Saturday, October 6, 2012


There were spectacular tall cumulus clouds, pink-tinted, in the big sky outside my window at dawn this morning in Miami. My first time in Florida has been short and sweet: I arrived yesterday in the early afternoon and here I am in Miami airport less than twenty-four hours later waiting for my Toronto flight.

Those tall beautiful clouds in a blue blue sky were a reminder that I was near the ocean, but that’s one thing I didn’t get to do: swim in or even glimpse the sea. Everything else has been picture-postcard, from the aplm trees and warm humid Bangkok-like air, to the incredible avenues of banyan trees, each more eccentric and individual looking than its neighbour, sometimes at the centre of a boulevard, in other places arching from either side of the road to make a full enticing canopy.

I had a small tour around Coral Gables and Little Havana yesterday afternoon. A generous guy named Tom Swick, who is a travel writer and the former travel editor of the Fort Lauderdale paper, was due to have a public chat with me last night. And so he wrote last week  to ask if I’d like a look around, an introduction to the place.

He took me to the incredible Biltmore Hotel with its enormous pool, high painted ceilings, huge scale altogether. It’s like a Florida castle in its ambition. What a vision and confidence the guy had, a man named Merrick, who imagined the community in the nineteen-twenties and built the hotel, the church, the Venetian grotto pool, and the housing development. All quite fantastic. I love the look of the coral rock that was used in many of the old buildings. Some of it is plastered or stuccoed over, but a lot shows, textured and a reminder of the living creatures who formed it.

Tom drove to Little Havana, Eighth Street, and we walked past small cafe/diners, cigar shops, and more. There’s an eternal flame-topped monument to the Bay of Pigs invasion, and also an inviting canopy-roofed area where men (and the occasional woman) sit under whirring fans playing dominoes or chess. We stopped in at a fruit stand piled with avocadoes, papayas, tomatoes... They also do sandwiches and juice.  My fresh tall papaya-sugar cane-ginger juice ranks as one of the best juices I’ve ever come across. And hungry from not having eaten since before eight in the morning in New York, I devoured a generous assembled-in-front-of-me tuna sandwich with fat slices of tomato.  

To top off our excursion, just before getting back in the car to drive back to Coral Gables we stopped at a lunch counter for a Cuban coffee, a sweet strong hit of black energy in a small styrofoam cup. Yes!

The flat-roofs and low-rise look of things here, the sound of Spanish everywhere and huge signs in Spanish, the soft tropical air last night, splashes of bougainvillea and other bright colours in people’s clothing and shoes: all these thing proclaim the place a new country to me. It’s a treat. 

Perhaps the biggest treat of all was Books and Books, where I talked about BURMA with Tom Swick in front of a very appreciative group of people. Like other independent bookstores I’ve been to on this book tour, it has a large loyal following and is a pleasurable place to spend time. But not many stores of any kind, let alone bookstores, have a beautiful enclosed courtyard cafe-bar and also a series of tall airy bookshelf-lined rooms to hang out in! Still, I get the sense that it’s not the pleasing physical space alone so much as the energy and imagination with which the store is run, as it is with other independents, from Greenwich to San Francisco, that keep them alive and well.

And of course all we who write and love books and bookstores are grateful.

AFTER-THOUGHT: I did get to see the ocean after all, from the airplane, as we headed into the air over Miami, the line of white sand along the coast stretching as far as the eye could see. Amazing the housing too, stretching in all directions where once there was swamp and everglades. The remnants of that are visible from the air: waterways large and small are everywhere, gleaming in the morning sunshine. The whole landscape feels precariously close to sea level when viewed from the air, a place to enjoy now, before global warming brings invading waters...

1 comment:

Eleanor Hoh said...

Sad I missed your talk about Burma with Tom Swick. So glad Tom took you around Gables and Little Havana to give you a taste of Miami. Good luck with your book tour.