Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Island of Enchantment

"Welcome to the Island of Enchantment," the pilot said over the speakers when the plane landed in San Juan and people applauded. By the time we left the airport it was past midnight. We rented a car to drive across the Island to my hometown. My brother drove while N stared into the darkness to catch whatever glimpse she could get of the city but with a pitch black sky the only visibility was that of the eternal constructions and the crazy drivers on the road. The main highway ends in Arecibo. From there we exited to road #2, which is the old road that travels around the Island.

As we neared Guajataca I explained to N we would soon come upon my favorite view of the Island, a place where the ocean suddenly meets wind and land. I feared it might be too dark to see anything but as we rounded the downhill curve a full moon shone directly on the spot, drawing a carpet of light on the water, outlining the mountain, exposing the tunnel and flashing the waves which constantly broke over the sand and formed thick white surf.

"Pirate country," I said while N held her breath. "Oy," was her only expression, followed by "it's beautiful." We also had a glimpse of the face of the Taino Indian carved on the mountain rock.

We didn't take pictures that night but we returned later that week to take pictures of the view during the day.

We arrived at my parent's house within forty more minutes. My parents woke up to receive us. The house looked beautiful with new painting and new chairs on the terrace (my brother's old basketball court).

Inside, the living room looked a bit crowded with the gigantic Christmas tree. My mother can never buy anything small. It has become a joke with us, like the time she bought the refrigerator which didn't fit into the space in the kitchen. "Didn't they have a bigger one at the store?" I asked. "It looked small in the showroom," has become her usual answer. She served us food immediately. Pasteles made with green bananas-our first taste of Christmas food, and fresh bread from the local panadería.

I stayed in my old bedroom with the collection of dolls my mother won't get rid of. N stayed in my brother's old room, while my brother took the studio downstairs, his bachelor pad after he graduated from college and before he bought his house. The bedrooms in my parent's house have A/C but we slept with the windows open since the cool tropical winter air is the best air conditioner in the world. I fell asleep to the sound of the coqui and woke up to the sound of birds chirping the next morning. N asked me about both sounds and I explained the coqui is a little frog which only sings in Puerto Rico and the birds are my mother's pets-cockatiels, love birds and parakeets-which she keeps in the backyard.

First things first. I went to visit my grandmother before running off to tour the Island. I introduced N to my grandparents and the other five or six family members who walked in and out of the house as if it was a secret passageway into their own homes. I told my youngest uncle we wanted to visit the Labadie Castle, an old plantation house where a famous Puerto Rican writer (Enrique Laguerre) wrote his masterpiece La Llamarada (I haven't read the book, but I read the first few pages. His style and choice of words make his writing very poetic… I wish I could write like that). My uncle immediately took his cell phone out and called Townhall to find out if the place was open. I invited him to come along and he jumped into the car without thinking about it twice. We had a nice tour of the place. I've loved the plantation house since I was a child. Back then it was abandoned but in the last few years the major has reconstructed the gardens and some areas of the house. It looks amazing.

A tour guide showed us the house, which is not that big, but it's full of history. Sugar cane, coffee, rice and tobacco were produced there. Slavery was abolished after the Civil War but most of the workers remained working in the plantation. Fear of hurricanes made the owners reconstruct the house into a cement structure, which initially had been a bigger and more beautiful wooden structure.

N told me she liked seeing waves splashing against mountains of rocks in the ocean. I knew the perfect spot- Playa Jobos

(where later that week my brother decided to play a little joke on his gf).

We stopped to eat fish kabobs at one of my favorite run down places at the beach and then we went to see the condos for sale in that area.

They are expensive but not out-of-reach expensive yet, as most beach properties are and I hope to invest in the near future.

On the second day we traveled to Camuy via Lares. We first did a quick stop in Lares to try the famous ice creams, which include flavors such as rice with beans and garlic.

My favorite is corn ice cream topped with cinnamon. Mmm...

The Camuy Caverns turned out more amazing than I anticipated. I remember having seen the Camuy Cave when I was about 8-years-old, but the caverns were discovered later. They are bigger and more impressive. You don't realize you are up on a mountain until a troley takes you all the way down to the entrance of the cave on a winding road that looked like a rollercoaster. Thank God the troley didn't go fast, because as slow as it went, I still held on to my seat.

They took us deep into the forest, until the sky could barely be seen among the tall leafy trees.

The first glimpse of the cavern was a wide entrance covered with stalagmites and stalactites.

Enough light entered the cave at the beggining of the tour, but as we kept walking into the cave it became darker and darker, until we came upon another oppening on the roof of the cave. The view was spectacular. It was the kind of view often portrayed on tourism magazines.

My pictures don't make it justice. You have to be there to see it.

The next day we headed to Ponce, one of the largest towns. Ponce has my second favorite view of the Island. Driving down the West coast toward the South you suddenly come up with the beach to your right. The turquoise blue water is so close to the road you can basically jump from the car into the water. The beach is more serene on this side of the Island because it belongs to the Caribbean Sea instead of the Atlantic Ocean found in the North. We stopped to eat at Pito's Seafood Restaurant, which overlooks the sea.

We had mofongo (mashed fried plantains) filled with seafood in tomato sauce, piña colada and sorullitos

before heading to the downtown area. Among some of the interests are the first fire department

the museum of art and the Serralles Castle,

a major sugar cane plantation house which belongs to the prominent Serralles family. The Serralles industry produces Don Q rum and one of the members of the family married an ex-governor of the Island.
At the museum of art the most famous piece is Flaming June, which portrays a woman wearing a bright but translucent orange gown.

It was painted by a French artist and acquired by the ex-governor and founder of the museum, Luis A. Ferré. Still my favorite paining is The Court of King Alexis because of its impressive size and the story it tells.

I was exhausted the next day and decided to show my friend around my hometown. Not much to see at all, but we walked to the plaza,

visited the church, and the Mundillo museum, the handcrafted lace for which the town of Moca is known.

That night my mother and I stayed up until 3am preparing dishes for Christmas Eve dinner. We grounded fresh coconut to get coconut milk and make sweet rice, coconut flan (my invented recipe) and coquito. N got a taste of coquito right after touring the Labadie Castle, when my uncle offered his homemade coquito. She loved it. What she didn't know was that the thick sweet taste hides the flavor of ron caña, the infamous bootlegged rum which I can smell and recognize a mile away (Pirate rum, I like to call it and by the way, it's also illegal). When Abuela saw her drinking coquito she opened her eyes in surprise and asked me if it had been "baptized" with rum. At that moment N giggled and I didn't have to answer the question.

Christmas Eve at Abuela's house went as usual: Amazing! I love to have the family in one place, clos together, happy. We celebrated with plenty of food, rum and music. Most members of my family, myself included, can't carry a tune. That didn't stop us from brining out the maracas and güiro (this year we went all out and also used pleneras as well as pots and pans)

and sang the few songs we know at the top of our voices. Actually, in November there had been a death in my family and Abuela was still in mourning, that's why we kept is simple and didn't invite parrandas. Las parrandas de los enmascarados commemorate the masacre of the Innocents, after the birth of Jesus. Caravans of men dressed in colorful costums travel from house to house within the town singing and dancing. My uncle (this one told N he had "un buen canto" which can translate to either "a good voice" or "a good piece")and one of my cousins form part of one of those caravans by the name of "La Selecta". My cousin M, whom I call Muñeca (doll), sings with the caravan as well. Women, though, are not allowed to dress in costume.

On Christmas day we woke up early to roast the pig.

N freaked out a little when she entered Abuela's kitchen and saw the corpse, but she quickly recovered and began taking pictures.

To my surprise, neither N nor K were picky with the pig and ate a good portion (I think it grosses me out a lot more than it did them).

We went swiming to Crashboat beach. The beaches in Puerto Rico are warmer during winter than California beaches during summer.

It felt awsome. I took my dog to the beach for the first time. She barked at the waves for a while after one broke hard against her but I took her deeper into calmer water and she learned to swim immediately.

She loved it and complained when I took her out of the water. She also learned to dry herself by rolling around in the sand.

On Sunday night after mass we went to Espinal to eat seafood empanadillas and octopus salad

afterwards my brother got an allergic reaction to the fresh seafood. It's the second time something like this happens to him. The first time we were returning from Culebras when he complained about back pains. I gave him an Advil, forgetting about his allergy to aspirin-related products. We were in a boat in the middle of the ocean when his face swelled up like Will Smith's in the movie "Hitch". It seemed we got tired of silly sibling fights and decided to try to kill each other. Luckily in addition to Advil I always carry Benadril.

We went to Las Ruinas (The Ruins)

a nice spot in Aguadilla to take pictures, before heading out to La Palguera and the Fluorescent Bay. For the water to fluoresce you must go on a dark night with no moon. Unfortunately there was moon on the only night we had available to go and the images were not as impressive. Still, we enjoyed the boat ride over the dark water and we were able to see the water fluorsce a little when swimmers jumped out of the boat into the water. K was reluctant to touch the water at first, but when she saw the water shinning over her hand, she dipped it into the water and waived it like a puppy learnign to swim.

After that we spent a couple of days in the city. Walking the brick-covered streets of the Old San Juan is like stepping into another era. The Spanish Colonial houses, the intensity of the ocean waves breaking against the sand, the castles and forts, the green gardens. The new and the old mingled together. Words can not describe it. "Beautiful, beautiful," N and K kept saying. They would turn their heads and repeat "beautiful" as we walked. Maybe pictures will describe it better:

Ooh! He's got some powerful balls!!!

I love this picture. I took it a few years ago and since then I've used it in presentations and articles. I have a large copy in my office at work. Oh, yes, and another one on my Blog!

That night, as tired as we were, we went clubbing to the Hotel San Juan and Casino in Isla Verde. I chose to go there because that hotel brings back great memores of when I lived in San Juan right after graduating college and I used to go to the hotel to enjoy the night life with some of my best friends. One of them, actually, the surgeon, got married at the hotel gardens.
I didn't take pictures of the hotel but I found some cute ones:

N left us the next day to go back to Arizona (of all places!). We went home.


I was exhausted and sneezed all the way back. Is it weird to sneeze when I'm tired?? I wanted to go to sleep for at least two days, but as I changed into my comfy pj's my cousin A called to invite me to Cousin's Kareoke Night at her house. Sleeping could wait.

I got there early and helped set up. The cousins were anxious to meet K. We had kept her touring around for too long. When she walked into the house with my brother, F raised her hand "Me first," she said and introduced herself (F is the one with the wild fushia-red hair and the matching personality).

K doesn't speak much Spanish. I think we managed to get about five Spanish words out of her during the entire trip. But she sang "Photograph" by Nickelback with the cousins. I think she scored high points with the family just for that. F didn't say anything mean about her and F's opinion is often heard, very loudly, so I'm sure K's in.

I more or less slept through New Year's. Only got out of Abuelo's sofa to collect my midnight kisses. And soon after (too soon) it was time to go back home. To Albuquerque, home.

I often wonder what I'm doing far from my country and everything and everyone I love. It's the eternal irony of having my life in one place but my heart in another. Don't get me wrong, I love Albuquerque... but...


My New Year's resolotion is to find a permanent job that will allow me to go Home more often. Home.

On a good note... I moved from the Island of Enchantment to the Land of Enchantment!

Love you all from here to there,


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