In Which I Confess I Like Florida

I harbor a controversial belief: I like Florida.

It is time for me to admit that I am in fact from Florida – one of those curiously marked number who did not alight in the state from somewhere else on the way to somewhere else again. I was born in Tampa and my earliest culinary memory was of a Cuban sandwich with salami on it, which I feel gives me some validation.

florida fort 2

My grandparents still live in Tampa, and I manage to make it there every year to visit them, usually meeting one or another family member at the Ancestral Residence, which is really just a nice white house on a canal. And reader, yes: I enjoy visiting Florida. I look forward to it. I am only a little crazy.

I admit it. Florida has a bad rap lately. This is due to the constant stream of absurdist news stories that come out of my native state’s swamps, beaches, and endless rows of slowly sinking tract housing: cannibals, drug-addicted women with funny names armed with rocket launchers, fatal bug eating contests, very slow but extremely determined dowager beach toy thieves, and an endless march of baroque sex scandals.

washed out sun lizard

Florida is also the home of sundry political horrors, including such low-lights as George Zimmerman, hanging chads, and Mark Rubio’s furtive, terrified expression over a certain tiny water bottle. Finally, Florida boasts a remarkable menagerie of animal life: starting with pretty pink flamingos and ending with poodle-eating alligators, flanked by boa constrictors that happily live (and eat) in your pool shed.

With all these nightmares taken into account, why do I like Florida? I should sit down and make a little list.

1. The food is excellent and unusual. Florida is the most South American of US states for glaringly obvious geographic reasons, and boasts a diverse array of cuisines that can be rather difficult to find in many other bits of the continental US. Combine this South American potentiality with excellent fresh seafood and the influence of the other cultures who flock here to enjoy the weather, and you’ve got a delightful diaspora food scene. Guatemalan, Cuban, German, Vietnamese, gulf-coast seafood, and barbeque are readily available. (But forget about Chinese, I haven’t figured that out yet.)

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 5.37.05 PM

Whenever I come to Tampa, I ritualistically track down and devour a Cuban sandwich, made with ham and pickles and salami and cheese on pressed, garlicky bread. For some reason, the best Cubans almost always lurk within the suspicious facades of gas station cafes.

Whenever I visit, I also find myself eating at least one fish sandwich — flash fried and served on a sesame bun with a bit of mayonnaise, a classic that Frenchy’s over in Clearwater probably does best with fresh slabs of flaky grouper. (The conservation status of grouper being what it is, you’re better off ordering mahi-mahi). If they’re on offer, I always like to order Greek-style boiled shrimp: plump shell-on beasts served with a marinade of olive oil and oregano and lemon.

There is also Key Lime pie, which out of state bakeries usually butcher into a green, artificially flavored abomination that sits unloved on the buffet line. Here, Key Lime pie is a fine art. It must be off-yellow, the graham cracker crust must be fresh, and it must taste aggressively of fresh, real-world key limes — offset with a bit of sour cream and condensed milk. The Publix key lime pie? It’s just fine.


2. The exhilarating feeling of living in a place that wants to kill you. If you’re from Down Under, you will immediately and viscerally appreciate this. Florida and Australia’s tropical regions are very similar places — fetid, lush, and full of fecund creatures that are capable of harming or killing you. One can only imagine the profound terror Florida’s earliest settlers must have felt when first entering this actively hostile but rather interesting ecosystem, an adrenaline rush any average Florida homeowner can experience if they regularly turn over rocks in their backyard.

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 12.54.21 AM

Floridians do not get complacent: as soon as one begins to forget about the reality of alligators or Burmese Pythons, one comes across a prehistoric beast curled up quietly in your grill, or waddling with grim determination across the interstate on a Tuesday morning. Beware.

It doesn’t end with giant reptiles, of course. We have insects as well, ranging from venomous, swarming fire ants to gigantic cockroaches that are delicately called “Palmetto bugs.” In recent years, Florida has in fact witnessed an unholy battle between non-native fire ants and equally non-native but meaner Raspberry Crazy Ants — little creatures that like living inside one’s personal electronics, and die in such voluminous numbers that they resemble brown snow.

Finally, we have sharks. I have vivid memories of being a little kid, vacationing on Boca Grande, and being told that it was not OK to swim in the ocean at night. I asked why not, and was told, quite seriously: “That’s when the sharks hunt. They attacked a guy swimming off the dock last year.”

And for years afterward, I was even more convinced than most children that sharks lived in swimming pools.

I firmly believe that residing in places full of top predators and malevolent insects and deadly sea-life makes one smarter, in the classic Darwinian sort of sense — or at the very least, it makes one feel a lot less bored. I attribute any modest life success I have experienced to my early encounters with Florida’s natural wonders.

I  also have some anthropological theories about why this proximity to natural danger makes both Floridians and Australians unusually fond of drinking cheap beer while wearing tank-tops, but that will have to wait until next time.

florida beach

3. The platonic ideal of Gulf Coast beaches. I grew up on Florida beaches, and although I have lived in California off-and-on since 2001, I never accepted these chilly and wind-swept expanses that Bay Area denizens rave about as the real thing. What good is a beach if the waves can merrily break your bones, and if you require a wetsuit and a powerful insurance policy just to go for a dip? Why would anyone spend much time on a beach that is regularly swept by chilly winds, and obscured by great inrushes of fog?

But Florida beaches — they’re superior. They have plush white sand that grows warm and chalky by 10:00 AM, and banks of seaweed that take on a vague but nostalgically fishy smell, one I find immensely and immediately evocative. The water is bathtub warm and very shallow, and as kids, we took great delight in swimming out a seemingly impossibly long distance to stand on the sandbar, and look back at our families waving at us from the shore.

seashells detail

Even at the edge of the water, there are small quotidian delights: sand crabs burrowing like frightened white groundhogs, and the astounding array of fashion-swatch colors found in tiny, sand-loving coquina clams.

I would gather these coquina clams in line with the finest designs, and deposit them in small sand enclosures on the beach — they resembled something out of a cartoon, small living chips of a mosaic. To this day, I find it remarkable that something so colorful is real.

Suck it, Northern California beaches, where you have to put on a windbreaker just to go read your book.

4. Enormous thunderstorms. This may sound unusual, but hear me out: the weather in California is boring. The weather forecasters in most of California look so completely under-stimulated that you can tell they’re just hoping for a tsunami or heinous earthquake to manifest, anything to break up the horrid monotony of predicting — yet again — that it will probably be sunny and somewhere between 65 and 80 degrees.

Not so in Florida, where enormous, lurid thunderstorms roll in most afternoons with little advance warning, savagely drenching tourists from New England who lack the biological adaptation to weather that wants to maim you.

But Gulf Coast residents know better. Experienced Floridians know an impending thunderstorm or two-day hurricane is a delightful excuse to hole up on your screen porch with some alcohol and the latest Carl Hiassen book. It’s free entertainment: as a native Floridian, I might even pay good money for a channel that played nothing but aggressive storms at regular intervals. This could also  explain why I’ve adapted so nicely to the similar weather in Southeast Asia.

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 12.34.19 AM

5. Ridiculous gift shops. Florida is and has long been America’s finest purveyor of tacky tourist experiences and the cheap, bizarre crap that invariably accompanies them. As a young patron of the touristy Greek enclave of Tarpon Springs, near Tampa, I fell in love early with pink and green rubber sharks that squeak when poked, preserved alligators that are pretending to smoke cigars, vaguely pornographic postcards featuring bikini models from 1981, and endless variants on the theme of Yard Flamingo.

Now, these strange objects are imprinted into my soul, and some instinct deep within calls to me gently, imploring me to fill my future home with a healthy assortment of bullshit Florida tourist goods.

I mostly resist, but I know there is a day coming when I will outfit multiple rooms of my future domicile with weird little magnets and decorated, plasticized puffer fish. There is no sense fighting this. Indeed, I await it, hungrily.

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 12.53.55 AM

There are probably more reasons I like Florida, reasons that embedded deeper in my psyche and are harder to outline in simple list form. Perhaps the main one is that I was born there and have gone every year, and one’s birthplace — even one as fetid and surrealist as Florida — becomes imprinted into one’s DNA. Our geography makes us who we are, and we are always inclined to remember it.

I believe this geographical theory, as I look out across a scrubby landscape of palm trees and South American strip malls and poorly-parked Cadillacs, all of it sinking further into the ocean with each passing year.

“Ah,” my mind says. “This is fetid and trashy! And this I understand.”

Blogfest Asia 2012: Noisy, fractious ASEAN bloggers, ignore at own peril

Bloggers are about the same everywhere, I guess. Fractious and noisy. Exuberant, opinionated, occasionally make questionable clothing choices. Might have been considered “weird” in school. Vanguards of social revolution and change—that too. You ignore them at your own peril. 

This particular motley pack of Asia bloggers convened at Build Bright University, a small college of something or another outside Siem Reap, placed in the middle of what appeared to be a loosely residential neighborhood, mixed with a small dairy-and-water-lily farm. The bloggers came from 12 Asian countries, a smattering hailing from further afield (including yours truly). Their ages ranged from 14 to in their 70s. Many were professionals, some were students, some had even achieved the holy grail of professional blogging. All fervently wanted to geek out.

Siem Reap is the small city adjacent to Angkor Wat, and is by far the most heavily touristed place in Cambodia—a fact not lost on the attendees, who gathered to watch sunsets, sunrises, and things in between at the archaeological ruins. Many of them were travel bloggers, after all. Catnip.

It is worth pointing out the disconnect between Cambodia’s ubiquitous small, naked children, lotus ponds and wooden, ramshackle homes—right outside the conference—with a cosmopolitan group of tech geeks, most sporting expensive equipment.

However: I don’t see this as some sort of fell indicator of social injustice. The fact that such a gathering is happening in Cambodia at all is, in my estimation, a remarkable indicator of social change.

Further: the Cambodian could have swiftly squashed this gathering if they so chose, but it didn’t. In fact, Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith attended and gave out awards on Monday, the final day of the conference. Blogger and event organizer Kounila Keo told me that she ran the schedule of the event by him—including multiple named workshops on Internet freedom—and he expressed no apprehension.

Would that happen in China or Vietnam? I don’t think so.

Sadly, Cambodians seem to get very little love from the mainstream media. They have few choices: they are genocidal and backwards. They are Noble Savages who smile a lot and have not quite got the hang of industrialization, bless them. But the Cambodian bloggers I know are not content to conform to this heat-addled stereotype. They firmly believe that technology and free speech will eventually win out against the forces that are arrayed against them.

And that goes for the other Asian bloggers in attendance, many of whom reside in often-overlooked but swiftly developing nations . Did you know that Filipinos send around 2 billion text messages a day, the most in the world? Or that Indonesians are the world’s biggest users of Twitter, and have collectively created over 5 million blogs? That in only 2 years of rapid change, Myanmar is approaching three percent Internet penetration?

These are all remarkable stats. These are all somewhat little-known stats. This is why I am glad I attended Blogfest Asia 2012.

“We somehow have the perception the world only goes on in Europe and the United States, when in fact many things are happening in Southeast Asia,” observed SPIDER (Swedish Program for ICT in Developing Regions) board member and event speaker David Isaakson to me.

“It’s amazing that so many people are using this [social media] in countries with a situation with less freedom of expression or government control,” he added. “Social media becomes even more important when you don’t see unbiased reporting in national channels.”

Definitely. Citizen journalists, as we’ve seen in the Middle East, step up to fill the gap when the mainstream media either can’t get in, or does’t have the funding or motivation to cover stories considered to be of minimal international interest. For the first time, bloggers—even those who are operating under considerable danger—have the means to speak out against oppression in a very visible way. This scares the crap out of governments, and empowers tech-savvy people who might formally have been relatively helpless in the arena of speaking-truth-to-power. Ignore them at your own peril. 

That simple reality ended up politicizing the event to some extent, perhaps more than the planners had anticipated. Almost every nation represented had an axe to grind: that people from all these nations were then able to come together and compare notes on what they’re up against is heartening in the extreme.

Meanwhile, the Cambodians weren’t shy about expressing their trepidation over the planned, feared Internet cyber-crimes draft law. The government claims it’s to protect against terrorism, but the bloggers are much more suspicious: they think the law will serve as a convenient method of cracking down on dissidents, much in the fashion of Vietnam or Thailand.

Cambodians currently enjoy one of the freest networks in Southeast Asia, and they are fully aware of the options this accords them: although most attendees were willing to play a bit of wait-and-see, they also were quite vocal about their apprehension.

Fai Suluck from Thailand discussed the situation in her own country, where strict lese majeste laws and fear stemming from recent military unrest have kept bloggers relatively silent.

She described the law and its dampening affects on freedom of speech in Thailand to the  attentive crowd, then issued a warning: “…For countries about to have this law passed, yes: go against it.”

Note taken.