Despite all the talking about inevitability of its flow, time is actually quite a flexible concept. We are driving east on the interstate 90 and out of a sudden there is a sign: Central Time Zone. We didn’t cross any state borders and - judging by the total blackness on both sides of the highway - we are in the middle of nowhere. And without much warning one hour of our day is gone. I suppose middle of nowhere makes sense for a time zone change. And the hour that we just gave up wasn’t ours to keep. We borrowed it in July when driving through similarly empty Texas. Although why in South Dakota the time zone change line isn’t straight is beyond me - there are only 4 states in the Union with fewer people per square mile.
Pensacola welcomes us with an unpleasant surprise. All the cheapo motels that are plentiful along the shore suddenly demand twice as much as we are used to. And many places are fully booked. After spotting one or two workers dirty from sand and oil we suspect it’s caused by the influx of BP contractors. But we are wrong. The receptionist in the Marriott, where we finally decide to blow our nightly budget, attempts - in vain - not to show her disdain. How could we have not known? It’s the Blue Angels weekend.
We slowly travel west towards Pensacola looking for signs of oil. Every orange boom on the water, every bit of dirt in the sand make us think it’s there. But beaches are clean as far as Panama City and the increasing number of for sale signs and foreclosures belongs to another man made disaster: collapse of the real estate bubble. We check out every beach afraid it may be the last oil-free one. At the local restaurants we are told to enjoy our oysters while they last. It’s like everyone is aware of some biblical disaster looming around the corner. We do find something on Miramar Beach. There is a notice that the beach has been affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and swimming may be hazardous to your health. Nobody pays any attention to that. No tar balls or oil sheen in sight. As everywhere else parents let small children bathe, teenagers try paddle boards, retirees sit on half-submerged beach chairs.
Another day, another stereotype out of the window. This time it’s personal. Personal space to be exact. We always thought that in many subtle and not so subtle ways Americans tend to keep to themselves with a good buffer of empty space around. They arrived after all on a continent that was scarcely inhabited, they are mostly descendants of farmers, their cities are awkward attempts at cohabitation: all that means that people will stay out of your way effortlessly.
There is a fierce competition to use Florida springs: divers, children, manatees, tourists, alligators. Most springs we visit are part of extensive and well managed Florida state park system. Looks like no income tax policy here does not automatically translate into no public services. The springs are at constant temperature. Usually between 68 to 72 degree Fahrenheit (20 to 22 degrees Celsius). During the hot wet summer it translates to teeth shattering cold. But it must feel warm in winter and this is when manatees visit. Divers don wet suites and proceed to explore underwater caverns trying, in vain, to pinpoint the exact spot that the flow starts. Children simply make tremendous noise as some springs foolishly provide multilevel platform to jump to the frigid water. Surely a swimming pool closer to home would be cheaper option. Tourists board glass bottom boats to peek into the great abyss. Thankfully they quickly proceed downriver to gaze at alligators. Alligators. Swim with caution! is the exact wording of the omnipresent sign that is apparently aimed at those few alligators that can read and are stupid enough to approach the beach full of campers.
You don’t choose your family. Well - by extension - you sort of choose your spouse’s family, but with all the hoopla associated with tying the knot screening the aunts and uncles is probably not high on the priority list. It should be though. Having your relatives conveniently scattered around the world helps should you decide to spend some time traveling. We take full advantage of that in Jacksonville. It’s the first time I meet this particular branch of Damian’s family (and let me tell you, his family has more branches that he can remember), but we hit it off rather well. They live in a well established suburban community that is close to everything: not that far from the beach, and acceptable distance from the downtown. One day, on their recommendation, we decide to ride our bikes 5 miles to the beach. It is really close on the local scale: covering 874 square miles (2,264 square kilometers) Jacksonville is the largest city area-wise in continuous US and the second largest in America. Anchorage, Alaska occupies over twice as much land, but something tells me biking options might be a bit limited there. Also, last time we checked, no relatives in Alaska (we are open to the idea of adopted family - volunteers welcomed).
Watching cigars being made by one of a few remaining artisans in Ybor City I almost regret that I don’t smoke. Unless one counts those rare drunken occasions, when it suddenly seems like a grand idea. But even then I fail to appreciate the effect. Perhaps I would smoke cigars, if they were still hand made luxury items. And if relaxing after dinner in a fine company over a cigar was a socially accepted activity. But it never really was, not for women anyway. Cigarettes replaced cigars and television filled after dinner time before women became formally equal to men.
After living in New England for many years I still naively think about US as a country of a temperate climate with four seasons. Sure, I’ve looked at the hardiness zone map but colorful bands simply reveal higher temperatures as one moves down south. Nothing suggests the fundamental difference. Florida has only two seasons: dry and wet. Wet means humid and rainy, but that fails to truly depict the actual weather. Humidity throughout the day is absolutely oppressing. One gets drenched in sweat followed by continuous perspiration. A/C helps only if one stays inside 24/7; otherwise it’s simply a recipe for catching cold. The rain is not what I know from the north. Hurricanes, even if they miss a state by a safe margin, bring torrential pour capable of stopping traffic and producing puddles that can sink a car. Inpenetrable clouds change day into night. Lightnings take up half of the sky. Amazingly people here try to ignore all that and valiantly drive on, lack of visibility be damned.
Thomas Alva Edison was one of the original hackers but you would not know it if you toured Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers. And I use the term hacker in its initial, not subverted, meaning: someone who tinkers with stuff to makes things better. Incidentally I stopped telling people that I am a hacker some time ago. Since no one can tell crackers and hackers apart, such admission is greeted with an awkward silence at best and nervous reach for a cell phone to notify authorities in other cases.
To uninitiated Florida is a place that consists mostly of strip malls and golf courses. One night our drive till you drop and look for a cheapest place to sleep strategy takes us to a golf resort. It’s really just a hotel with a golf course. Which become evident in the morning when we wake up to the sound of electric golf carts whizzing below our window. Coming down to partake in our complimentary continental breakfast I pass a roundish, solemnly looking lady explaining something to a few intense 10 years old. As I approach I steal a glance at the whiteboard and suddenly a lot of things become clear in my mind.
Some rivers don’t really look like rivers at all. This one was 60 miles wide, 100 miles long and most of the year only couple of inches deep. Moving slowly to allow grass grow in its wake, birds wade in its waters, alligators and turtles breed on its banks. But it was too big and too lazy and it was mistaken for a swamp. A road was built across. Considered a technical feat of early 20th century it was constructed just like any other road in Southern Florida: by dredging a canal and piling rocks on its side. It only took 10 years after the Tamiami trail was completed for people to realize that they didn’t just build the road. They erected a dam. Huge swaths of land were drained and cultivated, numerous canals were laid out diverting water.
Not sure how it happened, but we are suddenly lost. We are supposedly in Picayune Strand State Forest. We arrived here driving a scenic county road that was described in one of the state park guides. We could always retrace our steps but it’s getting dark and 15 miles of the narrow dirt road that led us here does not look appealing. Not to mention the fact that it would put us back in the middle of nowhere and we are getting rather hungry.
The option to visit Fort Jefferson is left to the passengers of M/V Spree and I try to lobby for it. According to Damian my public relation skills are on par with those of BP executives so I don’t expect much. But the dive master in charge of the trip planning describes it as groovy, plus the tropical wave threatens to collapse, so it’s decided we’ll skip one dive and do the fort. Hooray!!! Tropical wave is the south equivalent of an Arctic front: one of those meteorological terms that mean the weather can change for the worse. Spree docks with a thump as the squall starts. 15 minutes later the torrential rain is over leaving fresh cool air. We are the only people left on an islet, not counting few campers and resident park staff, as Spree can dock only after all the ferries from Key West leave.
It feels good to stay away from the ocean for a brief moment. The comfort of walking straight, of taking shower without being periodically thrown into the stall. Even a small comfort of pissing while standing up. But I know already what I am going to miss starting tomorrow. My inept giant strides into the abyss, coolness of immeasurable waters, an OK from Melanie on the deck responding to my fist on the head salute. I’ll miss weightlessness, the calm, the multidimensional space around me. I’ll miss hiding from the current behind coral heads and looking at graceful, never ending dance of submerged universe. And the excitement of spotting shark gliding nearby. I’ll miss the experience of being juggled in my bunk as the boat makes its way home though choppy seas. It’s the sensation not much different from skiing in the fresh powder. Except of course the there are no skis. Or snow.
The trip on M/V Spree starts with captain’s briefing with huge helpings of bodily functions humor. I can’t deny it is a serious concern with almost 30 people having to relive themselves, not always voluntarily, in cramped quarters. The proper technique of fluffing trash bags, the acceptable length of the toilet paper, the problem of toilet mice (don’t ask), the art of pumping and flushing are discussed at length.
We are preparing for boarding M/V Spree to go to the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve. We did couple of multiday sailing trips before, but we haven’t done liveaboard yet and have only a faint idea what to expect. I hope that three days of Internet withdrawal will be the greatest challenge. But if you don’t hear from us by the end of the month, you can start mounting a rescue expedition. The boat takes 22 passengers, sleeping quarters are arranged in bunks of 4 to a cabin. The crew promises to feed us constantly. Alas, gourmet food is not mentioned: this is definitely not a cruise ship. Not that I would know the specifics of one never setting the foot aboard. The idea of a giant floating hotel is so unappealing that even the allure of tropical destinations pales next to it. Being marooned on a ship with hundreds of other people strikes me as oppressing, not exhilarating. And with 68% Americans overweight and 34% obese ‘all you can eat’ is plain cruel. Not to mention all those touted attractions: rock climbing, ice skating, tennis, volleyball, etc - one can do all that at home at a fraction of a cost and less crowd to compete with. I am happy to accept that I don’t know what I am missing and have little desire to be proven wrong. I’d rather take a road trip and wander aimlessly hoping to experience something unexpected.
We were poking fun at the pervasiveness of security measures in Key Largo and had received a karmic retribution: somebody had stolen an iPod from our truck. We must have forgotten to lock the car after lugging our diving gear inside. Unfortunately no-one is interested in cashmere sweaters here as our bags with winter clothes were left intact so not much chance of simplifying the packing. As you may recall we live in a gated community with a guard and security cameras. To me it demonstrates that petty larceny can’t be eliminated and most attempts to do so are a waste of money. Somehow I don’t believe the grand theft and violent crime would be rampant if guards were let go and cameras shut down.
I may never have a chance to go to another planet. But going 20 meters under water surface is the next best thing. Too bad it might not last. And I am not worried about myself. There is still enough of sites for me to dive for as long as I want. But we might be the last generation that can enjoy it. Oceans are dying on us. It’s not even slow. Reefs are sick. Efforts to replant corals, however successful, have to compete with an ongoing rise in a water temperature (and no matter what you think about the reasons, the oceans are warming up). Fish population are at unsustainable levels. Unless you do go diving it’s hard to appreciate what we are all losing.
If wrecks and reefs and fish don’t make your diving exciting enough there are always gadgets: knife, torch, safety sausage (really) and the biggest toy of all: underwater scooter. Which of course is not a scooter but a diver propulsion vehicle or, in PADI speak, DPV. By the way, diving argot is full of acronyms. Starting from SCUBA of course, which stands for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, through BCD, BWRAF, CESA, DAN, DIR, PADI and VENTID. Pretty much each and every word is an acronym for something else. No wonder computer geeks were left with GNU.
We are officially contagious. We passed our scuba habit on to our unsuspecting friends. They flew from Boston to Key Largo by way of Miami to meet us last weekend. We promptly signed them up for discover scuba diving class. We had some fun taking compromising pictures (not many people manage to look their best the first time they don mask, BCD, fins, tank and get into a swimming pool), but they still left vowing to take open water certification.There is a lesson here: don’t try scuba diving if you don’t need a new hobby. Although perhaps it’s not a scuba, maybe it’s our persuasive personalities. If that’s the case you should steer clear of us. Hard to tell.
Night invites storytelling. On the way to the dive site everybody seems to have something scary to share: divers left on the reef for the night by a careless operator, giant shark skulking in the shadows, losing one’s bearings simply by swimming upside down (watch the bubbles! says the captain). The stories get taller as the sun sinks closer to the horizon. Night dive turns out to be absolutely magical. We enter water at dusk and it gets progressively darker until one dives in blackness punctuated by torch beams and glowing tank markers.
We all want to be cool. And obviously I am not talking about surviving the scorching weather outside: finally a place where mere walking is a taxing exercise. What I mean here is this wonderful word that one uses to describe people, behaviors and things one envies, admires and ungracefully attempts to imitate. Rarely, beyond high-school, a division between the cool and the uncool crowd is so obvious as when diving. The cool are young, tanned and confident. The uncool are pasty white, old and vying for attention. The cool make their living scuba diving. The uncool are just dabbling. The cool look hot, the uncool - sweaty. The cool are surviving on water, healthy snacks and wind. The uncool are taking their meals in fancy restos that the cool wouldn’t be seen in even if they could afford it.
This is what we came to Key Largo to do: scuba diving. Possibly the last chance to do so courtesy of BP. Reefs are shallow and thus accessible here. Water is not as clear as we remember from Curacao or Caymans making dives even more otherworldly: a gigantic eagle ray flows majestically flapping its wings like a giant bird. A turtle slowly swims by to the surface. One nurse shark sleeps under a reef.Another one feeds with its snout under a rock and goes still when we approach. Later we spot a stingray half hidden in sand waiting for prey. Dive guide points out a peacock flounder that we cannot see until it moves.
What do you do when you plan to spend 3 weeks in one place? Unpack everything? Find the most convenient grocery store? Organize kitchen cabinets to your liking?It’s a weird time span: too short for a move, too long to be just passing by. We rented a furnished condo. That reminds me why people prefer to own, even if the majority of their dwelling belongs to a bank. One’s own clutter is always better then someone else’s. But one cannot own a house in each and every interesting place. Well, people who can, don’t have enough time to enjoy it.
We spend a day lazily driving along Florida’s A1A alternating between frightening developments, sleepy beach communities and millionaires mansions. Looks like a real estate bust came just in time: Florida was on its way to provide each and every citizen a chance to invest in an overpriced tiny condo in a carbon copy skyscraper located on a land that would be a usable beach if left undeveloped. We manage to spend some time on a beautiful, hauntingly empty beach, saved by virtue of calling it a preserve and charging $2 per person entrance fee.The wealthy residents of Jupiter Island donated 73 acres to form Blowing Rock Preserve in the belief that day sunbathers are better then subdivisions. We read that 5 out of existing 7 species of the sea turtle can be found here.
We start hearing Spanish. It’s Florida. It’s also St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement on land that is now continental US. The settlers happened to be Spanish and promptly built a Spanish city. Which Americans turned into cheesy attraction some 400 year later, after a brief stint as a Spanish-inspired winter resort for the wealthy. Before that the city changed hands couple of times passing from Spanish to British, then back to Spanish and finally to American hands. This is a serious history that can impress even old Europe. And it seems pretty normal to us. Cities that were not conquered, burned and rebuilt at least couple of times still feel a bit fake.