Travel Blog - Miami, Vol. 2: Walls, Cars, and Cigars

After all, there are some different sides to this coin called Miami. As any self-respecting coinflipper might hope there should be. Like many sprawling American cities whose layout was more orchestrated by big car manufacturers than by intelligent urban planners, there are enormous stretches where 'normal' life happens and when you say you wish you lived in Miami (if you ever say that), you're probably not talking about places like these. Yes, warmth, yes, palm trees, no, not much else other than fine establishments like this:

Currently, Food Place is in an ugly legal battle with Food Spot, claiming an infringement of copyright

Yet these oceans of interstates and useless strip malls are dotted with islands that make the crossing feel worthwhile. Cases in point from an incredible Ferris Bueller day in which I lived a month of ordinary life in about 12 hours: Little Havana & the Wynwood Art District.

Little Havana

Having spent enough time in Toronto with its mosaic of ethnic neighbourhoods, an area densely packed with Cuban ex-pats doesn't seem so unusual, other than the fact that they're Cuban and love rum, dominoes, and cigars. And they're an unusual breed of Cuban.

Chicken about to cross road, panicked and frozen. Performance anxiety can strike anywhen, anywhere.

A history of how this place came to be, in three short sentences for those of you who aren't up to snuff on your communist revolution history: (1) Cuba used to be run by American businesses, much like most of the world is today, and this meant a few people did really well and most people were being exploited in some way, shape, or form. (2) Enough got to be enough, and a band of Cubans including Che Guevara (of silhouetted-image-on-Chinese-sweatshop-t-shirt fame) and led by Fidel Castro overthrew their puppet dictator, gave a giant middle finger to the USA, and tried to establish a country for the people, by the people. (3) When these sorts of revolutions happen, middle- and upper-class folks don't tend to fare too well (see: French Revolution, Guillotine); seeing the writing on the wall, a huge wave of formerly well-to-do Cubans hit the seas and settled in Miami. A strange fact I've just discovered: the distance from Havana to Little Havana is almost exactly the same as the distance from Miami Beach to Disney World. Empirical evidence that we live in an orderly universe and god loves us all.

Friends are easy to make down here. The guy with the cowboy hat and sunglasses wasn't too bad either.

But back to the matter at hand. The artery that runs down the centre of Little Havana is Calle Ocho, or if you're not so slick with your espanish, 8th St. The heart of Little Havana is a nifty place to be, and you're surrounded by a strange sort of Cuban who once upon a time may have cursed Fidel Castro for ruining his cushy old office job at the United Fruit Company sugar plantation where he'd show up to work each morning and sip mojitos and smoke Cohibas under the Cuban sun.

And now? Now these folks show up to play dominoes each morning and might sip a Metamucil-laced mojito while smoking some variation of a Cuban cigar, under a sun which by astronomical standards we can easily round off to being Cuban. A lot of the people who seem like they might be those Castro-cursers are in their more advanced years and a good number of them are domino wizards.

Yes, dominos. Not tipping them over, not the Ninja Turtles' favourite pizza place, but the actual game.

Maximo Gomez Park is a tiny gated-in streetcorner that houses the world's finest domino players. I wouldn't know, but I'm venturing a guess. Under the clay-roofed gazebo sit 4 tables, and when I was there each was filled with grandmaster domineers. You clearly do your time to get a seat, or perhaps kill someone who's better than you. Milling about behind the domineers were shadier figures probably selling tips to players about the dominoes their opponents held hidden in their hand.

It's a neat place. And unlike the highrise seaside mecca in which I'm staying – where most of the residents are awaiting the arrival of Death like we await the arrival of the UPS truck when we've ordered something online – Little Havana has some chaos to it. There's life here. Something bigger than the colourful, rum-and-cigar-and-Metamucil-infused pieces that compose it.

Wynwood Arts District

Is graffiti still graffiti when the painters are being commissioned and can leisurely work without fearing a nosy cop and a hungry German Shepherd? Is graffiti still graffiti if the finished pieces look more like the Sistine Chapel than the sides of old New York subway trains? Is graffiti still graffiti if it's legible?

That whatever-you-want-to-call-it is the backdrop of one of the coolest neighbourhoods I've had the chance to explore, anywhere&ever. Maybe it's the foredrop, and the neighbourhood is the backdrop.

Nifty shops selling artisanal things and smelling incredible, art galleries with work that old folks would probably consider not-art (always encouraging), quirky restaurants and bars, and some of the most stunning artwork you'll ever see on the sides of buildings, on the sides of every building.

The neighbourhood sprang up out of nowhere, or rather, developers sprang it up out of nowhere. But developers with tasteful taste did this and now respectable tourists from all over the place arrive and behold The Walls, as they're affectionately known. It's certainly on the path to padded destruction (read: gentrification) but it seems to be at a really, really sweet spot right now. We're talking high-fructose corn syrup sweet spot.

An odd and wonderful find was Walt Grace Vintage, which specializes in vintage luxury cars, vintage guitars, and vintage amplifiers. The worship of things that have aged well in two categories I can appreciate. I of course, couldn't resist, and provided the dear proprietor with a short bit of live music in one of the most amazingly reverberant rooms which I could ever hope to make a sound in.

Photo taken from the hood of a 1980s Ferrari, much like Cameron's dad's car in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. This all ties together.

And the night went on, and the night went on.

An amazing wine & craft beer bar called Lagniappe where I spent the night meeting some amazing people, listening to one of the most impossible-to-sit-still jazz groups I've ever heard, and fiercely protecting the finest seat in the house which was a very cozy armchair with a very great view of the band. On more than one occasion there was an attempt made on my throne, but thankfully I knew what a treasure I had and would not budge. This is apparently how to make friends because the method worked quite well. I recommend it to anyone with a penchant for comfortable chairs and interesting things to talk about.

The night kept unfolding and at some point in the early hours of the morning, hanging out in a room above the bar with the band and a motley crew of other folks (yes, this involved me ceding my throne) I had one of the Great Traveling Moments when I looked around, saw myself in this wild place, and smiled as I wondered how on earth I got here. Magic happens when you follow the breeze.

Or maybe it's just a matter of being in the Disney State of Mind.

Ain't no propaganda like Obey Propaganda.