Fun Bus to the Keys

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."

The end of the line for the JGT is Mile Marker 50. Once deposited here, would-be travelers to Margaritaville have to cross a Publix parking lot — a 100-yard hike to the Brass Monkey. Here you can catch the northbound JGT back to Miami-Dade. Or pay two bucks to get on the Key West-bound Lower Keys shuttle.

A dark-skinned man with long curly black hair, who appears to be wearing a blue dress, is standing in front of the Brass Monkey. This is Robert Ortiz, JGT's man in Marathon. Ortiz, who has worked for the bus company for four years, explains the story of the eponymous Cuban émigré owner ("It's Julia — a she — not Julio!").

"Five or six people," Ortiz explains, commute from Florida City to here. "I don't know them personally, [but] you have to go where the jobs are."

After a 35-minute wait, the Lower Keys shuttle pulls onto U.S. 1. It's a smaller bus, more akin to the shuttle you'd take from MIA to the Hertz lot. The air conditioning is pumping furiously. At first there are only eight people on board. One guy looks like he'd gone on a major shopping spree at the Marathon Kmart. Another passenger, a largely toothless fellow, has paint all over his clothes.

There are only two carry-overs from the JGT — one is Cathi Pedersen, a fiftysomething Key Wester who is returning from a doctor's appointment in Tavernier. Pedersen whines briefly about the long ride — it took her four hours on public transportation to get to her doctor, whose office is in Tavernier. That is two hours more, she guesses, than a car ride. But she says, "I'm on so many drugs — prescription drugs — it would have been crazy to drive."

She also notes she is an old hippie and is happy to be saving gas.

The other passenger to make the Marathon connection is Lesch. On his second ride to the Keys in two days, the backpacker says he doesn't like the vibe in Miami. "I wasn't into it," he says. "Maybe I went to the wrong place."

The ride to the Keys is uneventful — no traffic, no hailing — except for Lesch's surprise. In the midst of a detailed conversation about how to travel cheaply between Bahamian islands, he abruptly gets up, picks up his bags, and exits the bus at Big Pine Key.

The whole journey, on Friday, June 2, from Florida City to Key West takes a grand total of four and a half hours. Not bad, considering the trip costs less than two gallons of gas.

Some may say the ride is irritatingly long, but according to Lesch, it's worth it. "The only thing that's cheaper than this is hitchhiking.... And hitchhiking is not as reliable."

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Josh Schonwald
Contact: Josh Schonwald