It all started when our friends Pam & Ian deserted the delights of Surrey (how could they?!) in the summer of 2000. Ian's work with Barclay's Bank required them to relocate to Miami. Pam's son, Rhodri, took the change to an American education in his stride; Pam wasn't allowed to work in the States, but soon found ways to keep herself busy in the local community, Rhodri's school, the church and the choir; and the Akhursts' British friends and relations soon discovered the benefits of having generous and willing hosts on the other side of the Atlantic.
So after much planning and re-jigging of diaries (including moving the APCM), we finally left the Rectory on Easter Monday, the first of April. This was a great day to be leaving... the clocks had gone forward by an hour the previous day - in time for the Easter Vigil to start at what was effectively 5am - and after the usual excitement and busy-ness of Holy Week, we were not a little exhausted to begin with. Heather's taxi service got us to Heathrow airport (only one return to the house, three minutes down the road, to collect Selwyn's sunglasses) for our 10am check-in; the American Airlines flight finally left at 12.30, just 35 minutes late; and off we went.
Around ten hours later, we were finally in Miami airport. The heat and humidity hit us as we stepped into the car park, and we were soon to get used to the odd sensation of rising temperature when you step outside the car or building - and the necessity of constant air-conditioning. And finally, we were in Pam & Ian's wonderful house, with its eyrie of an office for Ian up a spiral staircase, incredibly high ceilings, and windows on all sides - complete with canal running round the outside of the garden, iguanas and wonderful birdlife, palm trees, a swimming pool...
We succeeded in staying awake until 9pm, by which time (this being 3am in the UK) we'd been up for 21 hours.
Off to the Everglades
No time to laze about, though. The following day was the start of a brief holiday for Ian, and we were all off to the Everglades - a wonderful area of mangrove swamps and wildlife down to the south-west. We were staying in the Ivey House Hotel (bed & breakfast) in Everglades City, and from here we had a wonderful five days.
Corkscrew Swamp is an amazing "wildlife preserve". The boardwalk took us past all manner of birds. Several types of heron: the Great Blue, the Little Blue, the Tri-coloured, the Night and the Green. There were egrets, ibis, owls; and a white-eyed virio, like a finch, who (deliberately, I think) defeated my best efforts at capturing him on film! A telescope was trained on the nest containing the osprey and her chick; beautiful airplants were in the trees; and, of course, alligators in the lake.
There had been a heavy cloudburst on our arrival (finished in ten minutes and dried up in fifteen), but this made the walk only more atmospheric through the trees hung with Spanish moss. This lovely day was concluded with a tremendous sunset on the way back to the B&B - great opportunity to use up lots of film.
We went kayaking, too - yes, honestly! Our guide, Bobby, took us and another family first on a brief "hike" - more of an amble, really - through some of the local forestland, where we identified puma tracks and saw an alligator skeleton.
A slow drive down the side of a creek showed us red-shouldered hawks, ospreys, many more alligators, and several more herons.
Our expedition had been planned in some freshwater areas, but the lack of recent rain made it too dry, so instead we went to Halfway Creek, which is brackish - half-and-half salt and fresh water. Murder on the contact lenses... A vividly hot, blue day, totally still and quiet, paddling over five miles through the mangrove swamps. Very little wildlife around on this occasion, in fact - we didn't have to beat the 'gators off with the paddles - but a beautiful and unmissable experience. This trip was mostly responsible for our sunburn...
Meeting American relatives
We realised that, whilst in the USA, we couldn't pass up the opportunity of meeting some of our friends over there. The first such meeting was with Bob & Erica Adams. Bob is a (very, very) distant relative of Selwyn's - his mother was a Tillett; so we met for lunch in Fort Myers, and had a lovely time swapping stories. It was a real delight to meet them, after so many e-mails exchanged over genealogical research.
That same evening, we returned to Everglade City via Naples. No similarity to its European equivalent! It felt most like a giant Covent Garden, with extraordinarily lovely and (mostly) expensive shops; a beach full of surfers and "beautiful people" (and a strong wind which threatened all the hats); and, finally, down to Tin City for supper, which is a boardwalked "mall" full of music, cafes and gifts. It was there that we treated ourselves to a wooden egret, who now is a permanent reminder of one of our favourite sights. Another very special memento was an poster of the photography of Clyde Butcher, whose Big Cypress Gallery is in the Everglades. His large-format black-and-white photos of the wilder parts of Florida are simply stunning, capturing an extraordinarily beautiful place.
We also took a boat trip out to the "ten thousand islands" - little patches of land across a huge amount of water - for more of our favourite wildlife. Here I succeeded in photographing an osprey with his lunch between his claws; and, better still, we saw our dolphins. The dark shapes ahead came closer, and suddenly there were three of them, leaping from the water in perfect synchronisation - showing off something terrible, of course. I managed to catch just one of them on film; it was a very moving experience to see these gorgeous creatures.
The airboat ride
Before leaving the Everglades, we had one particularly special treat: a night-time airboat ride, booked specially for Pam's birthday. Joined by their Australian friends Amanda and Ken, we left at sunset with our guide, Johnny Tigertail, who is one of the Miccosukee Indian tribe. (We'd also visited the Miccosukee village earlier that day - didn't much enjoy the spectacle of alligator-wrestling, though.)
The speed and noise of the airboat, rushing over the swamps, is an incredible experience - you have to wear ear-muffs! We went to the "hammock" (a sort of village on stilts) which has belonged to Johnny's family for many years to see the sunset, hear about the lives of the Indians, and to meet Mama-gator - the alligator who has known Johnny all her life, and comes to his call to be fed hot-dogs...
Then it was back onto the airboat in the dark, Johnny having put a miner's lamp arrangement on his head, in order to pick out the eyes of the 'gators in the swamp. Which he did. We paused every so often to watch these wonderful creatures, ranging from fully-grown brutes of about 10 feet, down to babies of about six inches long.
We stopped in one place, and Johnny scooped his hand into the water, bringing up a tiny baby 'gator (having first used a special "call" to check that Mama wasn't around), who was then passed around the boat. Once he'd got used to the idea, the little fellow seemed quite happy to be examined and shown to the cameras.
The birds, of course, were all asleep by now, but we did see one heron that raised his head very suddenly in the spotlight, looking deeply indignant that we'd woken him up!
St Thomas' Episcopal Church
Then it was back to Miami, and our first experience of St Thomas' Episcopal Church, Coral Gables, where Pam & Ian have worshipped during their time in the States. It's the only time we were ever cold! A large, impressive building, with beautiful stained glass, a massive cross dominating the back wall, a very good choir (which Pam & Ian, of course, belong to), and a friendly, active congregation. Father Roger Tobin and his wife Jan came to the Akhursts' for supper a few days later, and we very much enjoyed their company.
The church shares a love of music with St Mary's, and we were delighted to be able to see a concert given by some of the local music and drama students. These are budding young professionals, and they well deserve to succeed. There was a string quartet from Florida International University, the Opera Theatre Ensemble from the New World School of the Arts, and a particularly stunning young pianist - she played Debussy and Chopin in a way that made you suspect that she had an extra pair of hands concealed somewhere. She also played earlier in the programme than planned, as she hadn't realised that she was double-booked to play in the Pavarotti concert on the other side of town...
Another "cultural experience" was at the New World School, where we saw the play of The Marriage of Figaro by Beaumarchais, but including some of the Mozart arias for good measure - very well done, and great fun.
Whilst Ian returned to work and Rhodri to school, Pam took us around some of the more local sights. The Fairchild Tropical Gardens are as stunning as they sound, with turtles and iguanas between the waterfalls and palm trees; Vizcaya is a quite extraordinary stately home in the middle of Miami (created by an eccentric businessman, James Deering, in the early twentieth century) - full of European paintings, tapestries and furniture, it is now often used to host impressive political and social occasions. ("The last time I walked down this path, it had a red carpet on it", said Pam...)
And then, of course, there was Parrot Jungle. It's what it sounds like - a great (big) kids' paradise of not just parrots (in and out of cages) and their relatives in the minah, toucan and finch families, but also flamingos, peacocks, cranes and assorted apes and monkeys. Wonderful fun.
A visit to Mount Dora
Our other visit to American friends took a summoning of courage. The Americans don't really do public transport (or walking - there aren't many sidewalks [pavements] to be found). So when we considered the possibility of visiting our friends Warner & Lois Brown in Mount Dora, which is northwest of Orlando and about 250 miles from Miami, it meant hiring a car... Selwyn was the brave one, and he drove us all along the "Florida Turnpike" (which actually means a large motorway over there) in our white sporty effort (no gears, either).
Selwyn had met Warner & Lois during one of the Nile cruises on which he used to lecture in the 1980s. They retired from their Chicago home to Mount Dora some twelve years ago, bought the plot and designed their own charming home, which feels exactly right for them: restful, welcoming and full of good things. Warner is a poet and an artist in his retirement (having been a teacher in his working life), and a very good one; we were especially pleased and touched when he gave us a copy of his privately-printed, limited-edition, illustrated volume of verse about the birdlife of Lake Dora.
We were also glad to meet Warner's lovely sister, Char, who was visiting them from Chicago. She's a very special lady who, at eighty years old, reminds you of how dignity, intelligence, humour and charm, set on a firm and quiet faith, shows how life is meant to be. Oh, and she's been using the Internet and e-mail since long before most of us got that far!
Mount Dora is a charming town, sited on the edge of Lake Dora with yet more wonderful wildlife. Here we met our first mockingbirds, and were woken by them the following morning; and lots of grackles (shiny blue-black males, very noisy, somewhere between a magpie and a starling in personality); and a blue-tailed skink (a sort of brightly coloured worm). The private boardwalk in High Point, where Warner and Lois live, is atmospheric, beautiful and quiet; there is also a public boardwalk round the other side of the woods. Here we saw at fairly close quarters (but not, alas, enough to photograph) the beautiful Red Cardinal - totally vivid scarlet.
We had a wonderful dinner at the Goblin Market restaurant - one of the best menus we've seen for ages - and were enchanted by Warner's readings, back at home, both from his own book and from the winning entries in the recent Mount Dora Festival of Music & Literature. We took some very special memories away with us.
Our final day in Miami was particularly special. After church in the morning (a baptism and confirmation service with the Bishop), we went to the Rusty Pelican for brunch: an amazing place on the bay in Miami, with stunning views of the boats in the sunshine, the most fantastic buffet ("eat-all-you-want") we'd ever seen, a huge ice sculpture of a pelican on the dessert table, and bucks fizz - oh, and a violin-and-squeezebox entertainment (which was certainly rusty)...! An extraordinary and thrilling way to conclude.
Well, not quite conclude. That evening, Selwyn got on the flight to Heathrow one day in advance of me - because he had a Synod meeting to attend... there's devotion to duty! My last day was worth hanging on for. Rhodri's school was holding a Literary Lunch. The mothers decorate tables in their choice of themes - crockery, flower arrangements, table linen all in keeping - some of the most spectacular table settings I'd ever seen. My favourite was the Japanese table, with its beautiful black crockery, place settings on leaf skeletons, bamboo centrepiece - which was set in a large glass bowl with real goldfish swimming around in it... Pam, with her friend Bronwen, had created the Falcon's Nest (in honour of the school sports team), with fudge brownies and hot dogs in a huge nest on a striped blue and yellow pole, and sports shirts on the chairs. A great fund-raising idea - I might just suggest it to the PCC...
More special still was the speaker. Revd Donna Schaper spoke on Sabbath Sense - not just the formal religious meaning, in all faiths, but in the everyday sense of keeping time for ourselves and for God. I've never seen more nods of agreement from an audience. I bought the little book she's published on the subject, and have found it very inspiring.
I left Miami's heat the following evening, arriving in London on a real spring day. What a wonderful, colourful, stunning cornucopia of sights and sounds and memories. We can't thank Pam & Ian enough for their generous hospitality, and for such glorious experiences of a country that we never imagined we'd have the chance to visit. We just hope that they can enjoy the very different charms of rural Surrey on their return to the UK later this year.