The Departure January 2, 2015
Tears welled up in her eyes as we started to say our goodbyes.
“I’ll be OK,” Amani said, as my best friend and I embraced for the third time,
“because I know you will be back”
Leaving our dear ones behind to start a new phase in your life is the hardest. But the world’s draw- the attraction of faraway places- is stronger. The idea that, to make another trip around the world, had to be now or never, my husband Thijs and I decided we had to do it.
Preparations took several years: we downsized our belongings and sold our house. We built a compact camper fit to travel the world, but with a touch of luxury to satisfy my sense of comfort. We bought an apartment in Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands, our home country. We shipped our leftover belongings there to furnish the apartment, as a place to call home in case the long adventure would become too much. In the meantime we hope to rent the place on a short term basis.
For our final preparations we spent the last months (off-and-on) and Christmas with Amani. Her house became our home: we shared meals, dog walks and chores, celebrations and heartaches. We bonded even more.
So when Thijs started itching to leave, I dragged my feet.
“We’ll leave right after Christmas” Thijs decided.
“But we’re not ready yet, let’s leave after New Year” I replied, although I knew that would be pushing it, since I applied for, and was accepted to participate in an art show in Ft Lauderdale, Florida on the first weekend of January. This would be the first of several shows to participate in as we’d drive across the US while selling my paintings out of the trailer, in tow behind our camper.
“Okay then, let’s leave the Saturday after Christmas” I compromised.
It was a date we all could live with.
Saturday after lunch we were ready. The laundry was done, the last paperwork sorted and Amani’s restocked tool shed cleaned up. All our belongings somehow found a place in the overstuffed camper (We still had so much stuff!)
Then it was time to say goodbye: taking pictures…invitations to come visit… hugs… tears…more hugs.
Finally we drove off and out of the neighborhood.
Ten minutes into our trip, while looking for a gas station that had cheap diesel, we received a call from Amani. I picked up the phone.
“Do you miss us already?” I asked.
“Yes, I do!” Amani replied, “But Thijs left his hat and his jacket…..though I don’t mind keeping the hat!” I know she liked the English tweed, Italian made, bought in Oslo hat, and it would look really good on her. However, as cold as it was the last days, we decided we still need warm outerwear, so we turned around. We still stopped to fuel up the truck. By the time we were back at Amani’s house, it was already passed 3 PM. Amani did not need much to convince us to stay for just one more night, which we spent around a backyard campfire, as if this were our first stop, boondocking with the nicest host who treated us with Indian food, a nice bottle of wine, and warm company.
It was a departure made for the memory book.
We reached the end of the road. The last house, with horses in the yard, did not have the address we were looking for. Ahead of us was a grassy field that stretched out under the power lines. Beyond, we spotted a few houses, mostly tucked away between woods. Almost overlooked, a small sign just in front us showed an arrow and the right street number. With our eyes, we followed the direction the arrow was pointing and noticed gravel in the grass, with a green drive leading to an opening between trees and undergrowth. This must be it, we concluded. Thijs got out and investigated. Soon he came back, accompanied by a lean man with a graying beard, smiling brown eyes and a navy blue knit hat that wanted to hold on to a collection of dried grass blades. He introduced himself as Steve. The black border collie mix beside him dropped her ball on the ground and stared at me, pleading to throw her toy for her to retrieve. Kakao, our dog was of similar size, a fact that gave us hope that he and this dog Sissy could get along. (Ever since Kakao and Lobbus, our other dog – now deceased- started fighting, he is wary of dogs larger than him, and reacts the wrong way: with aggression) They touched noses and other places, and ignored each other.
“Ooh!” I exclaimed.
“Oh yeah, we have chicken” said Steve, casually.
“Oh boy” I said, “I’m afraid he’ll kill them,” and I ran towards the noise. By the time I saw Kakao racing by, the noise had stopped. I spotted a strawberry blonde chicken hiding in the shrubbery, blending in with the tan of fallen sycamore leaves. A moment later, I saw a second chicken in similar camouflage colors, both alive. Kakao, in the meantime, busied himself exploring the perimeters of the property, and when I was told that two chicken were all there were, I was somewhat relieved. While I still kept an eye on Kakao, I explored the heavily wooded property, sprinkled with cars and batteries. An elevated structure not far from the house was covered with solar panels. The house itself had the garage on the ground floor, and the living rooms on the second, accessible from the outside by steps leading to a covered porch that surrounded the dark wooden house on two sides. The cars on the property were converted to run on electricity, and this was the reason of our visit. Last week we received our long-awaited Lithium Battery pack, which should harness the energy we receive from the four solar panels we already installed on the roof of our camper. Steve Clunn came highly recommended as the person who knew everything about batteries, electric car conversions and all that. We don’t, so we sought his help. When Thijs and Steve concentrated on the paperwork and manuals, above on the deck a large woman emerged. She introduced herself as Audrey and invited me to come up. She is one entertaining lady and conversations flowed easily, only to be interrupted by many phone calls, which made it clear how sought-after Green Shed Conversions was.
Around lunchtime, we were invited to come up and eat. Right after lunch, Steve and Thijs hurried back to their project in and on the camper, Kakao discovered a giant sunning gopher turtle who, upon confrontation, quickly (for a turtle) retreated into his burrow. I was amazed at how Kakao soon left the animals on the property alone and how he enjoyed his newly gained freedom. Sissy did not become his friend, but with totally different interests, they tolerated each other. Sissy loved chasing balls, and if possible, would hound you with the offering of the ball forever. The only way to be left alone for a while is by faking to throwing the ball one way, but actually doing it into the other direction.
Audrey made plans for dinner. I joined her for the shopping, which she also turned into a small guided tour of the town of Crystal River, Florida (the place where Manatees gather)we drove through charming streets with brick paved sidewalks in the shade of trees adorned with long strands of Spanish moss. Tiny houses with covered porches held little galleries, wine stores, boutiques and restaurants. On the waterside, in the clear water, a diving instructor showed his students how to submerge with snorkel, tank and goggles. White yachts lined the opposite shore of the river. On a weekday, and off season, few people were there to disrupt a sense of peace. Later on, Audrey took me for a ride in Coco, their convertible electric smart car. We raced through the fields under the power lines, with Kakao running along beside us.
After dinner Audrey and Steve told us about their second life as traveling musicians , of how they met, children and family, and working together. We talked about our past life, our travel experiences, about what we do now and our plans for the future. We spent the night on the property, with half of our camper interior upside down; the guts of the car exposed. The next morning, as soon as Thijs stepped out, he was called in the house for coffee and breakfast, and our never-ending conversations continued.
Thijs and Steve seemed to work well together. When I would peek out, I could see them on the roof, underneath the truck, or inside, with a butt sticking out on the driver’s side. That afternoon they got the fridge, microwave, lights, water pump and air conditioning working. Audrey asked if we wanted to stay another night, and, of course, we accepted. How could we refuse an offer like that, we were having such a good time!
Thank you Audrey and Steve for helping us with our technical needs, and especially for the warm hospitality extended!
Incredible Florida – January 2015
A strong but constant breeze gently rocked our camper. The ocean was milky turquoise in the distance. Closer to the shore, the winds pushed mounds of uprooted brown sea grass on to the beach. Choppy waves prevented the lukewarm water from being crystal clear. Overhead, a school of pelicans practiced flight in perfect formation. The sun sparkled, the temperature was warm with a cool breeze, and a rhythmic sounds of waves, supported by a rustle of shore plants set a meditative mood. The freshly made Margaritas already were a memory in an empty glass. We found a dream spot, on the beach of Long Island Key, about halfway the Florida Keys en route to Key West. This would be a place to stay for a while, but these rare beach spots are in such demand that we were only allowed one night – without having made reservations months before.
To our left and right, separated from us by patches of shrubbery, we had neighbors in giant RV busses. These huge “camping” vehicles never seized to amaze us, with slide-out rooms on all sides, satellite dish and multiple AC units on the roof, a car in tow and more stuff strewn around on the campsite. I was once told you need a bus this size if you travel for 6 weeks or more. …. Okay……
On our way down to Florida we were joined by many of these behemoths, but once we hit the Sunshine State, sights of them became rare on the roads. Where did they go? Could it really be that these $100,000 + vehicles want to park side-by side in one of the many RV parks- that-look-like -trailer -parks right next to the highway or even the railroad? Is it true that many of them want to spend six months in a place where we would not even want to spend one night? Two nights ago we really needed a place to stay and rolled into a site that we would not recommend to anyone. Yes, our site was private and the bathrooms were clean. The highway noise seemed soothing between the train horns that shook us awake every half hour. And yes, most of this park in the poorest neighborhood of Ft Lauderdale was filled with giant seasonal RVers, who each claimed their spots with TV’s, potted vegetable gardens and trees festively decorated with Christmas lights. Their generators and AC’s competed for attention with the traffic noise.
Traffic! Once again I realized I am not a Big City person.
After the quiet tranquil roads of the Everglades we hit Miami. First we passed through the charming, tropical bustling small-town neighborhood of Little Havanna. As we neared downtown Miami, building became taller and streets more congested. Without a map or a true destination, we constantly hit traffic jams with detours on our quest to find the coastal road of Miami Beach. When we finally arrived there, we found no place to park our camper with trailer attached, so we moved on, with the flow traffic, gazing at the show of affluence. We drove by outdoor café’s, where pretty girls, menu’s in hand, attracted customers in flashy cars (we saw a gold plated Hummer!). Hotel towers had landscaped driveways with fountains so high, I couldn’t see the entry above it from my car window. We passed rows of mansions, flaunting their Great Gatsby backyards from across the water, visible only when these 10,000+ sq ft. homes were not obstructed by their five-story yachts, docked side-by side behind each home like cars on a busy street. When people outside of the US say: ”the streets in America are paved with gold”, they must be talking about Miami Beach. The volume of wealth flaunted here made me nauseous. Sadness hit me when I saw a wrecking ball working on a row of classic Art Deco homes, clearing spaces for yet more high-rise hotels and apartments. We arrived at the Northern Beaches, where traffic relaxed and a half- empty parking lot allowed us to stop and explore on foot. Here, Art Deco style buildings still set the tone. With hotels, cinemas and store facades in pastel colored concrete and strong horizontal lines, I could imagine myself riding around in a baby-blue convertible Cadillac, with wings and lots of chrome, rolling into a pink, yellow and turquoise beachfront motor hotel. Ahhh, the romance of yesteryear, when there seemed to be so much more time and space….
When it was time to find a camping spot for the night, we found that the Miami area is not camping friendly. The few state park campgrounds were full, and parking lots enforced no-camping laws. Here, we were forced to be okay with the last remaining spot on the camping under the highway beside the railroad.
$40 for a noisy overnight tent space! Highway robbery….(sigh)…Time to move on.
In the middle of the night, the local gang of four roosters decided on a crowing competition. That is the time I noticed that the all of them sound different: one has a high pitched voice, pure and clear; another ends his crow low and less pronounced, with a question mark in the end. Then there’s the hoarse one, with a double voice and off-pitch on his strongest note, still better than the one who’s totally off-key and shaky. Each of them wait their turn to show off. The concert went on for about an hour, only for another gang to pick up the efforts an hour later. The sounds of Key West! While I still enjoyed the odd music, I could imagine for the residents, forced to hear this night after sleepless night, it could drive you up the wall. And yet, despite complaints of noise and poop, Key West residents love their fowl. It delights the visitors who stumble over a hen with a few chicks in tow entering a restaurant, or roosters taking over the parking lot, or a flock of them just crossing the road for no particular reason. Cameras come out for pictures, followed by a track to the souvenir stand where roosters sell in all shapes and sizes. Business is booming in Key West.
What once used to be an isolated fisherman/artist town with a Caribbean flair, now attracts thousands of tourists year around. The chain of islands known as the Florida Keys have been made accessible by a causeway and a series of bridges, which makes it affordable for motorists like you and me to visit. So they come in droves. Duval Street is the main downtown hangout and like a little brother of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, with noisy open bars, souvenir- and t-shirt shops. Cars drive around, desperately looking for a parking space that is not already reserved by residents. Hotels and guesthouses are expensive and filled. The nearby campground reduced the size of their sites to an absolute minimum, packing one RV right on top of the others. Charging exorbitant prices does not deter visitors from staying a night, a week, or even a season.
There must be something special about Key West….
As the southernmost tip of the continental US, the tropical atmosphere with lush greenery and turquoise water is hard to resist. We decided to enjoy the view over the water, with Sunset Key as backdrop for a parade of sails -not all of them in their best performance, and most of the motoring their sailboat through a beautiful constant breeze! We both agreed this moment called for a caipirinha and some conch fritters. Warm sun, cool breeze, nice view with happy colors, good food and drinks, and all the time in the world. Life is good.
More about Key West later
Incredible Florida, continued -February 2015
Early morning view from our Okaloacoochee State Forest camp Site
Yesterday, in the most tranquil camping spot in Florida, we experienced one of the loudest nights of our lifetime. Around dusk, out of the whole deserted campground, a large RV bus picked the site next to ours, only separated from us by some trees and bushes. A bunch of loud people emerged, people so rough, we feared a request for some quiet time could get us beat up at best. So we endured a night of shouting over loud music, howling over their own mooning and farting competition, interspersed with potty-mouthed screaming arguments that ran deep into the night. Just the morning before, the ranger asked us how everything was, and we raved about how perfect, how beautiful and peaceful it was in this little known campsite and the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest. Today we filed a complaint and heard that Law Enforcement broke up the fight that night and were on their way to talk to them again. Today, the noise is a little more civilized. The volume however has yet to subside but, since it is daytime, it is allowed until 10 PM. After that, we are armed with the Law Enforcement’s phone number; for an officer who comes armed to the teeth and wearing a bullet proof vest. To keep things peaceful.
Flabbergasting contrasts and contradictions, like this worst racket in the most peaceful of places, is the subject I want to address in this blog. In our experience, in many ways, it defines the state of Florida, and it leaves us puzzled.
Yesterday we spent the afternoon in search of bread. We know: to Americans that sounds ridiculous (there’s bread in every supermarket, right?) but my fellow Dutch expatriates will understand: not all bread is created equal, and only some American loaves will pass the Dutch taste test. A few years ago, I discovered a bread that I would drive miles for to purchase. It was a multigrain bread by Golden Harvest. I could get it only at Krogers. I would buy at least four loaves at the time (if they had it) and keep them frozen until needed. There is no Krogers in South Florida, but we discovered that Publix has bread just like it. It’s called Harvest Grain, or 12 grain with Omega3. Absolutely delicious! And we were out of bread. We searched in La Belle, the town nearest to the State Forest, with no luck. The local Winn Dixie only had a 5 grain loaf, so old, it could be used as a baseball bat; not good. Next we went south, to Immokalee, a town with at least 10,000 people – according to the map- or twice the size of La Belle. No luck there either, but we asked around, and yes, there would be a Publix only 15 minutes south of town. So we drove, and drove, and drove…We passed the Seminole Casino just on the outskirts, then the reservation police station, some public housing, followed by orange groves and cattle pastures. Nothing indicated a middle- to high-end supermarket clientele base…. When we hit the Corkscrew Swamp, we turned around, ready to give up. But there was one side road we missed, to “Ave Maria”, a place so small, it wasn’t even on the map. We first dismissed it as a Hispanic orange picker’s compound, but since it was the only indication of residences in the area, we decided to check it out. There, like a Fata Morgana in cow country, a well maintained tree-lined avenue brought our attention to an enormous structure reminiscent of a pilgrim destination: a mountainous domed church on a landscaped central plaza, surrounded by three-story office and retail buildings with attractive outdoor cafes and lunch restaurants, surrounded by parking lots, which in turn were surrounded by a few rows of sparkling McMansion homes, which were surrounded by expansive green spaces with future streets, and, of course, a golf course. And this tiny, sparkling town of maybe 1000 inhabitants, in the middle of nowhere, indeed had a Publix supermarket. No Harvest Grain Bread, though. But…what a weird experience…!