The Fountain of Youth: T. SHER SINGH
St Augustine, Florida
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
It is difficult to imagine a Florida before there was an Orlando, with all its fantasy worlds. Believe it or not, much of what we see there today -- including Disney’s Magic Kingdom -- did not even exist a few decades ago.
There was a time when tourists did flock to this state, but were pulled by other attractions. Few of these places seem to matter to the average visitor today. Tourists come, do their pilgrimage to Orlando’s theme parks and a few others, visit Cape Kennedy, and loll on a beach or two. They check out the factory outlet malls. But little more.
A majority of them have never even heard of yesterday’s big attraction, St. Augustine, let alone ever visited it, despite many returns to the area.
I was on business in the vicinity. I read up on the city a bit. It sounded interesting, so I took a day off to venture into the city.
I discovered it is Florida’s big secret.
Incredible though it may sound, Florida does have a history which pre-dates the 20th century breed of developers.
There are, however, strong parallels between the new lot and the old.
Ponce de Leon arrived here from Spain in the 16th century, long before the Pilgrims first set foot on Plymouth Rock, looking for wealth, power … and the fountain of youth.
He was quickly followed by his fellow countrymen. All drooled for the same spoils but hid behind high pretensions: they claimed they came in the name of a superior god and for the purpose of spreading the word.
They were greeted by natives -- the Timucuan Indians. The short Spaniards -- they averaged less than five feet tall -- were amazed by the physique of the Timucuans who were healthy specimens averaging six feet and more. They also seemed to enjoy a life span twice as long as the Spaniards.
Ponce de Leon -- he’s probably the fellow who introduced the concept of the “quick answer” to North America -- figured that there must be a fountain of youth to explain the healthy lifestyle of the natives.
Unfortunately, he died shortly thereafter. But not before discovering the spring of water from which the Timucuans drank, and naming it the Fountain of Youth.
This fountain of youth became the focal point, beginning in the 19th century and well into the new century, for tourists heading to Florida’s warm climes for renewed vigour.
They also discovered history.
The Castillo de Sam Marcos -- a magnificent fort built at the behest of the king of Spain three centuries ago -- overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, having withstood sieges through the centuries. Still intact in its original form, it remains unconquered to date.
The flow of tourists to the area brought the developers.
Henry Flagler was responsible for some of the best creations. He built two hotels in 1888. The first, named the Ponce de Leon, stands in full splendour even today -- an expanse of buildings punctuated by towers, turrets and arcades. It now operates, however, as a liberal arts institution, Flagler College, and dominates the historic district of St Augustine.
The second hotel, which once held reign as the Alcezar, is also still around and now houses the Lightner Museum.
These two building complexes are but a sampling of more than 60 wonderful sites, in addition to the 150 blocks or so in the historic core, which have been remarkably preserved for our benefit.
Much of it is tasteful and pleasure. Some of it is also chintzy.
One can’t help thinking that this must be the place where the modern version of the ‘tourist trap’ was invented.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ripley’s first “Believe It Or Not Museum” was opened here more than six decades ago, and remains here in one of the old castle-like structures in the historic quarter. It captures the two diverse aspects of this interesting city: rich history and cheap commercialism.
St George Street, a fascinating reconstruction of an 18th century street, symbolizes this amalgam.
It is a pleasure walking down the narrow street: it transports you to the original community and gives you a taste of the old lifestyle -- until you stick your head into any of the many stores that line both sides of the street. But for a few exceptions, they are littered with souvenirs that will haunt garage sales for decades to come.
Not far from the street, on the shore, stands a huge cross -- 63.4 metres (208 feet-high -- marking the spot where the first Christian mass in America was celebrated by the Spanish invaders. Robert Kennedy, it is said, once declared this spot the most hallowed ground in North America.
But his speech writers forgot to mention to him that this was the very location where a Timucuan Indian village stood when Ponce de Leon -- and later, Pedro Menendez de Aviles -- landed here.
There were 25,000 Timucuan men, women and children living there then.
By the time the Europeans were done here, not a single Timucuan was left alive.
What’s there to celebrate at this site now, I ask, other than the infinite capacity of human beings to be less than animals?
But standing here on this truly hallowed ground -- hallowed only by the blood of the Timucuans -- where once a wonderful tribe of human beings made home and is now extinct, I think of the Taj Mahal that stands halfway around the world from here.
Though we admire it today as one of the most beautiful wonders of the world, we readily switch our minds off from the legend that its creator, Shah Jahan, caused the massacre and mutilation of many of those who helped build it -- solely to ensure that no duplicate would ever be built!
Human history is the same everywhere. So is it in the United States. And in Florida as well. And here in St Augustine -- the city of wonderful beaches, warm and sunny climes, and a history richer than most places in this vast country.
Once you’ve done your obligatory “been there, done that” with Orlando and ensured that the kids will not suffer from a deprived childhood, try St Augustine.
Remember, it has the Fountain of Youth.