An American Abroad

Archives for September 2017

Mundo Bizarro

It was the name that caught my eye first. It’s a bizarre world indeed.

The name seemed to sum up the last six weeks of my life during which I moved from Toledo, Ohio to San Juan, Puerto Rico, took a spur-of-the-moment trip to the Dominican Republic, rode out Hurricane Irma, and then decamped to Willemstad, Curaçao to get out of the way of Hurricane Maria.

Once I walked in, I knew I was in the right place. It was just the right environment for bizarre characters like me. Nothing matches, but somehow everything comes together.

The wall where this mirror hangs is in the first room I walked into once I passed through the main entrance.

Going straight on through, I walked into the bar – which is best viewed from the second-floor balcony above it.

Elsewhere on the second floor, the Early Hodgepodge decor continued in a parlor there.

Back at ground level, the restaurant owners have filled every window frame with odds and ends, creating rich tableaux everywhere I looked.

By the time I exited these doors, I was ready to pronounce Mundo Bizarro the most beautiful, most visually interesting restaurant I’d ever been in.

The Oldest Synagogue in Continuous Use in the Americas

On the day before Yom Kippur, I skipped lunch and walked over to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue here in Willemstad, a temple which holds the distinction of being the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. It dates from 1732 and is actually the second synagogue to be consecrated on the same site. The first temple there was built in 1674.

The congregation dates from the 1650s and originally consisted of Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands and Brazil. As the brochure I was given proudly claims, “Although Curaçao may now seem like a remote outpost of the Jewish world, Mikvé Israel is still known as ‘The Mother Congregation of the Americas.'”

The first thing I noticed when I entered the temple was that I needed to don a kippot (yarmulke). During my travels, I’ve had to put on white sarong to enter Buddhist temples and female friends of mine have been asked to cover their heads when entering Islamic mosques. Different strokes for different folks; this was no big deal to me.

The next thing I noticed was that the floor of the temple was covered with sand. According to the brochure, there are three reasons for this:

The first is that our synagogue, like many traditional Spanish/Portuguese synagogues, is modeled after the encampment, which our forefathers established in the Sinai desert during their forty years of wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land. Our tebah in the middle is the Tabernacle and the congregants are like the twelve tribes surrounding it for its protection.

The second reason relates to the origins of our congregants whose ancestors were, for the most part, ‘secret’ Jews or ‘Conversos’ living in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition until their emigration to the Netherlands and other countries. After settling in Curaçao, our ancestors remembered how their forefathers put sand on the floor of the secret rooms in which they worshipped to help muffle the sounds during their services. If discovered they would have suffered lifelong imprisonment, loss of all property and often burning at the stake. The sand on the floor serves thus as a reminder of the remarkable faith and courage of these Spanish-Portuguese Jews in the face of such terror.

The third reason is to symbolize that God said unto Abraham: ‘I will multiply your seeds as the sands of the seashore and the stars in the heavens’ (Genesis 13:16).”

The third thing I noticed was a stately pipe organ situated up in the balcony over the entrance. Though I’ve spent much of my life in the company of Jewish people, I have only been in a synagogue once before, so I can’t say whether this is typical – but it surprised me. The pipe organ was installed in 1866 and is in need of repair now, so it probably will not be used for Yom Kippur services.

And the final thing I noticed was that despite the Middle Eastern origins of Judaism, this old synagogue is at heart a very Caribbean building, with multiple windows on each floor that let the cooling sea breezes. The windows have blue-tinted half-rounds above them and the colored light makes the sanctuary look cooler than it probably is.

In preparations for the high holy day, the bulbs in most of the chandeliers and sconces had been replaced with tapers. This is done just once a year, I was told. I thought it would be nice to see this chamber lit by flickering candles.

The synagogue is just one of several buildings inside the walled compound. The others include a museum and a gift shop.

This was another first for me: I don’t recall the other places of worship I’ve visited as having gift shops. But then Mikvé Israel is more than a temple – it’s a tourist attraction of historical interest. The non-Jewish people in Curacao I’ve talked to about it seem very proud of it, almost sentimental. Curaçaoans, I have learned, are a very tolerant people who take pride in their heritage as a refuge for the oppressed.

The last thing I saw as I left the temple grounds was a brass plaque fixed to the exterior walls documenting a 1992 visit by Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus, “commemorating the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and expressing gratitude to the House of Orange for granting them four centuries of religious freedom.”

That’s a legacy to be proud of.

Nine Views of a Green Curaçao Building

I probably won’t get hired by the Curaçao tourist board as the photographer for their next brochure. After eight days here, I have taken exactly one photo of the beach and something like 300 photos of the sometimes-grittier side of Willemstad.

I don’t mean these photos to be interpreted as representative of the island as a whole, or even of all of Willemstad. But then, neither are the glossy beachy photos of Beautiful People Doing Fun Things that the authorities love to publish.

I found this building last Saturday when I joined a bicycle art tour organized by the Bed & Bike Hostel. At one point toward the end of the tour, everyone was very hot. We stopped off at a small handicraft shop that sold souvenirs and organic things that smelled nice. I wasn’t particularly interested in that kind of thing, so I wandered off down a side street.

When I looked up and saw this building, I was reminded of a room in the old Fun House at Cedar Point where everything was slanted and askew.

I prowled around the outside, snapping photos liberally. Though the building seemed closed, I got the sense that at least parts of it were inhabited.

I love the way the different angles of sunlight bring out different colors in the building.

If the Curaçao tourist board wants to feature an Abandoned & Urbex tour of Willemstad, they can contact me.

The Ancient Town of San Germán: Puerto Rico 72 Hours Before Hurricane Maria

Concluding my account of the circumnavigation of Puerto Rico just three days before Hurricane Maria struck . . . .

After a brief stop in Salinas and a foray into the jungle in search of the Doña Juana waterfall, I headed west by northwest on Route 2. This had not been my original plan, but on the morning before I left, I was reading through a guidebook and found a description of an ancient town that seemed too enticing to ignore. I decided to save the beaches of Cabo Rojo for another trip and instead headed inland to San Germán.

As I pulled into town, the first sight that greeted me was the Porta Coeli convent, a church building erected by the Dominicans in 1606. I climbed the 24 steps to the front door and turned around. The town square spread out before me as perfect and unpopulated as a movie set.

I was here:

There was a grand Victorian-style house on the nearest corner whose windows had been boarded over as protection against Hurricane Irma, which had grazed the island two weeks earlier.

I turned around and went into the convent. The building was now owned by the government of Puerto Rico and operated as a museum. There was an historian stationed there who seemed starved for visitors to share her stories with. I told her what I was most interested in seeing at that moment was a bathroom. She looked disappointed, but pointed me the way.

As I came back through the sanctuary, I was surrounded by the iconography of anguish, despair, and torture.

In such an environment, it was easy for me to understand the streak of melancholy that seems to pervade so much of the Latin American world.

The historian eagerly informed me that in her view, San Germán, and not San Juan, was the oldest European city in Puerto Rico. It seems that there was a Spanish settlement by that name in the region as early as 1511, but it was attacked by the French several times and had to relocate inland, putting down roots in its present location in 1573. San Juan was founded in 1521. So what makes a city, its people or its buildings? If it’s people, then San Germán can legitimately claim to be older than San Juan. If it’s buildings, then San Juan is older.

It got the idea that the historian had a chip on her shoulder about this. She believed that San Germán would be more famous (and more touristed) if it could clearly lay claim to being the oldest European city in Puerto Rico. As for me, I was glad not to see tourist hoards invading this quiet, beautiful town. I’ve been to Old San Juan. There’s a god damn Marshall’s there. Need I say more? San Germán seemed perfect to me as is.

After walking around town for a couple hours, I was tired, hot, and a little queasy from all the mountain roads. I cranked up the Allman Brothers on my iPod and headed to the west coast of the island. There I turned north and hugged the shore all the way on the two and a half hour drive back to San Juan. I felt happy and very satisfied with my day trip. Yosuke, my new Toyota 4Runner, had performed admirably under even the most adverse conditions. I looked forward to visiting many more places around the island in the months to come.

Little did I know that just 24 hours later I would be hastily making flight plans, securing my apartment, and packing a small bag to take with me as I fled to Curaçao early the next morning.

As I write this a week later from the comfort of a hostel bedroom in Willemstad, I wonder the current condition the places I visited last weekend. I wonder about the old man I saw sunning himself in the park in Salinas. I wonder about the people who live on the mountainside I mistakenly drove up and how treacherous the drive was even in the best of weather. And I wonder about the stately, harmonious architecture of San Germán and whether those buildings that have seen so much have withstood this century’s most devastating storm.

The Doña Juana Waterfall: Puerto Rico 72 Hours Before Hurricane Maria

Continuing my story of what Puerto Rico was like just before it was ravaged by Hurricane Maria . . .

After my quick stop in Salinas, I continued west. Midway between Santa Isabel and Ponce, I swung north on Route 149 and back up into the mountains again. The road changed from four lanes of pavement to two lanes to something more like one and a half lanes of dirt.

Signage was bad and the GPS on my mobile phone was going wonky, so somewhere I made a wrong turn. In a few kilometers, I found myself on a dirt track so narrow that the jungle reached in and brushed Yosuke (my Toyota 4Runner) on both sides. The road got incredibly steep, steeper than any incline I have ever driven. I watched nervously as my dashboard temperature gauge started to climb along with me. I’d left my inclinometer at home, but I estimate I was on a 40% slope. My windshield was filled with palm fronds and blue sky.

I turned gingerly through several sharp switchbacks, U-turns so tight and so steep I had to crank the steering wheel all the way to the right just to make it. Two times Yosuke broke traction on the incline and I had a terrifying vision of sliding backward off the road and down the mountain. I had no choice but to go forward, though, since there were few places wide enough to turn around. It seemed to take forever, but after about 1.5 kilometers, I found a little house with a turnout just wide enough for Yosuke to navigate. Back down the mountainside I went, worrying now about how well my brakes would hold me on the gravel trail.

I figured out where I’d made my navigation error and headed north again on the correct route. This road was only a little better than the one I’d just left, but it was paved for the most part and wasn’t quite as steep. Occasionally I passed by the sobering wrecks of vehicles that had slid off the road and rolled down the steep embankment.

My goal was to find the Doña Juana waterfall, which my guidebook said was the highest waterfall on the island. Puerto Rico is not exactly noted for its waterfalls, and at only about 200 feet, Doña Juana was not exactly world-class, but it was my goal nonetheless. Having an objective, no matter how slight or silly, motivates me to keep on traveling. I began to pass over small mountain streams and occasionally got a peek at the valley below.

Finally, I passed by the Doña Juana falls, but since the site is hardly a tourist attraction, there was no place to park. The road was so narrow that I couldn’t just stop and get out without blocking traffic, so I continued another kilometer down the road, found a place turn turn around, headed back, pulled over where the road was slightly wider, and walked the rest of the way. Next to my parking spot was an impenetrable wall of jungle.

The waterfall was refreshingly uncommercialized. There wasn’t even so much as a marker or a plaque, much less anything like a gift shop or souvenir stand. This pleased me.

I was here:

I took a few photos, got back into the truck, and continued back down the mountain to the coast, where I continued my travels west.

Salinas: Puerto Rico 72 Hours Before Hurricane Maria

September 16, 2017 was the last day before news of the approach of Hurricane Maria drastically altered my course. I had bought a used Toyota 4Runner four days earlier. That Saturday was the first free day I’d had since then to get out of the San Juan metro area and explore the rest of Puerto Rico. And so I did.

The next day, I was making plans to evacuate. Two days after that, Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

As I look at these photos, safe on the island of Curaçao and far from Maria’s swath of destruction, they take on a different meaning than they’d had when I took them. They now seem like a documentary of the last full day I had before Maria forced me to flee my new home.

Even though this was just a day trip, I spent a lot of time dithering about what to pack. I was a little nervous. I hadn’t driven much since I moved to China in mid-2013. I was out of practice at solo road trips. And the prospect of driving in a foreign land is always a little daunting. I could understand the road signs well enough, but the unwritten folkways and mores of Puerto Rican traffic were still known to me only by observation. But part of being brave about travel is feeing those pre-departure jitters and being just brave enough to grab your bags and walk out the door.

I was on the road by 6:20. I like early starts. And Yosuke’s air conditioner doesn’t work, so I wanted to make the most of the the morning cool. Yosuke ia a boy’s name which means something like “helping hand” or “to give help” in Japanese. It’s what I named my truck to honor his Japanese ancestry and remind me of how grateful I was to have him.

Once on the road, I turned the radio to WIPR 91.3 FM, San Juan’s public radio station. It was blasting opera, which seemed somehow appropriate to my journey that day. Not that circumnavigating Puerto Rico (an island about the size of Connecticut) counts as an epic voyage, but after five weeks of being cooped up in San Juan and its environs, it felt that way to me.

South of Cauguas, the urban sprawl of San Juan disappeared and I began to climb the mountains that cut the island in half on an east/west axis. Instead of zooming through a land of billboards and cinderblock buildings, I was on a stretch of road where all I could see was trees on both sides of the highway. Yosuke labored mightily to get up the mountain roads; for all its many virtues, my truck is massively underpowered. Still, the temperature gauge remained admirably on low despite the heat of the morning and despite the way I was flogging the little four-banger engine.

Once over the mountain range, I descended to the Caribbean coast and made my first stop, almost randomly, in Salinas. I was here:

I parked in the town square and walked around to stretch my legs. It was a nice public space, lined by a mix of Spanish colonial and more contemporary buildings, including a public library that looked like aliens were queued up outside it, waiting to check out some good reads.

The park in the center of the square was planted with gnarly trees that seemed to my untrained eye distinctly tropical.

There were also several of these odd-looking structures in the middle of the square. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they were. I first thought they were some kind of ventilation shafts for an underground parking garage, but there was no underground installation there. Maybe they’re some kind of greenhouses or structures for protecting plants?

I didn’t stay in Salinas long. Instead I turned west and hugged the Caribbean coast. With the calm blue waters winking in and out to my left, it felt like a great day to be alive and on the road.

Curaçao Colors

Curaçao is a Dutch island about 50 miles off the Venezuelan coast. About 160,000 people live on this island, of whom more than 90% live in the capital city, Willemstad. It was here I flew on Monday, September 18 to avoid the wrath of Hurricane Maria as it bore down on Puerto Rico.

The first thing you notice as you approach the city is color. There are traditional Dutch colors of red, white, blue and orange mixed with electric Caribbean shades of green, yellow, purple, and pink.

Even some of the city’s vehicles have adopted the color scheme.

The same colors were on display at the market by the waterfront.

A little further up the street, I saw a fruit truck being unloaded by a colorful game of catch.

There were also some odd birds whose plumage was as vivid as the walls of the old Dutch colonial buildings.

Santo Domingo: The Zona Colonial

My visit to the Dominican Republic was all too short. So as not to spread myself too thin or spend too much of my time in transit, I concentrated on the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the first permanent European city in the New World and the only such city founded before 1500. It’s certainly a tourist spot, but it’s also a very real neighborhood that houses the rich, the poor, and those in between.

Since this part of the city was built by the Spanish colonists, it’s not surprising to find monuments and street names honoring Christopher Columbus. Columbus has fallen out of favor in the more developed world for being a plunderer, a colonizer, an initiator of genocide, and an all-around disagreeable person. So it’s ironic that he is still quite popular in the land where he committed the depredations he is so stridently accused of.

One of the things the Spaniards did in pretty quick order was to build fortifications around city to protect it — not from the native population, but from other colonial powers that might try to muscle in on their good thing. This watchtower overlooks the approach to the Santo Domingo harbor. On the day I was there, the watch was kept by a dog enjoying the relative cool of the shade.

The Spanish also brought Catholicism to Santo Domingo, a legacy that lives in the faith of its people and in the ancient churches that dot the Zona Colonial.

Where else could you see Job: The Musical but in a seriously religious country?

Even comparatively recent residential buildings bear a strong Spanish influence.

The Ruins of the Monasterio de San Francisco

There are so many ancient churches, convents, and monasteries in Santo Domingo that it seems like the authorities have forgotten about half of them. One such unrestored site is the Monasterio de San Francisco and was located just a few blocks from the hostel. The 16th century ruins were gated and shuttered, but I was able to find my way in.

And then, while I was traipsing around the ruins while wearing nothing on my feet but Teva sandals, I glanced down . . . and every old-brain fight-or-flight neuron blazed on and time slowed to a turtle speed and my vision became sharper and narrower and every muscle in my body tensed and my heart slammed into overdrive. Only then did I realize it was an old shoe, not a snake.

Which raises interesting questions: what is a single woman’s shoe doing there?

Boca Chica

One of the great things about staying in hostels is that it’s easy to meet people who are going out to see what’s to be seen, just like you. I like traveling alone. But I also enjoy connecting with other travelers for short excursions. Which is what happened when I met Shuqiang Ma.

Ma is a 56 year old Chinese man who lives in Riga, Latvia. He is a serious, committed traveler and has visited over 90 countries. I liked him immediately. We chatted about southwest China where I used to live, and I was happy to find that he had been to many of the towns in Yunnan Province that I visited. Though he hadn’t been in Santo Domingo any longer than I, he has already sussed out the cheapest ways to get around. I discovered later that he also has an excellent sense of direction, which is always a good quality in a travel companion.

Over breakfast at the Island Life Backpackers Hostel, he mentioned that he was going to Boca Chica that morning and asked if I’d like to come along. Why not?

Ma had already scoped out a public bus that runs from Santo Domingo to Boca Chica and that costs only a few dollars. We set off to find the bus station together. Ma led us there in fifteen minutes.

The ride out to Boca Chica tracked the coastline as we headed east. The bus was full. I sat hip-to-hip next to a lushly-upholstered Dominican woman named Rosa. Once the bus driver cranked up the salsa, Rosa began singing along and dancing in her seat. Being the nearest available dance partner, I began sit-dancing along with her. We cracked each other up. Across the aisle, Ma look on, bemused.

As we headed out of the city, the road tracked the Caribbean shore. In thirty minutes, we were at Boca Chica, a town whose major attraction is its public beach. The place had a slightly seedy, over-used look to it. Other travelers had warned us that the touts, pimps, and souvenir salesmen there were a constant annoyance, but though we did encounter a few such people, it was hardly overwhelming. And they generally took one firm no for an answer.

We were here:

Ma and I took turns swimming in the warm, calm Caribbean waters.

Lots of Dominicans were out for a Sunday swim too.

One of the more unusual sights at the beach was a children’s play area with a swing set topped with roughly-scuplted airplanes. I was even more surprised to see American and Israeli flags on the planes. I couldn’t decide if this was some sort of political commentary — and if so, if it was intended to be positive or negative.

After a few hours, we walked through the edge of the town to the bus stop and headed back to Santo Domingo.

By the time we were back at the hostel, I was feeling the effects of the sun and sea and took a brief nap before rising to go explore again.