An American Abroad

Tarping in Chupacabra Country

We met at 9:30 Saturday morning at a Thai restaurant in Santurce. The eight of us loaded up three SUVs with water filter kits, tarps, tools, a generator, gasoline, diapers, OTC meds, and water.

I lashed a ladder to the roof rack of the 4Runner and we were off, caravanning east on Puerto Rico 66.

In half an hour we reached Canóvanas, a town of about 50,000 people. Its claim to fame is that the chupacabra, a ferocious mythical animal, supposedly exsanguinated and killed 150 farm animals and pets there in 1995. City officials promoted chupacabra tourism to the cryptozoological community after that, but it never really caught on. I guess if you advertise that sort of thing, you eventually have to produce a real live chupacabra or people lose interest. Anyway, I spent the whole day there and was disappointed that I didn’t glimpse a single blood-sucking monster (unless you count city officials and other politicians).

We parked in a very poor neighborhood, split up into teams, and began walking door to door, taking a disaster census and trying to get some sense of who needed what. We enlisted two neighborhood boys, Alejandro (age 11) and Javier (age 10) as our guides.

As usual with kids that age, they knew the neighborhood, its people, and their secrets remarkably well. After a while, I turned over my camera to them. Many of the pictures below were taken by them, not me.

Canóvanas got hammered by Hurricane Maria. El Caño, the neighborhood we were in, was particularly vulnerable to her destructive power. At one edge of it lies an expanse of wetlands, separated from El Caño by a polluted stream. Opposite that are steep hillsides dotted with houses. When the storm hit, the wetlands and the stream overflowed dramatically. Houses were flooded up to their ceilings by water rising from below and pelted from above by winds, water, and mud rushing down the hillsides.

Personally, I’d rather take my chances with a chupacabra.

We found a number of houses that had been destroyed and abandoned.

We also found people who had the ubiquitous blue tarps over what remained of their roof, but who were still living in horrible conditions. Rotten floors. Black mold over everything. Missing walls. Sodden furniture.

We saw many houses with fresh-washed laundry hanging out to dry. I thought maybe Saturday was a traditional laundry day until one resident explained to us that they had just gotten their city water service restored a few days ago. For the two and a half months before then, washing clothes had been nearly impossible. And of course electricity there is still a distant memory.

There was a strong sentiment among the relief workers and the residents that political arrogance and infighting was to blame for the condition of the neighborhood. Many of the people who live there are undocumented immigrants from the Dominican Republic. “The mayor sees no reason to help us, since we can’t vote for her,” one man told me.

Relief workers complained that the mayor of Canóvanas has tried to turn their efforts into political events and has even blocked people from receiving help.

As if to underscore the prevalence of disaster politics, while we were working in the poorest part of Canóvanas, a big helicopter flew overhead and deposited New York Governor Cuomo and Puerto Rican Governor Rossello at a big whoop-de-doo hosted by the mayor in the center of town (far from where we were working). “There were maybe 15 local people there,” one disgusted aid worker told me later. “It’s all politics, a backdrop. They all congratulated each other on what great work they’re doing, but they’re not doing shit for these people.”

After we’d done our initial assessment, we all met up again to decide what to do.

One team assembled and passed out water filters. Even though city water is back on, most people don’t believe it’s safe to drink. Another team continued exploring the neighborhood and tried to get a sense of where the most acute needs were.

The team I was with went to the home of a lovely 72 year old Dominican woman named Camelara. The corrugated roof of her house had been damaged in the hurricane and water was leaking into her bedroom every time it rained (which, on a tropical island, is pretty often).

It took the four of us the better part of the afternoon to secure her roof. We had to remove a large, heavy floodlight that was mounted up there. It was far too heavy to walk down a ladder with, so I hacked off a dangling length of coax from a nearby utility pole, tied it around the floodlight, and gently lowered it to the ground. One of our team used a sawzall to trim back some trees that were overhanging and brushing against the roof. Duct tape was applied to the edges of the corrugated metal so that they wouldn’t rip into the tarps as they dangled. Then we laid 1x3s on the tarps directly over the rafters (which we couldn’t see, but deduced the position of from the layout of the fasteners that held the corrugated steel). Using power screwdrivers, we screwed down through the 1x3s, the tarps, and the corrugated steel into the rafters.

It was hot and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. My face got fried to a lovely pre-melanomic hue and my shirt was soaked through. And I was the one on our team doing the least amount of work. The guys who did the lion’s share must have felt like they were being simultaneously baked and fried.

Finally we finished, brought our tools and supplies down, and sucked down ice water and beer our group leader brought for us. Carmelara dragged some chairs out of her ramshackle house and we sat down to talk, rest, and take stock of a job well done.

Camelara was witty, talkative, and warm. She thanked us repeatedly and insisted that we should come back next weekend and she would make hamburgers for us. The generosity runs both ways here.

The eight of us reassembled and caravanned into town for a meal, beer, and shots at a local restaurant. We drove back to San Juan, offloaded the ladder, tools, and remaining supplies at the Thai restaurant. I got back to my apartment about 7:45 and was taking a cold shower within minutes. Even though I’d eaten at the restaurant, I fixed myself a large second dinner and was asleep before 10:00.

United for Utuado

It was 60 days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. After an 80-minute drive from San Juan, 17 of us rendezvoused in Utuado, a down-at-the-heels town in central Puerto Rico.

The owners of a fabric store there allow United for Utuado to use their shop as a staging area for relief work. CP Smith, the man behind the organization, gave us our mission orders and reviewed the specs on the water filtration systems we were to give away.

Then we loaded my 4Runner and three other SUVs with the filters, MREs, packs of OTC meds, Pedialyte, diapers, toiletries, and medical supplies.

Our team consisted of Angel, a gastroenterologist; Francisco, an internal medicine physician; Dee, a restaurant owner and force of nature; and Khalah, a computer programmer who handled nav and comms. I was the wheelman and general factotum.

We crossed the remaining river bridges that dot the town and headed up from the valley into the mountains.

It was raining. The roads were bad, deeply potholed stretches of crumbling pavement barely wider than the truck.

Downed electric lines littered our path. We just rolled over them.

We passed many houses that had been destroyed by the hurricane. These were somber reminders that people here had died in the storm and its immediate aftermath.

As we wound our way up, we traversed portions of road that had been washed out by rain and mudslides. Their edges were defined by sheer drops down the mountains. I worried that the remaining roadways might have been undermined by rushing water; I hugged the mountain as much as possible. Conversation in the truck slowed as we motored upward. The 4Runner rarely got out of first gear.

More than one person we talked to en route told us that not long ago, a car had slipped off the edge of the road and rolled down the mountain, killing all but one member of the family inside. After that, one of the doctors got out of the 4Runner and walked across a particularly dubious-looking stretch of cliff-edged pavement. Whether this was out of genuine concern for his hide or a humorous attempt to scare the rest of us I couldn’t work out.

Our primary objective was to distribute and install water filters and teach people to use them. The heart of these devices is a cylinder about the size of a bratwurst. Inside each is a bundle of carbon nanotubes, each 0.1 microns in diameter. To set these up, we used a tiny butane torch and a utility knife to poke a hole a Homer Bucket, a garbage can, or some other plastic container. We installed a tap through the hole and connected the tap to a filter.

Installing the filters in deeper buckets posed some interesting challenges and provided one of the few lighter moments of the day.

The nanotubes screen out bacteria and particulates. This is vital in a region where people are drinking from mountain streams. There have been hundreds of cases of leptospirosis here many of them fatal. Fine as the filters are, though, they don’t stop viruses or atomic-level contaminants such as heavy metals and other toxins.

The doctors in our team performed medical assessments, passsed out OTC meds, and noted serious conditions that might require evac or hospitalization.

All of us took note of situations that might require follow-up from social workers, medical teams, FEMA, or other relief workers.

We also dropped geolocation pins in a mapping app at each stop and took a census at each house. This data went straight to an outfit in Cambridge, Massachusetts which is compiling a detailed disaster map of the region.

To describe the area around Utuado as marked by rural poverty would be accurate but insufficient. It’s also marked by very intelligent and resourceful people. Living on a mountainside isn’t easy, but it breeds self-reliance and a spirit of neighborly assistance. One area of the road that had been partially washed out had been rebuilt by the locals using felled power poles, downed guy wires, pieces of blown-off corrugated roofing, and their own ingenuity.

In the same area, a man was raising downed power lines (which weigh hundreds if not thousands of pounds) that hung limp from the remaining utility poles. He attached the broken end to the back of his Corolla, drove forward, and slowly lifted and tightened them. Everyone we saw had some kind of jerry-rigged water collection apparatus.

The individual stories we heard were as many and varied, as uplifting and disturbing, as simple and complex as the rest of human experience.

We interrupted one woman as she and a couple neighbors were about to celebrate her birthday. We installed a water filter on a Homer Bucket, which she said was the best birthday present she could have hoped for.

We found another woman sitting in front of her hillside house high on something with a telltale thousand-yard stare. She made no move to get up. The doctors examined severe burns on her ankles and shoulders, which she vaguely explained she got “when a candle exploded.” Her two daughters, maybe eight and five, ran barefoot in the street, ate Chef Boyardee cold from the can, or played on a sodden mattress that was angled precariously on the front porch. Around the back of the house, we were alarmed to see that one of its concrete support beams had been dislodged by the storm and the mudslides.

We put together a water filter for her, but I had no confidence that she understood our instructions on how to use and maintain it. This was one case where Dee followed up with FEMA and other relief agencies in hopes that, at the very least, the family could be relocated somewhere safer.

A smiling seventyish man with a well-muscled frame, leathery brown skin, and a shock of silver hair began to give Dee a tour of his property. As he explained the improvements he had made over the years, he began to cry. “What will I do now? I love you. I love you. Thank you for coming,” he repeated.

Our most poignant stop took place toward the end of the day. By then, we were out of radio range of the other three trucks and anxious to get back to town, lest the others worry about us. An older woman led us into her house where, in what once might have been a living room, was a large crib. Lying crabbed on the mattress was her eleven-year-old grandson, a child with severe cerebral palsy and other profound disabilities. He wore only a diaper. He looked at us from his contorted position and might have smiled.

The doctors examined the boy and pronounced him in good condition and free of bedsores. The room was cluttered but clean. There was no sickroom odor. Solar panels and big batteries, donated by another relief agency, kept fans and other electricals running. Most remarkable was the grandmother’s beatific smile and easy laugh. Caring for a seriously disabled child on a remote mountainside would drive me into deepest despair. I marveled at her strength and character.

Back in town, we reconnected with the other teams, unloaded the remaining supplies into the fabric store, and went to a local restaurant for dinner. It was decompression for us all. We shared our experiences. Though the day had been long, we all felt energized. As we sat and talked, the power went out for about twenty minutes, reminding us that there is still much work to be done here.

Three Days Back in Puerto Rico

The sun was setting when I returned to San Juan. Hard to tell, but I suspect the people aboard the 737 with me were native Puerto Ricans. This was no tourist flight; this was people going home. Loud and extended clapping and cheering broke out when rubber touched tarmac, more so than on my other arrivals here.

The airport looked as it had when I first arrived here in August. By the time I picked up my bag, it was near dark. A taxi whisked me away. As we left the airport grounds, I began to register the post-Maria environment.

Unlit apartment blocks were silhouetted grey and dead across the bay. Many street lights and traffic signals were still standing, but without electricity they were just aspects of a civilization that had, for the time being, vanished. The driver slowed to a crawl at each intersection and warily scanned for cars. Gloom intensified as we got to the central city. Some shops on the main drags had generator power, but the side streets lay in total darkness. I could see nothing down those roads past the first fifteen feet. No one was outside. Ruined palms and piles of debris were caught in our headlights.

As we approached Hato Rey, electric lights shone from occasional apartment towers. My building was one of the random lit-up minority.

There was water damage in the elevator. Windows and balcony doors had blown in on the upper floors, followed by torrents of wind-driven rain. In some cases, the water spread through living rooms, out the doors, into the landings, and down the elevator shafts. The lift cables squawked for want of lubrication as I ascended.

I unlocked my front door and flicked on the lights. Apart from a faint musty smell, everything was as I’d left it. Actually, everything was neater. I had piled up all the living room furniture in the dining room and the hallway to protect against a balcony door breach. Folks who’d used the apartment while I was off-island had moved the furniture back and arranged my scattered stuff with military precision.

After taking stock of my living quarters, I walked two blocks to the supermarket. At sidewalk level, the city smelled like wet cardboard with notes of diesel and sewage. I stepped over power lines lying sinister on the sidewalk and ducked under coax cables drooping from utility poles.

The supermarket was calmer than it had been 51 days earlier when I was there while Maria was bearing down on the island and people were panic-buying. But there was no water to be had. Many of the frozen food shelves were empty. There was a prominent makeshift display of overpriced D batteries. Though the cash registers and the card readers were functioning, the cashier wrote down my purchase total and the transaction number in a dog-eared notebook.

After a fitful night, I woke up Wednesday morning and enjoyed a hot shower. As the water cascaded over my body, I realized that this ordinary personal hygiene ritual is now a distant memory to most of my neighbors. I felt something akin to guilt as the soapy water swirled down the drain.

My truck started right up. “I’m an old Toyota,” it said, a slight note of indignation creeping into its exhaust. “What’d you expect?”

The commute to work took longer than usual. Everyone seemed to be driving dazed, ten miles an hour slower than before the storm. The intersections were jammed. Is it my turn? Is it my turn? Cars inched through. Despite the care people were taking, I saw the aftermath of two accidents. It’s easy to get distracted driving here. Power poles loomed over the highway, canted at 45-degree angles and dangling wires. Light poles that had snapped but not completely broken looked like bad sculpture. Guardrails had been crushed by falling trees whose branches or trunks protruded horizontally into the roadway.

Trees. Images of tortured, mangled, ruined trees stay with me. This is a tropical island with lush vegetation and thick forests. But hundreds of thousands of trees have been denuded, stripped of leaves, amputated of limbs, uprooted from the soil.

There were piles of debris everywhere. Tree parts, aluminum siding, sodden mattresses, garbage, wire, sheetrock, rugs, glass, toys, furniture, rotting food, window frames, masonry, all piled high and waiting for someone to come scoop it up. It’s likely those piles will be untouched months hence.

The office seemed normal except for the thrum of generators that kept the power up. Coworkers swapped refugee tales, gossiped about absent friends, and shared tips on how to identify the symptoms of leptospirosis. “You’ve got two days to get treatment,” a Puerto Rican native said, “or you’re dead.” Water was running at a trickle, so it was flush with a friend in the bathrooms.

The next morning was wash, rinse, repeat. I went into work. I went out for lunch and waited in line ten minutes to use an ATM, fifteen for gas. When I returned, we started hearing that San Juan was again without power. I drove home, plugged the fridge into my one generator-powered outlet, and cooked spaghetti on a hotplate. It wasn’t as hot as it had been when Hurricane Irma had knocked power out for six days. I padded carefully around my still-unfamiliar apartment, using muscle memory and LED flashlights to avoid collisions with the inanimate.

By Friday I left for work already thinking with Maria brain: keep the truck gassed up, have at least $100 in my wallet, steer clear of water dripping from rooftops. There was a dead horse on a berm in Vega Alta, laying on its side with a death grin and unblinking reflective eyes. Hit by a car? Dead of one of the diseases spreading here? Or just broken-hearted? I tried not to see it as a portent.

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….