Miami: Where not all alligators live in the swamp

September 12, 2021
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MIAMI was my last stop on the mainland of the US, before I headed to the Pacific islands of Hawai‘i. I don’t know what I was expecting when I arrived. I was aware, as most people are, that Miami was a thriving tourist hotspot. A seaport city with beautiful beaches, lots of partying, and lots of people.

Miami sits in the south of the Florida Peninsula, a nine-hour train journey from St Augustine via Orlando. Miami is the only major American city founded by a woman, Mrs Julia Tuttle: which is one of the reasons I wanted to visit it.

Mrs Tuttle was a prominent businesswoman and an original landowner in what is now modern-day Miami. She recognised the attractive location and growth prospects of the tip of the Florida peninsula, and lobbied a railway owner of the day, Henry Flagler, to build a railway line into the area. Flagler was skeptical at first, because the far tips of peninsulas normally don’t develop very much. Take New York City, for instance: it’s at the bottom end of Long Island, not at the far tip, windy Montauk Point, where there isn’t much apart from the seagulls. Likewise, most of the development in Michigan is at the south end of the Lower Peninsula, not at the Mackinaw / Upper Peninsula end, even with the bridge.

To add to all that, southern Florida had a reputation for being a pestilential mixture of swamps and jungles, of the sort where explorers stood a good chance of dying of a mosquito-borne fever.

All the same, Mrs Tuttle could see that the tip of Florida and the Keys beyond would one day be a tourist paradise, drawing down visitors from the chilly north, who would seek to get as far south in winter as they possibly could without leaving the US mainland altogether.

Thanks to Mrs Tuttle’s persistence, the initially skeptical Flagler eventually did build a railway to the tip of Florida and to the Keys. And so, sprang forth the city of Miami. For a long time, Flagler, the convert to Mrs Tuttle’s cause, was commemorated as the ‘father of Miami’; until people began to remember, once more, that Julia Tuttle had been its ‘mother’.

Miami has been the site of many migrations from Latin America, the Caribbean Islands, and even from Cuba after the Castro Revolution. In fact, about a third of all the people in Miami today would call themselves ‘Cuban’, even if they were born in Miami.

Anyway, I was staying in a hostel that was about a twenty-minute walk from the seaside areas of South Beach and Ocean View. My first impressions of the hostel, was that it was clean, filled with people from all sorts of countries, and very hospitable. The hostel staff were lovely, really welcoming, and I was excited to be there! Walking around South Beach and Ocean View was amazing — the views and surf — I could get why this area was so popular! The first night was cruisy, I didn’t meet anybody, and I had dinner by myself. I stayed in a six-bed female dorm. In that dorm, apart from me, were two young women from Argentina in their mid-twenties, a woman from Brazil, and a Venezuelan woman. The staff I came across were all nice and interacted well with the customers.

It was Christmas Eve, and I went down to the beach to lie down on the golden sand and just relax. I met some really nice people down there; everybody was quite friendly. I walked up Ocean Avenue and came across a tasty transvestite fashion show at the Palace Bar. I stayed and watched for two hours: it was a brilliant show! The drag queens and transvestites got up and sung pop, rap, rnb and performed it all so well. They were very classy and danced around together and made jokes — it was a good laugh too! It was the best I ever saw. In New Zealand, I had been to quite a few of these sorts of shows but the ladies in Miami blew them all out of the water!

Back at the hostel one of the staff arranged a tour for me of the Everglades National Park — home of the alligators. The bus driver couldn’t tell us about the itinerary, and I had to wait in line for half an hour to show my tickets. The tour took us out on an airboat — something I have always wanted to do — so bucket list check! We had to wear ear plugs because it was so loud, and the driver of the boat was texting, which I thought was hilarious! We skimmed across the water for forty minutes and saw one alligator and a whole lot of birds, but I was thrilled to do it! He told us about all the pythons that had been washed into the national park by a big storm five years earlier, and how they were eating all the baby alligators; and that a lot of people keep them as pets.

The driver took us back to a restaurant where they served alligator! I couldn’t eat that: the only thing I could actually eat on the menu was ice cream. The guy who ran it wrestled with an alligator. He was so knowledgeable, and gave a great show.

Alligators look a lot like crocodiles, of course. What’s the difference? The main difference is that crocodiles have a special organ that enables them to drink seawater and expel the salt, but alligators don’t. So, alligators are confined to habitats where there are plenty of freshwater swamps to maintain a sizeable population. While there are many species of crocodile, only two species of alligators are known to survive today, alligator mississipiensis in the New World and alligator sinensis, the Chinese or Yangtze alligator, in China.

Its swamps transformed into rice paddies, the Chinese alligator is now an endangered species. It is in the same position as Old-World varieties of beavers and bison, and for the same reason. Most people, I’m sure, have no idea that beavers, bison and alligators were once just as common in the Old World as in America, along with the lions that used to roam Europe. But that was long ago, and things are far more domesticated now.

Another difference is that alligators are less aggressive than crocodiles. No doubt, that is why the guy I just mentioned was able to wrestle the alligator without being shredded (a lot of people deplore this sort of exhibition, by the way).

It still pays to be cautious with American alligators, just in case. Though, apparently, the somewhat smaller Chinese alligator almost never attacks anyone and simply strives to keep out of the way of humans instead. Some say, also, that crocodiles and alligators are the fact behind myths of dragons; and that the quietly elusive nature of the Chinese alligator, which has no doubt helped it to survive for thousands of years in a densely populated country where any attack on humans would bring a hue and cry, also explains why Chinese dragons aren’t as terrifying as the crocodile-based dragons of other cultures.

As a bad-taste photos I somehow ended up posing for suggests, these days, such wildlife really does have more to fear from us!

So, the beaches and the Everglades marked a great start to my Miami holiday. But it gradually soured the longer I stayed.

On the second day, I did another tour where I made friends with Martha, a 75-year-old woman staying at the hostel. She was holidaying down from New York. She was on quite a good retirement package, and also liked staying in hostels. She met a lot of amazing young travellers from all over the world here — they are from France, they are from Montreal, they are from all around the world. There are even families staying in the hostel, in some of the rooms.

Martha was fantastic and we got on very well. We did coffees out and walks around South Beach.

There are just so many people from all over the world here, holidaying here for a week, getting away from the cold. People are in this hostel — living

here, working here because they, like me, choose to work — they are freelance. I don’t get paid for what I write. But people come from the states where there is a lot of snow, down here to work.

I shared my room with a woman from Venezuela called Marianela, who worked as a chef for a professional gambler in an upper-class suburb of Miami. On her days off, she would come and stay here, and she stayed at the same hostel one month previously, and she had $400 stolen from her purse — when she went to the shower — by her roommate. She said to her roommate that there was no need to steal the money, I think she told the staff, but nothing was done. So, we were told not to leave our phones out, and to leave nothing out, and to put everything in our locker. So, she was telling everybody here that this hostel had had a high number of burglaries. The two Argentinians got some stuff stolen as well.

Really just a note on South Beach, Miami: come for a holiday and get all your money stolen in hostels. It’s the norm, I’m afraid. That’s what the police say, and what the owners of the hostels say. I stayed in hostels in lots of other places in the USA, and I have never seen it quite like this.

So, it was a merry Christmas to everyone concerned. The two women from Argentina and their friends all moved into a room together and, after Marienela, I had to share my room with a drunk prostitute and that wasn’t much fun.

I went on another boat tour to Bayside with Martha. We saw the homes of Elizabeth Taylor, Rihanna, Jay-Lo and Al Capone, and plenty of artificial islands.

I loved the Bayside food and the saxophone player — what a great location, different from South Beach. Some of the locals have told me that South Beach has definitely improved in the last 30 years — that you can walk through parks and it is safe most of the time. It must have been really rough before!

On my second to last day, I called the owner of the hostel and spoke to him about the thefts. He did say he would do everything to make me happy, and I said all I wanted was for the Argentinians’ accommodation to be refunded.

I did meet a lot of very nice people on the beach and in the hostel, even under such unfortunate circumstances.

Lastly, I should add that Miami is threatened by sea level rise, which may already have had something to do with the recent collapse of an apartment building, in the sense that its foundations might have been undermined. As of the time of writing, the final word on that has not yet come out.


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