I’m in Key West and I can’t find the sea. I have a rudimentary map, issued with the bed and breakfast place I’m staying, and according to the map there’s a historic marina and boardwalk and it’s also clear that the land part of Key West ends where the sea begins. I figure a place called Key West must be a good place to see a sunset and I can see the sun is beginning its descent in the sky. But I can’t find the sea, although I can smell it. I’ve been to the historic marina and boardwalk and while the city of boats does float on what is clearly the sea, this is not what I want. I want the sea to the horizon, the sea where a fish might jump, a pelican might dive and even a dolphin might frolic past. I do not want this forest of masts. And the marina faces east – no sunset. Still, not wanting to miss anything historic, I half jog, half walk along the boardwalk, past empty restaurants and fishing tackle shops and T-shirt kiosks and charter boat offerings. At the end of the boardwalk, I’m facing the setting sun. Surely if I just walk towards the sun, I will arrive at the sea?
I cross car parks and streets, I duck into plazas and malls, getting closer to the sun, but the sea is completely obscured by tourist trappery. There’s a big plaza area with small benches, most facing inwards so folks can watch street performers – jugglers and escape artists and a man who is threatening the crowd with a torch and pouring kerosene in a big square on the ground. He’s not getting any takers. There’s a cruise ship, Holland America’s Veendam, which I assume must be floating on the sea, but it’s huge and there’s no way to see around its hull. I do try, I walk to the bow but I can’t get close enough to peek through the triangle made by the rake of the ship’s bow and the pier. I ask a man in a charter boat place where I can go to see the sea and he gestures to the plaza with the performers – “Sunset celebrations,” he says.
“But you can’t see the sea,” I object. “There are too many people and shops and the cruise ship.”
Blasted tourists, I can see him thinking. Can’t please ‘em. Now they want the sea!? What next!
“Try the Westin,” he says, typing on his computer, clearly uninterested in anyone in Key West wanting to see the sea at sunset, as opposed to a man who appears to be threatening to set himself on fire.
I find the Westin Hotel. By now, the sun is nearing the horizon. I’m sure they’re not going to let me into the Westin, it’ll be like a Jamaican all-inclusive hotel with a security guard and a barrier. But there is a path beside the hotel and the sign only asks that you not ride your bicycle to the pier and there, finally, is the beaten plate of the sea and the sun just beginning to disappear behind a bank of cloud. People are gathered on the pier, taking photographs. I find a bench and sit next to a woman, who is soon joined by another woman and they both begin to complain about the way the railings are spoiling their view and their photographs. The sun sinks into the bank of cloud and suddenly the sunset is over – there are no wisps of colour left in the sky. No pelican dives, no fish jumps, certainly no dolphin arcs through the water. The people leave and you can see they’ve been disappointed by the entertainment. The sun, sea and sky as commodity. Perhaps folks will want a refund.
You really have to wonder about tourism. Flying here, deserted islands seemed to float in the air, so calm and shallow was the sea beneath. The sunset was a wide swath in the darkening sky. I was flying to Key West – where Earnest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams hung out, a tropical island right at the end of US 1, a place where the residents have to leave when hurricanes threaten. Somewhere different.
A big sign at the airport proclaimed arrival at the Conch Republic –naturally, I wondered about the health of their conch stocks. The smell of the sea was strong and although it was dark, I was sure the sea would be ever present. But it was tourist kitsch and Americana that were everywhere – men making coconut palm hats, sellers of personalized seashells, coconut carvings of the faces of monkeys, ankle bracelets and toe rings, Banana Republic and Starbucks, and a guided locomotive drawn tram car, full of bored looking older people wearing visors and baseball caps. I had come to the Nowhere In Particular Warm Tourist Destination.
I ate overpriced, half cooked conch fritters in a dark restaurant, staffed by youngsters distracted by their new work schedule. Did you see we have to work Saturday AND Sunday? they asked each other. I walked back to my town house – the only place I’ve ever encountered with a window air conditioner in the tiny bathroom. Fresh air is not tolerated indoors – and although large signs proclaim this to be a green hotel and I was given a cloth bag on check in – all the air conditioners and many of the lights are left on all day in empty rooms by the cleaning staff.
What I like about Key West – the old, wooden houses, their railings bleached in the sun, the chickens in the streets, the big trees, the patches of sand in gardens telling the hard-to-see truth about this place, the absence of traffic jams, the sunshine. I have a free day on Thursday – perhaps with a car, I might find a place where I can see the sea, and perhaps even walk into it, to find the promise of those floating islands I saw from the air.