Thursday, March 20, 2008

from eastern Puerto Rico: warning

We are under a high surf and flood warning. There is an ocean swell – the largest in decades, I read – producing unexpected high waves all along the northern coast of the island.

We are on the northern coast of the island.

The idea was to take the ferry to one of the Puerto Rican islands between here and St. Thomas. They’re laid back kind of places with great hiking opportunities.

We drive up to Fajardo, the town from which the ferries leave. Predictably, the ferries are not going anywhere. The islands are cut off. Waiting for calmer seas.

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Most everyone knows this, of course. A few hopefuls come to the ferries anyway, peering out at the horizon, wanting the miracle of a settled ocean. The bay by the port is itself as still as ever. But the barrier islands and the reefs just off the coast are taking a hit (as is the entire northern shore of Puerto Rico).

We notice a tiny little put-put ferry idling a motor. We go up and ask where it’s going. The sole passenger (call him Andrew, if you wish) tells us that it’s leaving for the most proximate barrier island, in the protected waters of the bay. It’s a short ride without much at the end of it. Just a few condos, a marina and a bar.

That’s plenty for us. We hop on board for the free ride.

Andrew is spending a week there, fixing up an older boat, a Hunter 34. I’m from Britain, you know. I pick up boats cheaply here and sell them in Europe.

I have to ask: how do you get them from here to there? Cargo?
No, of course not. I sail them.
A tiny 34-foot sail boat?? Across the ocean??
Yea. I’m looking for a crew now.
And how long does that kind of a trip take?
Last time -- four weeks, but I went from up north.
That’s a long time on the water…
Yea? What else do I have to do in life?

That’s one of those unanswerable questions so I fall silent. Ed, however, wants to know the specifics:

How much did you pick her up for?
A steal at $50,000. I’m hoping to sell her for $100,000.

We get off and walk up to his little investment.
They named her “Control Alt Delete.”
Can you change the name?
No! That’s bad luck!

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The world of boat people is a strange lot to me, but Ed, the long-time and long-term sailor, is in his element. As we walk over to Andrew’s sloop, I’m half thinking he’ll volunteer to be part of the crew. But he holds back. Probably doesn’t want to waste his return ticket to Madison.

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We linger for a few minutes and watch the ocean waves beyond the reefs. White, rolling surf, crashing toward the shores.

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We head back to Fajardo.

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And now we’re on the road again and I’m trying not to mind the driving habits of everyone even as I notice that Ed, who never drives fast at home, is getting into different habits here. I tell him that if he stays in the fast lane, we’ll pass the road stands. He pulls over, spins in reverse and mira! A fruit stand before me. I pick up a mango.

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Just up the coast, we get out to take a closer look at the surf. People have been warned to stay off the beaches. And they do, except for the occasional scavenger who wants to see what the ocean spit up.

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A dad and son ride up on their bikes. The boy gets off and stares at the crashing turf. The dad points to the big wave. The boy watches in silence. Awed? Scared maybe?

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We head back to El Yunque, driving past villages where more than once, someone will ride past you on a horse. Or a bike. Or both.

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At the rainforest, we make our way to the “Disneyland” hub – the one with all the information postings and well-tended paths. There is a splendid educational center, a cafĂ©, gift shop, etc. The necessities. I’m not scornful. I buy a good coffee and look out at the forest canopy from my elevated perch on the terrace, up there where tree flowers bloom.

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Always wanting to find the quiet spot, even in “Disneyland,” we buck the suggested itinerary and head toward the peak (Mt. Britton). The hike from the road is a short 40 minutes each way, but it’s steep, and half way up we lose the carnival of tourists. The sounds of the birds and tree frogs take over.

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Near the top, the rain comes down again, but this is a mere tinkle compared to yesterday’s deluge. And at the summit, we are beyond the rain. Around us – mist and clouds, rolling up the hill quickly, revealing in fleeting moments just fragments of the jungle.

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We find a different route back, borrowing parts of the service road that rambles down in some vaguely helpful direction. And this may well be the highlight of today’s walk. It is quiet, but for the screech and twitter of the birds. Occasionally, the old road turns in such a way that we can catch the view all the way down to the sea. Or to the jungle summits.

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And always, there is a canopy of palm and breadfruit, bamboo, banana and hibiscus and countless other vegetation – very old, very young, all forming a dense mass of beauty.

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This part of the rainforest has rules and the rules are that it “closes” at 6. We’re nearly there now, timewise, but we want one last hike, this one to La Mina – an El Yunque waterfall.

It’s another half hour descent (and then, of course, assent) to La Mina. The light now is changing rapidly and it’s hard to pick out the details of a darkening forest. But the trail hugs the stream and here, the views are lovely.

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At the base of the falls, three hearty souls are taking a swim. We watch, in the way older types watch something that has absolutely no appeal anymore as one weighs the pleasure of a swim against the reality of a hike back in wet clothes.

We turn around and head back up toward the car. It’s dark now. The road out of El Yunque is downhill all the way and Ed turns off the motor so that the car rolls down in neutral, in keeping with the quiet of the forest. We are the only ones here. Occasionally around the corner, we see the lights of the coastline.

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But I’m not lingering. All I can think of is food.

Ed says we’ve somehow missed the boat on eating and I think he is right. Eastern Puerto Rico isn’t especially a tourist destination and so you have to really dig to find the good local places – no one is going to do the work for you. Our Inn hosts are not local people – their taste in food isn’t born out of any tradition that I would ascribe to the area.

Still, we follow their suggestion and go to Las Vegas (I am assured that it si NOT named after, well, you know, Las Vegas in Nevada).

And indeed, as the evening progresses, the place fills with families and couples, all animated in that terrific conversational style that I associate with a Latin or Mediterranean tradition.

We order seafood salads and creole sauced shrimp with local root vegetables and ginger ice cream for dessert. Wonderful foods. Las Vegas luck.

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