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South Beach: Never judge a book by its cover, or you might get robbed and lose everything!

Published
December 28, 2016

IT’S the famed idyllic coastal city that is featured in rap songs, holiday posters and the like. Sitting in the state of Florida, it has a population of around 5.5 million, the fourth largest urban area in the United States of America. I have always wanted to visit here and after the ice and snow at Standing Rock Reservation, a little seaside warmth was exactly what I needed — I thought. People are living, working and holidaying in Miami and they were all here to get away from the snow and cold in other parts of the country and the world.

I learned pretty fast there is a darker side to this seaside holiday town. In 2008 it was listed as the cleanest city in the USA, the richest, and has been nicknamed the Latin city of America. All this and I was expecting total bliss! I spent Christmas Day here and was staying at a hostel in the city centre, Bikini Hostel.

Staying a hostel in Miami was an eye opener. Hostels are a hotspot for robberies — not just small amounts of money but huge sums. The police and the owners told me it was the norm in Miami. I had stayed at hotels in Biscay, Chicago, Minot, Alabama, Birmingham, St Augustine and Tampa. I didn’t meet anybody staying in hotels — everybody just did their own thing and I found I often ended up having dinner by myself. So this time I decided I would stay in a hostel in South Beach Miami purely for the fact that I could meet people.

Now Bikini Hostel is located at 1255 West Avenue, Miami Beach: a twenty minute walk to Ocean View and South Beach. The surrounding area is really nice and pleasant. I was staying in a six-bed female dorm; in my room were two girls from Argentina in their mid-20’s, a woman called Whanu from Brazil and a woman from Venezuela.

My first impressions of the hostel were 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 it was such a popular spot!

It was Christmas Eve and I went down to the beach to lie down on the golden sand and to just relax. It was great because I met some really nice people down there and really 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 actually! The drag queens and transvestites were very classy and danced around together. 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! The guys/girls got up and sung pop, rap, bnb and performed it all so well.

Back at the hostel one of the staff arranged a tour for me of the Everglades National Park — home of the American 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 over by a tornado 5 years ago and now the problem was that they were eating all the baby alligators and that a lot of people keep them as pets.

There was a restaurant the driver took us back took where they served alligator! I couldn’t eat that and 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.

On my return from the boat tour to the everglades the Argentinian girls were distraught because their friends had just had $3500 cash stolen from their lockers. It was Christmas Day and happened around 3 am under the gaze of two security cameras. Two cameras were stolen from another room and that happened at lunchtime while they were out sightseeing. Then another boy who worked as a film maker had $1700 worth of equipment stolen, including two Go Pros!

I had dinner and lunch with some of the other hostel guests and they told me to watch for the hostel’s chef who like to come and offer the girls staying there a shower in his room — yuck! More of this was yet to come — to my surprise. I think what surprised me more was the lack of police response — they didn’t even check the security cameras in the hostel.

Back at the hostel the following day I was about to head out again when I got chatting to one of the women who was staying there too and she told me how she had got $10,000 USD stolen from her locker five days earlier. There was a big group that was supposed to be travelling to South America and they had been using the hostel’s locker storage. She told me she had gone to the police and they had done absolutely nothing about it — they hadn’t even questioned anyone at the hostel.

I had in my room a woman called Nelar; she was like the hostel mum really! She worked as a chef in an upper class suburb of Miami for a professional gambler. On her days off, she would come and stay here at the Bikini Hostel and clean and keep an eye on everyone. The last month she stayed there she had $400 USD stolen from her purse by her roommate while she was in the shower. She said to her roommate, there was no need to steal it. She did let the staff know about it and they never really did anything. We were told though, not to leave our phones out or leave anything valuable in our locker. She was informing everyone who was staying about the high number of robberies so just to be careful and on high alert as there were people constantly coming and going. It was also Nelar who had told me she had encountered some really bad situations in Venezuela! There was no food there and so she had to look to the US for work to buy food to send to her family.

There was a group of six Argentinian guys who had paid a staff member $350 for their first three days stay and then they also paid the same staff member the remaining amount for another ten days’ stay which ended up being about 2000 dollars. A few days later they noticed the guy wasn’t there anymore and had resigned from his position at the hostel and left. Apparently he had worked with another woman who worked at the hostel, who had access to all the room codes, and they had stolen a lot in the last few months before both leaving, and before we all realised.

The police turned up and everyone was just told this was just normal for hostels in the USA. I thought — no it’s not! I had stayed at hostels all over and this had NOT happened at any of them! I told the police all this — how could they accept people coming on holiday and their first impressions of the USA are ruined by their equipment they need for work, or their life savings are stolen. The police didn’t want to see any of the surveillance footage — which I thought was weird. Room 6, 17a and 12 had cameras outside each of them and the police and owners didn’t want to view the tapes so they could identify who had been in the rooms!

Then there was another incident with a woman staying in a shared room, daylight hours and her drug dealing boyfriend rocks up (or a client) — they started getting all funky in the room while the other people were in there so the guy went to the staff and said can you ask them to leave please? The staff turned around and said well you ask them to leave. There was a bit of an argument about all that. Anyway they all ended up getting another room together and I ended up sharing my room with a drunk prostitute. The place lost its good vibe after that.

I went on another boat tour to Biscayne Bay over the other side of South Beach. I saw Elizabeth Taylor’s, Jennifer Lopez’s (J-Lo), Al Capone’s and Rhianna’s wonderful homes on some of the artificial islands that had been created. It was great location and so different from South Beach. I loved the food there and saw jazz musicians playing in the street! On the way back I saw the stunning sunset which was a vibrant shade of orange!

Some of the locals had told me that South Beach had become a lot safer in the last thirty years. You could walk through parks without getting harassed — but really I learnt my lesson — don’t stay in hostels there! I spoke to the owner called Mike who was having a baby in Orlando. I expressed to him my disappointment and concerns over everything and that I was an author who was writing a book about my travels, A Maverick USA Way. He said he would do anything to make me happy after I mentioned that to him and I said all I wanted was for the Argentinians to get their money refunded — which he said he would do.

I have met a lot of really nice people but I would like to say that the police are of the view that hostels are only for homeless people. I feel that if that is what the Miami police believe, people need to know about that attitude. I heard rumours about the hostel being some kind of Mafia run establishment too — which doesn’t help things!

I made friends with Martha who was a 75 year old woman from New York who was on holiday and staying at the hostel as well. Martha was fantastic! She told me she was retired and had quite a good setup. She loved staying at hostels, meeting young travellers from all over the world even families stayed there. Well that made me mad all over again, why the Miami police believed that South Beach hostels were all for homeless. I mean $25,000 of stuff stolen over the period of a week — it’s ridiculous! I told them they need to change all the codes on the rooms for a start to which I have received complaints about how hard it is to change them — I mean really! They should be changed three times a week so that staff can’t take advantage of that. The people staying in the hostel are not broke, they are not homeless they are professional and well-grounded travellers from all over the world coming to stay and at the very least should feel safe and not have their stuff stolen by the staff members!

I spoke to my friend Bill in Detroit about my frustrations and his response to me was,

“I have stayed in hostels throughout the world, from Quito and Santo Domingo to Adelaide and Warsaw. I have never heard of a situation like the one that exists at the Bikini Hostel in Miami, Florida, where there is wholesale thievery. I want to assure everyone that this situation is the exception rather than the rule. Hostels are an excellent way of staying somewhere while not spending an exorbitant amount of money. They are also a good way of meeting like-minded people who are not independently wealthy. There are private rooms and there are dormitory-style rooms. I have always stayed in the communal rooms with bunk beds, because, quite frankly, it’s fun and interesting sleeping in a room with complete strangers. At least I think it’s fun and interesting. There are lockers in these rooms where one secures his belongings. I rarely use them because I trust everyone and I never travel with anything I can’t afford to lose. Roommates do not stay strangers very long.

The people who stay in hostels are almost always honest and considerate. I am 56 years old and I am rarely the oldest person in my room. Once I had a roommate who was a medical doctor. He was in his 40s. I just had to ask him why he was staying at a hostel. He said he was cheap and his family was not very nice and he liked the people he met. This was in Chicago. The hostel Perth was nice. The younger fellows would go to work and the older guys like me made sure they had drinks when they got home. There was admirable camaraderie at each hostel I stayed in in Australia, and I stayed in at least five different ones. No one ever pilfered anything from me in any hostel I have visited.

When someone says, “It’s a hostel, you have to expect thievery,” he is totally wrong. I have stayed in many hostels throughout the world over the past 20 years, and I have not had any trouble. The Bikini is the rare exception!”

Let’s just say I am glad to be off to Cuba!

[Collages are from my book A Maverick USA Way, published in 2017]

Here is my Amazon author page. I’m also publishing my books, progressively, on other platforms.

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