Sunday, January 01, 2023

Wizard and Dragon

Things I enjoyed:

Frost Is All Over
Whistle and I'll Come to You
Darkest Dungeon
Devil House

Nina and I went to Puerto Rico for about a week in December. Astute readers of the blog will remember our previous trip more than ten years ago. Consider that since our last visit, the island was subject not only to the devastation of Hurricane Maria but also the devastation of PROMESA. Warmly esconced in first Obama term, we did not imagine it, though maybe we should have. Maybe Papo did. But the island is mostly still there. The Gallery Inn is still there, too, and we stayed there again, as a lark.

I flew out solo, since Nina had arrived several days before for a work thing: a sort of post-Somos Somos. The flight is nothing. You could decide you want to go, in the morning, on a whim, and be there in the afternoon with plenty of time to walk around on the beach. The concierge at the front desk at the hotel asked if I understood what the hotel was all about. Yes, I said, I'd stayed there before. I looked over at the laminated printout taped to one of the plaster busts: "Do not feed Campeche! He is un diablito." Waiting for Nina in our room, my head throbbing from not eating or drinking anything on the plane, I really did feel the vibes coming back. The place is not clean, exactly. The paint on the plaster walls is decades-old and there is snail shit on it. But there is also a fancy antique bookshelf full of cheap old paperback novels in English and Spanish, and if you turn off the dehumidifier, the room doesn't feel like it's indoors at all. It's about as close to camping as I'm willing to get, and ironically it feels a lot more hospitable than an actual hotel. La Perla is still right across the street, but it's gotten a real "glow up" with billboards, neon signs, and fresh paint and sidings on the buildings visible from the road.

Whereas we'd spent our last trip exploring the natural wonders of Puerto Rico, this time we did a lot more "city stuff." An affordance to me, really. I'm a big baby and like to stay where the buildings are and where there's stuff. Nina indulged my desire to visit the Museo de Entomología, and also my desire to not call for a reservation in advance like our old Lonely Planet book recommended. And so we dashed across the highway in Rio Piedras to find that the gatehouse was abandoned, and that the little bathroom inside the gatehouse was all smashed up. And we ventured up the road to where the museum was supposed to be and that building seemed nice and new inside but it was of course closed. So we wandered around the grounds of the University of Puerto Rico's agricultural school (because that is where we were) and waved to a few of the botany students who were tending to their gardens before heading back out to the highway and calling a car. I should have gotten in Trouble for making us do that but I didn't.

We went to La Factoria, which we seemed to remember had at one point been named The Best Bar In The World. It's a good conceit, phenomenal if you can imagine experiencing it in your twenties: A pretty cool bar, with a mysterious door in the back; through the door, another, different bar, with a slightly different vibe. In total I think we "discovered" four bars, but the Internet says there are six. Wowza! Another evening we went to El Batey, which I think might actually be the best bar in the world, and played the most casual round of eight-ball before adding our names to the floor-to-ceiling graffiti with a sharpie.

In the afternoons we dranked iced tea in the front courtyard where a blue macaw (presumably Mikey from our earlier visit; they live forever) had a large cage, a big red and green parrot perched on an artifical tree under a corrugated metal root for shade. There were grackles everywhere, hopping up on the tiled stone table to steal crumbs from our pastries, cocking their heads to look at us with their small golden eyes. Bullying the much larger birds out of their birdseed.

We got paletas from Señor Paleta. I bought us savory mallorcas from a kiosk in Plaza de Armas staffed by a woman who didn't seem to mind the many wasps buzzing around the pastries. I bought us more mallorcas (really the simplest thing to have for breakfast) from an upscale coffee house where I had to listen to some crypto shitheads negotiate a deal while I waited for the pastries. (The island is a paradise but fucked.) We ate mofongo at El Jibarito during a torrential sunshower. I found the location of El Caldero Sabroso, the first place I'd ever had mashed plantains, a decade ago. There was a faded notice that the place was closed, but nothing else had moved into the tiny storefront. Just a padlock on the gate. I made Nina eat yet more vegan tacos at an outdoor food court in Santurce where wild chickens roamed the gravel around the picnic benches and flew up to roost in the trees when it got dark.

A few steps from Señor Paleta is a narrow stone courtyard called Parque de las Palomas, named for the hundred or so pigeons that make their home in nooks carved out of the ancient stone wall of the colonial house next door. (San Juan Viejo is full of these places, an ancient terrace around every corner.) In terms of sheer number of pigeons, the place does not break any records set by New York City. Or even the New Haven Green, where I was once practically mugged by birds after opening a bag of chips. But this is a place you go expressly for the purpose of meeting and interacting with pigeons, and there is even a small kiosk inside that sells birdseed at certain hours. (Though this is in apparent conflict with a sign on the gate outside warning you not to feed the birds.) We found ourselves standing next to a young woman who was absolutely decorated with birds, likely on account of the considerable amount of birdseed she was holding in her cupped hands. A young man was filming her on his phone. Although the birds were polite, she seemed to be a bit unnerved by the sheer number of them on her head, shoulders, and forearms; and she offered to offload some of her birdseed to us. I took some of it, and immediately a pigeon fluttered into my hand to take some. I wasn't prepared for how warm its body was. Like holding a puppy or something. After that we walkd up Calle del Cristo and went into a sock store where they gave us frozen piña coladas in plastic cups and we bought some socks.

Though it felt like July in NYC it was actually almost Christmas, and in the evenings the waterfront and Calle Comercio were dotted with stalls selling gifts and holiday confections, and a skating rink with a synthetic "ice" surface was set up in front of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company's offices on Paseo de la Princesa. The line for skating snaked over itself several times the length of the rink.

We spent a few nights walking around in Santurce, the cool neighborhood in San Juan. We dropped in on an outdoor film screening at La Goyco, a community center repurposed from an old elementary school. We were too late to catch the movies but in time to listen to a panel, mostly in Spanish, from the filmmakers. It was a warm night and I sat in pleasant bafflement understanding about 50% of what was said. We'd walked deep down Calle Loíza looking for "limbers" which are a kind of frozen fruit juice served in plastic cups. That part of San Juan seems caught in a tussle between the cool jovenes living their lives and the rich colonial scum who want a pied-à-terre on the beach. There was a scruffy but impressive community library ("Libros Libres") on the corner of Calle del Parque; a block away, million dollar condos at Gallery Plaza. I know, that's always how it is! We hung out and watched people dance outside the market stalls at La Placita while we ate alcapurrias. (I don't know if I like 'em.) Another night we cut through the concrete courtyard of an apartment building in Parque down to the beach and walked along the water's edge in the dark towards Condado til we reached what looked like a pier half buried in the sand. A huge shape, some kind of industrial hulk, protruded from one end. What was it? We walked closer to see. Oh, a big sewage outflow: "NO SWIMMING." We walked back up to the road.

We went to the Art Museum, and the Contemporary Art Museum (with its Big Ass Fans) and the tiny Museo de San Juan, mere feet from the Inn.

On our last day we visited Save-A-Gato, the cat sanctuary in Old San Juan, a short walk down Calle Norzagaray from the hotel. The sanctuary itself is a small, unassuming building between some basketball courts and one of the buildings of a nearby design school. Didn't seem big enough to accommodate visitors, and it didn't look open anyway. But the surrounding "Parque de los Gatos," a scrubby lawn with a large banyan tree presiding over it, is where all the cats were. Dozens of them, scruffy, skinny, limping; alternately missing ears, eyes, tail tips. But they all seemed pretty satisifed with their lot. Some were friendly and affectionate, most of them indifferent to the handful of people who were carefully stepping around the turds to get a look at them. From there we walked down to Paseo del Morro and traced the ancient sea wall around the Fort until we got too hot. In the evening, we went down to the Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi, the necropolis at the end of a short road from El Morro where you can see the waves crashing out beyond the array of white headstones. Time stops for a moment.

Back up on the broad green lawn of the park, dozens of people were walking, sitting, and flying kites. As it happened Nina had never flown a kite before, and there was a woman selling kites and other picnic tack from the back of a van near the entrance to the Fort. We bought the cheapest kite, printed with a picture of a wizard astride a great golden dragon; unspooled the line, and ran it up into the sky. The sea wind by the Fort carried it up rapidly, and it we took turns tugging the bridle back and forth to keep it aloft. There's a real pleasant disorientation that comes with flying a kite out where the sky is really huge and the sun has just set and you're in a huge field that's full of people but it feels like it's only you and the sky wheeling above.

Once it got truly dark we placed the kite on a low stone wall near the rotary on Calle del Morro where people were leaving behind things that could be reused. We'll come back for it in ten years.

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