane street behind a garbage truck that was doing 25 on a 35, but once we finally got to the airport, all the parking lots were full; so we spent 10-15 precious minutes we really didn’t have, to find a parking spot. We are lucky that we live in a small town, with a small airport, so the afflux of planes leaving in the middle of the day is not the size of a New York or LA airport! So, we managed to check in, send the luggage through, buy a slice of pizza and make it to the gate before boarding started. Once there, we heard my friend’s name on the speaker, and he was being called “at the podium”, which means at the gate office. He was asked if he would mind to be given another seat, for a very strange reason, one which, in at least 9 years of international traveling, I have never heard of before: there was a prisoner in our plane, and he 2 officers escorting him had to be by the prisoner’s side, and one of the chairs was given mistakenly to my friend. I was to sit across the aisle, but in the same row, so my friend asked to give me also a new seat, to prevent me from sitting across the isle from a criminal (well, sorry, until proven innocent). Thus rearranged, we ended up sitting in different rows altogether, and both paranoid that we are in fact traveling with a prisoner on board, and what could happen now?!!

Once in Charlotte, we almost got killed several times by one of those little cars that take passengers from one gate to another, and squeal out of this world to people to stand out of their way! We didn’t know where to dodge anymore, because we tried everything. We survived and got to our gate after all! I guess they can’t give them speeding tickets in the airport for those things, but I personally think they should!

Once in Miami, we grabbed our luggage and waited patiently for the Hertz bus to take us to the car rental place. Once on the bus, the driver could not, once again, find our reservation. My friend assured her that we must have one, because we did it twice, online and on the phone, but I was becoming nervous once again! Call it female intuition, but I smelled trouble. Somewhere soon, anyways!

At the Hertz dealership we found just 3 people in line, which looked promising: we needed a short line, since we were to drive at least 3 hours to Key West and it was already 7 PM, and we were tired, starved and both cranky (already, I know!). There were three clerks, too, which also looked good! What we didn’t know was: that there were at least 300 pieces of papers per customer to be signed, sealed, and about 500 questions from each one to be asked! So we were in line for what seemed like Methuselah’s age! As the crankiness progressed, our eyes wandered over to the TV and my friend was in shock: the two teams that he’s the very loyal fan of, the Phillies and the Nationals, were playing! And yes, you guessed it: he was missing it! And you know how guys get when they miss their sports, for whatever reason, yes, including a trip they themselves planned! Yes, that’s right: cranky! – that was not a good premise for me, trust me! We were going to be stuck in the car for the next 3 hours with no tv nor radio, probably, that would broadcast the game, so the tension grew.

After an hour of wait and many peeks on the big screen tv, we finally got our car, and the directions to head South, and we took off on the streets of Miami! We soon found out that the last “left” turn on our directions from the gracious Hertz clerk could not be possible, because we hit a road that was a right turn only. So, again, just like in Greensboro, we got lost, and wandered on slow moving streets before we got back on the Turnpike!

On the way down, we stopped right after we left Miami, for dinner, at a Chillies Restaurant. I was to wait patiently at my table while my friend paid some lonesome visits to the bar’s tvs to catch the scores of the baseball game, and needless to say, that is one of my biggest pet peeves: to be left alone in a restaurant… But I was patient! I was going to make this trip a success, however much Fate, in all its might, might decide to screw with it! So, dinner passed, and we’re back on the road, when my friend mentions that well, he didn’t call the office of the timeshare at which we were going to stay “the day of” our coming there, and he hopes that the office clerk remembered to leave us he key to the place, even without a reminder.

At that point, I refused to think anything else could happen to us! That was it! The late airport arrival, the prisoner, the looongggg wait at Hertz, the missed baseball game… No! We WERE GOING TO HAVE A KEY – and that was it. I refused to think further! My friend kept doubting; I kept not listening!

I guess 4 hours and 42 bridges later ( I will only so much as mention in passing, too, that the slowest “Chillies” waiter in the whole entire world lives in the outskirts of Miami, too), we were in Key West. We drove around looking for our place, to which we arrived at midnight. And yes, we looked for the key, at the office door, where it was supposed to be taped on, at the condo door, maybe, we walked to the bar and asked about it, or about the clerk, but no sign of the key, or the clerk, or course! The Phillies-Nationals game was still on (last inning) on the bar tv – and that was one small reward of all the pain: he could at least get a score.

My friend decided, in all his generosity, to use his Marriott points to put us up for the night at the Courtyard Marriott, so we won’t have to spend the night in the car, in the car port of the timeshare! Once at the Marriott, we were left with the only room available: a smoking one, and both of us hate smoking! Yes, it smelled, but ask me if either of us cared. At that point, we were so edgy, we wouldn’t even talk to each other. I think both of us realized we were not mad at each other, but man, were we mad at the Travel Fairy! She really screwed us over! So far … at least … Little did we know … but don’ let me get ahead of myself here.

The first morning in Key West came around, and we woke up in the Marriott room, eager to get out and enjoy the Keys, and the days ahead of us, but not before the proverbial American shower of course! I guess I was more eager than him, because I jumped in the shower first: in the HOT shower, that is, because there was NO cold water to be mixed in with the hot; so I, who absolutely hate hot water and has her heart run at 120 beats a minute on hot water, had to deal with the hot-hot-hot water in the shower that morning and have her skin burning red like a lobster when she got out. No other choice! All right, I thought. Just the beginning. If you’re gonna be this difficult, ask me if I care then! Bring it on! I am ready! Burn me up in the shower, will ya? OK! Fine then!! And I decided I’ll smile, just to spite life! And the Travel Fairy!

We left the Marriott starved, and the last thing we did was to ask for directions to a breakfast buffet, since we were both so hungry. We were recommended this place as “the best buffet on he island”; we looked for it for a while, in eager nervousness, and once we got there, we found an empty parking lot and a “friendly” sign on the door reading “AVAILABLE”… and a phone number. Yeah, if that was the BEST on the island, I wonder what he worst looked like?! We finally went towards the “Sunset” end of the island and we ate there, somewhere off of Duval, of course, where everything else is. We were lucky indeed when we came upon a parking lot that was ready to have us for $5 a day, instead of the very customary $5 an hour, like the rest of the town. We counted our blessings! The bummer on our first day there, though, at least for me, was the rain: everywhere you looked, there were dark, menacing clouds, and the rain started shortly after our meal! The good thing, we were to find, was that rain never lasts for more than 15 minutes at a time there. I guess just passing rainy clouds, saying “hello”. That’s when I noticed that all the bars and restaurants are outdoors and they have almost no walls around the dining areas! Very welcoming and limitless, just like Paradise ….

After a day of walking, people watching, eating everything in sight and drinking frozen drinks, we headed home, this time to our reserved place, the timeshare condo, overlooking a beautiful, lush green marina and pool! Gorgeous! Felt and looked like Heaven on Earth: lush vegetation and clean alleys, quiet pathways and hallways marked the place. Really relaxing. While moving my luggage upstairs to the bedroom though, I saw something moving across the hallway. I thought: oh, we have roaches?! Well, you see, I forgot this is the beach, and Florida, and the end of the world and the Subtropics, so the small thing moving across my room was not a roach, like everywhere else on the planet, but a baby lizard! I don’t know about you, but if there are two things in the world that I cannot and would not have tolerance for, those are reptiles and rats! I kill bugs just about any day of the week, but reptiles! No, they are of a different realm! We let the guy live though, don’t worry. Well, my friend did … I was once again almost ready to sleep in the car.

After the lizard adventure, I was ready for my shower, after a whole day in 100 degree heat and rain, after nervousness and bad luck, and ready for bed. Now, the condo had the reverse of the Courtyard: no hot water in the shower, just cold; so, shivering in the A/C and in the cold water, I was so tired, I couldn’t complain anymore, even. I just sucked it up, cleaned up, dressed up and slept like a baby. My friend asked me the next morning, had I heard the storm going through in the night. Nope! No way! I was dreaming away… of a land as lush as our front yard, and of a water as clear as the Atlantic in front of us, but no lizards and with hot water in the shower. :-)
Everything went relatively smoothly the rest of our stay there; with a mild cloudiness in our first sunset watching – which is what anyone ever goes to Key West for, isn’t it?! But the sunset was gorgeous, despite the clouds! The food and the beauty of the old city managed to keep us wowed and entertained the entire time. We didn’t know what else to order, and where else to look! Such a feast for the taste buds and eyes.

On the day we had to leave back for Miami, my heart sank! I was nowhere near ready to leave. Yes, we had made good use of our time, and we had seen pretty much all there is to see, and we had eaten everything we were told we had to eat, and we had enjoyed the history, and the sun, and the fun… but ready to go back we were not! There should never be an end to good times, should there?!

On the day we left Key West, the streak of unluckiness came back, or so it seemed! The room had to be emptied at 10! What kind of a check out is 10 AM?! We’re both snoozers, so you know we weren’t happy, with an 8 o’clock alarm knocking on our brains! The cleaning woman was knocking on the door every 5 minutes, starting at 9.30, and that is not even a little bit exaggerated! The day we left, we planned to drive to Miami, and be there in time for the Phillies and the Marlins game, scheduled for 6 PM that night. My friend had a feeling that the game had moved up, for tv: and once on the road, around noon, we picked up a paper and indeed, it was moved up to 1.25!!! There was no way we were going to make it to the Dolphins stadium before the game! No way! For my friend, an ardent sports (and baseball nonetheless) fan, this was the second major miss and disappointment of the trip! That set the mood for the day! Killing ourselves to get through to Miami, we drove relentlessly and ploughed right through the traffic with one aim in mind: the Dolphins stadium and “the game”.

Everything you can think of stood in our way: we couldn’t find a restaurant to eat lunch in, for miles, on the Keys; when we did find one, it was obscure to say the least, dirty, hair on the table, stale chips and fake crab, and it took forever; we came upon lots of traffic, on a 2 lane street, of course, with no alternative road, but the water, construction work and one lane traffic, we had to stop for a draw bridge and it was not even for a big boat!!!; Fate was grinning, again!; at one point, closer to Miami, the bottom seemed to have fallen out of the sky: huge black clouds swallowed us, and we couldn’t see 2 feet in front of us through the heavy rain! – the only hope was that the game would have a rain delay! Once in Miami, we started looking for the stadium on the map, and yes, you guessed it: it was at the very opposite end of town than we were coming from! So had to plough through the city traffic to get there! We finally did, around the 3rd inning (yes, they did have a rain delay! Some prayers ARE indeed answered!), but there was no one at the ticket counter and we couldn’t get in without tickets! Someone who looked important showed up, and he told us “he will hook us up”, and gave us free tickets. I guess the luck is not too dark, huh?! We promised him at buy a lot of beer, to repay him for he huge favor. Well, that was before we found out a bottle of Bud Light was $7! Yes, we bought 2 beers, and sorry, we thought that was plenty, too! We did see the Phillies win, though, which was the cherry on top! No, they didn’t go further, but they won! You gotta be grateful for small favors!
And yes, I will remember all these crazy things that happened and which added so much spice to our trip. But I will also remember the very wonderful things that left me speechless and made for the flavor of Key West!

The landscape of the Keys is like nothing I have ever seen before: low and narrow, bare and empty in face of the huge amounts of water that surround it! You feel so low, and so engulfed by it! There is no escape: there is only the water or he sky! And they’re both infinite! The sky always looks so close to the water, too, mirroring itself in the Ocean, like a close up mirror, you hold right up against your face! Not to miss a line! The palm trees and coconut trees didn’t wow me as much as just the pure sky into the water reflections! You’re lost. There is no end or beginning; there is only a deep, deep, endless blue that makes you think how finite you are in comparison to the whole universe! It feels like living under water, almost: the water always feels “taller” than where you are.

They say everyone goes to Key West for the sunsets and I thought: “oh, how cheesy”. And of course, again, in the face of pure nature and God, I was proven wrong. So wrong! You don’t know it till you see it! The light getting sucked out of the world into the water! The fire dying into the abyss… into nothingness… and the world coming to an end, of the day, but if you’re caught in the moment, it’s so hopeless! The sun dies, every day, in Key West, and the death is applauded, and God only knows how many trillions of pictures live now around the world of this death?! The moment is serene and quiet, like a death, but bright, passionate and yes, loud, like pain! I went in being a skeptic about it, and I came out enlightened: there IS indeed such a thing as the tallness and speechlessness of nature. And it’s all around us. The sunset in Key West was one of those moments, to me, when I am sure there’s gotta be a God in those moments! The world is too beautiful and perfect a place for it not to be…

I will always remember, from this trip, the lazy days: of walking around the streets, with no purpose, and no aim at all, but the walking, the living in the moment at its best! The frozen drinks snacks in the hot afternoons; the foods, all exotic and spicy hot; the feeling of the shark’s skin, tough as sand paper; the peculiar-ness of iguanas, who turn orange to prove they’re ‘better looking’ – can an iguana, really be good looking?!; I will always crave the mid-afternoon stop at Ben and Jerry’s for a bite of Key Lime Pie icecream: we sat on that bench in front of the store for at least an hour, I am sure making the icecream man mad for occupying the bench, and just people watched and commented, on the old woman with the shaved head, or the young woman with her shirt falling off and uncovering a boob, like a Botticelli model; or the old man, with shorts, and knee high white socks (why do old men wear that?!) riding a motorcycle; I knew I really reached Heaven when I got to Hemingway’s house, with the rich vegetation, and the cats, the many tens of polydactyl cats that have made history! It was like coming of age for me, as an English major AND cat lover! I could not believe I was walking his streets, and seeing his views and touching the walls he touched, and breathing the air he breathed! It was worth a trip to the end of the world to see that!

I felt the same sense of “arrival” and of one’s smallness when I reached the Southernmost point in the US that I felt, years ago when I climbed the World Trade Center towers. A feeling of “you cannot go any further”, and you, a small person from small city Romania, have now made it! Your ancestors would be proud! Your eyes have seen and your pores have breathed! It was an end of the road kind of feel for me… and a revelation… of, again, being very finite.
I will always remember the swim in the pool, all our own, one morning; the hot, honey-like thick air, and the coolness of the pool. The kisses and the wetness; the sticky skin against sticky skin in the middle of an afternoon embrace- absolutely my favorite from the entire trip. The smell of sun block. The remoteness of the glass bottom boat, once we reached the coral reefs: I can’t even swim, and I was hovering over sting rays and barracudas now! The taste of conch, and of key lime. The taste of salt in the air.

I will always treasure the silver Celtic necklace that looks like a fisherman’s anchor’s rope . An anchor of happiness and freedom!

You feel lost in the Keys, but you feel also found: found by each other, and the coziness of the old city that survived thousands of hurricanes and storms! You feel vulnerable and strong! Alone and together – at the same time. It’s a feeling like no other, the feeling of the end of the world!
I will remember the goofy/ silly things too: like the fact that the black neighborhood is “poetically” called “The Bahamas” in Key West: they truly have a desire and propensity to be like no other! I will remember the cute waitress at Sloppy Joes with the black bandana, seemingly Goth or Hippie, but so good, and so cute and soft- featured that she wasn’t either! I will remember the reaction I had when I saw live conch the first time: “I ate THAT?! GROSS!” - absolutely disturbing! But yes, I ate it and I loved it; conch chowders were my favorite. I will remember the Jimmy Buffet look alike bands playing at every corner of the street, at any time of the day, too … The sentiment of everlasting and endless vacation always floating around … Just easy-going-ness at its best. I will remember the brutal, seemingly atrociously painful dive of the pelicans into the shallow waters for fish! They are such heavy birds! How do they fly?! They just crash into the water like big planes nose-diving. The silly signs and menu notes everywhere: “ you are here: and this is Paradise”; or “bad ass coffee”; or “ if life gives you lemons, just add vodka”; or “ damn good margarita”…. The laziness and no purpose of life while on vacation… roosters everywhere and stray cats! Where in America can you see roosters and cats roam free and loving people?!

The small annoyance of the rental car’s beeping at us when the belt wasn’t on couldn’t kill this charm and happiness.

I have yet to be on another trip, or remember having been on one before that is such a feast for all senses and for all emotions. You’re paralyzed with sensing too much, and feeling too much, and loving too much, and breathing too much in. Every corner of every street reveals a surprise: funny people, sad people, interesting foods, or music, a historic place, or a historic bar, a memorable construction made of coral, a sunset or a random rooster, or an orange iguana, a funny or interesting sign, a funny man from England that constantly tells you to “shut up” while he juggles burning torches … You’re in shock, and only after this whole intake has “sedimented” itself inside of you can you make sense of it all! I suppose you can say it’s like a hurricane wave: coming at you all at once, strong, unstoppable, and overwhelming; and only after it’s retrieved, you can see the consequences!

One thing I know for sure: grandpa was right! There is no such thing as remembrance without adventure, and every second in Key West is pure adventure! And I know now that I live through today and every day in anticipation of that! (if I wasn’t convinced before).

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