Thursday, February 26, 2015

Key West, Florida: Jimmy Buffet Has Left the Building

The Green Parrot Bar, one of the few remaining old buildings still standing in Key West (photo by Simone Cannon)

It had been 30 years since I last visited Key West, aka briefly as The Conch Republic , Cayo Hueso (Bone Island) and Margaritaville, thanks to the famous song by Jimmy Buffet. The last stop, both literally and figuratively, on the US mainland. Key West was originally used as a residence for the Calusa tribe, then alternately owned by the Spanish and British, until Florida was ceded to the United States in 1819. The island has a colorful past: it has been repeatedly exploited  over the years by pirates, various countries' military forces, Cubans and Bahamians who cut down the trees, hunted turtles and fished and was used as a base by bootleggers during prohibition in the 1930s and South American drug runners from the 1960s to 1980s. During that period, it was also a place of refuge for people with few other options; quite literally, the end of the road. A laid back place with cheap rent, open bars and beautiful sunsets, where you could relax on the beach, forget your troubles and maybe get a fresh start. 

  A couple cycling in front of the Southernmost House, now a boutique hotel, Key West (photo by Simone Cannon)

When I visited in the 90s, new development was slowly building, but you could already see in which direction the island was moving. Although still charming in its own way, the old Key West is gone. With a few exceptions, the rickety bars and Victorian wooden houses have been replaced by Coach and Express stores, slick art galleries and upscale martini bars. The rents have gone through the roof, on average, $2,000-$4,000 for a one bedroom apartment and the renters and owners, semi-understandably, are intolerant of squatters, including RV dry campers. Years ago, you could park your small motorhome, van or car almost anywhere along the side of the road in the keys, but now, the only camping near Key West is the KOA on Sugarloaf Key at a rate of $104 a night, not an option on our tight budget, so we had to drive from and back to Long Key State Park. Parking has always been difficult, but now it is almost impossible to find a space, especially for a motorhome. After driving around for ages, someone finally told us that we could park for free in the empty lot across from the Eco Discovery Center and walk to the town center. 

Willie T's Bar, Key West

There are still vestiges of the Key West that I remember: you can still walk down the street with a cocktail, you can still see the performers on Sunset Pier at Mallory Square while watching the sunset, and there are still lots of tacky souvenir shops, but the beaches have been taken over by corporate resorts, condos have been built on every square inch of undeveloped land and the island is very much geared to the affluent American and International tourist. Tour buses and hop-on/off trolleys abound, boutique hotels and expensive restaurants are everywhere and privately chartered sports fishing boats are a booming business. Newly arrived residents even tried to rid the island of the famous roosters by hiring a rooster hunter (really), but many of the older residents kidnapped and hid the roosters in their homes to save their lives and the rooster hunter eventually gave up and went home. The long-time residents are trying to hold the fort down for as long as they can, but eventually, the developers will sadly hold most of the cards. Time marches on, development continues and there is a lot of tourist money to be made...I get it, but Jimmy Buffet has definitely left the building.   

At least the roosters are still there...(photo by Simone Cannon)


Friday, February 20, 2015

Tarpon, Sunsets and Fishing Boats: The Upper Florida Keys

Catch of the Day, Key Largo, Florida (photo by Luis Bastardo)

When the rep at  told me that Bahia Honda State Park was fully booked, I was starting to resign myself to the fact that we would not find cheap (or for that matter, any) campsites throughout the Florida Keys. We had arrived in high season and all sites were solidly booked through April or May and we had been unable to reserve ahead of time due to family crises. So I couldn't believe it when she said "Oh wait...two nights just opened up at Long Key State Park for $38 a night; someone just cancelled. Do you want them?" "Yesss!!!!!" I screamed into the poor woman;'s ear. I couldn't believe our luck; it felt like winning the lottery! We had called around and the sites ranged in price from $65 for dry camping with no electricity, water or sewer to $105 for a full hookup, way out of our budget. We thought that we might have to give the Keys a pass until our luck suddenly changed. The next day, we hit US1 for the long drive south. 

Luis feeding a tarpon, Robbie's, Islamorada (photo by Simone Cannon) 

First stop, Key Largo, is in the upper keys, many of which are bedroom communities for Miami commuters. The vibe is laid back: chartered fishing and dive trips, t-shirt shops and casual, waterside restaurants serving items like conch fritters and fish tacos. We stopped at Robbie's to feed the tarpon with bait fish, no simple task with the marauding pelicans nipping at our legs and hands in an attempt to commandeer the fish. We had a lovely waterfront lunch of conch fritters and tarpon tacos (hey, they were well fed) washed down with Islamorada Citrus Ale

Luis at The Hungry Tarpon restaurant, Robbie's, Islamorada (photo by Simone Cannon) 

After a relaxing meal, we headed to our campground at Long Key State Park. We arrived at the small, sleepy park in the late afternoon to catch the last rays of a gorgeous sunset. Our site was just inches away from the small beach and the sea's shallow, tranquil waters. As the sun set, the sky darkened and we were lucky enough to have a moonless night, so we also had a fantastic view of the milky way. Tomorrow, we head to Key West, which should be interesting since I haven't visited in 30 years. Guessin' things may have changed a tad...

Sunset at Long Key State Park (photo by Simone Cannon)



Friday, February 13, 2015

My Favorite Wildlife Photos: Florida Keys

Here are a few wildlife photos that I snapped during our recent visit to the Florida Keys:

 Green Iguana in mating colors, Islamorada, Florida

 Brown pelicans in a struggle for the same fish, Islamorada

Snow white egret, Islamorada

 Green iguana, Big Pine Key

 Brown pelicans, Islamorada

 Brown pelican Islamorada

 Resting brown pelican, Islamorada

Wading snowy egret, Islamorada

 Cormorants, Long Key State Park

Ibises, Long Key State Park 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Zen and the Art of the Black Water Tank Dump: Ten Life Lessons Gleaned from Full-Time Life on the Road, Part Two:

Edisto Beach State Park, South Carolina, USA (photo by Simone Cannon)

6.  Home is Where You Park It: there is no single place that will make you happy or unhappy.  Wherever you travel, you will be there along with the same problems that you have always had. Instead of traveling to escape, travel to liberate yourself by learning how to become more resilient and how to navigate through the obstacles of life. Take advantage of your current location by learning something new and challenging yourself. Experiment with local foods and culinary techniques, get to know local people, learn new languages and customs, hike different trails, try new activities, make new friends. Even if you've lived in the same place for 30 years, there is always something knew to discover. Make the best of every situation, expand your horizons and you will amaze yourself with your new-found courage, joy and knowledge.  

Luis traversing the Amazon jungle, outside of Manaus, Brazil (photo by Simone Cannon)

7.  Don’t Be Afraid to Move On (or Stay):  whenever I have made a huge error in judgment in my life, it has been when I didn't pay attention to my antennae a-quivering. I rationalized away my perfectly sound instincts and was inevitably sorry. If you feel happy, comfortable and gratified in a place, job or relationship, stay. If you don’t, it’s perfectly acceptable to move on. Trust yourself to know if something doesn't feel right. You don’t have to explain, rationalize or justify your decision to anyone, including yourself. Life is shockingly short; it’s best not to waste time hanging around a campsite that's not right for you.  

The Mountains of Montana (photo by Simone Cannon)

8.  Plan Well, Prepare, But Don't be Afraid to Get Off the Beaten Path: anyone can follow the tourist trail, but it takes a brave soul to branch out. Some of the best experiences we've had have been the result of spontaneous decisions or last-minute suggestions from others, partly because there are no expectations, that is, no opportunity to be disappointed, but also because to be unexpectedly delighted and surprised by something is a rare experience indeed. Start out with a basic plan, prepare as best you can, but always remain flexible. There is nothing to be gained by "staying the course" if a wonderful opportunity comes along or if inclement weather is imminent and will ruin your best laid plans. Remain agile and open to new experiences in travel and in life and you will seldom go wrong.  

Luis zip-lining in Bariloche, Argentina (photo by Simone Cannon)

9.     Challenge Your Fears: everyone has a fear of something. That’s fine, natural and perfectly normal; it’s how all living things protect themselves from harm. But don’t let fear run your life. Many of our fears are exaggerated and not helped by the barrage of terrifying stories on popular so-called “news” networks. Challenge your own fears and clearly analyze them. The world is not black and white, there are many, many shades of grey. Open your mind by having an open and respectful conversation with someone who is politically opposed to you, has different spiritual beliefs, comes from a different socioeconomic, ethnic or age group than yourself.  The vast majority of people that you encounter in traveling and in life are helpful, kind, trustworthy and friendly. People all over the world are just like you: they work hard, raise their families, worry about paying bills, and are just trying to live a peaceful and successful life. I've been lucky enough to travel alone to 47 countries and have had overwhelmingly positive experiences everywhere I've been. The generosity of others to a complete stranger continues to amaze and humble me. Don’t let suspicion and paranoia ruin the future friendships and wonderful interactions that you may have. Just once, try something new that you have always been afraid of doing: bungy-jumping, public speaking, sky-diving, traveling alone in a foreign city. If you don’t like it, you never have to do it again. But I promise that you will get at least one thing out of the experience: you will feel stronger and freer than ever before.   

Simone snow-shoeing, Crystal Mountain, Washington State, USA (photo by Luis Bastardo)

10. Don’t set False Barriers to Success:  Just because you've never heard of someone doing something, doesn't mean that it can't be done. Every day we hear people say "we'd love to do what you are doing, but...". The reasons range from money, time, fear, lack of knowledge, etc; all valid but surmountable obstacles. If you really want to do something, you must research, save money, prepare as best as possible and muster the courage to take the leap. The most distressing sentence is "People tell me that I can't do it because "I am a woman/too old/never traveled, am not multi-lingual, etc." things that are a bit more of a challenge to change, to say the least. Don't let other people talk you out of your dreams by letting them project their fears onto you. We constantly meet people who break the mold and you can too. World records are broken regularly by people who didn't believe that they couldn't do it. To paraphrase Henry Ford, "If you think you can or you can't, you're right."  

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Zen and the Art of the Black Water Tank Dump: Ten Life Lessons Gleaned from Full-Time Life on the Road, Part One:

Luis and The Chateau, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (photo by Simone Cannon)

Four months ago, Luis and I sold most of our belongings, left boxes of things that we couldn't part with at friends' houses, bought a small motorhome and headed out for a year of full-time RV adventure. Neither of us had ever owned an RV, nor traveled together for that length of time in a space essentially the size of most people’s mud rooms, but we were up for the challenge. We thought ourselves very lucky; how many people have the chance to drop everything and spend a year visiting amazing cities, lush national parks, sparkling beaches, snow-capped mountains and attending festivals around the country? We learnt very quickly that, incredible as the trip has been so far, there are also many, many challenges in creating a successful life on the road. The good news is that many of the things that we have learned also created opportunities for us to develop new skills, make new social connections and generally improve our lives in ways that we couldn't
 have foreseen. We will carry this knowledge with us when (if?) we return to “settled” life. Here, then, just in time for the New Year, are the first five of ten hard-won life lessons: 

Um, I think this is how one empties a black water tank... (photo by Simone Cannon)                                    
1.  You Will Spend Your Days Going From One Problem to the Next: This is less bleak than it sounds. One of best pieces of advice we received (and we received a lot) when we started looking for an RV for our epic year long trip was “as soon as you have resolved one issue, another one will come along, so prepare yourselves”. That tip put us in the right mindset: expect the unexpected, stay positive, go with the punches, learn to be creative, resourceful and resilient. When, in the first few months, our house battery died, we got two flat tires simultaneously, our skylight was shattered by a falling pine cone, our side mirror was smashed by an oncoming driver, our water heater element burnt out, our tanks overflowed, our kitchen flooded and our refrigerator temporarily stopped working, we didn't throw ourselves off the top of our motorhome. We figured it all out via youtube and fellow RVers and felt very proud of ourselves indeed.  

Meeting old and new friends on the road (photo by Luis Bastardo)

2.  Everyone Needs a Support Group: Even a rolling one. Let your guard down, make friends, get references, ask for help, advice and tips from people that have more experience or different skills than you do. Connect with those around you and you will be amazed at the kindness, generosity, innovative ideas, moral support and camaraderie that you will quickly gain. Just knowing that there are people out there who are thinking of you warmly is comforting. Depend on the kindness of strangers. There is no shame in relying on others and you will soon have the opportunity to return the favor when others inevitably need your help.  

Selling everything we can before we leave (photo by Simone Cannon)

3. You Can Live with Much Less than You Think: do you really need 32 pairs of socks? Four flat screen TVs? Eight kinds of cereal? 14 sturdy tote bags, just in case? One of the most liberating things about preparing to travel full-time in a small space is getting rid of excess “stuff”. It can be overwhelming to sort through things, but it is manageable if you do it a bit at a time. Give things to family and friends, donate to a thrift shop, sell them on eBay. Don't use material things as a security blanket or an excuse to stay in one place. Lighten your load and you will move much more easily and quickly through life.    

Jockey's Ridge State Park, North Carolina's Outer Banks (photo by Simone Cannon)

4. You Have to Give up Something to Achieve Your Dream:  If your dream is to be a principal dancer at the NYC Ballet, you have to give up carbs, pedicures, and hours sitting on the sofa watching The Bachelor. If you strive to be a successful, innovative entrepreneur, you have to give up a huge chunk of time spent with family and friends, lots of cash and your fear of rejection and presenting your idea to others. If you want to travel the world on a budget, you will have to give up five-star hotels, regular hot showers and become resigned to carrying your own supply of toilet paper. If you’re selecting an RV, you must choose between living space and maneuverability. You can either have a well-appointed long rig with slide-outs or a small, compact rig with good gas mileage and the capacity to drive down winding roads and park in small spaces. Every dream is worth pursuing, but, regardless of what glossy magazines, internet sites and inspirational speakers tell you, you can’t have it all. Everything comes with a price and it’s better to find out whether you can live with the sacrifice before a lot of time and money is needlessly spent in the pursuit. You have to decide if your dream is worth it. If it isn't, stop now and cut your losses. If it is, Godspeed.     

This should work... (photo by Simone Cannon)

5.    You Are More Talented, Creative & Resourceful Than You Realize: help others when you can, you may be surprised at your own abilities and ideas. Can you sing? Play an instrument? Know a card game? Cook a good meal? Fix a leaking pipe? Sell things on Ebay? Answer legal questions? Wrap a twisted ankle or administer CPR? Organize others? Forage for mushrooms? Jumpstart an engine? You may come in very handy in a pinch. Share your experiences and expertise with others. It often takes a village to resolve a problem. Remember also that learning is a lifelong process: use the obstacles that you encounter to educate yourself so you will be better prepared next time. Read as much as you can, ask a lot of questions, learn something completely new. Don’t be afraid to look silly when attempting to master a new skill (don’t worry, you will).