A Beach Moment that Lingers

Seaside in Progreso, Mexico is unforgettable.

If I concentrate, I can still recall sitting on the beach at Progreso, digging my toes into the sand and sipping a piña colada made with sweet, fresh pineapple and soft, sugary coconut shavings. I remember the waiters, who had to cross the beach boulevard from the Crabster restaurant to keep asking me if I needed anything else.

It was not a cruise ship day, otherwise there would have been hundreds more people like me, tourists mulling about looking for T-shirts, or souvenirs, or bathrooms. The first time we journeyed north from Merida by bus and disembarked in this sleepy beach town, we heard the jolting noise of English being spoken with a southern accent. The words, already foreign sounding after a few weeks staying in Mexico, hit me from the tables along the avenue leading to the ocean. Gray-headed travelers in tropical shirts sat ordering beers and margaritas and eating barbecue marinated in the sour orange and lime of the Yucatán rather than the dry rubs or smoke of the places their accents said they hailed from. We walked on without belying our compatriotism. I just wanted to sit in the warm breeze, to feel the sun on my skin, and to look out on the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to be mesmerized by the waves and by the squawking of flocks of gulls who undulated the same way.

We ate pork tacos with habanero salsa. Huge shrimp encrusted in coconut batter and fried. Beach vendors passed by often, selling colorful whipped sugar candy merengues and caramelized peanut palanquetas. They hawked all sorts of wares held aloft on their heads or in big backpacks. A man selling large baskets had half a dozen draped over each of his arms and more piled on his back. One vendor rode the bus back to Merida with us at the end of the day, his pastry tray stowed somewhere below in a luggage compartment. The ride cost the equivalent of $1US each way. So, we rode with a crowd, though most appeared not to be traveling to sit on the beach.

I watched the fluttering of the umbrellas and palapas, the thatched roofs of dried palm leaves. They shaded tables and chaise lounges set up along the shore. I listened to the surf. I watched a Mexican family pull two white plastic tables together to accommodate everyone for a child’s birthday party. 

Further down the beach large palapas stood at the ready to accommodate more people in search of shade. And still further a newer restaurant with a multi-level, open-air deck that ensured every table had a view of the sea. Swings on ropes and palm trees growing up through the rafters made the place feel like an Instagram picture from Tulum. That made it more expensive than the other places.

Yes, I like piña coladas. This one has a coconut sugar rim, Mexican cinnamon shavings that are like the more relaxed version of cinnamon sticks, and a skewer of fresh pineapple and berries.

Only a few more historic establishments remain after decades of hurricanes and the ebb and flow of tourism on this sleepy coastline. But the city rebuilt the seaside in the last few years. The malecón is now a low concrete wall, turned into seating in spots and undulating along the ribbon of beach kept the sand and water on one side and a wide boulevard on the other for pedestrians, bicycles, and every hour or so a truck full of police decked out in military-style uniforms and holding automatic rifles. In places like Mexico this show of force is a comfort rather than a threat I suppose. I prefer the bicycle cops of California beaches who seem harmless, and yet ready to confront whatever trouble comes. 

Sleeping dogs flopped in the warm sand against the sea wall and lay contentedly snoozing, flipping their tails like horses to defend against the odd fly. The mid-80-degree temperature was perfect. I waded out into the water far enough to feel its December chill, but I never got too warm sitting on the beach to require more water dunks, just more pina coladas, or Mexican beers, or Topo Chicos.

Boats on the Gulf.

The beach faced north, so the sunsets faded out of view. And we meandered back to the bus depot to board the ride back to the city. It was only a little over an hour along the highway. We disembarked at the stop by Paseo 60, the huge new complex right around the block from our rental house. It had a massive open-air plaza with a waterfall cascading over plexiglass, a stage curtained with sisal ropes, old henequen manufacturing equipment turned sculpture. Escalators and shops, a hotel, a coach depot for high-class road trips daily to Cancun and elsewhere. We walked along the narrow sidewalk and turned down Calle 37 toward our house. Weeds edged out from cracks and the concrete crumbled in places. We passed old single story colonial houses, one that had been turned into a boutique hotel on the corner.

It was one key to open the wrought iron gate over the front door, and then another key to unlock the wood door, weathering badly in the tropics. I stepped into the cool of the cavernous living room, slipped off my flip flops to spray the sand off my feet with a water bottle left on a little towel just beside the door. The tile was cool beneath my bare feet and I padded across it into the kitchen and sank down into one of the equipale chairs of pigskin and slats of cedar. The sun of the beach still felt warm on my skin.

If I concentrate, it still does.

The Vision of Venice

Some days in Venice the slow pace of silver-haired retirees and the quiet beauty of historic architecture felt like a time capsule. We will miss the quaintness of this little city on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The center of town with its 1920s and ‘30s hotels, houses, and apartment buildings were all built by developers rightly convinced that someday Florida would be a prime vacation spot. Today, small shops built in Italianate style are juxtaposed against newer buildings, including a the Daquiri Deck with its icy air conditioning, and wall of swirling machines full of icy red and yellow grown-up Slurpees. 

The Venice Pier and the beach as seen from Fins restaurant.

But the original plan is clear. And what impressive forethought Venice represents. It was just an idea—now nearly 100 years old, that has come to pass like a prophecy fulfilled in shady lanes and cobbled avenues. Palms, banyans, and oaks that drip with Spanish moss now dwarf passing cars, half-naked tourists, retirees, and families with children who walk along the old boulevards that once were just drawings on a page. And none of us would be as awed by the carefully curated beauty of this place had not someone thought to plant trees by which they would never be shaded. 

Anoles of shifting colors flit across the sidewalks in this place. Birds flock to the beach; gulls, sandpipers, and the Brown Pelicans aloft on sea breezes like floating gangsters flying low with scruffy feathers ruffling out of place in the wind. 

White and black ibis are ubiquitous in Venice, busy stabbing their foot-long orange beaks into the grass most mornings. Egrets and herons abounded as well, but none as friendly as the one I mentioned earlier, the Great Egret who arrived in three feet of white feathered regalia to the screened porch of our condo in Ft. Myers. We named him “Charlie” and he wasn’t shy. He would stand staring at us, a patch of green beside his yellow bill, and his remarkably long neck moving into an ‘S’ shape and then stretching out to its full length before he would tuck it up and fly away with no more apparent effort than a paper airplane.

A Blue Heron on the Caspersen Beach near Venice, Florida.

That was also the spot where we sighted a Roseate Spoonbill flying over a tennis court. It’s a big, pink bird, like a flamingo’s slightly weirder looking cousin. And since we never saw flamingos, except for the plastic ones staked in yards, this rosy species remains one of my favorites in the area. 

We never saw an alligator, but gopher turtles were plentiful along the bike paths. And I will miss seeing them, as well as all the bicycling, golf carting, and walking we did together. I know I will miss the flats of the sandy soil in Florida. Hills there are usually boat bridges—and we will miss the views from atop those of sailboats, speedboats, trawlers, yachts, kayaks, paddleboards, and jet skis. 

Sadly, I will also recall the fish that swished ashore breathless, as an algae bloom called red tide sucked the oxygen from the water and left them strewn rotting on the beaches of Siesta Key, Venice, and elsewhere. 

Rebecca floating in the Gulf. With the water temperature in the mid-80s we often dove in for a cool-off on our long beach walks.

Venice already pays attention to straws that disintegrate rather than becoming a problem in the ocean. They have dozens of sea turtle nests marked all along a shore lit only in red lights at night to help guide these creatures toward the sea. Figuring out the red tide is a priority.

Maybe the selfless vision of the beautiful plan for Venice, created so long ago, can continue to invigorate the people in Venice today, to sustain its attractiveness—both natural and created. I hope so.

I can still smell the water all around in intracoastal waterways, harbors, estuaries, beaches, and the thick scent of salt and seaweed. I will always remember the sensations of floating in the waves of the Gulf and at the same time seeing the dorsal fins of dolphins leaping just a few yards away from me. Amazing.

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The People In the Neighborhood

We went for brunch at the Cote France French restaurant in Venice, Florida, a few weeks ago and the waiter seemed to recognize us when we showed up again for a special wine pairing dinner this week.

“Good to see you again,” he said in his thick, French accent. 

We haven’t met a lot of people here in Venice, but everyone is so friendly—even French people, passersby, and shopkeepers. They make this little town feel welcoming. 

Murphy is a Havanese. I had a stuffed toy Havanese when I was a kid. It had a little FM radio in its belly and it came with a comb.

A week or more ago, a waitress at another local eatery was cheerfully telling us about a drink special and didn’t realize that the rum she was describing was my favorite. We toured the distillery in Key West when we were there in 2019. It’s a rum named for Ernest Hemingway’s fishing boat, which was in turn named for his second wife—Pilar. Turns out the waitress had also toured the rum distillery. I’m not sure if she’s ever read any Hemingway, but I felt connected, nonetheless.

“In order to write about life, first you must live it.”

Ernest Hemingway
Along with our feet and two bicycles, we are lucky enough to have this golf cart to get around the island of Venice.

Shopkeepers also seem genuinely glad to see us as customers. We met a woman who studied art in Paris and now runs a gallery gift shop here. Behind red-rimmed glasses and brown hair pulled back, she gladly told us her story. A checkout girl at the grocery store told us about her recent retake of the ACT and how nervous she was about getting a high score. I asked her if she had taken a prep course and from behind her face mask, she said she had, so I assured her that she would get a better score this time. For a moment, I felt like a teacher again. And for a moment, we were strangers caring about each other, sharing a town small enough, full of enough older people, or maybe Southern enough, to slow down a minute and listen.

Following a pandemic year, all these things can no longer be taken for granted. Following a year that seemed to have torn the country in half politically, friendliness seems to have been placed on the endangered species list in some places. So now, eating at restaurants, shopping, teaching moments, connections with strangers, feel novel again. And for me, these are moments that are filled with gratitude. I missed people. And the kindness of strangers.

We can always find a piece of the beach that we have all to ourselves. And with a summer temperature in the mid-80s the water in the Gulf is perfect for a dip.

One final person in Venice to mention, as we are on the topic of people. Today we went over to visit our new friend C. again. She is 90 years old, maybe 91, and enjoys a good conversation and her little dog, Murphy, who is currently in our care. He spins in circles and jumps around whenever we say we’re going to visit. He likes visits, walks, rides in the golfcart with his furry ears flapping in the breeze. He also likes squirming to try to jump out, and randomly issuing a bark so high pitched it makes me want to jump out. Instead, I tighten my grip on his little red harness and Ron zooms along.

Our friend’s face lit up when she saw Murphy. Then, we chatted about everything from National Geographic television programs, to how people don’t have phone books anymore, to her wicker rocking chair, as Murphy sat in her lap and then licked her shoes. Then he pranced around again excited to end our visit and get back in the golf cart.

“He seems to really like you,” C. said. “So that’s good.”

“We like him, too,” I said.

He likes Ron the best; insists on sitting in the purple chair in the living room with him. He sleeps in our bed. He wags excitedly when we come home from outings. 

“We’re just at the forefront of our housesitting career,” Ron says. So, there may be more dogs, cats, or miniature horses. (I hope.) We may make more acquaintances, or friends. We may visit more places that may become as familiar to us as Venice has. (I hope.) Beautiful beaches, cool sea breezes on hot summer days, long walks on avenues shaded with historic trees hanging with Spanish moss, historic homes roofed in red clay tiles and infused with Mediterranean style, and friendly, smiling faces all around.

One of the historic, tree-lined avenues in Venice, Florida, planned nearly a century ago in a beautifully designed city envisioned by a man named John Nolen.

Piña Coladas and Rain

Ron and I took a long walk on the beach our first day in Florida. The sand is like sugar and the water is a perfect temperature.

A pure white egret greets us whenever we are sitting out on the screened porch. He has an impossibly long and snaking neck, and thin, white tail feathers that flutter in the breeze. Boats float by on their way out to Ostego Bay. They are stocked with fishing poles, or coolers, tourists looking for dolphins. Sunday morning was brunch, a long beach walk, and then a trip to the supermarket. Walking back from there it began to drizzle. We ignored that for a few minutes until the sky burst open like a water balloon and it poured. It rained so hard it washed off all of our sunscreen and drove it into our eyes like blinding hot sauce. In under five minutes we were completely drenched, soaked, and dripping. The grocery bags filled with water. The argument we were having was forced to an end as we could only exclaim about the rain and avoid ponds on sidewalks and waterfall-size splashes from oncoming cars. The parking lots turned to lakes, cars stranded like islands.

Once we got back to the condo we changed and put away our groceries and then Ron went out again for piña colada stuff. Because pineapple, coconut and rum, and if you like getting caught in the rain, maybe you like piña coladas? He got a second soaking on his way back from that errand. Day one and wet clothes hanging everywhere.

We were soaked in seconds.

“Yes, I like piña coladas,

And gettin’ caught in the rain …”

Rupert Holmes, 1979

The sun eventually returned.

We sipped our drinks, then near dusk headed to the beach again to see the sunset over the water. A few other people were awaiting the orange sun’s dip into the ocean as well. But still a quarter of an hour before the final drop, yet another rain storm began. The drops quickly turned serious and sent everyone scurrying across the wide sands to nearby hotels and condos. Our place was across the main road, and down beyond several complexes. So it was a third soaking for us.

Maybe we had been baptized into our new nomadic life; a fitting activity for a Sunday. And I had removed my shoes on the beach as both an act of worship for such as amazing creation and an attempt to keep my feet from being rubbed raw by gritty sand. Just like he shows off in the Rocky Mountains, God has a bit of fun down here at the Gulf of Mexico. The egret, ibis, and heron; the tropical flowers, the wild coffee bush, the fig trees and palms, and the changing blue and green colors of the salty gulf waters lapping the pale sands of the shores.

Sunset at Ft. Myers Beach

These are God’s rather exasperated reminders that he is powerful. Maybe they aren’t exasperated if you are on good terms with him. But I perceive him as being sort of fed up with showing me the obvious–that he is an Almighty Creator and I should trust him … at least as much as the sandy shore trusts that whatever tracks, piles and holes mar its smooth surface during a day of visitors both human and animal, the tides will smooth them all away again.