Learning to Play the Conch Shell in Florida’s Mallory Square, Key West

By Abi King | Best Places to Visit USA

Jul 18

Stars and stripes at sunset in Key West

Mallory Square, Key West

The sun that sets in Key West is not subtle. It flames across the sky, capturing clouds in a blaze of amber, scarlet and peach, drawing their lilac-grey sighs into a resplendent performance, before bowing to rapturous applause from the crowds.

For all the colourful language, it’s true.

Crowds do gather every evening in Key West to watch the sun perform and nowhere more than Mallory Square. Despite the Enid Blyton name, there’s nothing prim and proper here.Men wearing make-up shuffle tarot guards and conjure up ghosts. Artists build model aeroplanes from leftover beer cans, while ink-smudged fingers paint powder-blue signs that spell out words like “paradise.”

The sun warms up for its final act and a deep-throated song fills the air.

It comes from a bona fide conch shell, a phrase that reminds me of another childhood book, albeit a more sinister one. Until this moment, my only knowledge of conch shells came from Lord of the Flies, that chilling examination of how civilisation and society can so easily break down.

But back to the conch…

Mike in key west playing conchMike is American. He wears a baseball hat and runs a portable stall that sells Key Lime Pie, conch fritters and Key Lime iced tea.
His large, tanned hands wrap around the shell, a speckled treacly-brown affair.

He purses his lips, takes a deep breath, and breathes…

It’s slow and melodious. A few notes hang on the apricot-coloured air for a whisper or two before they disappear.

“Hey there,” he asks. “You wanna go?”

Yes – and no. Yes because I love trying new things. No because whatever the outcome, it’s going to break the spell. Either I can do it easily and the magic is lost.

Or, and this is more likely, I’m going to sound like a flatulent farmyard animal and the world of Facebook, Twitter et al will have yet more ammunition against me.

The roughness of the conch shell grazes my hands. In this dying, copper-tinged light, I take a deep breath…

The second, of course, of the two scenarios takes place. A stuttering, stammering, spittoon-fest of abomination and noise. And worse is yet to follow…

“Have you tried the conch?” I ask, trying at least to share, if not deflect, my ineptitude with those around me.

“It’s conch, as in CONK,” comes the reply. “Not conch as in conSH.”

Excellent.

I do the American thing and slip a few dollar bills into the tip jar. Then I slip away.

Conch Shells, Key Lime Pie and Sunset in Key West

The sun moves towards its finale, spreading crimson streaks across the sky. Yachts glide past, candy-floss sweetness hangs in the air and Key Lime zest somersaults across my tongue. I’m just in time to catch the last of tonight’s performers.Silhouettes against the sun, they joke, jive, juggle and jest to raise cheer after cheer from the crowd. One man throws flames, while another defeats gravity through the drama of the tight-tope.

Both entice, both entertain.

In fact, by dividing my attention between the two, I’ve missed the setting of the sun and the sky now grieves in shades of violet dusk. The crowds slowly disperse.

I wait for a moment before joining the others.

For most of the world, the United States mirrors the rising and setting of the sun. Always there, almost familiar, frighteningly powerful.
Yet the sun – and sunset – wear different colours depending on where you are when you watch them.

In Key West, sunset is ferocious and flamboyant. The American Dream displayed in the sky.

In the darkness that remains, I laugh to myself and leave to join the others. They’re waiting for me, just beyond the waterfront, in a lively Cuban bar.

It’s free to watch the performers – and the sunset – in Mallory Square, Key West.

I, however, visited as a guest of Virgin Holidays as part of a Florida Photo Safari both here and elsewhere. The usual, exciting, disclosure policy applies…

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • jade says:

    I love Key West- these are great shots… and I have to say, when you mentioned conch, all I could think about were conch fritters, which are delicious!

    • Abi says:

      Yes…I should have mentioned the conch fritters. Gorgeous in an oh-so-bad way…

  • Henry Williams says:

    good photos i always go to key west its a good time every time

  • Abi says:

    You’re welcome

  • Abi says:

    I’ve only been once but I’d love to go back – it’s such an interesting place.

  • VeeCee says:

    Baseball hat? Seriously? Even little kids know it’s a cap.

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