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|THE CONCH REPUBLIC|
|Exploring the Florida Keys and Key West|
text and photos
It isn’t very far from Ernest’s place down to Sloppy Joe’s joint, surely not more than a good block or two. It took me quite some time though.
First there was a kid trying to sell me a Cuban cigar and when I mentioned that I didn’t smoke, he told me about a bar where everybody was just hanging around nude, even the guests. I wondered if there was more going on than just hanging around. Then I had to sidestep a flock of chickens because the rooster wouldn’t move for me and then a blue 57 Chevy almost ran me down. I have no idea what it was all about, the two guys in the car yelled at me in Spanish, I think they were looking for the Conch Republic Seafood Company down the road.
When I finally made it to Sloppy Joe’s Bar, I was about as thirsty as Ernest Hemmingway was most of the time while he was living in Key West, the most southerly part of Florida. The bartender looked a lot like Castro sixty years ago, so I didn’t really believe him when he told me that I was sitting on Hemmingway’s favourite stool. After the fourth beer he told me that I looked a bit like Hemmingway, so I gave him the big tip he expected and left.
I didn’t tell him that I was heading back up to the Hemmingway house to type part of this story on Ernest’s old typewriter. He probably wouldn’t have believed me, but it is the truth.
Much of Florida is as American as it can get. Right down almost to Miami, it is a state of the rich and poor along with retired people fighting for space with hundreds of shopping malls and even more RV sites, but from Miami on south that changes quickly. Just south of Miami, Route 1 becomes the only road available. While there are still plenty of junk-food places and the occasional Wal-Mart along the road, by the time one gets to Key Largo or Islamorada they are replaced with seafood restaurants and shops that sell snorkels, cheap T-shirts and tiny, but very colourful bikinis. It is from here on down, that one’s world changes. Nobody talks about war or the economic downturn. For the next 150 km it is more valuable to know if the tide is going out than if the stock market is up and nobody talks about where to find the cheapest gas, but knowing where the tarpon bite this evening or who has the best seafood in the area, now that is really important.
Route 1 may be the only road that leads down to Key West, but it surely must also be the most deceptive road in all of Florida. Barreling along at forty miles an hour, traffic is too casual to go any faster; you could miss everything. The problem is that Floridians may not have learned how to count votes but they surely know how to advertise on billboards. So, unless you are looking for a snorkel and mask or that colourful tiny bikini, you are so overwhelmed by signs that you miss all the attractions, which are usually a few hundred meters from the main drag. The Keys have many great attractions, most of them natural and adventurous in nature.
Snorkeling, along with diving for the more serious, is perhaps the most popular sport, although fishing, either from a small boat that can take from 2 to 4 anglers right up to large party boats or from one of the numerous fishing peers, must be close behind. Depending on the season, anything from tarpons to sharks provide enough excitement during the day that most of us probably would be quite content kayaking leisurely through some dense cypress swamps that are alive with all kinds of exotic wildlife. Diving no doubt is a serious sport, albeit I prefer snorkeling. There is comfort in looking down to see the divers amongst a school of barracudas and sharks in a feeding frenzy, although there was Silver, the five foot long barracuda that swam with me for half an hour to make sure I didn’t take any of his food away. You should have seen his teeth.
Theresa worked for the US Navy. I suppose it was quite all right for a young lady to revolt against authority, so one day she went AWOL. Now the military is used to this and in no time she was located and returned to her base. Perhaps her superior officer’s lecture was too stern or she made a friend off base, but soon she was gone again. After about the third or fourth time, she was returned for the final time and dishonourably discharged as ‘incorrigible’. We met, of all places, at the Dolphin Research Station one evening. We hit it off in great fashion. Her skin was so gentle and smooth, and as I gently stroked her head, she looked at me and gave me a kiss. We got to know each other well and by the time I had to leave her, I knew that the Navy was no place for a Dolphin, especially one as kind as Theresa.
Out at Key West, by the harbour, every evening about an hour before the sun sets over the ocean, all the cruise ships have to head out to sea. Not that the Conch Republicans, as the local people call themselves, dislike large ships; it is because of the spectacular sunset. On a good evening, perhaps a thousand or more people show up along the shores for this nightly event. As the sunset is a public event, the law prescribes that there can be no obstructions and that most certainly includes large ships.
Back in town the lights at the nude bar are dimmed, the lineups at the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum and the Pirate Museum are becoming shorter and over at Sloppy Joe’s the noise level has greatly increased. Key West boasts a remarkable selection of excellent restaurants, both Hispanic and European and if one picks the location right, even a bikini and flip flops are in fashion.
As the night progresses and the sounds of music become more diverse, a greyish dog walks up to my chair and curls up on my feet. I talk to him but he doesn’t care, probably understands only Spanish. He looks like a Cuban mutt and probably is hungry. I share my key lime ice cream and wonder why Hemmingway ever left. I certainly feel at home here amongst the roosters of Key West and I didn’t even mind the many cats Ernest has left behind at his old house. Perhaps I should come down here more often, I tell myself.
Florida is a good place in winter, but here in the Keys, it is a different world altogether; both relaxing and exciting. It doesn’t even feel like being on the same continent.
But for now I can’t do anything, I have to stay until my friend quits snoring and gets off my feet. GL
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