Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Beauty of Palms

There is a stereotype that equates a palm tree with the most desirable beaches in the most exotic locations, places where the rest of us go to escape the dreary reality of life. Palm trees are symbols of vacation in the tropics. Palm trees are cool, especially at night.
Park the Bonneville under a street lamp shaded by a spreading palm and the resulting picture takes on the qualities of some place far from Key West, where trees grow tall and banana palms thatch palaces. Its just the parking lot at Banana Bay Resort. And the resort's office looks out of this world behind its palm facade:Across the street the boring old Fairfield Inn, a chain hotel of epic architectural conformity looks magnificent with its splendid growth:I took a lunch break to check out Key Cove, a funky little street off North Roosevelt which allows some few people access to a canal, like those of us lucky enough to live in suburban out islands in the Lower Keys. But the moon was obscured and I couldn't see anything and could photograph even less. So I took some pictures out of boredom and I saw the Banana Bay become someplace else in my camera:This is the landscape occupied by Graham Greene's Quiet American, a place of heat and intrigue, of broken promises and heart breaking diseases, a place where life is lived like an onion, layer after layer of secrets need to be unpeeled to get to the nub of whatever the issue appears to be. The banality of a Key West hotel becomes the stuff of movie scripts. How cool is that? And all thanks to the humble palm tree.
I go home to that suburban home I was just referring to, and even from the top of the Niles Channel bridge it is invisible. Not just because its so small (around 800 square feet-72 square meters) but because the original owners who built the house in 1987 added trees, and look at them now:I have my own grove of coconut palms, and what a tremendous amount of work they are too! Each tree produces a vast number of coconuts in continuation all year long and alongside them we get tons of fronds which I hack with a machete to fit them in the bins for the garden waste mulching program at the landfill. Coconuts are not native to the Keys, which may come as a surprise, but they prized because they set the right tone for the islands. The fiction is that the Keys are tropical ( they are sub-tropical as they lie North of the Tropic of Cancer), that they are in the mythical Caribbean Sea (The Keys are in the South Atlantic- the Caribbean laps the south shores of Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, the islands known as the Greater Antilles), so ever since tourism took off these lumpy rocky islands have started to sprout palm trees to dress the islands up for the role of tourist haven; because Palm Trees spell Exotic Relaxation.

My neighbor keeps a vacation home vacant most of the year but his palace is shaded by these same trees which give his place the requisite vacationing air:I have wondered for a long time why palms are called palms and the answer I got for my troubles was that the trees appear to look like human palms with fingers extended, especially when the breezes blow and the trees sway back and forth. It sounds pretty stupid to me, but I've met no better explanation for how they got their name. And so they grow, like the clappers come rain or drought, sunshine or shade. Amazing plants and vastly underrated in those sickly advertisements for vacations and liquor and... all that other stuff. Respect your palm trees, oh vacationer and doff your hat to these remarkable survivors of all that nature can throw at them.

Friday, May 30, 2008

New Mexico

They are so proud of their capital city in the state of New Mexico, they put their elaborate shield on their mundane trash cans:

My relationship with New Mexico has been a mixed bag over the years, which is a polite way of saying I don't think much of the place. I spent time in Gallup during a snowstorm with a broken VW Westfalia van, and learned how poverty looks on a cold fall day in Indian country. I tried to find the soul of Las Cruces on one of my many trips along Interstate Ten and found a big yawning chasm. I rode through Taos in 1992 on a motorcycle trip from Key West to Santa Cruz, California and practically missed the town entirely. Taos, like Sedona Arizona, is considered a spiritual center for those of the animist persuasion, but its a spirituality buried under an adobe veneer of crass commercialism. I watched a man in a pick up abandon his dog on the freeway in New Mexico and I couldn't, to my chagrin, persuade the dog into my car, it literally slipped through my fingers to a gruesome fate in the desert. Like I say, New Mexico and I don't get along.Imagine my surprise when my good friend Bruce and his wife Celia announced they couldn't stand the mosquitoes anymore and were relocating from Key West, where they lived on their boat, to Santa Fe, the city of the Holy Faith, the capital of dreadful New Mexico. They bought an adobe home several centuries old, renovated it and settled in. They seemed to like the place. So after a few years of this madness my wife and I got on a plane last Saturday and flew to Albuquerque. Bruce drove us up the freeway to Santa Fe, a city of 75,000 people at 7500 feet above sea level (2450 meters), nestled in an enormous plain in the shadow of the Sangre De Cristo (Christ's Blood, bless the melodrama of Catholicism!) Mountains, still snow capped last week. That Catholicism comes through loud and clear downtown where the cathedral is dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi, one of Umbria's most famous exports. The best known saint from the least known Italian region:Bruce is a retired engineer and Celia is a retired teacher, both spent their lengthy careers in Northern California and they both take delight in the Spanish state of mind that predominates in Santa Fe. They tell stories of bubbas in Santa Fe, the old Spanish families, that are similar in many respects to the death grip bubba families have on politics in Key West. The city is pretty enough, if you like adobe, with a grassy central plaza in front of the church and bless us everyone, they have the residentially challenged cluttering up their downtown too!And though the New Mexican newspaper doesn't boast a Citizen's Voice anonymous column, if it did I have no doubt someone would be complaining about the lack of action by Santa Fe's finest:"The longer you stay here, the more similarities to Key West you'll notice," Bruce said dryly as we walked the plaza in the 80 degree sunshine while the wives shopped. It sure is pretty, the La Fonda (not La Concha) hotel:There is a sunset viewing platform from the tower at the top of the building but they don't look out over any harbor that I know of. We took a night tour of the lobby and it is quite fantastic, rococo in the New Mexican style of elaborate tiles and heavy wooden ceiling beams and desert Indian art works. Adobe is how New Mexico dresses itself, much of it real mud and wattle some of it simply a veneer. But it does make the architecture refreshing even on something as silly as a MacDonald's on the commercial strip in "new town" ( or the local equivalent):In the heart of the city, the original Palace of the Governor, the Palacio, is the oldest public building in the US, dating back to the 1600's. Nothing faux about that. Nowadays it is the location of the daily Indian art market. The local native Americans (they call themselves Indians, what do I know?) bid, at some ungodly hour of the morning for the right to spend the day spreading their wares on blankets under the portico of the Palacio:For such a major holiday it wasn't terribly busy over Memorial weekend. How do I know? Well that would be because my wife went there more than once. She got some nice artwork too from a camera shy artists who grinds up the pebbles she finds near her home and renders them into pure colorful sand for her pieces. One of these too will join our Haitian, Dominican, Key West, etc etc stuff on our walls:The Indians were a cheerful bunch, relaxed sales people, and some of them offered expensive jewelry for sale. "Beyond our price range" my wife said, as she reluctantly put down a particularly enticing arrangement of silver and stones. "Oh go on," I said to encourage her to splash out on her self. This was after all the woman who pushed me to buy a brand new Bonneville, what can I say? "No," she said firmly. "What's our range? " I asked, "Not $2200" she said. Case closed.

There were lines of men standing around behind their women under the portico, waiting as the women meandered and shared and explored. Bruce and I went looking for other buildings:Or the Georgia O'Keeffe museum:Which was unfortunately showing a joint exhibit of O'Keeffe along with Ansel Adams, a photographer whose pictures leave me as cold as the shades of gray he preferred. For some reason this museum, which owns much of the late artist's work, doesn't have a permanent exhibit of her works, so I got to see very little of her paintings which was something of a disappointment. They do show an excellent 12 minute film about the artist which I found fascinating and it included some footage of Herself (she died in 1986). The film explored her relationship to the photographer Stieglitz, her husband, who portrayed her early on in an erotic light that made her shy away from publicity in later life.
I kept noticing newspaper sellers around the city, appearing to take their lives into their hands by literally setting up shop in the middle of the road.It turns out its some sort of rehab program and these corners are assigned and jealously guarded by the sellers.
Santa Fe has lost its purpose over the centuries, once it was the center of Spanish government in North America, then it was the end of the Santa Fe trail which led all the way from Kansas, then it became the home base of nuclear development at neighboring Los Alamos and now its a tourist center. We come, we photograph Burro Alley where laden donkeys used to line up with their loads of wood, immortalized in bronze:Bruce and Celia eat out all the time and they showed us several eateries that made a pleasant change from the known and familiar in Key West. Chili peppers are a huge component of Santa Fe cooking and most foods come with the offer of "green, red or Christmas?" which prompts a joker like me to want to shout out "Passover!" just to confuse them.The offer actually refers to the color of the chili salsa with Christmas referring to a mixture of red and green chilies. Bruce says chili roasting season is a very festive time in Santa Fe, but it comes later in the year with itinerant roasters passing through town.
The other big flavor in cookery New Mexico style is the pinon nut which is like a pine nut but more flavorful. Bruce told me that when the season kicks in during the summer the roads of New Mexico are lined with cars stopped on the shoulders while their occupants frantically pick nuts in "forests" like this:Pinon showed up in enchiladas and meatloaf, pizza and pancakes. Those blue corn pancakes at the Plaza Cafe were divine:Real maple syrup, friendly staff, locals stuffing their faces and all in the middle of the tourist part of town. Key West, the city that loves to hate its visitors, should be so lucky to boast such an eatery- and plates of food for seven dollars.
Bruce and Celia like Santa Fe despite its freezing winters and limited (by their standards) shopping. It's too cold for me and too isolated because the surrounding state is pretty much at the bottom of the economic ladder. I do not find poverty ennobling, but the historic residential district a few blocks from the plaza is pretty as all get out:
All this adobe stuff is cute enough to look at which is lucky and it is pervasive. I kept expecting to see the kepis of the French foreign legionnaires popping up over the walls. Fort Zinderneuf anyone?I know the gaps are a crude form of rain spout but they look much more like battlements than gutters.
At home Bruce and Celia enjoy the benefits of the adobe wall which surround so many homes in this city:And the company of a rare breed called Bernese Mountain dogs which seem perfectly adapted to the environment of Santa Fe:Nice enough in its own way but where I ask myself, is the ocean? Bruce and Celia are martyrs to mosquito bites and high humidity. I'm horrified by a dry climate, my hair turns to straw, my skin cracks and my nostrils fill with razor sharp lumps of...oh never mind, lets just say dry mountain air is not my cup of tea. Santa Fe was cute though and the other parts of the state we visited were picturesque too. Very much so, especially as I don't have to live in Truchas or Las Trampas. I know another visit is in my future if only because my wife wants to take a long slow walking and shopping tour of old town Santa Fe. For that reason if no other we'll be back, and to eat Christmas on our tacos.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Lunatic Reflections



I was out one night, half napping and looking at the sky. The wind was blowing strongly out of the south east, a genuine cooling breeze in that time of year when underlying humidity is always present and ready to put sweat marks under your armpits. Taking a lunch break in the middle of the night gives one the opportunity to stretch out in places that might look more peculiar by day and one also has the agreeable possibility of just staring at the sky and enjoying the view, uninterrupted by the noise and chaos of all those annoying day time activities .

These shots of a pretty much full moon stretched the capabilities of my little Nikon, but the silver disc threw off enough light to show the clouds scudding by, and the deep dark blackness beyond the little satellite a quarter million miles up in the sky.

I was put in mind of the movie I mentioned here recently, Criss Cross, set in Key West during the lunar landing in July 1969. I was 12 years old at the time, and visiting a friend in remotest Assam Province in India. I was running fast and loose on a tea plantation overlooked by China on one side and Burma to the other. It was a remote and fascinating place, a colonial outpost of order and productivity in a world that had forgotten the Raj, a little pink Empire on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in the shadow of the Himalayan mountains. Remote enough that I never did get to see the "giant leap for mankind." It was years before I got to see film of the first human step on the moon, and that hot July night I huddled around a shortwave receiver listening to the commentary on the crackling radio while staring up at the silver moon and wondering what my world was coming to. Not much it turned out. When my month was up I was flown back to Europe where video cassettes hadn't yet been invented and I never did get to see the first moon walkers that year, or for years to come.

I look at the moon and I think about the flags, the rovers, the bits and pieces left behind, sitting there as stranded as the hulk of the Titanic under the Atlantic Ocean. But there, on the moon, left behind by human beings. I remember when Apollo 8 took off for the first circuit of the dark side of the moon, the astronaut Borman's son reportedly asked his dad to bring him back a piece of cheese. It was one of those quotations that make the newspapers (the Internet wasn't invented yet) and reminded us, with no great subtlety that we don't really harbor romantic notions about the moon, not in the Age of Science.I like the full moon better than the new moon phases, the silver light bathing the countryside, the stark shadows and the two dimensional flattening effect of the light, I like that better than the pitch darkness of the new moon. When I was out traveling by sailboat the nights of no moon were made magical by the absolute blanket of stars visible in an unpolluted sky. However the full moon nights on the ocean created the effect of a journey across a sea of quicksilver. Plus you had a chance to see where you were going, which was nice. Nowadays I live in a firmly anchored house and lacking street lights I still get to see the stars from my deck and from my bed I can look out of the window and see the salt ponds glistening under the full moon.I suppose it has to go without saying that I prefer to watch the moon's phases from the comfort of countryside that enjoys temperatures well above freezing. I know some people find magic in the glitter of moon light on snow flakes, but I absent myself from that group. I was recently in the mountains and saw stars shining unwaveringly through the rarefied air at one and a half miles above sea level. The air was cold on my skin and though my wife insisted I couldn't see my breath I was pretty sure I should be able to. I saw a black sky much more like the night sky in the keys than I would ever have imagined.

I have traveled a great deal and it never ceases to amaze me that the moon is the same everywhere. That's not a revelation but its something I think about when I'm "wasting time" staring at it. It was as full over Sydney as it was over Key West, and will be again, in perfect synch. The moon has also had similar qualities awarded to it over time. The Romans attributed the power of madness to luna, such that the moon bred lunatics. Tidal movements are influenced by the moon as are moods most particularly those of women whose mysterious cycles men managed to figure out worked on the 28 day cycle of the lunar month. Which naturally leads the cruel to attribute lunacy to women as a matter of course. Men are sturdy, reliable and predictable as the masculine sun. Which might come as a surprise to the officers breaking up the rash of fights on Duval between men when the moon is full.

In my strictly rational world people are not influenced by the cycles of celestial spheres, irrational behavior is strictly coincidence. Of course that might force one to wonder why I would spend all this time photographing the moon on a whim and pondering why the moon is; lunacy is as lunacy does. Until next month no more moon talk.

And no. I couldn't figure out any way to get the Bonneville into the pictures.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bridle path

I believe its called the Bridle Path because they used to exercise their horses down here, though if one were to ride a horse along here in the 21st century it might cause some traffic back up on neighboring South Roosevelt Boulevard because passersby are no longer used to seeing quadrupeds on the Bridle Path:Which it just so happens looks a bit like this at night, may favorite time in of day in Key West:If you were so inclined you could think of the Bridle Path as another type of park in the city, though of course it has nowhere to sit and contemplate the beauty of the palms, the sandy pathway or the water across the roadway:In modern times the Bridle Path has enjoyed a somewhat checkered history in the city. It used to be that the area was pretty much ignored and you would see cars parked and people picnicking under the trees. Then some bright spark saw waterfront property, went to Kmart and bought a yellow and blue pup tent. Others soon followed his example and pretty soon there were half a hundred tents lining South Roosevelt Boulevard. Which went down really well with city residents, as you can imagine. So the city did what cities do and formed a task force which reported back to the city and this followed rapidly behind them:Aside from the fact the sign makers don't know how to spell "trespassing" the signs have been pretty effective and camping on the path is no longer tolerated (in case you were getting ideas!). From my point of view the unfortunates in this story are the residentially challenged who used to live in the mangroves quietly minding their own business, but when the city got involved they were moved out on the grounds campers were polluting the Salt Ponds that back up behind the path:The bushes that line the path and separate it from the water are ideal habitat for local residentially challenged:There also used to be a deck for bird watchers who had a convenient platform to sit out and see what was what on the salt ponds. Wilma did some damage to the old planks so now it takes a tad bit more athleticism to get into position to observe birds or eat sandwiches:Even at low tide the view is quite pleasant.
Away from the Salt Ponds the roadway, which was rebuilt after Hurricane Wilma, attracts the more athletically inclined:Not to mention motorcyclists who take this, the longer way in and out of town just for the sheer pleasure of the uninterrupted ride (no traffic lights) and the splendid views. It's hard not to envy this guy surely, cruising the southernmost stretch of State road A1A on his Sportster:There's lots of free parking on the seaward side of South Roosevelt, so cagers can drop off their passengers under the palms:And then park the car across the street and take in the sights:In the low tourist season crossing the highway isn't impossible but in winter it can get pretty hectic, as the airport is just up the road as well as a bunch of hotels so there's always someone coming or going:Less so at my favorite time of day, three o'clock in the morning. Pretty black huh?Day or night the Bridle Path is a good place to take a break in Key West. as usual with public spaces you'll need to bring your own chair- and don't camp in the mangroves because we dispatch police officers day and night to check!