Pirates, monks, and carnies galore…
Due to lack of planning, curious luck, and serendipity I have ended up bouncing from north to south and coast to coast quite a bit during my time in Florida. I found myself in Tampa on three different occasions. Although I can’t say much on the city itself, the three attractions I stumbled upon were worth the rerouting.
Gasparilla. In exchange for a night of experiencing what van life is really like, a friend from upstate split a hotel room in a not-so-pleasant area of Tampa with me so I, on the other hand, could get a night away from van life. Waiting for the room to be ready I learned that I happened to be in town on the rowdiest night of the year- Gasparilla. Joe Gaspar was a pirate based out of southern Florida in the 18th and 19th century who ruled the Spanish waters. He was eventually defeated by a US navy ship. When the city tried to hold a celebration for the victory, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla surprised the city with a mock pirate attack. To this day every January a pirate invasion occurs in the district of Ybor City, only these days its maintained in an orderly parade. People flock to the streets decked out in their pirate gear to take part in the invasion. We unfortunately missed the parade but were able to partake in the night life and meet a few pirates lingering behind from the day’s festivities. By 3 am we found ourselves dancing among a mass of people at a local a gay bar with the friendliest pirates I have ever encountered. Due to the copious amounts of alcohol it took to keep up with these bandits, we spent the next 3 hours lost wandering the streets of Tampa in the pouring rain trying to scavenge a ride home.
My next visit to Tampa found me in a world of polar opposition to the chaos and pirates found on the streets of Ybor City. Enter the Wat Mongkolratanaram, a Buddhist temple that is so much more than a house of meditation. Every Sunday people of every race, religion, and background gather on the grounds to indulge in fresh made Thai dishes, tasty deserts, and bubble tea.
At the front of the lot is a beautifully adorned white and gold temple where individuals can sit on mats and meditate while listening to life advice from speakers on the mic. Running parallel to the temple is a market filled with flowers, herbs, and crafts for sale. There are kitchens making cultural cuisine and artisans displaying their unique skills such as carving beautiful bouquets out of melons. The back of the lot was filled with picnic benches overlooking the water.
There was a peaceful and friendly vibe in the air. It was easy to meet people as everyone seemed to be riding the same wave of serenity and feeling the sense of community among the hundreds of strangers gathered on the lot. A couple who shared a bench with us while munching on different rice and noodle combinations were generous enough to offer us half of their desert, a banana-pudding-like-cookie sprinkled with shaved coconut. A must try if you ever find yourself in a Thai eatery.
My last stop in Tampa was an impulsive left turn out of a gas station on a trip from St. Petersburg to Daytona Beach towards the sound of music and the lights of a Ferris wheel. Minutes later my temporary carmate and I found ourselves in a maze of exhilaration dancing and running through the Florida State Fair. Carnivals and street fests are my favorite, but I had never seen anything like this before. The fair grounds seemed to go on forever with a dreamlike setting- adults swarming the streets like kids dancing, playing games, and riding carnival rides. There were markets set up in every which corner handing out free samples of honey, dips, and frozen wine slushies. Endless food trucks filled the air with an aroma that could not be ignored. Fried dough, fried candy, fried pop-tarts, fried vegetables. You name it, they were deep frying it. There was a circus, a roller coaster, at least three Ferris wheels, live music, carnival rides, and an endless assortment of games and small souvenir tents. My carmate was nice enough to buy me a crochet bracelet to remember the evening and a 3-D thank you card handmade by a Japanese artisan to send back home to a relative who helped stop my trip from coming to an early end (article 9: St. Petersburg). We bought tickets to a carnival ride that sent us upside down, spinning, and flying through the air, the most intense carnival ride I’ve experienced to date. And on our way out a friendly carny waved us on to a spinning cart ride that left us stumbling all the way to parking lot.
Though I am yet to see the streets of Tampa Bay, I can say the city has yet to cease to amaze me. I’m curious to see what adventures it will hold next time I stumble into its graces.