Southern hospitality at the church yard

Another boondocking experience exceeded our expectations. We stopped in Mandeville near New Orleans, on the other side of Pontchartrain Lake. Our hosts - Linn i Lynn (just to make it easier to remember) after they retired 10 years ago, they sold their house in Oregon, bought a motorhome and became full-timers. For Linn it's very convenient especially that her greatchildren are in 3 different parts of USA, so they can easily visit them all every once in a while.

In Louisiana there's an RV behind every tree...
Lynn is a pastor so when he was asked to minister at little church in Louisiana he said yes. They signed up for 2 years, but if God allows (in Lousiana rather vampires, fairies and warewolves) they will stay longer, taking trips around the country every now and then. They live in their motorhome at parking by the church and invite travelers like us. And it's a great place to stay. There's not only a place for your RV (with water and electricity), or even for up to 3 or 4 RVs, guests are also invited to house/church, and can use a bathroom, washer and drier, nursery for kids, wi-fi and whatever else one might need. On top of that our hosts did everything to make us feel welcome. Let's just say that famous southers hospitality will make us have to go on a diet...

With our hosts and us
On Sunday they invited us to a mass. It's a non-denominational church, just a group of Christians meeting for a prayer and reading Bible. It felt like family gathering, it started with a cup of coffee, then there was a mass, which was more like interactive lecture, without all the rituals we know from catholic church. Plus a lot of singing, and a holy communion at the end made of a waffle and grape juice. 

There are around 30 people in community, age average around 60 but there were also a few teenagers. Lynn told us that before Katrina there were over 50 people coming every Sunday. Hurricane changed a lot, not only in a landscape. Some people who evacuated didn't come back, some moved away cause they didn't feel well there any more. Those who stayed have a strong bond. After mass there was also a cake (sombody had birthday) and lots of food, we spent a nice afternoon chatting with everyone. We shared some of our experience, we got some advice for our trip, we found out a bit about Louisiana and heard some interesting life stories. 

Maciek had a great time there, he could use a swing, there were some toys for him in a nursery, he could take ride with Lynn on a tractor which is used most for pulling portable waste tank. Linn was a great aunt who would spoil Maciek with treats and cartoons, which was for him a nice change from strict parents.

Maciek and Lynn on Gator
At Linn and Lynn's we also met Malcolm and Terry, who one year ago started spending summer in the north (in their case Delaware), winter in the south (this year maybe even Mexico). They not only use Boondockers Welcome for sleeping at other people places, but also can host travelers in Delawere .They invited us over and we'd love to come, we just don't know if we wil have enough time. But if not now maybe next time! 

Malcolm, Terry and 2 out of 8 feet
Mandeville is not only a place with great people but also a really good base for visiting New Orleans. It's less than an hour away by one of the longest bridges in the world. It's toll only if you go south, so from Mandeville we went round the lake which was less then extra 20 miles, and then for free straight from French Quarter, right through the middle of the lake. It's more or less the same to get to plantations in Mississippi Valley. We'll write more about those places in next posts. 


Guest starring

For all our readers who haven't heard yet about our adventures in Dominican Republic (and for those who heard but would like to read about it;), below is translation of an article we wrote for Mały Podróżnik (Little Traveler). Go to the website too if you want to see the pictures!

With kids in Dominican Republic

You think of Dominican Republic and you think of 5-star-resorts and all-inclusive vacation. We managed to see it from different, much more interesting side, and we proved that it's a very kid-friendly country.

We bought the tickets year in advance. It was the first time ever we bought the tickets so much earlier, but somewhere on some travel profile on facebook we found a great deal. Round trip from Paris to Santo Domingo for around 400 USD. It would be sin not to buy it! We bought 3 tickets: for us and for Maciek. By the time we would be going there he would be 3 years old, so traveling with him won't be any problem. 3 days later pregnancy test told us that we need another ticket...

Kalina was born in July. For the first 3 months she was crying quite a lot. We were scared to death thinking about the journey. We even wanted to cancel our plans (unfortunately there was no way to rebook the flight), but at last we've decided that you don't get such a chance too often. Let's go then.

Awfully long flight was much easier for kids than for us. We landed in Santo Domingo around 8 pm local time, for our bodies it was 6 hours later. For first 3 days we rented a car. Since Maciek is with us we got a bit spoiled. Before that we used to ignore all the beaters at the airport and catch a bus at the highway. Now we knew that Maciek wouldn't care but we were so exhausted that we wouldn't be able to deal with one kid and all the luggage, not to mention two kids...

It took a while to go through the formalities, than we got everything and everyone in the car and off we went. For the first week we booked a simple bungalow at Samana Peninsula from a British guy whose name was...Dominic. It was 2.5 hour drive from the capital. As soon as we left the airport we got lost... Driving nervously back and forth we tried to remember what is the crime rate in Santo Domingo. Luckily nobody shot us. Nobody even wanted to rob us. Local people were very friendly, trying to explain us where we should go, and seeing complete desorientation on our dead-tired faces they would even get in their cars and lead us in right direction. Sometimes they would joke (?) that they can help us for 50 USD. After our "no, thank you" they would still help us for free.

We finally found the right highway. The only light we saw during next hour and a half was star light. Electricity in DR is quite expensive so if it's not necessary, they don't turn the lights on. And who needs light on a highway going through middle of nowhere We got there at 2 am. Exactly 24 hours after we got up. Kids were sound asleep in the back of the car and we were trying really hard not to fall asleep...

For the next two weeks we smiled all the time. Sun, palm trees, beautiful beaches, picturesque waterfalls, caves, swimming at night in a lagoon with
luminous plankton and local people - always smiling, singing and very friendly, amazed by our blond kids. Kalina, despite our fears cried maybe 2 days during the whole trip. She's clearly made to travel.

We decided to spend the last week in the south-west part of the country. Everyone told us it's a beautiful area with nice and dry climate, unlike the humid rest of the country. We rented a car for those last few days again and we headed south. By this time we already used (with kids) all kinds of transportation: buses, horses, boats, motors called motoconchas which are used as taxis there. We know for example, that family 2+2 with a luggage and a stroller needs 3 motoconchas with drivers.

All the way south it was raining. It didn't stop when we got there. After next day of rain we've decided to return to Santo Domingo earlier than we planned. Easy to say... On the first day the rain flooded the road and we couldn't get through. As long as the water was splashing sideways from under our wheels we kept driving. But once it poured over our hood we've decided it's too risky. We stopped at the first hotel we found. On the second day we got up at dawn. We didn't get too far either, water was pouring over the hood again. Third day was Friday: our plane was leaving in the evening. We were in our car at 6 am hoping we'll drive those 120 km (less than 80 miles) to the airport in just a couple of hours.

Road to Santo Domingo runs along the coast. There were mountains on our left and Carribean Sea on the right. There was no other way. It kept raining. Driving aroung bigger paddles (or lakes) by sideways led by locals, after a few kilometers we reached a bridge on the river, which most of the time is a small creek. Now it was a wide rushing water, impassable on our way to the capital.

Before the bridge there was a crowd of people. Police didn't let anyone through. End of the bridge collapsed a little, we could see the difference of levels from the distance - maybe 20 or 30 cm (1 foot). Locals asked when it will be possible to get through answered each one differently: some that government forces are already on the way, others that maybe on Monday, but they all said it first had to stop raining so the water lever would lower. But it kept raining

We rented a room in the nearest, very dingy hotel, as we actually quickly realized it was the one that would rent rooms per hour. Young guy who worked there, very worried about our situation gave us a discount and brought us lunch from his mom. Every two hours we went back to check if the bridge is open. Last time we went around 6 pm, knowing that it's the last moment to cross it if we want to make it to the airport on time. Line of cars on the road to the bridge didn't get any shorter. When we came closet we understood immediately that we're not flying back home that night. There was a huge gap in the bridge...

Ever since when Maciek is playing with his cars and makes a traffic jam, asked what happened says "bridge collapsed"... We finally made it to Santo Domingo on Sunday. The airlines were so nice that they rebooked our tickers at no cost. In the meantime we found out that it was not just another tropical storm. Few days later the wind got stronger and as Hurricane Sandy caused much more trouble in Cuba and finished off with a spectacular show much further north - in New York.

Despite the weather anomaly we cordially recommend Dominican Republic. Especially with a backpack, far from hotels, closed beaches and all-inclusive deals. To experienced backpackers we recommend local transportation. Buses full of very friendly, singing people, pick-ups and motoconchas are lots of fun. And the kids will always find new friends there. People there are joyful and very positive, especially towards travelers with kids. We didn't feel any risk at any moment. DR is beautiful, has a lot to offer to everyone: to active travelers (also those with kids!) and to those who like to stay at the beach, not necesarily with crowds of other people around.


Mommy, daddy, is this war?

We will always remember Alabama for pouring rain. At some point it reminded us of our last days in Dominican Republic. For those of you who don't know the story we'll write about it soon.

After day spent in hangars of National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, where getting from the parking to the museum was a challenge (of course you could drop off the family at the entrance but the traffic jam was really discouraging) we hoped for a nicer next day. And then we went to Mobile area to see USS Alabama - Second World War battleship transformed into a museum almost 50 years ago. Of course we got some rain but it was not as heavy as in Pensacola.

USS Alabama is tempting from the first moment you see skyline of Mobile. It's sitting proudly just by Interstate 10, which leads you to the town from the east. And having not very attractive Mobile as a background it looks really great. Maciek seeing the ship with tanks and planes standing around asked surprised: "Mommy, daddy, is this war?". Where did he learn this word anyway...?

Japanese dream over 60 years ago. Never really came true...
Entrance fee is 15 USD, but with a coupon (found at Welcome Center on a state border) we paid 13 USD per person. Kids are free. Parking is 2 USD, no matter if you just have a car or you're towing a trailer. Parking is large so it's easily accessible for RVs, plus the ship is just by the highway so you don't have to drive around town. We went there with a trailer and we were fine.

First thing that we can see when buying tickets is that it's much more "southern". Few people told us that Florida is not south of the USA. It's mostly Canada with some American seniors plus Orlando and a few other exceptions. Real south starts in Alabama. It's much more hospitable, but there's also a sense of  disorder, sometime poor maintenance and chaos. Seems familiar, we thought. In Florida all the attractions (maybe except for the Keys) were poshy and neat. Giftshops well thought through, here the building by the entrance had not well maintained toilets, giftshop full of cheap toys and fast food restaurant that not only served fast food but also it was bulit and opened really fast. It was a bit of culture shock, even stronger if you had been to Pensacola a day before.

Valves and buttons
You can see USS Alabama just by walking around (arriba abajo al centro al dentro - as Mexicans in bars say), or in a bit more organized way - by three routes. One focuses on living quarters of Alabama, second on engine room, different control rooms and third one on higher levels. Infortunately we didn't climb to look down at the deck. We ran across it quickly, it was cold and pouring rain. Going up would be quite slippery and not really enjoyable. Good thing about the crappy weather was that everone stayed at home so it was not crowded. Probably if it wasn't Saturday but for example Wednesday, we would have had all ship to ourselves. But as it was Saturday, we had to share it with a just a few more visitors who we would pass every once in a while in a small corridors.

Ship is very impressive. You can take a look at huge gun caliber 410 mm but you can also see them from the inside, from control room, storeroom with shells and all the corridors shells were moved. Empty shells are still on board, so you can get the warlike feeling.

There are also some interesting details about life on board, like for example x-ray machines in dental clinic (instead of showing them in the museum they could donate them to some Polish hospitals), water fountains that looked exactly the same as they look now, and on the plates they were the same brands: Coca-cola, Nestle bars, Kellogs cereal, etc.

On-board shopping
Engine room  is surprisingly small and claustrophobic. Maybe we imagined it differently based on some old movies, but there was more space because they needed to keep coal there. Here were also steam turbines but they used diesel as a fuel. No-one had to swing a shovel and you didn't have to keep a room for coal, just a hidden tank for diesel.

Engine room
We hoped Maciek would enjoy the ship a lot, but our son decided to adjust his mood to the weather and was whining all day. However we do recommend the ship especially for older kids (and very big kids, like us:). There are lots of places to hide or get lost, but if you keep the kids in your sight and let them explore, they will have a lot of fun. Ship by the way is an important place for boy scouts. Organized tours can stay on the ship overnight sleeping on sailors' bunk beds.

Another place to see is a hangar with planes, but after Pensacola it just doesn't impress us at all. Hangar is small, maybe a dozen of plane, the most spectacular of them is A-12, which we've seen in other museums and probably we'll see it again.

Last but not least we went to USS Drum submarine, that after one of many hurricanes was taken ashore and placed on concrete bed. There we felt like home. Tiny spaces reminded us of our traier. If only Eddie had torpedo launchers...

USS Drum
Submarine has quite an impressive history and when it comes to sunken enemy ships it landed 8th on the list of American most successful submarines. It's surprisingly small inside, although we've never seen any other submarine in our lives so we can't really compare.

Torpedo tubes
On USS Drum you can get stuck in narrow corridors and steep staircases. If you have someone not so fit in front of you or someone with small kids you have to be patient and enjoy for example Walt Disney's wartime art. It seems that besides making kids happy he was also taking care of war enthusiasm among fellow Americans.

USS Drum by Walt Disney

Pensacola - head in the clouds

We left Florida twice. First time to get to Mobile (Alabama), where was our next stop, second time on the next day - we went back to Florida to see National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola. Campground in Mobile (Chickasabogue Park RV Camping) was another interesting experience: it was the cheapest so far paid campground with full hook-ups. On internet we read that it's not in the best area and there are "scary permanent residents". But it was cheap - with Passport America discount it was 9.36 USD per night. 

We spent two nights there. Guy at the gate said he's been to Warsaw twice, he has a Polish friend from New York. He liked it, so there was no reason we shouldn't like his place. Warsaw also has some scary permanent residents. The ones at the campground (we didn't see any non-permanent ones) in their 20- and 30-year-old trailers didn't come out too often, but it was raining too, so maybe that's the reason. We found some earplugs and bullet jacket from a shotgun near our site so probably it's a fun place sometimes. But we can't complain, for two nights we stayed there it was nice and peaceful.

In Alabama woods
Our plan was to spend 2-3 hours in National Museum of Naval Aviation and on the same day make a quick stop at USS Alabama. We even managed to get up early - we left campground around 9, which is not bad for us.

Parking and museum are free. We decided to go also the IMAX (8.5 USD for an adult, kids free) for a movie about history of aviation, which was really about Blue Angels - Navy's flight demonstration squadron. Kalina slept through entire movie and Maciek, despite our fear that he'll get bored quickly (it was 45 minutes long) watched the whole thing. In the movie there was of course our favorite motive of dreams coming true - it's becoming a leitmotiv of our journey. We overpaid a bit, just after we bought the tickets some nice lady  working there gave us coupon for 2 USD discount - tip: ask the staff first if they have any coupons.

Can you squize in one more little plane?
In museum there are lots and lots of planes standing and hanging in two huge hangars. Firts one starts in the beginning of 20th century and ends around Korea war. In the second one picks up where the first one ended, and unfortunately we didn't have enough time to go there. There are of course descriptions next to each exhibit but also there are guides driving around in their electric wheelchairs adding some anecdotes often from their own experience. You can touch most of the exhibits, go into some of them, there is also playground but even if without it kids won't get bored. 

Captain's little helper
On top of planes and IMAX there are also flight simulators, a street from small American town from middle 1940s, exhibition about space conquest, aircraft carriers maquiets and lots of other attractions. Even the giftshop was so interesting that it was difficult to leave (without Maciek!:).

We won't write too much about planes. In the first hangar there was probably more than a hundred of them. Even though we know that there are lots of different types of fighters, bombers, reconnaissance aircrafts plus some strange things ordered by the Navy, we were absolutely amazed. It's one thing to know and the other to see and touch. Technical thought and detailes evolved so quickly, making such a difference in just half a century, offering huge variety of shapes that only looking from esthetical point of view keeps you there all day long. 

Sometimes Navy people did some spinning in descriptions. Just after entering the hangar there is a huge NC-4. There's a whole exposition dedicated to it's crew, flight and route, as it was supposed to be the first plane to cross the Atlantic. There was even a prize mentioned that Daily Mail founded for this achievement,but it was stressed that Americans didn't enter the race for the money but to develop their skills. But they did get the money, didn't they? - we thought and we googled.

Well, they didn't, because they floated a couple of times before they reached Europe and they landed on Azores Islandes. Brits got the prize a month later for a flight by a plane and not flying boat, without any "stopovers" and they completely overshadowed NC-4, at least in Europe. Officialy it is them who were the first ones to cross the Atlantic. The exposition is great but there's nothing about the fact that the euphoria lasted a month and world quickly forgot about NC-4...

As we paid attention mostly to esthetic side we couldn't walked past Me 262 without any feelings. It's well known that the nazis were masters of esthetics. Among other aircrafts from that time you could easily say that first jet, which was first used in a battle in 1944, was ahead of its time. We thought that its role in development of military aviation should be much more exposed. Looking around one can say that after it was seized by Alies their planes quickly turned into modern jets. But after we did our homework and spent some time on wikipedia we knew that everyone at that time was pretty advanced in working on their own jets. So it wasn't that Germans were brilliant and everyone was copying...

German technical thought
In Pensacola there was some space for the enemy. There was Me 262, and Mig hanging near by, there was also Japanese fighter, probably one of a few that made it to the US. Me 262 was definitely the prettiest one. It was even prettier with a group of German soldiers who just completed some training or internship in Pensacola and had a ceremony under hanging planes "Na ja, und das ist ein Messerchmitt"- we could hear when they went to see the prouf of nazi Luftwaffe. 

At 5 PM they had to to kick us out. We were the last ones to leave and there were three guards behind us pushing us gently towards the exit. One asked us where we come from and where we are going next. He said that few months he spents in Florida and few in Yellowstone so we would probably meet soon. Who knows....

We hadn't had enough so we considered coming back on the next day, but at least we decided not to. At least we have a reason to go back some day. This part of Forida is definitely worth seeing again. Maybe after we retire?

We'll be back!!!


Be my guest RV parking

Traveling across the US we stayed in fancy rv resorts full of top class cars and rvs and much easy going national and state parks. Going back in time a bit we'd like to share a great experience we had, one that we were most curious about - BoondockersWelcome. Our adventure with boondockers started in Tampa area, before we went north.

The idea behind BoondockersWelcome is more or less the same as the one behind coachsurfing, but for people traveling with rvs. You have a backyard or a driveway and you can let someone stay there - you sign up. You want to stay somewhere for free - you sign up to to look for potential hosts.

Annual membership is 25 USD if you don't have a place to be a host and 20 USD for those who can offer a place. Once registered you get an access to the database of all the registered users. Now it's over 700 places across the US and Canada. .

Kalina enjoying her first boondocking experience
This is how it works:
- You want to stay somewhere. You can search the area you're interested in, just write the name of the place, specify your requirements and hit search. You get the map and list with all the users in the area.
- Click on user's profile and there are the details: when they are available (often it's people living few months here, few months there), what they can offer, do they accept kids/pets, what they do, and, what;'s the most important, how long can we stay there. In southern Florida where most people stay for long vacation it's usually 1-2 nights. It's probably just to be on the safe side but if the host and the guest get along well, it can be longer than that. The further north, the more often a maximum stay is longer, often it's  simple information "We’ll play it by ear".

The idea is that the it's free. It can be few acres of forest far from civilization, it can be a driveway with all the hook ups, laundry in the garage and breakfast on the porch, it can be parking space on the street in front of hosts' house. Whatever it is it's always free.

With our hosts Lois and John

In the beginning when we were looking for a place to stay in Miami area we got discouraged. There are just a few places and out of those most were unavailable, those who wrote us back said they could not accomodate us and some did not write us at all. Not a good beginning..

Few hundered miles north and the situation changed completely. Everyone we wrote, wrote us back. Those who could not invite us wished us a good journey. We got a few invites. When we selected the best one for us and we wrote back the other ones that we're not gonna stay with them we got emails that it's too bad, and maybe other time and if we need to do laundry or anything we can stop by any time. We hope it'll stay this way.

For the first boondocking experience we chose Lois and John living in Hudson, less than an hour from Tampa. Our hosts were very nice. We rested, we did the laundry, with John's help we fixed couple things in our trailer, we talked about the world, Maciek made friends with their grandchildren, and at last we stayed there a day longer than we planned.

Kalina wirh Patrick and Leoni, our hosts' grandchildren
Lois and John some time ago planned to become fulltimers, they bought an A-class which is standing in their backyard. Unfortunately life had a different plan for them, so now they just invite other travellers to their place. They've lived in Hudson for over 40 years. When they moved there, there was nothing around. Now there are a few schools just around the corner - only in elementary there are 1500 students, so there are traffic jams of school buses (which Maciek really enjoyed).

We talked also to John's sister whose husband was Polish (he left his homeland in 1947) and listen about traditional family models from 2+6 to 2+9. We spent some times in hammocks and look up in the stars. Not for too long though, as evenings were quite chilly...

Before we stayed with John and Lois we thought that Boondockers Welcome would be a way to save some money. After staying with them for a couple of days we know it is a way of discovering US we didn't think of in Poland. It maybe even more interesting than seeing all national parks, monuments and historic markers. It is for free but brings more joy and inspiration that we can buy with money.

White beaches of northern Florida

Next stop on our route is St Joseph Peninsula State Park. We were ready to head north and some people told us that in northern Florida there are beautiful beaches, so we looked at google maps and we chose a random place. It looked nice from the satellite. It was a little bit over our budget (24 USD vs our 20 USD), but what the hell. Before we left Hudson our hosts, Lois and John (we’ll write more about them) confirmed that it’s a good choice, they’ve been there before and it’s beautiful not only from satellite.

Nothern Florida was really charming and the road to peninsula was very picturesque. Maybe we shouldn’t say we liked it. The less official name of Emerald Coast - as it’s officially called - is redneck riviera. But well, Poland, EU is a bit redneck part of Europe. It even looks familiar, lots of pine trees, wide beaches, much like our coast. To make it even more familiar the weather was also very Baltic-like - cold and windy.

On the road to St. Joseph there are lots of wooden houses stilts. We liked them so much we forgot to take any photos! Plus there are no chain places, for many hours we haven’t seen one McDonald's or Wendy’s. We drive through sleepy towns that seem very temporary - they last from one hurricane to another. Wooden frames of houses filled with polystyrene don’t really have a chance when the weather gets extreme. Well, base platform (piles and 1st floor) are made from concrete, but everything above is from wood. Wind will come and blow everything, but on that platform another house can be built, as beatiful as one before.

House on stilts
Campground is situated at the very end of St. Joseph peninsula. Its small sites are sandy and narrow, but we forget all of it after a first short walk: in three minutes we are at the beach with sand so white that even in a cloudy day we need sunglasses. We spend few hours flying a kite, building sandcastles and collecting shells. Some lady we meet tells us about different kinds of shells, gives a few pieces of advice regarding our further route and lets us look through her binocular at dolphins that swim by. We go back to our trailer. There are different birds flying around, including cardinals - red Angry Birds.

Angry birds
We spend an evening drinking beer by a fire listening to tales of our Canadian neighbor. Meeting people at campgrounds is quite easy, especially if you’re not well organized, like we are, and either you need help with gas or your hose is too short. When we said we are from Poland our new friend said he likes Poles, he met them on Golan Heights where he was with UN in 1979.  After we heard that we had to invite him for a beer. 

We talked until 11 pm. Fire was nice and warm, but the wood our other neighbors left behind was making a lot of smoke. Our towels will smell like smoke for another week.

Our neighbour had some interesting stories, as when he was young he sailed on Canadian ship to Argentina, he was in Venezuela during one of military coups, he spent some time in military base in Germany, he traveled all around Middle East with UN Forces wondering around souqs in Damascus and Cairo. At Golan Heights he served with Poles and Iranians who back then were an army made of Kurdish privates and Persian officers, before the revolution swept them all. They were later replaced by Fins who were drinking so much that some of them ended up in the morgue. 

He remembered Poles for their open dislike of Soviet Union and the Red Army. And for drivers in Egypt and it was Poles who took over most of the transportation of UN back then. He told us a story how closely guarded military secrets were torn down when Canadian plane with injured Pole on board had to land in super-secret military base which everyone knew about of course. Brits didn't want to allow it bu tafter short negotiations Canadians landed anyway. Pole was treated for a while and soon after he landed in Cairo he was taken to Poland. The question is, was it for further treatment or for questioning about the secret base everyone knows exist but nobody ever been to...

Looks like it was fun to be Canadian soldier. Now with his wife they live life od typical Canadian retiree, spending 8 months in Canada and 4 travelling across southern States.

He also explained us what's the deal with not picking the fire wood in the woods. Here even outside national and state parks in many places (we admit we didn't do the research yet) you can't pick up wood. It is there, gets rotten and people buy wood fire in the store. And every once in a while there's "control fire". We've seen one when we were there. Our Canadian friend explained that first of all it's supposed to prevent spreading the pests (really? when collecting firewood?), second of all some palm trees shed their seeds only after fire (smart). Palm trees are clever beasts. In Guatemala we've seen palm trees growing inside other living trees. It looked like they were growing in hollow trunks and when they were big enough they just burst from the host.

He also told us that in Canada in some counties you can't even cut down the tree in your own yard. You have to call the authorities and they will come, cut the tree and utilize the wood. All for the sake of environment. Fascinating that all this happens in countries that don't see any problem when destroying landscape with industry (crossing Ohio river was full of landscapes like that) and controlling population of seals with wooden clubs...

Control fire
We were sad to leave St. Joseph. We'd love to stay there few more days (even despite the cold), but after all there are more states than just Florida. It's time to go west.


It is cold in St. Petersburg...

From Everglades we headed north. We want to slowly get out of Florida but on our way out we’ve decided to see Tampa and St. Petersburg. 

Unfortunately the weather was not good at all, or maybe St. Petersburg decided to become more like its Russian twin, it was cold (Florida cold) so we didn’t see too much. In St. Petersburg we went to see Salvador Dali museum The museum building itself is inspired by Salvador’s style. The longer we looked at it the more it reminded us of Warsaw shopping mall Złote Tarasy. Well, the most important things are inside. The musuem holds the largest collection of art by Salvador Dali in the world - from sketches and illustrations to most famous paintings.

Everything is very user-friendly, collections are grouped by themes, everything is described (both in writing next to paintings and on audio-guide) plus the local guides talk about the most important pieces adding many interesting facts. Maciek unfortunately got fed up  - he liked it in the beginning, after all most of Dali’s paintings look like illustrations from children books, but after an hour of looking for pianos and clocks he got impatient and after three hours he was really tired. To make it up to him we went to a playroom for kids where he made Abraham Lincoln out of plastic spoon and his dad got Dali’s moustache, and we also got some printouts for coloring.

Outside there is a maze and a wish tree – we quickly hang our wishes on the tree, ran through the maze and escaped the cold.

Kalina under the Wish Tree
We know nothing about art and we usually easily get bored in museums but in this one we could spend a few hours more. Practical tip: before you go there look for coupons, we found one for 2 USD discount per person with unfortunate delay …

After museum we went for a walk to the park. Just behind the museum, on the coast, there is a park with trees which branches change into roots and grow down into the ground. Of course we have no idea what they are called but they are pretty amazing, very photogenic and you can climb them. What Maciek liked the most that day was ice cream and half an hour at the playground.

St. Petersburg is a friendly town. It has a lot to offer: Dali museum, coast with a park, playgrounds, paths for jogging and walking. Nice and peaceful. And usually warm, as long as there is no Polish family visiting and bringing rain and cold.

From Hudson we also went to Tampa. Tamba lays on the bay called (surprise surprise) Tampa Bay and it’s famous for the bridge - Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Actually there are quite a few bridges and they are all pretty cool when you go up and up and up and even cooler when you go down and down and down. The most famous one doesn’t have too much to do with Tampa as it goes from St. Petersburg to some small towns across the bay. Fee for driving on it is only 1,25 USD, we can live with it. From both sides there are parkings and viewpoints to take pictures.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge
Maciek doesn’t really care for bridges but we do. American bridges are amazing for someone who lived most of his live in a country where almost all bridges are flat. They are like rollercoasters and defenitely deserve a separate post, maybe we will write it someday. 

Another place we went to see in Tampa was Ybor City. It’s old part of town founded in 1880 by cigar manufacturer and inhabited mostly by immigrants from Spain, Cuba and Italy. Now it’s a few blocks of pubs, clubs and vintage stores. Interesting but nothing really special. Even though it was really cold there were some people but if you’re traveling with kids and / or don’t plan clubbing you can skip it if it’s not really on your way. 


Resort holidays

Sometimes in life you get the exactly what you run away from. As we already mentioned somewhere we don’t like last minute holidays and 5 star resorts in popular touristic destinations. Meanwhile we started our adventures with rv resorts, booking the first one few hours ahead from the highway on our way south.

Going to Florida we really hoped to stay at campgrounds with Passport America discount. We ordered Passport America card before we came to States. It gives up to 50 percent discount at almost 2000 campgrounds across USA. Of course as usually details are in small print or are not there at all. Discount is usually for one or few nights and there’s no discount during high season. So in Florida we did not have much to choose from.

Long search for discounted campground in January/February which would have sites available was unsuccesful. We ended up going to the resort. First three weeks we spent on Thousand Trails/Encore campgrounds which are quite popular private rv resorts in USA. We chose them because they offered a "week for 99 USD" (120 USD after taxes), which compared to 50 USD per night in other places seemed quite a good deal. Sleeping in Florida during the season for 17 USD is not really a bad option.

Like two Eddies put togother
All three of them were very similar. They offered a few hundred sites with full hook up (electric-water-dump), they all had WiFi (or at least that’s what they said), cable TV and other great facilities. But after closer look they were very different from one another.

About first campground - Southern Palms near Eustis, which was not so much southern, more central if you look at Florida map, we wrote before. It was first so everything was new for us. In ranking we would say it was second out of those three. We liked Southern Palms because of Albert who not only was there on Sunday but also helped us to get set up and when we found out that all our cables and hoses are too short we could borrow longer ones from him. Internet signal was weak but good enough. 
Roads were even and in good condition, there were not too many permanent residents and not too many Canadians. Peace and quiet (except for the dancing on Saturday), especially that the campground was pretty far from the main roads. We didn’t use swimming pool or activity room but they were there. Sites were not paved, but we didn’t mind. There was no table outside but back then we didn’t know yet that having one is a standard.

From central Florida we went east to Space Coast, to Vero Beach. From there we could go on day trips to see the rockets and to visit friends in Ft. Lauderdale. The same offer, the same name, but the campground (Sunshine Travel RV Resort) was completely different and out of the three it was our number one. Much smaller than the previous one but louder and more full of life. Situated by the highway it was full of Canadians and short term visitors. 

We were there only for a week but at least five sites around us changed residents. The service was nice too (we got a card to laundry for free) although we didn’t see them much, when we got there on Sunday there was nobody there. We managed to get set up without any help and as everything was perfectly fine we didn’t really have to deal with anyone.

Maciek loved swimming pool, fellow residents loved Kalina. At our paved site there was brand new wooden table. There was no free Internet. Unlike the previous resort this one had a gate, but to make up for this lack of trust, there were envelopes, in case there was no one to pay to you could leave the money in the envelope. Or if you don’t pay cash there was a place to write down all the data including credit card number. And then the drop off place was an open box near the office which was outside the campground gates…*

Campground was clean, very quiet and much more social and friendly than the first one. Maybe because we spent more time there. Activity room with ping-pong, foosball and other games was pretty impressive. Long list of activities at "activity board" suggested that the room is used very sufficiently. We didn’t use it.

Encouraged by the experience we thought it can only get better (yes, people quickly get used to good stuff). Our third and last resort (mosty because there are no more Thousand Trailes in Florida) was Pioneer Village RV Resort in North Ft. Myers. It was very Pioneer. To say it nicely it was … not well maintained. Cracked roads, bushes, no internet.

We had very nice and helpful neighbors but the personnel was just not good. We were supposed to get the table on the same day we arrived, we asked for it once everyday for 5 days before we got fed up and we never got it. Cabel for TV was cut, although we didn’t care, we haven’t had TV at home for years. French was the most popular language around and sometimes it was loud but friendly loud and never after 10 pm. It wasn’t that bad but it was worse than the other two.

It looks that it’s a rule that the better is the area, the mofe friendly campground. Eustis near Ocala is pretty poor but quiet and friendly. Vero Beach is quite wealthy and north-east part of Ft. Myers is rather poor and seems not too safe. French speaking Canadians seem much louder than those English speaking. But of course we haven’t seen enough to write about anything in general.

For now we’re not planning to explore more about rv resorts. After three of them now it’s time for national parks and free camping. We will probably go to private campgrounds when we leave Florida and when the prices with Passport America discount will drop below 15 USD per night. The adventage they give over sleeping somewhere for free is that they offer dump, which makes life much easier considering that our tank is getting full after two quick showers..

*Short explanation to our American readers: the level of trust here in States in overwhelming for us. In Poland, if there was a place to just leave money or credit card number in a box it wouldn’t last too long… 


Mardi Gras on the Keys

Ignoring our son’s condition (bad parents) we’ve decided to go on a day trip to Key West. It’s over 5-hour drive from Flamingo. The road through the Keys is very picturesque, especially the Seven Mile Bridge is impressive and of course the blue sea around (although after Dominican Republic we are not that easy to satisfy when it comes to blue sea).

View from Seven Mile Bridge to old bridge structure
Unfortunately in many places along the way there are no parking or no entry signs. You can see but you cannot touch. Still, there are some places where you can get close to the water or even park for free. We parked at Islamorada public library  parking lot. It has access only to a small river but nevertheless is nice. Next islands look pretty much the same, actually they look a lot like the rest of Florida. Everything seems very temporary, which is not a surprise considering the hurricanes passing by every now and then. For sure there are no so many chain places. Shops, restaurant etc. are mostly local and you can be pretty sure you won't see them anywhere else.

Key West itself was totally different than we expected. Over last few days we’ve seen a few towns in Florida: noisy beaches and deserted downtown in Fort Myers, elegant Fort Lauderdale, fancy Sanibel. We expected something between Sanibel and Ft. Lauderdale, or some fancy, poshy place like Beverly Hills 90210, maybe with a main street full of expensive gift shops near the beach. We also thought that the sunset there will be beautiful and magic, after all it’s the furthest south point of the United States. How wrong we were! 

First of all Key West is only 90 miles from Cuba. And you can feel it very well. People from Cuba, Cuban restaurants, cigar shops, Spanish spoken everywhere. Architecture looks like in Caribbean or like in Peruvian Iquitos.

Fortunately, it hasn't gone with the wind...
We left a car few blocks from downtown, at the south-west end of Key West, scared by tales of difficulties with finding parking spot and high prices. To our surprise that was not true, maybe because of a low season. But we got to go through areas where average tourist would not go. After getting of the main street we first went through pretty wooden houses with roosters running around them...

Typical Key West resident
 ...then through black, eee, African-American neighborhood. Grills on porches, crowds of people sitting on couches outside, black lexus with tinted windows jumping from bass rap sounds passing by...

Hip-hop style...
And then, after another few blocks  it got more artistic, more hipster. Bikes instead of lexuses, hipsters instead of hip-hop fans, pubs with IPA beer instead of porches with couches.  And there was an invisible barrier both groups tried not to cross.

Hipster style
Mallory Square, which was the destination of our walk is the place to see sunset. It is at the end of main street (Duval St). And another surprise. Instead of fancy park or white sand beach with seniors wearing pastel colors and sipping chardonnay we find something looking more like a fairground. Little stands selling jewelry and seashells, guitar players, jugglers on stilts, fire swallowers and acrobats, drinks and beer are sold (Alcohol on the streets, here in the US???). And among that all there are residents of 14-stories-high cruise boat which just arrived, wealthy Canadians from nearby rv parks (60-70 USD per night), local vagabonds, artists, tramps.

We don’t see ethnical diversity any more on the square. Sexual diversity took its place. On the main street there are quite a few noisy and colorful gay bars. Key West is very gay-friendly, according to Lonely Planet, 40 percent of people who live here are gay.

Evening on Mallory Square
From Mallory Square we walk on the main street soaking in joyful atmosphere. We pass by many bars with live music and people pouring out on the streets. We are there on Mardi Gras but it looks as if in Key West every night people have fun like there’s no tomorrow. We would love to stay for a beer or two but Maciek is sick and we have a long long way ahead of us. We arrive to Flamingo after midnight once again going through forests and marshes covered with fog in total dark.