"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Island Life

So here is the Puerto Rico post. Lots of photos below.

Puerto Rico is called Isla del Encanto. "Isle of Enchantment". It is appropriately named. For someone who is not a local, our island is very similar in appearance to Hawaii, except there are no volcanoes, and we have rainforest on the northern and central portions of the island, but the southern half is mostly dry savannah. It is hot and humid pretty much year-round, except in December through February, when the ocean is icy cold and we get cool breezes blowing over the island. "Winter" in PR is 70's during the day, and maybe 60's at night. Summer is high 80's to low 90's, with a heat index of at least 10 degrees. Ironically, in the summer it is less hot in PR than it was in South FL. South FL in August felt like living on the surface of the sun. Living in PR during hurricane season feels more like camping out in an African jungle.

Trail in the El Yunque Rainforest
Whereas central AC is commonplace in the US, when I left the island 8 years ago it was still fairly rare in PR. The houses in Puerto Rico are built of concrete, made to withstand the highest hurricane force winds. Concrete retains moisture, so implementing central air conditioning in this type of housing in a humid environment was just begging for mold to take over the air ducts (black mold is a common occurrence in South FL). It is the norm to have window AC units in the bedrooms, and fans in the rest of the house. Good Puertorrican architecture calls for houses built in such a way that allows the ocean breezes to flow through, which was always an advantage following extended power outages after major hurricanes.

Hurricanes were a part of life. Most of the time the island gets lucky, and only tropical storms make landfall, but every few years we strike out. We take storms seriously - everything closes the day before a storm, be it a tropical storm or a category 4 hurricane. EVERYTHING closes. The government wants you to stay home safe, and curfew is implemented when we are on storm watch. The strongest hurricane I have experienced was Hurricane Georges in 1998. It was a category 3, a direct hit that the ripped through the entire length of the island from east to west. The town where my family lived, in the Northeast just 20 minutes outside of Old San Juan, the capital, was without power for 2 months.

Hurricane Georges, 9/21/1998. Video taken in Luquillo Beach, PR by cyclonejim.com. You can also watch it here.
Maximum sustained winds were 115 mph, with gusts up to 150 mph. This storm was a beast.

Puerto Rico is exactly 110 miles long by 40 miles wide. You can drive around its perimeter in a day. Yet it took me 18 years to outgrow it. There is A LOT to do and A LOT to see. Charles had a phase during his first years of college where him and his friends would take out a map, close their eyes, and wherever their finger landed, that's where they would go. There was always something to discover. We work hard, and we play hard: we celebrate US, Spanish, and Puertorrican holidays. It's so many holidays that you'll get a day off from school or work, and people often have a hard time remembering what the occasion is! We have 78 towns (called districts or "municipios"), each with its own story, most of them with Taino names like Corozal, Maunabo, Yabucoa, etc; and you can get to a beach within 30 minutes of anywhere on the island. We love baseball, basketball, volleyball and soccer; we have members in the US Olympic team, plus our own Olympic team; we are into extreme sports like rock climbing, kite surfing, hang gliding, sky diving, and rappelling.

Charles in his late teens, on one of his tamer rappelling adventures off the walls of  El Morro.
That's also Charles, on a not-so-tame rappelling adventure. This is just one of the things they teach Boy Scouts in PR.
There are 10,000 active duty military Puerto Ricans in the US Armed Forces at any given time, and we have served in the US Armed Forces in every conflict since WWI. We are a mix of Taino Indian, African and Spanish blood - there is no such thing as an average Puerto Rican. Charles has hazel blue eyes and freckles; in middle school I hung out with a guy that had mahogany red hair (his natural color; I've seen women dye their hair that color...); my best friend in university was a true blonde and borderline albino in skin color, with golden hazel eyes; in my early 20's I dated a guy with latte-colored skin, African features, and curly black hair; my best guy friend has large dark brown eyes with an upward tilt, and copper-colored skin;  my best friend in tech school had olive skin and light brown wavy hair; my skin is fair with yellow undertones and my hair is straight, dark brown in color.

Yours truly.
Taken at Pinones Beach in Loiza, PR.
All of us are Puerto Rican, of Puerto Rican families, born and raised on the island. Our average population is 3 million people, most of us concentrated around the northeastern portion of the area, close to the San Juan metro area. It is the most densely populated country on the planet.

The island is a commonwealth of the US - all Puerto Ricans are born US citizens, and we have US passports and all of the same rights as anyone living in the States, except we are not allowed to vote for the president if we are living on the island, because the island is not a state. You don't need a passport to visit PR. El Yunque National Rainforest is the only rain forest in the United States National Forest System. It was also considered sacred ground by the now-extinct Taino Indians that inhabited the island prior to the Spanish conquistadors. These peaceful people believed that their god, Yukiyu, lived on the mountain of El Yunque and would protect them. They fled to the sacred mountain during hurricanes and invasions. It did not save the Tainos from extinction, but the mountain holds a certain magic even to this day. Despite being only 3,543 feet high, the top is often shrouded with clouds. Stories of extraterrestrial and UFO sightings at night on El Yunque are part of the island lore.

Taino cemi or zemi. They served as a sort of amulet, and  always had 3 points:  the top point is a representation of the sacred mountain peak, El Yunque, which points towards the sky where Yukiyu lived. One face on the side symbolizes the spirit of the living people, Goiz, and the face on the opposite side represents Coabey, the underworld, where the spirit of Hupia resides. Photo from leoquix.blogspot.com.

I loved that mountain. It is my favorite mountain. I made it a point to hike to the top at least once a year from the time I had my driver's license. It is a truly magical place. When you make it to the top on a quiet, misty day, you can completely understand why the ancient people of the island considered it a sacred place. Here are some of my photos from excursions to El Yunque:

View from the trail close to the top, on a day when there was mist.

Spring flowing down the mountainside.

La Coca Falls. I took this photo, but you will find similar photos in every single website and brochure of El Yunque.  The water is clear spring water, and there is a swimming hole at the bottom, where you will find locals and tourists alike enjoying the cold water in the summer.

El Bosque Enano, or The Dwarf Forest, close to the top of El Yunque. Also known as El Bosque de las Nubes or The Cloud Forest This is a unique forest-they are the same type of trees found elsewhere on the island, but have adapted uniquely to the battering winds, excess moisture, and limited sunlight on the mountaintop - none of these trees grows to what would be their full normal height: they are stunted, the tallest being around 12 ft high; their leaves are scant; their trunks are covered in moss; and their roots are exposed above ground to allow them to get nutrients from the air and rain, not just the earth.
One of El Yunque's peaks.
Another photo of El Bosque Enano.

El Yunque peak on a sunny day.

I was sitting on the edge of this cliff, at the uppermost peak of El Yunque.  This spot is called La Roca, "The Rock." There is nothing between the edge of that rock and the drop below. This was one of my most magical visits to the mountain, one of the times where the top was covered in clouds.

View from La Roca, same day as the photo above. 

Photo also taken on the same day as the 2 photos above, during a break in the clouds. If you look closely through the mist, off to the left you can see the ocean!
Our beaches? Some of the most beautiful I've seen so far, and that's including beaches in the continental US and the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico erupted out of the ocean, so its topography is completely different from Florida's swamps, the closest US state. You will find no dinosaur fossils on the island because of this.

On a Rincon beach with my mom on a late summer day when the waves were quiet.
But because we came from the sea, our beaches are very similar to Hawaii's, who also rose from the ocean. There is still volcanic rock in many of our beaches, though the volcanoes ceased to exist thousands of years ago, forming huge cliffs and beautiful coves. We host international surf competitions, and the beach of Domes, which almost held a nuclear power plant, has been compared to Pipeline. Those giant waves are a sight that will take your breath away.

Waves at Pipeline on the North Shore of Hawaii.
Photo from Surfer's Village.

Waves as seen from the road that leads to Domes Beach. That little blue & pink building on the left? It's called the Calypso Cafe and they make some awesome margaritas there. The bar overlooks the ocean. The part of Domes Beach directly in front of and to the left of the bar is called Maria's Beach.

Domes Beach on a quiet day. You can see the dome of the nuclear plant that gives the beach its name.

Domes beach.

Surfing competition at Maria's Beach.
Video here.

Surfing competition at Domes Beach.
Video here.
Below are just a few of some of my favorite photos taken when I started to get more into photography while living in PR. Some of them are from my SLR, some were taken with disposable point-and-shoot cameras, and a handful are digital. Some of them are really old, and our scanner was not cooperating, so most of them are actually photos of photos that I took for this post.

This was the wall behind the bar at the Down Town Cafe in Ponce.
An astounding sunset on Joyuda Beach. 
Beach at Parador Villa Antonio in Rincon, PR. This is my favorite island parador (local hotel). 
Sunset in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. Photo taken from a beach restaurant during one of our returns to the the island.

View of the El Morro Spanish castle in Old San Juan. It was built in the in the 1600's as a fort used to defend our island. The old cannons are still there! This is a preserved monument, and is part of the US National Parks Service. Photo taken from cruise ship arriving at the island during our honeymoon.

La Calle del Cristo, in Old San Juan. The pavers on the street were made in the 1700's, of adobe bricks covered in melted iron. The iron came from the ballast of ships that transported sugar cane from PR. From the 1500's to the 1800's, our tiny little island was one of the biggest producers of sugar in the WORLD.

Horse-drawn carriage in Old San Juan. Note that the horse is at a healthy weight, with pricked ears.  A nice way for tourists and locals alike to view the Spanish city.

In my hometown of Guaynabo. A common occurrence - a Paso Fino on the back of a pickup truck!
View of a sugar cane field from an ancient sugar can mill in Guayama.

Abandoned sugar cane mill, probably from the 1700's, in Guayama.

Fountain in El Paseo de la Princesa in Old San Juan.

View of the Guaynabo mountains from our house.

Another view, from our upstairs balcony. This photo was taken in February, when the roble trees are in full bloom.

Sunrise behind the mountains to the east of our house in Guaynabo.

Most islanders that drive through La Cordillera, our central mountain range, are obsessed with that little tree. That tree is taller than all of the other trees around it on that mountain top, and it stands alone. Even after the devastation of Hurricane Georges, that tree was still standing. Shortly after that, someone put a Puerto Rican flag among the tree's upper branches.  You can't see it in this photo.

Las Tetas de Cayey, part of La Cordillera, the central mountain range. Las Tetas de Cayey literally means "The Titties of Cayey." (Cayey is a town in the central mountain range, but the mountains are actually located in Salinas, the town next to Cayey. Go figure.) The official name is Cerro Las Tetas, which still means The Titties Mountain. If you don't believe me, go here. That's a Wikipedia link!
Mountains on the south side of La Cordillera. La Cordillera traps the rains and storms that move in from  the Atlantic to the north, which means that the southern half of the island is much more arid and dry by comparison, especially during the summer. I loved this side of the mountains because the greens were so varied, they looked like a painting.

Elderly hands weaving mundillo in the town of Moca. Mundillo is a dying art in Puerto Rico; it is a craft of handmade bobbin lace that we inherited from Spain.

Mundillo bobbin lace (photo from Wikipedia; so you guys could see what finished mundillo looks like)
Mangrove trees at the Punta Pitahaya Nature Area in Cabo Rojo.

Salt flats in Cabo Rojo. They are a part of the National Wildlife System, and are one of the many unique ecosystems on the island.

The Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of San Juan.

 Arroyo Beach, where my family has a beach house. LOVED this beach; it is where I learned to bodyboard.  We spent summers and spring break on this beach; it was my haven growing up.

Gateway to Arroyo Beach.

These waves were my home away from home. At Arroyo Beach.

Me bodyboarding at Arroyo Beach.
Silver waves from the sun shining through storm clouds. Arroyo Beach.
Standing on craggy volcanic rocks off the coast of Aguadilla.
La Casa del Arbol, aka The Banyan Tree House at Parque Colon in the Aguadilla public beach. No, no one lives in it; it's just for hanging out. Charles had a copy of this photo in his backpack when we lived in FL. He'd show it to North Americans and tell them that this was the housing in Puerto Rico. I'm sad to report that even today in the 21st century, people believed him.
Mountains. They are always in the background, unless you're staring at the sea.  This is why Florida was so hard for us with its flatness. 
Trail at El Bosque Seco de Guanica (Guanica Dry Forest) on the south side of the island.  It led straight to the beach!
The Ponce Cathedral, built in 1670. Among the oldest churches on the island.
Piñones Beach in Loiza. One of the many beaches I surfed at.  This used to be one of our "Locals Only" beaches when it came to surfing. This may have changed. This photo is not altered-that's the real color of the water.
The island of Desecheo, as seen from the beach at Parador Villa Antonio in Rincon.

Even on a stormy day, the beach is beautiful. Arroyo Beach.

Canal leading to the ocean. Arroyo.

This photo came out looking oddly like a painting. Driving through a Guayama country road.

Charles in the bamboo forest of Guajataca Lake, at the Boy Scouts Campgrounds in San Sebastian. (San Sebastian is a street in Old San Juan, but it is also a town close to the central mountain range.) Charles took me there during one of our visits to the island so I could see his old stomping grounds. :)
Little country road in Rincon leading straight to Tres Palmas, one of the many surfing beaches in that part of the island. Taken during one of my wave-hunting excursions. 

A few more fun facts about the island:
Puerto Rico's Caribe Hilton hotel, as it looks today.
  • The Paso Fino breed originated in Puerto Rico, not Colombia nor Peru. It is a mix of Andalusian, Spanish Jennet, and Spanish Barb that developed its special gaits as an adaptation to our mountainous terrain. The breed is over 500 years old. Most horses on the island are either purebred Paso Finos or Paso Fino crosses. We also have Thoroughbreds (there is a big racing industry on the island) and stock horses like the Quarter Horse.

  • Puerto Rico's Tren Urbano is the Caribbean's first rapid transit system.
Tren Urbano.
  • JC Penney's, Kmart's, Home Depot's, Sears's and Macy's highest sales per square foot are all in Puerto Rico. The biggest JC Penney's in the world is located in Plaza Las Americas mall. (For those that think we're a 3rd world country...)
The following is excellent. By Ricekelly on matadornetwork.com (sentences in italics are my own comments):
You know you're in Puerto Rico when:
  • Your plane touches ground in San Juan and everyone claps. This is one of my earliest memories of returning to the island on a plane. This still happens!
  • On arrival, you exit the airport and get entangled in a group of fifty people, all waiting, signs raised for their nephew, Jose.
If it's close to the holidays, you might also encounter a parranda with live music and dancing! Because if there's anything Puerto Ricans are good at, it's having a good time! ;) This was at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in Hato Rey, PR.
  • The first thing you are asked at the rental car store is if you want to purchase accident insurance.
  • “R”s are pronounced as “L”s.  "Bienvenido a Puelto Lico mi amol." Not always. And then you also have Puertorricans from the south side of the mountains who rasp their double "R"s instead of rolling them. "Quiero ajoz con pollo." We also like to drop syllables in words ("Sigue pa' 'lante!", a common phrase of encouragement, should be "Sigue para adelante!"), and the younger generations are notorious for alternating every other word in a sentence with an English word. I've had people stare at Charles and I in fascination when we're talking, because they can't understand most of what we're saying, but they'll hear random English words thrown in. Our slang is insane. We've incorporated English words into our vocabulary, added a Spanish accent, and then dropped a couple syllables too (see above). I personally can't understand some of the kids nowadays (God I sound old...).
  • Every other guy you meet goes by Charlie. Or Carli. When any Carlos is a kid, they are nicknamed Carlitos or "Little Carlos", which then gets abbreviated to Carli as they get older. 
  • You speak to the woman at the grocery store in perfect Spanish and she looks at you, confused. You then repeat it, perfectly again, and she answers you in perfect English. This applies if you look North American, or if you have an English accent. English is a very strong second language on the island. It is mandatory in school, all the way from grade school to college. Local TV is in Spanish, but all of our cable and Dish TV is in English.
Pueblo is a Puerto Rican grocery store chain.
  • You are parked at a red light and the person behind you starts honking like crazy, scaring you into running the red light. True.
  • Also: Everyone flies through yellow lights. And don't ever stop at a Stop sign (Pare) or you will get rear-ended.
"Pare" stop sign in Old San Juan.
  • You also can't use your signal light, because everyone in the next lane will accelerate, preventing you from switching lanes. Learning to drive in Puerto Rico = defensive driving right off the bat. There's a reason why I refused to get my license until I was 18!!
  • Every car around you in the parking lot has been reversed into its spot. Guilty. It made it that much easier to zoom out when you had 3 people fighting over your spot afterwards. 
Also, don't be surprised if you see this while in PR. :D
Yup, that's a dude on a horse getting cash out of an ATM.
How do I know it's PR? Banco Popular is our main Puerto Rican bank.
    • You are trying to park in Plaza Las Americas and get stuck behind a woman who tries, unsuccessfully, to back into a parking space three times, tries once forward, then gives up, leaving the spot to the mercy of a battle between you and all the cars around you. Because it is our most popular mall. Best time to go is between 9:00 and 11:00 am on weekdays!
    • Walking into the mall or the bank requires a jacket and gloves. Because we crank the AC to 62 degrees Farenheit. My collection of sweaters and jackets? Because you HAD to take one with you when going to the mall or you would freeze while watching a movie in Plaza.
    Plaza Las Americas is a pretty freaking awesome mall, btw.
    • The locals won't go into the ocean in December because it’s gotten “too cold” (i.e. dropped below 75 degrees Farenheit/24 Celsius)
    Unless you surf. Winter is surf season in PR.
    This dude is surfing a mammoth wave off of Domes Beach in Rincon, PR.
    • The milk you bought yesterday has gone bad. This does happen more frequently than in the US; milk rarely makes it to the expiration date on the container. Always get the freshest milk at the grocery store.
    • If the car in front of you has its right blinker on, the last thing they are going to do is turn right. They might turn left.
    • The emergency exit shoulder on the freeway is treated like an express lane. Guilty...haha...You can totally get away with it over there, too. If you get stopped by a cop, it's because you weren't looking-they ALWAYS have their lights flashing!
    • The cop that pulled you over for rear-ending the person in front of you ends up asking you out instead of giving you a ticket.    
    • You back up traffic because you are stopping for a family of Iguanas in the middle of the street. Green iguanas are a huge problem on the island thanks to the pet stores that continue to sell them, and the people that buy them and then release them when they turn into 4 foot monsters...
    Green iguana, aka gallina de palo.
    They are originally from Panama. The reason why they have become such a problem in PR is because there are no predators to kill them. Not even feral dogs stand a chance against their long tails that will cut through skin when used in self defense!
    • Avoiding potholes is a survival skill. Oh God, it is.
    • You see tourists looking up into the trees at night, trying to see the birds that they think make that sweet chirping music every night.  :) The coqui tree frogs!
    • You actually see the chicken cross the road (and freeway, and sidewalk… ) In Old San Juan there was a guinea hen that eventually turned into an urban legend. And I saw chickens in some people's tiny yards in the cities of Hato Rey and Santurce. That's the equivalent of seeing a rooster in D.C.
    • Even ambulances have to wait in traffic. Our traffic jams are right up there with New York's and LA's. Remember the 3 million people crammed into a 110x40 mile area? They all leave work at the same time.
    5:00 pm traffic jam on the island.
    This is why living in the D.C. metro area right now is no big!
    • Trying to exit Old San Juan during a special weekend event feels like the song Hotel California— The old city is “programmed to receive . . . but you can never leave!” HA! If you want to go to Las Fiestas de San Sebastian, you either have to stay at a friend's house in Old San Juan or not go altogether...It's our very own Mardi Gras.
    La Calle San Sebastian in Old San Juan during the festival. Not for claustrophobes.
    Photo from panoramio.com
    • No one has any idea what you are talking about when you mention street names or freeway numbers. TRUE!
    • You ask someone directions and they pull out a piece of paper and make a hand-drawn map for you, taking 20 minutes to explain it all in detail, including a hospital and Burger King as landmarks. Also true. I actually still do this when people ask me for directions...
    • All directions somehow involve either turning right or left at a Burger King. But watch the person's hands when they are giving directions-the direction they are pointing is the direction you have to turn. So they might say "left", but they are pointing right - you will take a right. Puerto Ricans are dyslexic by nature when it comes to left and right...
    Aerial view of San Juan metro area streets.
    • And yes, there is a big stray dog problem on the island, as those of you who read Dom's blog have seen. Neutering pets is a relatively new concept over there, though all of the rescue groups encourage it, just like they do here. A lot of people just don't understand that neutering is a fairly simple procedure, and it can cost next to nothing when done through a rescue. It's not just a machismo thing, either-in a country where family is the most important thing, people really do believe that female dogs should have the "experience" of giving birth. I've talked to Puerto Rican women who truly believed this! Ugh. Add to that the fact that a lot of dogs are allowed to roam. My family had 2 acres and up to 6 dogs. Our dogs lived mostly in the house (it was a big house-2 stories, 4 bedrooms) and went outside whenever they wanted to play (ours did not roam: we had a fence, plus they were spayed and neutered!), but many, many times we had problems where stray dogs jumped the fence and attacked our dogs. There are several rescues here in the States, including the Broward Humane Society in Fort Lauderdale, that take in overflow strays from organizations such as Save a Sato to find them homes in the US. "Sato" is the Puertorrican term for "mutt," but it is turning into the the island breed, kind of like the Potcake dogs of the Bahamas. Our satos basically come in 2 sizes: small, where they are usually Dachshund, Chihuahua or terrier mixes, and large, where they are mixes of Chow, Pitbull, Lab, Shepherd, or Dobie/Rottie, all of which are the more popular large dog breeds in PR. Satos are the sweetest, most loyal dogs you will ever meet, and tend to have long lives regardless of size. Most of our satos at home lived well into their late teens with minimal veterinary intervention.
    With Amaretto, my favorite sato of them all.
    • Our food is amazing. All local food is A-MAZING! Alcapurrias, pionono, mofongo, pasteles - bring it! But you will want to go on a diet after you try it. :)
    So...do I miss it? I miss my family, the beaches, and our pets-my one remaining dog is still back with my mom, but she is so happy that I wouldn't dream of taking her away! I enjoy remembering, and I would love to go back with Charles to visit sometime in the near future. It's been a few years since our last visit. I am proud of my island and my heritage, and I'm self-conscious about the fact that not only am I hispanic, but I'm from a country that most outsiders think poorly of. Not all of us living in the US are like this, but I do know other Puertorricans who feel the same way as me: that we represent our people, so we should go out of our way to show the world that we are able to work very hard to achieve our dreams.

    I stopped missing my life there a long time ago. I very literally outgrew the island. Most of our friends have left the island too-I currently have only 2 friends on my FB that are still living in PR; the rest have moved to the US or Europe! For me, one of the big draws of living in the US, other than being with Charles, was the space. You can drive for a couple of hours and find yourself in a completely different state. It takes days to drive from one end of the country to another. You can drive it-you don't have to get on a plane to leave the place where you currently live. Once you have that much room, going back to a tiny, overpopulated place makes it feel like going back to living in a cage. I hated the heat, and the fact that nothing ever changed. We finally are living in a place with seasons!

    La Plaza de Armas in Old San Juan, dressed up for Christmas.
    My photo, taken December of 2008.
    But I still think Puerto Rico a wonderful place to go visit, and I get excited when friends say they are going there on vacation, "Oh, you have to go see this!" Haha...

    I hope someone enjoyed this post. I'm sorry it is so long, but I didn't want to break it up into several posts. There's only so much you can write about your horse when she's on stall rest with limited exercise...


    1. Come visit me. Help me practice my rarely-used Spanish (I had 6 semesters of it and was pretty damn good at one point in time - it got me successfully through Costa Rica with my HS and helped me to have an amazing trail ride there with guides who knew no English!). COOK FOR ME. And then I'll take you riding, swimming in rivers, and rock climbing. Yes? Yes.

    2. PR is definitely on my to-visit list.

      1. I can give you a list of places to check out (and ride at!) when you decide to go. :)

    3. We went to Puerto Rico on our honeymoon and had a FABULOUS time. I want to go back!

      1. I'm glad you had a great time there! It's definitely a romantic place to visit!

    4. Thank you so much for linking to this, it was a wonderful read! I have lived my whole life in New England and the closest I've been to the Caribbean was one visit to Bermuda. This was a really lovely overview and a very convincing argument to visit. :) (especially as I look outside at the snow coming down!)