Excitement: Travels Of A Different Kind

Creating and writing for this blog has been an absolutely joy. The positive reception from long-time friends and new friends made possible by the instant connectivity of the internet has helped me in my recovery from colon resection surgery. As my body has reclaimed its strength and vitality, the knowledge that others are contemplating my words has reinvigorated my mind. Thank you to everyone.

I have made a decision. This blog is moving to a self-hosted domain, which will give me significantly greater, in fact total, control of the site and where my writing goes in the future. The new address is www.intheworldandstillalive.com. I’ve been working on it a little each day for nearly a week now, preparing for the move. The first post will go up today, and I think it’s a good one. I hope all who’ve at one time enjoyed this blog and my writing will visit and consider subscribing. Thank you again, to everyone.

A Good Boy, Part II

Another milestone in my recovery: today I have once again and for the first time risen with the sun and set out to look for birds, greatest of all pastimes. Anthony picked me up at 7:30 and we cruised over to a nature preserve called Castellow Hammock in Homestead. I’d texted him the night before:

Do you want to look for a rare hummingbird at castellow hammock park tomorrow?

His response, seconds later:

Yes, shall we make it an early morn venture?

Of everyone I’ve met, Anthony ranks highest on the adventure readiness index. It is one of my favorite qualities about him. We were once hiking atop a mountain in Montana one summer during college. He asked what I planned to do after graduating, and I replied that I was going to work for awhile, save money, and try and backpack through South and Central America. From behind me on the trail: “Frankie, you have to let me do that with you. I’ll do anything. I’ll be your bodyguard.” “OK,” I said, and a year and a half later we did it.

But today was just us driving half an hour to look for a rufous hummingbird, since they are rare across the Mississippi. I checked the South Florida birdboards to see what exciting species had been spotted recently, and impulsively texted my friend to see if he wanted to look for the rufous. I was very excited to be heading back into Florida nature to do some birding, finally. My Mom warned me on the way out the door to watch for boa constrictors, and that made me feel especially good.

When we arrived we hiked through the hammock, which in Florida is a sort of forest. It was obvious the place didn’t get many visitors. The trail we went down was overgrown and in places almost nonexistant. It was covered in banana spider webs, which I tried to avoid but sometimes inevitably had to brush away with a stick. In places there were nice little limestone crevices, and I thought to myself what nice snake habitat it looked like.

So it wasn’t even a surprise when a moment later, about ten feet up the trail, I spotted the thick, smooth, velvelty gloss of black, red, and yellow. I looked closely: “red meets yellow, dangerous fellow” - it’s a mnemonic device my Mom had made me memorize as a kid. So I knew it was a coral snake, one of Florida’s four venomous snakes and one of the two I’d never seen in the state. I only had in Soberania National Park, a rainforest adjacent to the Panama Canal. A man, a friend, Bosques was his the name, a park ranger who loved the rainforest more than anything, had taken us to an isolated stream he said was great for swimming. As we arrived, a gorgeous little coral snake skimmed across the water and over to the other side of the stream. It was one of my favorite moments in the rainforest.

I showed Anthony our newest coral snake, and we stared. It was thicker than a finger and as long as my arm. It moved very slowly. Its pace said, “I’m leaving, but I’m a coral snake, so I’ll move as slow as I feel like.” We turned around and walked another trail.

We couldn’t find the rufous hummingbird, but I also saw an adult knight anole, my favorite lizard as a child. After a nice morning of hiking and wildlife watching, we drove over to one of those big Homestead plant nurseries so Anthony could buy some small trees for his garden.

It was getting later, so I called my Mom just to check in. No matter how old I get there are still things I get excited to tell her.

“Mom, we couldn’t find the hummingbird, but guess what we saw?”

“A boa,” Mom said.

“Nope. Even more dangerous.”

“Python?”

“Uh-uh.”

Pause on the other end.

“What was it, Frank?”

“A coral snake, a big one, at least two feet long and thicker than my thumb.”

“And you saw the red meets yellow?”

“Yeah.”

“You were sure what it was and stayed away?”

“Yes, Mom,” I said.

“Good boy.”

The Creators

Yesterday I saw my friend Anthony. Three years ago we backpacked from Costa Rica all the way to the southern-most town in Tierra del Fuego and then back up into Brazil. Two years before we roadtripped from Miami to Montana and spent a summer working as bus drivers for a whitewater rafting company. He’s a good travel companion.

But nothing epic happened yesterday. I drove to his house in the afternoon and spent a little while helping him and another friend, Ben, clear out some vegetation in Anthony’s garden. We got some dinner at one of our old highschool hangouts and drove over to another friend’s house, who recently finished law school and had two of his law school buddies over.

We all watched the Heat game and after Wade and company had sealed the game, Anthony and Ben got up and started kicking around a soccer ball. I joined them. None of us are anything special with a soccer ball, but we took turns dribbling and making little precision passes to each other in the dimly lit backyard.

It reminded me of things Anthony and I’d done in South America. A solo Japanese traveler named Minoru whose path sometimes overlapped ours had always kept a soccer ball on him as a way of making friends. It worked with us; as the three of us had waited at bus stations for upcoming departures we’d kicked around and tried tricks.

Now, Anthony, Ben, and I were doing the same. Anthony is going back to Colombia in about a month to teach English and see more of the country. Ben has talked to me about wanting to live in Buenos Aires for awhile. I’m heading back up to Pittsburgh pretty soon so I can work a few freelance editorial projects, save up, and travel again.

There was a good vibe. It feels good to be on the verge of departure. The three of us hustled around the ball for awhile and finally Anthony smiled and said something.

“The lawyers are sitting over there. Talking. The artists are over here. Creating.”

I rolled his words around in my mind. It was true. Even if dribbling a soccer ball isn’t much, we were creating. Not to mention Anthony and Ben are musicians, and good ones. They make their living elsewhere but both are big talents on the drums and guitar respectively. They are creators. I’m a writer, and I hope a good one. Starting this blog has helped me keep creating.

And what might be more creative than anything else is that we’re travelers. The trips we take are our creations. We take pride in them and often eagerly present them to the rest of the world. We do it in our music, writing, pictures, however we tell our stories.

My recovery’s almost over. I have one more follow-up with my surgeon. I can barely contain my excitement to be out in the world again. Creating.

The Importance Of Seeing Myself In My Writing, Or, Doing Battle With An Overzealous Editor

A few weeks ago I queried the editor of an environmental journal with the idea of writing up a review of “The Descendants.” I felt that an important and intriguing part of the film’s message was being ignored: its environmental imperative. I wanted to write an ecocritical review, something about how the film uses human drama to bring attention to the importance of conservation, as opposed to showcasing human drama merely for its own sake. The idea was well suited for the journal and its mission.

The editor said yes, and I was thrilled. It was the first thing I’d written since I had my surgery, and it felt fantastic to be writing again. Not only that, I was guaranteed to have it published. And finally, it was a journal I’d wanted to get published in for awhile – I thought it’d be a nice stepping stone for getting published in bigger nature journals.

I saw the movie again, took notes in the theatre, wrote up the piece the same afternoon, and sent it to the editor, who through correspondence was very nice to me. And then, something totally unexpected.

The editor sent the tiny little essay of 640 words back to me with “mostly minor changes.” I opened up the file with the disposition to accept whatever adjustments had been made without question. What I found was a more mangled, hideous, and distorted version of my writing than I would have ever been comfortable publishing, complete with an entire column of red commentary on the right side of the page with the most asininely workshoppy comments imaginable, such as “needs verb variety here” in reference to when I used a ‘to be’ verb in a place where only a ‘to be’ was appropriate.

I was shellshocked. Every little bit of my own personality had been smothered and suffocated. Every edit except two had made the writing worse, changed the meaning to something I didn’t mean at all, or was simply wrong. For instance, I’d referenced that “The Descendants” the movie was based off a novel by the same title, The Descendants. A novel must be italicized, a movie is in quotes, but the editor had changed it so both were in quotes, which is wrong.

What pissed me off the most was that this editor deleted my last line, which was a reference to something that Clooney’s character had said during the movie and I’d quoted in the essay. I thought it resonated. Now my ending was totally blah, and good endings are something I take pride in.

I’d worked with a different editor before who would routinely make a few corrections to my writing that mostly just made it a little worse, but because they were always so few it didn’t bother me. I was happy to concede, especially in order to get my work published. I wrote a bunch of articles for that editor’s site, and for free.

This time I was also working for free. I’m more than eager to begin receiving compensation for my writing – I consider it a milestone, and a sign of respect – but I’ve published a lot of work for free because I want to build up my credentials and get experience. Most of all, I just want people to be reading my writing. I worry all the time that if I don’t start refusing to write without compensation – even if only a token amount – then the fantasy that editors will eventually start offering to pay will remain exactly that.

This time, the editor hadn’t even shown me a semblance of respect by allowing my words to actually be my own. If you’re paying me, fine, fidget with my words, but if not, let me have my voice at least.

After a sanity restoring consultation with my girlfriend, whose opinion I immensely respect because she’s, first, very smart, and second, happens to be a (get ready for it) editor, I decided what I would do. I would accept only the changes where I could still see myself in my writing, which was less than half. I sent it back to the editor with those changes. The whole exchange felt so absurdly passive-aggressive that even if it had ended right there I would’ve been uncomfortable. But it didn’t end like that. The editor took my changes, threw a bunch of garbage back in, and then published it.

For some, maybe the essay looks perfectly decent. But when I can’t even see myself in my writing, when I’m writing for free and my words can’t even be my own, then I don’t see the point anymore.

The experience was a major reason why I decided to create my own blog. If I’m going to write for free, it’ll be for my own website, and I’ll be in control. I don’t want to be doing others the favor of providing free content and drawing visits to their website, even if only a trickle, and be disrespected in return.

But in the end, I’m happy how it all went down. My site looks better than theirs.

A Good Boy

A few months ago, my Dad and I were at the dinner table and talking about an old friend of mine I’ve known since 2nd grade. “He’s a good boy,” my Dad said.

Of course he is. He just got engaged to his high school sweetheart, a very nice girl who’s finishing law school this year, and he’s halfway through med school himself.

Later in the conversation, I asked my Dad what he thought of the short story I’d just had published. The title of the piece is “War Heroes” – the first and only short story I’ve placed anywhere. It’s about the way different generations of Cuban exiles interact with each other. It’s mostly autobiographical, since both my parents are Cuban. I’m immensely proud of “War Heroes,” not just because I think it’s good, but because I think I was able to crystalize a part of the Cuban exile experience: the agony and joy of living in America while still dreaming of Cuba. I even considered the story something of an homage to my parents and the exiles.

My Dad didn’t like it. He told me it had upset my Mother because it has a curse word. The word is “fucking,” which in their estimation is utterly unacceptable, even though I didn’t even use it as a verb – just an adjective.

My Dad lectured me for awhile about not using bad words in my writing anymore. He repeated himself several times. And meanwhile, I had another thought: I want to be a good person, but a bad boy.

Five Fun Things To Do In Miami You Won’t Read In A Guidebook

It turns out my hometown of Miami is actually the fattest, rudest, worst-run city in the country. That’s according to Men’s Health, Travel + Leisure, and a site called 24/7 Wall St. (Well, it’s technically only the second rudest.) Yet for some strange reason, tons of people still want to move to this tropical hellscape, at least for retirement. Let’s ignore this bewildering anomaly for now. I want to tell you about the Miami I know.

So there are a lot of haters out there, but let me set this straight: there’s a whole lot of awesome in Miami. Sure, everyone’s heard of the clubs and nightlife, and most visitors to America’s most tropical city either love or hate them, but Miami’s got plenty of other great stuff to offer independent-minded travelers eager to learn something other than which South Beach bar serves up the best Mojito. This is a list of just five. I’d love it if readers added their own.

1) Eat, Talk, and Eavesdrop at Versailles

The epicenter of the Cuban exile community, Versailles is a gigantic megarestaurant and bakery complex appropriately located on 8th Street, the main thoroughfare running through Little Havana and undoubtedly Miami’s most quintessential street. Cubans come to Versailles for everything from their morning cafecito to their catered Christmas Eve dinner of lechón (roast pork), congrí (black beans and rice), yuca (cassava), and mojo (garlic dressing).

This is the best place in Miami to overhear exiles discussing politics, which will just as likely be about Cuba as Miami, if the two can even be totally separated. It’s also a great place to test out your Spanish skills as you attempt to navigate the rapid fire rattle and dropped s’s of the Cuban accent. The menu comes in Spanish with tiny English translations beneath and is itself not a bad way to learn a little Cuban slang. Stop by for lunch or grab a pastel de guayaba (guava pastry) with a cortadito (espresso with condensed milk) in the afternoon.

2) Rise Early and Go Birding in Matheson Hammock

Instead of waking up hungover after blowing a few hundred at a nightclub where the people were too good looking to have a chance with anyway, try doing something that’ll make you feel active, healthy, and emotionally closer to Miami’s natural landscape: birdwatching. Important as a migratory route for everything from shorebirds to raptors and with a high likelihood of accidentals from the Caribbean, South Florida is easily one of the top five most coveted birding destinations in the continental US.

Matheson Hammock is a great introduction to the beauty of South Florida wilderness without having to leave Miami. Located on Old Cutler Road close to Fairchild Tropical Gardens, Matheson features many of the region’s most emblematic ecosystems, like wetlands, mangrove forests, turtle grass beds, and tropical hardwood hammock. Bring binoculars and a field guide. Birding in Matheson is especially rewarding in winter when warblers, waders, and other avian peregrines are sojourning in warm and balmy Miami, just like you.

3) Head Down to Robert Is Here

Robert Is Here is essentially a fruit stand with a vast selection of tropical produce, a lot of it grown by Robert himself, and other neat hodgepodge like seashell necklaces, sugar cane juice, and a wide selection of bee pollen. The milkshakes are expensive but worth the trip alone. The strawberry is simply beyond criticism.

Technically outside of Miami, take the Florida Turnpike down to Homestead and make your way towards the Royal Palm entrance of Everglades National Park. Before you get there keep your eyes peeled for an open-air building with huge block letters spelling out: ROBERT IS HERE. The story goes that when Robert was six his father sent him to sell cucumbers on the side of the road and gave him an enormous sign that read “Robert Is Here.” He sold everything and eventually started a business in the very spot.

Once productive agricultural land, most of the area between Miami and the Everglades has been bought up for development. Robert is one of the last holdouts. What’s cool is Robert’s been in business since 1959 and really is still here. You’ll often find him behind the cash register or helping to haul in fresh fruit grown on the land he decided was worth staying on.

4) Listen to AM 710, Radio Mambí

Once a critical group in the powerplays of world history, the Miami Cubans still feel they’re fighting the Cold War. Named after Los Mambises, the Cuban freedom fighters who liberated the island from Spanish oppression, Radio Mambí is a mix of American and Cuban current events with a decidedly conservative leaning. The station sometimes contacts Cubans still on the island, and even gets jammed by the regime.

Apart from being another great opportunity to test your Cuban comprehension ability, listening to Radio Mambí is among the best ways to learn about the fears and joys of the refugees who transformed Miami into one of the most prosperous cities in the world, yet more than half a century later still talk about their eventual return to Cuba. Whether you feel moved by their impossible longing or not, this is the true essence of a city where half its residents haven’t stopped dreaming of an island that, regardless of what changes one day come, is gone forever.

5) Jog to the Top of Key Biscayne Bridge

Undoubtedly the best view of the downtown Miami skyline, try a predawn jog that’ll leave you atop the bridge just as the sun comes up. There are parking lots by the beach just before the bridge. Traffic will be light, and the view of the surrounding bay is just as impressive as the city. Keep your eyes peeled for the crossbow-shaped silhouettes of magnificent frigatebirds and other pelagics floating overhead. As the sun rises, size up the metropolis that a hundred years ago was nothing more than a swampy backwater, and now attracts all kinds of visitors who find themselves settling in longer than they might’ve guessed, maybe not unlike yourself.

A Real Travel Writer Is A Bigger Badass Than You

So far so good with the website. It’s a nice platform for my ideas and has been drawing in a humble but steady trickle of traffic. But I’m still working hard to get published in the major travel writing websites, and one of the things I’ve been checking out are the personal websites of some of their contributing writers. What I’ve found has been interesting.

In her “About Me” section, one travel writer boasts about illegally entering a country, being detained by the police, and getting kicked out of a famous landmark. Another boldly proclaims his mission to visit every country on the planet (possibly the most original idea I’ve ever heard), and is also immensely proud that he owns only a few things. A third is for some reason very eager to describe how readily he sunburns.

Is this impressive? If you try to get arrested, you can do it. It won’t be hard. What is difficult or cool about that? I am also still unclear on the literary merits of sunburning easily.

So I thought to myself: how can I leapfrog these people? There is of course only one answer. These travel writers are all such badasses, the only way is for me to out badass them. Hence, I have fashioned a new and improved mini-bio for myself, one that ranks me up there with the best of them. Enjoy:

Frank Izaguirre has been to more countries than any other travel writer ever, including all nine continents. He’s been arrested seven and a half times, abducted twice, auctioned off once, and there was this other time when he illegally crossed the border to go take a whiz real quick, which is also something definitely worth writing about. He has contracted five diseases while traveling, two of them venereal, and keeps all his worldly possessions in a fanny pack.

OK, looks good. Am I famous yet?