Many Travels – Puerto Rico Part 1

If any of you have a great fear of spiders, skip ahead to part 2.

For the past few weeks, it seems like I haven’t really had time to breathe.  What with visiting my parents in Indianapolis, my youngest sister in Barbourville, Kentucky, vacationing throughout Puerto Rico, quitting my job, and moving from the East Coast to the West, things have been unusually busy and I’ve been much more widely mobile than is typical even for me.  I’ve just barely begun to catch up.  So, let’s try and put it all in perspective, shall we?

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Corina, Stacey, Josue)

First we needed some food, so we decided to go local immediately.  We tried a place in Old San Juan near the parking garage that Josue hadn’t been to before, just for expediency’s sake, and it turned out really well.  I had mofongo, which is a traditional dish made with plantain which is mashed and then formed into a cup with a really large mortar-and-pestle arrangement.  The inside is filled with some kind of meat usually – mine was pork – and then cooked with the open side down, so that it looks like a small hill or mountain of goodness.  At this particular restaurant, the mofongos were particularly large.

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Then we stopped for coffee at a local fast food chain, the name of which I can’t remember.  Josue knew it, and the coffee was surprisingly good.  Then we toiled over to the old fort, hoping to get as much of the old city in as possible before jet lag kicked in.

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While I doubt that pictures like these are going to win me any sympathy points, I still thought I would try.   I mean, bars on the windows of the old fort – that’s like being in a prison, right?  Plus, the wind was in our hair the whole time, blocking vision, making us eat our own locks.  Josue had even more of a fro than usual.

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And all in the name of good pictures, we had to risk life and limb.  This brick wall, for instance, was covered in fire ants.  I swelled up into a giant rash and had to bathe in Caladryl.  Ok, not really, but it could have happened.

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Plus, even a picture like this that looks pretty amazing, was fraught with potential annoyance.  Palm branches are itchy, and the ocean wasn’t really blue enough.  Really.

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And then Corina accidentally trapped herself in this little guard station.  And by ‘trapped’ I mean ‘totally able to release herself once I’d taken enough pictures’.

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Here’s a close-up:

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There were some spectacular moments of watching the pelicans dive for fish as the sun set.  Most of the time they are even more ungainly than an albatross, but there’s that one moment of fishing when these odd birds are sheer elegant motion.  You can see the instinct coming on as they circle, seem to hesitate in midair, and then become this thin-stretched spear into the water.  I never got tired of watching that unfolding, so you’ll have to suffer through several attempts to catch it on film.

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We ended our first-day tour with two of the creepiest (and yet fascinating) areas that exist in Old San Juan.  The first we came upon all unawares while walking along the path below the main fort outside the old city walls.  This particular area is covered mostly with sea grape plants (Coccoloba uvifera), which are highly resistant to salt and can be eaten directly from the plant or made into jam. They are often used to shore up coastline or as an ornamental in this area, as they also supposedly have a hearty resistance to pests other than the seagrape borer, according to online sources.  However our particular plants were heavily infested with what I think were white flies, tiny little winged things that attached mostly to the underside of the plants, but also to the stems.  This large concentration of insects led in turn to a ridiculous concentration of large, scary spiders setting up shop in the sea grape thicket.

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Some of the spiders, like this one, even turned cannibal.  Strange, scary, and yet none of us could stop taking pictures.

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Creepy number two was pigeons.  Normally I don’t have a problem with pigeons, but then normally I don’t have a problem with rats, either.  And as a championship pigeon herder, I have some experience with larger numbers of the animal in enclosed quarters.  But this was like Funk Island of the Great Auk pre-extinction.  Bird doo everywhere, people feeding the birds handfuls of brown pellets so they can expel more, birds landing on shoulders, arms, even heads with no fear.  Not a place I wanted to spend a great deal of time, though the nearby chapel was picturesque.

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So, instead of this grimy bird image, I’ll leave you with the short form of the chapel legend.  Back in the day when Old San Juan was not so old, but the streets were just as steep and bumpy, a young gentleman lost control of his carriage.  It could have been that the horses were bit by something, possibly fire ants.  It could have been that he just gained too much speed and the horses couldn’t stop themselves.  Regardless of what caused it, this man had second before he was going over the edge at the end of a steep narrow street and there was nothing but certain doom in front of him.  So, like a good Catholic, he spent his last moments in prayer.  I can’t remember the particular saint he appealed to, but his wish for his life to be spared worked – he was able to cling to an outcropping near the edge and haul himself back to safety.  As a survivor, he built a church to the saint on that very spot, which stands to this day.  And to this day, if you’re in a runaway carriage down that narrow street, instead of plowing straight over the edge to your doom, you’ll shore up safe and mostly sound against the stern steel gates of this little chapel.

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Island Getaway

I hate the cold.   Well, perhaps that’s unfair to the Arctic north.

I really really really dislike the cold.  You would think, after spending most of my life in the northern Midwest and now living in Boston, I would have dealt with it and moved on.  But the dislike has lingered.  Every year, as the weather turns towards autumn, I get excited about the changing colors of the leaves and enjoy the briskness to the air without thinking about what all this change foreshadows – icy tundra time.

Instead, each year about this time I begin to pine for the tropics.  I ask myself (again) why I don’t live in Florida, or at least someplace a little more temperate.  This year in particular I’ve gone a little crazy.  I will be going on at least one trip to some international beach somewhere at an affordable price if it kills me.  I hope to go on two, or at least get as far as Florida for a little sun before the ice chills my veins completely and for all time.  A little sand, a little sun, a little ocean action would do me a world of good.

Unfortunately, despite dropping prices and the economic crisis, vacations remain expensive.  While looking for a way to get away, one co-worker suggested a cruise – affordable, food-packed, and generally an enjoyable experience.  But somehow for me, the appeal of lazing in the sun on a boat (albeit a giant luxury boat) does not have the same appeal that lying on the beach does.  Even a vacation on something small, like a sailboat, does not really meet my desires.  While it’s a picturesque image, I would end up spending most of my time off the boat, lazing on some beach or in some coastal town somewhere.  I like the waves rolling up on to the land, that experience of margins, rather than simply being near the water.

Perhaps that’s why the movable design of a ‘tropical island‘ doesn’t appeal to me.  Yes, this luxury ship may be wasteful or expensive or extravagant in a time of reduced income and expanded need.  But there’s more to it than that.  The allure of an island does not spring merely from being surrounded by water.  Every continent is surrounded by water – that doesn’t mean ever citizen of the world interacts with the vastness of the ocean.  Even living in a coastal city, I don’t get to experience that edge very often.

The tropical gardens, the pool, the elaborate quarters, aren’t what makes a tropical island beautiful or relaxing.  It’s the ability to wade down to the shore line, squishing your toes into the sand letting the ocean wave up on to you that matters.  When your movable island can give me that, I’ll consider buying it.  Until then, why not just buy a limo?

Long-weekend crankies

I spent an enjoyable three-day weekend in Saint Louis this past weekend, only to have THE MONDAYS +++ when i got back.  Of course there was a meeting at 9 am that we are suddenly hosting that no one bothered to tell me about until 8:55, and of course our receptionist is out this morning and therefore unable to help me prepare.  Of course while I’m running around getting ready with water glasses and other beverage offerings, I spill in the hallway and manage to shatter a glass (at least this time it was only one – last time I broke up two).  Of course I have ten bazillion things that should’ve been done yesterday and my co-workers just want to chat and hang out while my head slowly implodes.  Add into the mix that I haven’t had time yet for breakfast, coffee, or to breath, and you have a pretty cranky admin.  The thing I really don’t get is how people want to know all the small talk about how your trip WAS.  I’ll tell you haw it IS – it’s over.  The fun times are gone, and I’m once again back in the working world, a fact I would prefer not to think about.

More profoundly, why is this a pattern?  Why do we feel such drudgery when we come back even from a small vacation, even when we love our jobs?  Are vacations supposed to renew and refresh us?  I can understand how a slam-packed, activity-based vacation could make you more tired when you return than when you started out, but that wasn’t the case for me this time.  I spent three days with college friends just hanging out.  And eating a lot.  So why am I so tired and annoyed now?  Is it just the loss of my freedom and mobility?  Is it the fact that, even though I know I’m getting paid for the hours I put in at my job, there is not a visual, direct exchange of money for services and time rendered?  If it’s not frustration with the people I work with or the work I do, what am I actually cranky about?  And how do I keep the day-back-from-vacation for turning into an annoyance and duty?

Pirate!

In my description yesterday of all the things that can and will go wrong on a cruise, I forgot to mention the nefarious human element.  No, not the lawyers – the scurvy dogs of the sea, not land.   I’m talking, of course, about real, live, modern day pirates.  In case some of you may be doubting the ability of such social misfits to disrupt an entire giant cruise ship,  let’s all remember back to that classic movie, Under Siege.  And that was a navy ship, not a bunch of landlubbery cruisers.

just in case my movie example still didn’t convince you, here’s an article that should.  That’s right, somewhere off the coast of Somalia, a ship (name undisclosed) was captured by unknown pirates.  The number of guests and crew members – if there were any – remains undisclosed.   And, though we know the boat is French, the names of the owners remain undisclosed.

While I’m a big fan of the romanticization of piracy, the lure of the ocean, and ratty locks of hair, these nameless and faceless pirates are probably not the kind of people I’d want bursting into my stateroom in the early hours of the morning.  And you would think something as big as a cruise ship would be able to repel a small party of boarders.  However, as a luxury boat, such huge ships are unlikely to be outfitted with weapons (does anyone know if cruise ships have small arms lockers and such?), which may make them more vulnerable.  Again, not my idea of a fun time.

Finally, the article also announced that global pirate attacks rose 10% in 2007 while the preceding three years there had been no rise.  What does this mean? Did pirate attack numbers stay stable, or fall?  Is this a growing trend?   Are we going to need to go back to the days of privateering in order to keep at least some waters safe for travel?  Are pirates teh real cause for boat-shipped packages arriving after more than three months in China, or the international delay of cheese exportation to that country?  I await the facts.