January 13, 2005

PLEASE DO NOT PICK UP THE CATS

We've been on a four-day cruise of the Caribbean, departing from Miami, with stops at Nassau (the Bahamas), CocoCay (an island owned by Royal Caribbean cruise lines), and Key West. Today was our day in Key West.

On the cruise, we are part of a party of 40 people, all in the awning business. Some of the people we have known for years and count among our friends; others are people we are meeting for the first time; still others are people we've seen around at awning conventions but haven't gotten to know before.

Lars and Marianne are in the first group. They are originally from Sweden but now live in upstate New York; we keep in touch with them throughout the year. Lars brought with him on the cruise a recent article from the travel section of the New York Times that listed places of interest in Key West. He's determined to take us off the beaten path and show us a less touristy side of Key West.

It takes forever to get off the cruise ship because every person on board has to clear customs before any one of us can debark. Inevitably, there are several people who have to be individually paged, more than once, and instructed to report to the customs agents. (While our awning group numbers 40, the total number of passengers on the cruise is about 2500. It takes all morning to clear customs.)

Then our little group of 10 sets off with Lars leading us, holding his article from the NY Times. (Others in our larger party of 40 have made other sightseeing arrangements for their day.) The morning overcast and mist have burned off and it is sunny and hot. We walk and walk and walk. Periodically we stop and some of the men in the group have animated discussions with Lars about how to read the NY Times map, or about which street we are on, or about whether we should just stop at the next pub on the next corner and call it good. Lars insists that we are going to eat some tapas and see Old Town, and to just bear with him.

We have walked a few blocks south of the main tourist street (Duval Street), but seem to be doubling back in the direction from whence we came. Many loud protests go up from our group. We are hot, tired, sweaty, hungry. And then, suddenly and dramatically, Lars points to our left: There's the Lighthouse Museum! Some of us want to just cross the street and go into the Lighthouse, but Lars marches on. And then, on our right, there's Hemingway's old house. "See? See?" Lars says. "Didn't I tell you I would show you the sights?"

And still we are walking, in search of this tapas restaurant. A couple of intersections later, there's a man -- obviously not a tourist -- who's waiting to cross the street. Lars shows this man the NY Times map and asks, "Which direction do we want to go?" Although the obvious answer would be left, or south, the man says to us: "You don't want to go down there."

"Why not?"

"That's Key West's ghetto."

We have the address for the restaurant. Scott, Lars, and the man walk to the right, or north, looking at the numbers on the buildings. Clearly, we need to go left, or south, through Key West's ghetto. The ghetto? The couple from New Jersey scoff -- this ain't no ghetto.

We proceed on to the restaurant, going about four blocks through an area that clearly isn't prospering. We pass a laundromat, a Cuban diner, a little boy riding a scooter, cars whose Laundau vinyl roofs are peeling off. The middle of the street is torn up for construction. Three blocks into this neighborhood, we see a sign, hand-lettered on plywood: Santiago's -- one more block. As Scott said later, If anything, that sign gave me even less confidence that we were going anywhere good.

Santiago's Bodega is on the corner -- an old house brightly re-painted and converted to a restaurant. Three roosters are scratching in the grass in the front yard. We arrive at 11:30 and are the only customers. (After days of eating meals on the cruise ship, we welcome the feeling of having this place to ourselves.) The friendly blonde waitress greets our sweaty, hungry, grumbling group. She pulls together some tables and seats us, then fixes us up with a big pitcher of sangria, and big blue bottles of sparkling water from Saratoga Springs which makes the New Yorkers in our group laugh. We are willing to try anything on the menu, and she arranges with the kitchen that we receive a variety of plates. Spicy shrimp bisque, dates stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto, beef tenderloin topped with blue cheese butter, spanakopita, dolmas. The dishes keep rolling out. Iceberg lettuce wedges with tomatoes and blue cheese dressing, Greek salad, peppered grouper. All of the little bites add up, and we are satiated by meal's end. Sometimes you just have to go off the beaten path, we all agree, and the waitress agrees with us.

While the rest of our group went for other sightseeing for the rest of the afternoon, Scott and I retrace our steps to the Hemingway Home.

The sign at the ticket booth says, Please do not pick up the cats. Intrigued, I watch for the first glimpse of a cat. After we've toured the main house, our tour guide takes us outside to a little brick patio. About five cats are lying on the ground and on wrought iron patio furniture, all of them looking stoned from the heat. There are 61 cats in all on the property, our tour guide says. I petted the tortoiseshell one on the chair, but was careful to not pick him up. They all are descendents of Snowball, Hemingway's white, polydactyl (multi-toed) cat, the tour guide says; they all are named in the style in which Hemingway named his cats: Buster Kitten, Charlie Chaplin, etc.

The Hemingway Home is peaceful. The grounds are shaded with mature trees, and there are paths and benches tucked away here and there. The tour guide invites us to spend as much time on the grounds as we like. Even though there are a few other tourists on the property, the overall feeling of quietude was a welcome relief from the bustle of Key West's Duval Street.

What I have picked up is a lace shawl I started five years ago. I brought it with me on this trip, but am not anywhere near to finishing it, and have knitted just a few rows each day.

We return to Miami tomorrow, and will drive to Naples, Florida, to visit friends.

Posted by Karen at January 13, 2005 05:01 PM
Comments

That just sounds wonderful. We are encased in black ice here in Portland, OR, and I am happy that you are somewhere sunny, having adventures. Stay there as long as possible!

Posted by: Anne at January 16, 2005 05:41 PM

Looking forward to reading more about your trip! Which is silly, now that I think about it, since I could get the whole story from you in person.

Posted by: Ryan at January 18, 2005 04:43 PM