A dizzying but fun-filled, almost magical holiday in Orange Park, Jacksonville Beach and Orlando, in Florida reunites a resident-in-training with his two other siblings based in the United States
Text and Photos By Thaddeus C. Hinunangan, MD
If I close my eyes, I could still feel it: the warm wind on my face, the salt on my lips, and the never-ending sun that seemed to shine even on evenings. I’ve lived in the Philippines all my life. Visiting my brother in Jacksonville, Florida was a smooth transition because of the seemingly tropical climate. Unlike say, the shocking New York chill when I went outside John F. Kennedy airport to accompany my brother Tye as he puffed a smoke.
Florida was a haven for European tourists and a lot of retirees because of its warm weather almost all year long. When I arrived at Jacksonville Airport, I was greeted by my aunt from Texas and my brother Ted who whose graduation I was to attend. We drove down the freeway lined by palm trees, with cars racing through it like a Daytona rally. It was 7:00 p.m. in the evening but the sun seemed to be high up that I thought it was just 4:00 p.m. Admittedly I was still in a haze because of jetlag.
My brother lived in the outskirts of Jacksonville City in a lovely residential community in Orange Park. His walk-up apartment was a one-bedroom cozy space with central air conditioning and a terrace. My aunt had taken over Ted’s bedroom, so the three of us brothers camped in the living room. We had less than ten days, which meant every single day had to be maximized. Our plan was Orange Park-Jacksonville Beach-Orlando. I had long wanted to gaze upon colonial houses in Savannah, Georgia, but given the limited time we couldn’t drive there and tour the streets of historic Savannah.
The first few days were devoted to my brother Ted’s baccalaureate graduation and commissioning as a United States Navy Officer held at the Swisher theater in Jacksonville University. The graduation was a solemn event on the campus grounds with over a thousand people in attendance, including a United States senator. The weather was balmy and girls in togas over summer dresses walked with their beaming parents to the reception area. Ted was among the few students who were part of military service, wearing their respective uniforms and medals on their chests.
Every single night, Ted treated us to a different restaurant from the ubiquitous Red Lobster to the divine Terra Gaucha. On other days we would bake salmon or boil crayfish which I have never tried before. Jacksonville Landing offered a couple of clubs and more restaurants, and across the lovely John Alsop bridge, all lit up in blue lights, over St. John’s river, was Friendship park. There were several locals and tourists out sight-seeing too. The gigantic fountain on the park surrounded by benches had a lovely view of the city lights of downtown Jacksonville reflected on the river.
On the boardwalk
I was curious about the beaches of Florida, eager to compare it with the turquoise waters of Samar, or the white sand islands of Cuatro Islas of Leyte. We drove to Jacksonville Beach and had our lunch at a crab shack with an awesome view of the beach. There were several hotel buildings fronting the beach, among them a Four Points Sheraton. It was my first time to try king crab which was extremely gigantic, served with corn on the cob and potatoes. I had to ask for rice, which is the staple food in any Filipino dish, but it wasn’t the same. Not the wonderful soft boiled, pleasant tasting rice that complimented Filipino dishes with rich sauces, but a longer grained variety that tasted differently. Or maybe I was just home sick? I thought.
We took a walk on the beach with its wide expanse of sand dunes and large waves that crashed on the shore. There were a few beach-goers sunbathing, and a beach patrol rolling across the sand but otherwise, the place was devoid of people. The wind whipped our faces. I could feel the rough grains of sand between my toes, not quite the powder-fine Boracay white sand, but pleasant enough. My brother said there were sharks in the water. That was mainly why I never took a dip
Orlando was known for its massive theme parks, the largest among them Disney world resort, plus Universal studios and Six flags. I told my younger brothers I’m not really into theme parks so we compromised by having equal parts nature, science and thrill rides. First on the list was a visit to the famous Florida everglades. It is basically a slow-moving river about a hundred miles long surrounded by sawgrass marshes.
Our airboat was operated by a burly man in military coveralls who oriented tourists on what to do and what not to do while on the boat. The boat captain indicated that we wear headphones to reduce the overpowering noise from the large propeller behind the boat. Before we even started with the tour, we spotted two adult alligators, with only a portion of their heads and backs visible, barely clearing the water.
As the propeller started churning, the Indian child who sat a row in front of us shrieked and buried her head on her father’s chest. Her parents had to calm her down before our boat skimmed the water surface at high speed. The river snaked across the wet grasslands, and I marveled how cattle could graze on the grassland with alligators prowling the river.
Amazingly enough, our captain said he had never seen an alligator chomp on a cow’s leg. In fact, a sad reality was that global warming had caused drought to the area and the change in the environment had been negatively impacting the alligators. They were now fewer in number.
The weather was incredibly unpredictable, as one moment it was sunny, and the next thing we knew it was raining cats and dogs and our captain gave us world resort, plus Universal thing raincoats to protect ourselves from the rain.
By the time we got back to the tour bus, my pants and shoes were wet from the rain. However, the tour must go on, so we boarded our bus to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
As children, our mother bought us a couple of encyclopedias and my fondest memories was pouring over those books on speed, rockets, and space stations. You can just imagine my elation seeing these rockets and space shuttles just a few meters away.
The quest for space was man’s dream to conquer beyond the boundaries of our home planet, and it did not come easy. The NASA complex was enormous, and we even got to observe the actual buildings which housed the construction of these enormous spacecrafts.
Amazingly, the wildlife in the area like migrating birds and alligators remained undisturbed. Our bus driver/ tour guide pointed to launch pads of famous rockets and shuttles and occasionally, an eagle’s nest or a couple of alligators basking in the sun.
The best part was the launch simulation which made us feel like we were inside the control room hearing the astronaut from Apollo 13 say, “Houston, we have a problem.” A couple of kids also screamed as we rode the Space shuttle flight simulator, and the final attraction was the actual space shuttle Atlantis on display along with the Rocket garden outside. A real-life astronaut also accompanied the crowd as we gazed in wonder and awe.
Field of dreams
The gorgeous Floridays resort was our home in Orlando, and we got a two-bedroom suite. The resort boasted of a beautiful swimming pool area, fitness center, spacious rooms and modern, eclectic furniture. However, for all its beauty and splendor, we hardly had a moment’s rest because time was running out of our US trip so we had to visit one place that would take us to a hundred other destinations in time and space: Universal Studios.
I repeat, I am not a theme park person, but I have to make an exception. Universal studios awakened the child in the 37 yearold me! My brothers and I went wand shopping in Diagon Alley, descended into the chambers of Gringotts Wizarding bank, and saved by a dragon against Voldemort’s forces. We fought aliens in Men in Black, defied gravity in a double loop rollercoaster, fought mummies and Egyptian gods, walked 1980’s Beverly Hills, visited the New York library, watched a street performance in one of the European themed cityscapes, been to London, San Francisco, and dined with rock stars in the largest Hard Rock Café- all in one day!
My Florida trip will not be complete without shopping for “pasalubong”. We went to Marshalls and Navy Exchange, where most items were on sale. I think I may have overheated my VISA card. I came to Jacksonville with two hand carried items- a computer bag and a duffel, by the time I went home, I had two large bloated suitcases, and three carry-ons.
When I arrived in Manila at 1:00 a.m., I was on 24 hours duty in Philippine General Hospital by 5:00 p.m. the very same day. It’s all still a blur, really. Those ten days were completely magical. The times I’ve spent with my brothers were blissful, nostalgic, and warm as the Florida sun.
“The times I’ve spent with my brothers were blissful, nostalgic, and warm as the Florida sun”
July 2017 Health and Lifestyle