Miami; Glitz, glamour and shiny people. The sparkling city below sea level, which scientists have been claiming will likely eventually drown, stands on its’ own stiletto-wearing feet (pun intended).
To be completely transparent, I always pictured Miami as a city slightly more obscene, more open and just as rich as conservative Kuwait, which is where I grew up. Many Middle-Eastern people I know love Miami, because the weather is a milder version of the heat they’re used to. While it lingered on a list of cities I wanted to see, it never really made it to the top tier of my must-go-tos. Generically American with a twist of Cuba, as I saw it.
My temporary obsession with electronic dance music though took me there for the Ultra Music Festival. With some of the best, seasoned and new artists gracing the event’s stages every year, it was a stop in my four-month travel stint.
Everything in Miami goes up significantly for Ultra weekend, so I started searching for accommodation a year in advance. Hotels were going for about $400 USD per night and there was no way I could justify the cost unless I had travel companions–which I didn’t. I knew food was going to be expensive since I wasn’t familiar with cheap eats in the city having never been there, and public transportation seemed spotty. The ride-share apps did offer communal ride sharing though, which definitely cut my costs.
After a few months of searching, I came across a co-working space called Roam, unfortunately now defunct, located on the fringe of Little Havana. Guests mostly consisted of digital nomads. The price was decent, but it came with a minimum one-week stay which I was happy to book. I wanted to stay in Miami longer, but I had a 6-week lease on a house in New Orleans smack in the middle of Ultra, so I had to minimize paying for two places. One week it was.
I was going to Miami.
During my downtime when I wasn’t stage-hopping at Ultra, I took time to visit a few local neighbourhoods.
Calle Ocho, Little Havana
Calle Ocho is the centre of Little Havana, a fascinating Cuban diaspora. I walked into a bakery that sold one-dollar guava jelly-filled empanadas, with the woman telling me in Spanish that they only took cash. I gave her a blank look. “Yo no hablo Espanol senora,” I said to her. “But you look like a Latina!” We both smiled.
While Calle Ochoco has a local feel, no one is fooled into thinking it doesn’t attract tourists. The gigantic buses were obnoxiously parked on the street, food places hiked their prices, and some (but not all) coffee houses selling cafecitos had cheesy tourist cups and souvenirs that made me slightly cringe. But, we live in a commerce-driven world, and I don’t fault them for wanting to make money–it’s part of life.
There were lovely art galleries that sold work by local artists, and to this day I regret not purchasing a mesmerizing painting of a woman’s golden legs in high heels. The street art was refreshing; I loved the murals featuring BIPOC women.
You could say Calle Ocho had what I like to call manufactured authenticity; a place that wants to make visitors feel like they’re experiencing a true part of Miami. One local I was chatting with mentioned that although Calle Ocho has old-world immigrant charm, many of its’ inhabitants are now third-generation Cuban-Americans, and those who fled Cuba during the Castro regime are dying out. This definitely changes the cultural landscape of any place after decades. As a global citizen, I’ve seen cities and towns significantly transform.
It got me thinking about how our travels freeze a place in our memories. The Philippines when I was nine is no longer the Philippines I visited when I returned at thirty-six. The same goes for Kuwait and Toronto, places I lived in or visited and returned to. While the small incremental shifts seem innocuous, over time they are significant. Very few places stand still in time. New Orleans perhaps, but I wouldn’t even say that’s definitive. In many metropolitan cities, centuries-old buildings are demolished in favour of building condos for profit.
I checked out the Azucar Ice Cream Company and got a scoop of their signature flavour, Abuela Maria. It had ruby red guava chunks, cream cheese, guava marmalade and maria cookies, all stuffed into vanilla ice cream. I was not disappointed. The problem with a lot of ice-cream places is that while the quality of the ingredients can make or break an establishment, the flavour combinations are almost always the same and are rarely unique. As someone who has actively sought and eaten thousands of scoops of ice cream in countless cities, I can tell you that very few are memorable. Maria Abuela is one of them: they used good ingredients and the flavours concocted together are something I hadn’t seen before.
A highlight of my trip was to Versailles, a Cuban bakery and restaurant. Walking into the space was going back in time. The decor was something out of the 1970s with mirrors for walls. I had a Ropa Vieja, the Cuban national dish. The waiters were fast, efficient and friendly, and even though my dish was slightly cold, my taste buds marvelled in the spices infusing the meat. I took a few pastries to go, biting into some guava-flavoured goodness. I was loving guava on this trip. Maybe a little too much.
I regret not being able to go to Viernes Culturales since it clashed with my Ultra activities. Definitely next time!
The Road to Wynwood
But what else did I like about Miami? Sure, being there for only a week classifies it as a fast travel trip, but because I was alone, it allowed me to observe the city a little closer.
One particular walk I remember making was from my accommodation to the Wynwood area, a very trendy arts district. I had time to meander there, opting not to take an Uber. I didn’t know what neighbourhood I was walking through, but it was broad daylight, so I didn’t worry.
The walk forced me to walk through a poor area. The neighbourhood infrastructure wasn’t well maintained; homes were shabby and there were school-aged children walking around in the middle of the weekday. Homes were shabby and I saw old women sitting outside their homes looking at me with open curiosity. I stuck out like a sore thumb.
When I emerged into Wynwood–which turned out to be a little too hipster for me–I was astounded at how drastic the shift was. From a low-income area to one where you could easily charge fifteen dollars for a basic cocktail in the space of a few blocks was a clear sign of gentrification.
Again, manufactured authenticity ensued. Wynwood is known for its’ street art, which did not disappoint, but a blanket of globalization was everywhere. To me, the essence of being a global citizen is understanding that experiencing locality is critical to getting to know the world in every place you visit.
The unnerving side of globalization is that its’ attempt at universal appeal makes everything look the same. Yes, there were street artists who were world-renown. But I wanted to see more Miami artists. Or maybe they were sent to the fringes, away from the tourists who wanted what we could call ‘familiar authenticity’. In other words, you like that taco because you know what a taco is, but the restaurant won’t serve it with unusual spices you may not be familiar with, and therefore might not like.
While Miami Beach had the usual souvenir stores and global fashion chains, Ocean Drive’s retro art deco brought the old soul smile out of me. I was reminded of Birdcage the movie with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. This was definitely a party area. What was odd was that stores weren’t allowed to sell hard liquor after 8pm (the laws may have changed since then). Makes sense, considering the high-risk behaviour of many college-age party goers.
Miami Beach is incredibly touristy and while I enjoyed hanging out at Mango’s Tropical Cafe watching explosive performances and listening to upbeat music, I felt stuck in a tourist trap that was charging me too much for drinks. Trotting a few doors down, I walked away after a cashier told me their slice of pizza was $8. There’s profiteering, and there’s just plain extortion #thanksbutnothanks.
Final Thoughts on Magic City
Many neighbourhoods went unexplored in my short time in Miami. My Lyft driver told me not to miss Little Haiti. Also, after my experience with explosive guava-flavoured ice cream, I was forlorn looking at a map I created for myself, having run out of time to go to another ice cream place a little further out. I would love the chance to visit neighbourhoods that promised even more unique flavours.
If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you know I love experiencing sunsets; I’ve talked about Atlanta and Texas…and Miami was no exception. The golden hour touched my skin with little invasion; it wasn’t the piercing feeling I experience when I was in the Northern part of the continent. In Miami, I just…baked, not sizzle-fried.
Now that I frequent the Caribbean because my partner lives in Puerto Rico, it’s highly likely I’ll visit Miami again even just through an occasional layover. And I look forward to seeing its edges and digging deeper into what other stories it can tell me.