An American Abroad

Hato Rey: My New Neighborhood

Tomorrow I celebrate three weeks in Puerto Rico and nine days in my new home in the San Juan neighborhood of Hato Rey. It’s a neighborhood of vertical living and working. I live in a cluster of apartment buildings between 12 and 16 stories tall. At street level, large shade trees provide relief from the tropical August heat. At my level, the eleventh floor of a building on Calle Honduras, gentle breezes blow from the balcony to my kitchen. I get home from work, get some cross-ventilation going, and cook myself dinner.

In the morning, the skies are light blue with puffs of seaside clouds. This is what I see out my window.

Downstairs, out through the lobby, and just a short block away down Calle Mejico is a city park one small block square. There are basketball courts and a swingset for the kids–but at the center of the park is a pavilion with shelves of books free for the taking.

I’ve seen Libros Libres (Free Books) in several parts of San Juan. It’s a mystery to me who sets them up, who tends them, and who frequents them. But I’m glad they exist. I’ve helped myself to one book so far, a hardboiled detective novel by Ross Macdonald. I plan to crack it next weekend.

Though most of Hato Rey is office towers and apartment buildings, there is an old human-scale district just north of where I live. There, the houses are made of wood and breeze block and are, at most, two and a half stories tall. The streets have letter and number names, not the Latin American nation names that the streets have where I live. It’s not a well-heeled locale, but it has a jaunty feel to it that the concrete towers of Hato Rey lack.

The only institutions in this part of Hato Rey are housefront churches of the evangelical Protestant variety and this place, which is called a chinchorro in Puerto Rican Spanish.

Chinchorros are tiny hole-in-the-wall bars–literally, in this case. Customers get their drinks through the window and then sit on ratty old plastic lawn chairs right in the street or on the sidewalk. They are loose, boisterous, fun places.

Darkness comes earlier here than it does in America. From my kitchen window, I look down onto a deserted parking area.

Tomorrow I will get up early again and explore more. Because right now, there is nowhere I would rather be.

Apartment Project

One of my resolutions on coming to Tunisia was to make my living space cozier than what I had in China. True, my apartment here will probably not be a long-term home, but even so I want it to be comfortable and pleasing.

I wanted a big desk, and when I saw some discarded cabinet doors and a stainless steel table base mouldering away on the terrace outside Amideast‘s offices, I had an idea. This is how it developed.





Also, when I was in El Jem, I bought an old window grate which someone had set into a wood frame and decorated with a folk art motif. It looks at home now on a wall in my apartment, just north of a couple of Vietnamese poster coasters that I picked up in Hoi An.


Next step: finding some posters for my blank walls.

My Terrible Chinese

My Chinese is so lame. When I speak with people in person, I can make myself understood with facial expressions, gestures, pantomimes, and little drawings. However, I just tried placing a phone order for a twenty-liter bottle of water to be delivered to my apartment. I think I may have accidentally ordered home delivery of twenty dessicated goat carcasses.

UPDATE: After three days of no water and no goat carcasses, I determined that the fault was less with my bad Chinese than my failure to dial the right number. This morning I called the correct office and had water (not goats) delivered thirty minutes later.

A New Store in the Neighborhood

It’s hard to argue with success. Any country that considers a 7.5% annual GDP growth rate as a slowdown clearly knows a lot about business. Nevertheless, there are things that just don’t make sense to me about the local economy here.

I live in a brand new apartment complex of three 24-story towers and two smaller four-story buildings. The ground floors here were built as commercial space, but have all been vacant since I moved in. I was therefore pleased to see workmen start to build out one of those spaces a couple weeks ago.

I wondered what kind of business would move in. The rents here are higher than in many parts of town and most of the people who have moved in so far appear to be a notch or two above the economic average. So maybe the new store would be a boutique or a gallery of some kind. Or perhaps a restaurant? A convenience store? A hair salon? Surely it would be a place that the hundreds of people this complex was designed to house would find necessary, useful or appealing.

Late last week, I walked by the new emporium just as the security gate was being rolled up. At last I would see what kind of store was opening here in my building. With much anticipation, I looked in and saw that it was a store that sells . . .

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. . . fire hydrants.


Look, who among us can say that he or she has never gone out and bought a brand spankin’ new fire hydrant on impulse? Still, it’s hard for me to understand why a store that sells such things has been established on the ground floor of an upscale apartment tower. As I said, though, it’s hard to argue with economic success. I wish my new neighbors much success and hope that their fire hydrant store is still in business when I move back to the US.

Where in the World Am I?

Right here:

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Moving In

I now have a home in Yuxi, a two-bedroom one-bathroom semi-furnished apartment on the 18th floor of a brand-new 24-story high-rise. What’s more, I now have WiFi, which will put me back in communication with the outside world.

It wasn’t easy finding a place this size. Most of the apartments that are available here are in newer buildings and have three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Yes, it’s far easier to find a big apartment here than a small one. This may be because few people in Yuxi live alone—they live in family units, so there is a much larger supply of bigger apartments. And paradoxically, most of the smaller flats that do exist tend to be just as—or more—expensive than bigger ones. One explanation I heard for this is that smaller places tend to be leased by wealthy Chinese men looking for a screw pad or a place to stash a mistress. At any rate, I didn’t want to live in a three-bedroom place that would seem sad and empty for a whole year. I set out to locate cozier digs.

I found them in a three-tower complex on Hongta Dadao, the main street of downtown Yuxi, on an end where the large commercial buildings start to thin out. The place is still largely empty and construction is ongoing. I’d guess that the building is less than 10% occupied.

Just behind my building is an area of vintage China, with block after block of older low-rise apartment buildings housing convenience stores, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, foot massage parlors, and barbershops at street level. These establishments are generally open to the sidewalk and are fronted by roll-up security gates instead of doors and windows. I like this openness to the street. So many stores in the US seem to turn their backs on the surrounding city (e.g., Westgate in Toledo) or to moat themselves off from their surroundings with Acres of Free Parking. The configuration here invites passers-by into the shops and the shopkeepers onto the sidewalk. It gives the place more of a communal feel.

This is a friendly neighborhood. It took a few days and a determination on my part to smile, but people now regularly say hi or hello to me as I walk down the street. I am a definite novelty; by most estimates there are maybe twenty western expats living in this city of 1.5 million people. Across Hongta Dadao is a commercial market district lined with one-story buildings occupied by small businesses generally clustered by type. I’m closest to four square blocks of stores that sell doors, windows, tile, and other building materials and fixtures.

My apartment has a nice living/dining area that looks out through a large window onto the city and the mountains that mark the edge of the Tibetan highlands. I hope to place some nice cushions and pillows on the large window seat. It should be a great spot for hanging out, reading, working on my laptop, or just admiring the view.

My bedroom has a similar, though smaller, window seat. The bed is big enough, but the mattress is hard as a board. In fact, I think it IS a board. When I first saw the apartment and sat down on the bed, I said “Oh, there’s a box spring—now all I need is a mattress.” My boss, an old China hand, chuckled and said, “That IS the mattress.” I’m currently in the market for a thick quilt or comforter to soften it a bit.

The second bedroom is slightly smaller; I’m currently using it for storage and sorting. Neither bedroom has a closet—in fact, in a day and a half of apartment hunting last week, I never saw an apartment that had any closets at all.

The kitchen is a tiny and L-shaped, with low counters (for obvious ethno-anatomical reasons) and high cabinets (perfect for whacking my stupid American head against). Yuxi apartments like this do not have ovens, since Chinese cooking is generally done on a stovetop. I hope to find a countertop roaster so I can toast, bake and broil. I was lucky to find a coffeemaker—a real rarity here. My stove is single but powerful gas-fired burner with a ventilation hood over it. The gas is not plumbed in, but comes from a tank under the counter that will last about a month of regular use. When it’s empty, the gas company will bring me a new one. DSC01797

The short leg of the kitchen L morphs into my laundry area. I have a small washing machine (cold water only). I don’t have a dryer—another appliance that seems uncommon here. So far, though, I haven’t needed one. I set up a rack next to the window and hang my laundry there. The climate is such that it’s dry in half a day. DSC01801

I also keep my bottled water in that area—another deliveryman brings replacements when I run dry. The water bottles are carried on a 125 cc motorcycle that has a custom rack mounted on back that can hold eight of these five-gallon bottles.DSC01800

That year-round spring-like climate accounts for the fact that my flat has neither heat nor air conditioning. So far, even though the days have been warmer than usual, with days in the mid-80s and nights in the mid-70s, I haven’t missed air conditioning at all. Eighteen floors up, the breezes coming in off the mountains through my screen windows keep the place very comfortable.


My bathroom has some features that may strike some of my American friends as strange. DSC01793There is no shower stall, just a shower fixture: the bathroom is truly a bath room. The toilet is not a western-style hopper, but a typical Asian porcelain hole in the floor, which doubles as the shower drain. Using such facilities requires one to place the feet on either side of the hole and squat down. This in turn requires supple hamstrings and something resembling a suspension of disbelief. After relieving oneself, the toilet is flushed in the usual (western) manner by pushing a lever or button on the toilet tank, which floods the porcelain trough with water.

There is no toilet paper holder in the bathroom, and so far I’ve been unable to find a freestanding one. Of course, given the configuration of the shower, a roll of toilet paper mounted almost anywhere would get soaked every time the shower was used. What’s more, Chinese toilet plumbing will rebel against the introduction of wads of toilet paper. I keep my toilet paper in under the sink, get it out only when it’s needed, and throw it in the garbage after using it.

What to make of all this? Herewith follows a digression on the Practical & Cultural Implications of the Chinese Bathrooms.

1) It’s not that the Chinese can’t manufacture western toilets; they can and do. It’s not that such toilets cost a lot more than Chinese toilets; they don’t. My conclusion is that folks here prefer the squat-and-shit models. Some say they’re better for your health, and I can attest that one can do one’s business on a Chinese toilet with a lot less huffing and puffing, so maybe it’s true.

2) This layout does allow for multitasking. Theoretically I could take a shower, shave, and pee all at the same time. Theoretically.

3) Squatting spreads the ass cheeks, while western toilet seats compress them. Then too, Chinese asses aren’t generally as fleshy as the American variety. Thus one simply stays cleaner when excreting and toilet paper is not as necessary.

4) For those not willing to wipe with one’s hand and then wash maniacally, carrying toilet paper is a good idea.

5) Hypothesis for further consideration: maybe Chinese people don’t eat as much crap we Americans do, so whatever inconveniences Asian toilets present aren’t as significant as they would be back in the States. Garbage in, garbage out.

6) The Chinese hole-in-the-floor toilets bring one closer to one’s own shit. Perhaps this is a vestige of the peasant pragmatism of much of the population and a greater comfort with the body and its functions.

Over the next few months, my challenge will be to make the place feel homier without spending much money. Being a new building, the place still feels soulless and very white. I’m only going to be here a year, so I don’t want to invest heavily in home décor, but I’m looking for ways to make it more welcoming.