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Two weeks ago Eric Lesch, a connoisseur of extremely cheap travel, pointed across the parking lot of the Publix store on Marathon Key toward his prize discovery. There, choking up black smoke, directly in front of the Brass Monkey liquor store, was a gray bus with JGT scrawled on its side. "Three eighty-five," said Lesch, shaking his head as if awestruck. "Three dollars and eighty-five cents to Key West."
The soft-spoken, 24-year-old Chicagoan, who looks like a youth-hostel regular with his bandana, flip-flops, green duffel bag, guitar, and jug of water, has spent months traveling the country vagabond-style. (He has a seasonal job in Alaska, he explains, that makes epic summer trips possible.) And of all the cheapo buses and trains and hostels he's found during his North American wanderings, nothing quite compares to what he discovered in South Miami-Dade.
He didn't learn about it in Lonely Planet or Let's Go, didn't even hear about it from a fellow backpacker. He came upon it himself, in the parking lot of the Florida City Super Wal-Mart.
"I was just riding the bus system heading as far south as I could. I rode it to the end of the line," he explains, wistfully recalling his discovery of the wondrous bus. "Greyhound is more than 30 bucks to Key West from Miami," he says as he prepares for his second ride to Margaritaville. Lesch attributes his find to serendipity just good traveler's karma.
But actually his cheap transit is thanks to government gifts. Since June 2000, Miami-Dade County, with state and federal support, has subsidized a fleet of Keys-bound buses run by the Julia Garcia Transit company (JGT). And last fall, Monroe County got into the spirit, creating a southern leg to the Keys shuttle program. Total cost to all government entities involved: close to one million dollars this year.
The subsidized bus service, though not aggressively advertised, is apparently getting noticed. Five years ago 100 people were making the daily trip to the Keys, says Manny Palmeiro, spokesman for Miami-Dade Transit (MDT). Now the number is more than 700.
Initially, after you reach the buses' home port on the north side of the Super Wal-Mart parking lot in Florida City, and pay $1.85 for the first leg of the trip to Marathon the Dade-Monroe express seems the transit equivalent of 7-Eleven's Big Gulp. The accommodations rival Greyhound spacious reclining seats, generous air conditioning, plenty of elbow room. The bilingual driver, chatty in a school-bus kind of way, competently navigates the side streets of Florida City. There are about 25 people on board, and everyone has a seat; some are sprawled out over two.
And there are no chickens (as is typical in, say, exceedingly affordable Guatemalan buses). As the JGT bus rolls onto South Dixie Highway and speeds through the Everglades, many of the passengers doze off.
It's puzzling at first that none of them seems ready for scuba diving, snorkeling, bone-fishing, or margarita-drinking. None, in fact, are even wearing shorts. The passengers have the sober, workerlike expressions you'd find on a New York City subway.
So this isn't the Fun Bus to the Keys.
Minutes after crossing Jewfish Creek, there are some signs of a possible hitch to this bus deal. At 11:31, the bus halts at a Key Largo Taco Bell to let out a young man. At 11:37, it parks across the street from the Dairy Queen. Then at 11:45, some ladies holler to the driver not to miss their exit. Was the JGT going to stop at every single fast-food joint on the Overseas Highway?
At noon, an hour and 30 minutes into the trip, a small, wiry man wearing a Kmart badge wakes up. Fifty-four-year-old Richard Franjul of Florida City is in no hurry; he's going to the end of line Marathon.
Franjul slowly explains he's been taking the nearly two-hour commute to Kmart for only one week. "I hate the bus," says Franjul, frowning and with a matter-of-fact tone, "but the job is ten dollars an hour." He adds that this Kmart gig is only temporary; in addition to being Richard Franjul, he is also "Dino." He smiles broadly when talking about his stage name. He sings ballads with his wife (stage name "Astrid") in four languages (Italian, Spanish, English, and Portuguese). Franjul's plan: Make enough money roughly $1500 to buy a karaoke machine. "Not because of karaoke, but because I sometimes forget the words."
Franjul has been using the JGT bus for only a short time, but his sister, who also lives in Florida City, has been making the trip to Marathon for a year.
Across the aisle there's Gerald Honore, a tall, bespectacled thirtyish Haitian man who has been going from Florida City to work at Islamorada's Lorelei Resort for three years. Honore said he doesn't mind the ride. "I sleep."
Franjul and Honore are among the Miami-Dade residents who make the trek down to the Keys daily. JGT buses depart seven times daily, seven days a week, beginning at 5:15 a.m. and ending at 11:15 p.m. "The Keys has loads of service jobs," Palmeiro says. "These are people who have jobs because of this bus route. Hotels, motels, restaurants."