Jacksonville, Florida, there is something that I have been meaning to tell you.
I know we have been together for over three decades. Your downtown area once was a bustling shopping mecca full of department stores like May Cohen’s. My lithe eight-year-old body hugged my mother’s waist close as my ponytails bounced up and down in rhythm to her heels. The Jacksonville Landing and Regency Square Mall used to be the places where high school students flocked to socialize. The St. Johns River lulled me into relaxation. Then you showed me another side of you when I traveled down Hecksher Drive and discovered Little Talbot Island. I appreciate all of the memories, especially how you held me in your arms as I grew up.
You are my birthplace, but I have a new home now. Central Florida has captured my heart.
As the multilane stretch of I-4 sprawls past Sanford into Maitland, North Florida’s knitted canopy of trees part back to unveil a tropical paradise. The multicolored buildings are reminiscent of the staggered houses of Rio de Janeiro— deep grapefruit and mango shades of pinks, yellows, and oranges nestled in surrounding palm trees. Venturing off the highway to the Winter Park/North Orlando area, I am totally immersed in Vietnamese and Haitian cultures that vibrate throughout the various strips of stores. The Cheesecake Factory looms large and tempts me to indulge in a cornucopia of whipped cream, cream cheese, and every flavor possible for a sweet tooth to enjoy.
State Road 17-92 merges into Colonial Drive and I migrate through the downtown area, stopping for a moment to travel across Lake Eola in a swan boat ride. I head southwest toward The Florida Mall. This is where I fell in love with the area. When people think of Central Florida, Disney and its cohort of amusement parks immediately come to mind. The adrenaline rush of the ebb and flow of every kind of roller coaster possible definitely draws my inner thrill seeker, but the Florida Mall offers a different kind of high better than its retail therapy.
So many tourists and the locals from different areas of the world congregate here. It is a cultural hodgepodge of dialects, the accents soothing like a set of wind chimes on a front porch. Each language that I hear is a gift wrapped in storied experiences that I want to hear and curate.
From Kissimmee to Oviedo, three counties wide, a heartbeat of energy pulsates throughout the Central Florida region. The area introduces me to exciting slices of life that change my view of the world around me. Each city has its own identity that offers a wide range of activities and culture.
Lake Mary is a city I love to sojourn. The Hyatt Place Hotel offers a relaxing stay with its Japanese-style wooden room dividers working in concert with my active imagination to transport me to the other side of the world. Driving down State Road 436 from South Orlando through Casselberry back to Sanford is a route for those who like to live la vida loca. Speed is the norm as ordinary vehicles turn into race cars and zigzag through traffic as if they are test driving for the Daytona 500.
What really makes Central Florida home to me lies at the intersection of State Road 436 and 434, a Winter Springs neighborhood where a home is now a museum that contains the laughter of a family I once knew. As I ride down I-95 North to come back to you with Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” blaring from my car radio, I realize this truth.
I’m sorry, Jacksonville. My traveling heart will be forever divided between Central Florida and you.