Thursday, March 18, 2010

Twelve Hours of Papo

Nina and I just got back from a trip to Puerto Rico!

It was kind of a modified Spring Break: Nina's got an actual break this week, but my schedule was looking a bit hairy, so we wanted to go a little early. We put the whole thing together kind of at the last minute, too -- we didn't really know where we wanted to go, except that it had to have beaches and be warm; we wanted to do something purely vacational. Like Seinfeld: no learning (but, hopefully, some hugging). Nina suggested Puerto Rico, and I asked around about it. My mom recommended a bed-and-breakfast in San Juan where she'd stayed while on a Caribbean cruise (weird!). Chris wrote me a very detailed account of his own visit to the island a couple of years ago, from which I extracted the following:
  • Expect to eat tostones covered in ranch dressing
  • Stay out of the neighborhood called La Perla
"Why?" I asked him at practice. "Is it worse than La Boca?"

"La Boca is nothing," said Chris. "La Perla is way worse."

Armed with this knowledge, and a reservation at The Gallery Inn, we hopped a Friday morning flight to SJU. It's crazy how close Puerto Rico is! I slept for some of the flight (enough to miss the beverage service and the distribution of "Chocobillys") and didn't have to break into any of the toys I'd packed to distract myself. We cabbed it to the hotel directly from the airport. The place was beautiful! The Gallery Inn is what it sounds like: The proprietress, Jan D'Esopo, is a sculptress (among other things), and the maze-like building, which looks like something out of a Gabriel García Márquez story, complete with crumbling plaster and creeping vines, is also her house. It's also a showroom for the various objects she's made, among which, notably, are several facsimile busts of Michelle Obama, whose grinning visage can be found peeking out from behind ferns or down from the mantelpiece in a musty costume closet, etc. The building is also home to several exotic birds that mingle more or less freely with the guests (although we are instructed not to pet or cuddle them):
  • Campeche, a 14-year-old moluccan cockatoo, who seems to be kind of the mascot of the Inn
  • Mikey, a giant blue macaw; the most vocally articulate of all the birds. He was able to produce an eerily accurate rendition of human laughter
  • Pica, a harlequin macaw with a mite allergy that made her look a bit threadbare
  • Dozer (sp?), a cockatoo like Campeche, but with more shrieking

The place is on Calle Norzagaray, directly across from the city wall that protects Old San Juan from the predations of the Atlantic Ocean and marauding navies.

That evening we walked down to the Plaza De La Marina. There were a bunch of push-cart vendors there, and I bought a kind of blended fruit smoothie of the type that Chris had raved about in his travelogue. (It was good, but cost $7.00) After no small amount of restaurant shopping (places close early, dogg), we sat down at a small place called El Caldero Sabroso, where the cook, a middle-aged lady with a very fuzzy, if bleached, upper lip served us two plates of mofongo, a kind of fried plantain mash that was very, very good.

The next morning, after eating our complimentary "continental breakfast" (which included Puerto Rican coffee with powdered milk blendered into it all foamy) in the sun-drenched, lizard-infested garden, we struck out to see some shit. The first thing we did was head down the stairs by the side of the road leading down into the shantytown below. A lot of the place seemed to be in ruins -- houses without walls filled with drifts of garbage -- and inhabited almost entirely by stray cats, who did not give a fuck. We left, not realizing until we saw its name emblazoned on some basketball bleachers from the road above, that this was the notorious La Perla. It wasn't really that bad. After that, we walked a little further down the road 'til we got to the Castillo de San Cristóbal, where we joined an English-language walking tour. The guide, Hector Montes, a strawberry blonde-haired, blue-eyed park ranger, had an aggressively didactic approach to explaining the fortress's many layers of fortification. "Did you know," he said, "that the walls in this tunnel are grooved to allow the defenders to pack the walls with gunpowder? Did you know?" We didn't know.

Later in the afternoon we took a cab to Condado, a neighborhood across the Ashford Ave. bridge from Old San Juan and renowned for its nice beaches. The sun was approaching the horizon once we found a segment of beach that seemed right, in the back of one of the enormous resort hotels and girded by a pier a little ways out from the shore, but the sand and water were both impossibly warm. Nina and I rolled around in the surf, letting the small waves carry us back to and from the shore. When it got genuinely dark, some bright lights -- like, flood lamps -- came on on the pier and lit the water up white. It was like being in a water rescue scene in an action movie. We got out and put our clothes back on over our swimsuits and wandered over to the front of the hotel, where there was a small bar and a restaurant from which we ordered mojitos and some impressively good nachos.

On Sunday we spent the morning at the other big fortress in Old San Juan, the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro. The enormous green lawn in front of the fortress walls, where people were flying a crazy array of complex and beautiful kites, proved to be a better time than the fortress itself, the exploration of which was concerned mostly with stair-climbing amd peering through arrow-slits; but we ran into Hector Montes again, taking tickets at the entrance. "You two look familiar," he said. After we got back to the hotel, we decided to buy into one of those package tour deals, which would take us the next day to a bunch of different places, including the rain forest in El Yunque, and a bioluminescent bay in Fajardo. The organization we ended up registering with was called "Manny Tours." They were expensive, but we didn't really have a lot of time to be choosy. And vacation is a "sometimes food," as Cookie Monster would say.

And then we took a walk out to Escambrón, the beach nearest our hotel by walking. It ended up taking longer than we anticipated, and Nina developed a really bad blister between her toes from the thong of her sandals, which was only made worse by the sand once we finally got there. So we didn't really go in the water, and when it started to get dark we decided to head back to the hotel. We wanted to hail a cab, but none of them would stop for us (the medallion light on the top is not a good heuristic for determining availability, since the cabbies never use the meter). Finally one did stop, without us hailing it, as we limped down Muñoz Rivera Ave. There were already passengers in it, but the driver'd taken pity on us. "Thanks," we said. "Where're you from," asked one of the riders, an old white guy. "France?" "We're from New York," we said. "Oh. We're from Jersey," he said.

That night, during a walk around the Plaza Baldorioty De Castro, Nina finally acquiesced to my desire that she get her photo taken by the carnies with the bird-draped push-cart -- they had a bunch of different-colored birds, which could be dutifully posed on the shoulders and arms and heads of tourists. The carnies seemed to want to lade people with as many birds as possible, but I had something specific in mind: Beside the parrots and macaws, there were a pair of slate-green budgies, one of which was visibly overweight and didn't seem to be able to close its mouth, giving it a slack-jawed, overstuffed look. I had the guy put that bird and that bird only on Nina, on top of her head. After he took the picture, though, he insisted on decking us out, together and singly, with various combinations of the other birds. I was expecting their talons to be pinchy and uncomfortable, but they were actually really gentle. One of the parrots sat on my shoulder, licking dried salt out of my ear with its soft, dry, weird tongue.

Manny, or, as we were instructed to call him, Papo, bore a strong resemblance to Penn Jillette, without the smugness. He picked us up at the hotel at around 9:30, and we started the trip to El Yunque, collecting other parties along the way (including a couple of obnoxious girls on an actual spring break from Harvard, as they were quick to mention, unbidden). He gave us running descriptions of the social and economic conditions of the neighborhoods we passed, explaining how, for example, the recent recession had forced the governor to thin the rolls of island government, one of the major sources of employment in the area, contravening the policies that made Luis Muñoz Marín beloved enough to get the airport named after him.

The public portions of El Yunque are built into levels corresponding to different elevations. Our first stop was at the visitor center, where we watched a Spanish-language documentary about the park (narrated by David Ortiz) and changed into our bathing suit. We were on our own for the next leg of the trip: Papo dropped us off at the entrance to a trail taking us from the side of one of the main roads, through the rain forest with a pit stop at La Mina Falls. Babies, I have never been in a rain forest. As I was saying to Nina, I was expecting it to be all mist and tarantulas and fungus. It's not actually like that, although there are certainly some weird, snakey roots and funny-looking plants, along with the ubiquitous lizards. It was more like a really hilly park, with paved trails leading from one vista to the next. Along the way, there were these little open air concrete (and graffiti-tagged) "cabins," where, at night or during a rainstorm, I guess, you could take shelter and eat meats cooked on the crude provided grill.

The waterfall, as Papo promised, was cold and refreshing. An enormous dude covered in scary-looking tattoos splashed around with a toddler on his shoulders in the pool directly under the falls.

After we met back up with Papo, he took us to a roadside stand run by some friends of his. We got, as per his recommendation, the pasteles, a kind of smoother-textured tamale made of plantains and wrapped in banana leaves, which lent them a complex, acrid taste. Papo hung out in the kitchen as we ate, sharing a Medalla Light with the staff. The next stop was Luquillo Beach, a preternaturally calm expanse of flat sand and water on the eastern side of the island. While Papo waited in his van, we bought piña-coladas from the one-armed guy manning the cantina and then hung out in the water. Nina showed me how to float on my back, something I'd never been able to do successfully before (no lie -- the part I'd been missing is that you have to tilt your head back 'til your ears are in the water; otherwise you sink), and she pulled me around like a tugboat by my feet. I loved that. We kind of walked around on our hands in the shallows until a small stripy fish swam up and nipped at Nina's finger. We tried, unsuccessfully, to catch him.

The final component in our package was the kayaking trip to the "bioluminescent bay," which began at the marina in Fajardo. The paddle started in the open, choppy waters of the bay, from which the guys running the trip led the group, theoretically in single file, into the "channel," a tree-lined aquatic corridor that quickly became so dark that the only thing we could see, trees included, was the red, coiled glowstick tied to the stern of the kayak in front of us. This was what we used, along with the guidance of mangrove branches, to keep us moving forward until the channel finally opened up into another, smaller bay. I am not a champion kayaker by any stretch, but Nina and I were more coordinated than a lot of the other pairs, who couldn't seem to figure out how to get their boats to turn in the right directions. The place we unded up was, I guess, where the highest concentration of bioluminescent organisms was -- dipping our fingers in the water or paddling around with our hands produced bubbles of strange, bright whiteness, and when you scooped up a handful of water, there were little sparks in it. The creatures didn't produce enough light to, say, see by; but they made colors that shouldn't have been as visible as they were in the dark. And, almost more strikingly, we'd paddled out to a part of the island that was far enough from a major city that we could see clearly the whole menagerie of northern-hemisphere constellations in the sky. Nina pointed out the Little Dipper to one of the Harvard girls, standing on end and low in the sky, near a lighthouse to the east.

We flew out the next morning, uneventfully (our in-flight movie was The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Spanish-language edition). Arriving back home after a frustratingly long and expensive cab ride -- awful traffic on the BQE -- we ran into Martin hanging around on the stoop. "Were you guys just on vacation?" he asked. "Guess where we went," I said. "Puerto Rico? Where'd you stay? How much was your hotel?" We told him. "I could've got you a room for a hundred dollars less than that. How much was the plane?" And then he asked "Did you go to La Perla?"

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