Miami – the very name conjures pastel colors, heat, and water, water everywhere. Many people (I would say “many Americans,” but since American popular culture has permeated the globe, it is safe to keep it general) who have not been to Miami in person have a vision of it through TV shows. For me, this was the classic, Miami Vice, which aired during my graduate school years. (It was one of the reasons one of my best friends in grad school, Hanna, convinced me to invest in a VCR, then a new concept in delayed TV viewing.) Exotic, stylish, and wet were the impressions I took away from my media encounters.
A recent trip to Miami for the annual American Folklore Society meetings did not disappoint, especially in the water department. During a pre-conference stay in Miami Beach, I explored the Art Deco area of South Beach, a series of sherbert toned, wedding cake tiered confections with a slightly seedy side, still emerging from a somewhat shady past, now a tourist magnet. The beach beckons, peeking around a string of ocean-side hotels, accessible by skirting a gift shop offering Art Deco themed paraphernalia. When I encountered the beach itself in the morning after a hard rain, it was strewn with dark seaweed and devoid of beachcombers. Ocean Boulevard, one block up, was the home of the morning action – breakfast-munching, coffee-drinking and watching the world go by in open cafes.
The day before the conference started in earnest, a large group of us went on a tour to the Everglades. About a half hour west, the city is left behind and you enter another world, a flat infinite vista of what looks like prairie but is actually, more or less, just a thin veneer of vegetation growing over a vast wetland, punctuated by the occasional limestone hillock. We climbed aboard airboats and donned noise blocking headphones, and set off into this realm with some guides from the Miccosukee Indian tribe, whose home this has been for centuries. Cozy in speeding suspension over the liquid landscape, we admired the water lilies, dragonflies and blue expanses of water in between, but we were also warned that this is the realm of some nasty creatures: alligators, snapping turtles, and disease-bearing mosquitoes to name a few.
Finally, the conference started, but the contact to water did not end. Our hotel backed up to the Miami River, the shortest navigable river in the U.S., which empties into the Everglades. Although we were mostly entombed in conference rooms, the river was not be to denied. Coffee, lunch, and happy hour breaks were taken in the hotel’s back patio by the riverside, and if your head just became too full of information, you could zone out on the steps, watch pleasure boats slide by, and dream of joining them to points unknown up the river. The last day of the conference, our conference artist in residence, Losang Samten, a Philadelphia-based Tibetan mandala maker, dismantled his colorful creation and we joined him in offering it to the river. A fit ending to a week spent exploring, and being surrounded by, the many waters of Miami.