Tuesday, August 30, 2016

5 Miles - Around the Southernmost Point of USA (Key West, Florida)

Yey! A brand new day!
Lie no more and head away.
The sea waves are rolling
and the breeze is calling.

Up! Wake up.
Don't get stuck up.
Cease the nap
Swim a lap!

We put on fast our version of the wet suit. Mayette had her rash guard on and I was ready with my shirt and a pair of shorts. We had at least an hour to find the location of Fury Water Adventures by the dock. It was only less than 10 minutes walk from our resort. You see, I have been through some amateur snorkeling adventures back in the Philippines but this was my first in US. Chicago does not have the luxury of oceans and seas. Its biggest closest water form is Lake Michigan which is also shared with three other states namely: Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Florida, however basks in the fortune of being close to the Gulf of Mexico, the vast North Atlantic Ocean, and further south -- the Caribbean Sea.

After buying a water protector for my phone, we waited in line until the captain of the boat opened the door for us. We were so happy to be walking on wooden ramps afloat the blue sea and onto a boat. I was grinning from ear to ear but deep inside, I was feeling the jitters the thoughts like "what if their ocean is not like the Philippines'?" or "what if I can't handle swimming with sharks?" gave me. We paid attention to the staff who gave instructions on how to use the provided gears (e.g. snorkeling goggles and flippers).

Soon the boat started moving, taking us deeper into the ocean. Our sun-kissed skin enjoyed the warmth of sunlight and our backside felt the sudden bumps as the the boat sped through sea swells. Finally, it stopped just right at a spot near a lighthouse. As soon as the anchor was dropped, everybody started putting on their flippers and walked around in their wet suits like seals. They've come prepared, even mentally. The waves weren't very kind that day and the boat swayed and people jumping off the boat were tossed by the strong current. Some made it out into the open while others made it only as far as the anchor rope which they held tightly onto. Mayette mustered the same amount of courage but after ample tries gave up and had to be helped back on the boat. I was not willing to let this experience end so fast. I pressed forward enough to see some fishes swimming but I didn't go all the way to the lighthouse. My bare feet were getting cold because I refused to wear the flippers. I felt they'd wear me down since I find them very uncomfortable. I waited... a few more fish were sighted but the water was murky. I may have had so high expectations that after a while of being in the ocean away from the boat with only a few of us in the water and too few sightings of sea creatures, I decided I've had enough and will start getting back. The mother whose son was crying for being brought in the water to snorkel already got back on the boat early on. I just had to make my way back and luckily it was just about the time everyone else were allotted with before the boat goes back to the dock to fetch an afternoon batch. Majority of our companions were just on the boat, chilling and enjoying the view.

Ode to the Ocean

So long, ocean! Adieu.
It's nice to have met you
Even for a moment
I enjoyed the sentiment.

Farewell waves
Next time, you behave
We did not have the best of time today
But I sure will meet you again someday.

Goodbye fishes!
You've broken my heart in pieces
When you swam away avoiding.
Still, the glimpse of you had me grinning

After being treated with drinks of beer and soda, and some good tunes, our short cruise was over. We had to stand on the side, backs pushed to the rails as the staff counted making sure no one was left by him/herself on the reef. I was in great spirits after having survived the experience.

It was lunch time and we had to hunt for a restaurant stop. After Mayette bought a pair of Havaianas, we were tipped about a restaurant that cooked Cuban cuisine. So we started walking until we reached El Meson de Pepe. While we waited for the food, it was not hard to notice live chickens everywhere. And they seem to be getting into the dining area with no push backs. They were surprisingly the same chickens we have in the Philippines. The roosters, in fact, were very noisy as they crowed nearby. It was funny to feel so much of home in a country that is over 9000 miles away.

Travels get me high and even when my feet are sore I will walk as long as I can. Mayette was feeling tired and had mentioned she needed to rest and will need a substantial amount of time to freshen up before leaving again. When she snuggled on bed, I said I'll bathe and then leave and be back by 5PM so she can rest and then we can leave again together to resume the tour around the island. I thought I heard an okay, so, off I went.

Under the scorching sun, I never felt cooler than with my shades on, a knapsack on the back for my camera, and driving a rented bike. I pedaled my way, freely past strangers, tourists, and town folks. The wind compensates for the heat as I occasionally stopped to take pictures of sights and scenes. 

As a traveler, immersion is key to a complete experience. The places and food certainly are essential, but the most potent aspect of travel is when you've talked to the locals and have seen the scene behind the glamour and facade. I found them to be trusting --- keys of rented bikes can be dropped anytime through a small hole on the shop's wall. They have a sense of humor too -- outside Wallgreens, a beggar clad in a pirate costume, a clown nose and a dog on his lap, sat on a stool playing the oud loudly. They are resourceful - instead of shoes, brown old coconut was creatively painted with football team logos and placed on a rack outside a store and sold as souvenirs. They are a grateful community who has immortalized Captain Outrageous for the creative work he's made in Key West. I would have thought they were superstitious when I saw Captain Outrageous' tombstone serving as stable foundation for the cherub figurine adorned with several beads (I originally thought were rosaries) in their local cemetery. At some point, I followed a woodpecker as it flew from one palm tree to another.

Armed only with a paper map, I let common sense and instinct direct me back to the Pier House resort. There I found Mayette waiting for yet another tour. She hopped on the bike I rented. When we learned that the rental shop  already closed for the evening, we agreed that she'd take the bike to the bay while I walk closely, stopping on occasion for photo opportunities. We drove through souvenir shops, to Ernest Hemingway's giant monuments which sort of tell his tale. He is a popular writer/journalist who has won a Noble Prize and is celebrated in Key West, Florida and Cuba where he was in permanent residence for years.

Then came sunset. Nothing could have prepared me for the grand event that day. The sunlight has been casting shadows everywhere and the horizon lit up like a stage of bright light. We drew closer to the bay and followed the people as they swarmed like ants to their hill. Little did we know, we were going to see a show. The crowd gathered around, most took their place by the fence at the edge of the bay deck. The show was about to start and an entertainer was doing his comedy to amuse everyone else with his trickery and unnecessary abrupt surprises. I can hear his loud boisterous laugh that was disturbingly contagious from behind but it was not enough to remove my transfixed gaze to the main act -- the showcase that is the Key West Sunset! Mayette found an elevation that gave her a better vantage point. I joined her for a while but I was not content because I can't get a good shot of it with the people's head blocking the image. It was as if God dropped the sun in slow motion as everyone else stood still, mouths gaped, and others wowed in awe. My knees shook as the curtain of sunlight blazed through, rendering the sail boats, the island, and occasional birds silhouettes on a huge canvass. I wished KV was there to see it first hand. She'd have loved it too.

Baby, the moment was yours and mine
Staring at the sun spectacle is divine
Hold tightly because waiting is a ride.
Soon comes dive and glide.

I have been shut in wonder, dumbfounded and silenced. We closed the night with dinner in a Thai restaurant after dropping the bike keys into the wall hole and a quick souvenir hunt. It'll take me a while to shake-off the amazement. I was so full of it that I have to consciously make room for the eye treats awaiting us the next day.

Day 1. 418 Miles - Destination: Key West through Tamiami Trail
Day 2. 5 Miles - Around the Southernmost Point of USA (Key West, Florida)
Day 3. 654 Miles: Hello Everglades. I Heart ♥ Miami
Day 4: 375 Miles: The Rest of Florida

Monday, August 15, 2016

418 Miles - Destination: Key West through Tamiami Trail

I have been excited since day one when Gloricel messaged the invitation for me to visit her and her family in Florida. There was no schedule yet, but I figured I'd bring it up with Mayette since they too knew each other since college. We've set the date and then it got changed maybe two or three times more --- then, Mayette put her confirmation on-hold. I was conditioning myself to think it could become a solo flight after all but I didn't care. I was certain I'd go. A few days later, Mayette said she'd go, too --- so I immediately took the cue, booked the tickets, and then a few weeks after, we flew.

Ace, Gavin, and Gloricel

The hours were long but I was awake most of the time during the flight. It must've been the excitement that got me sleepless. Just a week ago, we sat down to finalize our Florida itinerary. Mayette will be celebrating her birthday within the duration of the trip and she's requested we hit the road for Key West. It was a destination Gloricel also mentioned her family would be up to going again but about a week before we left Chicago, she backed out of the Key West trip because it was impossible for her to go there and make it back to Inverness in time for her son's birthday party. The turn-down was costly and refusing a "peace offering" was pointless (happy!!!). She wouldn't take it and have made arrangements of the hotel booking herself. I was ashamed to feel indebted but at the same time awed by such generosity. I still pray for her up to this day to get the blessings she deserves for making the unnecessary gesture. It was at that moment "Gloricel" sounded synonymous with "grace" for undeserved favor. We just missed each other a lot like we feel for the rest of our pack of friends. High school through college is long enough to etch "lifetime" in friendship, I must say. It's tight. So much so, that when we are together, we feel like we've actually seen Lonna, Abel, Alfred, Fra, Wilholm, Henry, Ate Malou, Ramon, Yen, Ian, Jech, Jenny, Jekoy, Joshua, Kuya Martin, Ate Lani, Pastor Cadiz, Mama Fe, and many more friends whose names, if mentioned, will by itself be an entire article. God made it special. Each made imprints to each other's spiritual lives while we were enjoying youthful bliss and madness. --- I honestly will never make it to the Key West story if I went on and on here but I'll park the memories momentarily to give way for the rest of the Florida tale.

From the arrival area, we went straight to the Enterprise Car Rental desk to claim our SUV reservation only to find out that they ran out of it and offered us another type of car instead. The staff was selling the idea as much as he could but we adamantly cancelled and rented from AVIS instead. My company's ties with AVIS got us some discount on a Hyundai Tucson SUV. It smelled brand new as Mayette wheeled it to our inn's parking space that evening. Immediately, we slept to gain the energy needed for our 7AM trip to Key West.

~ ~ ~ * * * ~ ~ ~

A quick breakfast, a handful of take-away cupcakes, and coffee got us started for the day. Coming from Chicago, Florida brings so much of my home country's ambiance. The heat of the sun, the palm trees lined on the street side and then some more trees remind me a lot of Philippines. The occasional sightings of Americans at street crossings became my constant reminder that I am on foreign soil. Wasting no time, we sped away via Sarasota, Fort Myers, and then Naples to try to make it to Key West by sunset. As soon as we pulled out of a McDonalds drive-thru in Naples we mused at the thought of going around a little bit longer. My manager mentioned it in one of our conversations in the office and I have been quite mystified about the place, too. We decided to make use of the opportunity while we were there. We mapped our way to Venice Court and then we wound into what looked like a cozy place full of shops that walled the lake behind it. We didn't have our lunch yet and decided we'd do it in one of the restaurants around the area. We found Riverwalk restaurant and ordered lunch while entertaining the thought of getting on the boat tour that'll take us around Naples Bay where the surrounding million-dollar mansions stood. And so we did. The tour was an hour long and they narrated the history behind each mansion, the who's who, the former and current owners. We spotted, on occasion, bald American eagles and lots of resting pelicans. On maybe two instances, the resident dolphins would show up. The last stop was near the Gulf of Mexico and then we came back. It was worth the time and a much needed break for Mayette who was driving non-stop from Tampa.

We were already hours delayed against schedule and so we continued. We drove through the Tamiami Trail which extends about 275 miles from Florida State Road 60, Tampa to US 1 Miami.

Tucked quietly at a bend in a remote place along the Tamiami highway is a tiny USPS office. It is known to be the smallest and oldest operating post office in the United States. The perks of having a car is that it can take you even to places the public buses do not reach. I regret not having a postcard to send to my family and KV. I would certainly have dropped it in the mailbox to send home. We've noticed a few others stopping by and taking pictures.

Mayette at the Post Office

Lobbying a little longer would have been a great idea but it was getting late in the afternoon so we started moving until we had to make yet another stop. We parked in front of what looked like a shack with a mini boardwalk next to a swamp. All we know was that it was screaming "airboat" in its business sign. It turned out that the office was already closed. We inquired about their schedule of operation and took a few minutes for photo ops.
The airboat tour shop.

Palm Plantation along Tamiami Highway

Keeping a straight face despite biting mosquitoes -- scar is now a tattoo on my ankle.

We drove again for miles. This time the sun has caught up and it sat while we passed through the 7-mile bridge to the southernmost point of Florida. We were taken one islet to another until we reached Pier House Resort and Spa. It was very late in the evening and there was no describing how uncomfortable it felt to be holding in your pee for a long time. We had to wait a little more for the front desk attendant to be available to confirm our booking. After we were handed the key, each had to run to our own restrooms to unload.

Oh what a day it's been
And what sights we've seen
Our tired bodies complain not
Even if we've been through quite a lot.
I bid the night a temporary goodbye
I know I'll see it again.
For now I'll sleep til morning light.
God -- goodnight! Amen.

The sound of crickets outside were like evening bells saying it's time to nap. Our Florida trip has just started.

More Photos here.

Day 1. 418 Miles - Destination: Key West through Tamiami Trail
Day 2. 5 Miles - Around the Southernmost Point of USA (Key West, Florida)
Day 3. 654 Miles: Hello Everglades. I Heart ♥ Miami
Day 4: 375 Miles: The Rest of Florida
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