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Pelican Watching

Sunday, 1st July, 2001

As always, back into the heat.

Air conditioning is simply mandatory in Florida: as annoying as it is when returning to your room after a refreshing swim in the hotel pool, it makes the rest of the day liveable. I wish I could wear sunglasses to swim, especially as the Casa Rosa was quiet enough to attract very few patrons to help make the pool a much more personal experience.

We'd booked the Days Suites in advance for the few days around the meetup but decided to search around for somewhere for the rest of the week. What we found was Casa Rosa, run by an Englishman no less, with his English restrictions. It's little way along 192, the same road we were on before and the backbone of the area, but in the charmingly named Kissimmee, a part of Orlando in all but name.

We stayed five nights at Casa Rosa and enjoyed it, but one glimpse inside our rooms at the Sea Castle in Siesta Key, our home for the following week outside of Sarasota, and we realised in an instant just how wide the gap between British and American hosting really is. The owners of Casa Rosa were friendly, courteous and polite, but I didn't need to ask why the hotel was up for sale. The rooms were empty because of restrictions that Americans are simply not used to.

Casa Rosa required a ten buck deposit for the phone, with no long distance allowed and a forty per cent surcharge. We had a safe but no key, a fridge with no power, a television with no remote control - all products of restrictive marketing. Even room service was extra at $3 per day. We could get our towels swapped but we'd have to bring them down to the lobby ourselves. At least the air conditioning worked and that is the one paramount requirement of a Florida hotel.

By contrast some people spend three months a year at the Sea Castle, so much that they reroute their mail for the duration. For not a lot more in payment, we got a beautiful little set of openly connected rooms, with free television, full kitchen and right to our space on the whitest sand in the world. I have no regrets, but I know which I would return to and which I wouldn't. Casa Rosa was dying through no repeat custom; the Sea Castle thrives on it.

Florida is the land of palm trees and sunsets. As we attempted to drive down the mobile lake that flooded much of our way down to the Gulf of Mexico, we saw palm trees galore and remembered the sunsets of the past week. But the sunsets were overcast or stormy and the palm trees were all on tripod supports, newly planted with prepubescent leaves that gave the impression of shrunken heads with mohicans. The cracks in the tourist veneer were there to be seen, if only you looked behind the magic of Mickey Mouse, whose reach stretches as far as custom shaped pylons with ears.

Our own cracks came to prominence on Siesta Key. Our week here was to be an antidote to the chaos of travelling so far in such a short time. We had already driven from a state touching Canada to a state on the Gulf of Mexico, but we had only just started our three month trek around the continent. In many ways, this would be our week of calm before the storm. Tracy used to live near Sarasota, and I wanted to share some of the life she had here before I ever knew her. I wanted to sit back and just talk without the distractions of the road. I wanted to share the peace.

Nothing much works to plan, of course, and what peace I found was alone. What peace Tracy found I don't know, but I hope she found some enjoyment at least in somewhere so fundamentally designed for it.

I remember two o'clock in the morning on the Sunday. Tracy was sleeping, as she had been for a few hours; but I had already slept away the afternoon and was feeling far too full of life to follow suit. So I meandered up and down the sand alone, my senses alive on an almost deserted beach. The clouds pulled back, the humidity lowered and the almost full moon was high in the sky. I sat on a fallen tree for a while, drawing patterns in the sand and listening to the ocean. It's amazing how loud the waves seem when there's nothing else making noise. Mind you, it's amazing how loud a fridge and an air conditioning unit can be in the silence too: the fundamental background noise of life in Florida.

To the edge of the Sea Castle beachfront the neighbouring property is raised up with a high wall, but there is a stone walkway at the water level to give access to the next stretch of beach. We soon found that the local pelican population that racks up frequent flier mileage over the hotel chose this area to go fishing. To counter human frailties, I sat often on the walkway just far enough away from the beach proper that the ocean would be the only sound to hear.

Swimming the warm salty waves later, I felt like swimming out to watch the pelicans from close up. They swirl and dive so close to shore to snatch their chosen fish from the water that it becomes almost addictive to watch them. I watched seagulls circling too, from one promising pelican to another, ready to swoop down with it and attempt to steal its catch. The pelican would snap in such a way as not to drop the fish but sufficient to send the gull flitting off to another target.

I don't know if they ate seagulls along with their rats, but it was the summer of 'Survivor'. While waiting for credit card money to clear so as to give us financial freedom for the summer, we watched a lot of television back at the hotel in between shell hunting expeditions and pelican watching.

PBS is the public broadcasting network in the States, with a refreshing lack of commercials and a plethora of British programming that was more than familiar to me from the days before I cancelled my licence. In England a licence is a legal requirement to receive television signals, currently �104 ($150-ish per year). There are so few English households that have chosen to live without the all-seeing goggle box that the licensing authority no longer believes anyone who suggests otherwise.

I found 'Survivor' halfway through. It wasn't at all what I expected: almost no actual survivalist lore a la 'Bush Tucker Man', just a huge amount of personal politics. The game is merely a balance of trying to be popular and useful with trying not to be obnoxious. In that sense, for most people it's just an extension of life itself, which may after all explain its popularity. It's a soap opera with exotic cuisine.

I wonder if much of Florida tuned in to 'Survivor' at all. I doubt most of its residents wouldn't be too happy to switch over from 'Murder, She Wrote' and 'Matlock'. Florida is an ageing state. Of all those in the union, Florida is getting older quickest, mostly due to it being the most popular place to retire to.

A number of friends in Florida, including Tracy from her ten years of Sarasota area experience, that the state anthem isn't quite accurate. Stephen Foster's 'Old Folks at Home' just doesn't cover the ninety year olds slowing down traffic because they have difficulty seeing through the windscreen. I didn't see this in either Orlando or Siesta Key where the traffic was only slowed down by rain or roadwork, both of which were fortunately infrequent.

The ageing population was very visible in other ways though. After two weeks I found that the curse of Florida isn't the old people but the legal adverts. It seemed impossible to watch any television at all without innumerable law offices offering me cash settlements for driving accidents or medical malpractice. And they weren't just broadcast during the innumerable legal shows, evidence alone of the current mindset of America, but during everything else too. On Judge Joe Brown, one lady sued her neighbour for $52 of damage that her daughter had caused to her tent. Welcome to America. Have a nice day.

Searching for a grocery store on US 41 towards Sarasota amidst a throng of medical specialist offices made it even more understandable. This is an area where half the population is retired and half of the rest provides medical care in a system where care comes with an invoice. It is perhaps understandable that there is going to be a third set of gentlemen involved with attempting to bleed as much of that money back as possible. At least it cut down on the tacky souvenir shops. After the elderly, their doctors and their lawyers, there was nobody left to run them.

After Orlando, Siesta Key seemed to be based very much more in reality. It was a slice of the real Florida behind the gloss and sparkle of the plastic tourist city, making Englewood a world away from the tourists.

We couldn't travel much, as our budget was temporarily limited, but we did manage a short trip down the coast to this charming little area, Tracy's home for ten years. It proved to be much quieter than any other part of Florida that we'd previously seen, in a location that she'd maybe like to return to as and when circumstances allow. Her house looks very similar to when she left it, the current owners obviously happy enough to keep it as is or lazy enough not to bother changing it.

We ate at the Fishery Cafe, a coastal fish restaurant that was obviously based around a little local community with an art gallery and a small town museum. It was very friendly and lively without being ostentatious. i enjoyed it immensely and understand fully the draw of the area.

On the way to Englewood, we took a short detour to catch yet another beach, an old favourite of Tracy's due to its solitude. The tourists simply don't know it's here, making it an attraction almost entirely for local residents and those who know the area well.

It lies at the end of a small promontory, with a beautifully overhung road as its spine. The houses weren't too close together and they had driveways and surrounding foliage in the exact same way that the old Detroit money houses in Grosse Pointe don't.

The beach itself is very small, and has to be actively maintained by the authorities due to erosion, nature's way of forcing change. The weeping willows wept for the loss. I could hear them then and I can hear them still.

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