Kenny and Helen go to Puerto Rico (master post)

If you’ve been following the blog for the past month or so, you’ve been seeing, every few days or so, posts appear talking about our trip to Puerto Rico. This evening I’ve finally reached the end of the trip. So here, to wrap things up, is a table-of-contents post that outlines the trip in order, linking together all the posts, adds a few miscellaneous items that didn’t make it into any other posts, and concludes with some heartfelt gratitude.

On Saturday the 11th, we arrived late and went to sleep, finding ourselves utterly delighted with the Fajardo apartment which, thanks to our old friends Scott and Margaret, and with the able assistance of our new friend Raymond, we would use as a base of operations for the next two weeks.

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Looking out across the Caribbean from the balcony of the Fajardo apartment

Kenny and Raymond on balcony, night of arrival

Kenny and Raymond on balcony, night of arrival

On Sunday the 12th, we enjoyed the breeze in the apartment, and I worked on stuff I hadn’t quite finished before leaving Houston.

Kenny working when he should not be

Also I drove around Fajardo orienting myself and found CVS, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, and a Chinese restaurant whose food wasn’t actually all the bad.

On Monday the 13th, we enjoyed the breeze in the apartment, and I worked. In the evening I had planned for us to have dinner at El Estancia, about which we had heard good things; but they were closed in order to allow the Cooking Channel to shoot a show there. This naturally made me really look forward to coming back once they re-opened.

On the morning of Tuesday the 14th, we enjoyed the breeze in the apartment, and I finished my work about noon. Then we went to El Yunque and the Espíritu Santo waterfall, as described here.

On Wednesday the 15th, we got around to getting dressed just about in time for dinner (which was me buying Subway), and then wandered out to Seven Seas Beach to see the sunset and eat our Subway dinner.

Helen at Seven Seas beach, Fajardo (3, cropped)

Sunset, Seven Seas beach, near Fajardo (1)

As it was Ladies’ Night at the Caribbean Cinema and therefore Helen’s ticket would cost $3.50 instead of $6.50, we were planning to go watch the 8:30 showing of Minions. But then a spot opened up on that night’s kayak tour and we went instead to Bio Bay, as described here.

On Thursday the 16th, The Open (British, that is) kicked off and in the morning I watched some of it with the sea breeze blowing through the apartment, while Helen worked. Then we went to Old San Juan, as described here.

On Friday the 17th, I watched the first part of the second round of The Open in my pajamas while Helen spend the day writing and recording, also in pajamas. The sea breeze was, again, a welcome companion in the apartment. We got dressed in time to make it to the early showing of Minions, and then had a nice dinner at El Estancia.

At El Estancia (1)

If you go to El Estancia: seafood mofongo, yes. Whiskey with coconut water, no.

There was also sad news. Helen got a We-Chat message from Wáng Xīnwěi, a remarkable Chinese friend who with her husband runs an orphanage in China for special-needs children (who otherwise, generally speaking, are simply abandoned to die). Alas, this message was from Xīnwěi’s adopted daughter, letting Helen know that Xīnwěi had finally succumbed to the cancer she had been fighting. I don’t know how you would count the lives Xīnwěi touched for the better, but Helen thinks there were as many as three thousand people at her funeral on Saturday.

Let me just tell one story about Xīnwěi. Helen and I spend a lot of time around cancer patients, and you get very used to hearing people ask, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” Or, if the patient is a very nice person, then the friends and relatives ask the patient, “Why you?” Now Christians know that the world has a lot of suffering in it, and that a lot of it isn’t fair, and that when God Himself saw fit to become a man He did so knowing He would suffer unfairly, and that He told us that if we wanted to be His followers then we would have to pick up our crosses and follow in his footsteps. But while we know all that in our heads, for most of us who call ourselves Christians it doesn’t get to our hearts, and when we find ourselves suffering, we don’t say, “Well, it happened to Jesus too; so I can’t complain.” Instead we, too, say, “Why me?” Or at least most of us do.

But when Xīnwěi got sick — Xīnwěi, as kind and sweet and godly a person as you will ever meet — well, things went a little differently. Of course her friends thought it all grossly unfair. But the first time one of her friends said, “Xīnwěi, after all you’ve done for God…why you?” her answer was instant: “Why not me?”

Which is just to say that you’ll probably meet lots of people who call themselves Christians, as you go through life. But if you ever met Xīnwěi, then you have met at least one person who really was a Christian, through and through.

On Saturday the 18th, The Open got mostly canceled for the day due to ridiculously bad weather, and so we decided to go to the other end of the island and drive at least part of la Ruta Panorámica, as described here.

On Sunday the 19th, we took a ride with East Island Excursions to Flamenco Beach, on the island of Culebra, as described here.

On Monday the 20th, I watched the last round of The Open, which took all day. Helen wrote and recorded but wasn’t happy with any of it. (Her personal standards for what she is willing to publish online are WAY higher than mine, obviously.)

On Tuesday the 21st, we went to Cerro de Punta, the highest point in Puerto Rico, and came back via the middle section of the Ruta Panorámica by way of the waterfall on the Río de Doña Juana, as described here.

On Wednesday the 22nd, the original plan was to go to the botanical garden in Caguas, and then in the afternoon hike in El Yunque National Forest, having first stopped in San Juan to buy some Scotch as a present for Raymond. This was a bad day, and not just because we found out that our beloved friend Wáng Qīan had lost his fight with cancer. Helen had to put up with me in a bad mood, as everything that could go wrong seemed to…but at least the day ended well. First of all, it turns out that the Jardín Botánico, like many places of business in Puerto Rico, is open only viernes a domingo, Thursday through Sunday. Then we had some other delay, I can’t remember what other than really bad traffic had a lot to do with it…oh, yes, it turns out that it does you no good to call up “liquor store” on your Google Maps app, because in Puerto Rico “liquor store” means “bar that sells shots of hard stuff,” not “store where you can buy bottles of hard stuff.” So I tried “wine shop” and that showed us exactly one in San Juan. We got stuck in a traffic jam trying to get there, and when we finally did get there it was out of business. So I googled “Where can I buy good wine in San Juan?” and found a place that we had been pretty close to a half hour earlier but now had to get back to through the bad traffic. And by the time I had finally gotten Raymond’s Glenfiddich (that shop didn’t have Oban or Springbank but I wasn’t about to go try to find someplace that did) it was too late to get any hiking in before El Yunque closed at 6:00. So we just hung out in Viejo San Juan for the evening, and did at least wind up having a pleasant dinner in El Jíbaron, which is a lot bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside, and where I got a very good fried red snapper, though Helen wasn’t too impressed with her beef stew.

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By the way, about two days before we left Puerto Rico, it suddenly occurred to me that in Puerto Rico I might have better luck doing my Google Maps searches in Spanish. [palma a cara]

And at the very end of the day – well, that’s when we saw the youngster playing in the fountain, as described in the earlier post about Viejo San Juan.

On Thursday the 23rd, we went back to the botanical garden in Caguas, and then revisited the Holy Spirit Falls, as described here. We ended the day having dinner with Raymond and his very sweet girlfriend Amarilys, and Raymond got his Glenfiddich.

On Friday the 24th, we cleaned the apartment, gave the keys to Raymond’s girlfriend Amarilys, said our goodbyes, and headed for Viejo San Juan by way of El Yunque, as described here. Not a great day as Helen was sick for most of it and the hotel in Viejo San Juan was disappointing. But at least we got lucky and got a nice parking place, on the street (where parking is free if you can get it), right across the street from the hotel.

On Saturday the 25th, we got up at 3:30 despite the fact that the hotel didn’t bother to give us our wakeup call. Nor did they bother to have anybody at the front desk so we could check out. We left the key under the cushion of the chair where the front desk guy should have been, left a terse and displeased note under the mouse explaining where to find the key, and left, perforce leaving the front door unlocked, which, frankly, I considered to be their problem rather than mine. But we made it safely onto the plane and were able to get back in time for Helen to sing at Wáng Qīan’s funeral that afternoon. And when we landed…well, there was a message waiting for me that my Aunt Arlene had died. And there was so much work stacked up I had to go ahead and start Sunday afternoon rather than waiting for Monday.

But it was an awfully nice two weeks, all the same.

This leaves me with only a few miscellaneous notes to add about Puerto Rico.

An interesting tidbit about driving in Puerto Rico — everything is in kilometers EXCEPT the speed limits, which are in miles per hour. So if you see a green sign that says, “San Juan 65” and right behind it a white sign that says “MAXIMUM VELOCIDAD 65,” you are considerably less than an hour from San Juan. I am sure there’s a good reason for this and am very curious to know what it is.

Another Puerto Rican driving tidbit: despite the fact that every couple of miles on the autopistas there are signs saying plainly, “VEHICULOS LENTOS O PESADOS USEN CARRIL DERECHO,” every fifth car in the left-hand lane is driving ten miles below the speed limit, placidly undisturbed by the constant stream of cars coming up behind them and then changing lanes to pass them on the right. These cheerfully slow drivers…perhaps they do not know Spanish. Also, because they will do this while somebody else is fifteen feet in front of them driving ten miles below the speed limit in the right-hand lane, it is absolutely non-remarkable to see drivers switch at fifty mph from the right-hand lane, where they are behind a slow driver, to the left-hand lane, where they are cutting in front of an equally slow driver, with — I am being soberly accurate here — maybe five feet to spare for each bumper. And you will see HALF A DOZEN CARS IN A ROW shoot that same gap, one after another, without its occurring to either of the slow drivers to do anything even to widen the gap, much less to eliminate the problem por usar el carril derecho. (And yes, before very many days at all in Puerto Rico, I was a confirmed and confident gap-shooter.)

When speaking Spanish here, if your car is in need of tires, you are looking for gomas, not llantas. And thanks to a peculiarity of the Puerto Rican Spanish accent, in which final s‘s are habitually dropped where it is felt that comprehension will not thereby be compromised, if Raymond’s girlfriend has given you a couple of tires, you may well say, “Amarily, gracia por las goma,” rather than “Amarilys, gracias por las gomas,” Took me a bit to get used to that, which I had before now only noticed occasionally in Latin hip-hop — perhaps Daddy Yankee is from Puerto Rico? [checks Wikipedia] Oh yeah! He shoots! He scores! [does a dance of self-congratulation]

I like Puerto Rico a lot but we can’t retire here, for two reasons. (1) There is no winter; the lowest temperature ever recorded in Puerto Rico was forty degrees Fahrenheit. (2) I couldn’t find graham crackers for love or money. (Also, Helen doesn’t like the food very much and doesn’t speak Spanish; so there is that as well.)

The fiery red / orange / yellow tree one sees everywhere in Puerto Rico is the flamboyán in local parlance, known elsewhere as the royal poinciana or the flame tree or the peacock tree or the árbol de la llama (I can understand why it is called a peacock tree but I have no idea why anyone would think it looks like a llama).

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There is a house on the autopista that runs south from Fajardo that caught my attention the first time we saw it. We drove past it half a dozen times and I never got a good picture of it. The people who built it clearly have all the money they need; it was at the very top of a sizable hill with a magnificent view of the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. Prime property, and a big new house. Which they painted a grotesque mustard yellow. Why would you buy that property, build that house…and then paint it the color of an emetic?

Finally: a huge thank-you to Scott and Margaret Olle, without whose suggestion it would never have occurred to me to take Helen to Puerto Rico, and whose apartment in Fajardo and friendship with Raymond made it possible. Allow me to take this opportunity to say that Scott and Margaret are happy to rent that apartment out when they aren’t using it themselves. Helen and I were actually a sort of test run for the concept: could we get there? would Raymond show up to meet us with the key when he was supposed to? would the people at the gate get the message from the office that Darrell Pierce and Shu Yang were temporary residents and should be allowed into the complex? would Raymond provide enough help if crises or questions came up during the week? We came back with a glowing report of the experience in general and of Raymond in particular (as you see on the blog here). So, User Acceptance Testing having been passed, as it were, Scott and Margaret are now, I believe, “going live.” I think Scott said they would ask something like $850/week. Frankly, having seen the kind of hotels in Viejo San Juan that charge $200/night for tiny rooms without even any windows, I think that’s an eminently reasonable price for a cliffside two-level three-bedroom three-bath patio-balcony-and-24/7-sea-breeze-equipped penthouse in Fajardo looking out across the blue Caribbean. If you want to go, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with Scott.

Hiking the Río de la Mina (El Yunque National Forest)

The morning of Friday, the 24th of July, was to be our last day in Puerto Rico (our flight out was scheduled to depart at 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning). We had made arrangements to spend the night in Viejo San Juan, just a few miles from the airport. So Friday morning we finished packing and cleaning the apartment – rather to the surprise of Amarilys, to whom we handed the money for the cleaning fee anyway along with the key, because we liked her. “You didn’t have to clean the apartment,” she told us reproachfully. But we told her that we felt like guests, not customers, and neither of us had been raised to leave a mess behind us after enjoying hospitality.

After cordial farewells, we drove out through the main gate for the last time and headed back out on the now-familiar streets. But it became obvious very rapidly that Helen was not feeling at all well, especially in the car. Now, we had planned to go hiking around El Yunque in order to do advance scouting for a friend who was due to arrive in Puerto Rico on vacation a week or so later; but I could tell Helen was not feeling up to hiking and really didn’t even want to be in a moving vehicle. So I decided a change of plans was in order: I would take the road to El Yunque as slowly and gently as I could, find a place to park in the shade, and leave her in the car with the air conditioning running so that she could take a nap for an hour or so while I went down to check out the Catarata de la Mina (La Mina Falls). Then maybe after the nap she would feel better for the last half of the trip. Going straight to the hotel was not an option, you see, because we couldn’t check in until 3:00; and it seemed to me the air would be cooler in the clouds and shade three thousand feet above sea level than it would be under the sun on the coast. But certainly she didn’t need to be hiking.

I will tell you now that this was a bad mistake on my part, because of four miscalculations on my part. First of all, of the entire two weeks we were in Puerto Rico, this was the only day on which the skies of El Yunque were perfectly clear and cloudless. On the way up I wasn’t too worried because I figured it was morning and the clouds would form up any minute, as they had for the past two weeks. But I hadn’t checked the weather report. It was sunshine and heat the whole time we were there; so the weather on the mountain was no better for sleeping in the car than the weather on the coast.

Everybody else in Puerto Rico, however, had checked the weather report, and they had all decided that this was the perfect day to go up to El Yunque. Which was my second miscalculation: I had to park a half-mile from the lower of the two trailheads for the La Mina loop, which meant I was leaving Helen a half-mile from the bathrooms.

The third miscalculation, a more serious one, was that I had underestimated how far it was to the Falls (largely because I hadn’t realized there were two ways to get there and I took the long way). It took three hours, not one, for me to make the round trip, even though I only allowed myself ten minutes or so to take pictures and test the water once I got to the river and didn’t even wear my bathing suit lest I be tempted to dally.

But by far the most serious miscalculation was that I misdiagnosed the core problem. I thought Helen was tired and carsick. It turned out she was genuinely sick, as in bugs-and-germs sick – once we did get to the hotel that afternoon she collapsed into bed and spent a thoroughly miserable afternoon and evening. Not until 11:00 at night or so did she finally start feeling reasonably human.

So the hike that I am going to describe was, for us, rather a bad thing, as Helen wound up calling me in desperation three hours after I left (and five minutes before I got back to the car, naturally), having, in her wretched state, had to walk half a mile in the heat to find a bathroom and then walk back. If you’re sitting around with Helen and the subject of Puerto Rico comes up, you should certainly avoid the subject of that last day. In fact you’re probably better off not bringing it up to me, either.

But the thing is, it wasn’t the fault of the hike itself. If you, O Gentle Reader, ever go to Puerto Rico and drive up to El Yunque and hike the La Mina loop, you will almost certainly enjoy yourself enormously (at least if you’re in good enough shape to handle a narrow mountain trail with a whole lot of change in elevation). And it would be a shame to waste the pictures. So I’ll tell you about the hike, and I’ll try not to remember what my very sweet wife was going through while her shamefully irresponsible husband was doing a meanwhile-back-in-the-jungle.

I did it the wrong way, not knowing any better and not having looked carefully at the map. I didn’t actually realize the trail was a loop until I was at the Falls themselves, and therefore I didn’t take care to start at the top end rather than the bottom end. You certainly should start at the top instead.

At any rate, the two halves of the trail are quite different. The upper half comes down the canyon right alongside the little Río de la Mina, all the way down to the falls. Then the lower half leaves the river and heads back to the road through the rain forest, with lots of quite usefully informative signs along the way to tell you what you’re looking at (an innovative concept that I bring respectfully to the attention of the Jardín Botánico y Cultural de Caguas).

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Or, of course, if you’re traveling the wrong direction, you do the lower half first. This part of the trail is partly paved. The purpose, I imagine, is both to reduce erosion (since you are moving across the gradient rather than following a river directly down it) and to improve safety.

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You walk for quite a long time, mostly downhill. Finally, if you go on one of the days when everybody has checked the weather report and discovered that it will be a rare sunny day in El Yunque, you begin to hear a sound of falling water mixed with a babble of voices. Then you come around and corner and see…no, not the falls. What you see is God’s own chaos of bathing suits. THEN you see the falls.

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The falls really are lovely, of course, and I imagine that’s especially true on a foggy day when one’s view consists of a higher proportion of nature and a lower proportion of nature-lovers. Though if you can strategically locate yourself where trees will help filter out the crowds, you can get a decent picture or two even on a crowded day.

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What caught my attention, however, was the discovery that the trail continued on up the canyon and back to the road. Now I had spent much more time getting to the falls than I had expected, and having given it some thought, I decided that the way back up the canyon was probably shorter, albeit steeper, than the way I had come; so I decided to take that way.

The trail up is pretty much one long, long staircase, with an occasional brief landing, so to speak.

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I climbed the first flight of stairs, rounded a corner – and realized that here in the river up above the falls, there was practically nobody, in very marked contrast to the seething mass of humanity down below. I gave myself five minutes for the river, clambered over the handrail, and scrambled down the bank to the riverbed. There was one family with a father and mother and a couple of young daughters there exploring a pool beneath a much smaller, but quite lovely waterfall; but otherwise I was alone.

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I did a quick bit of scouting and then decided that I was pretty sure that I could safely (though of course carefully) get all the way to the top of the big falls and maybe even get a picture looking straight over the falls from a dry rock outcropping in the middle of the stream right where the water went over the edge. Now, you Gentle Readers are not allowed to tell Helen I did this; but…

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I was very satisfied with the picture, and was amused to see that from my seemingly precarious perch I was attracting the attention of a group of gringo teenagers down at the base of the falls who (from their matching T-shirts) were clearly on a church mission trip. I didn’t have time to waste in further showing off, however, and I wanted to put my feet in the water. So I went back upstream to the little pool, with its one deep hole right where the little waterfall cascaded into it, which hole was just a few feet wide but – as the Puerto Rican dad demonstrated by jumping into it – was at least as deep as I am tall.

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I took off my shoes and socks for a moment, waded carefully into the pool until the water was more than halfway up my calf, and then took a picture:

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Now that is some clear water.

Well, this was all very nice, but I wanted to get back to Helen. So I stepped back onto dry ground and started putting on my shoes and socks. And as was pulling on my shoes, suddenly I heard voices coming from the trail. I looked up…

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and here came a small army of mission-trip-T-shirt-clad gringo teenagers. So much for the peace and solitude…but then, I was leaving anyway.

The rest of that trail was one long string of pool and rock and cascade, to the point where after a while I simply stopped bothering to take any pictures.

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And most of the time, if you looked either up or down the river, you could see children and their parents sitting in the water or clambering among the rocks. I think this would bother some people but I myself think there is no better use of a river in the world than for children to play in it.

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I think I made the right decision in using the steeper but shorter path to get back the road; I think it did turn out to be faster that way. But when you go, you won’t be worried about a sick wife that you left in the car, and you can simply take your time and enjoy the walk. So – assuming you are reasonably fit and healthy – I say you should do the loop. But if instead you decide you’ll just go to the falls and then go back the way you came…well then definitely take the upper trail, not the lower one.

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Back to Espíritu Santo

It was Thursday, the 23rd of July, two days before we were due to fly out of Puerto Rico. For almost two weeks Helen had gone kayaking and beaching despite being unable to swim, and driving on mountain roads that she found boring and occasionally motion-sickness-inducing. Meanwhile I, who love mountains and kayaking and swimming, had been having a high old time. And frankly, I was feeling that it was high time we had a Helen day, or at the very least a Helen excursion; and I had come up with a plan. I had noticed that there was a botanical garden in Caguas as we passed through on one of our Ruta Panorámica trips, and I had surreptitiously checked it out on the internet and found it highly rated. Now this seemed to me to be right up Helen’s street: she could take pictures of all the tropical trees and flowers and find out what their names were.

This seemed like a good plan and she was excited when I originally proposed it. That had actually been a couple of days early than the Thursday on which we find ourselves in this post, and we had gone into action the previous day. But the botanical garden had turned out to be closed on Wednesdays, and the day had gone rapidly downhill from there, badly enough that I had no stomach for a long post documenting it. (It did improve at the very end; but not enough to turn it from a bad day into a good one.) So I was really looking forward to giving Helen a nice three hours or so at the botanical garden. And then, because we had a friend who was going to be vacationing in Puerto Rico shortly after we left, and because that friend wanted a bit more information about El Yunque, the plan was to spend the afternoon in El Yunque trying out a couple of the hiking trails, and maybe swimming below the famous waterfall on the Río la Mina.

We arose reasonably early in the morning and made our way back down the coast and through the valleys of the Ríos Valenciano and Guarabo to Caguas, and found the botanical garden open for business…and it turns out that the less said about that botanical garden the better. Blindingly hot day (by Puerto Rican standards); very few plants of any beauty or interest at least at that time of year; no signs at all to tell you the names of the plants you were looking at; a tiny pond and paddleboats so lame that we simply dropped the boat tickets we had bought at the entrance gate into the trash without using them, on our way back out to the parking lot. I have absolutely no idea what the people who gave it five stars were thinking.

There was one thing I did enjoy, though, as well as one thing I was proud of.

The one thing I enjoyed was Helen’s reaction to the sign on the ladies’ bathroom. I don’t think she had noticed the Spanish for “ladies” up until that point, as most bathrooms we had encountered used the standard international pictures. But the bathrooms here had nice big wooden signs reading “Caballeros” and “Damas.”

IMG_3517Helen walked up to bathroom door, looked up at the sign, did a big double-take and then burst out laughing.

“Kenny, what does this mean?” she asked, though of course she had a good idea.

“You mean damas? It’s Spanish for ‘ladies,’” I answered.

This kept Helen amused for some time, because dàmā (大妈) is a common Chinese word that means something along the lines of “woman whose age and weight are both represented with large numbers.” She didn’t necessarily want to go into any bathroom set apart for dàmās. But then since Helen is winningly petite and is still possessed of girlish rather than grandmotherly beauty, there was hardly much likelihood of confusion.

The one thing I was proud of? How well Helen kept her temper. And for that matter how well I did – I had wound up in a towering rage by the end of the previous day and had stalked around very obviously and very strenuously and not very successfully trying to exercise self-control. This day, the further around the botanical garden we went, and the more obvious it became that my big scheme for giving Helen a treat just for her was a hopeless failure, the more we grinned and rolled our eyes at each other. We enjoyed each other’s company, at least, even while forming a settled conviction that we would never again set foot in this particular tourist attraction. That was more than my bad temper the previous day had allowed us.

So we decided to get a head start on El Yunque…but at this point I made a decision that very much improved our Thursday but was to have a less happy impact on our Friday. I decided that since we had picked up extra time by leaving the botanical garden early, we could use the extra time to go to El Yunque not on the autopistas, but instead using the back roads that would take us through Lomas to El Yunque by way of the waterfall on the Río Espíritu Santo. I had brought a swimsuit, so I would be able to swim…and I was delighted when I opened the trunk and ascertained that the waterproof camera was still there.

It took a while to get back to the waterfall, given the roads we were using; and when we got there we found that there were a few more people hanging out there this day than there had been on the day we first found it. Still, it was hardly overrun with humanity.

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I helped Helen make her way up and over the rocks (there was some…well, not really rock-climbing, but at least rock-clambering to do, especially for somebody built on the Helen scale rather than the Kenny scale). She settled herself on a rock at the edge of the pool in order to have a pleasant time reading with her feet in the cool water while I swam, and this was good for her feet…

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…but alas not so good for the book, which decided to go swimming when she set it down for a moment on the rock beside her, having underestimated how steeply the rock slanted down to the water.

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Meanwhile I climbed up one side of the cliff face a little ways in order to get a better picture of the falls, armed this day with the Nikon rather than an iPhone. And from here I could see that, as I had expected, the huge boulder that was blocking the mouth of the crevice, hid another, very narrow pool at the base of the falls.

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That settled it. I had arrived with a plan, but now I had a commitment: I was going to find a way past that boulder with the waterproof camera, swim in that pool, and take a picture of the waterfall therefrom.

Into the water I went, and I swam directly to the base of the boulder. I had been able to see from the far side of the pool, back when we first found the place, that there were possibly passageways under either or both sides of the boulders. Now that I was there at the boulder itself, I could see that the right-hand side was impenetrably blocked, as there was another even larger boulder underneath and behind the one visible from across the pool. On the left-hand side there had once been a gap plenty large enough for a middle-aged gringo; but at some point in the past a tree trunk had been swept down the river and had gotten itself immovably wedged into the hole, blocking it off. And this was an ausubo trunk, the sort that reacts to water not by rotting but by petrifying.

I hated to give up, though, and there was a little bit of space under the petrified ausubo trunk to go back along the side of the big boulder with my head still out of the water. So I eased myself back…and found that, about three feet back, a little space opened up to the right, and above that space was a chimney that opened to sky five or six feet above the water level.

I haven’t rock-climbed in a while and I was in bare feet and about seventy pounds heavier than back when I free-climbed half the cliff faces in Robbers Cave State Park. But there was no way I was going to go home without getting up that chimney and out the other side. And in short order, Helen was able to take these pictures (from which you will finally be able to get a true sense of the scale of the boulder and the waterfall behind it).

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There was one more large boulder wedged in the crevice about five feet past the front door, so to speak; but the right-hand side of the crevice had a sloping half-ledge just above water level. So it was a matter of moments to make my way around the boulder and into the private, quivering pool where the waves formed at the base of the waterfall were reflected back and forth from one side of the crevice to the other all the way out to the base of that back-door boulder, so that not for all the decades or perhaps even centuries that that pool has existed, has its water ever been still. And there I took my Holy Grail of a picture. I took ten or eleven of them actually, just to make sure at least one of them would be good.

Alas, now comes the time of sorrow. Back when I first mentioned the acquisition of the waterproof camera, I said that it came to a tragic end, but gave no details. Here it is my sad duty to record its fate. When we got home at the end of this day I rushed to Walgreens, which had a big sign advertising one-hour photos. But when I got there, they told me that for old-style film cameras, there was no longer any place in Puerto Rico that could develop the film – they would have to send the film off to the mainland to be developed, and I would have it back in, oh, say, a month.

“I’ll be in Texas myself in two days,” I said somewhat crankily. “If it has to go to the mainland I can take it personally.” Privately I resolved to get a second opinion at CVS, which also advertised one-hour photos. Once the second opinion turned out to be identical to the first, I yielded to fate and packed the camera.

Back in Texas, I went back to Walgreens. “It’ll take a couple of weeks because we have to send it off to a central processing center in…” I can’t remember where they said – Atlanta, I think, but honestly I’m not sure because I pretty much stopped listening after the phrase “a couple of weeks.” Then to Wal-Mart, where they told me, “Five days,” and I said to myself, “That’s probably about as good as it gets.”

But now there was another problem: when I tried to rewind the film, it got stuck. I couldn’t get it to move, and neither could the Wal-Mart photocenter dude. So in the end I just put the whole camera in the bag with a brief note telling them what had happened and telling them they could keep the camera if they would just send me the pictures.

A week later I was back at Wal-Mart, and they handed the pictures into my hot little hands, and I made myself wait until I got home because Helen was waiting for ingredients for dinner. Finally, I stuck the CD into the laptop and opened the pictures…

(I don’t really want to go on.)

I wound up making Helen’s blog because she heard me laughing in helpless resignation (as an alternative to hurling objects around the room in fury) and came in to find her husband saying, “There must have been some little lens cap or something on that camera that I didn’t notice,” because all the pictures were black. She thought that this was exactly the kind of air-headedness that she (and apparently her readers) inexplicably find “cute” when I commit it; and so she posted a couple of my snapshots on her blog along with the story. But one of her readers noticed that the pictures weren’t actually totally black and challenged my lens-cap theory in the comments; and we went back and examined those pictures more carefully…and I am now quite, quite convinced that some idiot at the Wal-Mart processing center ignored the note and, without rewinding the film, opened the camera outside of the darkroom, thus exposing the film.

So my lovely pictures of fish on the reef at Culebra, and of the private inner sanctum of the Holy Spirit Falls…they have perished. [takes out his Army bugle and mournfully plays taps]

I spent fifteen or twenty minutes there in that pool in the Holy of Holies (which seems to me a good name for the inner sanctum given that the waterfall is the personal property of the Holy Spirit). But it eventually occurred to me that it had been a long time since Helen had seen me, and as a non-swimmer and non-free-climber herself, she finds it especially stressful when her middle-aged husband disappears alone into a place where he has two different ways to get himself killed. So I made my way back out of the Holy of Holies and into the main pool, where Helen was very happy to see me.

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I really didn’t want to get out of the water, and before I got around to it a couple of teenaged boys had shown up, giving me a good excuse to hang out and collect local information. One of them had very good English, and he and I had a nice pleasant chat. High points:

  1. I was amused to hear him refer to northern and southern Puerto Rico as the “nature side” and the “cement side” of Puerto Rico, respectively. He also told me that he doesn’t like San Juan, but that he wouldn’t have said so had there been any other Puerto Ricans around to get angry with him for uttering such a heresy.
  2. He lives in Barranquitas and spends a lot of time swimming in the various rivers in the mountains – the day before he and his buddy had been in the pool beneath the Salto de Doña Juana, as a matter of fact.
  3. He asked whether I thought the water was cold. I told him no, it was perfect. He grinned and said, “That’s what all the Americans who swim in our mountains say. But if you ask a Puerto Rican, we all think it’s freezing.” Considering that their baseline water temperature is “Caribbean beach,” one is hardly surprised, of course.
  4. He said he had never seen anybody swimming at this waterfall before, and pointed to a waterline that I hadn’t noticed (you can see for yourself in the pictures where the rocks around the pool change color). It turns out that the ordinary level of the pool is at least two feet higher than it was when we were there, and my guess is that at that water level, and with the flow rate necessary to maintain it, that pool is not ordinarily a safe place to bathe. So I was even luckier than I realized. In fact, it turns out that Puerto Rico is in the middle of a terrible drought — Raymond says everybody in Puerto Rico is hoping that Danny will hit them head-on because they are so desperate for rain. Now that, my friends, is desperation.
  5. He had no idea that there was a way back to the inner sanctum. I showed him how to get there, and shortly thereafter he was crowing to his friend, “It’s as if I never saw el Espíritu Santo before!” This implicitly resolved my question as to whether the waterfall was itself named for the Holy Spirit, or whether it was only the river that was so called.
  6. As much as I wanted the waterfall to be a caterata and therefore a shy young maiden “hiding demurely back within her chamber,” my closer inspection had led me to think it was probably more of a salto than a catarata. I asked my new friend about it, and he considered the matter gravely, and then said, yes, he agreed that salto was more appropriate. So I suppose I’ll have to call it the Salto Espíritu Santo from now on. (sigh)
  7. He told me about cave tubing on the Tanamá river. Ai-ya, why wasn’t he there the first time we were there? Later I checked the Trip Advisor entry for Tanamá River Adventures: 118 reviews of which 116 were five stars and the other two four. I’ve NEVER seen that kind of Trip Advisor score. Okay, I now HAVE to go back to Puerto Rico.
  8. Also he highly, highly recommended a guided hike through the Cañón de San Cristóbal near his home. He tried to describe to me the unique shade of blue water in the pools of that canyon, and having looked up pictures thereof I have to say he did a surprisingly good job. So that’s ANOTHER reason I have to go back to Puerto Rico.

I spend so long in the pool that when we finally left, I was surprised to discover that I hadn’t left time to do our El Yunque hiking. So I postponed that to the following day, which was to be our last full day in Puerto Rico. We were already planning to leave Fajardo in the late afternoon and spend the night in Viejo San Juan before catching our 6:00 a.m. flight. Now we altered the plan a bit: we headed on home and went ahead with packing and cleaning. We would leave the next morning rather than the next afternoon, and take an hour to run down the trail to La Mina Falls. That, at least, was the plan. How it worked out…well, there’s one Puerto Rico post to go, I suppose.

But before packing, there was one more thing on the day’s agenda: we were going out to dinner with Raymond and his girlfriend Amarilys at the Gran Meliá golf resort. Which we did, and we had a very good time, because we like them both a lot. But as I didn’t do anything stupid or air-headed, and as it was already too dark to play golf by the time we got there, there would be no entertainment in my describing the evening; so we are done for the day.

One day left in our Puerto Rican vacation; one more post to get us onto the plane…

On the “translation” process at a certain publisher

I’m amusing myself by reading a French translation of a Kiwi novel I like, and right off the bat I have discovered something that both amuses and annoys me.

The author wrote for Mills and Boon, which typically published light romantic fiction — they were Harlequin romances, basically, and in fact many of the old Harlequin romances were simply reprints of Mills and Boons titles. But Essie Summers was one of their earliest authors, one of their most prolific, and certainly one of their best. Mills and Boon had a strict formula you were supposed to follow, and a strict word limit — they tried to be as standardized as MacDonalds and for much the same reason. But Summers was in rather her own class, and Mills and Boons had sort of the Essie Summers Rules and then the Rules for Everybody Else, to the annoyance of the Everybody Else (though the annoyance was mild since all the other romance writers knew Summers and seem to have adored her personally). Susan Napier once said, in fact, “Essie Summers could write as much as she liked and it got printed. The rest of us are restricted to 55,000 words, which is a considerable cut.”

What I didn’t realize until reading A Votre Guise was that any Summers book that got translated into other languages DID had to follow the Mills and Boon rules — but only in the translations. So the hacking is severe; it’s like reading a Readers Digest Condensed Book except that the condensing is not at all skillfully done. As I find incompetence amusing, I am amused; but as I like Essie Summers, I am a bit horrified by the thought that French readers were given the highly misleading opinion that what they were reading was Essie Summers. For what the editors cut out in translation seems to be…well, everything that would make a Summers book different from a forgettably run-of-the-mill computer-generated romance novel.

For example, here is a typical Summers passage from The Tender Leaves, which is the book from which A Votre Guise was translated, or butchered, or whatever. The passage was inspired and shaped by the many deathbeds that she, as a minister’s wife (the more important of her two vocations) had attended, if not by an actual event. Characteristically, it includes a poetic quotation that is quite genuine because Summers’s heroines generally loved reading and poetry as much as she did. (I have greatly enjoyed several real-life writers whose work I came to know because an Essie Summers character told me they were worth knowing.) Struan, having just discovered that Maria’s father was a rotter who abandoned her mother in Maria’s infancy, has assumed that Maria has a bad opinion of romantic love; but she has replied that working in a hospital has taught her about how deep and lasting love can be. Struan has just expressed surprise that such a lesson could be learned in such a place, by saying, “I’d never thought there could be an idyllic side to hospital life.” Maria explains…

‘There is,’ she assured him. ‘Sheer devotion sometimes. Devotion that’s tried and tested. There’s a line of Stephen Phillips’ that I like tremendously, he calls it:

‘”Beautiful friendship, tried by sun and wind, durable from the daily dust of life.”

‘In hospital I once saw a man and woman taking farewell of each other after fifty years of wedded life. I’m not so silly as to think it had been half a century of bliss — how cloying that would be — but it was so real, that farewell. I had the oddest sensation that I actually envied that woman who was slipping out of life. I even thought that if it was given to all to have so perfect a moment, who could be afraid of death?’

She was silent, remembering. Then Struan said, ‘Yes?’

‘They were quite ordinary people, but articulate. He’d been an engine-driver, she’d been in a factory. They’d never had much money, but she said none of the highlights of life had cheated her. We’d had her in for months, and we enjoyed hearing her talk. They’d had a week-long honeymoon in a little stone cottage on the Isle of Mull. Getting to know each other in a new way, she said, and loving every memory of that week, even though they’d had to draw water from a well and cook on an open fire. She’d had three children, each one loved and wanted. It had always been a struggle financially, but they now owned their own house and managed comfortably on the pension. “And when I’m gone,” she said, “the children are all near enough to see to their father. One of them will call in on him every day.”

‘She told us she’d carried red roses at her wedding, tied in a knot with white heather and a bow of tartan ribbon. She’d had a white dress and veil but couldn’t abide everything white. As she put it, “I aye liked a splash of colour.” Her Alex was sitting by her the night she died. Jessie was weak, but her mind was clear. I’d come in silently with something to moisten her lips, but I paused, unseen, in the doorway. He put his hand in his pocket and drew something out, took her hand, opened it, and closed it over what we found later was a bit of red tartan ribbon and some dried heather. We left it there. I heard him say, “I thought you’d like to take this with you, lass, into that other world.”

‘I managed to melt away backwards without a rustle and by sheer will-power stayed dry-eyed. Because shortly afterwards he came in search of me to say she’d gone.’

Now here is the corresponding passage from the French “translation.”

– Je pourrais vous citer des exemple sans nombre. Ce sont des cas comme ceux-là qui vous permettent de redonner aux événements leur juste place, murmura Maria.

One hardly knows whether to laugh or curse. It’s not just that you lose any sense of Maria as a character — Essie Summers herself is banished as well. Whatever A Votre Guise may be, it’s hard to say that it’s an Essie Summers novel. At best I think you could say it seems to be recognisably one of Essie Summers’s plots.

[signs off the post, still shaking his head]

Cerro la Punta and el Salto de Doña Juana

Looking back at the Tuesday the 21st of July, the day after the three-way playoff that settled The Open, while Helen and I were still in Puerto Rico…

On my Puerto Rico bucket list, as will surprise nobody at all, was the highest point in Puerto Rico, Cerro la Punta.

Cerro de Punta location

This was a couple hours’ drive away by autopista, and conveniently for me was on a stretch of the Ruta Panorámica that we had not covered on our trip a couple of days earlier. So Helen and I set out reasonably early in the morning.

We stopped in at CVS there in Fajardo to get a phone charger, as I certainly did not want to be in the middle of Puerto Rico with no Google Maps. Fajardo is on the part of Highway 3 that is not an autopista but is a four-lane divided highway with concrete barriers in the middle and little frontage roads on either side, with on-ramps that give you maybe ten yards of merging space before they turn into shoulder, for access to all the roadside stores. — that is, there are stop lights and driveways all along either side where you can get on and off the highway, but the places where you can cross to the other side of the highway are relatively infrequent.

I pulled onto the frontage road, and then onto the little on-ramp, and was just about to look backward over my shoulder to make sure I could merge safely when suddenly I realized there was another car going the wrong way in my lane, bearing down on me at full highway speed. I had just enough time to swerve to the left out into the main lanes, with no idea whether I was about to get clobbered by a truck; but as the alternative was a head-on collision I swerved with all my might. The moment I was out of his path I cast my eyes up to the rear-view mirror to see whether I needed to swerve back onto the shoulder to keep from getting rear-ended. And I did see a vehicle behind me; but I was very happy to see that it was not a truck and that it was a good fifty yards or so back; so we were not going to get run over and killed. And do you know what else I was happy to see?

It was a cop. [At this point I am cackling evilly as I type.]

And as the wrong-way driver headed up the on-ramp, on came the red-and-blue lights, and the cop made a nice tight U-turn up the on-ramp and floored it. And I laughed for the next five minutes, and I have no idea how much of that was relief that we were alive and how much was a feeling that I had delegated vengeance to the cop. But I can guarantee you that to this very moment I have yet to feel any pity for the dude.

We didn’t bother with the scenic route on our way west this time. I was already familiar with the central autopistas because that’s how we came back after our first trip out west. From Fajardo down #53 to Humacao, then across to Caguas on #30, and then the run up and over the Cordillera Central on #52. This last road could have been a Colorado interstate if Colorado had tropical vegetation.  From Caguey to the pass above Cayey you climb about 1,800 feet in a bit more than thirteen miles. Then you start going down, and at that point the slope gets serious. According to Google Earth, if you start at the highest point on the autopista, where you are at almost exactly 2,100 feet above sea level, and then you head south along the highway, then ten miles later you will be 250 feet above sea level. That is an average slope of 3.5%. For ten miles. Very nice stretch of road to my way of thinking.

When we first saw that stretch of road, coming back from Magayüez, we were headed north, rather late at night after a long day, and I was planning to get gas at Caguas. When we started climbing that ten-mile stretch, our rented Sentra told me I had sixty miles’ worth of gas in the tank. When we got to the top, it said we had nineteen miles left and dropping fast. Five miles into the downstretch it said, never mind, we were good for forty more miles.

At any rate, this morning we stayed on autopistas until we got to Ponce, and then Highway 10 took us up into the mountains until, at the top of the pass between Ponce and Adjuntas, we found the Ruta Panorámica again, about fifteen crows’ miles east of where we had abandoned it two days earlier, and just west of Cerro de Punta. Up we headed, and not wasting any time about it, either. It was nice to discover that this part of the Ruta Panorámica was reasonably well marked, and very well maintained; and so we had a pleasant little drive up to La Pica. Here we could for the first time see Cerro la Punta and know we were looking at it.

Cerro la Punta from La Pica

La Pica is actually on a fairly sizable high plateau. There is even enough room for an Iglesia de San Patricio (which does not look very Irish) with a flat parking lot and a basketball court, not to mention a gas station. By which I mean the plateau, not the church, has a gas station.

Iglesia de San Patricio, La Pica, with basketball goal

From La Pica, you climb very rapidly, on a very smooth and well-maintained Ruta Panorámica, all the way up to 3,810 feet, five hundred eighty feet from the top. And if you want to go all the way to the top…well, there’s a road that will get you to a small parking lot at 4,350 feet, and concrete stairs for the last forty feet. Well, sort of a road. A road, loosely so called. A road that disposes of its 510 feet of elevation in…seven-tenths of a mile. That’s an average 10% grade, and some parts of it were a lot steeper than other parts, not to mention washed out here and there.

I will ruin the suspense by saying that we did in fact, both of us, set foot on the very highest point of natural land in Puerto Rico. That is so that I can go ahead and show you the picture of the base of that last five-hundred foot climb, at the point where you leave the Ruta Panorámica, as seen from the viewing platform at the peak.

The base of the access road, from Cerro la Punta

But before we set foot on the top, Helen had to endure the drive up that road. I had sort of an inkling that this road might be entertaining, especially in a Nissan Sentra, and so I put her in charge of videotaping it. Interestingly, the further up the hill we got, the more the video became a video of the dashboard, as Helen shrank lower and lower into her seat. I think maybe it shook her confidence when I had to shift out of drive into low gear because, even with the accelerator pressed all the way to the floor, the Sentra kept going slower and slower and finally started to stall.

But obviously we did make it all the way up, and later all the way down again. And once at the top…my, what a view. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking, even though they are somewhat gagged by the rain that was moving in beneath us. (We could see all the way to the Caribbean when we first got there but by the time we got the camera out the coast was obscured.)

Looking south from Cerro la Punta

Southeast from Cerro la Punta

Helen was particularly fascinated by the flowers and the bees. (I myself am more interested in bees in conjunction with birds but everybody to his own kick.)

DSC_9216 Bee in flower 2 cropped Bee in flower 4 cropped Bush blossom cropped

Here, by the way, for no reason other than that Helen’s bee pictures reminded me of it, is an old limerick from, if memory serves, Bennet Cerf:

Concerning the bees and the flowers
And the birds in the gardens and bowers
You will note at a glance
That their ways of romance
Haven’t any resemblance to ours.

Helen and I each got a picture of the other standing on top of Puerto Rico (the highest point is under my left foot below), but I am not allowed to show you the picture of Helen, because unlike me, Helen was not wearing her makeup.
Kenny with a foot on top of Puerto Rico

Helen’s editorial privileges extend not only to her being allowed to veto pictures of her, but also her being able to insist on the inclusion of the following picture of me, in which I was unaware that I was posing for publication.

Silliness atop Cerro la Punta

Well, that’s enough of that. At any rate, after half an hour or so on the peak, we headed back down.

I had another stop in mind, one that was not technically on the Ruta Panorámica but that would require only a two- or three-mile detour. This was el Salto de Doña Juana, which is to say, the Doña Juana Falls. So we drove down (literally) the Ruta Panorámica headed for the crossroads at Divisoria, where we were due to turn left. But before we got there, we drove past something entirely unexpected, and I had to pull over and investigate.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Ruta Panorámica was created in the 1970’s in a burst of governmental enthusiasm, which enthusiasm subsequently waned. Here we beheld what once had obviously been a large and expensive rest stop, with a parking lot so big there had been a median between the inbound lane of the driveway and the outbound lane.

And now it was utterly abandoned.

The parking lot had been swallowed up in grass; concrete barriers had been rolled across the driveway.

Abandoned rest stop, Ruta Panoramica

The bathrooms had been stripped of all plumbing and abandoned to grafitteers.

Abandoned bathrooms

You would have though no human being had set foot there in years, except that a small portion of the grass at the very front appeared to have been mowed somewhat recently — but only at the very front.

Abandoned picnic table

There was a fairly large outcropping of rock at the back of the rest stop, next to the shell of the old restroom. I was curious to see if you could get a good view from the rock and started to walk toward it. As I crossed the grass I caught a small movement out of the corner of my eye, and looked down in the grass. There I saw the only coquí I would see the entire trip.

The coquí may be the most beloved of all Puerto Ricans, human or animal. He is a frog, and he gets his name because of his distinctive call, which sounds very much indeed like “koh-KEE,” the second syllable being a perfect fifth interval above the first in pitch. If you have not been told about the coquí and you visit a Puerto Rican forest, you will certainly ask somebody what kind of bird it is that is making that lovely sound. But it is no bird; it is one of the many species of coquí, which come in various sizes and shades of color. I had of course been hearing coquí calls ever since the first day we arrived in Puerto Rico; now I was seeing one of the callers.

Coqui cropped

And just to give you some sense of the scale on which this high-volume singer is built…

Coquí to scale

In that picture my hand is about halfway between my camera and the coquí.

Once atop the rock…

Kenny on the rock

…I looked around and discovered that the park – “rest stop,” I now decided, was too inadequate a word for what this place had once been – extended even further than I had expected. So, a bit to Helen’s alarm (since I disappeared from view for a while), I kept exploring. The atmosphere of ancient ruins became even more pronounced.

Overturned bench

At the very back I could see a fence marking the end of the park. But I could also see that persons of initiative had removed a section of the fence, and that a well-trodden trail wound yet further back into the jungle. Naturally I had to investigate. And this is what I found:

Now this, to me, pretty much sums up the Puerto Rican government’s competence in matters of promotion of tourism, at least as far as the Ruta Panorámica is concerned. They have this promontory ending in this spectacular view. They spend a ton of money building a large and elaborate rest area at this very spot. And then they fence off the view.

I went back to the car where Helen was waiting patiently and told her she had to get out and come with me, which she obediently did. And here is Helen walking down the path, unaware that I was surreptitiously recording her reaction.

By the way, very much later in the day we passed through the township of Villabo, and drove past the Mirador Orocovis-Villalba, a very nicely developed and still very nicely maintained lookout point with the same kind of ridiculous view. But in this area there are a lot of houses, some of which are perched on that highest ridge and have just that type of view. Helen was asleep by then and I didn’t want to wake her up; so there are no pictures. But I did notice that one of those houses was for sale. That evening, just as we were coming into Cayey, Helen woke up. So once we were safely back on the autopista, I asked her to pull out her iPhone and see if she could find houses for sale in that area on the internet. And she did find two or three. The first one was for sale for I think about $30,000. The second was something like $20,000. The third, if memory serves, was $200,000. I think I know which of those was the one with the view.

Well, back at the old abandoned park, we took more pictures of the view, and of a butterfly who stopped by to share it with us.

South from abandoned rest stop

Butterfly cropped

Eventually we returned to our car to continue on our way. But as we did so, we experienced a minor disaster, though we weren’t aware of it when it happened. We became aware of it very rapidly, however, as soon as we got in the car and closed the doors.

Helen had managed to step in fresh dog poop with both shoes.

So for the next part of the drive, we kept the windows rolled down and I went around corners as fast as I could to try to keep as much air moving through the windows as possible, until we could get to the waterfall and hopefully find leaves and rocks and twigs and water with which to clean the shoes. (I may anticipate the eventual outcome by saying that I spent at least ten minutes trying to get those shoes clean well downstream from where people were hanging out at the waterfall, to no avail. In the end the shoes made the rest of the trip in the trunk. Helen was then quite astonished to find that as soon as we got home, I threw the shoes into the washing machine; she had never heard of anybody being so disrespectful to a washing machine as to wash shoes in it, much less shoes in that particular condition.)

In short order we had made our left-hand turn at Divisoria. This new highway was also headed downhill most enthusiastically, which leads to this picture that, if it were a painting, I might name “Commitment”:

Commitment

You have to be really committed to basketball to play on a court where an errant pass is likely to travel two or three hundred yards downhill before you can catch up to it.

And then we turned a corner, and there it was.

Salto de Doña Juana cropped

Now when I had discovered the waterfall on the Río Espíritu Santo I had been caught off guard and unprepared. Today, however, I had known before we left Fajardo that the Salto de Doña Juana was on the itinerary, and I had my swimsuit and a spare shirt with me. So in short order I was in the water, whose temperature was perfect – cold enough to take your breath away when you first jumped in, but once you’d been in for thirty seconds or so, you felt like you would never want to get out again.

Backfloating 2

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Salto de Doña Juana, Kenny waits his turn to diveSalto de Doña Juana, happy Kenny

Just look how clear that water is:

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There’s a story that goes with one picture…

Salto de Doña Juana, puertorriqueña interroga a gringo

Up until I met this young lady, I had found Puerto Ricans to be very hospitable. She, however, made it very plain (as you can see in the picture) that she was NOT happy to see me. I was floating serenely on my back, looking up at the waterfall, when she and her friend passed by me. She paused, and I looked over to say hello. But she spoke first, abruptly and brusquely, and in English.

“Are you from Puerto Rico?” It sounded more like an accusation than a question.

“No,” I answered with a polite smile.

Instead of smile in return, I got another question. “Do you know this place’s name?” Her tone of voice made it clear that she was already sure my answer would be another no.

,” I answered, “es el Salto de Doña Juana.

Her surprise at my right answer, and her disappointment, were evident. “Oh.” A pause. “Good job.” She said this with the air of a woman who feels she has no choice but to say something complimentary about her husband’s ex-wife. Then without another word she turned on back on me and she and her friend swam away. Only with the exercise of the severest self-control did I manage to keep from laughing.

I had an experience a few days later (which will be told in due time, in another post) that I think helped me understand her evident hostility. I think that she must be afraid that if word of that waterfall and pool get out to gringo tourists, they’ll overrun the place and ruin it. Which, I admit, would be a pity. You, O Gentle Reader, are of course not an ordinary tourist and your presence at such a place would only enhance the experience of fellow nature-lovers, and therefore I am happy to tell you about it. But let’s keep it between ourselves, shall we? If I go back myself I would certainly hate to find the place overrun with Americans. They’re so rude and noisy, you know.

(I’m almost serious about that. I once spent several months living in England, and toward the end of my stay there I was on a train when a bunch of Americans got on the train, and Lord have mercy were they ever loud. I caught myself thinking some very unpatriotic thoughts.)

One other young lady deserves mention.

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I’m sure this girl was a local; she swam like a fish and dove with nonchalant grace. Well, good for her, but then I’ve known lots of good swimmers and divers, and that in itself does not earn you a spot on my blog. But right before I left, she started climbing over toward the waterfall, as you see in the picture. To my astonishment (though Helen didn’t get a picture of it), she climbed all the way under the waterfall, six or seven feet above the water level, poised herself there with complete control for several seconds, and then dove into the pool from there. Only somebody who has tried to climb a relatively sheer rock face in bare feet when the rock was soaking wet, can begin to appreciate the degree of difficulty in this feat. Frankly I have no idea how she did it, but I hereby bow reverentially in her direction.

By the time we left, the afternoon was well advanced. We got back onto the Ruta Panorámica and headed for Cayey, where we could get back onto the autopista and hightail it back home. Helen by now was getting tired of mountains; so she went to sleep, and I tried to go fast enough to be onto the autopista before she woke up. And had the time estimates Google Maps gave me been even close to accurate, I’d’ve made it with room to spare. Unfortunately there was a lot of traffic from Villalbo all the way to Cayey, and to make it worse we spent the last ten miles or so trapped behind some large trucks, and so she woke up while there were still fifteen or twenty minutes to go – and woke up not feeling well. So I felt pretty bad about that, since she had already very politely spent the day on what I wanted to do rather than what she wanted to do. But once on the autopista our path smoothed out and our speed went up to seventy miles per hour or so, and we made our way back home in the darkness and…headed straight to the washing machine with a pair of sneakers.

We didn’t go back to la Ruta this trip. This means that I have two sections left to travel someday, when we come back to Puerto Rico to deal with this and other unfinished business such as a sailing excursion or cave tubing. First, there’s the section that runs from the Capilla de Santa Rosa by way of a couple of nice lakes, which Google maps says is about thirty miles and about an hour and half of driving. Then there’s Cayey to Maunabo, which is forty miles and about an hour and forty-five minutes.

But I think that if this were going to be my only trip to Puerto Rico, and if I were only going to get to drive two sections of la Ruta…well, it’s hard not to feel like I picked the right two.

An excursion to Calebra

Looking back on our second Sunday in Puerto Rico…

Our friend Raymond’s recommendation of Bio Bay, as you remember, had turned up five stars; so we asked him about arranging a couple of other things for us with East Island Excursions, the company for which he works. First of all, this company takes high-powered catamarans back and forth between Fajardo and Culebra, and also between Fajardo and Vieques. For the Culebra trip, to which the Vieques excursions are similar, you pay I think $80 per person and you show up at 9:00 in the morning. By 9:30 you are headed into the teeth of the trade winds, zooming across the Caribbean in an exhilarating ride, though unfortunately you are not allowed to stand up, or to sit outside the cabin on the back part of the boat enjoying the wind and spray. (This is my take. Other persons’ takes will differ depending upon their susceptibility to seasickness, naturally.) By 10:30 you are moored just offshore the island of Culebra, floating over a tropical reef in a transparently clear Caribbean bay, snorkeling away to your hearts’ content (with man-sized floaties if you never learned to swim, and with an introductory snorkeling training session if you have never snorkeled). By 12:00 or so you and your friends on the boat and the unlimited free rum that is also on the boat, have gobbled down the better-than-I-expected lunch, pulled up anchor, and moved around a headland to the next bay, where one finds Flamenco Beach, often listed as one of the top ten beaches in the world. (CNN placed it at #3 but CNN is not exactly known for dispassionate objectivity and factual reliability; I think the safest conclusions to draw from CNN’s report are (a) that Flamenco Beach is a very fine beach, and (b) that the owners of the Flamenco Beach Resort have let it be known to CNN that they donate generously to the Democratic Party. Discovery Channel rated it #2 in the world, though; so at least there seems to be something of a consensus that it’s a really really nice beach. And I am no beach connoisseur but I thought it was at least better than, you know, Galveston.) By 3:30, having been allowed if you wish (and can find a seat) to ride back in the open part of the boat for the calmer, trade-wind-assisted return trip, you are back at the wharf in Fajardo.

Helen originally wanted to know why the trip was so short, and I told her that I had no doubt that East Island Excursions, through long experience, had optimized the trip length to minimize customer complaints. And the fact that she slept most of the way back on my shoulder is a pretty good answer to her question: considering how much time everybody spends swimming and drinking, by 3:30 nobody’s complaining about getting home in time for a good nap. Well, at least, her sleeping on my shoulder all the way back would be a pretty good answer to her question if it hadn’t been that I doped her before we headed home. But I seem to be getting ahead of myself.

Helen, as has been mentioned several times in these pages, is susceptible to motion sickness; so even though she ordinarily holds Western medicine in contempt and refuses to hold truck with such barbarian notions, I was able to convince her to take a couple of Dramamine before departure. And this was highly successful; although three other people among the twenty or tourists on our boat had to resort to ice packs and seasickness bags, Helen smiled her way through the entire trip.

A helpful note in case you yourself avail yourself of East Island Excursion’s hospitality: asking for fruit punch on the outbound journey is asking for the chance to hurl fruit punch all over your face and holiday clothes when the boat happens to slam into an oncoming five- or six-foot wave at twenty miles an hour or so, just as you’re about to take a drink. This did not happen to me, as I declined any drink, being gifted with near-psychic foresight, and also having been on boats on the open sea before. But it did happen three times to the girl enjoying the window seat at the next table, along with a young man placed next to her for maximum ease in flirtation, and with a couple of older-generation family members on the other side of the table. The first time it happened she and the rest of her party, whose drinks had also abandoned their cups for more interesting locales, laughed gaily and asked the crew for refills. The second time it happened they also laughed gaily, and again new drinks were brought. The third time it happened the young lady reached up, slid open the glass window, seized her own cup in one hand and the cup of the young man next to her in the other, and hurled what remained in the cups out the window. After that, nobody at that table seemed disposed to request a refill.

A couple of hours later, as people were coming in from snorkeling in twos and threes to grab some lunch, I happened to be standing by when one of our fellow excursionists discreetly broached a question to the first mate, having first made sure none of those who had suffered on the outbound crossing were in hearing distance. “So tell me,” he asked with a smile, “do you on the crew ever take bets on which of you can best predict the number of people who will get sick?”

She chuckled and answered, “No, it’s hopeless. You really never can tell. There will be days far more choppy than this one when everybody is calm and happy. And some days when it’s as smooth as a pond we’ll have five people throwing up. We never have any idea what’s going to happen.”

Not everything this first mate says, I should tell you, ought to be taken as gospel. She had been the one to give the welcome and safety speech as we slowly motored out of the marina, and she obviously has ambitions of working someday as a Southwest Airlines flight attendant. Among other things, she assured us that it was a myth that captains go down with ships. “Here on our boats we follow the Italian protocols,” she told us. “So if you see the captain and crew dive over the side, it’s probably a good idea for you to follow suit.”

She also greatly enjoyed the t-shirt I happened to be wearing, which urges passersby to “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS…except for Dave, he’s a jerk.” As we were waiting for all the passengers to gather aft for the snorkeling safety speech, she asked me where she could find one for herself, but as I don’t remember where I got it myself, she decided to just hunt for it online. Then I told her (this is the gospel truth, by the way) that on two separate occasions I have had Starbucks baristas ask me, in all seriousness, “Wow, who is Dave?”

“No way!”

“Yeah,” I answered her as she bent nearly double laughing. “I didn’t really have an answer prepared for THAT one the first time. So I just said he was my brother-in-law.”

The first stop, as I mentioned, was the reef, which is where we were anchored when that conversation took place. As it is a nature reserve and not particularly easy of access from the shore, we were the only people in evidence upon our arrival.

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Even though the reefs are ten feet or so below the surface, you can easily tell where they are — the light blue water is over sandy bottom and the darker water covers reef.

The first mate gave us our snorkeling speech, including offering snorkeling lessons to anyone who needed them. She assured us that at no place did this particular reef break the surface; so we could swim safely wherever we wanted without worrying about committing the severe (and illegal) faux pas of actually touching the reef. The only exception was that we weren’t to go past the end of the little peninsula two or three hundred yards away (the little hill right of center in the next picture), “because there’s a strong current there that you won’t be able to fight. Get in that current and the next stop is the Bahamas, and we aren’t going to go that far just to pick you up. So if you hear a whistle, check to make sure you’re not too far from the boat.” Still, as you can see, that gave any reasonable person plenty of room to wander.

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I had every intention of going snorkeling and had bought an underwater camera so that I could provide pictures of the fish and the reef. This camera, and the pictures taken therewith, ultimately came to a sad and inglorious end to be explained later, and so this post will be rather more visually-deprived than I had expected – it is all well and good for me to tell you about the barracuda that was hanging out under the boat, but I sure wish I had the nice picture I took of it as we stared at each other. Helen, who doesn’t swim, was perfectly happy to stay on the boat and make like a pirate with the rum; after this trip she could say “Yo-ho-ho” with a lovely Spanish accent. “Jo-xho-xho, me hearties!” (Obviously I am not serious about the rum or the Spanish accent. In five years of marriage I have not even once been able to get Helen so much as merely to join in celebrating Talk Like A Pirate Day, much less to convince her to wave jugs of rum about while singing off-color songs and twirling the ends of her moustache.) I, however, had never in my life been snorkeling and was rarin’ to go.

We who are about to snorkel salute you

I hopped happily into the water, which was slightly cooler than I had expected but still eminently tropical, launched out, stuck my face down into the water, breathed out, and then…

PANIC PANIC PANIC PANIC CHOKE CHOKE CHOKE SPLUTTER!!

As I had never in my life been scuba-diving or snorkeling before, I had never in my life taken a nice deep breath in, while underwater. What I had not realized until that very instant was that while my brain understood the concept of a snorkeling tube, the rest of my body absolutely knew for certain that if you try to breath underwater you drown. The moment I started to breath in, my entire body from head to toe completely locked up in a spasm of pure panic, and I could not help but open my mouth desperately and gasp for air. Since opening your mouth in mindless desperation breaks the seal between your mouth and the snorkeling tube, causing half the water in the Caribbean to hurl itself joyfully into your mouth and down your windpipe, the panic was self-fulfilling. This did nothing to lessen the degree of panic on my second try.

After a few disastrous attempts, and much graceless (and, to observers, no doubt amusing) floundering about in the water yanking my head out and coughing and spitting out salt water, I accepted the fact that a change in strategy was in order. This was particularly true since every time I put my head underwater, water got into my nose, which I was pretty sure the mask was supposed to keep from happening. So I swam back to the boat and asked young Morgan, one of the crew, about the problem with water getting into my nose.

“Oh, sorry, that’s our fault,” he said. “It’s your moustache. We should have warned you. Your moustache breaks the seal. So hang on a second, I’ll get you some Vaseline. Then you smear Vaseline all over your moustache before you put on the mask, and then you’ll be fine.”

Duly Vaselined up, I returned to the bottom step of the boat, which by this time was free of traffic, since everybody else who wanted to snorkle was well out over the reef already.

Snorkelers

Here I spent the next few minutes sitting on that step, which was about a foot below the surface of the water, and practicing putting my face into the water and breathing in. For the first two or three minutes I couldn’t do it. Then I managed one breath before panicking. Slowly the stretches got longer and longer, and finally I pushed myself out from the boat and started floating, and slowly kicking my way, toward the reef. I had to yank my head out of the water a couple more times and reset myself, but finally I had myself under control, as long as I concentrated very carefully on breathing in and breathing out.

I had remembered the waterproof camera, and had attached it to my wrist, after making the surprising and unwelcome discovery that apparently there are a few camera factories in the world that still manufacture cameras that use…you’re not going to believe this…film. I had to cast way back into the mental mists of the past to remember how to advance the film in a camera. Also I had no idea how many pictures one roll would take. But eventually I seemed to have it under control; and now it was attached to my wrist…by a cord so short I couldn’t get it all the way into picture-taking position without hitting the end of its leash. So I had to pull it off my hand – remembering to keep breathing in and out – every time I wanted a picture. Still, I got several very nice shots of brilliantly colored fish swimming over suprisingly drab-colored coral. Breathe in. Breathe out. Sl-o-w-l-y pull camera off wrist. Breathe in. Point camera. Breathe out. Click button. Breathe in. Where the heck is that…breathe out…winding handle. Oh, there it…breathe in…is. Breathe out. Advance film. Breathe in. Sl-o-w-l-y pull camera onto wrist…

The alert Gentle Reader will note that in this routine, which I concentrated on intensely for quite some time, there is no point at which I included any step of “lift head out of water to see where you are and listen for a whistle.” At last it occurred to me that I had been snorkeling for quite a long time without having to yank my head up out of panic and start over. I lifted my head out of the water slowly, calmly, in complete control, very proud of myself for my Triumphant Accomplishment – and found myself staring at the point of the little headland we weren’t supposed to go past, which was about thirty yards from me. Now my airheadedness frequently results in comic results; but that was WAY too close to being not funny at all. At any rate, I got myself turned around in a heckuva hurry and started swimming purposefully back in the direction of the boat until I was reasonably sure I was out of getting-whistled-at range. And after that, “lift head out of the water to see where you are, you moron” found its way into the routine.

In due time, after lunch and quite a few drinks of rum in various guises, the boat was backing its way toward Flamenco Beach.

Flamenco Beach

It had not been made clear to us before we left Fajardo that there was no wharf at Flamenco Beach at which to disembark, and that the plan was for the boat to get thirty yards or so from the beach and then stop, allowing us all to leap overboard in ten-foot-deep water and swim to the beach.

Arrival at Flamenco Beach

This is all well and good unless you are a five-foot-four Chinese girl who can’t swim. But Helen spent a lot of this Puerto Rico trip being brave – she had already, you remember, kayaked Bayou Bay in the dark – and she steeled her nerves, strapped a life jacket onto her torso, clutched another one in both arms and put it under her chin, and eased herself into the water. Then I pushed her to shore. There are no pictures or videos of this process. I don’t believe any were taken to begin with. If there were, Helen has long since tracked them down and destroyed them.

Not only that, but she took snorkeling equipment with her. In fact we took several things with us, including a camera, though we didn’t think of them all at first. I made two or three trips to get things we had at first forgotten, including both of our hats. These came ashore in one trip, both perched atop of my head, Helen’s floppy floweredy hat proudly astride my own weatherbeaten brown broad-brimmed affair, while I dogpaddled so that I could keep my head above water and keep the hats dry. There are no pictures or videos of this process. If any were taken to begin with, I plead the Fifth on what might have happened to them subsequently.

At any rate, eventually we were settled on the beach, and I played in the surf some and Helen took some pictures (all pictures in this post were taken by Helen, by the way).

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This one in particular is interesting:

Bird puzzle, Flamenco Beach

Helen posted this picture on her WeChat feed and asked people to see how many birds they could count. There was a remarkably wide spread in the answer sample, and one of the reason that the spread was so remarkable was that a few people not only found all the birds that were there, they even found (apparently) a couple that were on their way to the party but hadn’t landed yet. I’m not quite sure how you manage to count MORE birds than are actually there, but more than one person did so. (The correct answer, by the way, is postponed to the bottom of this post, for those who want to play too.)

But I have strayed from the topic of the snorkeling equipment. After an hour or so of cavorting and picture-taking and walking along the beach, Helen summoned up her courage, strapped on the mask and snorkeling tube, walked on trembling knees out to where the incoming waves came up to her shoulders, took a firm grip on my hands with hers, and began to snorkel. Her snorkling consisted of doing the dead-man’s float while I held her in place, but she was snorkeling all the same. Which, given the psychological degree of difficulty, was a much greater accomplishment than anything anybody else on that beach did that day.

By the way, I may say that Helen was very embarrassed to be the only person on our boat who couldn’t swim. But in later conversations with the crew we found out that they thought none the worse of her for that, and actually appreciated her good sense. We were assured that it often happens that an entire boat is rented by a single group of tourists from this country or the other, as tourists come to Puerto Rico from all over the world. And whenever the crew members check their boat’s passenger list for the day and see that one such boatful consists of people from a certain culture that discretion forbids me to name (I don’t want to get the crew into trouble for their candour), they weep and gnash their teeth and rend their garments and steel themselves for a VERY long day. This is because persons from that culture (a) usually don’t know how to swim and (b) usually just jump into the water anyway, very often without life jackets. Then the crew has to keep them from drowning, despite their evidently suicidal intentions – and despite the fact that from time a time a whole such family will jump in at once and then panic en masse. So our crew thought highly of Helen, because while it was true that she couldn’t swim, at least she had the sense to KNOW (a) that she couldn’t swim, and (b) that jumping blithely into ten-foot-deep water when you can’t swim is unwise.

By the time the horn sounded, both Helen and I were tired, though happy. Helen allowed as how she had been pretty freaked out on the way in from the boat because, even though she knew I was behind her, she couldn’t SEE me, and she felt very alone. So Crew Member Morgan splashed ashore carrying a nice long floatie for her to rest her arms and chin on, which floatie was attached to a rope and a shoulder harness. (As I say, East Island Excursions is an experienced and professional outfit and Helen is very far from being the first non-swimmer they’ve taken to Flamenco Beach.) Morgan towed Helen to the boat, there in front where she could see him the whole time, while I swam behind carrying all our gear and wearing our two hats, no pictures or videos being taken. Then we secured seats in the open-air aft seating for the trip back.

And here we made our only real mistake (I don’t count forgetting to lift my head while snorkeling as a mistake because I didn’t reap consequences from it). I have never taken Dramamine in my life, because I have never been seasick. (Helen hates flying with me because whenever we hit turbulence I begin grinning with delight, to her intense annoyance. But if there’s no turbulence to enliven your plane ride then you might as well be riding a bus, is what I say.) I remembered something about “every four to six hours” on the Dramamine box, and I didn’t want Helen to get seasick; so I gave her two more Dramamine – not remembering (a) that the box said “one or two” and I had given her the full dose the first time, and (b) that Helen had had a long and stressful, if enjoyable, day, and was now exhausted.

I am not entirely sure that Helen remembers the rest of that day, which she passed either sound asleep on my shoulder in the aft of the boat, or else dragging herself around the apartment feeling very drugged and very unhappy. Insofar as she remembers anything about it, what she remembers – as she has informed me flatly – is that she will never ever again in her life, under any circumstances whatever, take Dramamine.

But other than that, hey, a great day, even if the Sunday evening family devotions we originally planned to have in the apartment were doomed by Dramamine. And if you go to Puerto Rico, I give East Island Excursions a big thumbs-up.

Oh, and as for the picture with the birds: there are twelve. (The highest WeChat guess was fourteen, by the way.)

P.S. By the way: the rum, it is gratis. The beer, it is three dollars a can. Beer-drinking Gentle Readers, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

P.P.S. We originally planned to go on another of East Island Excursion’s trips. This one is a pure sailing trip, which goes to a couple of the small islands just offshore from Fajardo. The agenda is similar — snorkeling at a nice reef, a few hours at a nice beach, drinks and lunch included. The boats are somewhat different, in that at least one is partially glass-bottomed and another comes complete with a water slide. And the bar is differently stocked: the Culebra boats are rum-and-beer-only boats, but the sailboats have lots of bourbon and Scotch as well, which like the rum and unlike the beer are free. I cannot tell you why East Island Excursions are happy to pass out as much hard liquor as you can drink but don’t think they can afford to give you beer without charging for it. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps the beer, with its high volume-to-alcohol ratio, takes up too much space?

At any rate, we had left the sailing trip until fairly late in our stay, and wound up prioritizing other things ahead of it and saving it for our next trip. So if you go before we do, let us know how it works out.

Across southern Puerto Rico and the Ruta Panorámica (western section), Saturday, 18 July

Looking back on the first Saturday of our Puerto Rico vacation…

Puerto Rico is not a terribly large island – a rough rectangle about a hundred miles long and about thirty-five miles wide – and so when bad weather caused The Open to be canceled on Saturday, we decided to take a field trip from our apartment on the extreme northeast corner, at Fajardo, to a well-known public beach on the extreme southeast corner, at Boquerón. Google Maps wanted us to take autopistas (the Puerto Rican equivalent of interstate highways) wherever possible, but we overrode Google’s advice for the early part of the day and took the coastal highway through Emajagua and Lamboglia. It wasn’t quite California’s Highway One or Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, but it was spectacular enough to justify the detour – though there were, alas, very few places where it was easy to pull over and take pictures, and Helen was asleep (when we are on narrow twisty roads and she is asleep I hate to wake her up, because as long as she is asleep I know she isn’t carsick).

PR 91 near Emajagua (3)

From Highway 91, near Emajagua

Helen doesn’t swim yet (though, as you will hear in a later post, she is tackling the problem rather bravely), and so when we got the the very lovely, but very crowded, Balneario Boquerón (“Boquerón Beach”), she simply set herself up in the shade with her sunglasses and festively flowery skirt and zoom-lens-equipped camera…
Helen at Balneario Boquerón

Helen at Boquerón Beach

…and spent the next hour taking pictures of everybody on the beach except me. I don’t blame her in the slightest for ignoring me – I was very boring. As far as I can tell there is nobody on the island of Puerto Rico who knows how to give a good Chinese massage, and my back was getting worse every day. So I simply got out into the nice clear cool water under the tropical sun, and stationed myself where I could rest on my knees with my head out of the water.

Kenny at Balneario Boquerón

Kenny at Boquerón Beach

Then I dug each foot and each knee well into the sand to make a nice solid base, relaxed every muscle in my back for the first time since reaching Puerto Rico, let the water, instead of my back muscles, do the work of holding me upright…and went happily to sleep. Every few minutes an unusually large wave would come through and knock me onto my face in the water. I would, half-asleep, push myself back up, re-set my knees and feet, re-relax my back, and go back to sleep. It was a WONDERFUL forty-five minutes or so.

But we couldn’t stay too long, because the part of the trip I was looking forward to the most was still ahead of us, and I didn’t want to use up too much daylight drowsing on the beach. (Well, sort of on the beach. Within ten or so yards of the beach, at least.)

I had read in several places of the Ruta Panorámica, an official government-designated route that runs along the spine of Puerto Rico’s central mountain range, the Cordillera Central. Tiny little mountain roads with insanely steep slopes, tight hairpin corners, and barely enough room for two cars meeting each other to get by without folding in mirrors…what’s not to like? Well, if you’re prone to car-sickness, there is that, I suppose. But I have an ambition to drive the entire thing, and while I didn’t complete the mission this trip, we at least got a start.

Now the thing is, you have never seen a tourist initiative as half-hearted as this whole Ruta Panorámica thing is on its western end. (In the middle it gets better, but we started on the western coast.) This should be one of the world’s genuinely spectacular roads and should bring tourist gold to every small town on the route. But instead…well, say that you get to an intersection and you’re not sure which way is the RP. You can’t tell from the highway number because the RP changes from one highway to another no less than thirty-one times in its meandering path from Mayagüez to Maunabo. And usually there is no sign to help you out. If, however, you do happen to choose the right road, then three or four miles later, at some randomly-chosen location of no apparent significance, you will see an old sign that says cheerfully, “Ruta Panorámica.”

Even getting started in Mayagüez is ridiculously difficult. I saw no signs anywhere in Mayagüez mentioning the RP; I just happened to know it was there, and I had Google Maps on my iPhone. So I knew I was trying to get to Highway 150. (“Highway” here in Puerto Rico means basically “any paved road at least eight feet wide” so perhaps I should just call it Road #150 so as not to give my Texan Gentle Readers any false impressions. And while we’re at it – when I’m driving around the eastern coast, Google Maps keeps telling me to get onto “Interstate 3.” I have no idea why they call this road an “interstate.” It isn’t labeled that way on any Puerto Rican sign; Puerto Rico has autopistas that are quite good but they don’t pretend that Highway 3 is an autopista. No road, be it an autopista or a one-way dirt footpath, goes out of Puerto Rico into any other part of the U.S., so the “interstate” can only be called “inter” rather than “intra” by outraging the English language. Also Puerto Rico isn’t a state so it should be intracommonwealth rather than interstate. And then there’s the fact that you have to stop at a traffic light every three or four hundred meters as well as the fact that people pull out into the right-hand lane from driveways from time to time as well as the fact that Puerto Rico knows that Highway 3 is not an autopista and doesn’t call it one… Why, I repeat, does Google think this road is an “interstate”? This has been a Special Public-Service Rant from the Department of Accuracy in Nomenclature. We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.)

Here is what the relevant section of Mayagüez looks like on Google Maps:Magayuez in Google Maps

You see, down in the right-hand corner, Road #105. I was coming in on 2A, heading south. Calle Candelaria seemed a reasonably good-sized street so I turned left on it. You must realize, by the way, that I had Google maps on my iPhone and the one-way arrows were too small to see given the scale I was using as I drove into town. Therefore I was surprised to find, upon reaching the street that on the map was labeled 105, that it was one-way in the wrong direction, and also about one car-width wide, which explained the one-way sign. So I turned left, turned left again as soon as I could on Calle Méndez Vigo, and turned back north on Calle Liceo / 349 – pausing in the middle of the street for a moment in order to expand Google Maps as much as I could. That allowed me to see an arrow informing me that Calle San Rafael / 105A was apparently one-way in the wrong direction. I drew the conclusion that Calle Ote / 105 must be two-way once you got past Calle II de Agosto, which was one-way in the wrong direction, so I went on to Calle Santiago Riera Palmer (Palmer? Santiago Riera Palmer? One of these things is not like the other…). There I turned left and at the next block…discovered that, no, Calle Ote / 105 was still one-way in the wrong direction. Left I went again (there being no choice) and circled back to Calle II de Agosto, and out of simple desperation this time I went all the way up to Calle San Rafael / 105A. Aha! This one was actually two-way from Calle Ote / 105 headed west and only turned one-way where it intersected Calle Ote / 105. But I couldn’t actually see anywhere to go other than left on Calle Ote…until we got to the intersection and saw what looked for all the world like a single lane running about thirty feet uphill to a blank stone wall, presumably with a left-hand turn allowing you out of it. And there on that wall, where it could be seen as long as you were standing no more than thirty feet from it AND in the middle of the street, was the helpful sign: “Ruta Panorámica.”

This reminded me irresistibly of Arthur Dent’s explanation of how he finally found the plans to the bypass that required the destruction of his house:

[Said the bureaucrat,] “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”

Once we were finally on 105, however, I got very happy very quickly. This was my kind of road, running right up along the ridgetop of a long natural buttress extending down from the high mountain ridges to the plain. The road was just wide enough for you to negotiate your way past oncoming traffic, on the rare occasions when traffic oncame, and the reason was quite simple: there frequently wasn’t room to make it wider because you had a sheer drops a foot from the roadway edge on either side. But there were astonishingly many houses. Most of them were single-room houses not because the people were poor (judging from the expensiveness and newness of the cars parked under them they were quite the opposite, paying good money for spectacular views) but because even a single room sticking, say, twenty-five feet out from the road, required forty-foot stilts to reach down far enough to catch up to the mountainside.

Puerto Rico is a semi-poor, semi-Third-World island that had the severe misfortune of being a Spanish colony for several centuries, which is to say, for about four centuries they lost the lottery of life. And while matters have improved a great deal during their American century, they still have not been what you would call consistently well-governed, as witness their current financial travails. So there isn’t a lot of money to spend on road maintenance, and what money there is doesn’t tend to be wisely spent. This is hardly the fault of the local residents, who (as has generally been my experience in badly-governed countries from Mexico to Kazakhstan to China, but sadly excluding the very-badly-governed-indeed New Jersey) are friendly, admirable people who show a great deal of ingenuity and resiliency in dealing with life situations that would render your average pampered American urbanite hopelessly non-functional. Although if you grew up like me in southeastern Oklahoma, la Ruta Panorámica is a significant improvement over some of the washboard dust-and-rock state “highways” back in the Little River area of the 1980’s, and you’d feel right at home except for all the Spanish.

It does, however, mean that while you can see places on la Ruta Panorámica that once had been cleared and widened to provide scenic overlooks, the rain forest has taken control right back and the trees once more provide an impenetrable screen. As I say, you can see both how this ought to be a tourist mecca, and also precisely why it in actual fact is not. But every so often the drops are so sheer that the tops of the trees are still below you, or else a local resident has kept his own view clear and you can borrow it. And then it really is quite remarkable – the mountain ridges are clothed in jungle but they are clearly knife-edge ridges, and you don’t have to get very far along la Ruta before you are looking down on clouds trapped between those precipitous walls. The panoramas are really well worth the effort, even on a day like the day we travelled this western section, when we spent a lot of time in clouds ourselves and therefore the green of the jungle and white of the clouds looked more like grayscale than color, even in real life.

Clouds and ridges on la Ruta

Atop the Ruta Panorámica

Far up in the mountains, almost an hour (which is to say fourteen miles) from Mayagüez, we came to Maricao, which bills itself on a small sign at the edge of town as la Ciudad de Café (“the City of Coffee”), but for historical reasons only. Per Wikipedia, “Many of the old plantation houses have been converted into museums to stimulate the tourism industry. While Puerto Rico still has a niche in the gourmet coffee market, the large scale coffee growing which built Maricao is no longer economically feasible.” That is to say, the purpose of present-day coffee plantations around Maricao is to have something to show tourists, because you can’t actually make money growing coffee. Now as a tourism strategy this doesn’t sound like an intrinsically bad idea to me. However, they don’t really have the marketing down – I drove through the middle of Maricao and wandered around in it for half an hour or so on foot, and the only reason I know that there are coffee plantation museums for tourists to see in Maricao is because I read it just now in Wikipedia.

I missed a turn at Maricao but didn’t realize it at first, because I felt like I could use a cup of coffee and was looking for a place that would sell me one, on the assumption that la Ciudad de Café would probably have some good stuff. (I did not, at the time, realize that the sobriquet referred solely to past glories.) A little panaderia/pizza place was open; so I parked the car and Helen and I walked in. After the obligatory exchange of, “Buenas tardes,” I thought I might get lucky and actually get a latte; so I asked politely, “¿Se vende café con leche?

She assumed an expression of deep regret. “No, Señor.”

“Ah.” I gave her my best c’est la vie shrug and said, “Pues, solo café.

No, Señor, no hay café aquí.

Wait, this is the City of Coffee and you don’t sell coffee? Surely I had not properly understood. “¿Café no se vende?

No, Señor.

Well…okay, then. Ah, well, Helen was in the mood for a snack, and they had quite an array of pastries on display, including some very good-looking cheescake. Helen ordered the cheesecake, and while I knew I ought not have anything sweet, I couldn’t resist trying the flan. The cheesecake slices were already on little plates; so the proprietress pulled one out and handed it to Helen. Then she took off a shelf behind her a little styrofoam cup just like the ones you would serve coffee in, and for a moment my hopes soared: perhaps I had misunderstood? But then she slid a spatula under a square of flan, dropped it into the cup, stuck a little plastic spoon in it, and handed it to me with a smile.

I smiled back. “Gracias.

De nada.

I went back and sat down. “How is the cheesecake?” I asked Helen, and got a thumbs-up. Then I took a bite of my flan.

My God. In one of Essie Summers’s pet phrases: “and it was not blasphemy.”

I took another bite, reverently. The second bite was as spectacular as the first.

Helen looked up and saw my expression and did a double-take. “What?” she said with evident amusement.

I savored the taste, carefully considering my words. I swallowed. Trying not to exaggerate, I said slowly, “I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted flan better than this.”

Helen rolled her eyes at me. “You always exaggerate.”

I took another bite. My GOD.

“No,” I said with consideration, shaking my head slowly and resisting the urge to rise to my feet and sing the Nunc Dimittis, “I think this really is the best flan I have ever eaten. They’ve done something with the crust – caramelized it I think. It’s almost crème brûlée.”

A few moments later I looked down into my cup. Somehow it had all disappeared.

“I’m getting another one.”

“WHAT? No, your blood sugar, you’re not supposed to…”

“I can’t help myself.”

I got up and walked back over to the counter. I tried to tell the proprietress, “Este flan…” Words failed me, as happens often in Spanish. I waved my hands in the air helplessly, then said, “…espectacular.” She understood the body language, if not the Spanish, and broke into a huge smile. “Gracias.

Un otro, por favor.”  I handed her the cup. She smiled and refilled my cup with another slice of flan. I paid her, sat down, ate it…then told Helen, “Okay, I have to leave or I won’t be able to keep from ordering a third.”

I stepped back to the counter and the proprietress glanced down to see how much flan she had left. Quickly I asked, “¿Dónde puedo yo comprar café?” which fortunately she understood to mean, “Where can I buy a cup of coffee?”

She told me that if I went out the front door and turned left, then at the end of the street there was a place called “El Buen Café,” and she thought I could possibly buy coffee there. As I thought it quite beyond the pale of possibility that a place named “The Good Coffee” would not in fact sell coffee, I felt reasonably optimistic. I thanked her and stepped outside, leaving Helen to finish her cheesecake, and  headed up the hill toward the church, along the Calle José De Diego. At the third intersection my street ended at the Calle Corchado, and there, sure enough, was El Buen Café – securely padlocked. I stood and looked at it for a moment, shook my head in resignation, and then turned and started back toward the bakery/pizza place.

But I remembered that about halfway up the street I had passed a small cafeteria whose door was open. Perhaps they would have coffee? As I came back up to it, I stopped and then stepped inside. There was a middle-aged man behind a tiny bar, and two of his friends seated on the customer side of it. A series of about fourteen or sixteen pictures of Puerto Rican patriots hung on the wall, each with a fifty-word biography under the picture, and next to them a sign saying sternly that anybody who wanted to play dominoes absolutely had to make a purchase, no matter who he might be. The three men looked up at me with some curiosity.

Buenas tardes, Señor,” I said to the apparent owner.

Buenas tardes.

“¿Se vende café?

He gave it a few seconds thought, then said in English that was heavily accented but considerably better than my Spanish, “Can you wait two minutes?”

“Absolutely,” I said with relief.

He stepped into a back room and then came out with a small personal coffee maker good for about two cups at a time, plugged it in, and set about making me a cup of coffee. I had time to read the life stories of most of the patriots on the wall before he said, “It’s ready, Señor.”

I took the coffee gratefully and tasted it, without very high hopes since I rarely drink coffee black. To my relief it was actually quite good. I smiled and thanked him. “How much do I owe you?”

“Seventy-five cents.”

I gave him a dollar, waved off the change, thanked him, stepped back out into the gray daylight, and walked back down to where Helen was waiting, having finished her cheesecake.

I wish I could remember the name of the place that has the best flan I’ve ever eaten, but I didn’t take a picture of the sign on the outside, and now all I can remember is that it was ____ and ____’s Pizza. Something like “Maria and Jerry’s Pizza.” If you go to Maricao, it’s at the corner of the Calle José De Diego and Highway #105. I didn’t try the pizza, because we weren’t hungry enough. But just before we left, I did ask the proprietress whether their pizza was as good as their flan:

Señora, su pizza…”

She looked blank for a moment, then the penny dropped and she smiled, “Ah, pissa.” Apparently in the Puerto Rican variety of Spanish, “pizza” is pronounced with a soft s rather than with our accustomed ts sound.

, su pissa…¿es tan buena como su flan?

She beamed. “Mejor, Señor.” And if their pizza really is even better than their flan, then I want the recipe and the franchise because there is a commercial empire to be built.

Home of my favorite flan

Home of the best flan I’ve ever eaten, in Maricao

There wasn’t a lot of daylight left at this point, and Helen was now awake and subject to carsickness and boredom; so I figured we would hop off la Ruta at the first convenient point and drop back down to the southern expressway. Fortunately, the first convenient point to leave la Ruta didn’t come until after we had passed through the Maricao State Forest, which local residents refer to as Monte del Estado, after the highest mountain therein. And la Ruta runs right along the highest ridge thereof, and just before it dives down toward the saddle east of the Monte del Estado, you come to a hollow stone tower in a roadside park built by the CCC under FDR.

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Climbing the tower gives you a nice 360° view…which we took pictures of, though the light and weather were much less than ideal.DSC_9085

We did, however, have an excellent view of a phenomenon that seems odd to people who grow up in the flatlands, though mountain folk have seen it all their lives. When a nice wet wind is blowing straight into the side of a steep, sharp-edged mountain ridge, the wind gathers up all the cloudlets and water vapor and pushes them up the mountain, sweeping the windward side of the mountain clear of clouds. But when the wind clears the summit and is finally able to continue on its path, its momentum carries it out over the top and up a bit higher, before it flattens back out and hastens away at its new elevation, rather than diving back down the mountain’s lee slope. The clouds and vapor, however, obey the call of gravity and drop out of the windstream….and the moment they drop into the still lee-side air, they quit moving and start piling up. So you get clear sky on the windward side, and thick fog on the other, and if the summit is sharp enough the fog and the clear air can be only a few yards from each other. Which means that whether or not you can see through the fog, say, a radio tower, can depend entirely on which side of the summit the tower is placed.

DSC_9088

(What you can’t tell from this still picture, is that the wisps of clouds on the right hand side of the picture are racing uphill like mad, while the fog on the left-hand side isn’t moving at all.)

We were not blessed with perfect solitude at our tower. When we got there, the roof was already occupied by a family with a couple of teenagers, presumably belonging to the old SUV in the parking area. They seemed perfectly nice and were no problem. When the college kids showed up in a Volkswagen Bug blaring forest-shaking rap music, however, we decided we were ready to go.

From there we headed for home. And here we were betrayed, I would have thought, by Helen’s iPhone and her iPhone maps app, which for some reason thought the best way down was to go a couple of miles along 366 and then take 371, a precipitously plunging, genuinely one-car-wide road that required me to negotiate by eye-contact and sign language with the one car we met in order to find a spot on the saddle wide enough for us to squeeze by each other without someone’s falling several hundred feet down the mountainside. Eventually we came to an intersection and turned left onto what was now a legitimately two-lane road, and I pulled to the side at a wide spot to make sure we were still on the right path. And just as I was about ready to pull back onto the road and go forward, an old SUV sailed past us – with the same family that had been up at the stone tower! So I suppose the iPhone maps app wasn’t entirely insane after all, and that really was about as good a way down the mountain as any.

We followed the other family down the mountainside for several sinuous miles, trailing happily along in their wake knowing that if there were upward-bound lunatics taking corners at outrageous speeds they would hit the SUV rather than us. Finally the SUV’s turn signal flashed left, and then they turned into the parking lot of a little café. Just as I started to speed up and go past them, one of the teenaged girls stuck her head out of a back-seat window and started waving madly at us and calling to us…but by the time it registered on me that they must have actually recognized us from the top and wanted to talk to us, we were already past them and turning the next curve. I thought about going back, but there was no place to turn around and we were still two and a half hours from home and Helen was tired…so I just decided to keep going. I still feel a bit guilty as I type this, and if you, Gentle Reader, are a member of that family and you ever read this, well, discúlpeme, por favor. Nothing personal, I promise.

We returned to the Ruta Panorámica a couple of days later, but that’s another post.