Day 11 – Florida Roadtrip – Chassahowitzka River, FL

The girl was indeed still there, so Timofei was happy while we were packing up. It was time to leave the Keys and start heading north again. It was a long drive all the way north of Tampa, to a campground at the Chassahowitzka River. The drive was pretty uneventful except for the usual entertainment provided by Timofei and Yelisei.

The campground was in a gorgeous swampy forest with lots of Armadillos and Raccoons and it was pretty empty, except that we ended up next to three college boys who were pretty nice initially but then got more and more drunk until one of them thought it would be cool to run screaming after an Amadillo, with a machete in hand…

Their drunken loud chatter was pretty annoying – we told them twice to keep it down, but it was of course useless. Eventually, their chief moron passed out at midnight and so did his followers. Thankfully, the next day made up for it though.

Day 10 – Florida Roadtrip – Bahia Honda State Park, FL

When we woke up that morning, Renzo wanted to go to church for Easter service. He unloaded the car so we have everything we need for breakfast and drove off. I started making pancakes. I mixed up the batter while Timofei and Yelisei were asking every 15 seconds: are they ready, are they ready, are they ready? I am starting the stove only to realize that it is out of fuel and Renzo took it to church. Luckily, he left the charcoal but charcoal needs time before it is ready to cook on. I was so mad!

Though Long Key was a terrific spot for camping, our kids could not swim there. When we arrived the tide was low and they were afraid to go to the water edge because of all the mud and seaweed and critters in the muck. When the tide was up, we had to pack up and leave but not before we took a short hike on the boardwalk trail. It started off as mangrove, then we crossed a river and found charming picnic spots on the water edge under trees. There was no one there. I could not think of a better picnic spot. It was under awnings surrounded by trees with water and even had an open shower to cool of. It was beautiful.

Then we went on the trail that said it was an hour long through different coastal community’s of plants. We went only for 10 mins and our boys were hot and exhausted. We were next to the water so I decided to dip them into the water. The alligators did not see that.

The next night we were staying at Bahia Honda State Park. We arrived there around 3 pm, briefly checked out our spot and went straight to the beach. Finally, it was a real beach! With sand, blue and salty water. Timofei and Yelisei had a blast! The water was cool but it was hot enough on the beach to warm up quickly. Reluctantly, we left at 5:30 pm to set up our camp.

On the campsite next to ours there was a family with two children. Timofei went to play with them as I was making dinner. God bless that family! They did an egg hunt with cash inside an egg. Renzo did not approve of cash in Easter eggs but I thought it is better than candy.

Our campsite was next to the boat dock where four pelicans and one beautiful white crane-like bird were hanging out. Fishing boats were coming in and out. Children were playing there as well. The water was so clear that you could see foot long fish swimming. Pelicans came up to you so close that you could see five different colors and kinds of feathers that they had on their heads and neck. Chocolate brown on the back, yellowish on top black and gray in between. Their beak was so long that the tip of it was always in the water. Until then I considered them to be ugly birds. But now I can see their beauty.

The campsite by the dock had one disadvantage. The boats were coming in as late as 1 am! But it was brief and Renzo did not even wake up for that.
“Is the girl still here?” Timofei asked when he woke up.

Day 9 – Florida Roadtrip – Key West, FL

“Are the little girls still there?” Timofei asked as soon as he woke up. After traveling for a week, our boys have missed other children. But the very close quarters of Boyd’s campground in Key West were very indusive for making connections. Five yards away from us was a very nice family with two girls. One was eight and her sister was five. Timofei was running after the older one and Yelisei was following the younger one. They were running in circles and squealing like pigs all evening and all morning. That alone made up for all inconvenience of close neighbors and high price. The girls’ family had spent 2 1/2 years in Germany, so the father was very eager to show off his German that he learned. Everybody had fun after all.

I never noticed it before but apparently the chicken are wild in Key West. Those roosters that woke us up that morning were calling from all around us. So I was thinking, it is strange how popular it is to keep chicken around here. It turned out no one owns those chicken! They roam the streets on their own! We saw them all over Key West, even little chicks. I was so curious about this that I asked a cashier at a gas station about it. She said that she heard that they used to be fighting cocks which then went wild.

Since our neighbors were leaving in the morning and they were the only nice thing there, Renzo was looking for just about any other spot for the next night. At midnight he managed to find and book one spot for one night in Long Key State Park. Earlier that day I made a reservation for Sunday night at Bahia Honda State Park. It looked like our Easter weekend was not a complete disaster after all.

Following recommendation of our nice neighbors for the nicest beach we went to Higgs Beach in Key West for an afternoon of beach time.

I can not say that Key West has the world’s nicest beaches but there was sand, a bathroom and water to swim in, though it was on the cold side. That is all you need for our kids to be happy.

We set up our chairs under a tree next to a picnic table. At that picnic table sat an older woman. She was from some Muslim country but I could not place it from which one. Her dress had a blue under dress with a beautiful fine batik print and black and brown embroidered robe like over dress. She had a beautiful dark face with black brows that almost met. She was reading something that looked like a prayer book. It tuned out that this lady was from Uzbekistan and spoke perfect Russian. She was so happy to speak to us. She did not speak English and Russian was the only foreign language that she knew. She was in Key West for two months visiting her son. But he works as well as her Uzbekistan girlfriends.

We spoke a bit and I mentioned how much I liked this certain kind of cheese that they have in her country. She opened her bag and pulled out a bag with that cheese! She gave me some -and there I was, eating an Uzbekistan delicacy on Higgs Beach in Key West, speaking Russian to a woman in a head scarf!!

Just then I saw a family with two children of Timofei’s age walking onto the beach. I thought that maybe Timofei can play with those kids. Then the father of that family turns to me and says: Ksenia? And then I recognized them. I know them from New York!!!! And they are Russian!

Though I speak English I still prefer Russian company. We all spent a fantastic afternoon on the beach. Rashid, the husband of the Russian family, was the first one in the water. It was cold to enter but once you where in it was very nice. Even our chicken children went in, probably being impressed by Rashid’s twins.

The Uzbekistan woman was afraid to go into the water by herself since she could not swim and the bottom was rocky and she was afraid to fall. I went with her hand in hand into the water. She was wearing some kind of purple pajama and her head scarf was fully covering her neck. As Renzo pointed out later, we were quite a spectacle for the entire beach. I guess they have never seen a Muslim woman holding hands with white chick with pink hair enter the cold waters of the Atlantic ocean. I have to say: me neither.

Unfortunately, we had to leave this Russian speaking paradise and go find something to eat. We ignored the recommended Uzbek restaurant that just opened in Key West as well as the seaport fish places. We felt like Cuban food. So we whipped out our iPhone and opened good old Yelp. First try was a miss – it turned out to be a window deli next to coin laundry. We wanted authentic but not that pedestrian. But the second hit was a winner.

Habana 1 it was called. The walls were covered with mostly portrait paintings. Timofei said that he did not like those because the people all had long necks. I liked them because almost all people on those paintings had long necks. We ordered steak, a tropical medley and grilled fish. Everything came with the most beautiful orange colored rice and black beans.

Everything was exceptionally good especially the rice and beans. Usually I am not a big fan of rice and beans but this one was a piece of art! The rice had a hint of saffron taste and the beans had a very delicate blend of spice and were firm in broth with bay leaf and something else that I could not tell what it was. We cleaned up all the plates!
What a day!

Then we were off to Long Key State Park. This park had 54 campsites all waterfront and all very big with trees in between. After That private campground in Key West, it felt like coming back to paradise. This is the only campground that I have seen that had no bad sites. Even as we were next to the bathroom, it had so much space it was very nice. Usually we pick the furthest spot from the bathroom to avoid high traffic and the light that shines all night.

Finally, we had a good night’s sleep again. But only to be ruined in the morning by an Easter morning gone bad…

Day 8 – Florida Roadtrip – Homestead, FL

God’s miracles come in different shapes and sizes. When we returned from our 50 mile one way trip to get some fire wood, guess what we found? A pile of wood – enough to burn all evening. Apparently the park rangers were doing some work in the woods and though they were not very friendly when we asked them where one gets some wood here, they remembered and brought us some. We were all set with vegetables for dinner and fire wood for warmth.

I was worried for a second about our new neighbors last night when it was clueless teenage girls, but this next night it was a wholesome American family with three teenage girls. It went well though, all things considered. The next morning after we had our breakfast and packed, we were on a trail by 10:30am. We took an easy half a mile loop around a pond. There was a lot of butterflies and some beautiful birds. Though it was short, it still took some convincing for our kids to move forward.

Next on our program was the alligator farm in Homestead, FL. I generally don’t think of alligators as cute but the new hatchlings were just that, very cute.

We went to this same farm 10 years ago with Renzo. It was really nice to return there with kids. At Renzo’s insistence we sat on the first row of a air boat ride and got predictably wet. Timofei loved it, Yelisei not so much.

Next was lunch. On our way we saw a small shack that said: you have seen the alligators, now you can eat them. Lured by an Italian flag outside we went for it. That was THE BEST alligator meat I have ever tried. Very nice!

Now we only had an hour and a half drive to Key Largo and we would possibly be swimming in the ocean!

A word of advice from the BIGGEST losers yours truly: Make reservations for a state park in the Florida Keys on an Easter weekend! What we missed out completely is that today was Friday. What were we thinking?? Frantically we started calling all campgrounds in the Keys. Private and not. On Reserve America they said that Bahia Honda had the last two spots available, but they are walk in and you can not make a reservation. Also, you can not make reservation on the same day at all.

So we took off to Bahia Honda State Park to try our luck. After an 1 1/2 hr drive it was full and we were the 30th campers coming to this bitch with a burned nose with that question. We started frantically calling again. By now it is 5:30 and the kids are hungry and both of them want to poop. As Renzo is making phone calls, I went to ask the burned nose for the bathroom. She asked us to pay $9 to enter the park. Luckily we had a portable potty that Yelisei used. Now what to do with the bag of poop? I had to force myself not to leave it with Mrs. Burned Nose at her door.

Finally we got lucky. A campground that had one free space! For $80! I thought that $30 was expensive. It turned out to be $60 when we came there. Maybe some consider that a bargain but it’s still a rip-off for what you get: about 12 square meters of space with neighbors so close, you can hear them breathe. We actually didn’t quite know how to fit our car and our tent into the space, it was ridiculous.

To top it off, our neighbors arrived at midnight, talking and laughing loudly as they set up their tent and them some crazy rooster started calling his hens at 4 am every few seconds untill 6 am. What a night!

And yet… after all this punishment and torture, the next day made up for it all!

Day 7 – Florida Roadtrip – Everglades National Park, FL

We got to the Everglades last night early enough to be done with dinner and all packed up by 8 pm. Unfortunately we could not enjoy sitting by the fire since there was no firewood for sale anywhere. There were many campers searching the woods for fallen branches so there was none left by the time we got around to it. It was an early night.

When we woke up it was just as cold as in Ocala but it warmed up very fast when the sun came up. This is my least favorite campground. You are camping in an open field. There are trees here and there but you can see and hear everyone. I could see the teenage girl in her leopard print FOOTED PJs and hear a four year old girl crying and calling Mommy! Mommy! Every 5 minutes. She was camping with her dad and three siblings! That dad wins a medal for patience in my book. We were done with breakfast by 9:30 and were on a boat tour by 10 am. I love the mangrove forest. I think it will be nice to go on a canoe trip here in five years.

The bad: all the food in the cafe is deep fried, there is no coal or wood for sale except at the marina store where you can get three logs for $6! So we decided to go 50 miles to the nearest store instead…