Puerto Rico: Glowing water and bad Spanish


Puerto Rico Oct 2007

First, I spend the night in the rainforest. What was I thinking? I came out dirty, hungry and a bit shaken.

I drove este (east) toward to Fajardo. I stopped at a McDonald’s that had a sign saying Desayuno (breakfast). Back in the states, I never go to McDonald’s, but those golden arches can seem like a little bit of heaven when you’ve slept badly, feel grungy, injured out of place. I ordered the mucho grande desayuno with cafe con leche e azucur (The big breakfast, coffee with cream and sugar). I have trouble learning words in another language, but can always remember how to order coffee. I have my priorities.

How did we get along before cell phones? Over the pancakes and eggs, I arranged a guess house, ferry ride and evening excursion. In another hour I was at Fajardo. The ferry office had a sign saying they were closed for lunch from 11a to 2pm. It was 10:30a, so naturally, the door was locked.

I decided to wait at a small café next door. A beautiful boy waited on me. H/she had long flowing hair, false eyelashes, a complexion I envied and a midriff top that showed a stylish tattoo on his lower back that clearly extended MUCH lower. By signs I ordered a rum punch. Fajardo is a dirty, scruffy town and I would not have ventured out on its streets at night. Maybe not even on a dark afternoon. Being a cross-dresser in such a place takes more guts than I will ever process. H/she also sang along with all the songs blasting too loudly on the speakers, so it was a pleasant, free show. And the rum punch was superior and only cost $2 for a tall glass! (At the pricy hotel the week before the rum punch was terrible and cost $10)

I left my car in a parking lot that my Lonely Planet guide had assured me was safe, loaded my backpack with snorkeling and swimming gear and one change of clothes. At two o’clock I was near the front of the line for my $2 ticket when the window opened. The ferry arrived minutes later and it was clear that they would load and leave long before the 3pm departure time advertised. It must be the only transportation in the entire Caribbean that runs early. Judging by the pushing and shoving, all the locals knew it. I was just lucky to make it on. The boat was full to capacity and gone by 2:45p. Never trust the advertised time.

I was headed for a guest house on the Island of Vieques (pronounced vee AY kes) an hour ferry ride from the main island of Puerto Rico. Zoni del Toro, met me at the ferry and we zoomed up the hill to the Sea Gate Guest house. Zoni and her new husband, Jeff, manage the hotel for Penny, who started the place in 1977. Penny also started the local Humane Society and the animals clearly spill over to her property. I lost count of the dogs and their ailments. This one was blind. That one missing a leg. But they were good natured. I had a room on the lower level that was still slated for remodeling and did not yet have air conditioning. With two fans pointed directly at the bed, it was not an issue. I napped for an hour before my publico (taxi van) picked me up.

The driver spoke little English, but Zoni had told him where to take me. He serenaded me most of the trip in lieu of conversation. I believe he was signing love songs but they might have been songs about stupid white women who wander where they don’t know the local language and really ought to know better. You can never tell. Hispanic men sing loudly, often and unashamedly. I find it endearing. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the State’s, not enough singing.

The end of the line was an empty stretch of highway. I find it interesting that a man who cannot speak my language when we start, can always speak it well enough to negotiate a $9 fare. He made a sign for me to wait and said, “hombre con barcos”. Fortunately, barco is one of the 20 Italian words that I know and it means boat, so he was saying “man with boat” which pointing out the time on his watch. I had no cell phone service, so I just had to trust him. I was five minutes early, which i island time is a 20-minute wait. Sure enough a truck trailing a load of kayaks pulled off the road.

Tanto was my guide and his English was perfect, possibly better than mine. We waited together in the cab of his truck while the rest of the group arrived, slapping mosquitoes. My combination of DEET, lemon grass and citronella oil was clearly more of a pheromone than a repellant. Tanto, like most of the local men I met, had children he was very proud of. And like most of the men I met, he didn’t live with them. But he assured me that he saw them “often”, sometimes three times a year.

We were going to the BioluminescentBay, locally called MosquitoBay. Both names are descriptive. While these single-celled, bioluminescent creatures are found all over the ocean, this bay is one of the few places in the world where they are in great concentration. There are about 750,000 in each gallon of sea water. When pressure is applied to them they light up as a defense mechanism. We took kayaks to the middle of the bay and as soon as we got 10 yards from shore, the paddles were backlit as I slipped them into the water. We tied all the boats together in the middle where the water was the deepest, about 14 feet. Tanto gave us a brief talk, mostly about conservation and the delicate ecosystem that depended on the red mangrove and clean water. He indicated that gasoline and diesel boats were ruining similar bays around the world.

Then he told us to go swimming. Well, someone had to go first, so imagine my unladylike dismount from my kayak into the water. It was considerably worse later when I had to get back into the boat. The more movement, the more light. The more you struggled, the brighter spectacle you were. I was quite a spectacle.

The BioBay was amazing and you cannot describe it accurately. It is something you just have to experience. Every stroke of your arm into the water is illuminated. Every scissor kick, radiant. I made snow angels in the water. Wiggle your toes and see them glow beneath you. I never tired of simply cupping water into my hand and watching it run down my arm, diamonds cascading over wrists and elbows. Because of the red mangrove, which desalinates the water, the salt content of the bay is more than 4X that of the open ocean, so I didn’t need a life jacket. From now on I will refer to my body fat as a flotation device and be proud that I am so well prepared.

Traveling alone may sound scary or lonely, but it makes it easier to meet other travelers and locals. This evening I got to do both. Teegray and Gregore, who were members of the tour group, turned out to be staying at my same guest house. They had a friend Luis who lived locally and was starting a Public Radio station. Luis picked us up and we all went to dinner at one of the only restaurants open in Isabel II in the evening. Luis was handsome, gregarious, engaging and very interested in discussing politics. Puerto Rican’s are very political. Almost every conversation included politics and they get a 90 percent turnout at elections. Luis believed in the independence of the island from the US, but didn’t expect to see it in his lifetime. Despite the second class status, under-representation and uncertainty of citizenship, there were enough advantages keeping them tied to the States.

For dinner I had mofongo again. I ordered it almost every night, but it was never the same twice. The dish starts with mashed, unripe plantains. Sometimes fried, sometimes with onion, or garlic or chicken. At every restaurant I went to I was always told that “the mofongo is good here, but my mother’s is better.” In the South, your mother’s fried chicken is best. In Puerto Rico, it’s the mofongo. This evening I ordered it with seafood and was served a green lump with tentacles. I ordered another glass of liquid courage before trying it. But the octopus was quite tender and the dish was very good despite its odd appearance. In addition the local beer, Medalla, was cold and reasonably priced. The locals take their beer and coffee seriously. Coffee is served very hot and very strong with lots of sugar on the side. The beer is very cold and many varieties are bottled in small serving sizes, 10 oz or less, so that they stay cold to the end of the glass. Even in a shack that serves beer along the side of the road, you can expect a chilled glass. I am not much of a beer drinker, so the Medalla tasted like Miller Lite to me, but I would never tell the locals.

I slept late the next day, and hardly noticed the crowing chickens over the fans in my room. I arranged a publico to take me to Mosquito Pier, and was completely alone for two hours snorkeling. It feels very odd to have someone you don’t know in an unmarked taxis drop you off in the middle of nowhere with only the promise to pick you up again. But I’ve seldom had an issue with this method. If you pay when they drop you off, they assume you will pay on the other end too, and they show up. Sometimes even on time.

The snorkeling was great and could only have been better if I had taken a boat to a coral reef. So many interesting fish to see, most of which I can’t name. There were parrot fish and one puffer that was too inquisitive for my tastes. I enjoy snorkeling because I like to hang out at the top of the water and just watch. I don’t touch things, sort of an aquatic voyeur. The puffer must have been very nearsighted and kept getting right up to my face mask. I thought they were supposed to be afraid of me? Schools containing thousands of one-inch long minnows would part just barely enough for my body to slide through, never touching a single fish. Sea stars slowly crawling across the sea grass. And I saw more jelly fish than I was comfortable with. My theory is that unless the water is crystal clear, if you can SEE the jelly fish you are already too close. The water was murky, and the transparent jelly is hard to see if you are more than a yard away. Impossible at 3. I watched from as close as I dared as they undulated through the water. Hermit crabs, a sea slug, and fish with yellow tails and purple faces. On the shore was a millipede 8 inches long. So much life.

Isabel II (pronounced EE sah bel  se COON dah) is a sleepy town. Not much to do here. There are chickens, horses, dogs, cats running wild everywhere. I suspect most of the traffic accidents involve barnyard animals. In the morning the roosters are so loud that I can’t imagine needing an alarm clock. The locals say that everyone eats arrzo con pollo, rice with chicken, every day, often 3 times a day. They also say that the cock that crows the earliest, is the best tasting…and the next one for dinner.

The barnyard animals may not have been contained, but there were plenty of fences, some with razor wire. Petty crime is high and all the houses have bars on the windows. The nicer homes have security gates. Yet the cars are unlocked, often with the keys inside. The theory goes that you leave vehicles unlocked so no one will break into it to find something to steal. And you don’t leave anything in the car worth stealing. They don’t worry that the car will be stolen since you can’t take a car far away on an island that is 23 miles by 3 miles where everyone knows you and is probably a relative. Of course that doesn’t apply to a tourist’s rental car. It is always open season on tourists. I was told that if a group of young men stopped me and asked for my money, just to keep 5 or 10 dollars in my pocket to hand them, explaining that I had no more. This would satisfy them as they were looking for drug money. Begging tourists is also popular, even among the employed young men.

After walking around town for the afternoon, I went back to the guest house and was immediately invited to share a meal of paella and wine with Penny, her family, the workers that were remodeling the rooms, plus everyone staying at the Sea Gate. Such great conversation, but tough to follow in English, Spanish and Japanese. The paella was beautifully arranged and the evening sky clear. As night fell, bats flew nearby and kept us relatively clear of mosquitoes. The various dogs and cats cleaned up anything that dropped to the ground. I clapped along to a singer on a guitar. A perfect evening.

Jeff, the manager, told me that he’s originally from New York and had simply come to Puerto Rico for a visit. He took the ferry to Vieques to swim in the BioluminescentBay, expecting to return that night. He was halfway across before he realized that the boat didn’t return until morning. He called every hotel in his guidebook and the Sea Gate was the only phone that was answered. (I had the same experience)  The conversation was short. “OK,” Penny said. “I think I have a room. I’ll call you right back.” And Penny promptly hung up without saying goodbye, leaving Jeff to wonder what to do. But Penny did call back with arrangements for everything. She gave him the description of two people on the boat that would take him to dinner, then to the Bio Bay and back to the hotel for the night. Arrangements are casual. Jeff said he took one step onto the island and felt at home. His stay extended to three days. When he returned to NY, it just didn’t feel right, so he arranged his affairs and came back permanently. He had been the manager for less than a year and married his girlfriend Zoni on the grounds the previous June. The wedding sounded so romantic and they were clearly very much in love.

After dinner, I was taught to play dominoes, or at least how to lose at dominoes. It is a serious game here. The old men sit in the square at night and argue loudly over the tiles. Cheating is expected and I was told the number one rule was never to trust anyone. I learned the rule first hand when the man who was instructing me, coached me to lay down a domino tile that allowed him to win. When I reproached him he looked at me innocently and said, “But I told you never to trust anyone.”  The whole table had a laugh at my expense.

The next morning I boarded the ferry reluctantly, after promising to come back. The water was such an amazing shade of blue. While I took several photos, none can represent how lovely, how perfect it was. I reclaimed my car and drove to Ponce.

It took me ALL day to get to my hotel in Ponce (pronounced PON say) on the south side of Puerto Rico. I underestimated the distance and amount of traffic. But the roads were in better condition and better marked than I would have guessed. And since I paid no less than 4 tolls in the 130 miles, they should be.

Drivers here are clearly trying to win some award for worst operating practices. They will get my vote. Stop signs, even lanes, are treated as a mere suggestion. Actually stopping at a 4 way stop sign is taking your life into your own hands. Stop lights are observed slightly better. Often if someone was going to ignore a stop sign, they honked their horn. I don’t remember that in the driver’s manual. These are fearless drivers. I was passed me on the left with oncoming traffic while I was signaling a LEFT turn. And because I was expecting it, it didn’t even surprise me when it happened. In fact, I may be the only person who used turn signals. Puerto Ricans seem to be offended by them and will speed up and cut you off if you signal to change lanes. It happened enough times that it could not be a mistake. In a bar that evening I was told that what they hated was indecision. Someone who put on a turn signal was just thinking about moving. If you are changing lane, change.

So I got to Ponce, but overshot the downtown because, once again, I expected it to be bigger. I later realized that the tiny sign was on a different corner than the one I passed and there were trees blocking my view of the fountain. I got lost. Very lost. My Spanish is poor, to put it gently. I’ve learned to say, “Permisso senior. Soy predida. Donde esta el centro?”  (Excuse me sir. I’m lost. Where is downtown?)  I actually picked a hotel in the downtown area because it was the only place I knew how to ask for in case I got lost. But I don’t know enough Spanish to understand what is said back to me. My method–which I cannot recommend–is to just go in the direction they point and maybe try to figure out the next one or two thing they say to do. If I can understand a street name or light (la luz) I do that. I’m OK with directions like turn “right” (derecha) but it sounds too much like go “straight” (derecho). And I have a mental block for the word for “left.” Once I’ve driven as far as I can understand, I stop and go through it all again with the next person. It can take forever to get where you are going, but at least you keep getting closer to the hotel. Most of the time. I had a map to point to, which helped, or would have, if any of the streets had been marked.

Finally the fourth person I stopped was a police officer. I understood by signs that I was close to my destination, but it was hard to know how to turn because of all the one-way streets and pedestrian areas, which were not indicated on my map even if I could have figured out where I was. The officer pointed at the stop sign saying “pare”, which must be the Spanish word for stop since it is on all the signs. “Pare. Uno, does, tres, derreche.” Which I took to mean, go three stop signs and turn right. He tried to say more, but my eyes glazed over. I thanked him profusely, “gracias, gracias”, and turned to go back to my car. Then with no accent in his voice whatsoever he says, “You know, this would go a lot easier in English.”  I almost fell over it was so funny. It was clear that he had done this a lot, his idea of a joke on tourists.

This happened to me repeatedly in Ponce. Someone would indicate they spoke no English, but later after we had made our transaction, they corrected my Spanish, usually speaking English with less of an accent than I have. At the Post Office, the gentleman at the desk started asking me in Spanish the contents of the box I was posting. “Dona para mi madre. Cafe e dulches, solo.” (A gift for my mother. Coffee and sweets only. At least that’s what I tried to say.)  After we completed the transaction, he said, “Hey, by the way, ‘dona’ is Italian. The Spanish word for gift is ‘regalo’.”

How lovely that I can improve my Spanish and serve as comic relief for the natives.

You can only learn another language by making lots of embarrassing mistakes out loud and letting someone correct you. At a restaurant in Old San Juan, I ordered eggplant stuffed with chicken. I got the last part reasonably close, rellenado con pollo. But whatever it was I said in place of the word for ‘eggplant’ must have been offensive. The waitress blanched and the bartender was laughing so hard he spilled the drink he was pouring. Based on their response, I guessed that I had said something questionable about their parentage. I got flustered and reverted to Italian to apologize. My Italian language skills are even worse than Spanish, but I made a lot of mistakes in Italy and had slightly more practice begging forgiveness in that language.

But there is also magic in being that vulnerable. People know you are trying to communicate with them and they try too. It brings out the best in people. The answer to world peace could be found in this.
So I found my hotel, just as the downtown was closing along with all the museums I wanted to see. I only had two more days in Puerto Rico and unless I wanted to leave early the next morning, I was going to have to spend one of them here.

I stayed at the Hotel Bélgica, The Belgium, just off the square. I got up early and had breakfast across the calle (street) at the Gladiolas Cafe. The town square is called Las Plaza Delicias, The Plaza of Delights. Lots of shopping available, but mostly trinkets made in China, too tacky to find in a Wal-Mart. Good thing I’m a lousy shopper and only wanted to buy the coffee and sweets for Mom. The plaza has a Catholic church, of course, which was under construction, of course. Right across the street was a Church’s Fried Chicken, which seemed sacrilegious somehow. The remainder of the plaza is a park with a large marble fountain with lions, several statues and the Parque de Bombas, an ornately painted red and black firehouse that seemed completely out of place and not at all functional. I went to a couple museums which were pleasant enough, although it would have been more enlightening if I could read the Spanish signs.

Ponce was named for the first Spanish governor of the island, Ponce de Leon, the same guy from my high school history books who didn’t find the fountain of youth. Ponce is located on the Southern coast, the Caribbean side, of the island and is quite warm, even in October. Very warm. OK, hot. By lunchtime I retreated to my hotel for a cooling shower and turned down the A/C and took a nap. This is not a climate for pasty, paunchy white women.

The next day I drove back to San Juan by a new, well-marked highway, but paid over $10 in tolls in the 1.5 hour drive across the waist of the island. It was $2 alone just to cross the bridge to the airport. The locals probably knew the way around and only tourists paid the tolls.

I have a fear of being late for any appointment, but especially for planes. I was early enough to sit at the bar and have a few drinks. I ordered my first when the fire alarm went off. No one moved. It continued for over 15 minutes. The bartender said it happens all the time, probably someone smoking in a bathroom. The noise was louder in the hallway, herding customers into the bar and the place filled up. I stuffed my ears with a napkin and had another drink to take the edge off.

My bags went right through at the airport with no issue. My locks were not disturbed. I was surprised since I had brought a souvenir I had not expected:  one of their oversized cockroaches in my backpack. It was smashed paper thin, and quite dead, which is the only way I like my cockroaches. At home in the privacy of my own bath, I got a look at my naked body in a well-lit mirror. In addition to the cuts from the rainforest and bruises from falling, I had roughly a million bug bites. Only some of them could be attributed to mosquitoes. Maybe I don’t want to know.


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I’m a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I’m exploring the world and you can come too!

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