The beauty of nature in the United States still surprises me. I also admire how Americans have learned to care for their land, plants, and animals. They paid for it with the effort of pioneers of the ecological movement, and we are lucky to enjoy the fruits of their actions, but we also have responsibility.
The Florida Keys are a good example of such care. This chain of coral islands attracts exotic vegetation and numerous species of colorful butterflies, birds, reptiles and animals. Along this archipelago is a large coral reef known as the Florida Reef. Warm, shallow waters nourish the corals and support a delicate ecosystem: sponges, oysters, amoebae, crabs, sharks, turtles, snails... Tourism is important for the area, but not invasive. The islands, which stretch for 240 km, are connected by a chain of bridges across the ocean.
Clouds are getting darker while we move forward, although it’s impossible to see where we are going, because a torrential rain is pouring down, and even the lights of other cars are just a suggestion in a fog. It lasts for several minutes, during which I am praying and keeping myself busy with advising on lights and speed (in some situations I quickly become an expert), and the dispute keeps us on course, our rented jeep does not run into any obstacle, and somehow does not fall off the bridge.
Certainly we now deserve a reward: a lunch on a beautiful picture-perfect-paradise beach in a secluded lagoon. However, only lunch turns out to be real. And only because it was packed into the trunk in the morning. Islamorada’s first beach that we visit is a few square meters big and populated by three or four families, which creates a crowd. The second one looks better, and attracted by the wooden path among trees, we end up on a sort of patio, at the wooden table on the water, accompanied by two white ibis.
For the first time I see ibis so close! They stare at the camera's eye. Soon something in my brain will unconsciously decide that the ibis are not dazzling and unique anymore. Sadly, they will become commonplace. But for now two beautiful - and probably hungry - snowy ibis tilt their heads, looking at us these strange beings, when we eat.
It is hard to believe, but the Florida Keys archipelago has 1,700 coral islands and islets. Originally inhabited by Indians, it was later an important trade route from New Orleans to the Bahamas. Transactions also took place with nearby Cuba, from where the most immigrants arrived. At the beginning of the 20th century the islands were joined by a railway. Railway bridges over the ocean, up to Key West, were being constructed for a long time, because of hurricanes and tropical cyclones. Our rainy trip to Islamorada reminded me of how the history of this region blends incredible nature’s gentleness and peace with rage. Perhaps the forces of nature help Keys’ residents to realize that they are only a small part of this large fragile ecosystem that they need to care for.
Key West is the southernmost piece of land in the United States and the island with a landscape from travel catalogs. Paradise? It depends on the image we come here with. Huge traffic jams, high prices, decibel levels and cruise ships may not fit your ideal. Historically it was a place for pirates, preachers, slaves, fishermen and gay men – all living peacefully on these sandy miles of land, which is also the home for Cuban cigars and Ernest Hemingway’s best years.
The legendary Duval Street with its bars, galleries, restaurants and boutiques, looks like a hedonist's dream, indeed. Subtropical climate, emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a scent of sweat mixed with the scent of ocean air, huge banyan trees, immense mangrove trees, and metropolitan traffic create a colorful mixture. The wind brings to mind the dreams of fishermen and stories of tropical hurricanes, which from time to time haunt the region. And finally - the ubiquitous wild roosters and their crowing at all times of the day and night. They often fight each other on the streets, but they do not attack people.
Sunset Celebration on Mallory Square, in the picturesque Old Town of Key West, is a kind of public art - a theater without tickets, in which Cubans or inhabitants of the Caribbean present their musical skills, and - as I read in a guidebook and then see with my own eyes - always someone swallows fire or walks a rope. It never occurred to me that such an intimate romantic cliché like watching a sunset can be successfully turned into a mass event. And yet, the places are booked two hours before. The Key West motto is "One Human Family" and maybe that's the point in this spectacle of collective nostalgia with an orange ball of sunshine whose main role is to sink in the gold-and-white waters. Some guides suggest that Key West is one continuous event (or a constant hangover), but again: it depends on one’s inclinations and perceptions, which usually follow those first.
At the Southernmost Point of the continental United States, where every tourist has to take a photograph, street vendors sell fresh coconuts with a straw. They give me a lazy smile as if saying “Yes, we know, you don’t buy, you just take pictures”. Or maybe they acknowledge with their instinct that I will return in a few minutes to buy the coconut. Or maybe they do not smile at all, maybe it’s just an expression of relaxed faces? It's interesting how the temperature affects the muscles, and thus emotional behavior that has much to do with muscular tension. Like the exuberance and vitality of a tropical nature affects the vitality of thought, creativity, and local use of color. There are many creative people here who know how and what to create to please both poorer and richer tourists, and even connoisseurs. The galleries as well as little boutique shops are full of their works, and I believe that there, amongst the ugliest examples of modern art, ubiquitous kitsch, and t-shirts with the slogans that appreciate the most bizarre sense of humor, you can dig out a real gem.
It's also good to know that the dominant mental climate on this island is tolerance. Which seems to be a pretty good word to end this post with.
I never underestimate an opportunity and a joy of visiting new places. Gratitude comes naturally as our reality is so rich. I hope that my images reveal something of this richness, in a meaningful way.