Abuela y Abuelo's home is part of a neighborhood adjacent to the West Palm Beach airport. What's more, Interstate-4 runs two streets to the west of their backyard. Tall tropical foliage blocks the interstate from view, not to mention dampens the sound, otherwise, these transportation routes are a constant reminder that progress is abound. People are on the move. Further evidence of this is the vacant area sitting a block to the south, where one hundred or so homes were leveled to make way for future expansions of the airport. In 2007 there were plans for development of university sports facilities on this site. Today, it remains as it did two years ago. Felix tells me a ground breaking ceremony took place earlier in the year. Funds have dried up. Wishful thinking remains. Abuelo's neighbor Albert speculates their neighborhood will suffer a similar fate some day.
For now, Abuela's house continues to be a respite from the "tourism-a-go-go" that is Orlando. This is real Florida. Homes in this neighborhood are pushing forty-years of age. Their exteriors are in one of four colors: pink, light blue, yellow and sometimes white. They are single-level with three bedrooms, one bath, kitchen, and car port (or garage). Bars on the windows are not an uncommon site, but typically more for hurricane protection than prowlers. Inside, the floors are ceramic tile throughout. This helps keep a comfortable room temperature during the summer heat. No basement. And, air conditioning runs like water here.
On the berm of these yards grow honest-to-god coconut trees. At one time an orange tree grew here in the front yard too. In the back yard are mangoes, avocado and at one time grapefruit amongst the palm and tropical trees. I say "at one time" as successive hurricanes have damaged and then finally killed these trees. Small anole lizards run about - sometimes called "chameleons" as their color can turn from bright green to brown. It's beautiful in the backyard. I've spent hours back there picking mangoes, taking photos, or simply to soak-in the abundance of life. Natalie and Jacob pick up mangoes (Jake calls them "balls", as he does for anything sharing that resemblance). We look for and then pet Abuelo's cat. Carmen hangs laundry on the line. One day while she and her mom were out for errands, I recruited Felix to assist the harvest of coconuts. With machete and ladder we felled a cluster, only to find they were undersized and flavorless. Until this trip, Florida had been experiencing near-drought conditions. Thankfully we brought mucho aqua with us. Albert came over later to inspect the coconuts and confirmed their condition. The next day he delivered a fresh green cluster from a friend's tree. He demonstrated how to open one with a machete. As if he was sharpening a pencil he made six angular cuts to remove the top portion of the coconut's outer husk, and a seventh to make the final opening. He drinks the clear coconut liquid and says, "Now that's a good coconut." He was right. Drink with a straw or straight from the fruit - it makes no difference. The husk-to-fruit ratio of a coconut favors the husk. But, you also get to wield a machete to open one. How many fruits can you say this about? We scoop out the snow white flesh and freeze it for later.
It's a regular thing I do whenever we're here. Part of the experience, one could say. I buy and smoke cigars. Also, it's a simple activity that I can share with Felix. Cigar factories are everywhere in Florida. The Cubans set up shop with Dominican leaves and roll away. And by "factory" I mean up to a half dozen cigar rollers seated at wooden desks. One may walk around, talk to the rollers and observe their craft. Storefront meets factory floor. Just this year one opened near abuela's house. Felix became aware of it one day when he saw the owner's Hummer H2, which is coated with an all-over skin featuring his logo. We drive around to find the store, unsure of it's exact location when we see the Hummer parked on the street. Proof in advertising. We check out their humidor and since it was a slow day, we were able to speak at length to the owner. He brings us each cafe (Cuban coffee). We watch the roller unpack a burlap crate of Dominican leaves into a tall wood barrel. He shows us the difference between the inner filler tobacco and the outer wrapper. Then, he asks what size I like and proceeds to roll a robusto for me.
West Palm Beach, for Carmen, means two things: guava pastries and Cuban bread. The pastries are decadent flaky squares filled with a glistening red guava and cheese filling. The bread is not unlike an Italian loaf, or perhaps a French baguette on steroids. What makes it unique is the soft middle and crusty exterior. Perfect for grilled Cuban sandwiches, or in Carmen's case to eat with butter. Every morning I rise to procure a half dozen pastries, two loaves of bread, a fresh squeezed orange juice and a cortadito. Cafe is a single serving of espresso with sugar served black. Cortadito is a cafe "cut" with cream. One may also order either as a colada, which is the entire brew of espresso, or usually two to three servings. In this fashion, the coffee is presented in a cup with several smaller thimble sized cups for sharing. The orange juice machine is almost a carnival attraction of sorts, and is contained behind clear plexiglass for viewing.
Before leaving for home, Carmen makes a trip to the mercado acquire pantry items for Cuban meals at home. She stocks up on naranja agrie, sour orange juice for marinades, mojo, a pre-made citrus and garlic marinade, cooking wines, seasonings and spices. Abuela gives us a large caldera, a cooking pot, that she no longer can use, which is especially nice as it saved us $30 on a new one.
Upon our departure, we had packed up all of the pantry items, Disney purchases, shoes, plus a dozen fresh coconuts, eighteen fresh mangoes, two pounds of Georgia pecans, and a truckload of memories.