Monday, July 3, 2017

Reflections on Puerto Rico


February 25th - March 5th, 2016 Todd and I spent exploring Puerto Rico.

It was a cultural experience much like visiting another country, but we could use American money.  It was a fast-moving trip because we wanted to see as much as we could.  Our goal was to see the sights AND learn about the culture.  We wanted to delve deep to get an idea what life must be like for the locals.  Before the trip we met with a Puerto Rican living in Big Lake, MN!  Todd works with him.  He gave us some great advice of places to go and things to see.  We had some neat conversations with our hosts and people we met along the way too.  Todd and I both learned a lot.

After a 4.5 hour flight, we arrived in 90 degree San Juan.  We were picked up by a shuttle and brought to the car rental place.  It took two hours to get our car.  We soon learned that everything takes longer in Puerto Rico.  After that, we tried to allow plenty of time for everything and often found ourselves waiting, waiting, waiting.

We ate supper that first night at 8:00 pm at a small sidewalk cafe.  We had a traditional Puerto Rican dish:  Mofongo (mashed plantains with a garlic chicken sauce).  It was a great evening of people-watching!  It was not a great evening of sleeping, though.  Our room had no air flow and was extremely humid and stuffy.  We both felt panicky at times because we were so warm!  The showers were no help because our hosts used an in-line water heater, so you could not adjust the heat.  Hot water coming out of a hot shower into a hot bathroom before going into a hot bedroom made for one hot night!  If we ever go back to Puerto Rico, we'll be staying in places with air conditioning!  
We sat under those red umbrellas for our 8:00 supper.
We found Old San Juan to be made for tourists!  There were shops and restaurants everywhere.  The tourists and locals alike were quite dressed up with dresses, skirts, jewelry and fancy nails for the ladies and button-up shirts, khaki pants, and dapper hats for the gents.  There were policemen everywhere, but we learned that they were around to keep things safe, not because things are dangerous or crime-filled.  Even so, we found lots of bars on windows and doors, like at El Hamburguer pictured below.  In Old San Juan we saw colorful buildings and cars parked so close you could hardly squeeze a dime between them.  We parked our rental car along a street near the ferry docks.  A local man looking for a tip helped us find a parking spot.  He had "reserved" it just for us...using saw horses and cones.

We learned from our host in Old San Juan that Puerto Rico is 75 million dollars in debt and has an extremely high unemployment rate.  We also had an interesting conversation about the Zika Virus.  We were concerned about being bit by mosquitos with the virus.  Our host felt that anywhere a person goes there is risk.  His example was none other than how one can catch Lymes Disease from ticks in Minnesota!  We were still very careful about wearing long sleeves and long pants as much as possible to protect ourselves from mosquitos.    
El Hamburguer

colorful buildings and lots of tightly-parked cars
Another impressive thing about Old San Juan is that it sits right along the ocean.  There are two forts (El Morro and San Cristobal) with a long wall between them.  Our bed and breakfast was across from San Cristobal and we walked to El Morro to explore one day.  People flew kites beside El Morro and children ran around the fort playing pirates and shooting pretend cannons!
El Morro Fort

San Cristobal Fort (across from our lodging)
We took the ferry to nearby Catano one day to visit the Bacardi Rum Distillery Complex.  My favorite part of the experience was watching this sweet local gal enthusiastically talking (in Spanish) to her grandfather on the ferry ride.  It was adorable.  Todd's favorite part of the experience was learning the perfect way to make Rum and Coke.
Puerto Rican cutie pie
Todd with the perfect Rum & Coke
We wanted to experience church in Puerto Rico, so we found an English-speaking service in Guaynabo, just south of Old San Juan.  We met some friendly people who loved to talk about their island and about God being at work right there in that neighborhood.  We enjoyed experiencing everything in both English and Spanish.  We also enjoyed watching the free-roaming chickens outside of church.  Throughout Puerto Rico we saw plenty of free-roaming chickens, dogs, and cats.  On the island of Vieques there were even free-roaming horses!
free-roaming chicken

Spanish lyrics at church
After church we headed east toward El Yunque National Forest.  We hiked through the park all the way to La Mina Falls.  We heard coqui frogs, saw a few colorful birds, pretended to be Tarzan swinging on the long vines, exclaimed over the huge leaves and long root system of some of the trees, kept our eyes open for lizards and salamanders and just about melted in the humid air.
La Mina Falls
La Coca Falls
This tiny bird had a LOUD song!
Look at that root system!
huge leaf!
cute little inch-long coqui frog with a VERY LOUD sound
We got to know the coqui frogs a little better the night we stayed at a Bed and Breakfast in Ceiba. Ceiba is in the heart of the rain forest!  There were two reasons we were thankful for an air conditioner that night...a relief from the humid heat...and to help drown out the coqui frog's sound!

After our restful night in Ceiba, we took a ferry to an island called Vieques, which was just east of the main island.  We got to the ferry quite early.  We were glad because it ended up leaving twenty minutes early!  You just never know in Puerto Rico!

Our taxi driver in Vieques was an interesting man.  He thanked us for coming to his island because he realized that tourists are the main source of income for everyone there.  He talked about some of the history of Vieques and how it was used by the military for many years.  There was bomb testing going on very near where Puerto Ricans were living.  The Puerto Ricans were never forced out, but it was strongly suggested that they leave.  He told us that his grandmother was buried on Vieques, and his people have always lived here.  This is home.  Why would he leave?  It was a powerful argument.  I'm glad the bomb testing is over now.  

On Vieques we enjoyed relaxing in the shade beside beautiful Sun Beach before our evening adventure of a two hour kayak tour of the Bioluminescent Bay!  The Bio Bay was the highlight of the whole trip for me!  We kayaked in a lagoon surrounded by mangrove trees.  The water was filled with a special microscopic plankton that would let out light (like a firefly) when touched.  It was the most amazing natural sight!  The water would glow at just the touch of your hand or paddle!  It was like little diamonds shimmering.  It was amazing!  Photos do not do it justice:
Sun Beach on Vieques
So, the Bio Bay experience on Vieques was my trip highlight, but the seven minute plane ride from Vieques to the nearby island of Culebra was Todd's trip highlight.  We flew at 1,000 feet in an eight passenger plane that had two each 260 horse power opposed 6 cylinder Lycoming engines.  They had to use piston engines instead of turbo props because of the salt air.  The plane ride was simply beautiful...looking out the window at the turquoise water and the small islands.  Lovely!

Once we landed on the island of Culebra our mission was to try snorkeling.  Flamingo Beach is world famous for it's snorkeling and Tamarind Beach is famous for it's sea turtles.  We wanted to try both beaches.  So, we rented some snorkeling gear, I put in my custom-made ear plugs, and we made our first attempt.  Unfortunately, neither of us are strong swimmers and in addition, it was quite windy and wavy on Flamingo Beach.  We got discouraged, so we took a taxi to Tamarind Beach.  The waters were calmer there.  We put on our gear and began walking out into the water.  Within the first 5 steps we had found trouble!  Todd accidentally stepped on a long spined sea urchin!  Some of its spikes went into Todd's toe and it was very painful.  While trying to figure out if we needed a hospital or not, we found a local who lead snorkeling tours.  She used her first aid kit on Todd's toe and told us not to worry unless his toe got infected.  She said the spikes would disintegrate eventually.  When we took a taxi back into town, the driver stopped at a restaurant along the way and got a small cup of vinegar for Todd.  In his broken English, he explained that Todd should soak his toe in it.  We were touched by his kindness.

While on the island we learned that Culebra gets its power from a cable that runs under the ocean (either from the main island or from Vieques).  If Culebra were to lose power, it has enough diesel fuel to run their generators for up to three days.
moments before our first attempt at snorkeling...
Since our snorkeling adventure was unsuccessful, we decided to explore Culebra.  We ate a leisurely lunch of chicken and rice with some locals at a restaurant and then spotted their cute post office.  We sat in some shade near the ferry terminal and people-watched until our 5:00 ferry departure back to the main island.
Culebra post office

people watching at it's best
The ferry brought us back to our rental car that was waiting in Fajardo.  We stayed at a bed and breakfast that night that had air-conditioning (ahhhhhh)!  All the houses in the neighborhood were made of cement to help protect them from the frequent hurricanes.  As we were leaving the next morning we noticed a sign by the exit gate that said, "Vaya Con Dios."  My Spanish skills are limited, but I knew it's message was, "Go With God!"  It was an encouragement to us that day.  
cement houses ready for hurricane season

Go With God!
The last part of our trip was on the south part of the main island, in the town of Ponce.  We enjoyed driving along the coast to get to Ponce.  So many people lived in houses up in the hills.  At one point our GPS brought us right into someone's driveway!  The GPS was trying to take us up and over the mountain instead of meandering along the coast.  We thought something was wrong when we crossed a wooden bridge and went up a steep hill.  Out came a woman holding a machete (for clearing brush near the road).  We pointed to our GPS and shrugged our shoulders as we tried to turn around.  She was a friendly woman who began talking quickly in Spanish.  I understood about 5% of what she said....something about going to the other side of the mountain if you want to go to Ponce.  We got outta there and back onto a main road to Ponce.  One of our favorite things to do while driving was to listen to the Spanish radio.  It was fun for me to try to pick out words from songs or conversation.  We even found a Christian music station.  That was neat!
houses in the hills...

just moments after turning around in the machete woman's driveway...
Ponce was a city with very little tourism.  People were kind, but they went about their daily business without seeming to even notice us.  Tourists were not catered to like they had been everywhere else we had been.  The city was not kept-up as well either.  It was dirtier and there were less police.

Ponce was a cruising city.  People loved to cruise in their cars late into the night.  That was especially annoying to us because our bedroom was right near an intersection and when drivers came to an intersection they would HONK!  This is sort of their way of saying, "Here I come - into the intersection!"  The dents in people's cars showed that there was a reason to beware.  Dents were common and people were missing tail lights too.  People seldom used their turn signals or blinkers.  We even saw policemen changing lanes without using their blinkers.

Our host in Ponce had to throw his car away!  It looked perfect to us...but it was rusted from the bottom up because of all the hours driving on salt from the ocean.  Another time he had a car he had to take to the auto shop, but wasn't sure he'd make it, so he wanted to take the shortest route.  He decided he would drive the wrong way down a One Way street.  He told us that if he saw a police officer he would just explain the situation and he was sure the police officer wouldn't mind.

Our host also runs an organic vegetable farm.  He feels that one of the biggest problems plaguing Puerto Ricans today is their unhealthy eating habits.  He feels that the government has done them an inservice by not making them work and not teaching them how to feed themselves from the land.  There are an abundance of fast food restaurants and very little healthy eating going on.  It was interesting hearing his perspective.  We had noticed the frequency of Burger Kings and Chuches Chicken Restaurants.  And, when we went to Sizzlers Buffet earlier in our trip we were surrounded by locals that were far from looking healthy.  I think heathy eating is a challenge for most human beings.    

Ponce is famous for it's interesting architecture.  Our bed and breakfast had been built in 1913.  There were high ceilings to help get rid of the heat.  Our favorite part of the home was the lush, green courtyard.  We listened to coqui frogs and watched the lizards and salamanders play while making sure the mangos from the tree above us did not fall on our head.
the courtyard

one of many new friends...

Ponce architecture at it's best
Todd loves coffee!  So, when we heard about a historical coffee tour up the mountain at Hacienda Buena Vista, we knew we had to go.  We learned that coffee beans have two layers to remove before you get to the bean.  Hacienda Buena Vista ran the water through a small trough upstream before it went through two waterwheels (one horizontal and one vertical).  Even in the late 1800s, their natural resources people knew to oxygenate the water before it went back to the stream.  They used a cascade to get it bubbled up.  The Hacienda Buena Vista also raised corn and ground flour for the town.  We tasted slimy cocoa bean pods that came from inside a great big fruit, the size of an elongated grapefruit.
Hacienda Buena Vista

oxygenating the water again

at the coffee tour

tasting coca beans

fun with Spanish
After the coffee tour, we continued driving up in the mountains until we came to the town of Adjuntas, that was known for it's roast pig (a culinary experience every Puerto Rico travel book suggested).  The pig-roasters were no where to be found, so we went to a BBQ place.  It was buffet-style with lots of root vegetables, different kinds of rice, and different sauces to put on them.  The locals running the restaurant knew no English.  They stared at us the whole time we were there.  The other customers stared at us too!  I especially liked a dessert that tasted sort of like applesauce.  I went up to one of the workers and pointed to it and asked, "Que es?"  They replied, "No, Papaya!"  Interacting with the Puerto Ricans was one of our favorite parts of the trip.

Most people think of Puerto Rico as being beautiful beaches or steamy rainforests, but it also has a dry forest with cactus!  Todd and I drove down to Guanica to experience this dry forest.  While there we went to the beach and had fun watching a crab run side to side.  Later that day we went to the Ponce Art Museum (hooray for air conditioning).  We ended our day with some plaintain chips and sweet dip at a local restaurant.
dry forest

our playful crab

giant paintings at the art museum

plantain chips with sweet dip
Ponce was a great place to end our Puerto Rican adventure because it felt authentic and Spanish and laid-back and intriguing.  But, unfortunately we never did get to see the Ponce Music Museum, because it was never open.  A security guard was posted each day and he didn't even know why it wasn't open.  We checked approximately five times!  That's just Puerto Rico.  

In Ponce we spoke to a teenager who had made his own mo-ped.  We communicated with a Spanish-speaking cashier using a calculator!  We saw fields full of bananas and then watched them being hauled.  We found lion statues all around Ponce and people-watched near the historic fire station.  We drove all over the area and took cool photos.  We listened to live music by a local singer and guitarist in a cafe filled with locals on our last night.  Our host took a photo of us in our 1913 home before we drove to the airport to head back to frozen Minnesota.

homemade mo-ped

hauling bananas

Ponce lions!
hanging out near the historic fire station


live the locals and for the locals

Good bye, Ponce!
Good bye, Puerto Rico!
I have a special souvenir that I enjoy wearing to remind myself of the adventure we had on this trip.  It's a necklace of a map of Puerto Rico!  As I wear it I think of holding my husband's hand along Sun Beach in Vieques, being amazed at the natural wonder at the Bio Bay, tasting plantain chips in Ponce, listening to the coqui frogs in Ceiba, finding the "Vaya Con Dios" sign in Fajardo, and feeling the ocean breeze as I stood with my husband at El Morro Fort in Old San Juan.  Lots of good memories we made.  I'm thankful.  Travel blessings.    
my special souvenir necklace