Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Relaxing without a Canary is living on the edge.

The road from Ponce led us through a series of terrifying twists and blind curves, as we headed south-west along the coastal highway. Much of the coastline is pockmarked with sprawling industrial plants and factories, and every so often the vista is disrupted by the incongruity of a rusted smokestack or a radio tower. The road is wide enough for precisely one and a half cars, which is problematic when passing. Over bad stretches of road, dogs will chase the car snarling.

Guanica houses one of the main wildlife preserves in Puerto Rico, a highly diverse forest system beginning at the ocean shore and ascending through the "dry forest" from salty wetlands to a deciduous fringe and into a thick jungle. Views from surrounding hilltops reveal undulating, verdant expanses framed by tall palm trees and punctuated with highly inappropriate and frankly dampening plant life.
The ocean here is flat and indolent, and the sharp curves are often accompanied by a blinding glare from the still surface of the water. At high noon it looks like an igneous mirror, and the only oceanic property it exudes is the heavy infusion of salt in the air, which parches you. There is no shoulder to the narrow road, and the abrupt descent is a dusty jag of baked, scorched rock.

The Copamarina beach resort lies languidly at the end of a precarious, scorched highway, on a poorly marked and dilatory debouchement. The parking lot is arid and silent. Once inside, however, the shaded stone floors lead to tall pitchers of lemon water slick with condensation, and the long stretch of lawn gives way to a white sand beach that shimmers like an oasis in the sun.

a damn sight better than playa salinas.

The rooms are dark and simple, the blinds controlled by pins that fit into worn grooves holding the slats open.

I did not mean to include that guy.

This is a place to go when you want to do absolutely nothing but sit on a beach and drink overpriced mojitos.

and I do.

There is no nightlife apart from the hotel cantina, no restaurants apart from the hotel dining rooms. There is a small beachside bungalow owned by the hotel which will loan out expansive, worn towels in a surprising shade of turquoise, and sells a depressing and exorbitant assortment of ghastly trinkets, plastic sunshades, candy, cigarettes and coke.

This was the first time we had actually made it to the beach, and it was perfect. We anticipated at least two days of glorious nothing before we became stir crazy, but by the end of the first afternoon I was highlighting the end notes to Dombey and Son and Mike was sitting in the dormant shallows, resolutely carving an immense crater into the sand of the placid ocean floor with crazed dedication.

This was not a venue that was fraught with excitement. We had some bad drinks, some good drinks, and I got half of the worst pedicure of my life. None of this is worth recording here, since if you are the kind of asshole who wants to read some other asshole's bad review of a pedicure that you will probably never get then this is not the blog for you. Sorry.

On Monday we headed due North to the mountainous center of the island. We stopped first for a brief hike in the national reserve, which is a quiet, stifling haven for small flowers and songbirds. We managed a close look at a few prismatic hummingbirds, and caught brief glimpses of huge wings and talons circling high above us.

We anticipated a drive of about an hour and a half to the center of the island, which turned out to be not only unreasonably sanguine but profoundly foolish. To assume that a place in which the second most common form of transportation is bareback on a feral horse, on roads that would feel confined in a clown car, through pockets of such minimal population that the roadside stands still sell cans of coke emblazoned with characters from Space Jam, for chrissake, to even briefly entertain the prospect that a people who can countenance a restaurant called "MR POLLO" will live in a region that will be accurately represented on a map is fatuous. We got lost.

We got SO lost.

Even using a map and a GPS, we found ourselves looking for roads that didn't exist, roads that had probably never existed, roads in such ignominious straits of disrepair that the title was a misnomer, roads that led off cliffs, roads that stubbornly refused to intersect with larger arteries portrayed on the map but instead meandered blindly upwards, ever ascending, until they sputtered out in a mud filled rut, or a gravel pit, or once, to our mortification, at the front door of a decrepit hacienda bringing the entire household racing to the edge of the porch in wonder. It was getting dark by the time we finally arrived, irritable and cramped, at the town of Jayuya. At this point, directions to our hotel became slightly more comprehensible, as the Spanish was less heavily accented and some people spoke a little English. Also, there seemed to be less potential for error. ("Now joo gonn go toward the gas station. It's the onny one joo gonna find.") Grumpy and persecuted by stray dogs, we finally reached the Hacienda Gripinas.

This place might as well exist in an alternate dimension, for all the trouble we had getting here.

A moribund coffee plantation, the restored mansion has small, dark rooms and massive, spacious balconies that look out over the mountains. The air is heavy and fragrant, the coffee rich and deeply satisfying, the food a revolting viscous mass of deep fried carbohydrates in unclarified animal fat. (Dinner and breakfast are included!) The town is small and unpredictable, bursting into patches of thickly grouped homes and businesses and then just as swiftly retreating into wild stretches of sparsely populated woodland. The main street is crowded with parked pickups, and traffic is a mess. But for all the people trapped in the congestion, nothing is open, and on the flyblown counters of dark restaurants, scrofulous pieces of fried chicken become dessicated and shrivelled under the strange red glare of the heat lamps.

The hacienda is a small paradise far outside the town. In the evenings when the light fades the hoarse and interminable bitching of the chickens is succeeded by the mechanical trills of night birds and nocturnal frogs. You can smell the honeysuckle and the jasmine, and when night settles, tiny lights blink greenly in the brush.

Some of the springs have rocks that contain archaic petroglyphs which would be of great interest to historians and anthropologists were they not perpetually obscured by maladjusted Puerto Rican teenagers chain smoking and wearing Yankees hats and high-waist elastic underpants.

At the spring fed pool, we made some nice new friends.

This dog was such a spaz that when she saw a person, she wagged her tail so hard she fell over. Awwwww.

On the way out of town we stopped at the famed Heladria de Lares, nefarious for its preposterous flavors such as "garlic," "casserole" and "corn." I had the "sweet rice," Mike tried the "plantains." both were delicious.

North of Jayuya are the Camuy caves, a vast underground system of tunnels and the favorite lurking spot of about 9 billion bats, and several trollish species of crickets and spiders.

Mike won't even look at this picture.

The caves are mostly comprehended by a 268 acre park, which offers guided tours through the larger caverns. The afternoon tour focuses primarily on the enormous Cava Clara, a misty, spectacular chasm 200 feet underground. Light breaks through at surprising intervals illuminating the glistening formations sporadically, and over the heavy sound of your own breathing can be heard the rhythmic dripping that startles the blind fish. In their own way, the Camuy caverns are as peaceful and calming as the comatose beaches. Unless you're claustrophobic. Or hate spiders.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Es un malentendido -Donde me lleva? Estoy Arrestada?

I learned all kinds of Spanish phrases for this trip so that for once I could just buy a damn soda without feeling like a jerk. From my past experiences in foreign environments, I have come to appreciate the value of short sentences like "Is this really where I take a bath?" and "I've never had a massage in a trunk before." Since this vacation is nearly two thirds of the way complete, and I have not yet had any run-ins with the authorities, it might be safe to say that all that Spanish I practiced was a waste of time. In all honesty, everyone who speaks even a little English is so ecstatic to use it on a real live person who sucks at speaking Spanish that you don't even have an opportunity to embarrass yourself. People get really excited to talk to tourists.

Today, we stopped at a tiny store on the side of a mountain road to buy a drink. a man covered in paint swung himself bodily off his bright yellow motorcycle and howled, "Hey, LADY! How ARE YA?!!?" And then stood there, grinning, brimming with pride. (N.B. He did not really care how I was.) Everyone wants to talk to you. The first thing that struck me about Puerto Rico was how truly anxious everyone is that we like Puerto Rico. The man sharing our row on the flight in drew us maps, and gave us his home phone number. Our first night in San Juan, a couple approached us in a restaurant to tell us about all their favorite places on the island, and to give us tips about rental cars and the best places to eat and drink. We later ran into them at a bar, and they invited us to a birthday party and gave us their cell numbers. "Call if you need help! Call if you have questions!" Most strangers that have exchanged even a "good morning" with us have later handed us a slip of paper or a business card with a number, a map, an invitation to dinner. What astonishes me is that in the hundreds of interpersonal exchanges we've had over the past week and a half, we have yet to encounter a single person who has been rude, or disingenuous, or unkind. This is saying something on a tiny island housing over 4 million people. Holy Frijoles.

We started our trip when we flew into San Juan, the largest city on the island. We spent the first few days wandering around Old San Juan, a sector so lovely, exciting and delicious that it deserves its own post. I am looking forward to our last few days on the island, which will give us a chance to explore the city a little better. My ultimate goal is the botanical gardens, 75 acres comprehending a lotus lagoon and a wide variety of orchids.

This trip didn't get off to a particularly auspicious start, since within a few hours of touching down I developed a high fever and a sinus infection. We rented a car and drove East, pursuant to our original intention of driving around the island on the coastal highways. Mike drove, and I slumped over in the front seat, muttering. In case you are considering developing a malady and then depending on Mike for a tour of anything, here I will include some actual dialogue as a testimonial to his eminent qualifications in that capacity.

Me: Wow, that looks really pretty! What is that?

Mike: That's the public Gallows.

(Later) Me: Hey, did you see that building? It was beautiful! What did that sign say?

Mike: It's the Guayama meat packing plant. The dome is where they slaughter the chickens, because it's more space efficient.

We made it to the middle of the south coast before stopping for the night. After the gorgeous hotel rooms in Old San Juan, the Marina hotel we found was dispiriting in its ugliness, and the short walk we took around the neighborhood around sunset did very little to dispel the gloom inspired by the dark rooms and stagnant pools of water in the parking lot. Playa Salinas, which means "saltworks beach" is not a misnomer. This place is all salinas and no playa. In point of fact, the only beach visible was a dank spit of unwholesome silt barricaded by a thorny entanglement of dead branches, housing a rotting skiff and a nation of gigantic centipedes. The night is shattered by the shrieks of drunken maniacs and the soprano squeal of the same drunken maniacs peeling out in what sound like power wheels. Salinas is a place to go if you want to relax in a damp hotel room with rubber sheets (P.S. what the fuck) wondering what a ferreteria sells. (hint: not exciting.)

From this veritable beachfront gem we drove North into the central mountain range to the village of stalls and kiosks that comprise the town of Guavate. Guavate is considered the authoritative epicenter of true Puerto Rican cuisine, which as far as I can tell is mainly blood sausage and Coca Cola. But one thing they do often, and do to perfection, is suckling pig. Every weekend, people flock here in droves to experience the punishing heat, the billions of cheap plastic toys, the accelerated speeches of the hawkers, and the adolescents rapping awkwardly into low quality microphones over canned beats cribbed from Salsa standards. They come for the pig. I would do it all again for the fruit shakes.

 yo quiero sprinkles

yo quiero sprinkles.

After we had experienced the pig, we drove southwest through small, erratic mountain roads to reach the town of Ponce, which lacks the distinction of being Puerto Rico's second biggest city.

Ponce is a ghost town surrounding a bustling city block. The center of town is a highly manicured plaza sporting the Parque de Bombas, a severely wacky structure in variegated blocks of black and red;

parque de bombas

you can’t touch the car.

the Catedral Nuestra Senora de Guadelupe, basically a tasteful wedding factory;

Catedral Ponce

In the time it took you to read this caption, four tasteful weddings were performed.

and the Fuente de Leones, which sends jets of water shooting blithely into the thick air. The buildings immediately surrounding the plaza are immaculate and breathtaking,

lovely Ponce

and our hotel (Melia) was exquisitely maintained and beautifully decorated. However, nearly all the restaurants reviewed in our travel guide (published about a year an a half ago) had gone out of business, leaving empty storefronts or dimly lit interiors filled with soggy boxes. The farther away from the center you venture, the more obvious and aggressive the dissolution.

ponce in dissolution

The French colonial style buildings are all in various stages of disrepair and decay, some of the most striking examples falling into rubble right next to freshly painted bright houses, the gaunt faces of squatters peering with jaundiced squints through the uniform blinds of the newly remodeled Ramada Inn. If you pursue the maze of infuriating one way streets and the snarl of decrepitude and poverty, you will (hopefully) arrive at Ponce's most significant tourist attraction: an enormous, hollow cross made of concrete and fiberglass perched stolidly at the peak of the hill overlooking the town. Directly below the cross is the Castillo Serralles, a lavish mansion built by early proceeds of Puerto Rican Rum. Slightly above the cross is the mouldering wreckage of the once splendid Grand International Hotel. We drove up to the rusted gates for a better look. Inside the torn barbed wire, beyond the fragmentary fence, things rustle. As charming as the pictures would have been , we did not stick around to be murdered by the kind of desperate vagabond who would smoke the product of oven cleaner sprayed through the carburetor of an overheated Camero. Tacoma has made us wise.

Ponce is a series of provoking contradictions that leaves the visitor unnerved and unsatisfied; a town that is in all its partially refurbished glory boasts a monument to the splendors of the past, yet many of the region's most historically significant buildings are crumbling to dust, housing the cities' burgeoning drug crisis and breeding vermin in its ruins. Of all the metaphors encountered so far on this trip, Ponce is the most unsubtle and the least profound.


All pseudo Victorian harbingers of disaster aside, we're having a wonderful time. Puerto Rico is beautiful, the people are marvelous, and the views are breathtaking. The drivers are the worst in the world, and people tend to be surprisingly lackadaisical about answering phones, staying in lanes, and moving their livestock out of your way. In a way, it's kind of a relief to worry less about time, and speed, and efficiency, even if it means we have to sit at a stop sign and wait while a guy named Nelson teaches his horse not to shy at stray dogs. Maybe even then. At least he asked us to dinner.