A six-year-old experiences Armistice Day

From The Essie Summers Story, here are Ms. Summers’s memories of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when she was six and a half years old in New Zealand:


I stood outside our house in Buckley’s Road staring in amazement as a boy, standing in the stirrups of a black pony, tore down our road (he must have ridden all the way from town and probably didn’t stop till he got to the sea at Brighton) shouting ceaselessly: ‘Peace! Peace! Peace!’

The whole suburb went mad, determined on making as much noise as possible. Mother and Mrs. Scott next door got out as many petrol tins and buckets as they could muster and, giving us pokers and shovels, actually commanded us to beat them as loudly as we could! We children were horribly embarrassed about this childish behaviour on the part of normally staid grownups and in the end sneaked off into our old stable and left them to it.

Besides, I couldn’t see any cause for jubilation. At six I realized peace meant the end of the war, but a boy had once told me that the Germans were bound to win the war and they’d come over here and cut all our heads off! Every night when Mother heard my prayers I repeated after her: ‘Please may the war end soon and Uncle Bill Summers and Cousin Bill Summers get home.’ I couldn’t understand why Mother wanted it to end when such dreadful things were going to happen to us. I’d a vague idea it was tied up with forgiving one’s enemies, but I’d no patience with such sentiments.

Mother always tucked us up warmly before we said our prayers, but I was taking no chances on not doing the right thing, so every night when she turned out the light, I got stealthily out of bed, knelt down and added a postscript: ‘Dear God, I’ve just got to pray what she says, but please don’t let the war end, ever!

So now I was very apprehensive. Fortunately, Father arrived home on his bicycle, all businesses having closed down, and was able to sort out my fears, explaining Peace meant that we had won and nobody was going to cut anybody’s head off. This so restored me I cheerfully and unceasingly blew a whistle all the way to town, perched on a seat on his bicycle bar. We joined the jubilant crowds in the Square and celebrated by having an icecream in a dish from ‘Icecream Charlie’ at the Bank of New Zealand Corner. This really marked it as a big day, because hitherto I’d been acquainted with icecream only in cones.


Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan) and La Perla

We spent three afternoons and evenings in Viejo San Juan, the old part of Puerto Rico’s capital city, though Helen was sick the last time and stayed in the hotel room trying to recover. I’m going to mix all three days together and not bother about which pictures were taken on which days. I like Viejo San Juan a lot, myself; but it helps to know its history. Also it helps to know about La Perla (as you will by the end of this post) before you get there.

Christopher Columbus came across Puerto Rico on his second voyage, but it was Ponce de León who settled the place. The harbor that is now known as San Juan Harbor (full name la Bahia de San Juan el Bautista) is one of the world’s best natural harbors, and its strategic importance in the days of sailing vessels would be difficult to overstate. Before steam engines you couldn’t fight the trade winds; it is actually not possible properly to understand the history of European Atlantic trade, including the history of the slave trade, if you don’t know that sailing ships in the Atlantic pretty much had to travel around the Atlantic in a clockwise circle. Puerto Rico is the first large island with timber and fresh water that you get to when sailing the westward portion of that circle, and its immense harbor offered unparalleled protection both from weather and enemies – as long as you could keep the enemies from getting through the half-mile-wide entrance to the harbor. If you controlled San Juan Harbor you could control much of the Caribbean in the caravel and clipper ages. And thanks to the not-very-bright but very-very-very-lucky Columbus, Spain got there first.

San Juan Harbor consists of two critical features. The first is the huge bay itself, which extends well back into the island with plenty of room to hold entire fleets of vessels all at once. The second is the island of San Juan Bautista, which sits directly across the mouth of the bay and blocks all entrance thereunto except for a half-mile strait at the western tip of the island – on the east, the extremely narrow channel is not navigable for ocean-going vessels. And the island itself rises precipitously from the sea to a commanding height, with a rocky, wave-battered coast that offers no place for invaders to land an invasion force, while providing all the room for defensively emplaced cannon you could ask for.

De León’s first choice for where to build a Spanish settlement in San Juan Harbor was not a great one – for reasons I don’t pretend to understand, he first settled at Caparra on the interior of the bay – but he eventually realized his mistake and moved everybody across to the island. And the town of San Juan, or at least the part that sits on the island to this day and is known as Viejo (“Old”) San Juan, has been there ever since. The Spanish held on to Puerto Rico and San Juan longer than to any other of their American possessions save Cuba; San Juan was subject to the Spanish crown all the way up until the Americans took the town and the island in 1898, during the Spanish-American War.

And for most of those four centuries, Spain was building fortifications. And not measly little twenty-foot-high, six-foot-wide fortifications like, say, the old city wall of York, from the days before Europeans had found out about gunpowder. These are fortifications built specifically to ward off sixteen-pounder cannon fire from entire fleets of enemy men-o’-war. The walls are fifteen to twenty feet thick, and in places a hundred feet high.

Castillo San Felipe del Murro, from second highest level

Upper levels of Castillo San Felipe, from within second-level fortifications

The Castillo San Felipe has four levels, all with cannon emplacements and those twenty-foot-thick walls, which is the biggest reason that when Sir Francis Drake decided to come sack San Juan with a fleet of twenty-seven ships he got well and truly spanked, so that the next time the British decided to try their luck, they used an army rather than a navy, landed them on shore well away from San Juan’s guns, and attacked from land. The only fortifications I’ve personally seen that can compare are the Ming city walls in Beijing (or what little remains after the wanton vandalism of the Chinese Communist Party during the Great Leap Forward and the following two decades); but the Chinese cheated by having a hundred million or so disposable peasants on hand to build things with. The Spanish were so enthusiastic about the San Juan fortifications, and had so many decades in which to indulge their enthusiasm, that the first defensive tower they built wound up being completely inside one of the later walls. I don’t mean that they built a wall between the old tower and the sea. I mean that they built a new wall around and over the old tower so high and so thick that now what used to be the old tower is a room inside the new wall.

Castillo San Felipe del Murro, display

That’s what most people remember when they come back from San Juan: the Castillo San Cristóbal that guarded the eastern end of the island from land-based attack, the Castillo San Felipe del Murro that still bestrides the western end lest the harbor be attacked from the sea, and the mostly-intact city wall that encircled the island and left no place where the two Castillos might be circumvented. At the southeastern corner the walls got torn down in order to allow expansion, before Puerto Rico fully grasped the economic importance of tourism and the historical pricelessness of the wall. Otherwise, they are intact, and very much worth your time, O Gentle Reader.

Castillo San Felipe del Murro, stairs down from upper level

Castillo San Felipe del Murro, stairs down from upper level


Castillo San Cristobal


City walls near Castillo San Cristóbal 

We got there in the early afternoon, and found an underground parking garage at the far western end of town, right next to the Castillo San Felipe (the bigger one, guarding the mouth of the harbor). Parking is at such a premium that there were attendants down there explicitly commanding you to double-park and block earlier arrivals in. They then let you keep your keys so I suppose if said earlier arrivals wanted to also be earlier departures… (helpless shrug). I figured we’d be there for a while and folks would have cleared out by the time we wanted to leave; so I didn’t worry about it, and we walked out of the garage into the sunshine.

Now the first thing I noticed was the Cementerio Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis, where the Spanish have been burying good (and, to judge from the statuary, wealthy) Catholics since the days of Ponce de León. On that first day we didn’t go down there, because Helen wasn’t very interested, and also I mistakenly thought you could get there from the Castillo San Felipe. So we just took photographs from the city wall.

Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis from east (1)

Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis from east

I went down there on the last day, while Helen was asleep in the hotel room, and walked down the street and through the tunnel that allows cars into the cemetery and from there into the neighborhood of La Perla; but I got there too late and the gate was locked. IMG_3310

Still, I was close enough to see some of the statuary close at hand. And also, I noticed something I hadn’t thought to predict, but that made sense as soon as I saw it. The graves do not, generally speaking, have the names of individuals on them, the way tombstones do here. Instead, they simply say, for example, “LA FAMILIA ­­­­­_____” – that is, they are family crypts.


Cementerio Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzio (3)

On that first day, though, we walked up the hill to Castillo San Felipe, paid our money, and went in. And I will spare you most of the details of the tour; you should go there yourself someday. I do, however, have to show you at least one picture of the sentry boxes that are more or less the national symbol of Puerto Rico – which I could do, actually, simply by showing you a picture of a Puerto Rican license plate. The entire city wall is studded with these little turreted one-man towers that extend out from the city wall to provide an unobstructed view of anything or anybody that might be approaching; and as always when visiting old fortifications, we plus-sized Americans are reminded of how much smaller soldiers used to be than they are today.

Castillo San Felipe del Murro, eastmost sentry post, second level from top

Castillo San Felipe del Murro, eastmost sentry post, second level from top. Note that the length of the narrow walkway is precisely the width of the wall.

I also thought the staircases were pretty cool. Each one was different, a different solution to the same basic problem of providing a way for soldiers to hustle from one level to another when under attack. There was a spiral staircase, and a triangular staircase, and even (though this one was so cramped, the Park Service has barred it off) a square staircase for very short people, like I haven’t seen anywhere except in some of the watchtowers on the Great Wall. In fact the staircases reminded me of those watchtowers precisely because each one was different: each of the Great Wall’s watchtowers, too, represents a different solution to the same basic military problem.

Castillo San Felipe del Murro, tiny square-spiral staircase Castillo San Felipe del Murro, triangular staircase (2) Castillo San Felipe del Murro, triangular staircase (3)

Eventually we got hungry, and also we started to get tired of getting intermittently rained on. So we headed for the exit. And when we walked out, with a light coastal breeze dropping raindrops on our heads every now and then and with the sun low in the late afternoon sky, we saw this:

Castillo San Felipe del Murro, half-circle rainbow (2)

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around in Viejo San Juan, many of whose buildings and all of whose streets are centuries old.

IMG_3486 IMG_3487 IMG_3489

Eventually we wound up down at the bayside shore where the wall was removed, and where now vendors come out daily and set up streetside stalls with popcorn and pizza and tacos and piña coladas. We settled in at one of Juarisco’s outdoor waterside tables. Our nachos took so long to arrive that the manager took them off our bill AND gave us a free shot of tequila; I tried to teach Helen how to do a tequila shot but she thought it got too weird as soon as I started sprinkling salt on my own hand, and I wound up having to drink it myself (since, as befits a man who has been married to a Chinese girl for almost five years, I now consider waste to be a sin).

Then we started to go for a walk along the shore. By this time it was about six-thirty, and as we strolled along the wide sidewalk in the park just below the old city wall, a horrible thought suddenly struck me: what if the parking garage closed?

We hied ourselves over to where a couple of policia were standing, one man and one woman. I told them where we were parked and asked if they knew how late the garage was open, and they both looked at their watches and then they both looked at each other and then they both looked up at us, and not one of those looks was a good one. “They close the gates at six,” the police dude said to me.

“Aw, man, that’s not good,” said I.

The police chick shook her head sympathetically. “That happened to me there once. I had to leave my car there all night.”

Well, we decided to go look for ourselves, and sure enough, as we walked down the ramp, we could see that a steel mesh gate had been drawn completely across the tunnel – right below the sign that said, in big red letters, “Abierto 24 horas”! Up until that point I had been annoyed with myself, but upon seeing a securely locked gate right under an “Open 24 hours” sign, I redirected my ire. But there was nothing to be done about it; so we started to walk back up the ramp, just in time to meet an entire Punjabi tourist family coming down.

Now I was pretty philosophical about it, but the Indian dude was irate, let me tell you. Me, I figured hopping up and down and yelling at nobody in particular wouldn’t do much good; so I told him, “Well, I guess we’ll go find a hotel and spend the night in Old San Juan.”  We exchanged commiserating farewells and off Helen and I trudged, to the nearest hotel, which was El Convento at $200-plus per night for the cheap rooms.

Or at least, that’s what it would have been if they had had any vacancies, which they did not. So I asked the desk clerk, “What other hotels are there? We parked in the garage up under El Murro and even though the sign says, ‘Abierto 24 horas,’ they’ve locked the gate and we can’t get out.”

His eyes opened wide, “Oh no, no, sir, it is open twenty-four hours – there’s another entrance!

He gave us a map and marked where the garage’s other access point was, coming out from underground right next to the Museum of the Americas, and we hightailed it happily in that direction. But first we went back to the one that was locked, hoping to catch our new Indian friends before they spent a few hundred dollars on an unnecessary hotel room…but they were long gone, unsurprisingly. So we hiked around the corner, found the entrance, found our way to the lowest level, and found our car. And just as we were walking up and clicking the unlock button on the electronic key, another car pulled up beside us and rolled down the window – yes, you guessed it, it was the Indian family, who had been looking for us and had given up on us as regretfully as we had given up on them. In their case, the Indian guy had been so furious he had found a policeman to complain to, and this policeman (unlike the tontos we had been so unfortunate as to encounter) had taken them to the other entrance.

I might add that the parking garage actually sits under a plaza where at most times of the day you can find children playing happily in the middle, where one finds an array of about fifty small water jets all shooting straight up the air to about the height of a happy five-year-old’s head. We parked in the same garage a few days later when we spent the evening unexpectedly in San Juan. That was not a very fun day for a lot of reasons, but it ended well. We had dinner at El Jibarito, which looks like a tiny little restaurant from the outside but is surprisingly large once you’re inside, and which serves a very good two-pound fried red snapper (though Helen didn’t care that much for the beef stew). By the time we had finished, it was nine o’clock or so, and we were ready to get back to Fajardo; so we walked back to our car. And as we crossed the plaza, we stopped to watch the children playing there. There was a three-year-old who was in perfect heaven, and an envious child circling the water while pushing his own stroller, having clearly been told by his mother not to go in the water.

But obedience has an expiration date when you are young and the other kids are clearly having so much more fun than you are:

My favorite, though, was that one little dude who looked to be about three. He was in heaven, racing back and forth through the waterspouts at top speed in nothing but his short pants, while his mother and father, whose hands were full of cameras and souvenirs, looked on indulgently. He’s really the reason Helen was videoing those kids; the whole episode with the stroller was an unexpected bonus. Helen stopped videoing after a bit and we just watched him in his joy. Then suddenly he came to a stop in the middle of the water, having come to what clearly seemed to him to be an eminently rational decision – and before his startled parents could do more than utter a squawk of distress and ineffectual forbiddance, with one swift motion he divested himself of the short pants, sprinted past his parents at a run to drop the pants off at his mother’s feet, evaded his father’s desperate one-handed grab, and zoomed happily back into the center of the waterspouts, free and happy as the air. This was all greatly to the delight of all the inhabitants of the plaza, of course, except for his parents. They spent a few hopeless seconds commanding him to come back, which had precisely as much effect as you would expect, and then his father resignedly marched through the water, jeans, camera and all, to retrieve him, which is easier said than it was done since the young man had perfectly good eyesight and was pretty darn quick on his feet.

Now there is one part of old San Juan that I haven’t yet mentioned, and that is the district called La Perla. This is the only part of old San Juan that is actually outside the city walls, and it is notorious throughout Puerto Rico. It’s only about three streets wide, and it’s not that easy to get into it. There is one street that tunnels under the wall in the east…

Calle Bajada Matadera, La Perla, San Juan, from east Calle Bajada Matadera, La Perla, San Juan

and there’s a street that goes over to La Perla from the Cemetery of Mary Magdalene once you’ve gone under the tunnel of the Calle Cementario in the west.

Calle Cementerio, San Juan La Perla, San Juan, western entrance

Then there’s a staircase that goes down the city wall right about in the middle of La Perla…

La Perla, old staircase entrance

and very recently (so recently that Wikipedia doesn’t know about it yet) a brand new staircase has been constructed with funds donated by Carmello Anthony…

Carmelo Anthony staircase, La Perla, San Juan

in conjuction with his renovation of La Perla’s basketball court (now the only nice thing in La Perla except for the drug dealers’ cars, and also the only basketball court in the world that lets you watch a game from a sentry post in a centuries-old Spanish fortification).

Carmelo Anthony court, La Perla, San Juan

So, as I say, not easy to get into – and that’s a bloody good thing because you do not WANT to get into it. The heroine trade within those three or four acres of space is something like twenty million dollars a year, and the murder rate is absurd. Put it this way – for a long time, the maps that the city provided for tourists didn’t show any of La Perla’s streets, in the hopes that if the tourists didn’t know the streets were there, they wouldn’t be tempted in their ignorance to go walk down them and get themselves killed.

In fact I witnessed criminal activity in La Perla with my own eyes:

Respect for the law in La Perla

(That’s a no-parking sign.)

The thing is, you look at La Perla, and you’re thinking that this real estate ought to be some of the most exclusive real estate in Puerto Rico. You already have, for practical purposes, a gated community; it ought to be easier to keep undesirable persons out of La Perla than practically any other place in Puerto Rico. If you took the approach favored by the City of New London – which approach, as we know, has the Supreme Court’s ever-dubious blessing – you could simply condemn every single dwelling under eminent domain, compensate the current residents at current La Perla market values, evict them, renovate the houses, and sell them for a million dollars apiece.

But…that’s not how things have worked out in real history. Instead, since that strip of land was the only part of the island that was outside the city walls, that’s where the Spaniards put the things that you didn’t want inside the city – namely, the cemetery and the slaughterhouses. So La Perla is where the lowest-class people wound up living; it has been a slum and a refuge of outcasts since the first buildings went up there. And while an American investor would look at those immense stone walls and think, “What a great way to keep crime out,” the local authorities have spent the last four centuries using the walls for exactly the opposite purpose: they turn out to be a great way to keep crime in, which is to say, largely confined to La Perla. And so, if you are a tourist, all is well…as long as you know not to drive through those two tunnels or walk down those two staircases.

La Perla, San Juan (2) La Perla, San Juan (3)

Which leads me to one of the nastiest things I’ve seen anybody do on the internet, and the sad thing is I think the guy thought what he was doing was really funny, and not intentionally vicious at all. I think one of the more contemptible expressions of modern American culture arises from the popularity of “pranking” videos. Pranks can be amusing when they are good-natured and harmless. But all too often they are used an excuse to be viciously cruel and bullying to other people who have done no harm.

I had been reading up on the history of Puerto Rico and San Juan and found out about La Perla, and then I started spelunking on the web looking for more information. And I ran across one of those sites where you ask questions and random strangers answer you. Some relatively clueless single college dude posted the following question:

There is so much I want to do while I’m in Puerto Rico. I love a woman with a nice round *** and am interested in the best place strip clubs, and night clubs for women who fit that criteria. We are going out there to party. I am interested in nightclubs and stripclubs. Typical nightlife for college students. People amaze me with ignorant answers!

Don’t ask me what that last sentence is supposed to mean; I don’t know either. At any rate, the highest-rated answer was this:

Get in a TAXI and have the driver take you to the La Perla district… lots of loose women and strip clubs and all the booze and drugs you want… and the people are very nice, they will be happy to show you around… it’s a great place for someone like you to go to.

Oh. My. Goodness. What a nasty, nasty thing to do – and, now, I grant you that I don’t think much of the original questioner and his attitude to women, and it would probably do him some good to have some negative consequences attend his behavior. But there are negative consequences, and then there are Negative Consequences. And this answerer was setting him up for NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES. The only redeeming element is the fact that he told the tourist to take a taxi, and there is every reason to hope that the taxi driver would refuse to go into La Perla himself, and would happily explain why.

But trusting everything to a random taxi driver is pretty irresponsible; so fortunately somebody else jumped in with a comment to help the original questioner out:

He is joking, La Perla a death trap. No joke, small slum with crazy drug and gang problems. Anyone reading this, do not take serious, for real. It is murder capital of PR.

So there you have it: Go to Puerto Rico; spend a few evenings in Viejo San Juan; stay out of La Perla.

La Perla ends at the foot of the Castillo San Cristobal, and that’s a good place to end your day in San Juan. With the sun behind you, you can look to the east, along the coast at the base of the castillo, and far off by itself, you can see one last, lonely, exposed sentry box.

Garrita del Diablo, San Juan

This is la Garita del Diablo, “the Devil’s Sentry-Box.” It sounded for all the world like somebody was throwing a party on it that last evening of ours in San Juan, but I find it hard to believe the National Park Service would have allowed such a thing. At any rate, this sentry-box was by far the most isolated and exposed of all of San Juan’s garitas, which naturally gave rise to the sentries’ dislike thereof, which in its turn naturally gave rise to the name, which in turn naturally gave rise to legends to explain the name. A typical retelling (along with better pictures than mine) can be found here. But after you read that one, I think the nicest way to finish off our day in San Juan is with this version of the legend, which you can find translated into English here.

Bon Appetit Dept

I’m pretty sure the guys who were hired to put up the wallpaper in the IHOP here in Clarksburg — wallpaper which sports whimsically fonted listings of various items off the classic IHOP menu — did this on purpose:

WV photo 3

I thought Helen would think that was really funny, but she turned out not to be familiar with the sense of the word “pan” that it takes in compounds such as “bedpan.” So first there was an English lesson. THEN she thought it was funny. But she wasn’t particularly happy that I had passed that on to her while she was eating breakfast… (Just kidding about the last bit.)\

(By the way, I thought I had published this back in 2014, and only just noticed that it’s still in “draft” status. Sometimes I have been known to be a touch absent-minded.)

Essie Summers tries — and fails — to explain unconditional love to her daughter

I am immensely enjoying Essie Summers’s autobiography. She is best known as a romance novelist from the pre-pornography days of Mills and Boon / Harlequin Romances, but she was also a prolific writer of poetry and newspaper columns, and — more importantly — a minister’s wife and mother of two small children. Here’s one vignette from the childhood of her daughter Elizabeth:

Our children always went to bed fairly early, but never to lights out immediately. They always read till sleepy. This was the time when they both used to think long, long thoughts. Sometimes Elizabeth’s resulted in confessions. Sometimes in questions. One night, in answer to her, ‘Mummy, I want to ask you something,’ I went in, to have her say: ‘I just can’t understand how God can love us when we are naughty.’

‘It’s easy,’ said I, rashly, sitting down on the bed. ‘When you and Billy are naughty, I’m sorry, very sorry, but it doesn’t alter my love for you. I love you very much then. Now do you understand?’

‘No, I don’t. I don’t see how you can love us when we are like that.’

I tried another tack, sure this would work. ‘Well, look at it this way, love. You know sometimes when Mummy’s had a bad day, and things have gone wrong, and she gets a bit grizzly and cross with you at tea-time? Well, you love me just the same, don’t you?’

The look I dreaded crossed her face, the tell-the-truth-and-shame-the-devil one. ‘Why, Mummy, I just can’t stand you when you’re like that.’

I staggered out and into the kitchen close by to find Bill rolling with mirth on the couch. ‘You sure asked for that one, Ess,’ he said.

“Bio Bay” (Laguna Grande, Fajardo, Puerto Rico)

Fajardo, Puerto Rico, 15 July 2015

Our local friend Raymond  was emphatic that we had to go take one of the kayak trips to “Bio Bay,” whose proper name is la Laguna Grande, “the Big Lagoon.” This is a saltwater lagoon at the extreme northwestern corner of the island, surrounded by a mangrove swap, with a narrow channel some three-quarters of a mile long that leads from the lagoon to the sea and is covered with a canopy of overarching mangroves. Once you get into the lagoon, whose waters are perfectly calm, you are in one of the largest biolumnescent lagoons in the world. The brightest such lagoon is not too far away, on Vieques Island (which is part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico); but to go to Vieques’s Mosquito Bay you have to rent a hotel room on Vieques and, of course, get onto the island somehow. But if you’re staying in Fajardo, you can get to Laguna Grande simply by making a reservation with any of the five or six companies that run kayaking tours from Las Croabas, at the tiny little bay into which the channel from Laguna Grande empties, ideally for a night when the moon is new and the forecast is clear. You should do this in advance in the summertime; most of the companies were booked up for three weeks when we got there for our two-week vacation. But it helps to have local friends, and Raymond called us at about seven-thirty on our first Wednesday to tell us that a spot had opened up on the last tour of the evening, at 9:00, getting back sometime between eleven and midnight.

Now you must realize that Helen showed quite a bit of bravery by agreeing to go on this trip, as well as an endearing amount of faith in yours truly. On these tours, you and your friend climb onto a two-person kayak after getting a short lesson in kayaking technique while standing on a sidewalk next to the bay. Then you paddle through the mildly choppy waters of the little bay, and then paddle through the pitch-blackness of the channel for three-quarters of a mile by following the little light on the back of the kayak in front of you, and then paddle out into the middle of the lagoon under the stars. And Helen…cannot swim. But she knows that I grew up as an enthusiastic white-water river rat for whom paddling is almost as natural as walking (the first thing I did once I got my lawn-mowing business started as an eight-year-old was to save up money and buy a white-water canoe), and I assured her that the company would provide first-class life jackets and that neither the company nor I would let her drown. So when the time came, she bravely clambered into the front seat, and then I got in behind her and paddled out into the waves to enjoy the swells while the rest of the kayaks were loaded. (We left the iPhones and Nikon behind, of course, mostly because we didn’t want to get them wet but also because we had been assured that while the bioluminesence is bewitching to the naked eye it is practically impossible to capture on film or pixel.)

I could almost say that the trip through the channel was my favorite part. It really is pitch black in there except for the tiny lights on the backs of the kayaks, and on the way in we were meeting other groups coming out, and the light on the kayak in front of us, which was piloted by a couple of Beijing girls who had never before found themselves in a kayak, zigzagged haplessly back and forth between the left and right sides, so that I actually stayed fifteen feet or so back and tried to plot an average course between the little blue light’s extremes. The guy behind me seemed to think we were in a race and kept trying to pass me and just bumping into either me or the oncoming kayaks. Eventually I found a chance to let him pass, whereupon naturally in short order he collided boomingly with the Chinese girls who had just come to a sudden mangrove-tree-induced stop – there was, after all, a reason why I was leaving plenty of space between myself and their meanderings. And of course when we met up with large groups coming back the other way, many of whom were also brand-new to kayaking, there was complete chaos in all directions, which I found hugely amusing.

But eventually we came out from under the mangroves into a perfect, moonless, star-filled night, with neither breeze nor mosquitos nor, as the guide hastened to assure the ladies of the group, leeches or piranha or any other of God’s more questionable creation decisions. The water began to turn a pale and oddly beautiful white where our paddles disturbed it. I reached my hand down into the water and saw myself turn into a ghost; a moment later a cry of delight came from Helen, who had just done the same thing.

I’m not sure how to describe that light; the word I keep coming back to is “ghostly” but that’s not quite right, only every other word seems more wrong than that one does. If you can think of a ghost without the instinctive numenous shudder, that is good – this was ghostly, but without being at all eerie, if you see what I mean. I would describe it as “friendly” except that nothing less like Casper the Friendly Ghost could well be imagined.

We stuck our paddles down as deep as we could reach and waggled them about, to see what the light looked like through five feet of intervening water. I put both feet out into the water and watched the pale white-with-the-faintest-blue-tinge light trail behind them. Only, you have to realize, because the disturbance in the water was greatest at the point where my calves and feet were touching the water, and therefore the light was brightest there as well, it didn’t really look like the water had lit up – it looked like my legs and feet themselves were glowing white. Again, I keep coming back to the same image: whenever I put any part of my body into the water, it was as if I myself, or at least that part of me, had become a ghost. Surreal, peaceful, gentle, lovely…it is so hard to describe precisely because I can think of no other experience I’ve had in my forty-eight years that is even remotely similar to it.

And then Helen scooped some water up in her hands and let it splash down on the side of the kayak, and suddenly the light fractured into countless infinitesimally small sequins skittering down the surface of the boat. I copied her instantly, fascinated by the fact that here was something else that looked really like nothing else I had seen – and it looked totally different from the swirling ghostly white of the water trailing around my feet. It was if you had two utterly different phenomena; if you had shown me a picture of my foot trailing clouds of demurely restrained glory, and had then separately shown me those tiny little diamonds skittering across the kayak before disappearing into the drainhole, I would never in a lifetime have guessed that they were actually the same thing.

We stayed in the bay for half an hour or forty-five minutes before heading back to the channel and then back across the bay to the shore, and it was one of the most magical forty-five minutes I’ve ever experienced. I know that the range of human taste is almost infinitely varied, and I know that one of the things that varies most widely is “things I love to do while on vacation.” But if ever there was something that absolutely everybody should do if they got the chance, I think a kayak trip into a bioluminescent bay on a perfectly clear but moonless tropical night could well be that something.

A day in El Yunque

Half an hour from the apartment in Fajardo where we are staying at the moment, is the gateway to El Yunque National Forest, which the Forest Service bills as “the only tropical rain forest in the National Forest system.” Last Tuesday, a couple of days after arriving in Puerto Rico, we took a half-day to drive up to it, which gave us time to drive as high up in the mountain as private cars are allowed to go, but (since the gates close at 6:00) not time enough to do any hiking. But it was a pleasant enough half-day for all that. For one thing, it was a good way for Helen to ease herself into being driven on Puerto Rican mountain roads without panicking. You start out literally at sea level in Luquillo, where Highway 3 runs alongside the beach on the northern coast of the island, about halfway between San Juan and Fajardo. By the time you reach the highest parking lot under the shadow of El Yunque, you have climbed more than three thousand feet – and are only six and a half miles from the ocean. I myself think Highway 191 is pretty generously wide for a mountain road with that kind of gradient, but Helen could hardly believe at first that it was a two-lane road with room enough for traffic going both directions. A few days later, in the Cordillera Central, she would find out what kinds of road really deserve to be called “narrow;” but this was a good way for her to get her feet wet, so to speak.

PR 191 just south of Coca Falls

Puerto Rico is the first sizable island that the trade winds hit after their trip westward across the Atlantic, and so they are nice and warm and full of water vapor as they pass over the eastern coast…and then suddenly they find themselves forced straight up into the air by a wall three and a half thousand feet tall. By the time they get to the top the water vapor has condensed into clouds and then rain, or at least dense fog; and so the eastern slopes of the upper Sierre de Luquillo get two hundred inches of rain a year. At the peaks, sunny days are a veritable rarity. This we were told on our first or second day in Puerto Rico; having lived in Fajardo for ten days now I can tell you that in my experience, at least, there have always been clouds wreathed around the top of El Yunque, and every late afternoon when I have looked back west from our balcony around five o’clock or so, I have seen the lower slopes perfectly clear, but near the top there has always been the unmistakable grey curtain of hard rain.

We stopped at the places you would expect to stop. The visitor’s center, which is bigger than most national forest visitor centers I’ve seen, has a slightly melancholy air about it. It’s actually a pretty cool place with some very good displays and a theatre and pools and water features from one  end to the other, and they swing the walkway from the parking lot out over the mountainside so that at one point the mountainside has fallen to sixty feet or so below you, allowing you the experience of walking across the canopy of a rain forest without having had to climb any trees. But all the displays look about twenty years old, and there are only five or six people working in the whole place: one ranger sitting at the information desk up front, one lady in the gift shop, two girls at a very small café on the second floor, and presumably at least one or two cleaning staff. You don’t feel that it has been abandoned, exactly, but you certainly don’t feel that it’s gotten much of the Forest Service’s budget in the past couple of decades. Still, the displays were informative enough that we spent nearly an hour there and read all of them; so perhaps they don’t really need to spend much money on cosmetics — they got it right the first try and have been coasting comfortably ever since. (But whatever you do, don’t buy coffee at the café; I managed about three sips before finding a trash can discreetly out of the line of sight of the girl who sold it to me.)

From there, up the mountain we headed. We stopped at la Catarata Coca, “Coca Falls” (and no, I don’t know how it got its name). You’re already pretty close to the top by the time you reach this waterfall; so the amount of water in the falls depends heavily on how much rain you’ve gotten that day. When we were there, there wasn’t much water; but there were lots of signs warning about the danger of flash flooding. (I’m in the picture at the foot of the falls, providing scale, and clearly not worrying at all about flash flooding.)

Coca Falls

The next stop was an old round observation tower, called Yocahú Tower. It was 4:15 when we got there, and the girl in the gift shop at the bottom warned us that she was closing the tower at 4:30. So we hustled up and got photographs. Clouds and mist were starting to move in, so the view down the canyon of the Río de la Mina with Luquillo off in the distance was not as clear as it could have been…

Canyon of the Río de le Mina from Yocahú Tower (Nikon)

…and you could see clouds starting to get caught on El Cacique and Pico El Yunque.

El Cacique and Pico de Yunque from Yocahú Tower

The view on the tower itself was even better, right up until Helen realized I was taking pictures of her instead of the scenery. Don’t bother asking; I am not allowed to publish those pictures, as it is not Helen’s policy to reward sneakiness.

When we got back out to the parking lot, a young couple had just pulled up and were pottering about their car, stretching themselves, opening the truck to look for water, etc. I checked the time; it was 4:28. “Excuse me,” I said, and they looked up over at me inquiringly, “but if you want to go up that tower you’d better get there right now because she says she’s closing it in two minutes.”

“Really?” said the young lady in alarm, and I answered, “Really.” So they slammed the trunk shut and took out across the parking lot at a run. Helen and I got in the car and drove on toward the top. Later, on our way down, I saw that same couple standing outside a souvenir stand near Coca Falls; but I didn’t stop to ask whether they got into the tower so I don’t suppose I’ll ever know for sure. My money says they didn’t but I hope I’m wrong.

We drove to the top, circled around, and came back down without really seeing anything else of interest. You can’t see the falls on the Río de la Mina from the road, and really, El Yunque is meant to be hiked, not driven. When you hike the trails, I’m told that it’s one waterfall after the next, just lovely hiking; but we haven’t gotten around to it and probably won’t this trip, as we have had a great time just opening the windows and letting the sea breeze blow through the house and going to bed at night without ever having gotten out of our pajamas. This was a vacation where I, at least, started out exhausted, and it has been more rest than tourism. But on another trip I think we’ll probably hike the trails in El Yunque and I expect to find it more than worth our while.

At any rate, we started back down, and Helen dozed off. Now she doesn’t really like mountain roads, and I had planned to go straight home. But once she went to sleep, I decided it would do no harm to circle around the park counterclockwise, take in whatever there was to see on Highway 186, and then come home from the south up the east coast. And that worked out spectacularly.

Helen was sound asleep in the passenger seat as we wended our way along Highway 186 in Puerto Rico, traversing the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo near the western border of El Yunque National Forest. We came up on a bridge across one of the streams that bound down the mountain slopes in a long series of cataracts, and as I looked up to my left I saw several locals sitting on huge boulders in the middle of the stream, wearing variously shorts and bathing suits, but all with the air of having just enjoyed a dip.

Locals on Río Espíritu Santo

Now of course there was no pool to be seen, at least from the road, but one thing I know from growing up in the mountains myself, and from having wandered down many side roads in lots of places in this wide world, is that local people are never wrong. So, as there was a place next to the bridge wide enough to park near the car that was already there, I pulled over and went to investigate.

From the road I could see that, while the streambed was at least twenty yards wide where the road crossed it, just upstream from where the locals were sitting it emerged from a narrow crack in a sheer cliff face. The mountain itself was rather gently sloping at this point, and I could see daylight through the trees above the little bluff; but for whatever reason at this point in the stream bed the mountain had jutted out its chin, except for that little crack. The cliff face seemed about twenty to thirty feet tall, and the crack was no more than five feet wide. I couldn’t tell how far back the crack extended because it went back at a rather sharp angle, so that from the road I could only see the right-hand wall extending back for a few feet before the left-hand cliff face blocked the line of sight.

But whatever was behind the crack, I knew what must be in front of it, because I could see those shorts and swimsuits: a “hole” where water was trapped between cataracts, deep enough for a few men and boys to cool off in on a hot tropical afternoon. And I had already stopped at another bridge and another stream and seen for myself how clear and cool the water was. I had no swimsuit with me, but I wanted at least to see the pool. So I began clambering over boulders, making my way along the left-hand side of the canyon up toward where they sat.

It took about a minute to get up level with them, and there it was.

Pool on Río Espíritu Santo from the side

I didn’t really want to intrude upon the other folks’ day, but I was curious about what was behind that crack. So I started working my way from boulder to boulder across the stream, over to the huge rock smack in the middle where they were placidly sitting, taking no apparent notice of me, even when I stopped at the boulder next to theirs and took another picture.

Pool on Río Espíritu Santo from the center

But while I could now see at least a little way back into the interior of that tiny little secretive chasm, and could see more of the sky behind it, I still couldn’t see all the way to the back to where it, presumably, opened up to where the little stream flowed into it; and I could hear the unmistakable sound of water cascading down rock, coming from somewhere upstream. So, with a polite “Discúlpenme,” I crossed in front of them, shifted my weight across to the next rock, found handholds and footholds, and worked myself over the top and down to a nice solid purchase next to the water, almost to the far right of the stream. Then I looked up to see what was hidden deep inside that dark, narrow crack in the sheer rock, and saw this:

Waterfall on Río Espíritu Santo

I had never thought that a twenty-five foot waterfall could be shy; but that was my first thought. A very maidenly catarata she is, hiding demurely back within her chamber.

Eventually I heard Helen calling me from the road; she had awakened and come looking for me. By then I had fallen into conversation with the others there at the pool, who had been amused by the care I took not to fall in and get Helen’s iPhone wet (my own iPhone was useless for pictures because the memory was full as I hadn’t gotten around to downloading pictures for, oh, maybe a year or so). I called to Helen that I was on my way down, and the others decided their day was done too and started clambering down as well, each of us taking a different route.

Once back on the road I took Helen all the way to the very far edge of the bridge, and sure enough, you couldn’t see the waterfall. So I showed her the picture. Then something occurred to me, and I asked one of my new acquaintances a question, speaking English without thinking (we had been mixing English and Spanish willy-nilly up to that point):

“Does this waterfall have a name?”

He looked confused for a moment, and I was surprised that he didn’t understand that bit as his English had generally been better than my Spanish up to that point. (This, you understand, is not a high bar.) I tried again. “Esta catarata, ¿como se llama?”

He said slowly in English, “I don’t know…I think it must have a name…”

Espíritu Santo,” said one of the boys, who was walking past us at that moment headed for the car.

The older man and I both translated simultaneously for Helen: “The Holy Spirit.”

Later, however, I realized that we were standing at that moment on a bridge over the Río Espíritu Santo, so that the boy may not have understood the question and may have been telling me the name of the river rather than of the waterfall itself. But as I would like to have a name for that waterfall, and as there is nobody to tell me I’m wrong, it is, as far as Clan Pierce is concerned, henceforth la Catarata Espíritu Santo.

And sometime before we leave Puerto Rico, I’m going back there with a bathing suit. For I grew up, after all, as a country boy in the mountains; I was a local long before I was a tourist. And I have never felt anything but deep pity for those deprived persons who have grown up swimming in swimming pools rather than swimming holes.

But I didn’t have my swimsuit with me then; so reluctantly we got back into the car, and started making our way out of the mountains. Helen was awake now, of course, and took over camera duties. It was close to sunset when we stopped at the side of the road a few miles south of Espíritu Santo, where a local resident kept part of the roadside mowed, opening up a true panorama out across the hills to the west.

Day dies in Puerto Rico PR 186(cropped)

From there we followed 186 as far south as we could. But then it made a U-turn and headed back north for miles — a little more than four, to be exact, but on these roads where thirty miles per hour feels like eighty, a nine-mile detour costs you half an hour. I was sure there must be a shortcut, and so I zoomed Google Maps in as far as it would go. And thus it came to pass that in the village of Benitez, on the high ridge between the canyons of the Canovanillas and Cubuy rivers, we found la Calle Ceiba, which took us to la Calle Yagrumo, which turned into “Highway” 953, which took us to Lomas and saved us seven or eight of those nine miles. And also, in passing, my shortcut taught Helen what it is that we folks from mountain country have in mind when we describe a road as “small” or “steep.” I urge you to find that village, and those streets, on Google Maps, and then switch to the Google Earth perspective. It is, shall we say, instructive.

The one thing missing from this tale, by the way, is simply how much fun it is to go anywhere, or do anything, with my wife. I mean, I grant you that when she is asleep, she’s like anybody else who is asleep in a car (though unlike some uncouth males of your acquaintance, O Gentle Reader, she neither snores nor drools). But when she’s awake, the running commentary – and the occasional gasp of alarm, or astonished question as to whether it’s really possible that such a road could be meant for two-way traffic – is endlessly entertaining. And since she takes anything that goes wrong with perfect good nature, albeit with cheerfully snarky teasing, there’s never any reason to quarrel or feel stressed. She is, simply, a perfect travel companion. Which is hardly surprising, as five years into our marriage I have found her to be a perfect life companion. There may be husbands more blessed than I am but I haven’t met anybody I’d trade places with.

Especially this past couple of weeks in Puerto Rico.

Edited to remove some typos, and to incorporate the material from this earlier post so that the day could exist in a single narrative.

The full story…

…of how I came to be in the bottom left-hand corner of this picture, chatting with a local high up near the spine of the Cordillera Central in the exhilaratingly cold water of the pool beneath el Salto de Doña Juana…will be told here in due time.
Salto de Doña Juana, Kenny talking to local man

Upon closer inspection I seem to be having a very good time.

Salto de Doña Juana, happy Kenny