“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” ~ Lao Tzu.
My first time in Key West, over 40 years ago, was a trip of revelation. I was already having a hard time adjusting to the America of Miami: large cars, huge straight roads, flashing neon lights advertising establishments big and small. Key West offered a taste of the islands, the slow natured, soon come, no problem vibe. Quite apart from the geographical difference of the terrain, the drive down was an unraveling, an unwinding of the stress as we drove along a two lane road, no passing zones frequently posted. Blue water met blue sky on either side of the narrow road; Atlantic to the east, Gulf waters to the right. Little islands (keys) were sprinkled in the water. In later trips a car game for the kids would be for them to ‘pick’ their island.
That first ride down was revelatory. This was another side to America, a laid back, undemanding side. We saw coconuts at the roadside for sale, ready to plant and grow into a tree. A handprinted sign gave the price, a bucket was there for the payment. We waited a while, no human appeared, we placed our money in the bucket, took our coconut and drove off. Key West itself (on the other side of the long seven- mile bridge) was a delight, a trip back in history. Plantation houses with huge verandahs, gingerbread carvings, tropical colors hinted of a past more suited to the West Indies than to the US. There were tourists yes, and the typical tourist stores, but you had a feeling of discovery, as if you had found a secret treasure.
My first time in New Orleans was three decades ago. Just as in Key West I was struck by the feeling I was somewhere in the West Indies. The French Quarter, with its fancy architecture; wooden shuttered doors and windows; narrow streets, all brought back thoughts of centuries ago in Old Jamaica. I could feel the history, imagine the raucous, bawdy behavior in the taverns, imagine the ships arriving with their loot. I pictured Jamaica’s Port Royal in its heyday, a bustling place for hustlers and conmen, people unused to following the genteel rules of society. I felt at home. Although the history of both places involves oppression, enslavement, ownership of individuals, outright abuse and cruelty, both New Orleans and Jamaica (as well as other islands in the West Indies) seem to have managed the blending of cultures, the common-law marriage of food, religion, music and art.
Current visits to such tourist destinations as Key West and New Orleans have lost some of that magic, as contrived tourist experiences have become saturated with commercialism. It is hard to feel that you are discovering anything as you bump your way through the crowds. The unique N’awleans treasures may be original, or they may be made in China. Your voodoo spell-casters may come from Brazil or Taiwan. But the architecture, oh the beloved architecture, is still there.
New Orleans reminds me of those well-dressed ladies of the 18th Century, whose rich, gorgeous dresses are unwashed, yards of material hiding a host of flaws. The face is caked in makeup designed to hide pock marks and scars and structural damage. What stories, what trauma is hidden behind the beautiful façade? Death is never far away from the scene in New Orleans, those cemeteries with their tilting, above ground vaults an ever present reminder that all life ends in death. And the joyous sounds erupting from the bars, the live music everywhere, could just as easily be playing in front of a traditional New Orleans funeral procession.
A complicated place indeed, much like the rest of American history, where the uncomfortable past is hidden, brushed aside, omitted. We took a tour of a distillery, a placed named for the seventy-three neighborhoods that made up Old New Orleans. The young man who gave the tour was not a natural when it came to public speaking; he fidgeted and paced as he told of the origin of the distillery and the history of the town. But he acknowledged the wrongs done, he did not brush aside the pain of the past, he spoke of slavery in a matter of fact way.
The best part of my trip to New Orleans was staying in the district known as Treme. The architecture is still unique, with some handsome treasures brightly colored and restored, others falling down but still dignified and proud. We were within walking distance of the French quarter (ok it was a good walk, but doable!), and other local haunts. But the most impressive part for me was the people. As you passed them on the street they called out a greeting, made eye contact, connected. Having lived in the city for the past 40 years, where you avoid eye contact, and barely acknowledge a person who holds a door open for you, this was remarkable. It was old time, old school, old Caribbean manners in action.
The beauty of travel is that it takes you away from your normal, from your routine. It introduces you to places you may have only seen in movies, and reminds you of other countries you have visited. It brings back memories of other trips, other encounters, memories that have been hidden away beneath the layers of everyday life. Most of all it gives you perspective, allows you to see that you can be consumed by the microcosm of your immediate world, or you can pull back and see that in the scheme of things you are but one dot in the cosmos.
As I unwind and prepare to reenter my ‘regular’ life, I must give thanks for all of the experiences of the past few weeks, both local and distant. I have been reminded that people are people wherever they are, and for the most part they are generous, kind and loving. I have been reminded that we should be sharing a joy of living, not living with a fear of dying, for no one is assured of what tomorrow brings.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family! May history inspire you, and may strangers greet you on the street!