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

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Island Time: Return to Puerto Rico, Part III

Continuing on with our Puerto Rico visit series...this post is continued from here, and I recommend reading them in order if you want to understand some of the things I allude to. :) This is the third installment in the series and we are halfway through; two more parts to go after this one. Apologies for taking so long to write these up as it does affect continuity, but apparently I am incapable of just dumping the photos with brief descriptions...I write the full story out for my own memories later. :D

I'm taking you guys to the beach today!
The alarm went off at 5:00 am the morning of our first full day on the island, Wednesday August 1st.

Feli immediately got up from his spot on top of my hamstrings where he had been sleeping and began meowing for breakfast.

I stumbled out of bed, grabbed my workout clothes, stepped out of the cool of the room's air conditioning into the humid warmth of the house's main back hallway, woke up Mom in the room next door like she had asked me to do, and hit the shower. I knew the cats would ensure Carlos woke up too. :)

I yawned as the hot water poured over my head, slowly waking me up. Pancho had decided to use the bed as a trampoline last night, waking us up every time we had drifted off to sleep by bouncing on the mattress, until Feli had claimed the bed by declaring my butt his pillow. This effectively stopped his little brother's antics. I passed out to the vibration of Feli's purr against my ass. #dontjudge #lifewithcats #catsareweirdos #yougetusedtoit

Considering it had maybe been another four hours of sleep, I felt remarkably alive this morning.

I got dressed and met my mom and Carlos in the living area of the house, with Lu happily running up to me and wagging her entire rear end in joy. Mom had wanted to wake up early with us so she could make us breakfast. <3

I sat on the kitchen floor next to her while she cooked so I could also interact with Lu while Carlos had coffee...and snagged pictures.

Like most large dogs, Lu has no concept of her size and really does think she can fit in your lap. She has the most peculiar way of attempting it, though...Instead of just crawling or diving into your lap and squishing your entire lower body in the process, she walks up to you where you are sitting cross-legged on the floor, presses her forehead against your belly, gets all 4 paws in the hole formed by your crossed legs, and then sort of melts into that hole.

Since she is a 60 lb dog, this is not a successful way of achieving this by any means.

Don't tell Lu, though!
I just laughed and laughed while Lu wagged her tail and grinned over the fact that I was rubbing her belly while she was "in my lap."

We scarfed our breakfast, grabbed our lunch, snacks, water, and various bags with clothes for the day's adventures, said good-bye to Mom, and headed off to CrossFit.

Breakfast: scrambled eggs with spinach and cherry tomatoes, turkey bacon, and gluten-free raisin toast with a drizzle of local honey. And cafe con leche, which I had already downed when I thought to take a photo. Not shown: the side of island mango that I also ate. :)
Yup, we had woken up at the crack of dawn to drop in at a CrossFit box in Guaynabo, which was taking place because I had tentatively asked Carlos shortly after booking the flights, "Would you like to drop into a CrossFit box in PR?"

His response: "Oh my God! YES!"

I would be lying if I said I had not been surprised by his enthusiasm, but he really enjoys the sport! So I went ahead and started researching. One of the fun things about CrossFit is that gyms around the country welcome visitors from out of state. It's a great way of meeting and working alongside people from other places and seeing how other CrossFit boxes work because while CrossFit is a corporation, each gym's owner(s) will add their own twist/flavor to the programming based on their own experience and interests and those of their clients.

How popular is CrossFit in PR? There are 33 boxes in PR listed on the official CrossFit website, of which 22 are in the San Juan metropolitan area alone (Guaynabo, my hometown, is considered part of the San Juan metro area.) I know of a couple other boxes that are not on that map though, so there are additional ones.

Like I've said before, PR doesn't half-ass anything. (Even half-assery gets blown completely out of the water on the island.) A quick search on the internet found two popular CrossFit boxes in Guaynabo: CrossFit Guaynabo and CrossFit PR, with what seemed to be radically different training styles. (For whatever reason, smaller PR businesses currently prefer to promote themselves on FB rather than have their own websites. Just something to be aware of if any of you decide to go explore. :) It was just a peculiarity that I kept running into when researching the places we wanted to visit.) The first gym's FB page featured large groups of people doing more hardcore, advanced movements in general, whereas the second showed smaller groups with posts focusing on performing more basic movements with correct technique. The more I researched, the more I leaned towards CrossFit PR and they were the ones we ultimately chose. A quick phone call confirmed that they had morning classes and that the first drop-in was free with future drop-ins being $10/person. Evening classed tend to be full and required signing up in advance: they have two coaches for those classes for more one-on-one attention (1 coach per 5 athletes), which is why they like to keep classes small. This was not an issue with morning classes: those tend to be smaller numbers-wise. We let them know we'd be in for the 6:00 am class on Wednesday and they advised we arrive a little earlier so we could fill out paperwork.

After packing everything in the Jeep, we headed off to CrossFit PR.

Avenida Martinez Nadal (Martinez Nadal Avenue) in Guaynabo, one of the main highways of the town.
Just an ordinary pic of an ordinary sight, but one that you won't randomly find on internet searches.
Note the mountains in the distance!
Have some street signs in Guaynabo. :) Still on Avenida Martinez Nadal.
This proved to be another adventure. It is located in Guaynabo's area of Villa Caparra, which was less than 10 minutes away sans traffic. It's a part of Guaynabo that I used to be very familiar with from attending middle school there at Academia San Jose (a Catholic private school run by nuns). The area has changed very little over the course of 20+ years and the GPS directions from Waze were very straightforward.

Except for the part where she kept wanting us to stop at this neighborhood wall on the right-hand side of the road, insisting that this was where CrossFit PR was located. Carlos and I were like, "WTF???" because there was nothing there. No driveway, no entrance. Just a wall. If we drove past it, Waze would start trying to redirect us back to that one spot. We were very confused.

Finally Carlos looked at the opposite side of the road. "Wait...there's a sign over there!" The building on our left did, indeed, have a giant sign indicating that it was CrossFit PR. We double-checked that we weren't getting the directions mixed up but no: the location was on our LEFT, whereas Waze kept saying it was on our RIGHT, both on the map and verbally.

We decided that the island dyslexia that Puerto Rican directions are famous for was contagious to GPS too and laughing, swung the Jeep around and pulled into the correct place.

The entrance to CrossFit PR was in the back alley of the building we had seen from the street, and was a small warehouse-type space with all the basics. They had been creative with maximizing floor space by hanging benches, medicine and slam balls along the walls, and there were plenty of barbell racks that could double for both squats and bench pressing.

Outside of CrossFit PR. This was facing the parking lot.

The inside of the box. And Carlos over in the corner stretching.
We introduced ourselves to the head coach, Esteban, who welcomed us and had us fill out waivers (standard at CrossFit gym.) We learned that his dad started the box over a decade before out of his garage! They had been at this new space for only two years, and was now being run by Esteban. His parents happen to now live in the D.C. region.

The world is such a small place!

Esteban introduced us to the group before taking all of us through a warm-up, then he explained the WOD in the Spanglish that Puerto Ricans are known for. :) The day's WOD ended up being a TON of fun: we had to do 200 reps of bench press and row 2000 meters, but it was a partners exercise so we could split the workout however we wanted between two of us. Carlos and I chose to do it together, which was even more fun because working with me always makes him want to work even harder. :)

The change in temperature from Maryland summer to Puerto Rico summer had been exactly zilch. We had been asked about that and no: temperature-wise, MD had been hotter when we left, with evenings being cooler. Humidity and temperature change very minimally from day to night in PR in the summertime, but that doesn't affect locals much because, while central AC isn't the norm, window AC units in bedrooms are. Otherwise sometimes not even a fan will move that heavy wet air at night. This is what a lot of people didn't understand when I tried to explain being months without sleep due to the post-storm power outage. You just can't sleep when it's that hot and humid; you simply lie awake tossing and turning on sheets that are soaked through with your own sweat, with no way to escape the heat. Because when it's that hot, you can strip down to your bare skin and it still makes no difference. This would by why I asked for most of my life to live in a place with seasons.

There was an exhaust system in the box and fans, but both Carlos and I were surprised to find ourselves struggling with the rowing portion of the WOD, and our only explanation was the island's higher humidity.

We finished a hot, sweaty mess, stretched with the group at the end, high-fived everyone (this was standard routine at the end of workouts at this box and I really liked it), and then hit the gym showers to get ready for the day's adventures.

We were just getting back into the Jeep when my mom texted, "I think you left your beach towels at the house!"

I checked the back of the Jeep and confirmed that yes, we had indeed left the towels! So off we went back to Mom's to fetch them, since it wasn't a huge detour.

We then started over again. :)

We took the roof cover off of the Jeep while at Mom's!

And off we went towards Rincon.

So you can see where we were driving from and to. In red: Guaynabo to Rincon (right to left, or east to west) with Arecibo in green, which is the one major stop that we had planned along the way. You can appreciate how Guaynabo is right next to San Juan. Caguas, Bayamon, Trujillo Alto, Carolina and Catano are considered part of "the San Juan metropolitan area" that I keep referring to, just like Montgomery County, Baltimore and Frederick Counties in MD and Arlington and Fairfax counties in VA are considered part of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.
The drive was 151 km or 94 miles, which on a normal day sans traffic and no stops other than to use the restroom, can be completed in 2-3 hours one-way.

Why Rincon? You'll see. :) I'll soon explain why I was giving you the distance in km in the picture above as well.

We were originally going to stop in Arecibo for La Cueva Ventana (Window Cave).

Photo from the internet. I have never been there yet.
We had researched it while still in the US to make sure that it was open after the hurricane, and it was. But when I realized it was an hour hike to and from the cavern opening, I started to have second thoughts about it because it was going to turn into a bigger detour than I had originally expected on a day that where we were already going to be tight on time given the amount of driving we were going to be doing. Around that time, I had decided that we would make plans, but we would ultimately let the island tell us what we should do. We had so much fun when we let Hatteras in the Outer Banks dictate during our first trip there...I had never let PR decide before.

So when our family friends Myra and her husband Ricky had brought the amazing paella dinner the previous night, we had discussed with them our plan for the day and she had suggested we stop at La Poza del Obispo.

I had never been there either so I pricked my ears and the more Myra told us about it, the more I wanted to go. Carlos and I decided to tack it onto the day's stops. Then when Sari and Uncle Rafa came over for dinner later, Sari gave us more recommendations: she works in Arecibo so she knows the area. She said we had to be extra careful when stopping at La Cueva Ventana because there is no security in the parking lot: leaving exposed items in the car might be tempting to locals roaming and looking for stuff to steal (looting and robbery are common problems on the island. You don't leave change on your car's dash, for example, and you leave nothing visible inside the car: belongings should go in the trunk where they can't be seen.) This gave me a bad feeling outright, especially given that we were in a rented vehicle. Sari seconded La Poza del Obispo and recommended other beaches in Arecibo that we could visit as well.

We had checked the Jeep after that and realized that, while it had tinted windows there was no real way to cover items left in the trunk so that they couldn't be seen. A black cloth thrown over our belongings helped, but if you looked closely through the darkened glass, you could still see that there was stuff back there.
I had told Carlos then that I wasn't feeling too keen about La Cueva Ventana.

Before leaving in the Jeep the second time on Wednesday morning, Aunt Mari was the one that mentioned, "Drive safe! They said on the news that there's going to be thunderstorms out west."

Wait, what?

"Yes, this afternoon. But you know how it is: half the time the forecast is wrong!"

She was right about the forecast having a 50/50 chance of being correct, but the sinking feeling I had had about La Cueva Ventana became even heavier and once we were en route I told Carlos, "I don't want to go."

He protested but he understood my logic: Rincon was more important to both of us than Arecibo, and if we stopped at La Cueva Ventana for 3+ hours, there was a greater likelihood that, if the forecast was true, Rincon would get rained out on us. Plus, I just had a really strong gut feeling that this was not the time to go.

So off we went, deciding to stop briefly at La Poza del Obispo instead. Carlos had been before but it had been so long ago he had forgotten it existed so he was happy to re-visit.

Westward bound, driving on Carretera #2 along the northern coast. This is Rio Hondo, which leads to the sea, close to Bayamon.
El Parque de las Ciencias in Bayamon. Remember when I mentioned in my previous post that this was the one landmark that I recognized from the plane? Here's a view of the tower.
So the tower and attached ballroom/conference center are built on the top of a mogote, that weird little mountain you see in the photo. It is naturally shaped like that: mogotes are isolated, steep-sided hills composed of marble, lime or dolomite and often surrounded by alluvial plains. They are a common sight along the northern coast of Puerto Rico and you can also find them in Cuba.
Westward bound.
The highway taking us past more mogotes. See the kilometer marker? That's what I was hinting at when I told you guys we drove 151 km one-way on this trip: PR is a US territory but distances are measured in kilometers. If you Google Map places, the website will automatically give you the distances in kilometers as well!
We also measure gasoline in liters instead of gallons.

Driving down Carretera #2 and filming mountain views on both sides of the road.

I took advantage of the fact that the top of the Jeep was off so I could snag this video for you guys. Off to the left you'll see La Cordillera, the central mountain range that runs lengthwise from east to west across the center of the island. I want you to remember how green the mountains look in this video!
Taking the exit towards Arecibo, we saw this gorgeous mural under a bridge.
You don't see many signs like this one on the mainland!
"Danger Zone: Tsunami. In case of a tsunami or earthquake warning, please move to high ground or away from the coast."
Ocean views from the road.
La Poza del Obispo, aka "The Bishop's Cove".
Pretty, huh? No filters!
There was no "proper" parking lot so like everyone else that was there, we parked on the sand next to the road and put the cover back on the Jeep roof. Items we weren't taking out of the Jeep were stowed in the back and covered with the black cloth to better hide them.
As for parking on the sand: if you go to Puerto Rican beaches with any frequency, you'll see that this is a normal thing and you'll get used to driving on sand. This is why driving on fresh powder was not alien to me when we moved to MD: it's honestly not that different from driving on loose sand.
The sea, breaking around the cove. We had been told to be careful if we ventured into the water outside the cove because there can be rip currents. Both Carlos and I know how to get out of them, so we weren't too concerned.
No filters either, btw.
You all know by now that it's kind of a special thing anytime I'm reunited with the ocean. I had to goof around in the waves for a bit, which Carlos always finds amusing.

The water was chilly! But it was hot and humid enough that you got used to it pretty quickly.

Carlos was on a roll with his photos.

Check out how clear the water is!

The Arecibo lighthouse...and this sobering mural that made me stop dead in my tracks when we were heading back to the Jeep.
"Por que nos mienten?"
"Why do they lie to us?"
And the numbers 464 with a rolling fourth number... I had initially hoped that it was about something else, but then saw the date: 2018. This mural is referring to the enormous web of lies re: how many people really died during and because of Hurricane Maria.

Beyond the mural, both Carlos and I then noticed this trail leading up the rocky hill next to the lighthouse and we both said at the same time, "Wanna climb it?" I didn't even bother putting on my flip-flops: I just hiked barefoot up the sand-covered volcanic rock.
What does it say on the rocks?
"Es tu playa, man. Usa los zafacones."
"It's your beach, man. Use the trash cans."
They did, indeed, have plenty of trash cans and recycling bins on this beach, and I never did get a photo of them.

View at the top, with the lighthouse in the background. No filter.

Carlos took this photo as well. No filters. The water really is that color. This would be why people tell us of stateside beaches that are gorgeous and Carlos and I are like, "Well, it's really pretty..." and we sort of shrug. This is what we're used to. I can't tell you how much I had missed the rocks and the tide pools too. They don't seem to be very common on the East Coast beaches we have been to so far.
After this, we hiked back down the rocks to the Jeep and continued on our way towards Rincon. This detour had taken about an hour. It wasn't lunch time yet.

On the left is a car dealership that specializes in ambulances. An ambulance dealership, if you will. That suspended ambulance has been there for years and has become an icon of driving west on Carretera #2!
This is when Puerto Rico started to feel familiar to us again: there was so much along this route that either had not changed after the storm or had been restored to its previous state. Even buildings, homes and businesses looked the same as when we had last driven through here more than 10 years prior. It started to feel like we had never left, and I was able to let go, with some major relief, of the sense of devastation that I'd been pushing away from the moment we had seen the state of the San Juan metropolitan area. 
Driving west helped us find our island again.

These ceiba trees...they have lived on this median of Carretera #2 for as long as anyone can remember. They are the marker that you are halfway to the west side of the island. So many of us celebrated that they had survived Maria!

A close-up of the two ceibas as we were driving by. Aren't they beautiful???

Nearing El Tunel de Guajataca, or The Guajataca Tunnel. It is located in the town of Isabella (see PR map above for reference as to where were along the northern coast. :) ) and is one of those spots that you won't hear about in tourist guides. We recommend stopping there if you visit. Here is more info; Carlos once went to a rave that was hosted inside the tunnel! The beach next to it is stunning.
The Guajataca Tunnel was once used for transporting sugar cane via train from Quebradillas to Isabella. Fun fact: PR was one of the #1 providers of sugar cane in the world up until the 20th century. This was one of the reasons why we had to fight Spain for independence (they didn't want to let us go!), and why the US later invaded us: the island was coveted for its massive sugar cane production. And like I've mentioned before in my Bloodline series: my great-great grandparents were part of that industry. Remember all of this: we'll revisit the sugar cane industry later. :)

Enormous Puerto Rican flag right next to the Guajataca Tunnel. This is another landmark along PR's northern coast

View of the tunnel from the highway. And also the turquoise ocean. No filter!!

Another common sight: people riding their horses along main roads. Carretera #2 is basically a 2-lane highway, and this guy was riding his little criollo horse (Paso cross that can rack ("andadura" in Spanish) up to 40 mph; these little horses get raced!) right next to the road. I had posted this pic on IG and the rider's position brought up some very good questions: yup, that's how they ride. :) The further back they sit, the faster the horses rack. I never, ever understood it...I was taught to ride Pasos in PR in the classical dressage seat and that's how they are usually ridden in shows. But andadura criollo horses are a whole other world. They are super bombproof and are often ridden bareback in this position; that's how they are also raced. I can't fathom how uncomfortable that has to be for the rider, especially given that you usually see men riding like this! O_o

Carretera #2, driving west towards the mountains....and ocean beyond.

Arriving in Rincon. We were driving through an ordinary residential road with ordinary (read: middle class) houses...and this is the view. This isn't particularly special: this is just island life in Rincon, which is why we adore it so much. I took the video to show you how extraordinary the ordinary can be when seen through the eyes of an outsider. :) Rincon is quite hilly with spectacular world-class surfing. I've talked about the town on the blog before. There is a large American surfer community that lives there, and international surfing competitions are held at some of Rincon's beaches a couple of times a year. The reason why we both adore this town so much is because, due to our shared love of bodyboarding (which is a type of competitive surfing), it makes us feel like we are driving through a surfing movie filmed in Hawaii. There is a lot about Rincon that is reminiscent of parts of Hawaii in the best way possible, except without the volcanoes or the exorbitant cost of living.

The story behind this photo is a good one.
So as we were arriving in Rincon, we were trying to think of good places to stop and eat lunch. All we could both remember was the Calypso Cafe and Bar, but we kind of wanted to stop elsewhere for food. (Not dinging Calypso's food at all; we'd just only ever had drinks there before and that's what we were planning to do on this trip.) I started flipping through Yelp, looking for options with authentic Puerto Rican food in Rincon with good reviews. I stumbled across a place that was simply called The Beach House that had incredible reviews online and was located off of Route 413, Rincon's "Road to Happiness," so-called because it takes you through all of the town's major surf beaches. I started drooling when I pulled up the menu. I mentioned it to Carlos but then got distracted with a different restaurant's description and was fighting with the phone signal (it had been dicey on my phone in this area, though Carlos's was unaffected; we both have Verizon) as we got onto Rte 413, when I suddenly looked up and saw the view above through my window. "Wait Carlos, I want to take a photo!" He stopped and I got out of the car to snag the pic. It was him that looked to the other side of the road and said, "Look! It's The Beach House restaurant!"
See photo below. :)

Literally across from the chairs facing the ocean! And that's how we ended up having lunch here after all: the place pretty much found us! It was early (barely noon) on a weekday, and so there were only a handful of people at the bar. We put the top back on the Jeep roof upon arriving here.

Walking across the deck. I loved the sign. It says, "The Beach: where doing absolutely nothing is doing something."

And we sat right here. 

Carlos was doing a pina colada experiment: he ordered one at every bar we stopped. The pina colada was invented in PR in 1954 in Old San Juan's Caribe Hilton by a bartender named Ramon "Monchito" Marrero. It has been the island's national drink since the 1970's. So it's only fitting that you should have at least one while you're visiting. ;) The Beach House's was the bestest one of all we tried on this trip.

Lunch was pan-seared tuna with mango salsa and a side of rice and pink beans. The beans had slices of pumpkin mixed in, Puerto Rican style. (Back in Maryland, I use butternut squash when making pink or red beans at home.) This was to. die. for!!!! Carlos ordered the same thing. He automatically spoke in Spanish to our waitress, who struggled with the language. We switched to English and she was so relieved! We learned that she is from Hawaii! She's learning Spanish but is not quite there yet. It's a good feeling to help someone who feels like an "other" to feel at home in your country.

"Rincon 413" street marker.

The Beach House's bar. I loved that they had the surf report next to it. 

We then went to the Rincon Lighthouse, which was less than 5 minutes away. No pics of the lighthouse because Carlos and I have been a million times before. We wandered over to this spot overlooking Domes Beach: that bar on the right is new!

Domes Beach, named after the dome of the nuclear reactor you see in this photo. Carlos was part of the Green Peace group that helped shut down the nuclear power plant before it opened way back in the 1990s.

After the lighthouse we went to Maria's Beach, which is right next to Domes. Again: park on the sand!

Summer = low surf. This beach can have 20+' breakers, and is one of the Rincon beaches where surf competitions are hosted.  You can read more about Las Marias's surf culture here. Domes is the other big one. Here is proof that I'm not making shit up.

Las Marias Beach

Yellow poppies (amapola) growing on the beach.

As planned, Carlos and I stopped at The Calypso Bar for beers. (Here is their Facebook page. I want you guys to note that every single link I've posted here to island things has content in English. Why? Because it's such a strong second language in PR. ) I loved this sign. There was a group of American Menonite tourists sitting at the table behind us. It was a pretty strange experience.

See that critter there? It's a mongoose. We saw three of them scurry by while sitting at the bar. <3 In Puerto Rico, we don't have squirrels, we have mongoose! Hence why when Carlos first moved to Florida, he was fascinated by squirrels, and everyone made fun of him. Lol
Mongoose were imported to PR from India in the late 1800s to try to control the black rat population that was infesting the sugar cane plantations at the time.
There are no native predators on the island other than the Puerto Rican boa, which is on the endangered species list. There aren't even venomous/poisonous critters to worry about. You can touch spiders without fear of consequences. There are no vipers to worry about. Ticks don't transmit Lyme disease. The only real concern are mosquitoes, but they're easy to keep off of you with repellents containing DEET. The only predators are mongoose, rats, feral dogs and cats, and the occasional monkey in some areas, which were released by individuals who were keeping them illegally as pets. Rabies can be found in PR (though it is very, very rare: the only reported case in a human was in December of 2015) and not surprisingly, the animals most likely to have it are mongoose. Note: unlike Hawaii, there is no quarantine if you want to bring your pets to PR with you.

Back on Rte 413, driving past this field and watching the incoming storm. The forecast had been correct after all.

Just more ordinary Puerto Rican scenery. This reminded me a lot of the areas around Elkins, WV. Except you had mountains on the left (seen here) and the ocean on your right (see previous photo.)

Driving into downtown Rincon. 
Every town or municipio on the island has its Plaza Alcaldia, which is a plaza centered, usually, between the municipality's main church and town hall. This setup dates from Spanish colonial times.
The words on the archway say, "Rincon me encanta," or "I love Rincon."

Rincon's Plaza Alcaldia.

I saw this little coffee shop across the street from the plaza and we had to stop. It was called the Friend's Cafe. Note again that the menu was in English. 
I ordered cafes con leche for both Carlos and me while he found a spot to park the Jeep.

Waiting for our coffees. Note the free books stand next to me. :)

Carlos talking on his cell phone next to where the public phones used to be! 

Rincon's Plaza Alcaldia is beautiful.

Colorful houses around downtown Rincon.

This is the part where I was really, really glad that we had chosen to rent the Jeep. As we were leaving Rincon, the skies opened up and it started POURING. The roads flooded within minutes. It was gnarly getting back onto the main road, gnarly enough that I felt like being offered to rent the Jeep had been Fate's way of keeping us safe...but once back on Carretera #2, the going was much better.

We stopped at a Walgreens in Aguadilla (see map again) to use the restrooms.  I was surprised to walk into the women's restroom and see this. What is is? A cistern with water, a faucet and a bucket. So you can flush the toilet if there is no water. (There was, indeed, running water, which is what made the presence of this water container that much more initially surprising.) These are the adaptations that become standard after a country has had to live without power or water for months after a Cat 4 hurricane. I promise you that this was not something you normally saw in public PR restrooms pre-Maria.
I will also continue destroying all preconceived notions that PR is a third world country by pointing out the spotless condition of this Walgreens restroom, and also point out that this was in a Walgreens. Which we have plenty of, just like on the mainland.

Back on Carretera #2, driving east again towards home. Another shot of the northern side of La Cordillera's green mountains.

A rainbow over the highway. Do you see it? :)

Westbound 5:00 pm traffic just starting.  A lot of Puerto Ricans work in the San Juan metropolitan area and commute from the more affordable suburbs.

Plaza Las Americas, the largest mall in the Caribbean, alive and well and with its usual full-to-the-brim parking lot, even on a weekday afternoon. Mall culture is a thing in PR. My brother, Carlos and I were all part-time mall rats.

We got stuck in some slow-moving traffic around El Expreso Las Americas near Plaza (shown above) but it wasn't horrible. I was distracted by editing photos on my phone for posting on social media. 

We were back in the Guaynabo area, on La Martinez Nadal, when Carlos asked, "Is this the exit?" He meant towards my mom's. I had looked up distractedly and said, "No, it's the next one." And then caught myself because a) I was correct, and b) I had just given directions without even really registering what I was seeing. I had 100% been going off of what I was feeling with the winding of the highway. 

This was significant because after 24 hours on the island, my body had finally arrived home: I could remember how to return home from the cellular memory instilled from 18 years of having lived in PR. And after driving west and seeing our homeland exactly as we remembered it, for the first time now while returning to the San Juan metro area, we were able to see beyond the scars and damage of the hurricane and recognize the distorted landmarks as if we had never left. 

I can't even describe the level of joy that we felt then...that is when we truly landed back in Puerto Rico.

We arrived at my mom's with daylight to spare and after catching up with my family on the day's adventures, I decided that, after being in the car for so many hours, I really wanted to stretch my legs out and run. 

So I donned running clothes and went for a 2.5 mile run around my mother's neighborhood as darkness rapidly fell. 

I didn't know the neighborhood but its layout was simple. The entire community is set on the side of a long sloping hill, so it was easy to get my bearings: no fear of getting disoriented in flatness, like I always seem to do when we visit Florida. 

I felt safer than if I had gone running in just about any stateside neighborhood at night. 


Because of the light. 

While running up and down the community's well-lit streets, I remembered the biggest culture shock for me of moving to the mainland: everything is so fucking dark at night. In the country, in the suburbs, and often even in the residential areas of every city we have ever visited in the US. I'm talking about every. single. state I've visited, guys, and also including California in this. 

This saves electricity, yes, but to me it feels so unsafe

You see, in Puerto Rico, the more light you have in a neighborhood, the safer it is. Light = safety and often also = wealth. It is common for homes to have several lights at the front door, around the driveway and in the garage (marquesina). These lights get left on at night. You also have multiple street lights every few hundred feet.

Running around my mom's well-lit neighborhood.

If you happen to find yourself in a dark neighborhood or alley in PR, you better get out of there in a hurry. There is less light in rural areas, of course, but you will still have that glaring light in front of the house and at least one light at the beginning and end of the driveway. 

Now. Imagine that for you, light equals safety. Imagine that for you, light is what protects you from potential robbers or murderers. Why? Crime is very real in a small island that is 3500 square miles with 3.3 million inhabitants. You lock your doors at night, you don't leave change on the car's dash (you don't do this in South FL either btw), you don't talk on the phone while walking to your car in the grocery store parking lot, you don't buy gas at night when there is no one else at the gas station...the list of safety precautions inherited from PR that are still strong within me after 14 years on the mainland is endless. And honestly, if you live in a big city like New York or Miami or Los Angeles, you do exactly the same things I do. These aren't third world safety precautions: they are big, overpopulated city safety precautions.

Okay. So imagine that you live in a place where light is what protects you from all of that. From getting shot, stabbed, robbed, raped. 

Now imagine living in that same country in absolute and total darkness for months after a major hurricane has destroyed everything that you know, where you can't run a generator because there is no gasoline to run it with. 

Imagine how you would feel trying to just survive and do basic things after darkness.

You don't. You go home and you hide after dark. 

Remember that, because I'll come back to it later. 

After my run, I returned to my mom's house dripping in sweat from the humidity. I showered and sat down in the living room with Carlos and my three witches to have dinner. We again stayed up way too late just talking and laughing and enjoying being together. 

We forgot the midnight margaritas though... ;)

To be continued.