50 States - 01/50 - Florida

02-06-2017

America looms large in the world consciousness. A friend gave me this insight: "Everyone absorbs American culture in a skewed way". One of my missions here in America is to see how true this is. Put another way, Neil Gaiman said that we English "look at America with equal parts amazement and horror". This is the place that (sort-of) invented the internet, the space shuttle, birthed some of the finest musicians and is the only place I know of to have been founded on ideals. Yet it also has the largest incarcerated population in the world, a scary number of gun toting fundamentalists and likes to bomb innocents. Is it even possible to try and figure out 'the heart of America'. Probably not. This idea of 'One America' I think defeated even Hunter S. Thompson so I guess I don't have much of a chance. So instead, I'm going to try and visit each State and see what's what. Lets start with Florida.

florida

It's probably poetic to be starting this journey from Washington D.C. - the only entity that isn't actually a state (even though it wants to be very much!)(addendum: My friend Will informs me that Puerto Rico is another place that isn't a state). Even more correct to start this review with Florida as it was my first introduction to the USA when I was very little. When people (in the UK at least) think of Florida, it's hot weather, Disney Land, tourism and package holidays in the 90s! I suspect this is all still true, but this time around, our emphasis was different. My folks were celebrating their 60th birthday and had invited us all to join them on a small island retreat in the Gulf of Mexico, so we figured we fly on down.

Renting a car is absolutely essential and I recommend a soft-top, mid-life-crisis sports-car if you can! It's totally worth it and if you still have a European identity of sorts, book it through a European agent. You get better cover in cases of prangs and the cost is cheaper. We ended up with a red, soft-top, Ford Mustang. Incredible fun to drive. Florida is quite a hot place with a lot of sun, so don't forget to apply generous amounts of suncream when you are driving! At one point I ended up with 'truck driver's arm' as I'd left it out on the sill for too long!

florida

Florida is quite proud of it's Publix - a food market chain that only seems to exist down there. Whilst I was search for Polenta, the helpful store worker was very keen to tell me all about how he cooks his cornmeal and how popular it is in the south. The food in Florida can be quite amazing if you are into seafood. The fish out there is to die for! It's a bit more tricky if you are a vegetarian however. It's not something that has really made it out that far. Neither have things like the 'flat-white', decent tea, or kettles.

The islands around and including North Captiva are very beautiful. The wildlife is quite abundant, at least to my city-slicker eyes! Manatees can be seen here. Indeed, we went out on a boat to go and have a look for them. They are protected now thankfully, but you do see quite a few with scars from propellers. Birds of prey, woodpeckers, dolphins, cormorants and many other animals can be seen here quite easily. Of course, later on in the summer, mosquitos are a real pain! Definitely something to avoid, along with the alligators of course, though the latter is perhaps less annoying.

florida

Miami is a whole other beast though. It's a major city with quite a flamboyant style. It's a mix of ethnicities and cultures. As far as I could tell, every cliche of the place is true! I'd watched Scarface before I arrived in the USA and the place almost looks the same now as it does in the film. Pinks, blues, oranges. Pastel colours dominate the visual scene. Art Deco is all over Miami Beach, while downtown is a mixture of Spanish classical buildings and modern skyscrapers. The place is everything I thought it would be! Pretending like you are in Miami Vice, Hotline Miami or an extra in a Will Smith video is quite easy to pull off. One area of interest is Wynwood Walls - an very obvious example of gentrification by artists. Taking photos around Miami you could be mistaken for thinking the contrast is too high. But in fact, real life contrast is just higher in Miami, full-stop!

florida

You'd think that, as a nerd, I'd love the NASA Kennedy Space centre. Sadly, it shows one of the best things America has done (and is doing) in some of the worst ways - ways America might have even invented! It's capitalism, nickel and dimeing all the way here. Exhibits and shows are torturously drawn out, everything is overpriced (with tours costing extra), there is little in the way of real information, and very few interactives or key objects with a narrative. It's perhaps better to just go for an actual launch and skip the centre itself if you can.

Road-side attractions are perhaps a common (and famous) phenomenon across all the USA. Florida has a great many things along it's roadside! One of the best we found is Coral Castle. It's one of these things built by an unhinged, utterly committed genius. It's made up of hand-hewn rocks, all constructed by one man (as best as we can tell). Many of the tools used and the fittings are recycled from scrap, such as a cooking pot made from a truck differential casing. It's a quirky place to say the least, and quite inspiring in it's way.

florida

But what of the character of this state? The spirit of it, as it were. I once heard Florida described as a nursing home. Looked at in this way, it makes a lot of sense. The areas you'll most often see are rounded off, easy to traverse, comfortable. The pace of life here seems incredibly slow. A very large proportion of the population works in the tourism and hospitality services. This is definitely a place where buying comfortable shoes would not be a problem.

Florida has an interesting use of space. The roads are huge, the embankments huge, there are hardly any footpaths and there are many canals, pools and ditches. In fact, water is one of the most dominant factors in how Florida works. How its pumped, diverted, how it literally shapes the Everglades. Florida relies quite heavily on the availability of water to support it's growing population and it's agriculture. There is a lot of space here. You get the feeling people have tried to spread and grab as best as they can. Buildings are flat and boring to look at, sitting inside a fenced-off area much larger than they need. No wonder a car is essential here.

florida

Nowhere is the use of water more apparent than in the Everglades. It's possible to drive up to one of the national park entrances, rent a bike and cycle 8 miles to an observation tower where one can see the plains spread out all around you. The area relies on massive pumping stations to help it get the water it needs during various parts of the year. Alligators can be frequently seen here. We cycled past several on our short trip.

We drove back to Fort Myers via Lake Okeechobee, thus avoiding the horror that is Orlando (despite the Book of Mormon!). Driving through this area could not be more different from Miami. Here, the landscape has more bushy trees, pastures with cows even! The homes we see dotted around could be best described as shacks. Of course, the people living there are not your glamourous white celebrities, but (I suspect!) underpaid fruit pickers of a certain racial group. Very quickly the scene and feel changes to something a little more, dark. This sort of thing is always there, when you move off the beaten track.

florida

Florida then? Is it a holiday resort, a retirement home, area of outstanding natural beauty or playground for the rich and famous? All these things and probably a few more I expect. I didn't speak to very many locals sadly, so I doubt I got anywhere near the full picture. Within a single state however, there are clear differences. Not only that but the lifestyle, pace and even the actual, physical light is quite different to DC. I expect Florida is quite difficult for someone like me to get to know. I tried looking for hackerspaces but most were just occasional meetup groups (the geek mafia books have lied to me!). Everyone I interacted with was in a 'Can I help you sir?' capacity, which is no fun. Perhaps the whole point of a Florida trip is to just relax into your hammock?

(more silly photos at https://www.flickr.com/photos/section9/albums/72157684521337825)