Wednesday, September 16, 2009

AA2104 MIA-BWI - That Can't Be Good

Guayabera, Guajiro Guayabera

Rushing to the airport with the two hundred dollar guayabera...

Being a Filipino who is partial to the traditional Barong Tagalog, I've always harbored an interest in the Cuban Guayabera. The problem living in Baltimore is that it's far away from anything Cuban and obtaining a guayabera is difficult at best.

Over the years, I've managed to obtain one that just wasn't very comfortable. I've long imagined myself wearing the guayabera, walking through fields of tobacco with a torpedo shaped puro in my hand that was rolled on the thigh of a virgin.

Instead, I tried wearing an ill-tailored white shirt that just didn't have the fit or finish of a proper guayabera. Having enjoyed the fine pina cloth of an ultra-traditional Barong, I've wished for at least a better quality guayabera than the twenty dollar job that's been banished to the far end of my shirt rack.

On the drive back from Key West, I thought that now might be the opportune time to grab a guayabera that fit. The iPhone showed me several guayabera shops and the one nearest to the airport, and on my way, was a place called La Casa De Las Guayaberas - The House of the Guayaberas. I figured this would be a good bet for a guayabera.

My guess is that here in Miami, the guayabera is like the Aloha Shirt in Hawaii. Lots of low-quality shirts designed for the masses (and tourists). I didn't need something artisanal, just something decent enough to wear while smoking a cigar and fashioning myself as a sort of modern-day Che Guevara.

Located in the midst of Miami's Calle Ocho, driving to La Casa De Las Guayaberas places one deep into Cuban/Latino culture. Everything is in Spanish - even the Chinese restaurant is in Spanish. All over Miami, people speak Spanish and I'm starting to get the feeling that to live in Miami and no hablo Espanol could very well leave you in the minority.

Is Calle Ocho a tough neighborhood? I can't tell because I don't know much about the culture here, except for some of the Latino music I hear making reference to this legendary street. That said, La Casa De Las Guayaberas has accordion-like metal shutters that enclosed the entire storefront, except for the entry doorway. Of course, this could be more of the fact that I arrived at 6:00pm - about an hour before closing.

Inside are racks upon racks of guayaberas on hangers and wrapped in plastic. There's all sorts of guayaberas here: white, pink, yellow, red, blue - just about any color that the fashionable Cuban could want while awaiting the overthrow of Fidel Castro. In the back, behind clear glass is the tailoring room where tailors trim and size your guayabera to your body's quirks, backgrounded by luscious-looking rolls of fabric. Seeing the fabric on the wall makes me think of a custom-tailored guayabera for Papi Chulo.

This is where things took a turn for the interesting.

Walking into La Casa, I'm greeted by a friendly older woman who only seems to speak Spanish. No problem, this is their house and I'm going to give mi Espanol a try - afterall, I just came back from over a week in Colombia, I should be able to navigate somewhat easily. I'll just say hello and have a look at those guayaberas on the racks and find one in the $40-$60 price range.

The woman starts inquiring about what I'm looking for and immediately my Spanish fails me. How can I possibly keep up with the speed and Cuban-style pronunciation when I'm only comprendo about a third of the words she's throwing at me. Somewhere in there I figure out that she's asking what I'm looking for and specifically what kind of fabric I desire. I thought I responded with the only word that sounded somewhat familiar: polyester. But I was probably wrong.

She immediately introduces me to a man who I later find out is the owner, Ramon Puig, who emigrated to the United States from Cuba over forty years ago. The man immediately assesses my bodily situation: mas grande!. Oh, great. He asks how many X's I require. "No se," I answer.

Ramon is merciful with the questions and moves to a nice, traditional white guayabera, but with my penchant for spilling food and not really enjoying wearing white, I ask him for "negra, por favor".

We've moved to the side wall away from the racks and he's going through, seeking just the right guayabera, in just the right size. A few moments later, he pulls one from the rack and unwraps it from it's plastic.

Watching Ramon move is like majesty. He's proud of the guayaberas they make and you can see it as he works with the finished item. It's not until much later that I realize that I'm in the midst of a maestro and wish I had spent more time with him reviewing the materials, instead of being in such a rush to get to the airport.

There's another gentleman trying on guayaberas. He's younger than me and looks like he could be one of those Latino actors at whom women throw themselves. I'm envious - even though I have hair better than Alejandro Fernandez.

Senor Puig encourages me to try the guayabera on for size, and even though I'm wearing a t-shirt and would just put it on right there, he wants me to use the dressing room. I head inside, put it on and come out for the review.

The fit is nice. The man is good. There's no need for tailoring or tucking along the body, the length is right and it feels comfortable. The only thing is that the sleeves are about two inches too long.

Did I mention it was long-sleeved? I originally wanted a short-sleeved guayabera but as I looked around the room at the Latin Actor, Senor Puig and the other gentleman hanging out in the store, I noticed all of them wore long-sleeved guayaberas. Perhaps I too should follow their cue.

Senor Puig is asking me about tailoring the shirt but I only understand a little bit of what he's saying. I get the gist of it and tell him that I have a tailor at home that I can use when the Actor jumps in en Ingles to let me know that they could do it but the girls have already gone home for the day. Being in a hurry to get to the airport, I assure them that I will be fine and will have it tailored properly. Senor Puig pins the sleeves for me to ensure the proper length.

Thinking about it now, I probably should have left the guayabera with them for proper tailoring. They know their product and they will do it correctly, whereas my local tailor will do it to their knowledge - which is presumably non-existent of Cuban fashion. Perhaps I'll send it back to Senor Puig for the work to be properly done.

Really, the guayabera is fantastic. The fabric feels comfortable. This is nothing like the guayabera I have at home and I can't wait to wear it to the cigar shop accessorizing with a proper cigar and the imaginary virgin.

Not speaking Spanish and jumping into things leads me to trouble every now and then. We agree that this the guayabera for me and return to the cash register. I've got $80 in cash, no problemo.

The shocker comes when Senor Ramon Puig tells the woman at the counter: Cien noventa y cinco."

Huh???? Did that tag on the plastic say "$195.00"???? Ay, carajo!

Holy crap. Now, I'm stuck. One hundred ninety-five dollars. One hundred ninety five...

I didn't want to look like a dumb ass and ask for a forty dollar guayabera. Truth is, I already knew the worth of owning a cheap guayabera, and it's worthless. I knew that this one is the Real Deal. With this guayabera, I could become The Baller of Calle Ocho. Latinas would swoon. Latinos would give me room to pass. I could smoke my cigars proudly and perhaps even a virgin would appear.

Hmm, maybe two hundred dollars is a bargain...

La Casa De Las Guayaberas
5840 SW 8th Street
West Miami, Florida 33144

Voy a Key West

Cuban Americano and Chicken Empanada at Pasion del Cielo.

Last year, when I last flew American Airlines to Managua for the Nicaraguan Barista Championship, I also stopped in Miami and had an overnight stay on the return. Problem was that my return flight to Baltimore was scheduled for 1pm and even with the first class ticket I had on that trip, they wanted to charge me a considerable sum to change to later flight.

This time, I decided that I would forgo the 24 window for a stopover and press the return to the 9:25pm flight to Baltimore, leaving me with more than 24 hours to visit Miami and make the trek to Key West.

Key West. I've heard so much about how great it is. I just didn't realize how far away it is. Three and a half hours from Miami. It's about the same from my house to Manhattan or my house to Ocean City, Maryland. Not really a big deal but one that would prove to be a bit brutal in the hot weather and the immediate return to make the nights' flight.

After a decent nights' sleep and a quick stop at Pasion del Cielo coffee shop in Coral Gables, I was on my way. The drive itself isn't that bad but the worst part is the speed. Just like islanders, everyone wants to drive the posted speed limit of 45mph. Can we please go a little faster? Maybe push the envelope to 55mph?

Storm Clouds calling my number.

About halfway there, dark clouds started looming on the horizon and I started to wonder: Does the Gulf of Mexico hate me? The last time the Gulf and I came into contact last July, I nearly lost our glorious battle in the pursuit of bay scallops. As the winds kicked up and the rain started to pour on the roadway in the middle of the Gulf, I wondered if the Gulf might win this time,

As we approached Key West, a loud screeching sound filled my ears and I began to worry that the car was blowing up. Looking up I spotted a Tigershark fighter making a hard bank at high speed being pursued by an F/A-18. With only 90 miles between us, could this be Fidel's defiant gesture towards the American Imperialists led by Barack Obama? Should I worry about being hit by a missile - civilian losses being a necessary concession to the repelling of Americans from Cuba's shores?

With only the roadway to protect me, I figured that I would just accept the fate and let Him decide what's best: up or down. The Gulf would be jealous.

Touristy cheese on Key West's Duval Street.

As the fighters broke left and descended hard, I noticed the signs for the Key West Naval Station. Hmm, smaller, more nimble fighter being pursued by big fighter? Must be Viper and Maverick.

Friends encouraged me to enjoy a sunset rum at a bar on Duval Street. Since I didn't have the time to revel in the sunet, I settled for driving down Duval Street.

To be honest, I'm glad I didn't stop. Aside from the Cuba! Cuba! store, I was pretty repulsed by Duval Street. It's about as compelling as Waikiki Beach, Picadilly Circus, Rue de Rivoli or Front Street Lahaina. Tourist Cheese. I counted at least two Crazy Shirt shops, a renamed Cheeseburger in Paradise, Starbucks, Banana Republic and numerous bars playing acoustic music and lots of tourists doing very touristy things.

Not that any of this is necessarily bad. If you like this kind of tourist cheese then Duval Street is the place for you. It's just not the scene I get into anymore - though the idea of drunken women on holiday looking to work out their frustrations in the form of vacation seems like a good thing to me...

The beach at Fort Zachary Taylor.

I had journeyed to the southernmost point in the continental United States (I had been to the southermost point in the USA - Ka Lae, Hawaii, many times) and I was determined to get in the water. A friendly police officer pointed me to the beach at Fort. You have to pay to get in but it's probably the best beach in Key West.

Wading in from the crushed coral beach, the water is warm. Bodily warm. It's weird and a bit unnerving. It's like bath water and very unlike the cool water you're used to at most beaches around the world. It's also salty. Very, very salty. Strange, but interesting. To my left are a group of four Italians chatting loudly and taking pictures of themselves on an American beach. Spanish speaking visitors from other parts of the world sun themselves and some play in the water.

Lining the beach are palm trees and picnic tables inviting all to shade themselves and cook their meal on the grill. If I had more time and some friends that exactly what I would do, but it's almost 2 o'clock and I have to hit the road by 3pm in order to make it back to Miami on time. I stand neck deep in the water allowing the soothing nature of the salt water to fill every pore in my body.

In Hawaii, the sea water is known to rejuvenate and heal. Got a twisted ankle, soak it in the 'ua from the sea and all will be well. The water feels incredibly relaxing and invigorating. It's healing and I want to linger there all day.

But the clock is ticking and it's time to go. I pull myself from the water and hunt for the object of my trip: B.O.'s Fish Wagon.

Conch-A-Mania at B.O.'s Fish Wagon.

Located on a corner by Key West's historic marina, B.O.'s is literally a ramshakle trailer with various bits of wood, salvaged signs and remnant anything screwed to it to fashion a sort of covered seating area slash restaurant. Rickety and rustic is the only way to describe it.

If you're the adventurous sort who's not turned off by greasy spoons or perhaps questionable sources while traveling the world, B.O.'s is for you. In fact, I often wonder how typical Americans can say they're scared by the stalls on Bangkok's Sukhumvit Soi 38 or Mexico City's antojitos, yet find nothing odd about places like B.O.'s. Not to say that I find anything worrisome about B.O.'s, but I like and prefer small, kinda questionable places.

Without much knowledge of where to eat in Key West, other than the ubiquitous tourist places, I had turned to the New York Times to find out about B.O.'s, and the ranger at the park also gave it a hearty recommendation, saying he ate there at least once a week.

While the decor is rustic and the food assuredly good, the real gem of B.O.'s is their people. The man and woman who worked the counter were amazingly friendly and very welcoming. Just lots of love pouring from them for what they do, their product and their customers. The food may have been very good but it's the people that made the difference.

Evidently, B.O.'s is known for one thing: the cracked conch sandwich. Thin slices of fresh conch are lightly breaded and deep fried to a golden yellow then layered with lettuce, onion, tomato and onion on a white bread bun. Simple, straightforward and oh so delicious. The conch's tender chewiness balanced with the mayo and lettuce with a light bite from the onion.

Add a little salt, vinegar, lime or whatever and it's nearly perfection. Balance the fattiness with the carbon dioxide and acid from a Coke (or in this case, Pepsi) and it's just beautiful.

My original battle plan was to order the sandwich and fries, then order two separate orders of Conch Fritters - one for the drive back to Miami and the other for the flight to Baltimore. When informed of my plan, the lady at the counter refused my request, stating that the fritters would not last the trip and would be cold and rubbery by the time I ate them and that just wasn't the way she was going to allow her fritters to be served. I can respect that.

So, with a small, six piece order of fritters in hand, and a small fry, I sat down to enjoy my fried goodness. Good thing they offered complimentary refills of soda.

The fritters are made with corn meal, ground conch and some spices and come out piping hot and served with a cocktail like sauce with a wedge of lime. There's also a tartar sauce, but I preferred the cocktail sauce or just the lime and salt. The fries were hand sliced and fried beautifully.

If one can say that there is fried conch perfection somewhere in the world, I'd have to say that it's in Key West - the margaritas be damned.

But it's 2:55pm and I've got to hit the road. It's another three or so hours back to Miami and I need to return the car by seven to avoid extra fees (I'm cheap). On the way down, I spied a sign for Ron Jon Surf Shop. Ron Jon started in New Jersey then moved to Cocoa Beach where it's become arguably the most famous surf shop in the word. I've always wanted to visit and have come close the several times I've visited Florida but never made it. I had been hoping to visit Ron Jon Key West but with time falling through the cracks, it wasn't meant to be. No new board shorts for daddy.

I'm not a big fan of Florida in general. The landscape is flat, it looks mostly like a sprawling suburb and generally doesn't have much character other than the Disney-like facades constructed in all directions. Plus, it's hot and humid and generally nasty - and since my exposure to nice weather on the East Coast is limited, I'm determined to drive with the windows down and the sunroof open, meaning that the drive is increasingly brutal as the thermometer pushes past 35C.

The drive through the Keys is very country. Lots of grasses and lots of shack-like buildings. Everything looks kinda redneck meaning that American Rock is the ideal music of choice while on the road. A little Styx, Lynyrd Skynyrd and more 70s and 80s rock make the drive just a little more fun. Nothing like belting out to Journey at 45mph with the windows down your skin mottled in sweat. I want to rip the sleeves off of my shirt and tie a bandana around my forehead.

Two hours into the drive back and I had been baking in the sun for nearly eight hours and was starting to really feel it. Sleepiness, fatigue, lack of sugar. I started to think that I might crash and figured that's a good sign to take a pit stop rather than push all the way to Miami.

A stop at a local Dairy Queen for a small Snickers Blizzard and a Coke returns sugar to the body, enlivens my senses and we're back on Route 1 rocketing towards Miami at a blistering (for the Keys) speed of 62mph. Even at 62mph, I have to keep a keen lookout for Troopers and the Monroe County Sheriffs who are busy looking to make an example out of law-breaking citizens, such as myself.

Finally, Route 1 gives way to the Florida Turnpike and I can finally settle in at cruise speeds of up to 80mph. It's six o'clock and I've got some extra time before returning the rental car. Maybe it's time to find some cigars or a guayabera...