Visiting Little Havana in Miami

Miami is about an hour away from me, and I hate driving down because there is always horrible traffic, but once I get there, I do enjoy certain neighborhoods. A few days ago, I spent the day in Little Havana and had a blast!

I started off with a “Cafecito” and a cigar. This neighborhood is full of coffee shops with a window to the street where you can order and get your coffee right on the sidewalk. There are also a handful of cigar factories, shops, and lounges where you can sit and enjoy a cigar while you chat. I stopped at El Titan de Bronze for some cigars. Otherwise, I was very restrained and did not splurge buying Panama hats, guayabera shirts, etc. etc.

For lunch I had a frita at the “El Rey de las fritas”. A frita is a Cuban hamburger made out of ground meat and ground chorizo sausage, topped with string fries. If you have never had one, let me tell you, they are divine. This specific restaurant is a time machine back to the 50s and 60s.

I also did a video for Tonxo Tours, my “side gig” which specializes in tours of Spain, but hey, you have to keep the Insta crowd happy and waiting for more!

In the afternoon I checked out some top-level domino games at a little park made ex-profeso for domino, called, you guessed it Domino Park!

The fun of Little Havana is just in soaking it in, walking around, enjoying the sounds and smells. Although you are in the massive city of Miami, for a few blocks, you might as well be in old Havana, with chickens and roosters running around in the neighbors’ yards!

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

The phenomenon of old mansions becoming museums is not a new one. A rich sod builds an incredible mansion and at some point, subsequent generations cannot afford the massive maintenance required and taxes imposed, so they sell it to a foundation or to the government who -if it is good enough- turn it into a museum, or the family turns it into a private museum and on top of that rent it for events, etc. This is the case of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami. What is rare in this case is that there are very few historic homes in Florida. Rich folks like to hang out together so they can talk about their toys, so Newport Rhode Island, or New York’s Upper East Side or the North Shore of Long Island, remember The Great Gatsby? has a higher concentration of mansions or palazzos, as the Italians call them- than all of Florida put together. There are a number of reasons for this: First, the so called “robber barons” built their fortunes -and consequently their extravagant homes- in the 19th Century, but Southern Florida did not get a railroad until the 1920s. So you could say Florida missed the train. Other factors are the terrible weather, hurricanes, and humidity which would discourage most people from building down here.

An adventurous visionary was James Deering, heir to the International Harvester fortune who purchased a massive plot in Coconut Grove, South of Miami. Together with his artist/designer friend Paul Chalfin they traveled through Europe and Egypt buying everything they liked, and then built Villa Vizcaya to house everything.

As you can see from the photos: the building is in the Renaissance style with a large patio and gorgeous rooms. The gardens are spectacular, with grottos, formal gardens with local flora, etc. While there is no one particular item that makes you say wow, the aggregate is beautifully integrated. Probably due to the disgusting humidity in Florida, you will not find any master level painting. But there are plenty of nice sculptures, tapestries, furniture, and other decorative arts.

So, all in all, a wonderful, highly recommended visit.

Downtown Miami

I have been to Miami many times, but I had never been a tourist in Miami. That changed on Presidents Day. My goal is to discover Miami from a historical, chronological viewpoint. This meant starting from the mouth of Mayaimi river (now obviously Miami) where the Tequesta tribe lived. Nowadays that is the heart of old downtown, a gritty area dominated by 80’s vintage office and apartment buildings.

An oasis in this concrete jungle is the Gesú church. This beautiful Jesuit church sits where the original Jesuit mission was. It is the oldest in South Florida and is certainly worth the visit. Other spots to explore are Freedom tower, modeled after the Giralda, the old minaret, now bell tower of Seville’s Cathedral. It used to house the Miami News, but is now part of Miami-Dade College.

The main tourist trap, I mean attraction, is the Bayside Marina, mall, restaurants, etc. It is a sprawling, generic, commercial area, full of tourists, obviously. This is the spot to have a mediocre, overpriced meal, to go on a celebrity homes cruise, a motorboat cruise, or just a regular old “booze” cruise.

The American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat, is also downtown, as is the Perez Art Museum if you are into Contemporary Art, the History Miami Museum, etc. Stay tuned for more chapters as we continue to explore Miami, layer by layer!

Shark tagging


Every year, the Science Department at Seacrest organizes a collaboration with the University of Miami  Shark Research team to go on a shark tagging sortie. This year I joined them!

The day starts at 6:00 am driving a van full of students to Key Biscayne. If I had to define Miami with just one word it would be: Traffic. But we made it with time to stop at Starbucks for some breakfast.

The research vessel is a scuba boat (Diver’s Paradise of Key Biscayne) run by the great French/Cuban Captain Eric who moonlights as an Organizational Behavior Professor at FIU. The nuts and bolts of the tagging are simple. Ten “drum lines” are dropped with big chunks of tuna on the hooks, then you go back to check if the sharks have bitten. Sharks need to swim to breathe, so the hooks have an ingenious system to allow them to swim in circles before being tagged. The hook also has a timer so the scientists can know how long it’s been on the hook. Once on board the students have to take various measurements, check the nictitating membrane for stress and reflexes, clip a tiny skin sample from the fin to check the shark’s health and tag it! The grad students also take a blood sample. It is all very professional and humane, I was impressed. Students also study water samples for quality.

Our first specimen was a small blacknose shark, caught near Stiltsville – a series of houses on the water built during prohibition – you guessed it – on stilts, where folks would drink and party. You have to love American hypocrisy! Some are still strong enough to host raves.

The day goes on checking lines, dropping lines, hanging out on the boat, chatting with the U Miami grad students, Eric the Captain, students, and other teachers. It is fantastic to spend a school day where the classroom is the boat!

Then we caught a nurse shark. These are fascinating! Out of the water they breathe on the water they have in their system making a “suckling” noise that gives them their name, their skin feels like sandpaper, and their color is also unique.

After a long day on the boat we hit Miami traffic again to cross Alligator Alley back to Naples. Yuck.

As an educator, this is the kind of experience we always want for our students, where they are participating, helping graduate students work on their research. This is not a sterile classroom experiment, this is field research to study shark stress levels, ecosystem impact, shark immunology, etc. this is real life!

Notes and fun facts: The majority of sharks are under 5 feet long,  you can purchase shark research swag here: https://sharkresearch.rsmas.miami.edu/shop

 

RIP Rocinante (2006 – 2017)

I bought Rocinante brand new at Boston Harley Davidson in the spring of 2006. We had moved to the US a year earlier and I had no life, I hated my job teaching at a rough public school, had no friends, was still mourning the loss of my company that I had to close down in Spain, and so on. I have been riding since I was 14, so I figured a motorcycle would be a good hobby and maybe even a way to put some adventure in my life and our marriage. Well, the second part did not work out, but Rocinante saved my life. All of a sudden I had something to look forward to, something to tinker with, and something that offered me a great feeling of freedom and adventure. I rode to school every morning, even when it was only a couple of miles away.

My decision was easy, living in the US I wanted an American bike, that meant a Harley-Davidson. But I still wanted a quick, agile, not expensive bike, not a big, fat, expensive couch. The choice was clear, a Sportster.

Rocinante as a name came easy: I love Don Quixote, and his horse was Rocinante.

In the summer of 2011 I rode from Boston to Austin, Texas and back visiting universities for my PhD. It was that trip that gave birth to this blog, so you just have to scroll back to read all about that amazing, life changing adventure.

Rocinante and I moved to North Carolina in 2012, and we explored that state. We checked out the beautiful Carolina shore, it was Rocinante’s first time on a ferry!! Then we moved to Florida, we only managed one quick excursion to Miami, but we had so many more planned.

On September 25 returning home from school, an 80-year-old lady turned her white Lexus SUV left into my green light without seeing me and I crashed into her. I flew and rolled. Fortunately the accident happened near the EMT station, so they put me in an ambulance and took me to hospital in a jiffy! I suffered a shattered pelvis, with its accompanying trauma, and a broken thumb and annular finger. I spent three days in the hospital. Of course my mom got on the first flight out of Madrid. As I write this I have three pins holding my thumb together, while the pelvis and finger heal on their own. With time, I will recuperate.

Rocinante on the other hand will not. Her front fork was destroyed to the point where repair would be more expensive than the value of the bike.

Those are the facts. The emotions on the other hand cannot be easily put on a blog post. Even if I was just going to make a quick market run for a baguette, the anticipation of riding was exciting. We loved making week-end lunch runs, normally to Five Guys. The longer the ride the more exciting the anticipation. Riding to school every day in Florida was a blessing; a way to really wake up on the way there, and a way to leave it all behind on the way home. Longer excursions left me with a deep sense of relaxation. You see, on a bike you are 100% immersed: you hear, smell, feel, see everything, something that can never happen in the air-conditioned, music filled cocoon of a car. Not only are you immersed but you are 100% engaged with the bike, the road, the surroundings, the traffic. I saw Joyce Wheeler approach the light, it was the fact that she slowed down and stopped before turning left that signaled to me that she had seen me. I fell for the most popular motorcycle accident like a stupid rookie.

I will miss Rocinante, I miss her every day, every day that I have to drive to school, to pick up some ice-cream. I miss the engine rumbling, I miss patting the gas tank like Don Quixote would have done on Rocinante’s side. I hope to get a new Sportster as soon as I can. Although no bike will replace the 11 years of emotions on Rocinante.