It's Our Turn - Chance encounters add to vacation memoriesWhen people go on vacations, they typically take pictures of the sights they come across – sunsets, mountains, the ocean, landmarks and such. But the most vivid part of a vacation can be found in the people you happen to meet.
By: Al Edenloff, Alexandria Echo Press
When people go on vacations, they typically take pictures of the sights they come across – sunsets, mountains, the ocean, landmarks and such. But the most vivid part of a vacation can be found in the people you happen to meet.
I discovered that on a family vacation to Key West, Florida this past May. We saw some amazing sunsets (the entire town builds a celebration around the sun going down every day). The blue-green waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico were stunning and “must-see” attractions like the Ernest Hemingway House, Duval Street and Smathers Beach were memorable.
But the parts of the trip I’ll recall most are “The Coconut Guys,” along with Hugo and Roland.
We came across The Coconut Guys at a gas station just outside of Key West where we stopped for a pop break. They were selling a few tomatoes, peppers and limes from a makeshift stand at the edge of the parking lot. There were three of them — older guys who looked like they were as closely connected to Key West as a shell to a clam. They had long beards, deep, leathery suntans and grizzled faces that broke into easy grins when we asked them how business was going. They bragged up their coconut water and we bit on their pitch and asked for a couple. With practiced ease, one of them wielded a machete and lopped away at a coconut until he reached the center, then popped a straw in it and gave it to us. It was refreshing in the midday heat. As we took sips, we got to talking. They asked us where we were from. We asked them to guess. They said judging from our accent, we must be from “up north,” maybe Michigan. When we said Minnesota, one of them asked where. We said they probably haven’t heard of Alexandria. The same guy said, “You’re joking — I used to live in Morris!” He’d been to Alexandria many times and talked about Lake Mary and other lakes he liked to fish. It was a head-shaker. Here we were, closer to Cuba than the mainland, and we meet a guy who was from a small town an hour away from our own.
A few days later, during a late night walk along the oceanfront, my wife and I came across a group of people fishing off a pier. My wife asked one of the anglers, a wizened old black man with scruffy gray whiskers, what he was trying to catch. “Snapper,” he replied and proudly showed us his bounty — three fish at that point. The man introduced himself as Hugo and without much prompting, he spilled out his life story – how he swam over from Cuba in 1965 to avoid Castro’s cruel dictatorship, how he met, fell in love and lost his sweetheart, how much he enjoyed fishing. While we were talking, Hugo hooked into something big. It bent his pole nearly in half and we gaped at the fish’s size when it splashed out of the dark water below us. “Shark,” Hugo said, adding that although he didn’t eat it, he could maybe sell it. The shark, however, ended up breaking the line and got away. It didn’t bother Hugo though. As he was retying his rig, another big fish leaped out of the water in the distance. “Barracuda,” Hugo said.
We left Hugo to his fishing and continued on. About a mile later, we saw a young man in his 20s sitting forlornly by himself. “Excuse me,” he said in a quiet voice as we passed by. “Could I borrow your cell phone?” Instead of walking on, we talked to him for a bit. It turns out “Roland” lost his phone while he was kayaking and he wanted to call his girlfriend for a ride. We weren’t trusting enough to just hand over a cell phone but we did call his girlfriend. When we asked Roland where she should pick him up, he said, “Just tell her the seawall. She’ll know.” Roland also had an interesting story to tell. He lives in a houseboat on the ocean and spends nearly all his time on the water. He’d been on it so much lately, he wasn’t used to walking on land and tries to avoid it as much as possible.
None of these chance encounters had any huge “wow” factor or Kodak moment but they gave telling insights into the Key West way of life. They added something to the trip that goes deeper than photos on Facebook and gave us a point to ponder on our way home: A little effort to get to know people can go a long way.