Miami and Orlando, USA
9-11 January 2013
Arriving at Miami International Airport at 6am doesn’t really feel like arriving in the United States of America. A deluge of red-eye flights from various Latin American hubs descend on the popular gateway airport in Miami almost simultaneously, flooding the immigration hall long before day break. Standing in the painfully long queue, I heard far more español than ingles, including from the cowboys employed to manage the herd, and I felt like I had never really left South America at all.
On the plus side, the much maligned Transport Security Administration, famous abroad for the marathon interrogations of non-US citizens, especially if you dare to bring a bit of colour and/or flair to the table, didn’t bother me at all. I’ve had harder times getting into Australia or New Zealand in the past.
I made it out and proceeded to collect my hire car and venture out just before peak hour onto the motorways of Miami. Driving on the wrong side of the road was not difficult except for one pretty big thing – lane placement. Forever and a day, I have been accustomed to sitting in the driver’s seat, just to the right of the centre of the lane. Now it was reversed, but my brain still wanted to sit in the same spot, which meant that my car scarily often sat precariously close to kissing the kerb, or side-swiping the car in the adjacent lane on more than one occasion in my sleep deprived state.
I concentrated on the task at hand and paid a visit to Miami Beach with the Corolla intact, and went for a stroll on the beach to see what all the fuss is about. I quickly decided that while Miami Beach is quite obviously the inspiration for the Gold Coast, the city in which I lived for nine years did this better. We just simply have prettier beaches in Australia. But wandering the streets one could easily be deluded into thinking you were in either place; the similarities are very strong and comparisons are unavoidable, in terms of aesthetics, city layout, the people and the lifestyle.
After breakfast, I hit the Florida Turnpike on my way up to my home for the next two nights, Orlando. One thing the cash-strapped state of Florida does well is toll roads. There are a great many of them. And over the course of 48 hours, I racked up an impressive bill of $34.19, even though each individual tolling point cost only between 75 cents and a couple of dollars. But unfortunately, the toll booths were about the only thing too look forward to in an otherwise dull four hour drive. The road itself was plain boring, flat, straight, of motorway standard the entire way, and with no interesting vistas of note along the way.
It was made worse, as my Toyota Corolla had a faulty auxiliary input, and American radio stations are just awful. Channel surfing through the rubbish country, gospel, sports and hip hop stations, of which there are numerous. I would a couple of stations that played a song or two I enjoyed. Unfortunately, as soon as the song was over, the next was always guaranteed to be a terrible one, or an advertisement. No station managed to broadcast a mix that I would find agreeable over a sustained period.
In Orlando, I would for the first time dip my toes into the world of couch surfing. I have in the past been a de facto host, in the form of assisting housemates to host, but this is the first time I have actually ‘surfed’ myself. The GPS led me to a suburban duplex in a quiet neighbourhood a few kilometres east of the city centre where I met my host Angelina, a marketing manager turned chef. After exchanging pleasantries and a short conversation, she unfortunately had to go to work.
This is when my American cultural immersion began. Under the guise of searching for a cheap replacement laptop, I went out plugging destination after destination into the GPS. I had no real spatial awareness of where it was leading me, I was just following its audible cues. I found a Walmart, a massive hypermarket chain that seems to attract the dregs of society. I got sucked into a McDonalds by their promise of a $1 spicy chicken burger. True to what they say, the drink sizes are astronomical large, and then they still provide free refills. I also dined at a Taco Bell, where the concept of cheap tacos on tap really appealed to me. But they tasted awful, and the cheese had a mildly concerning fluorescence about it.
Finally, when I had made my purchase, it was by now about 9pm, and I realised I had worked my way out to the south-western suburbs, so I made my way back along the deceptively pleasant sounding South Orange Blossom Trail. After passing the fourth gentlemen’s establishment in as many blocks (this one offering all you can drink for $30, a veritable bargain!), several lights illuminated in a red hue, and a large black fellow idly sitting on a cruiser bike on at a dimly lit intersection, it occurred to me I might have made my way into the ghetto, or at the very least, the red light district. I was correct. The thought crossed my mind that I might get murdered, or at least carjacked. After all, this was America, where you are over twenty times more likely to be murdered by gunshot than any other developed country. So I thought to help prevent this, I should lock the car doors. Luckily, American cars simply assume this is going to happen and lock the car as soon as the gear changes from Neutral.
One thing that was pleasing however, is when you look past the fatty foods America is famous for, there actually is a dedicated contingent of the hospitality industry dedicated to providing excellent food with healthy options. I dined the restaurant that my host worked at, the Ravenous Pig, and was delighted by the delicious foods characterised by an orgy of flavours, and exquisite presentation of the plate. And there is a massive market for it too, the restaurant was full on a Wednesday night.
The following day, I went to the destination I had made the effort to come all this way for, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (sic). There for several hours straight I was in sheer amazement. Highlights included:
- the rocket garden, where rockets dating back to the dawn of the space age are lined up vertically near the entrance in a way that really gives them a sense of scale and might,
- a Saturn V rocket, fully complete but unused at the premature end of the Apollo program, that was (and may still be) for a very long time the most powerful rocket in the world, broken up and shown in it’s various stages,
- a lunar lander, also fully complete but unused when lunar rover missions were accelerated, and
- the incredible Vehicle Assembly Building, 160 metres tall with massive tiered doors that open up the full height, where rockets are and Space Shuttles were assembled before being transported to the launch pad. Workers there claim that the building is so large they have seen it develop its own meteorological microcosm, with reports of rain and sand storms having occurred from time to time.
Unfortunately, they didn’t yet have the Space Shuttle on display, as the building under construction for its storage was still under construction. It was absolutely incredible, and I wished I could have spent a second day there given, despite its unassuming size, one day simply isn’t enough to experience all the place has to offer. It is far more of an authentic attraction than Disneyland, and I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again next time I am there to finish the tour.