The (Sort-of) Settling of a Nomad

Even if it still feels a bit surreal, I have set-up a—if permanent is not the right word—then lasting existence in Puerto Rico.  Time ever sneaks by.  I will surely create more occasions for nomading in my future, but in the meantime, my endlessly supportive sister posed a motivational challenge to increase the production of the UnTourist to two issues a month.  This presented an opportunity to rethink and broaden the notion of UnTourism.

The result?  I’ve hit the Puerto Rican road (and nooks and crannies), in search of, or more accurately, in willingness to collide with UnTourist experiences.  After all, there can be no shortage right here on the Isla del Encanto, right?

Stop 1:  Culebra

I know!  I’m quite certain Culebra makes every tourism list, book, website, and word-of-mouth endorsement.  It is a tourist “must do”.  More than that, it appears it is a Puerto Rican must do, as every friend, acquaintance, taxi driver and store clerk with whom I’ve conversed about it mimic the same answer, “You have to go”.   When in Rome, right?  However, that just means that Culebra becomes a challenge to do the touristy thing in not-so-touristy style.

So I present to you… The UnTourist’s Guide to Culebra.

  1. Find a fellow gypsy to accompany you.
  2. Pack a duffel, a backpack, and a guitar. Tent optional, throw blanket mandatory.  A few cans of Chef Boyardee and packs of crackers are going to come in real handy.
  3. Arrange blanket across hot cement in the ferry ticket waiting area. Fetch a few cervezas from the guy selling them from a cooler on the corner.
  4. Commence sweating, singing and swooning for the next 2 hours (well, 2.5 hours…it’s Puerto Rico) until without announcement it appears someone is now in the ticket booth and passage can be obtained for $3.
  5. Aboard the ferry, try for the top deck views, but when you find the section roped off without explanation; settle instead for an empty row of plastic chairs in the ship’s belly.
  6. Use duffel as pillow, blanket as protection from the blasting air conditioner, and capitalize on the wavy opportunity to nap.
  7. Arrive and flag down the first mini-van that will haul you to the beachside campground for a few dollars’ fee.
  8. Befriend Henry, the campground supervisor, and with luck he will only charge you half the “permit” price.
  9. Set-up the tent if you’d like. It’s a convenient place to store your few belongings.
  10. Flamenco Beach is fun. There’s people, music, food vendors, skimpy bikinis.  Fun is in the air and the surroundings cannot be more picturesque.  There is a usually a choice to be made in terms of natural beauty: mountains or sea.  Luxuriate in both.  You can be an UnTourist tomorrow…
  11. Or tonight. Walk to the more remote outdoor showers so you can strip down and rinse away the day’s salt, sand, and grime.  Bathe by moonlight.
  12. The campground is muggy and full of mosquitoes which might carry one of the two weird sicknesses that have been going around lately (your boxing coach’s joints are still so sore he can’t finish his lifting workouts). Opt instead for the beach.
  13. You might be an UnTourist, but that doesn’t mean you want to sleep among sand fleas and scurrying crabs. Besides the sand is slightly damp and a bit chilly despite the air’s heat.
  14. Hike down to the far end of the beach. “Borrow” a beach chair from the fancy guest house there.  In tandem (worker ant style) walk the chair back to the lifeguard station you’ve claimed.
  15. Crack open the pop-top cans of spaghetti and meatballs, scoop out dinner with your wheat crackers, share wisely the one bottle of water you managed to snag from a kiosk as it was closing for the evening.
  16. Sit back. Reflect on how little you actually need.  Allow happiness to flicker in your gut, spread in tingles throughout your limbs, race off your body and along the air.  Hope it reaches and fills someone else.
  17. Float your voices atop the strong ocean breeze until you sing yourselves to sleep.
  18. Allow the first hints of sunrise to wake you. Watch the sun’s reach stir the earth into another day.
  19. Greet Henry as he ambles by. Smile at his surprise to find you there.  Revel in his expression that says “you crazy kids”, linger in the nostalgia it contains so you can use it, later, as a reminder that getting older doesn’t have to mean being old.
  20. Be the first to greet the Domincan propieter of a kiosk promising warm desayuno and savor the breakfast flavors: cheese melted over ham on french bread, warm coconut cake, freshly brewed coffee sprinkled with nutmeg because that’s how she makes it at home.
  21. And now, finally, it is time to leave humanity behind.
  22. Do not be scared by the stretch of rock at which the beach seems to end. Begin climbing, scrambling, scurrying, angling.  Keep going.
  23. You’re reward will be this: privacy; a crystal stretch of white sand; impossibly blue waters, shallow ones that expose a coral world so intricate it’s as if it was built by your imagination and placed in this spot on this day for your pleasure alone.

culebra (Photo credit:  http://discoveremg.com)

Stop 2:  Guavate

Guavate is about an hour and another world inland of San Juan.  We head there on a Sunday afternoon, clear civilization, and begin winding through mountainous scenery.  Tucked alongside several U-curves, the “town” emerges from the thickly forested roadside, a sudden eruption of bare-midriffed women, spit-turned pigs, cheap-speakered salsa beats, and colors, of course color:  orange shock of Flamboyan tree blooms against lush canopy, neon streaks of glossy lipstick against brown tones of skin, polished chrome flashes of passing motorcycles, ATVs, low riders, sports cars…it’s a bit much to take in.

From the angled, hilltop space we managed to squeeze the car into, I step out and take a moment to try to do so, before being swept into the swarms of people converting this particular stretch of highway into sidewalk.  We drink, we eat roasted pig, morcilla (blood sausage), and pasteles. 

And all at once I remember everything I love about being an UnTourist.  How a moment can transport you to another world, how living those individual moments can stretch time into lengthier divisions.  How in a single bite of a foreign taste is a rich history and hours of preparation.

Because I later learned that in Puerto Rico, pasteles are a cherished culinary recipe. The masa typically consists of grated green banana, green plantain, taro (yautía), potato, and tropical pumpkins known as calabazas.  It is seasoned with liquid from the meat mixture, milk, and annatto oil.  The meat is prepared as a stew and usually contains any combination of boston butt, ham, bacon, raisins, chickpeas, olives, and/or capers, and is commonly seasoned with bay leaves, recaito, tomato sauce, adobo seco, and annatto oil.  The meat can be anything from pork shoulder, chicken, turkey, crab, duck, fish, etc.  Because they are so labor-intensive, Puerto Rican families often make anywhere from 50–200 or more at a time, especially around the holiday season.  And here I was in Guavate, on a random Sunday, tasting one for the first time, for less than a dollar.

And then…a snake encounter.  Some guys wear thick-chained gold about their necks, others don boas…and not the feather kind.  When we spotted them, I of course wanted a meet and greet, which my up-for-anything friends immediately arranged.  The snake liked me back, not hesitating to slide around my arm and curl his head up to mine.  As he massaged my bicep and flicked his tongue at my cheek there was no other way to feel but in love.

snake

Stop 3:  Johnny Walker Private Tasting

In my rethinking, I’ve decided UnTourism is not synonymous with bohemianism.  Off the map luxury is still off the map.  So when my friend extends an invitation to join the “blue bloods” of Puerto Rico in a private tasting event, I reach into my closet for the dress most likely to pass as proper cocktail attire and prepare to hobnob.  The restaurant parking lot has an automated security gate.  We enter a wine shop section of sorts, walk among barrels of assorted blends in a set-up that is oh so very European.  We are greeted by a senior VP something or other.  We are shown to a sparkling table and given samples of whiskey from bottles that cost more than my rent.  Our table mates speak of investment opportunities and charity causes and when I finish my evening with my toes in the sea, I am all again reminded of how many worlds there are and in how few of them I’ve lived (as I say in my essay What Luck).

Johnny Walker

Stop 4:  Segundo Congreso de Áreas Naturales Protegidas

I’ll admit UnTourist potential of business-related contexts had somewhat escaped me, until my brilliant and talented friend Kasey invited me to volunteer at the 2nd Protected Areas Congress in Puerto Rico.  About as real life as it gets, including an excruciatingly cold set of the air conditioner*, I served as the timer to warn presenters that their 15 minute slot was dwindling down as they discussed bioluminescence levels at Bahia Fosforescente, effects of hurricane disturbance and feral goat herbivory on the structure of a Caribbean Dry Forest, and citizen science as a cost-effective tool for resource management.  It was a fascinating reminder that there are all of these people doing all of these things and human curiosity is forever churning.  In true PR style, the whole event was capped off with Sangria, a live salsa band, and a chance to relax under the sun setting along the lagoon.

*Check out Kasey’s hilarious rant on this subject in her blog:   “Frozen Phalanges on a Tropical Island” at http://raekapuertorico.blogspot.com/.

salsa

Stop 5:  Cochinillo Fest

If you are like me, you are a bit disgusted by the site of this baby pig laid out on a platter…but trust me, you had to be there.  Let’s just say my good friend Jorge, a.k.a. happiness service provider, knows how to throw a party.  He invites a group, including two Spaniards for whom chochinillo is a hometown, holiday treat.  When the roasted animal arrives, my turning stomach is quelled by the delight on our companion’s face.  It goes beyond salivation for a preferred taste, beyond excitement at the extravagance.  In her expression you can see all the nostalgia of what home means in the face of someone who has been away for too long.  The tone has been set and it carries us through hours of conversation and nibbling, through three bottles of wine, through a course of desert.  It carries us to the local bar next door where we join a private birthday party for karaoke and salsa, for goading some shy locals into using their limited English, for throwing our heads back and singing tribute ballads to the birthday girl turning 65.  It carries us to La Placita to swim among throngs of patrons in the open square and then to La Jirafa Verde, the newest night club addition to my neighborhood where I can lose my mind on the dance floor because the mostly gay clientele doesn’t really care what a single white girl is doing.  So that in the end, when every delight has finally been exhausted, it is but an understatement to label Cochinillo Fest an UnTourist success!

pig

 

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Tranquila

And then there are the days you wake without pondering.  You rise naturally, not too early nor too late.  You drift to your corner of balcony and look across building tops to a blue sea.  Your eyes linger among windows—hundreds of them—sprinkled up high rises, carved into squat, stucco houses.  Today you are not perplexed by the multitudes of lives they must contain.  Just simply, pleasantly curious.

For breakfast you slice a fresh-grown mango that a cherished friend delivered earlier in the week, the same night in which new words, good and true ones, came out of your pencil and the pencils of others.  Those words assemble themselves in your mind now but you resist them a bit longer to linger in the fresh sun on your face.

Because you recognize it, already, as one of those days you’ll float among good feelings.  You’ll remember last weekend’s fiesta, when after all the daylight hours passed, you realized you hadn’t once caught yourself feeling like an outsider.   Not taking things in, observing, but part of them.

You’ll remember your recent trip to the family farm in Ohio, and still be able to conjure that palpable feeling of love, the kind only people who have loved you all your life can make.  The smell of your father’s beautiful flowers will still be in your nose and you won’t feel guilty or sad or yearning like you did when it was time to leave and your niece’s depthless eyes held all of the confusion we call modern life.  Instead you’ll be grateful for experiencing the moment she conquered her fear and jumped from the same boulder upon which you played as a child.

You’ll wander down Calle Loiza that teems with Latin life (flora, fauna, folks) all the way to the sea and lie there upon the sand.  The palm tree above you will wave it’s greenery against the sun.  A slight smile will crest your lips in anticipation of tonight’s festivities, jazz on the waterfront, more good times with good friends.  But yours now—of life, of love, of freedom—is a private celebration.

 

7

Changes in the Night

There are many things you may have been doing last Monday, at midnight. If you happened to be in Puerto Rico, you would have been jumping backwards into the sea, seven or twelve times (depending on who you asked) in order to cleanse your sins, start anew, and get magic powers.

Noche de San Juan is celebrated every June 23 in Puerto Rico, Spain, and many other countries around the world.  The original Noche de Feugo (Night of Fire) was a pagan tradition to celebrate the summer solstice (closer to June 21) but was coopted by the Catholic Church to commemorate the birthday of Saint John the Baptist.

I managed to secure fragments of the history of the festivities, while wandering the beach weaving bonfires, hammocks, drummers, loungers, drinkers and dreamers.  There were those who had no idea why they had gathered in the dark (beyond a good party of course) and for those who knew something of this night’s origins, there were debates as to its traditions.  Further research reveals some of the most common:

  • Go backward into to the sea, while watching the moon, for special powers or luck.
  • At the exact moment when the sun illuminates the dawn of the 24th, the waters of springs and streams are endowed with special powers to cure and provide protection.  Bath in the dew for protection throughout the year.
  • Sit under a fig tree with a guitar in your hands and you’ll learn to play it right away.
  • Look through the window of your home after midnight and you will see the love of your life walk by.
  • To rid yourself of things you’d rather forget, throw representations of them (clothes, objects or memories written on paper) into the fire and watch them burn.
  • In some regions in Spain, bonfires are made with a bubbler (rag doll like a scarecrow) named “Hua” with requests and promises of various kinds.

Just like all of the rituals, for me, the night represented change and made me realize something new about it.  We so often think of change as something we must cause, or something that happens to us, but either way something that is completely distinct from the before.

Helen Keller said, “A bend in the road is not the end of the road…unless you fail to make the turn.”  And Jennifer Donnelly writes about wanting “a word that describes the feeling that you get—a cold sick feeling, deep down inside—when you know something is happening that will change you.”  Erica Jong advises that “accepting fear as part of life, specifically the fear of change…” allows us to “…go ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back.”  And finally, Jarod Kintz says, “The only thing I am for sure is unsure, and this means I’m growing, and not stagnant or shrinking.”

In a few hours of darkness, I basked in the company of a friend, released the loss of an old friend, and celebrated the meeting of a new friend.  And realized this is more how life is.  No matter how great the change, there is something we can hold onto, something we can let go, and something new to find.  Maybe powerful, meaningful change is what results when we have the courage to do all three.

Believing

I’m making music today, which is making words harder to come by.  I’m thinking about the strange ability a beautiful day has to produce guilt.  See, though they still come, “bad” days are hard to justify in the tropics.  Your emotions might be askew,  your contentment level low, but when your grief-grogged eyes creak open against a brilliant sky…it is hard to sustain belief in your melancholy.  I said “belief in it” for a problematic reason:

  • Not believing in something doesn’t necessarily render it non-existent…

YET and/or UNLESS

  • Belief is all that ultimately ever sustains anything.

What I mean is this.  If you are sad, but don’t believe in it, this doesn’t mean the sadness isn’t real.  Or does it?  Because if you don’t invest energy in it (aka wallow in it) then that emotion doesn’t dictate who you are being.  It might be easier to explain it through diagram.

Picture1which means 

Picture2

Which means it’s not the tropics, really, that make it hard to justify a “bad” day.  You could, after all, reclose your eyes against the sun, hide beneath a pillow even, and ride your mind’s sadness instead of the ocean’s waves.  There are days I so foolishly do!

Rather, it’s awareness that a “good” day is one in which you remember.  Remember that just as easily as pupils constrict to accommodate brightness, state of mind, if not pulled upon, will naturally drift toward the sun. 2014-05-06_10-05-23_134

Into Something

A month or three ago I began growing orchids.  No, growing isn’t the proper term for buying, repotting (according to the instructions on a packaged block of orchid bark) and misting the mysterious blooms with room temperature water each morning.  It makes it no less true my wish that everything could be so easily protected from the upcoming day.

There’s a whole garden, really, in my sunny island apartment.  There’s lettuce in a windowsill box, deep belled calla lilies in a terra-cotta pot, a whole assortment of wide-leafed flowering plants arranged in my Yard Butler Hanging Garden System that because of its 17 pounds and island shipping restrictions I had to have it sent to my parents’ house and brought over as checked luggage.

I don’t know what birthed this recent plant obsession, but I’m starting to believe it isn’t a bad way to go about life.  To pick an interest, explore it, enjoy it, exhaust it.  No matter how many hobbies we take up, or drop, they’ll always be so many more we don’t.

There’s a man I admire, a good family friend.  Other adults sort of chuckle because he’s always into something.  I’ve known him as a Native American aficionado (with Tipi camping and hunting for food), a Harley enthusiast (on cross-country rides), an interment preservationist, a genealogist.  One can spend their whole life learning every possible thing there is to know about one thing…or one can learn a whole, lot about it and then turn their attention to something else.

A stick-to-it-ness attitude has been so perpetuated in our culture that human curiosity (and the pursuit of it) is often dismissed with adjectives such wishy-washy, flaky, maybe even lazy.  But aren’t both approaches equally valid?  It certainly takes perseverance to choose a craft or area of research and set about dedicating an entire lifetime to it, meticulously becoming an expert.  It also takes commitment and guts to jump into something new, to learn how to hand peel and preserve tipi poles or countersteer a Harley to safely take corners.

Think when you were a kid.  What did you get into?  I can think of igloos, Prometheus moths, Amelia Earhart, showing pigs at the county fair.  I took a round of tap dancing lessons, a session of gymnastics, joined the swim team.  There were no accusations against my character, no worries I wouldn’t develop a solid career.  Why all the fuss once we’re grown up?

My hypothesis for the preference in today’s dogma will be no big mystery:  good old fashioned fear.  Because the orchid died.  I over-misted it or under-sunned it…not so easy to protect after all.  Like any life.  Explaining our tendency to hang on to the things we know and the people we love.  The latter reaction makes sense, I think, because people are not dancing lessons and love is beautiful, rare, delicate even.

But wanting to protect something can also obscure the fact that it can be pretty while it lasts and fun to try anew.  After all, the new sprawling pink-leafed Caladium I have in its place is really cool to look at even if it does tend to spritz my tile with flora matter each day.

flower 2

flower 1

 

 

Lost and Found

Yesterday, in Mayo County Ireland, a small dog of no distinguished breed but with distinctive tufts of white belly fur was found.  Also in the classifieds was a senior citizen’s bus pass, a flip phone, a St. Christopher medal on an old neck chain and a “right smart” leather satchel.

I went to Ireland once hoping to find something.  I met a man who as a boy trying to stay the fears of an uncertain life, read religiously the Lost & Found section of his local paper.  Believing “found” meant the same things as “reunited”  he took comfort in imagining overjoyed owners opening their arms to returning pets, frail women re-clutching St. Christopher medals in spotted hands.

“It’s a good world, isn’t it, if it’s one where folks take the trouble to return your man’s satchel?” he asked.  I can still feel the disappointment, deep, when he spoke of the teenage moment he realized that Found was just the other side of Lost.

There are different ways of losing everything and different ways of knowing its gone.  But it happens the same for everyone: in a single instant.

People die in phone calls, hopes fall to moments, friendships break on choices, things are lost among confused seconds.  We are left altered, baffled at how anything could ever have been as it was just before.

Why write about loss when I’ve found so much in this island life?  The warm touch of sun that lifts me from slumber, the full early morning glow that fills balconied view, the freedom to lie back down in cooler shadows.  Friends and dance classes, writing partners and camping trips, seashores, possibility, new language, love.  I guess against all this life, loss contrasts even more starkly.

And helps me realize, despite what’s gone, despite what will still surely go, I prefer to believe in a world that finds things.

P.S.  Sometimes I write in silence, sometimes while walking, sitting or daydreaming.  But other times I write immersed in a song, pressing repeat over and over again.  Since today’s post was musically inspired, I’ll share song with you as well.

 

Helium Heartbreak

Part 1
The balloon was of a light heart, not minding being tethered by a string to the boy’s arm. It danced anyway in the wind. The same lake breeze flipped and flopped his long-cut hair, half covering his eyes and accentuating his smile. He stood locked-kneed in a wide spread stance and watched every move of the balloon. Complete absorption, total delight in the simplest of phenomena. And then the balloon broke free. The boy wailed and reached after it with hands so outstretched he became unbalanced and fell backward but his eyes remained fixed on the balloon’s retreat. His tears were thick, his cries full, wrenching the hearts of those around him. This boy was not deprived, underfed or unloved but none of these things kept a balloon from taking every joy he had ever known higher and higher into the sky.

Part 2
Prior to my attention being caught by the boy, I was a part of this scene: on a blanket littered among hundreds which marked the space for us to gather. Salad was served, crackers spread, wine poured, friends and new faces coming together in generosity. Evening breeze with a temperature so perfect it enveloped us, harmonious almost to the point of going unnoticed but saved when Cindy said, “It is absolutely beautiful out,”. Murmurs of agreement extended to the food, the company, the floating music of the symphony, the glittering cityscape.

Part 3
Has already been mostly told in part one, except that my watching of the boy took me out of my surroundings and into his world so deeply, it carried me to the end of the concert.

Part 4
I watch as the park and its crowds disassemble. Slowly people stand, smooth pant legs, stretch. Blankets are shaken out and casually folded, chairs packed away in their sling over the shoulder carrying bags. The park that was crammed with energy slowly fades to black. Grant Park to myself. I mount the massive stage and celebrate with cartwheels and singing. I sit on the edge and dangle my feet. I soak in the humbling, exhilarating feeling of having the whole world stretched out in front of you, with its eyes on you. I think of the boy. I think it not a bad way to live. To love completely the balloon that is filled with nothing but air which is so close to being nothing at all. To grieve until you collapse into loving arms, fall swiftly into healing sleep. To wake full of wonderment and little recollection of the thing that broke your heart just yesterday. I decide I will live this way, decide it is what living is, and then saunter towards parked cars and empty streets.

Part 5
My first capturing of this scene was when it happened in 2003, or maybe it was 2004. Years later, I expanded upon it to make a written gift to my dearest writing coach. Now a decade later, sitting on my ocean-breezy balcony, I find myself struggling for the right words to describe life’s fullness, and thinking again of the boy and the balloon.

Do I tell you about Maraton San Blas, a day that began at 8:00 A.M. at my girlfriend Michelle’s house? How I didn’t know that thirty or so other folks were also going to gather there, then load into open-top rented jeeps, turn the volume up on the Reggaeton, and begin an all day and most of the night climb up a windy mountain road? The destination (a.k.a. excuse) was Coamo to cheer on the racers from over 50 countries as they run “the best ½ marathon in the world”. It’s true we never made it, but there’s still a story to tell in the why. I could take you along all the stops at Chicharones to fill up your cocktail, order some fried food, talk trash and do some Salsa dancing in the heat of the day. But how to capture the pace, the fun, the wild?

Or do I tell you about the Bike Polo Tournament I attended with my newly found photography club? How I learned new camera settings while watching some 20 teams of tattooed men and women (including the reigning world champs) on a most gorgeous Puerto Rican day to play the common man’s version of the fancy horse sport. (Nah, I’ll let GQ tell you:http://www.gq.com/entertainment/sports/201401/San-Francisco-Beavers-Bike-Polo-Championships.) But I’ll share one of my shots (of park art since I wandered off and got fascinated with it).

IMG_2849

Maybe I tell you about my writer’s group: six fantastic women committed to supporting each other in getting words on a page. Or poker night with friends that ended in a midnight dip in the rooftop infinity pool. Or spin class with Larry who makes torture actually tolerable with his singing, dancing, joking, and great music. Maybe you should go to the birthday party I reluctantly decided not to attend tonight in order to come down to Kasey’s apartment for a writing session.

Part 6
Or maybe you should just sit here on the balcony with me. I still manage to spend my fair share of alone time here; I can use the company. Go ahead. Slip off your flip flops, stretch your toes over the edge, listen for the waves that you can’t hear but imagine you can. And dream little boy balloon dreams.