Excerpt from travel journal, Sunday, April 15, Miami:
We’d spent the previous day in Biscayne National Park and arrived in the Homestead-Florida City area south of Miami without lodging plans or much ambition to make them. So we overnighted in a quiet Home Depot parking lot. The next morning, shortly after dawn, we chatted up the small, sturdy, very dark man with the clean hat and freshly ironed work pants standing near our rig.
His name is Santos, a fortyish migrant from Nicaragua, and he’s waiting for a day-labor job. He helps people move, does heavier labor, is pretty much a handy man. He lives with four other men in a two-bedroom apartment, for which they pay $800 a month. His family is back home and he sends his wages there regularly.
The conversation in Spanish was warm, punctuated on both sides with broad smiles and polite curiosity. Santos was still there, waiting for work, when we left the parking lot shortly after 8.
We headed for the J. Fritz and Frances Gordon Memorial Park in Coral Gables to see if we could park there and then bike to Calle Ocho, the heart of Little Havana. I’d seen it on GoogleMaps and it seemed well positioned for our day’s adventure.
On the way, the last week’s worth of gnat and mosquito bites caught up to me. It’s clear that the birds and frogs in Florida aren’t holding up their end of bargain. I’m thinking of re-engineering the Cows’ Chick-fil-A “Eat Mor Chikin” campaign; mine would be directed to the the birds and frogs: “Eat Mor Meskitos….”
The park was lovely and the “Country Club Prado” neighborhood reminded us of a slightly more modest version of Dallas’ Swiss Avenue. Huge and majestic old oak trees draped in Spanish moss…. But no parking.
We drove on, checked out a nearby Home Depot parking lot, but a couple of drunks on siesta with paper bags still in their hands didn’t make us feel as safe as we’d like in leaving our property there for the day, so we took to driving the surrounding residential neighborhood and found the perfect spot to park just south of the western entrance to Calle Ocho….
I took a picture of our address to be sure we’d be able to find our way home later….
We were on our bikes by 10:30, checked out the Versailles Cuban Bakery but it was way too crowded to stick around to sample their fare, so we pedaled on east along Calle Ocho. Three 50-passenger charter buses were parked near the Maximo Gomez Park, better known as Dominos Park, and we parked our bikes for awhile to enjoy the ambiance and take some pictures….
I don’t know how to play dominos, but these men (they were mostly all men) clearly take the game seriously. It was fun to watch. Great mural on the wall, too (which is what headlines this blog post)….
We left our bikes locked at the park and walked a half dozen blocks further east to check out the Calle Ocho Wall of Fame and find a bite to eat in a place that seemed a bit less touristy.
Of the dozen or so Latino stars commemorated with stones in the sidewalk – there may have been more that we missed? – I recognized only one: Maria Conchita Alonso, the singer, songwriter and actress (who is actually Venezuelan). Maria Conchita is as known for her political views – critic of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Barack Obama, supporter of LGBT rights in general and John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid in specific) – as she is for her varied acting and music career.
We were taken by the series of memorials a few blocks down, ranging from the Bay of Pigs to Cuban independence. One was a salute to Gen. Antonio Maceo, somebody I’m not familiar with but whose quote is meaningful: “Freedom is not begged for; it is conquered with the edge of a machete.” (I might have translated it a bit differently: Freedom is not something to beg for; it is won with the edge of a machete.”)
Another memorial included several quotes from Jose Marti, the 19th century poet-journalist apostle of Cuban independence, including this one: “I want, when I die, without a country, but without a master, to have on my tomb a bouquet of flowers – and a flag!”
The huge and ancient trees of the area were striking, the rambling root system of one in particular made me think of a Wall of Tentacles.
We checked out El Nuevo Siglo Supermarket and were seduced by the lunch counter inside, where six women were busy making the food and serving it to hungry local patrons on the dozen or so barstools and the 10 small tables crammed between the food aisles.
We heard not a word of English. We ordered a couple of the daily specials.
I had the ropa vieja (a national dish of Cuba, shredded stew beef with vegetables in a slightly tomato-base sauce). G had the rabo encendido (spicy oxtail stew, native to the Dominican Republic). Both came with a bowl of rich black beans. G’s dish also came with a side of stewed yucca; mine with a side of sautéed platanos.
My pulled beef was deliciously tender and juicy, similar to an especially moist and tasty brisket you might get in Texas. The meat in G’s oxtail soup literally fell off the bones as he prodded it with a fork and was exceptionally well seasoned.
The stewed yucca looked a bit like cubed, boiled white potatoes and was dense in texture, starchy in flavor – rather bland, serving a grits-like role to the meal. The plate of sautéed bananas was outstanding, much like what you find in Chiapas and other parts of southern Mexico – sweet, tender, warm, grilled to perfection….
From there we walked back to fetch our bikes and pedal on east toward the Miami skyline and the coastline beyond. It seems Little Havana is really but a small island in Miami, not nearly as big and vibrant as we expected. Then again, we were there on a Sunday and we may not have seen all of its best spots. What we saw we enjoyed. It was authentic and colorful.
Soon we found ourselves at Brickell Bay, just south of downtown Miami, a high-end residential area with a wonderful bike/pedestrian path right along the water. We pedaled over the bridge to Brickell Key and back, and around Brickell Point, over the Miami River and around the waterfront on Bayfront Park Path. There seemed to have been a major event (perhaps a marathon?), in the area earlier that morning as workers were busily dismantling scaffolding for tents and seating across several acres around the Bayfront Park Amphitheater….
We counted six huge cruise ships in the port and judging from the crowds stretching from the Bayside Marketplace to the American Airlines Arena (yes, there’s one in Miami, too), they must all be leaving tonight. We carefully picked our way, with our bikes, through the outdoor dining areas, packed with people, and paused briefly to listen to a Cuban-flavored band perform in the marketplace’s stage area.
The rhythm was infectious; dozens of people of all ages and colors danced to the beat down front. We heard a half dozen different languages and basked in the great view of Biscayne Bay behind the performers.
But it was hot and muggy – 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity – and we were nearly out of water. Sadly, we couldn’t find any draft beer. So we finished our water and decided to pedal leisurely through downtown and back to our Casita.
We wound our way around downtown, past the Freedom Tower, back over the Miami River, through the Jose Marti Park and across 7th Street SW back to the western entrance of Calle Ocho and south to our Casita. All told, we’d been on our bikes or sightseeing on foot for four hours.
And here’s the best part of traveling the way we do: I’m drenched in sweat, so I strip and jump into the shower, right there in the Casita on a quiet neighborhood street. We have no electricity, but we open a key window or two and flip on the 12-volt battery fan in the ceiling of the Casita to get a nice cross breeze going – and it’s perfect. Cool shower and an ice-cold beer! G did same. Felt great.
In less than 30 minutes, we are fresh and clean – G shaved and I even put on a little makeup – and back on the road with the Casita. We head to the Apple Store at The Falls shopping center 20 minutes away for the 5:30 studio hours class I’d found and registered online for the day before so we could improve our journal-keeping and spreadsheet-calculating skills.
Great mall, great class, great instructor: Thank you, Grant Livingston! Learned some new tricks using the Pages and Numbers programs and how to organize our growing mountain of photos….
Back to the Casita a little after 7. Found a great parking spot at the nearby Home Depot in the town of Pinecrest, near a Total Wine store. It was 20 minutes before closing and I asked the store manager if we could overnight in the nearly empty lot. No problem, he said. (We’ve learned that my doing the asking generally enhances the odds of a permissive answer.)
We found the perfect spot away from the main road and under some trees. (Important lesson learned earlier, the hard way: Avoid spots under trees with bird poop on the ground underneath.) It started raining the moment we parked the Casita.
We dashed inside as the temperature began dropping. It got into the 60s later that evening. We enjoyed a light dinner of fresh fruit and yogurt, chit-chatted about everything and nothing, fell asleep before 10 p.m.
Tomorrow we’ll likely explore another part of Miami. Maybe the Coconut Grove area recommended by Apple coach Grant. Its exclusive neighborhoods, tropical landscaping and off-road bike paths likely will involve less guerrilla biking…. And we still look forward to hooking up with friends in the area….
In the meantime, we’ll close the book on a perfect day. This is how we travel.