An American Abroad

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.

Santurce Graffiti, Murals, Tags, and Unauthorized Public Art

The Santurce dictrict of San Juan can fairly be described as an aspiring arts mecca. Not that many years ago, many Puerto Ricans considered it a dangerous drug- and crime-infested place rather than a neighborhood to be proud of. Though there are still grim and blighted parts of Santurce, other areas have exploded with vibrant colors, new businesses, and young Puerto Ricans looking for a place to live. The neighborhood’s revival is another testament to the power of public art to change both the perception and the reality of an urban locale.

There’s a lot of street art in Santurce. And many of these works can be found on and around my favorite street, Calle Loíza.

Some of the most striking works depict human heads and figures.

The tagging is exuberant and precisely rendered.

Murals are common and certainly add life to otherwise derelict buildings. Click here to see what the building in the two photographs below looked like just a few years ago. Quite a turnaround, no?

The wall in the photo below, though, shows that far more subtle compositions can be even more effective at setting the mood of a streetscape.

All of these photos were taken on and around Calle Loíza, which runs parallel to the beach just two blocks north. But there are equally wonderful works of public art in other parts of Santurce. And eventually I will get around to photographing them.

The Santurce Culinary & Art Festival

Some writers call Santurce “the Brooklyn of San Juan.” And there is a hip, entrepreneurial, artistic spirit to this barrio. As the New York Times cooed recently, you can walk down the man drag and find new restaurants “led by inventive chefs who prize local ingredients.” There are dance clubs, boutiques and vintage clothing shops, a gay bar, bakeries, an upscale tattoo and body piercing shop, and colorful graffiti everywhere.

It seems like the perfect setting for a culinary and art festival.

Unfortunately, the actual event didn’t quite live up to its potential. There weren’t very many exhibitors — and there was a certain sameness about those who did show up. Attendance was probably in the high hundreds, but not much more. Still, the vibe was festive and relaxed.

I heard a strong cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” as I approached Calle Loíza. Though Kingston is two islands and 700 miles west of San Juan, no one was complaining about the Caribbean cultural mash-up. The song set my mood for the day. And it was coming from this boutique/cafe, where the bartender mixes a mean mojito.

The first festival-goer I met was jauntily dressed and seemed to be enjoying all the people who came up and talked with him.

He wasn’t the only one who was literally at street-level. Two of the artists from the hipster tattoo parlor were making chalk art on the sidewalk.

Older folks lugged lawn chairs out in front of the pumps at the local filling station and sat there talking, drinking, and people watching. Hanging out like that is pretty common here and, to my mind, nicely obliterates the ordinary commercial grimness of gas stations.

Alcohol, rather than food, seemed to be the vice of choice at the festival. Bar tents outnumbered food tents by about three to one.

The spirit of the festival seemed to be to be captured by this bumpersticker. I think Bob Marley would approve.

It wasn’t only people on the street who were enjoying the relaxed mood of the day. You can just see the bare feet of a man sacked out in a hammock on his Calle Loíza balcony.

While he took a siesta, other people took advantage of the festival being closed to cars and promenaded down the street, seeing and hoping to be seen.

Others used the occasion to walk the dog.

After a couple hours of walking around, I craved someplace peaceful to sit and relax. I walked over to a Dominican chinchorro (i.e., a hole-in-the-wall bar) just off Calle Loíza and bought a Medalla beer from Mercedes, the beautiful old woman who runs the place. I took a seat out on the sidewalk in a plastic lawn chair, watched the world go by, and did my best to chat up one of the Dominican guys who’s a regular at the place.

Santurce’s not Brooklyn, but it’s not trying to be. It’s more like a laboratory where many mostly-younger Puerto Ricans are trying to build something new in a barrio that used to be known for drugs, crime, and blight. Not everyone approves of the changes that are happening here.

My take, though, is that even if the festival wasn’t a roaring success, the people of Santurce are succeeding at building something more enduring and important.

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.

Leaving for Puerto Rico

Man plans; God laughs. Although I’m not a believer, I appreciate the underlying truth of that aphorism.

I’ve been stateside and earthbound for over two years now. There were times when I wondered if my expat days were behind me. I thought about going abroad again every single day, but I’d vowed to myself not to leave again until my seemingly-interminable divorce was concluded.

There were some tough times in the last two years, but many more good ones.

I got to act in some wonderful stage and screen productions.

I found work that appealed to my practical, physical problem-solving skills.

I wrote some things I’m proud of and was recognized for.

I learned more about the natural world. I saved money, even when I wasn’t earning very much.

I discovered new friends.

I worked hard on a local political issue.

I fell in love with someone who lets me be me.

But now it’s time for a new chapter. In four days, I’ll be moving to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I have accepted a job as managing editor of a web-based publication that provides consumer information, reviews, and product comparisons.

Truth be told, Puerto Rico was never on my mental map of places I might go to live. In fact, a year ago I would have told you there was far more chance that I’d wind up in someplace like Uzbekistan than on a Caribbean island. But an opportunity came my way that was too enticing to pass up. And so here I go.

Stay tuned….