Friday, March 21, 2008

from Puerto Rico: heading south

We should stay longer, I say provocatively on Thursday morning, our last full day on the island.

But several hours on the phone with various airlines underscores the stupidity of trying to prolong a spring break getaway. The cost of making changes scares us, especially Ed, away from going any further with this idea.

Still, we want to at least taste a different part of the island. The northeastern tip has a beautiful rainforest, true, but the rest of the space is densely settled. It doesn’t invite a quiet, contemplative ramble, for example. And so we decided to head south toward Ponce.

The highway that cuts through the mountains of central P.R. makes this an easy trip, even if we do get a late start on things. Back to San Juan, then up to the top of the range, then down again. Two hours later, we are in a different world.

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We get off the highway as it touches the southern coast. The air is hot and dry, the sun is intense. The coastal local road passes through villages that are barely that.

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Houses are small and they vary from teetering and run down, to quite pretty and very colorful. All make great use of windows and shades to create a flow of air. I don’t see a single A.C. unit. I am at one with these people!

At the side of the road, someone is having a snack. I'm thinking that our own breakfast (slightly less reptilian) was many hours ago.

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In one hamlet, we pick up a narrow lane that heads toward a slip of land jutting into the Caribbean waters. Mangroves, Ed tells me. Ever since our plans to kayak the Everglades fell through, I have wanted to get a feel for these trees with salt water roots. We set out on foot, keeping away from the muddy inlets.

The area is enchanting if you can overcome your aversion to the occasional litter – an abandoned refrigerator, plastic, always the plastic, coke cans, worn out shoes. Ed tells me that in his sails to even the most remote islands, he’d find litter washed ashore. Plastic is a forever kind of menace.

If anything, it reminds me of how much each one of us has contributed to messing up the planet and how good it would be if we all rolled up our sleeves and cleaned it up. You know, so that the grandkids can run through sand and not see a single coke can. Dreams.

Still, the area is nowhere near as littered as the roadsides in the toe of southern Italy. The trash is an occasional thing, rather than an out and out eyesore.

We walk through the dryer section of the mangrove forest and the sun is really intense here. The still waters take on the colors of a swamp.

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The noise of birds and the rustle of fleeing reptiles are evocative. At one point, I smell something rotting and I ask Ed ( in all seriousness) if there might be a corpse further in the swamp. He gives this a minute of thought. Maybe, he tells me.

There is a small path that leads us right at the water’s edge. It’s an absolutely perfect spot. There is a small barrier of sand and shell, creating a walkable, knee-deep sea wall of sorts. Ed and I wade out into the sea.

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The shoreline is stunning from this vantage point, as are the islands of mangroves to the side.

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We take a while to watch a crab move along the brittle sea floor and the pelicans do their hunting act, searching for schools of fish, falling with a big splash into the water upon finding one.

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It’s getting to be late and we still want to see Ponce. We get back to the car and head further west.

I hear that Ponce is the self-proclaimed capital of this region. It’s a pretty little town. The old square with a stark white church surrounded by pastel buildings. The branching streets, equally pretty, have a feel of a slower pace. I like slow.

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It does lack, in my mind, a cafĂ© life, but that’s just me, not being able to imagine that a place with this kind of climate would not want to push everyone outdoors all the time. We do find a (indoor) spot for coffee just off the square and I settle for a small cubana (I swear she called it that) but con leche and Ed digs into a flan. The sole other patron orders something similar.

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I read that the old Ponce harbor has been revamped, forming a nice public space and so we drive down to stroll there with the local folk: up the boardwalk and back again. The food stalls are a tad more spiffy than those along the northeastern coast, though the food is the same – fried seafoods, plantains, pastries filled with meat.

Along the dock, pelicans boldly vie for the attention of the visitors. They want an easy catch and the fish here are too big even for their voluptuous throats.

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It’s an enchanting scene.

But I notice it’s already 5 and we need to make our way back to San Juan. I have one of those dawn flights out the next day. Four flights, actually. Ed managed to land a direct route from San Juan to Chicago. Me, I have to do it the hard way – with stops in Georgia, Florida and Michigan. Hoping to land in Madison, in spite of the blizzard. (Blizzard??? Are we for real???)

At the last minute, we book a room at the edge of old San Juan. It probably is a mistake. The hotel, with its casino, is exactly the type that would turn both of us off (big, very air conditioned, very loud). But I want to have at least a few night hours in the old city.

You have to know your limits. Put us in a room in a jungle, where the only sound is of birds cackling outside and the only cooling agent is a breeze passing from one window to the next, with the luxury of free WiFi too boot and we’re happy as anything. But here, in old San Juan, where Ed steps out onto the street because the pavement is too narrow to accommodate the crowds and gets bumped by a car trying to squeeze through, where every few blocks, you have the beggar, asking for money, because there are just so many people who obviously have it – makes us (and eureka! -- Ed and I are similar in this way) feel sad and weighed down.

It doesn’t help that the hotel charges for Internet in the room and so we huddle outside the (jarring and loud) casino to access the free WiFi there. And BTW, I have never in my life been inside a casino. Ed suggests that I use this opportunity to look. I do. Never again.

Still, I’m not complaining. We saw old San Juan at night.

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We ate tapas in an old courtyard, by the light of the (full?) moon and I had the best mojitos to accompany my fried langostino pockets (note to Tim: could not, could not find your family's standard fare!).

In the morning, Ed drives me to the airport. He is like that. Never complaining about a simple act of kindness. Especially if it saves money.

My plane takes off and I look down at this unique Caribbean island – American, not American. Warm, in all ways.

A grand trip.