Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Off Line

I don’t do well when I’m ill. I like to be coddled and fussed over so at least on that front my wife does me proud and enjoys making soups and mixing flu powders while pulling blankets up around my neck.  My dog does his best but he does get impatient when walks become short or scarce.  All this because there's a bug circulating around the Lower Keys and it is prostrating people by turn.  In my kind of desk work these things circulate easily. Despite our best endeavors with wipes and hand washing.  I thought I had got away with it and then the cold weather closed in and for some reason cold weather weakens my resistance. So here I am snuffling housebound and watching wind and rain sweep the last frost free corner of North America.

Nasty weather doesn’t last around here, by next week we will be back in the 80s by day and above 70 by night. For now I am shaking off my cold hopefully in another twenty four hours when I will be able to get out and see what’s going on. It’s always fun to see people bundled up and white caps on the waves when winter storms blow through.  

For now we are laid up snuffling and feeling sorry for ourselves.   Pathetic. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Wheels in Key West

The weather has been absolutely perfect lately with the prospect of more to come. I know most of the country is freezing but the Lower Keys are bright and crisp and sunny, cool at night and breezy without a trace of humidity. It's been warm enough there have even been a few mosquitoes out enjoying sunny afternoons among the mangroves in the back country. So Rusty and I took a walk downtown and I was reminded of what a two wheeled culture we enjoy in this end of the Keys.
I have seen people riding and using their phones, cyclists and moped riders so when I saw a passenger surfing the web on Southard Street I didn't think much of it. However now that winter residents are filling the streets it has become that much more hazardous to ride two wheels. Just last night between Searstown and the Police Station, a couple of miles on the main thoroughfare I was cut off three times by distracted pushy drivers. I don't think they are used to seeing people riding scooters as daily transport, because obviously they want Key West to more closely resemble the metropolis they don't want to spend winter in.
I saw this Vespa (below) on the sidewalk near Five Brothers and I wanted to like it but I am a convert to modern automatic Vespas for speed comfort and reliability.  In the world of Vespa nerds this black beauty is what they call a  "Viet Bodge" because there is a huge market in refurbished scooters from Vietnam. Early efforts relied on lots of chrome, bondo and paint to cover rust and dents and got them a terrible reputation. These days Vespa purists still hate them but I think that if they are used as around town gentle rides they may do well enough. You can tell a Viet Bodge by the twin seats, the spare wheel on the back, the not-original glove box behind the leg shield and the chrome rails everywhere. Add to that the extra thick carpet and the non stock exhaust and white wall tires and there you have it. Caveat emptor.
These three wheel things are renting well too, for thin people afraid to ride two wheels. I would feel large and silly in one but there you are. I ride a Vespa so I look silly on two wheels.
Lots of people ride  bicycles in Key West and it makes sense in a town with no hills above 16 feet and no distances longer than four miles or six Canadian miles, you'd think a bicycle would be ideal. However I am not a fan of cycling in Key West, I'd rather walk or ride my Vespa. Here's why: the streets are narrow and while you are allowed to ride on the  sidewalks you face stiff competition from pedestrians who have right of way. 
Cars tend to be unforgiving and there is constant sniping between cars and bicycles. Cyclists only tend to follow rules of the road when they are in their favor, like demanding their three feet of space from passing cars but then ignoring stop signs and traffic lights...I don't much care one way or the other but riding a bike seems like a very stressful way to travel these marrow streets in a country where European style urban driving is not practiced. American drivers demand vast acres of space and long distances between cars and no bicycles cluttering up their line of sight...
But even here we have a few Euro drivers. This 300 cc Vespa has a French tag and is always parked on Fleming at Duval. You'd think at some point they'd choose to join the rest of us and pay a modest Florida tax fee to use Florida roads...
Not so far. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

I have done this before and it feels like it is time once again to enjoy some great travel writing. Eric Newby died in 2006  after a life spent traveling and writing. In 1956  he published The Last Grain Race an account of his experience sailing a four masted barque to Australia from England and back. His most popular book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush made his reputation. It is from that book that the Observer newspaper made available this excerpt which is the final paragraphs of the final chapter from one of the funniest travel books published. 
Image result for eric newby
We came to cornfields and a village called Arayu, full of savage dogs and surly-looking Tajiks and mud houses like those of Egyptian fellahin. This patch of cultivation was succeeded by a mighty red-cliffed gorge where there were caves in which we sheltered from the midday sun. But not for long. The path to Parian and Shahnaiz led up out of it, high over the mountain. At the watershed we turned still more to the north, going downhill again now and into a final narrow valley where the wind threw the spray from a river in our faces. It was spray from the Parian, the Upper Panjshir. We had made it ...
'Look,' said Hugh, 'it must be Thesiger.'
Coming towards us out of the great gorge where the river thundered was a small caravan like our own. He named an English explorer, a remarkable throwback to the Victorian era, a fluent speaker of Arabic, a very brave man, who has twice crossed the Empty Quarter and, apart from a few weeks every year, has passed his entire life among primitive peoples.
Image result for wilfred thesiger
We had been on the march for a month. We were all rather jaded; the horses were galled because the drivers were careless of them, and their ribs stood out because they had been in places only fit for mules and forded innumerable torrents filled with slippery rocks as big as footballs; the drivers had run out of tobacco and were pining for their wives; there was no more sugar to put in the tea, no more jam, no more cigarettes and I was reading The Hound of the Baskervilles for the third time; all of us suffered from persistent dysentery. The ecstatic sensations we had experienced at a higher altitude were beginning to wear off. It was not a particularly gay party.

Thesiger's caravan was abreast of us now, his horses lurching to a standstill on the execrable track. They were deep-loaded with great wooden presses, marked 'British Museum', and black tin trunks. The party consisted of two villainous-looking tribesmen dressed like royal mourners in long overcoats reaching to the ankles; a shivering Tajik cook, to whom some strange mutation had given bright red hair, unsuitably dressed for central Asia in crippling pointed brown shoes and natty socks supported by suspenders, but no trousers; the interpreter, a gloomy-looking middle-class Afghan in a coma of fatigue, wearing dark glasses, a double-breasted lounge suit and an American hat with stitching all over it; and Thesiger himself, a great, long-striding crag of a man, with an outcrop for a nose and bushy eyebrows, 45 years old and as hard as nails, in an old tweed jacket, a pair of thin grey cotton trousers, rope-soled Persian slippers and a woollen cap comforter. 'Turn round,' he said, 'you'll stay the night with us. We're going to kill some chickens.'
Image result for wilfred thesiger
We tried to explain that we had to get to Kabul, that we wanted our mail, but our men, who professed to understand no English but were reluctant to pass through the gorges at night, had already turned the horses and were making for the collection of miserable hovels that was the nearest village. Soon we were sitting on a carpet under some mulberry trees, surrounded by the entire population, with all Thesiger's belongings piled up behind us. 'Can't speak a word of the language,' he said cheerfully. 'Know a lot of the Koran by heart but not a word of Persian. Still, it's not really necessary. Here, you,' he shouted at the cook, who had only entered his service the day before and had never seen another Englishman. 'Make some green tea and a lot of chicken and rice - three chickens.'
'No good bothering the interpreter,' he went on, 'the poor fellow's got a sty, that's why we only did 17 miles today.'
Soon the cook was back, semaphoring desperately. 'Speak up, can't understand a thing. You want sugar? Why don't you say so?' he produced a bunch of keys, like a housekeeper in some stately home ...
'That cook's going to die,' said Thesiger; 'hasn't got a coat and look at his feet. We're 9,000 feet if we're an inch here. How high's the Chamar Pass?' We told him 16,000 feet. 'Get yourself a coat and boots, do you hear?' he shouted in the direction of the camp fire.
After two hours the chickens arrived; they were like elastic, only the rice and gravy were delicious....
'England's going to pot,' said Thesiger, as Hugh and I lay smoking the interpreter's king-size cigarettes, the first for a fortnight. 'Look at this shirt, I've only had it three years, now it's splitting. Same with tailors; Gull and Croke made me a pair of whipcord trousers to go to the Atlas Mountains. Sixteen guineas - wore a hole in them in a fortnight. Bought half a dozen shotguns to give to my headmen, well-known make, 20 guineas apiece, absolute rubbish.'
He began to tell me about his Arabs. 'I give them powders for worms and that sort of thing.' I asked him about surgery. 'I take off fingers and there's a lot of surgery to be done. They're frightened of their own doctors because they're not clean.'
Image result for wilfred thesiger
'Do you do it? Cutting off fingers?'
'Hundreds of them,' he said dreamily, for it was very late. 'Lord yes. Why, the other day I took out an eye. I enjoyed that. Let's turn in.'
The ground was like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our air-beds. 'God, you must be a couple of pansies,' said Thesiger.
· Extracted from A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (Picador), reprinted by permission of HarperCollins. To order a copy for £7.99 with free UK p&p go to observer.co.uk/bookshop

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sunday

I have slipped from my overtime schedule into my regular work week schedule which means the New Year weekend is a blur of sleeping, walking Rusty and taking calls at work for emergencies real and sometimes imagined, thanks to the power of alcohol. Riding to work this week has been a crap shoot but so far I have avoided collisions with  distracted drivers though several memorable  near misses marked my ride to work Friday. Yesterday I pulled over on Highway One to create some separation from the other cars streaming to Key West for New Year's Eve. I just wanted to be alone.
 Clouds  were piling over the horizon driven by cool North winds and I was grateful for the cover of the windshield on the Vespa even though too many dead insects had smeared themselves on it, unwitting suicides. I don't set much stock in the change of the year. Orthodox Jews consider this to be the year 5775, Hindus think this is February 3102 and Muslims argue its  1438  and a few months...so calling tomorrow 2018 amounts to just one more human conceit. Still we need some sort of counting method I suppose to prevent collective insanity... In order to celebrate the end of the year, or just because I felt like it I stopped at Sandy's on White Street.
The place has changed a bit with English speakers in evidence. Recently I posted a picture of the new shop downtown on Fleming Street and there is a Sandy's food truck on the road as well. Change is good they keep telling us. So I had my usual, a con leche and cheese bread to fortify myself for 12 hours dispatching overnight. The hot milky coffee tasted good in the chill breeze blowing down White Street. Their new store on Fleming:
I got a chuckle out of the paper last week. It seems  a local construction company has plans to put 208 "affordable" housing units on Rockland Key near Mile Marker 9, close to the proposed Walmart. There are concerns about traffic and all the usual stuff but no one has dared say no to the Toppino family. They are the descendants of the cement company that won Flagler's contract to build his rail bridges more than a  hundred years ago.  Meanwhile the former owner of Sunset Key and the Westin Hotel, a relative newcomer, has been getting all kinds of grief for a similar, dare one say identical proposal for Summerland Key. He has been whittled down from 200 to 125 units at last count and maybe less before they finish messing with him. A stark reminder of the power structure in the Keys.
I posted a picture on Instagram last week of a Conch Cottage for sale, 2 bedrooms one bath 723 square feet with no garden to speak of, some off street parking and dingy little rooms- all for $1.2 million. When I took the picture I guessed half a million as an example of excessive pricing, maybe three quarters of a million if it were nice or had a pool or something. One point two million, which apparently no one has paid in a year of asking, seemed like a lot even to jaded old me.
The pity of it is that people who make interesting neighbors are driven from this town by these prices. I am not attracted to the types of people who see Key West as a drinking town where they can let loose the inhibitions they have to rein in at their home bases Up North. I don't see myself as a Bohemian in anyway at all but if I have to be around people I prefer to be around self absorbed and perhaps self destructive artists than nouveau riche prospectors mining Key West's  frost-free real estate. And in 2018 I see the prospects continuing to shift in that unhappy direction. 
For 2018 I hope the wilderness in Little Hamaca will survive a little more benign neglect, I hope hurricane season is mild and November elections offer positive results for a gentler future. It doesn't seem like a lot to ask.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Government Road

The Key West city commission has turned its laser focus on Little Hamaca  park and in a few years this wilderness will be transformed into playing fields for young people. Very laudable I'm sure but I will miss the wilderness.  Just as I miss the ope spaces at Truman Waterfront now tamed with cement and asphalt. 
The final form has yet to be determined but the over riding consideration at the moment is planning the cost. A smaller field for three million or bells and whistles for five? Might as well go for broke as far as I'm concerned if the place is to be torn up.
One can hardly complain about giving the rug rats sports facilities, to oppose it would be like opposing apple pie and the flag but I do enjoy coming here and feeling like I am in the middle of nowhere, disorganized and abandoned. Actually its a useful storage area of the city for bits and pieces that have no home but really its just an abandoned missile site left over from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
These  containers have been vandalized with pictures of genitals in the tired pointless unimaginative way half wits with spray cans manage and the city comes after them with heavy black paint and order is restored.  None of this seems like it amounts to much and that is the pleasure of coming here, stepping out of the  tourist flow as it were.
The airport is next door and I am always surprised how many planes take off from this small town, one after the other. It's hard to feel any envy for people lodged into these flying machines getting hauled back to the winter cold Up North at hundreds of miles an hour. I tend to look at people traveling and feel a twinge of envy but not around here.
Nature's airliner:
I love these clunky old seaplanes returning from trips to the National Park at the Dry Tortugas. They make a coupe of trips a day and I've seen them landing on the lagoon in front of Fort Jefferson. They then nose up to the beach to drop off their passengers for a few hours sightseeing. 
A rain gauge! Mosquito control puts them out all over the place. Best not to interfere with them.
Back to my seaplanes. The little wheels they have actually make them amphibians as they can then land on the runway at the airport. Very cool. Key West Seaplane Adventures. Pretty website too.
Then there's this sad old pile rotting in the back lot of the airport. It was hijacked to Key West on an internal flight in Cuba and instead of returning the plane as is normally done a judge ruled it was to be handed over to a Miami family who were done wrong by Fidel Castro as I recall. Naturally they could do nothing with the plane which was never returned, never flown never used again. Here it sits nominal reparations in violation of international law. Our relations with Cuba are so weird. 
It was hot enough Rusty took his ease for a while in the shade of the car.
I stood there and pondered the weirdness of this strange relic of past hostilities. And maybe future ones too though it seems to be getting harder to interest wealthy south Florida Cubans in prolonging their family dispute across the water. Fidel Castro is dead and Raul seems likely to follow soon. Their brother in law Diaz Balart in Miami seems to have peaked so possibly a new generation can cement better relations. 
And one more plane popping in for Christmas. I read in the paper five people died when a private plane crashed on take off in Bartow bound for Key West. Just like that they were gone no Christmas no lovely flight across the water...startling.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Death By A Thousand Cuts

There was a moment standing suffocated by vines, prodded by sharp branches, clothes grabbed by thorns, arms bleeding and the fear of skin rashes from poison wood that I had a thought.  Which thought forced its way into my  mind  causing me to ponder the notion that possibly this dog walk may not have been worth my effort. Rusty was of a different mind. He came and went from view, sliding through around and under obstacles like a hairy snake totally at home in its environment.I wasn't sure if he was checking up on me or mocking my abysmal progress but because I like him I preferred to think of him as my companion in this madness, not my agent provocateur (which he was).
 The day started well enough even though yesterday's sunrise in an almost cloudless sky was not spectacular. The strip of clouds hanging low on the horizon smothered the sun rather than giving it a colorful filter but temperatures were in the low 70s so it was fresh enough to encourage walking. Rusty started the morning exercise by being perverse, he turned back from my planned amble along a well surfaced fire road and he doubled back to sniff hurricane debris piled along the paved part of the road. His time his walk his choice so I followed amiably along. By the top of the road before we reached the highway I took Rusty down a side road I hadn't explored since Cheyenne's hiking days about three years ago. Something new excited the little tyke so we ventured out along the path through the mangroves.
 It was classic back country scenery, low bushes, saltwater and a few houses in the distance. Off to the west I could see a cluster of RVs parked in rows in a trailer park but Rusty and I were alone. He ran off the end of the trail and I thought to myself, and this is where I went completely wrong, there could be a short cut there back to the car which was about dead due east of us through a  few bushes. Rusty set off ahead of me and I clumped after him. Well, I figured after I get through this low lying inundated wet clay things will ease up underfoot and they did. My feet were wet and slippery inside my greasy Crocs and I was ready for dry land which eventually I found. Only thing was lots of stuff grows out of the dry ground. I was still in time to be sensible and turn back. If I had done that this wouldn't be worth writing.
Well I figured all I have to do is walk east for a bit and I'll hit the road. Did I take out my compass app on my phone and check? Of course not! If I had...etc etc...I plunged into the undergrowth as did Rusty not far away. His pleasure in these antics spurred me on. It was rough going let me tell you. After about half an hour of crashing and plunging I paused and finally checked my GPS.Naturally I discovered that yes I had made progress but I had moved south, parallel to the road, not towards it. Bugger. I turned left and kept plunging.  This wasn't walking in any meaningful sense, it was an assault course. Saplings leaned over and blocked my path. Thorns grew up around them making them scratchy to move. Cobwebs draped everywhere.  At first I tried to avoid the black splotchy trunks of poison wood trees but pretty soon I lost track of them. Gumbo limbos, dogwoods, buttonwoods, thorns poisonwoods they all jumbled into one. It was hot slow work. And I poked myself in the forehead. How clever of me.
 I kept feeling my phone in my pocket as I was afraid of dropping it as I leaned over, crawled jumped and struggled. My arms started bleeding, my legs were crisscrossed with cuts. In the screenshot below our starting point was the fancifully named Adams Road to the left. The idea was to walk smartly dead due east from the end of the road and come out just north of the house alongside the old state road and step into the car. The blue dot shows how far south we wandered, around the brown spot which was a pond, a place that encouraged the growth of razor sharp reeds that hurt like...well never mind they hurt a lot when they cut you.
Finally I got the sun in my eyes and could see nothing. That was the course I had to walk to get out of this nightmare and I pushed and struggled my way into the sunlight. I had long since turned off my radio app to save battery power lest I really need it so my struggle was more or less in silence punctuated only by my heaving gasping breath and a long string of senseless oaths in turn truncated by squeals of pain as one more thorn penetrated my skin.  I knew there was nothing for it but to keep going, rather in the manner of some major explorer caught in a wilderness somewhere meaningful. This was idiotic but I was stuck with it and there was no great revelation at the end, no Machu Picchu to be discovered, no Angkor Wat to be explored, no studious reports to be transmitted home to the Geographical Society. Just me and my stupidity blundering about in a giant thorn forest.
Somehow I came face to face with a blue ribbon on a tree. Civilization! Mosquito Control or someone monitoring wildlife or something in the happy days before Irma must have come by this place. Whatever trail there used to be was not discernible but like Hansel and the breadcrumbs I staggered from ribbon to ribbon as best as I could and I did notice I got less torn up this way. There must have been a trail here of some sort before the hurricane. Probably to trap mosquitoes or film raccoons or something. Whatever it was I got such a boost I finally felt capable of finishing the worst walk ever. 
Then I knew I was where I needed to be as trash appeared on the ground. The ubiquitous beer can. Finally through the thinning tree line I saw the brown smear of the fire road Rusty had rejected over two hours ago as a suitable walk. I staggered into the open, caught my breath and turned toward the car a quarter mile away. 
He had a blast so all was well, it is after all he who matters. Half way through the Struggle I was congratulating myself on being physically strong enough to handle adverse conditions, and I was muttering to myself thank god for broga and all that sweating and posturing that built up my muscles. Then I had another think and I started to blame my exercise regimen for giving me the confidence to get myself into this pickle in the first place.
Well, that was an adventure. A proper adventure as the outcome was in doubt there for a bit. One thing I did learn was that no matter how tight the undergrowth looks you can actually find a way through even without a machete. But I also learned its not actually walking, it's blundering.
Rusty and I spent the next eight hours, all day in fact snoring before he got up for dinner and I went to work. That was an exercise regimen all right.