DESPITE my hatred of aeroplanes, a few years ago my reptile-loving better half persuaded me to make the nine-hour flight to Florida so she could take me to the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, which she had visited on an earlier holiday with friends.
We rented a large property near the hospital for a month, to give me time to recover from the journey before starting to worry about the trip home.
Arriving at Miami Airport in the early morning, we met with extreme rudeness from an immigration official who said we had filled in our forms wrongly and sent us to the back of the queue. Eventually, however, we were reunited with our luggage and took a cab to Miami Beach, where we were spending the night in a hotel.
Spirits were raised somewhat by a visit for lunch to the soon-to-be-closed Jerry’s Famous Deli, where we were served magnificent sandwiches by an ancient waitress in short skirt and bobby-sox. Mine was filled with thin-sliced brisket to a depth of six inches, with gravy on top. If this is American food, I thought, I’m all for it.
However the next meal was a big disappointment. We visited a Cuban restaurant expecting a spicy Caribbean treat only to find it served tasteless stodge.
The morning after, Margaret and I went to hire a car for the 115-mile drive to Marathon and I found myself perplexed, at the wheel of an automatic for the first time in my life. They didn’t have any stick-shift vehicles. Negotiating the way out of the underground car park with extreme care, we were soon in the middle of ten lanes of frantic Miami traffic not knowing which way to turn because we could not work the satnav. Several terrifying minutes and an illegal U-turn later, we were on the right road. With a speed limit of 55mph it was a sedate journey through the Keys and having finally made the satnav see sense, we found the house without much trouble. It was pretty spectacular, backing on to a lagoon with a dock on which pelicans were waddling. They proved to be tame and not averse to the odd ham sandwich.
There was also a white heron which took off as we approached it, leaving a splash of crap fully 18 inches long.
Having stocked up on food at the Publix supermarket it was time for our first trip to the Turtle Hospital to see Rebel, a large loggerhead who is a permanent resident because he has diving problems after being hit by a boat. Despite his injuries he has proved resourceful enough to write an annual letter to his sponsors, including Margaret.
She is in her element at the hospital, which patches up injured chelonians before returning them to the sea in joyful ceremonies, some of which we were lucky enough to witness. In the grounds we saw a huge iguana, one of many we would come across that month. We returned five or six times during the holiday and were always cheered by the boundless enthusiasm of the volunteers.
It was a thrill to see exotic birds including ibis and cardinals, while hammerhead sharks and hundreds of species of fish populated the ridiculously blue waters. As at home, you could spot a rubbish dump from miles away because of the hundreds of birds circling overhead. In this case, not gulls but vultures.
We took a day trip to the Everglades, a strange place if ever there was one. Mile upon mile of water only a couple of feet deep. From our airboat we saw a mother alligator with lots of babies on her back. At a visitor centre there was a bloke messing about with a gator which was so docile it was obviously drugged out of its mind so we walked out.
At a jolly joint called Robbie’s in Islamorada, we threw small fry to a seething mass of tarpon – a target for game fishermen because of their huge size, although they are bony and not good to eat. We did see a recipe for tarpon which said: ‘Place the fish on a plank of wood. Cover with onions, herbs and spices then wrap in foil and cook over hot coals for two hours. Take off the foil, throw the tarpon in the bin and eat the plank.’
Robbie’s was the base for a pretty young girl named Captain Samantha, who ran boat trips. She took us past mangrove swamps to a canal. On the dock next to a large house were a number of concrete steps, which we saw a crocodile scale in leisurely fashion before flopping down for a spot of sunbathing. At another spot, a giant croc dived into the water in front of us with a mighty splash.
Also in Islamorada we attended a chili cook-off, a charity event in which amateur chefs compete to make the best chili con carne. Ten dollars bought you samples from six of the two dozen stands where pans were merrily bubbling. My favourite was a green chicken chili made by an old guy who, when I asked for the recipe, laughed and said: ‘You gotta be joking.’ He won the contest and told the local paper: ‘The secret’s in the salt.’
On a day out to the southern tip of mainland USA, we visited Peppers of Key West, a must for any chilli-head. There were tastings of various hot sauces, sprinkled on crusty bread while the punters discussed their merits like a bunch of wine snobs. I came away with several bottles and a T-shirt.
What we wanted to see more than anything in Florida was a manatee; a massive, slow-moving marine mammal also known as the sea cow with a mournful, expressive face.
We caught a glimpse of one in a neighbouring lagoon but it swam away. It wasn’t until our final morning in Marathon that we noticed our next-door neighbour, who had been cleaning his dock with a hose, had company. Although they live in the briny, manatees apparently love fresh water and one was avidly drinking from the hose. Invited to look closer, we found that it was a mother with a baby. We took these pictures:
They spent several minutes lapping up the salt-free nectar before going on their gentle way.
Old jokes’ home
Cowboy walks into a German garage and says: ‘Audi!’
A PS from PG
‘Don’t blame me, Pongo,’ said Lord Ickenham, ‘if Lady Constance takes her lorgnette to you. God bless my soul, though, you can’t compare the lorgnettes of today with the ones I used to know as a boy. I remember walking one day in Grosvenor Square with my aunt Brenda and her pug dog Jabberwocky, and a policeman came up and said the latter ought to be wearing a muzzle. My aunt made no verbal reply. She merely whipped her lorgnette from its holster and looked at the man, who gave one choking gasp and fell back against the railings, without a mark on him but with an awful look of horror in his staring eyes. A doctor was sent for, and they managed to bring him round, but he was never the same again. He had to leave the Force, and eventually drifted into the grocery business. And that is how Sir Thomas Lipton got his start.’
PG Wodehouse: Uncle Fred in the Springtime