An American Abroad

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.

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