Monday, January 31, 2011

Yo' head-a look-a like-a tomata

Some things that cause me fear and anxiety are nuclear warfare, pregnancy, and the American Medical system.

On my last weekend in Florida, I started noticing little red bumps on my skin.  They started just around my abrasions from falling on my bike, so I decided to put more of this anti-bacterial neem oil on the area.  I’d been using sparingly before, to help heal my abrasions, as a natural remedy; the oil is derived from the neem plant, which originates in India.

I thought they were a stress reaction from the recent events and dismissed them.  I guess that was the wrong choice.

By Sunday night, my Dad was gone, my step-mom and I were at one of their friends’ places, and the bumps were spreading.  So far they’d gone up almost my entire left side of my body.  My neck was red and roughly textured and it started spreading to my face.

I was in denial.  I don’t get “allergies,” so it must be stress; I just had to chill out.

I took a Benadryl, to humor my step-mom and her friend, and went to bed, thinking I could sleep it off (I tend to believe that enough sleep with cure almost anything, with the exceptions being strep-throat, cancer, certain diseases, and now allergies).

My sleep that night was uncomfortable, to say the least.  I woke up almost hourly, either hot or cold, but always itchy.  I was too dazed to do anything about it though.  I managed to stay in bed until 9:45 am, but when I went to open my eyes I knew something was wrong.

I was peering through slits.  Slits which are normally fully-open brown eyes.  The skin on my face felt taut.

I ran to the bathroom to look in the mirror, at which point I immediately broke down in a fit of tears and called my mom.

Overnight, my allergy had become unbelievably worse.  My face was so swollen and red that I didn’t even recognize myself.

I ran frantically around the house trying to find someone, but everyone had left for the morning.  My step-mom’s flight was at 8 am and Tiff had gone out with her husband to drop off their daughter, run errands and take care of their business.

They finally got home at 10:30 am.  Tiff and I agreed it was time to go to the doctor.

Praise Ja for travelers insurance!

The American private medical system was everything I’d imagined.  Everything was so shiny and new, and I was immediately turned away from treatment until I could have my insurance company fax in a consent form.

I was having an anaphylactic reaction and my throat could close over, but before I go ahead and die, I should really try to contact my health insurance provider so they can go ahead and save me.  BIZARRO WORLD!

This would not, I repeat, would not happen in Canada.  The rep from the insurance was in as much shock as I was… and I’m not talking about anaphylactic shock.

When I came back in from making my call, they got me to sit at a computer and fill out my particulars.  I was admitted within 10 minutes.  My blood pressure and other vital stats were taken, then I was whisked off to another room where the doctor would see me.

He was a young, blond-haired, blue-eyed, Southern man, no older than 30, with a warm, caring vibe.  He took a look at my skin, listened to my breath and heartbeat, peered down past my uvula, and told me I’d need a steroid shot, some prescription strength Benadryl and steroid pills for the next week.

My mind was reeling with the potential cost of prescription drugs.  This scenario is exactly what ever Canadian fears when they travel to the US.  Then I find out that since they can’t directly bill my insurance company, they’ll need to put a hold on a credit card for the cost - $342 US dollars.

It could have been a lot worse, had I gone to emergency as opposed to the “Urgent Care” walk-in clinic I attended (though I’d challenge them to prove which part of their service involved actually caring).

Thankfully, since I was still traveling and beginning to run low on funds, Tiff covered the credit card hold.  I paid for the prescriptions out-of-pocket, but I’d be reimbursed once I submitted my paperwork.

I noticed the effects of the steroid shot within the first 45 minutes.  The swelling in my face went down noticeably, and my itchiness began to subside.  Sweet relief.

Unfortunately, after about 24 hours, the shot wore off and I depended solely on taking my prescriptions every four hours.  And I always knew when four hours were almost up because I would start scratching vigorously.

The next day I managed to board the plane to New Jersey successfully without scaring any children with my residual redness.

After de-climatizing myself to the cold for the past 4 months by living in the south, I arrive to New Jersey on the coldest day of the year.  Lucky for me, I had a bearded comrade prepared for the worst, ready to pick me up, layers in tow and hugs waiting.

You Don't Have to Go Home, But You Can't Stay Here

The next two weeks in Florida would be a whirlwind of changing plans and alternative arrangements.

Everyone seemed to be making their plans leaving me no other choice but to leave as well.  And fast.

I had a week to make up my mind and commit to a plan, which isn’t much time at all when you’re in an unfamiliar country, with no friends or family in the immediate vicinity.

My first thought was that I should head back to that hostel in Florida City.  I could live there for free if I volunteered.  I would stay for 16 days, volunteer, meet lots of interesting travelers, and spend Christmas in Florida.

That didn’t sound so bad.

I called the hostel.  The owner said just swing on by whenever.  I looked into finding transportation there; the Greyhound would take me so far as Miami, but I would need to take Public Transportation from Miami/Cutler Ridge to Florida City… at night, with a 45lb expedition pack and a laptop bag. 

If a young, lone woman, clearly traveling and so out of her comfort zone doesn’t scream¸ “TARGET” then I don’t know what does.

In leaving the hostel I would need to take Public Transit to Miami, transfer to the Greyhound to Fort Lauderdale, and then take a cab from the Greyhound station to the Fort Lauderdale airport.  Again, at night.  And very much alone.

After spending 16 days at the hostel, I would head to New Jersey from Fort Lauderdale, for two weeks, until January 9th.

I was afraid, but I was willing to do it without letting on, for two reasons:

1)      I thought I had no other options;
2)      If I let on that I was afraid, then others might be afraid for me;

I didn’t want anyone worrying about me.  When I told interested parties of my plans, I made sure to sound excited, fearless, in control, and collected. 

I was terrified someone would catch on, but I began arranging everything for my return to Florida City anyway.  I had the bus prices checked, the Google maps directions printed, I’d notified all interested parties of my plans, and I was going to leave in four days; which I thought was just enough time to get my things together and come to terms with my fear.  Also, I wanted to leave before everyone else did.  I didn’t want to be the last one at the house.

Then, kismet stuck again.

Matt messaged me.  He’d been talking to his mom.  She really didn’t like the idea of me being at a hostel alone, especially at Christmas.  She suggested that I should go there for the Christmas season.  But, I’d already booked my flights, and I couldn’t afford to reschedule them both, and pay for the cost disparity.  I was really nervous about being there for almost a full month.  December 15th until January 9th. 

A month is a long time, and when you don’t know a family really well, it’s easy to feel like you’re in the way, like you’re a burden, or just plain out of place.

I considered the option for a while and decided some momentary discomfort while finding my niche in the house would be less of a risk than say, taking Public Transit, by oneself, at night, in Miami.

I began packing, along with the rest of the members of the soon-to-be disbanded household.  The week was crawling by.

No time for camera's we'll use our eyes instead

We left fairly early in the morning from Never Never Land to head to the Keys.  After looking online for some information, we found a couple of State Parks that looked promising, so we started driving.  When we arrived at the gate, the admission to the park was three dollars per person.  Matt decided to ask if there was a better beach close-by, since this one seemed pretty narrow.  The attendant begrudgingly looked farther up the highway, pointed, and said, “Yup, Bahia Honda, about thirty miles up.”  We took her word for it and up we went.

When we arrived, the beach there really wasn’t much better than the one we’d just left from, and unfortunately, there was a weather system moving in.  We decided to make the most of it anyway.

Bahia Honda is a narrow, shallow beach, so you need to walk a solid 200 feet out into the water before you’re even waist-deep.  We splashed around for a while, but then the clouds started rolling in so we went for a stroll and in search of dried up sea life.  It was my goal to find a conch shell to take home with me.

On the three-mile stroll we found pieces of reef, seashells, broken sand dollars and starfish, and a sand dollar that looked like it had been blown up like a balloon.  We were jumping around on old reef bases when Matt spotted a big shell.

It was a conch!

Immediately I ran over, picked it up, and as fast as I snatched it, a giant tongue-like thing stuck out and almost licked me!  It was alive!

Unfortunately, it’s a felony to take anything alive from the beaches, and I couldn’t bring myself to shuck the thing right then and there, so I put it back in a sheltered rocky area and carried on my slightly-less-merry way.

Just for good measure, on our way back onto the mainland, we stopped at a little local dive where I ordered probably the most amazing clam chowder on the face of the earth, and Matt, in a fit of vengeance, ordered the conch chowder.

We showed that conch for being alive.

We finished off the meal by sharing some of their “World Famous” key lime pie (we had to, being in the Keys and all – even though neither of us really like key lime).

The drive through the Everglades was probably the darkest drive I’ve ever done.   There are no houses, no streetlights, and hardly any other vehicles on the road.  The only refraction of light I were the “Panther Crossing” signs that our headlights illuminated in the dark.

After a four and a half hour drive north, the time was ticking by and the temperature was dropping.  We’d brought a tent, airbed and lots of blankets because we planned to tent for our last night – but we didn’t expect it to be 45˚F (around 7˚C).

We decided to take a time-out and stop for some Thai food in a town nearby Sarasota.   It was 10 pm and we were the only people in the restaurant.

This place was legit in every sense of the word.

To start we got the fried tofu with duck sauce, and the steamed edemame beans.  I got the pad thai, extra spicy, and Matt got the chicken and broccoli with vegetables and steamed noodles. 

Everything was delicious and authentic.  So authentic that the chef, a tiny old Asian lady, came out after the meal to check on us!  We thanked her and began going on and on about how wonderful the meal was, when she piped in unexpectedly after only having said, “Ya!” and “Ok good!” so far.  She told us, in her best broken English, that she doesn’t speak or understand much English at all, so she had no idea what we were saying.

Like idiots we decided we would talk louder and mime what we’d said to her.

Talking louder and making idiotic hand-motions does not make you easier to understand, it just makes you look like an asshole.

We thanked her many times anyway, bowing repeatedly, like those bobbing birds that drink water from a glass.

Like I said, “idiotic assholes”.

For the next hour we drove up and down the main street in Sarasota checking out sleazy motels, calling sleazy motels, and getting side-eyed by local crack-heads and hookers.

Can you feel my affection for Sarasota yet?

By the time we chose a motel, we were both frustrated from searching for a motel so late, exhausted from driving, and a little somber, knowing Matt was leaving the next day to go back to New Jersey.

We called in a fairly early night so we could get up early-ish and check out the area.

Sarasota is pretty much just like every other small, tourist, snow-bird fuelled town in Florida.  It’s got a quaint downtown, near the beach, with lots of upscale shops, restaurants and cafés.

Miraculously, Matt had heard that the creator of Whoopi Goldberg’s favorite macaroons is based right here in Sarasota’s downtown circle.

The bakery had more varieties of macaroons than I thought was humanly possible.  But at two dollars a pop, I’d only be getting one… and a coffee… and a pain du chocolate.

A short hop, skip and a jump away was the beach.  It was wide here, more similar to Daytona.  It was hard and flat, too.  But what made it less enjoyable than the previous beaches was that it was roughly 37˚F (3˚C).

We picked up seashells, our fingers turning bright red, then purple, then blue-ish white, in the process.  When we were satisfied with our nautical treasures, we decided we’d better get going.

The drive back to Orlando as cheerful as it could be, since we knew that we’d soon have to part ways again.

We found a nice little earth-friendly café to stop for a bite to eat before heading to the airport.  We warmed up with some soup, chili and grilled Panini’s.  It was sunny and even though it was cool we ate outside because it was full-blown cold in New Jersey.

Before I knew it, it was time to go again.

Back to MCO.  Back to my life as the only 20-something senior in Florida.  Adventures would need to be put on hold for now – or so I thought.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Never Never Land

So, on Tuesday, after a full day of dodging birds, butterflies and everglade critters, we hit the road to Florida City.  Along the mere 45-minute long drive south, there were countless plant nurseries, fruit shacks, and farms.

We had to stop and grabbed some star fruit - three for a dollar (ya can't beat that!).  The tiny little Mexican lady who was working there either didn't care to speak English, or didn't know how, so she just pantomimed the price for me.

We had booked the hostel we were staying at while we were still in Fort Lauderdale.  It looked like a really interesting place, and it was just 30 minutes from the Keys, so we thought it would be perfect.

Perfect is an understatement.  If I could have stayed there forever, I probably would.

Everglades Hostel is probably the most thoughtful accommodation I've come across.  From the moment I walked inside, the authentic Hispanic vibe had me swooning in delight: adobe brick flooring, mosaics along the top of the walls, rustic wooden banisters, and carefully tasteful themes in each room made the hostel more inviting than grandma's place.

And that's just the inside.  

The secure, private garden area included a waterfall and wading pool, a giant wooden tree swing, a beached raft with it's sail made from t-shirts and undies, a sheltered gazebo with a C-shaped couch that fit perfectly inside, covered in throw pillows and blankets so you could snuggle up and watch a movie on the projector and screen inside.  

There was a communal BBQ and open air kitchen, hammocks hidden high in tree branches, outdoor sheltered beds and chairs, and there was even an area to put up a tent for the night.

It was basically Never Never Land, except it's real and it's in Florida.

The hostel has a policy that it will not turn away a weary traveler.  And there was all-you-can-eat pancakes and bottomless coffee every morning!  

They offer walking and cycling tours of the area, and also arrange tours to all the major areas in the area including Miami, the Everglades and the Florida Keys.

Everglades Hostel is definitely the most legit American hostel I've come across.  I wish we'd known about it sooner because I totally would have stayed there on our last couple of nights, since it was just about the same distance from Miami as Fort Lauderdale.

That night, we thought it was only fitting in a city with such a strong Hispanic presence that we should go for some Mexican food.  As you can usually expect from authentic Mexican restaurants, the price was affordable, and the single servings could feed a small family.

The rest of the evening we spent swinging in the garden, laying around chatting in the gazebo, and checking out the rest of the garden for hidden treasures.  I'm definitely returning to this hostel if I'm ever back in the area.

Two and Three of the Thirds

So for the last weekend of Matt's Florida visit, we decided to go to the Fort Lauderdale area to check out a few of Matt's old stomping grounds.

Oddly enough, the first thing we did when we got to the area was go to a New York style, Jewish-owned diner called Flakowitz's.  As can be expected from such an establishment, breakfast is served all day, the portions are gigantic, and the service provided is done so in a fashion to turn over tables as quickly as possible.  

We enjoyed some breakfast and coffee and were back on our way in what seemed like mere moments.

Next on the agenda was trying to find the hostel we'd be staying at.  It turned out that when I entered the address into our GPS, I forgot to include the direction of the street we were headed to.  Not realizing this, we ended up in the Fort Lauderdale ghetto.

I'm not talking "North End Dartmouth" kind of ghetto, but the real deal, American popular representation "Compton" kind of ghetto.

The homes were ranged from run-down to decrepit, people were playing basketball in the middle of the street, and as two whiteys in a compact car, we definitely attracted some negative attention.  

Upon closer inspection of the address we realized we were in the wrong quadrant of the city, so we entered the correct address into the GPS and got out of there STAT.

We arrive at the Chocolate Hostel and Crew House, finally, and checked into our apartment style semi-private suite.  The hostel is a really cool concept that's different from others, because it's actually an apartment that was turned into a hostel.  

Our suite had a fully furnished living room, kitchen, bathroom and dining area, and two fully furnished bedrooms.  The bedrooms are private and are individually locked, but the common areas are shared.  In the area, this type of accommodation is important for the cruise ship workers who are sometimes docked here for a few weeks or more in between jobs.

Once we got settled we cruised around the Greater Fort Lauderdale area that includes Matt's old 'hoods, Coral Springs, as well as Florida Atlantic University.  Later in the evening we took a stroll down by the beach, caught a Pathers vs. Rangers game at the BankAtlantic Centre in Sunrise, and grabbed some thai food on the way back to the hostel for the night.

The next day was Saturday, we headed down Los Olas and onto the A1A to grab some beachside parking.  We didn't have much change, so we decided to come back in a few minutes and top up the meter then.  After refreshing our parking ticket and enjoying the Floridian sun for another couple of hours, we came back to the rental car and there was a scratch on the driver's side door.

At first we didn't think anything of it, then I realized my X-ring was missing.  I opened my wallet to see if it got stuck in the bi-fold, and noticed that my credit cards and cash were gone, and so was my almost brand new digital camera (with all my pictures from Disney World on it).  Matt checked his wallet and his cards were gone, too.

We were robbed.

Someone must have watched me take my purse from the trunk to top up the meter, then as soon as I went back to the beach, they went to work.  They didn't even bother looking anywhere else for anything (they could have scored two iPods if they looked in the glove box!).

Getting robbed while you're on vacation is pretty much worst case scenario.  We called the credit card companies and luckily we were able to cancel the cards before too much was taken, but those dirty rotten thieves still managed to get $90 in gas from Texaco and $130 in "pending" transactions elsewhere.

Once we got everything sorted out, filed a police report (unfortunately we didn't get on the show "Police Women of Broward County"), and finished grieving over our losses, we decided we weren't going to let those scumbags have our things and ruin our trip.  And we didn't!

But, after crashing out on my bike and getting robbed, I couldn't help but think of the old says "trouble comes in threes".  And it did, on the following Monday.

Just like everything else that happens in life, there's really not a lot you can do about it.  So I did what was in my power to do and moved along.

All in all, during the 4 days we spent in Broward/Miami Dade County, we went to five different beaches, Butterfly World, the Miami Metro Zoo, South Beach, and Key Biscayne.  We got fresh fruits from the local fruit stands, including the ripest, most delicious star fruit I've ever had.  We tried as many different ethnicities of foods as we could think of, including Greek, Mexican, and Thai.  I can't forget to mention the unreasonably overpriced seafood we had in SoBe either, $65 for the meal, plus they so kindly included an 18% gratuity for themselves, even though the service was bush league at best - thanks for that CJ's Crab Shack.

On our way out of the Miami Dade/Broward Co. area, we decided to stop for an Everglades tour.  I've gotta say, for a relatively inexpensive price, you definitely get a bang for your buck.  Our tour guide had an authentic down South accent and took us through the 'glades on an air-boat with about 15 other tourists.  We started off slow, floating through the channels, catching glimpses of alligators, birds, turtles and fish.

Once we got into the open Everglade areas, though, he kicked it into high gear and whipped us in circles around the 'glades like a bat out of hell!  He even stopped the air boat to give us a little ecological history lesson and let those who wanted to step out of the boat to stand in the Everglades.  In case you were wondering, it's just about the slimiest thing I've ever felt.

I also learned that the portion of the Everglades that we were in was entirely man-made (previously man-destroyed).  When settlers started developing the southern part of the state, they decided to build a nice little causeway across the whole stretch of the 'glades - ceasing the flow of fresh and salt water from the inter-tidal areas.  The road is still there, but they've installed some technology to maintain the flow and keep the ecosystem alive.

After the air-boat tour we went for a free wildlife show including such celebrity animals as the skunk who starred along side Brendan Fraser in Furry Vengeance (2010).  That's right, my one-degree away from Brendan Fraser is a skunk.  Suck on that.

We learned about alligators, and turtles, and toads and the like, then were feeling a little famished, so obviously we went for the deep fried platter, that included frogs legs, catfish, and gator tail.

Needless to say, even though we encountered some major disappointment, we still managed to keep our eyes on the prize and enjoy the rest of our time in the Miami Dade/Broward Co. area.

Note:  I want to thank everyone who kindly and generously reached out to me with kind words and support when I was robbed.  Even though nothing could be done about it, it was amazing to know that so many people out there were concerned and wanted to let me know how much they care.  You guys ROCK! \m/

Sunday, January 16, 2011

American Thanksgiving/taking

(Preface:  I realize I'm extremely late in posting this.  My apologies for my negligence.)

I find it ironic that the day after most American's traditionally give thanks for everything in their lives - the day they express outwardly their gratitude for all of the things they are already blessed with - is the most intense,  greedy, consumerist, cut-throat shopping day of the year.

But that's exactly how it happens.

The third Thursday in November is Thanksgiving in America.  This year, my dad, my step-mom, my usual called-upon-travel-comrade, and I all headed to my dad's and Lorraine's friends place.  It was to be a not-so-traditional Thanksgiving, with a hearty mixture of southern and Italian flare.

Fourteen of us were there, two tables long, ranging from two years old to probably late 60's.  Some of us had just met, but we were all family together.

The day began early with shrimp dip, cream cheese and jelly dip, and tons of crackers.  Most people knew of me for longer than I knew them, or even knew of them.  Dad had told them lots of me, even before we had our own reunion.  That was really nice to know.  Most of them had anticipated meeting me one day.  That was really nice, too.

The cornucopia of foods served at dinner included a variety of Italian home made macaroni, turkey, ham that had been smoked for hours overnight, mashed potatoes, salad, sweet potatoes, roasted vegetables, breads and so much more.  We all joined to give thanks and then dove into our meals without restraint.  One plate, two plates later, appetizers, entrées, salads, and desserts later.

Though the meal and the company were both phenomenal, we had to give our thanks and head out.  I had a time-sensitive project that needed attending to.

We finished up our dealings a little earlier than anticipated and decided to head to Downtown Disney to see what was up and to pick up a little "thank you" gift for my Dad.  After checking out the sights, we decided to head home.  On the way home, we came across the most insane traffic I've ever seen.  It was almost midnight and the exit ramp from the highway was backed all the way up onto the highway itself.  The ramp lead to an outlet mall that opened at midnight for Black Friday shopping insanity.  Never was I more relieved to not be a shopper than I was in that moment.  I felt anxiety from just looking at the traffic, never mind actually being in the stores and I can only suspect that people who shop on Black Friday at midnight are nothing short of clinically insane.

Up next: Police Dealings of Broward County/the Florida loop.