14 July 2012

Over the edge

"What do we leave behind when we cross each frontier? Each moment seems split in two; melancholy for what was left behind and the excitement of entering a new land... wandering around our America has changed me more than I thought. I am not me any more. At least I'm not the same me I was."
-- Ernesto "Che" Guevera

The publico I split with another couple lodged at Alta Vista was actually a white, 12-passenger van.  It was not a short bus like I imagined.  Jorge – the driver – asked each of us our thoughts on Vieques.  Obviously, no one had a bad comment.  Jorge & I continued charlar en espanol a.k.a. to chat in Spanish.  I wondered if the young, American couple that sat together in the row behind was able to deduce any part of our conversation.  I asked about Jorge’s family and vice-versa.  He was married with a young child and surprised -- like so many people prior – upon hearing I traveled to Puerto Rico solitary.  In Isabel II a.k.a. Isabel Segunda I paid Jorge and included a slight tip.  He playfully said “Siempre tendras un novio aqui” a.k.a. you will always have a boyfriend here, then blew me a kiss.  Despite his married status, I detected a hint of seriousness in his voice.  What a Spanish cassanova!

I read on a local tourism website that the return ferry to Puerto Rico was often worse due to the predictable tradewinds.  The trip to the mainland made the initial ride to Vieques feel tame. Again, all the window seats were occupied.  My view for an hour and 15 minutes looked something like this: total sea, total sky, total sea, total sky.  El barco a.k.a. the boat pitched so violently I never once saw land until the motor slowed to cruise into the bay at Fajardo (I actually timed and captured the photo mid-pitch).

As night fell, the cobalt blue Toyota was unscathed where I left it two days ago.  I loaded the car and used my Lonely Planet map to drive to autopista 3.  However, the road that led to the port was a one-way street and I became off-course quickly. In [what I assumed was] the town’s center I still saw the raised highway but could not find an on-ramp.  I drove through an area of Fajardo that was unlit and – at first glance – seedy.  I felt a tad uncomfortable from the groups of people tarrying along every sidewalk.

I retraced my path toward the harbor and soon stumbled upon signs that directed me to autopista 3 sur a.k.a. south.  At full speed and with less traffic (since it was 21:00) I settled into the driver’s seat.  I fully expected to lose my cellular signal, but was unsure exactly when & where it would happen so I first called my mom.  Then, I called my boyfriend (at the time) and shared my successes and failures of Vieques.  I knew he could relate to all the action on the Yamaha since he was the person who single-handedly exposed me to the world of off-roading. He ended the conversation by saying “Not gonna lie, I’m jealous of you.”

I made great time from Fajardo to Humacao (pronounced ooh-muh-cow) and it tricked me into thinking I might arrive in Aibonito -- home of El Cañon De San Cristobal -- ahead of schedule.  From autopista 3 I saw Humacao’s lights spread into the distance and familiar signs such as McDonald’s and K-Mart.  Yet, the horizon was completely dark in areas outside of the city.  About an hour into my journey, I thought I might be wishful thinking when I caught sight of a large star… but not in the sky. Each kilometer on the highway brought me closer to the symbol perched high on the hillside.  Upon seeing it, I didn’t feel so alone.  It was so bright against the void background that it acted as a guide for me, and I wondered if that was its purpose.
In Caguas – the city with the star -- I read signs that lead to 156, 1 norte a.k.a. north, 1 sur a.k.a. south, 52 norte but not for 52 sur! I panicked because I had to exit la autopista. I figured my best option was 52 norte because I could turn around and head south.  So I did a 180 and continued down the road which took me through a fast-food stretch of Caguas (pronounced cah-gwuhs).  Along the way I glimpsed a sign that – much to my bewilderment – read “1 sur.”  I could not understand how I exited onto 52, never turned off of 52, but was driving on 1!?

In a parking lot I reexamined my map.  1 wasn’t a highway but it paralleled autopista 52 sur and rejoined with it less than 10 miles away.  No problema.  Unfortunately, 1 had more stoplights and traffic than a highway.  My blue car revved up a hill and that’s when my plan crumbled.  The road forked and there were no signs designating which side was 1. 

I spontaneously veered right and within a few blocks the scenery changed from cheap, dingy restaurants to an old-world plaza.  There was an ornate church whose front face resembled beautiful Spanish lace and its cream-colored steeple cut into the onyx sky.  I rolled down my window to ask a couple strolling with their young son how to find 52 sur (or even 1 sur).  However, as I crept closer in the car they turned down another calle a.k.a. street.  With my window down I now heard upbeat latin music emanating from the plaza.  A live band played as people danced on the terra cotta tiles and the palm trees shimmied in the breeze. It was a tropical night and picture-perfect.  Had I not been lost or pressed for time, I guarantee I would have stopped right then and there.

Through a series of disjoint turns on one-way calles, I returned to the point where 1 sur split.  Having already tried the right side, I veered left this time.  After a few kilometers there were still no signs indicating I was on 1 sur and it definitely seemed like I was driving into no-man’s-land.  So I turned around again!  I was done wasting my gas – and more importantly, time – and stopped at a gas station to ask how to locate the highway (in Spanish).  The teenage teller behind the glass was clueless.  Luckily for me, the young woman in line behind me overheard our conversation and offered clear directions. I felt so thankful for the kindness of strangers.

On the road again, I was baffled that I was significantly far away from la autopista.  I had really gotten off-course by missing a single, unmarked exit and remaining on [what I thought was] 1 sur.  Next to me I saw the same mid-20s lady from the gas station in a van while we were stopped at a red light.  She manually lowered her window and asked “¿A donde vas?” a.k.a. where are you going?  When I responded “Cayey” (pronounced kai-yay, similar sounding to the Spanish word for street) she confirmed I was in the correct lane.  I thought it was very sweet of her to follow-up because without her aid I would have still been wandering around Caguas. 

That part of the trek to Aibonito was supposed to be simple since it involved major turn-offs onto major highways.  As night and the kilometers stretched on I saw fewer and fewer vehicles. My cellular signal was lost too. La autopista thinned to two lanes on each side and gradually began undulating... an introduction to the real challenge: navigating the foreign montañas a.k.a. mountains.

Around Cayey I turned right onto 715 which immediately climbed uphill.  In this area, 715 was also la ruta panoramica a.k.a. the panoramic route.  La ruta panoramica is the collective name for the various routes that dissect Puerto Rico’s central montañas.  It starts on the southeastern coast and painstakingly winds through karst country, eventually spitting out vehicles on the western coast in Mayaguez.  Because of las montanas I was forced to backtrack, driving south to Cayey only to wind north again to Aibonito.

Earlier in 2012 – while researching for this trip – I noted a birds-eye picture of la ruta panoramica and knew that it would be unique albeit strenuous journey in part because of my carsickness.  As the car approached the top of the first karst, everything became pitch black.  There were no more highway, city, nor vehicle lights to guide me.  I was only able to see what the headlights were directly pointed at.  The road was lined with tall, dense jungle like in Vieques and curved left.  As I came out of the turn, the road descended.  Little did I know this swerving and rollercoaster ride would be the pattern of La Ruta Panoramica until I reached my final destination. 

On the map, 715 was depicted as a rather short, rather straight ruta.  In theory, it would take 30 minutes to reach the next junction.  Yet, I was forced to drive at a retarded speed due to all the hairpin turns.  I understood the map could not be accurate down to a tenth of a kilometer, but there was a sizable difference between the drawing and reality.  Seriously, as soon as I emerged from an acute left turn there was an acute right turn waiting.   I rolled down the windows to combat my motion-sickness, but the warm air – like in Caguas – was replaced by crisp, cool mountain air.  I inferred I must be at a high elevation for the temperature to have changed this drastically.

The chilled air that mixed with the day’s heat formed a layer of fog that I continuously popped in and out of as I ascended and descended.  At some angles, visibility was so poor I switched to my high-beam lights.  In addition to my slower speed, the constant turning and sub-par weather made the journey drag on.  The fast-paced CDs (brought from home) that played failed to prevent my fatigue from growing.  The intense sunburn, busy days, and multiple crashes on la motocicleta were catching up to me now.

Since the map’s topography and details were horrendously vague, I had absolutely no idea where I was or how much further until Aibonito. Due to the compacted jungle and the utter lack of moonlight, everything began to look the same: another blind corner, another moñtana, another kilometer.  Then, it started to drizzle.

I felt my chest tighten as the spray solidified into droplets.  Ugh, I was mentally and physically drained.  The trek became unnerving because some of the hills were so steep and I hoped the Toyota Corolla had decent tread on its tires. Plus, I was concerned about mudslides and the overall lack of visibility, but – like most road-warriors – I pressed on. 

Much to my relief, the rain stopped after 20 minutes.  The fog lifted as well and – for the first time – I glimpsed small towns nestled in the karstic valleys of las montañas.  After a total of 90 grueling minutes from Cayey, I neared Aibonito (pronounced “ay-bo-nee-tow”).  I planned to sleep in this city until I met with Ricky Lopez early the following morning to hike the famous Cañon De San Cristobal.

Señor Lopez was a fellow with a dry sense of humor and ran his business – Montaña Explorer – in typical Puerto Rican fashion.  For example, el canon was mentioned in a lot of literature, so I contacted various companies to shop around for the best price.  A few would not accept my business because I was sola.  I first spoke to Ricky who passed me off to his better-at-speaking-English-wife.  She told me to email my information.  When I corresponded I also inquired about sleeping arrangements/campsites in Aibonito.  My Spanish was basic but certainly not incomprehensible.  Ricky responded but redirected me to the website I already viewed.  Then, while en route to Pittsburgh Airport, Ricky called mi telefono to ask if I could switch my itinerary from Friday to Sunday’s group… but by this point I was well-versed in Puerto Rican business and had a back-up plan to use Francisco Che (an equally helpful businessman that only cost $20 more) if Ricky flaked on me!  I told him I was only going to be in the area on Friday – which wasn’t a fib  Furthermore, I definitely had no desire to go with a group of 18 people on Sunday.  Surprisingly Ricky obliged for $15 extra since I was sola.  Again, I asked about camping and he repeated “No problem, no problem. We will find you something.  You call me when you get to Aibonito and I give you directions.”  Certainly not the most soothing answer.

Fast forward to the glorious moment I rounded a curve and saw the city of Aibonito sprawled ahead of and above me.  I was so ready to mentally and physically rest.  That’s when Ricky said “You come to Barranquitas” (pronounced bah-rahn-kee-tah-ss). Was he joking?  In Spanish, I questioned him about staying in Aibonito (since that was the original plan and I read there was no lodging in Barranquitas).  He alluded there was a place to sleep then whirred – what sounded like – a bazillion instructions to Barranquitas.  However, Ricky had pulled through for me since the beginning so I convinced myself to have some faith.  Per his direcciones I wove through the narrow, cobblestone calles of Aibonito on 7718.  Ironically, the road morphed into a one-way calle and a few blocks inward I realized I was in a commercial area and not on 162 (like I needed to be).  I patrolled the city calles but constantly turned around and around in search of any sign.

I was undisputedly frustrated and started whining aloud in the car! I could not continue to get lost and drive around in circles all night.  It was like someone asked me to run a marathon, then at the finish line said “just one more time” and perpetuated the vicious cycle.  In an effort to seek civilization (since every gas station and store had closed) I went uphill.  Almost like it appeared out of the thin fog, I saw my first sign in Aibonito… and it was labeled “162”!

Miraculously on track I, once again, slithered through las montañas.  What seemed like an eon later I finally pierced the outskirts of Barranquitas!  With a faint mobile signal I called Ricky una otra vez a.k.a. again and he guided me – in half Spanish, half broken English – past a well-kept college, McDonald’s and tiny strip mall with a Burger King in the parking lot.  Up another lofty incline and to the right I entered a residential area -- although I passed the entrance the first time and backtracked a few kilometers.

I could not view the house numbers as it was dark, my eyes were tired, and they did not seem displayed so finding Ricky’s house was still a feat.  I honestly felt like I was losing my mind!  Finally, I caught sight of Ricky standing out front of his home in olive green, cargo shorts wearing a Crocodile Dundee-type hat.  Oh the relief!  Hallelujah! 

I assumed I would snooze in the basement, garage, or some other lackluster area of the Lopez’s abode.  Wrong.  Ricky hopped into the passenger seat of my car and led me three blocks away.  First, down a hill, then up a hill, then onto a side-street, then down another vertical hill.  He motioned me back into the jungle on a dirt driveway covered in dead leaves.  The property was littered with long wooden beams, large metal sheets and various construction tools. 

I waited in the Corolla with the headlights on as Ricky walked deeper into the forest then was lost entirely to the blackness. Two minutes later a light illuminated.  Now that we could both see I received the grand tour.  Ricky divulged his son was nomadic but would stay at this property from time to time as indicated by the clothes laying on the bed.  What I haven’t told you yet reader is that this was not a house.  This was not a basement nor garage. This was not even a toolshed. 

My sleeping “room” was a thick, gray, stone wall connected to a second, brown, stone wall with two of those grooved, metal sheets sloppily laid atop.  No doorways nor doors.  The pair of walls just ended.  No windows.  Nothing but a bed, a lamp with no shade, and two and a half walls.  It was completely exposed to the elements.  Rustic was an overstatement.

I hid my shock and profusely thanked Ricky for his generosity and assistance navigating las montanas.  He left to walk the short distance home.  I swear I tried to remain open-minded as I slouched onto the old mattress but inside I was cringing. Truthfully, the cold ambience the rock walls exuded made me feel like I was in a dilapidated prison.  But isn’t this what you wanted Michelle? I asked myself.  I was about to sleep under the stars, down a remote driveway, in the jungle, in a bed that was probably bug infested, like a sitting duck for whoever so happened to wander in. I could deal with every part of the last sentence except for the safety aspect.  I simply could not do it.  I at least had to try to stay alive.

Therefore, I ruffled the bed and displaced pillows which gave the impression I slept there, then instantly marched to the Toyota and shifted it into reverse.  As I retracted toward the cul-de-sac I was abhorred to see a vacant house across the calle.  Where the heck was I?! However, the only other house on the block to my left, was pink and inhabited.  With the car turned off, it was disturbingly dark.

Now that I was at my final destination, I still experienced difficulty relaxing.  My mind kept fixating on the fact that if I was in trouble, who would know?  My family had no idea what city I was in and some man named Ricky Lopez knew I was helplessly resting down a dirt driveway.  I told myself not to freak out but fully planned on sleeping with my trusty scissors in hand. It was then I received a late-night, unexpected text message from Miguel!  He wrote “Ven aqui antes de irte” a.k.a. come here before you go.  It reminded me that just two nights prior I was in a similar situation…and survived.  I reclined the driver’s seat as I calmed down but the interior of the car felt stuffy so I cracked all the windows.  My ears were barraged by a familiar sound that induced memories of my initial night in Vieques.  Tonight, hearing the sound again confirmed my hunch: coquis! Thrown into a different world and whereabouts unknown, the coquis (pronounced co-kees) reminded me of my friend Miguel, broke up the scary silence of night and lulled me to sleep with their song.

02 July 2012

Vini, vedi, vici

I came, I saw, I conquered Vieques… or was it the other way around?  I started the day with ten, long, clean fingernails.  I ended the day with zero.
I cannot recall how many hours I spent at Playa Media Luna a.k.a. Half Moon Beach entranced by the tide pools, waving grass, wispy clouds and bay’s colors.  Despite caking myself in SPF 50, I could not ward off the sun.  My forearms were so hot and felt so uncomfortable I wondered if I really could fry an egg on them. 
I knew I would be unprotected again on the trails, so I put my Marmot back on.  I continued along the singular trail that commenced at Sombe, lead to Media Luna and finished at – one of the locals’ favorite playas -- Navio.  In the last 36 hours on Vieques I acquired more of a feel for the scooter but halted at a mudpit the entire width of the dirt road to analyze the situation.  I noted three consecutive, enormous potholes in my path. An angel & a devil appeared on my shoulders to begin the debate.
Angel:  You should turn back, Michelle.
Devil:  But there’s only three obstacles!
Angel: True, but there’s still three.  Besides, you don’t know what happens to the terrain after these three…
Devil:  Maybe it’s smooth sailing afterward.
Angel:  Or maybe the trail is littered with hazards.
Devil:  Well, there’s only one way to find out.
Angel: Oh no.
Devil: Let’s just see how the first mudpit goes…
I had to see how I fared.  I could not turn away from Navio knowing that I possibly could have made it to the beach but didn’t try (I already gave up on Pata Prieta). No regrets, right?

To my right was a knee-high wall made of dirt, obviously meant to keep vehicles on their path.  To my left were tightly packed branches that formed a practically impenetrable wall and an 18” stretch of dirt.  There is my bridge, I decided.  I backed the motocicleta up so that I would be at speed (therefore, with more momentum) as I crossed the abyss.  Then, I rotated my wrist upward and the bike took off. 

I tucked in my legs, but in an effort to hold the handlebars steady my elbows were nearly perpendicular to the plants.  My left elbow got tangled in the branches and I leaned right in an effort to avoid more drag.  Mere inches away from the other side, I fell.  I was actually excited that I almost made it and completely blocked the spill from my memory.  Almost! I kept telling myself.  “Almost made it” is the last phrase before “did make it.”  My spirits were soaring, but it was still difficult to pick up the 280 pound bike.
Devil:  See, I told you it wouldn’t be that difficult.
Angel: I hope you’re right.
Devil:  Onward!

There was not a dirt span like at massive puddle #1, I opted to navigate massive puddle #2 on foot.  With a deathgrip on the front brake and my right hand on the throttle, I gassed the 125cc and found myself sprinting alongside it.  The task was sloppy but I did not dump the bike or my body.  In the 5 seconds it took me to traverse the mudpit I learned that applying gas made matters worse. 

So, at massive puddle #3 I decided to walk the Yamaha across, manually.  First, I broke off a tree limb and stuck it vertically in the sepia-colored water to gauge how deep this bad boy was.  I didn’t want my leg to be swallowed whole in the process of crossing.  The thick branch only sunk about ankle-deep.  Good news! I thought.

Through the three obstacles I prayed this would be the end of my trials.  How wrong I was, but after another curve I finally arrived at Navio!  Once again I drove right up to the beach and parked next to a stark, white Jeep.  As I laid on my towel I felt my muscles loosen. I had a slight headache from the sheer tension of riding around/through the potholes. 

The sky grew more overcast and the white, feathery clouds were replaced by battleship gray ones that bulged with precipitation.  A few beach-goers left.  I certainly didn’t mind getting wet (again) but was a tad worried about what the rain would do to the already gigantic puddles I crossed earlier.  Plus, I had been scanning the rock faces since my arrival and saw no signs of the aforementioned caves.  And last -- but honestly -- Navio was dull compared to Media Luna!
(photo courtesy of Steve The Magician)

Back on the bike, I rounded the corner and – once again – stopped to formulate a plan of attack.  Just three obstacles.  I remembered that massive puddle #3 was shallow and decided to ride through it, hugging the left side and knee-high dirt berm that demarcated the jungle from the trail.  I took off smoothly and was certain I would make it to the second chasm unscathed, but midway through the puddle my front wheel washed out in the loose, underwater gravel.  It all happened so fast.  The Yamaha finally stopped when it straddled the berm and I was launched off the side.  I slammed onto my right side in the dirty pothole’s water.  My head ricocheted off one of the many small rocks that caused me to fall in the first place.  I silently thanked God for my helmet.  Oh, everything on my right side ached! My arm was jarred but not broken (don’t know how!?)  My Marmot was smeared with soil in addition to my entire right leg.  Two of my lengthy, white fingernails were missing entirely and one was dangling (so I tore it off).

I painfully stood up to determine the extent of the damage.  My right leg had some surface gashes that barely bled.  The mesh of my backpack was sliced in addition to one of the right straps (it hung on by threads).  However, I did save the contents of my backpack – most importantly my camera, vial of medicine & insulin pump supplies – from wetness and harm by crushing only my right side.

Then there was the 125cc, front wheel still suspended mid-air over the berm.  For a 5’2” tall person, lifting 280 pounds of dead, lopsided weight was undeniably strenuous.  At this point a white Jeep carefully approached me from behind.  The couple must have seen my soil-covered right side because the driver lowered the window and asked if I needed help.  I masked my pain and embarrassment by light-heartedly replying “no, no, no, but thank you. I’m okay.”  Nonetheless the man got out and single-handedly maneuvered the Yamaha Zuma uphill and off to the side so his Jeep could continue… which left me to massive puddle #2.

If you remember, #2 was not quite as wide thus leaving some room for me to squeeze by the first time.  My elbow, hip and head throbbed and my legs still quivered from resetting the bike at the last mudpit, yet I thought I was in the clear and – in an effort to conserve energy – rode along the embankment of the hole.  I went possibly three kilometers per hour faster so that my front wheel would not be devoured by the gravel like before… but the front wheel and handlebars jerked as I sped through the jagged rock.  I reflexively whiskey throttled (the motocross term for when you’re falling off a bike and inadvertently pull back on the throttle to keep yourself on, thus wildly accelerating), but came to a dead stop as the front wheel smashed into a [I imagine, larger] invisible rock under the water.  I too came to a dead stop as all my inertia bashed into the handlebars and I fell to my left.  As I plummeted my only thought was Your foot is going to be crushed!  But I was already in motion, the Zuma was already in motion, and there was no more time to do anything.  I knew I was going to suffer a broken ankle (at the very least) from the impact of the convex wheel-well or the solid motor upon it.  I was utterly helpless; all I could do was watch the nasty events transpire, but miraculously the only cut-out section of the scooter landed directly overtop my exposed leg. 

I wanted to lay on the hard earth for a minute to catch my breath but I saw tires where there should have been handlebars.  From many years of four-wheeling around Wellsville, Ohio, I knew a rider never left a bike on its side – or upside-down – because it would drown the engine and leak oil everywhere.  Despite my anguish, I sprinted into the puddle to get la motocicleta upright.  I raised the Zuma by the handlebars as high as I could, then propped all 280 pounds up with my tender left hip.  I barely had the strength to maintain this position, but I leaned against my knees and tried to recover physically.  With one last surge of energy, I shoved the 125cc the rest of the way until it was vertical. 
My body trembled from the shock, exhaustion and adrenaline.  Bruises started to form. I visually examined the Yamaha: surprisingly no fluids escaped and it still had every lever.  Even better, all the shrouds and flimsy plastic pieces were intact (I have no idea how)! I restarted la motocicleta.

At massive puddle #1 I forced myself to think positive thoughts.  I envisioned myself skimming the water because isn’t attitude half of the battle? I can do this! Up and over.  However, in the seconds before I entered the last sinkhole my mental words of encouragement turned into frantic pleas with God.  Please, please, please God don’t let me fall again!  Like before, the branches reached toward me from the jungle.  As I drove by, I unconsciously and slightly twisted to avoid their grasp but that was all it took to cause me to lose my balance. 

I barely had the strength to push myself off the ground.  Floating in the middle of the pothole was one of my Reef sandals, face-down like I had been moments prior.  I noticed two more fingernails were gone.  I was completely defeated.  I did not even care about the bike anymore or if it was upside-down spewing liquids (it wasn’t).  I was no longer concerned with niceties such as staying dry or clean.  I just wanted to get the hell out of my hell.

I attempted to stand the bike up but both feet slipped in and out of my flip-flops thus, I had absolutely no leverage.  I grit my teeth and again threw all my weight against the Yamaha, but my feet slid again and both were sliced on the serrated rock bottom.  As painful as it was the bike was somewhat upright so I continued pushing, but my footing faltered entirely and I stumbled backward as the scooter returned to its position on the ground.  I cursed myself for wearing sandals.

Dead tired and overheated I could easily describe my feelings and motivation with one word: DONE.  Frustrated beyond belief I bottled all my rage inside.  Every muscle in my body burned and – in an act of sheer desperation rather than determination – I heaved that 280 pound monster upright.  The blue Jeep that stopped next to me must have seen some my battle with the bike and the depletion in my eyes because the woman passenger sweetly asked me if I needed a ride back to town.  Every ounce of me wanted to shriek “Hallelujah! Yes please!”  But I refused to abandon my friend Miguel’s motocicleta (not to mention it would cost a fortune).  Furthermore, I was embarrassed by my audacity at trying to best these obstacles so I reassured the Jeep renters I was “fine” so they proceeded down the trail.

By God’s grace, I returned to Media Luna and turned off the scooter.  I felt like the weight of the world had been removed from my shoulders.  I was undoubtedly drained, both mentally and physically.  My adrenaline supply was depleted so I started to fully experience all the pain that I was previously unaware of.  I just wanted my mom or grandma to tell me how well I persevered, but I did not have that luxury. I could not pretend I was “fine” anymore, nor did I want to.  So I lamented for about five minutes and felt wholly sorry for myself.  Actually, being honest and crying felt better than listening to myself lie to the various passers-by on the trail.  I believed I came to Puerto Rico to prove that women truly could travel solo and survive, but I realized no one cared if I fell once or a million times on that trail.  In truth, I was still trying to convince myself – not the rest of the world -- that I could do this trip.  My meltdown was self-induced by my pride and inability to cope with my own short-comings (in life, and on this scooter). 

Once I accomplished getting all the tears out of my system I was ready to move on.  With water from el mar a.k.a. the sea I rinsed off my jacket and the mud caked on the seat, brake levers, shrouds, footboard, wheel-well, mirrors, and helmet.  Beat up, I exited Sombe.  The devil in me still wanted to visit Playa Negra (a black-sand beach) and other parts of la isla while I had wheels. 
(courtesy of Steve The Magician, who ventured everywhere I didn't)

At the junction of 997 and 996 was a street-side kiosk called Barefoot (across from “the green store”) that came recommended from John & Elena.  I was famished from the last hour’s exertion but unfortunately -- at 14:00 on a Thursday -- el restaurante was not open.  Not far from Barefoot was Fun Brothers’ wooden hut.  Miguel was helping a couple rent jet skiis but shouted “Hey amiga!”  I loved that he didn’t treat me like la tourista tipica a.k.a. the typical tourist.  I turned off the Yamaha, walked right into the shack, and sat down on a cooler’s lid.  The couple left and Miguel asked “¿Que pasa?” I couldn’t divulge everything – like how I went to Navio despite his warnings, how I had la motocicleta upside-down, how I wrecked four times – so I simply said “Estoy consada” a.k.a. I’m tired.  For an hour I sat in the beach-side shack chatting with Miguel about the lottery, how often he visited the mainland, his plans for the business, his favorite destinations in Puerto Rico and mostly, where I was headed next.

When I informed Miguel I was driving to the city of Aibonito tonight, he wanted to know my route.  I actually wasn’t sure and left my map of the mainland in the trunk of the hire car in Fajardo.  He started rattling off directions and city names, but pointed out the best and quickest way into the mountains.  He told me “you should stay.”  Ugh, that was exactly what I did not need to hear because I was contemplating staying as well.  There were still areas and beaches of Vieques that I wanted to explore.  Plus, I really enjoyed Miguel’s company. 

I temporarily abandoned Miguel to buy us botellas de agua a.k.a. bottles of water and myself postcards.  Still starving I stopped at the always-full restaurante, Duffy’s. I struck up a conversation with the lone man sitting next to me at the bay by admiring his Louis Vuitton passport folio.  From there, Terry & Jason (the jolly bartender with dreadlocks) helped me narrow down my menu options.  Wanting to try local food I ordered fish & chips.

Terry – financial officer for the W Hotel – and I swapped histories.  Upon receiving the job offer in Vieques he uprooted himself from his comfortable life in Boston.  I could easily relate because I knew how scary it was to leave everyone and everything when I left for Australia.  One of the quirky stories Terry shared about South America was how he purposefully parted with all of his clothes in Argentina so that he could stuff his suitcase with delicious, cheap bottles of vino a.k.a. wine.  What a zealous traveler!  We both confessed that after hearing each other’s tales, we wanted to hit the road again to someplace new.  The chat lifted my spirits after my painful, dismal trek to Playa Navio.

With a full belly and Terry’s business card in hand (“in case you return,” he said) I regressed down the malecon and arrived at the hut with enough time to say goodbye.  That was when Miguel told me since I only had the scooter out for a few hours he was not going to charge me at all for the day.  “No, no, no” I argued.  “Si, si, si” he enforced.  I could not believe I was trying to persuade someone to take mi dinero a.k.a. my money. This was Miguel’s livelihood and yet he was giving me a freebie.  I insisted that he at least run my credit card for half of a day.  Nope.  The Puerto Rican stood his ground.  My last instruction from him was to call if I needed anything.  As I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders to walk off into the sunset, Miguel amicably said “love you.”

In my global wanderings I have never encountered a person as generous as Miguel.  His willingness to help touched my heart so deeply because he embodied everything I searched for in Puerto Rico – actually, in the world.  

“What lies behind us & what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us"
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes

17 June 2012

A tale of two beaches

“What you fall in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything."
-- Pedro Arrupe

Like yesterday, I was too excited to sleep in.  Since the group from Abe’s Snorkeling’s all-in-one tour gelled so well, Steve invited everyone to breakfast at the house he was renting for the week.  John & Elena planned on attending but the three young ladies had to catch the ferry back to the mainland.  As much as I wanted to meet with the gang again, I had a list of things to do/arrange in the morning so it was not feasible.  Still euphoric from the bioluminescent bay, I couldn’t fathom that I had another glorious day to explore the wonders of Vieques!

Like most hotels, check-out was at 11:00 but guests could leave their luggage in the front office.  I packed a towel, sunscreen, my raincoat, some snacks/drinks, Inheritance (ironically, I read the third book of the series in Australia!), and my sunglasses. I visited the local panaderia because John & Elena mentioned they had a delicious guava tart, but – sadly – the store either sold out or did not make them that morning. 

I also synchronized with Miguel, who was just opening up Fun Brothers when I arrived.  He sweetly offered me a ride back to Isabel Segunda [to the ferry] but I didn’t want to hassle him so I – along with two other tourists staying at Alta Vista – offered to split a publico a.k.a. a local bus/ taxi (Puerto Rico’s only public transportation).

On the cartoonish map that Miguel provided me with (free to all visitors), there was an unnamed road that headed directly north from 996/Esperanza.  However, Miguel told me the road was pot-holed, unpaved bitumen and basically not roadworthy.  Once again Miguel proved to be worth his weight in gold & I was so thankful to have a local source.  I changed my route, – it’s not like there are tons of roads on the island so this was easy – hollered “Hasta pronto” a.k.a. see you soon, and raced away from the malecon.

Outside Esperanza, 201 weaved its way around the hills (including Mount Pirata) that dotted the western part of the island.  On the outskirts of civilization I passed vividly colored houses with matching flowers in the garden. The majority of the houses had chickens squawking and roaming in the front yard.  On several occasions I noticed sickly, paso fino horses eating trash.  I felt so bad because I could see their skinny frame and protruding ribs.  I wanted to nurture all of them back to health.
After a while I came to the well-marked junction at 995.  I turned left and the further I drove, the deeper into the jungle I went.  There were tall thickets of trees that created green walls around me.  Also, the houses became more sporadic however every time I ascended a hill I saw other houses atop other hills in the distance.  Despite the warm weather in Esperanza, speeding through the shaded jungle at a higher altitude chilled the air, in addition to the ominous clouds above.  At a particularly straight section of 995 I pulled the motorcycle into the grass just off the road & dug my Marmot raincoat out of my backpack. Warmer, I set off again.

No sooner had I rounded the next curve when it started to deluge.  I cinched the cuffs, waist, and neck on the Marmot tighter.  At my velocity, with no frame, the drops pelted my face and arms so I used my sunglasses as makeshift goggles.  Despite wearing a waterproof jacket, the rain continued to fall so heavily that water welled up in the hood and penetrated the shell.  I felt my back getting wet.  My bottom half – which was completely exposed to the elements – was utterly soaked but I had on a swimsuit and mesh shorts in preparation for this event.

Right before 995 intersected with 200 (the calle a.k.a. road that would transport me to the west coast) the rain ceased and I emerged from the hills.  A few kilometers on 200, down the road and at the bottom of another slight decline, I saw “the giant Ceiba tree” – and Puerto Rico’s national tree – to my right.  The old, Afro-Caribbean tree was difficult to miss due to its size.  Therefore, I was forced to set the tripod far away which made getting into frame [before the flash] challenging. 
Up close the massive, allegedly 400-year-old Ceiba’s solid roots reached skyward. One particularly tall root reminded me of a dimetrodon’s back. At the base of the tree were piles of animal droppings, but --- all alone – I felt somewhat safe in the arbor’s tall roots, almost like she was putting her arms around me. The majority of the branches gnarled and outstretched toward the highway, yet vehicles drove by either uninterested or unaware.  I felt morose that others did not love and appreciate this tree the way I did.
I hopped on the Yamaha and proceeded west toward Starfish Beach even though it was not identified on the helpful map I received from Miguel.  There was little information about Starfish Beach in my outdated Lonely Planet book or the copy of Coastal Living, but it existed.  Now I was cruising through the flatter countryside.  The ocean breeze worked on drying my soaked shorts.  At one farm, a leather-faced, excessively tan man was weed-eating along the road. I smiled; he waved.  Further along three kids haphazardly frolicked in their front yard. 

To my right was a rustic barn that would be more camouflaged among wheat fields if not for its large, peach doors.  At least a dozen paso finos casually grazed in a green, open pasture.  This was the tropical equivalent of a farm.  The scene was dissonant to me because I was not used to seeing wild horses wander close to civilization and streets. White egrets perched atop their backs and also roamed freely on foot.  I wanted to get my bearings so – since it had been awhile since I saw a single car -- I parked the scooter just off the main road.

As I trudged through the uncut grass the horses barely gave me a second glance as they ate. A few lethargically moved out of my way; none of the birds startled.  At the shoreline, a pelican repeatedly scanned the water for fish.  Further down the beach (in both directions) I noticed more horses & washed up coconuts, but no people.  The sky was splotched with clouds that ranged from white & perky to black & menacing.  In the distance were the mainland’s peaks.
Back to the task at hand, I accelerated west. 200 graduated into a smooth dirt road.  Here, a construction crew was building/doing something and one hombre a.k.a. guy probably in his early 40s smiled & gave me a lazy wave.

Initially the road was wide but because it was unpaved – like the path to the bioluminescent bay – there were gaping holes.  I tried to maneuver my way around them but sometimes going through them was inevitable, so I would slam on both brakes and tightly grip the handle bars.  Occasionally I couldn’t slow down in time which resulted in my butt bouncing off the seat, then slamming back down.  Twice, I jarred my wrist, neck and back so severely that I forced myself to travel at turtle-speed.

On the motocicleta I traversed a grated, metal bridge over calm, greenish-blue water.  The road – still in rough shape – narrowed and I found myself driving through another mangrove forest!  It was definitely not as memorable as my experience at Bahia de Mosquito, but there was a trail that lead to Kiani Lagoon by foot.  The open air atmosphere around Kiani Lagoon morphed into dense jungle and I sort of lost my bearings. To make matters worse, there were no signs and the path forked twice.  Though I could see nothing ahead but more trees, I veered right at both dissections.  I caught a glimpse of a beach down an even skinnier, more overgrown path. Due to its size and lack of maneuverability, I abandoned the Yamaha and marched toward the ocean.  Midpoint, I heard a slow-moving vehicle approaching from behind as it compacted the dirt trail.  The heavy sound of the engine classified it as a rather large SUV or truck.  I turned around and saw a bright yellow Jeep that was circling the area where I just left my scooter.  Two possibilities darted through my mind: either the Jeep was curious to see what I discovered or the people inside were plotting to kill me.  I emerged from the jungle onto the beach and realized I was in a potentially fatal situation.  I was cornered between the perpetrators and the ocean; I was on a beach that was deserted as far as the eye could see; the last person I saw was a construction worker that was light years away; I never told anyone I was coming here (after all, I was traveling completely alone with no set schedule).  The entire event resembled Discovery Channel’s show “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.”  I ran back into the forest and grabbed – once again – my trusty blue-handled scissors with the TSA approved blades.

I stepped off the trail and blended in exactly where the jungle opened up to the shore, thinking If I have to fight these people, I at least want the element of surprise.  Stopped – but with the motor idling – the yellow Jeep moved forward and disappeared from sight.  I was a little unnerved and honestly think I would have been less scared had there been some sort of life form around, but then again, that was the beauty of this part of Vieques.

I neared the incoming tide and prepared myself to see the same, large starfishes [from the magazine Coastal Living] that first drew me to Starfish Beach… There was nothing except churning seaweed. The entire stretch was devoid of any (visible) life; it looked like a simple, average beach except that to my left was the northwest corner of the island.  I strolled to the point and breathed in 290º of ocean and sky.

Based on my vague Lonely Planet map, I was certainly in the vicinity of Starfish Beach but there were no such animals.  Undoubtedly, this particular quest was a bust, but I prepaid for a ticket on the last return ferry (at 18:30) and the morning was young.  Besides, just yesterday I was running my hand through a bay of stars.  One does not watch their body parts glow before their eyes and remain unchanged.  Post-bioluminescent bay -- other than my health and safety -- nothing else mattered. 

I centered my energy on finding something new, instead of sulking about the fictitious beach.  My answer materialized in the distance as my eyes focused on Mosquito Pier extending into the ocean and sticking out against the natural backdrop of Vieques. That’s where I shall go! I thought.  The journey through the potholes and mangroves seemed quicker whilst leaving than coming.  At the construction site from earlier, a gentleman commandeering a large dumptruck & blocking the road pulled over, waved me past & gave me a friendly smile.
Mosquito Pier/Rompeolas (locally) wasn’t far and – though manmade – proved to be a great vantage point. The unfavorably pewter clouds above must have been brought by the same, consistent tradewinds that pushed my 125cc motocicleta toward the jagged rocks on the side of the road.  Although I was full throttle, the wind billowed so fiercely I barely reached 15 miles per hour.  However, this also helped to dry my drenched clothes.  At the end of the mile-long pier I leaned the Yamaha on its kickstand (and debated on whether or not it would actually remain upright given the weather).  In the distance I saw the bare Starfish Beach where I stood just 30 minutes earlier. What few plants grew on this solid concrete fixture were permanently slanted windward.  However, on the leeward side of the rompeola a.k.a. rock wall the scene looked, felt, and sounded more calm.
Against the wind, I inched my way down to 200.  En route to Isabel Segunda to fill up the gas tank (the only two gas stations on the island are across from each other & owned by the same company), the same pewter clouds dumped their load all over me.  By the time I reached the petrol estacion a.k.a. station the sun had reappeared.  I didn’t understand why gas was purchased in liters though the American standard system (gallons) was used for common items such as milk.  All the speed limits in Puerto Rico & Vieques were posted in kilometers per hour despite their United States’ governance.  Last, the majority of road/building signs were posted in Spanish – not to mention the language was spoken first on the airplane.

In addition to the beating my skin took yesterday, being out and about all morning was only adding to my pain.  Though it was uncomfortably humid, I put my raincoat back on to keep the sun off my stinging forearms.  I had practically circumnavigated the unrestricted area of Vieques that was roadworthy when I cut south on 997 to return to Sombe (locally)/Sun Bay Balneario.  I read & was told by Beth (the night before) that Playa Navio had hidden caves within the western rock faces that lined la playa a.k.a. the beach but they could only be accessed at low tide.

I paid my $2 and passed the same paso finos from yesterday – including the foal and its mommy.  Down another unpaved, rough trail I carefully steered the bike around potential hazards like large, fallen branches and potholes.  I gassed it directly up to the sandy beach and stopped.  Behind the treeline my view was obstructed but – in the overcast light – Navio looked lackluster. However, without the cool breeze I instantly felt my body temperature rise 10º (you can see the sunscreen melting off my face).  I didn’t need a pretty beach I just needed to peel off my layers and get in that water!
***note: I thought I was at Playa Navio but later realized it was actually Playa Media Luna***

As I secured my helmet and other non-essentials the clouds opened up again.  The perfect thing about having no standards and being open to whatever you encounter, is that everything transforms into a surprise.  Not expecting much, I advanced through the deep, loose sand and stumbled upon… no joke… the most lovely beach I have ever seen in my life!
Yes, Elba in its entirety was lovely.  Definitely Horseshoe Bay was lovely.  Monterrey Bay… also lovely.  The same described Waikiki Beach, but nothing to date has compared to Playa Media Luna.  This was what I envisioned when I read about Vieques in July 2011.  Like the all-in-one tour from Abe's Snorkeling, I was presented with what I infallibly wanted but couldn't pinpoint before I saw it. 

Media Luna was half the size of Caracas and more enclosed. From afar, the water looked like someone painted an aquamarine cove then placed random, azure streaks overtop the canvas -- something I've never before seen!  I remembered the boy I met on the ferry from Fajardo suggested this beach to me because it was so shallow “you can walk, like, halfway out [to sea].” 
I surveyed the beach and tried to stay away from the six other people. Not too difficult & I was so thankful this idyllic beach wasn't overpopulated.  Shade was my primary concern (since my arms felt like they were frying), but curiosity also drew me to the eastern side where trees hung over the shore and sea.
Closer to the water I observed the darker shade of blue was not caused by a change in its depth or temperature – it was actually the boundless turtle & manatee grass.  Of course I had to touch.  Despite the way they freely oscillated underwater, the long, wide blades of grass were coarse.
On the desolate eastern side of Media Luna I surreptitiously ducked under the low-hanging trees and sheltered my forearms in the shade.  I snacked on the confectionaries from the panaderia in Esperanza with my bum and feet in shallow tide pools.  In this time, I watched various sea creatures come to life: translucent fish darted in and out of the protective grasses; tiny crabs buried themselves in the sand; snails in the artistically decorated seashells languidly scaled a rock. Because of the resistance the grasses produced, the sea waves did not crash into the rocks like at Caracas.  Instead, there were very tranquil lapping and plopping sounds.  The entire scene pacified me into a state of inner peace where I lost all track of time (when I lived in Myrtle Beach, I would sit on the beach with my puppy for upwards of four hours doing absolutely nothing but gazing at the ever-changing sea).  I snapped back to awareness when needles began piercing the tops of my hands.  In my trance, the sun had repositioned itself and was punishing my hot pink skin.  Though I probably looked deformed to outsiders, I sat with legs crisscrossed, my body hunched over, elbows tucked in, and my forearms cocked in odd positions in refuge from the rays.

Excessively sweaty, I was (ironically) prepared to brave the sun in exchange for coolness.  Like I was in a tent & opening up the flaps to view the world outside, I moved aside some tree branches to see who was nearby. Not surprisingly, no one.  When the water was level with my thigh for some reason I cannot remember I paused.  Soon after, three of the translucent fish from earlier emerged from the plants.  The largest one – with tinted yellow stripes – was gutsy.  He nipped at me a few times and although it wasn’t painful I was floored at his fearlessness.  At his size, I probably resembled Godzilla.  In time the three amigos a.k.a. friends dispersed and I waded to the edge of the sand where it met more grass.  I was in to my shoulders and didn’t want to walk through the grass on the sea floor because, seriously, who knew what the heck was hiding in that thicket?  It was too deep to touch so I floated on my back for awhile before submerging entirely into the crystal clear water.
Sticky with salt I returned to my covered haven.  Though it was only my third day in Puerto Rico, I inhaled the extraordinary view and distinctly remember thinking If I had to fly home today, I would still be perfectly happy. 

01 June 2012

Fire & water

Within ten minutes, everybody in the “all-in-one” tour met everybody else and exchanged brief histories.  I was relieved there weren’t herds of people.  There were three, lobster pink girls on spring break from Northwestern University who admittedly got way too much sun the day before on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra; there was a soft-spoken married couple – Elena & John – who loved the bioluminescent bay so much yesterday, they were back for more; there was Elizabeth – our personable guide – and her friend from her hometown, Steve The Magician. 
We all piled into the large, white van with its cracked windshield, missing interior door handles, busted dashboard, ripped upholstery and steering wheel held together by duct tape.  Behind us, Beth towed the kayaks.  Our first stop was “the green store” -- a corner store before the 996/997 split – to load up on liquids and snacks.

Being solo, I sat shotgun.  I was surprised when the van turned right into Sun Bay/Sombe (locally) balneario a.k.a. public beach.  You mean I could have paid the $2 entrance fee and seen the bio bay myself!?  Sun Bay was an open semi-circle with little shade. There was an abundance of Vieques’ famed, paso fino horses roaming freely despite the fact they were all owned. Their long manes and tails flapped in the breeze and their coats shined in the sunlight.  Hands down everyone’s favorite was the fuzzy foal that Beth guessed was only weeks old.
Beth remained on one of the obvious sand trails for vehicles that lead away from Sombe. The path was overgrown with vegetation and wide enough for one van.  The hoopty vehicle creaked at every sinkhole we crept through.  Despite our slow pace the holes were so large and deep we all bounced in our seats with the kayaks banging behind us.  Before long we arrived at a small beach – not the typical, soft sand beach.  This one was made up of brown, hard-packed sand and was somewhat muddy as it lead into the water.

As Beth unloaded the bright red kayaks, the group split up into pairs.  Since there was an odd number of people, Steve willingly chose to paddle solo (he had ocean kayaking experience so no one was worried about him).  I paired with Miranda, one of the three young ladies on spring break.  We all shed our tank tops & replaced them with musty smelling lifevests.   I also lathered up in sunscreen.  From the midday hours spent at Caracas, the color of my forearms started to match the color of the three girls’ entire bodies.

One by one, each of the kayaks pushed off into Mosquito Bay.  Beth instructed us to cut directly across the bay and rejoin near the treeline on the opposite shore.  I had some canoeing and kayaking experience so I sat in the rear of the vessel.  Out in the middle of Mosquito Bay, the sun doggedly beat down on the group.  The tops of my shoulders & arms felt like they were on fire although the spray from paddling intermittently and temporarily cooled them.  At first, Miranda & I were unsynchronized and oars flailed, but by the time we reached the meeting point on the other side, we found our rhythm.
As our group reformed, Beth suggested three things: to proceed in single file so as not to damage the mangrove canals; the interior was so tight the front team member didn’t need to paddle or really do anything; to be extremely quiet so as not to the disturb the wildlife & experience.  Otherwise, Beth did not offer much of an introduction or any background information… but I think that was the point.  She was going to let the mangroves speak for themselves.

The color of the water mimicked the green from the lush mangroves and the blue from the ardent sky as Beth’s purple kayak disappeared into the thicket of leaves that – to the untrained spectator – looked like the rest of the treeline surrounding Mosquito Bay.  Next, John & Elena’s kayak glided through the façade.  Miranda & I were next.
The instant our kayak crossed the threshold, the smells, sounds, and sights abruptly changed.  The fiery sun was muffled by the myriad of branches that created a natural, porous roof.  Sunlight entered the mangroves in distorted shapes and various amounts, covering the new world in shadows.  In contrast to being totally exposed in the bay, it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.  Ahead of & behind us I didn’t hear anyone else – heck, I didn’t even hear a peep from Miranda – as we slid through the canal.  I’m confident everyone was as paralyzed with wonder as I.  Infrequently, something suddenly kerplunked into the water, breaking the monotonous tranquility.   I pictured the sound being generated from frogs catapulting themselves across the waterway but coming up short, fish violently surfacing, and branches falling.
Since I was in the rear, I tried to propel us forward but the mangrove branches twisted and arched creating a network of impenetrable wood.  The waterway was hardly wide enough for my double-ended paddle which resulted in me accidentally, albeit loudly, smacking the branches.  Paddling was a lost cause. Ahead of me, Miranda grabbed submerged roots & pulled us onward.  At the same time I directed the kayak by pushing off the same nearby branches.  At one point where the canal widened, Miranda got creative and launched us forward by grasping the branches that dangled from above.  However on several occasions -- as Miranda or I extended our arm for a root – I would see something large and black scurry away in my peripheral.  I was aware of their presence and realized these creatures were widespread in the mangroves.  Once I came millimeters away from landing my hand atop one of the giant spiders.  My first reaction was to shriek but then I decided to use this experience as a platform for bettering myself.  I did not want to judge the tarantula by its cover in the same way I was biased before & during my first day in Puerto Rico. I did not want to hate the spider because it was ugly or creepy or because of my own inhibitions.  Instead I watched them move with curious eyes. 

Each kayak exited the mangrove caves into a decent-sized opening.  The tall mangroves blocked any view of Mosquito Bay so it looked and felt like our group simply stumbled upon a pocket of sunlight and open air in the labyrinthine forest.  I started imagining how discombobulating and eerie the forest would be at nighttime.  Our skilled guide Beth converted her kayak into a paddleboard and asked what we noticed.  It seemed the entire group was in awe because almost everyone shared feedback and/or asked a question.  Miranda’s two girlfriends looked a little uneasy & she asked them what was wrong.  Their response was they were a bit flustered trying to maneuver in the tiny canals and unnerved by all the bugs – specifically, the large tarantulas.  I could relate ‘cause those spiders were everywhere!
That’s when Beth chimed in and – much to the three girls' & my excitement – informed us that the critters were not tarantulas.  They were not even spiders!  They were arbol a.k.a. tree crabs!  Yes, they were harmless and actually very fragile.  She offered to catch one for each of us to hold when we reentered the forest under the stipulation that we would not throw them back into the water since they could not swim like most crabs.  The sun continued to inexorably shine and I noticed most of the kayaks positioned themselves under the mangroves’ shade.  We lingered in the isolated cove and Beth identified one of the bird calls we’d heard both inside the waterways, and out here in the open, as some sort of warbler.  She also pointed to a green heron and a larger bird – the friggit -- swooped the edges of the mangroves.  Although only two feet, friggits have a wingspan of around six. 

As we readied to continue the journey, Beth told us to look out for the large termite mound on our left once inside.  The next mangrove tunnel had taller branches thus letting in more light.  Miranda & I were the first kayak behind our guide’s so Miranda was the first to hold an arbol crab.  I scrambled to get her iPhone so I could capture the experience for her.  Consequently, we switched roles as I let the animal traverse my right hand & arm, onto my left.  We nearly had a fatality once as the arbol crab leapt – or maybe slipped – off my forearm but, thankfully, he landed in a divet of the kayak that had collected about two inches of water. I scooped the little rebel in my hand & carefully passed him backwards to the next kayak.
As Miranda & I were about to be birthed by this maze of mangroves, our leader called back to us to watch out for the expansive spiderweb.  Though I didn’t instantly see it, I quickly secured my paddle and leaned back as far as possible.  Staring at the ceiling, I watched the glistening strings roll by and even saw the homeowner in the middle level of the web.  Again, our kayak emerged from the forest, but this time the cove was much wider & incredibly shallow.  There was plenty of room to move around but we still continued to avoid the sun.
Here we rested in the kayaks; a few people snacked.  Beth told us the mud that made up the bottom of this bay was rich in emollients so the Taino a.k.a. native Puerto Rican people had many benefits for it.  Like the mud baths in the United States of America that women pay top dollar for, here it was, free for the taking.  Despite Beth’s auspicious claim, no one really wanted to get in… except for Miranda.  I told her I would get in too.  Aside from being great for the skin, the Taino discovered the mud acted like sunscreen and was an insect repellent.

I definitely wanted to put mud on my bright pink arms so Miranda parked the kayak by jamming her paddle into the squishy earth.  She gasped a little as she landed in the dark ooze, but started slapping it all over her body.  I stepped out of the kayak and immediately sank two feet.  Yet, no twigs scraped my feet and nothing created friction against my legs.  It wasn’t like digging your legs into the sand at a beach and it wasn’t like quicksand which made it impossible to pull yourself out.  The mud was incredibly smooth and almost soft – a word I never expected to use to describe dirt.  In an effort to keep my $7,000 insulin pump dry and clean, I only rubbed mud onto my arms and part of my stomach.  By now Steve The Magician followed suit and was half covered.  I started helping Miranda get her back as Miranda’s two girlfriends from the other kayak hopped in too.  After some labor, Steve & the three Northwestern ladies were completely covered – faces included.
The sun began to set and therefore lose a tad of its blazing intensity.  As the mud dried, Beth directed us through one more mangrove canal and back into the main vein of Mosquito Bay which lead to the open sea.  Since the majority of la bahia a.k.a. the bay was only two to fifteen feet deep, we were able to see both manatee & turtle grass… appropriately named for the animals that feasted on them.  Our group headed a mile away to a restricted area of Vieques (the entire eastern half is closed off due to its former U.S. Navy presence).  Along the way, our leader relayed the history of Mosquito Bay.  It was not named for the pesky, warm-weather, flying bugs.  A long time ago there was a young, sneaky pirate who looted ships that dropped anchor around Vieques.  No doubt, after being ransacked, a chase ensued but the pirate was a native and knew the area quite well.  He escaped being caught & found by hiding his boat – the Mosquito – in the various inlets and paid the locals for their secrecy.  Eventually, he was sold out by the locals, but the infamous name remained.

As we approached the restricted beach, gray rain clouds did too from as far away as Vieques’ highest point – Mt. Pirata.  A large sign juxtaposed against the thick jungle behind it & warned about live mines.  Access past the sign was forbidden.  Apparently a small group of workers existed to comb the entire eastern part of la isla a.k.a. the island, Monday through Friday, to remove ordinance. Yikes!
After grounding the kayaks, Beth prepared to take us snorkeling at a reef fifty feet from the shore.  Then the rain arrived.  It started as a few drops and -- within ten minutes -- escalated to a pummeling, rinsing off everyone’s dried mud.  Yet, the sunshine remained.  Most of us stayed in the water since it was warmer than the outside temperature.  Beth hesitated to take us to the reef since it became a refuge for marine life trying to escape the violent waves.  I was crestfallen and wanted to go anyway.  Beth added that she preferred to have as much visibility as possible since large sharks were common near the reef.  As soon as I heard the word “shark” I switched from feeling disappointed to feeling perfectly content to stay within the beach’s safety since I have a somewhat irrational fear of (I like to think of the glass as half-full and label it the utmost respect for) the open sea.  Others in the group agreed with Beth so we swam around the shore with the snorkel gear.  The salt water hurt my sunburnt face, but it was a great time to stretch after being in the same position in the kayaks for a few hours.
As the rainstorm passed, we all emerged from the ocean to dry off and eat dinner on the beach. At exactly the same time everyone in the group noticed the vivid rainbow that spanned the restricted area.   Ironically, such a beautiful sight hung over the deadliest part of the island.  We all lamented that we were being eaten alive by no-see-ums.  Thankfully Beth brought along organic bug repellent (synthetic rinses off one’s skin, thus contaminating the bioluminescent bay) and a few drops went a long way.
Beth was consistently unsuccessful in her attempts to start a fire since the rain had soaked everything, but the resourceful Steve had an idea.  He strolled to his kayak and returned with a dry roll of toilet paper which was the first item to light.  In the twilight, the group sat on large logs as we dined on subs, potato chips, and miniature Gatorades.  Quickly – it seemed – the sun sank behind the horizon and we were left conversing by firelight.  John was exceptionally knowledgeable about stars and constellations and educated most of us.  The only part of his teachings I could chime in with, was that Jupiter was nearing Venus daily and in a few weeks (mid-April) the two planets would be no more than 4º apart! Less than a month earlier I left my friend’s house and was stunned to see our moon, Jupiter & Venus forming the three, bright vertices of a triangle in the night sky.
As the fire reached its hottest and biggest point, the group secured its belongings and prepared to venture back into Bahia de Mosquito. Unbeknownst to us, the same bay that housed the mangrove forest transformed into the phosphorescent bay at night.  All this time we were splashing and swimming in the same area that was home to billions of secretive microorganisms. To reduce light pollution, Beth had a lone, dim red light that she rarely used.  Individually -- and in almost complete darkness-- the kayaks left the safe harbor.  As we paddled toward the middle of the vast waterway, the fire faded to a tiny blip of light.
Still in the open water, but 100 feet away from the protected bay, the group stopped paddling and just drifted with the current as Beth told us astonishing information about the dinoflagellates -- the microorganisms that gave the bioluminescent bay its namesake.  The reason Vieques boasted the "best" bioluminsecent bay in the world was because Bahia de Mosquito had the highest concentration per gallon of water.  True, this phenomenon can happen almost anywhere & other bioluminescent areas have thirty to one hundred thousand dinoflagellates per gallon, but here, in Vieques, the concentration level remained around 300,000 to 750,000! A website noted that -- only in Mosquito Bay -- this was enough light for one to be able to read a book though surrounded by complete darkness.

I had not seen Mosquito Bay light up and was already blown away.  In essence, it was a perfect storm.  Every variable was just right and – when added to the other handful of impeccable variables – created a beautiful cycle.  The lightweight dinoflagellates were corralled into the bay with the tide.  Because of the bay’s shallowness the organisms stayed here yet thrived on the plankton that was also pushed inward from the ocean.  The mangroves’ deep roots protected the flimsy organisms from terrible weather & their rotting leaves offered a wonderful diet. The salinity level was ideal.  There was minimal light and – worse – environmental pollution due to Vieques’ restricted area… but it became more fantastic!

Oddly, though simple creatures, these unicellular protists developed an equilibrium with Mother Nature.  They had an internal clock and instinctively knew when to rise to the surface (during the daylight hours) to feast.  I tried to wrap my head around the fact that in the water, were oxygen-deprived microscopic beings with the same tendencies as earth-ruling homo sapiens.  All the more reason to care for them.  When irritated by vibrations, in an act purely for survival, the dinoflagellates exuded all their energy to emit a foreboding light.  It took about 7 minutes for them to recharge.

In the half hour that we floated, I started to hear water smash against something that sounded solid (like a rock face).  I couldn’t see it in the dark distance but sensed us drifting closer to it.  Beth lead the group back toward the center of the vein and that’s when everything changed… in the brief amount of time we waited at the mouth of Mosquito Bay, the miniscule creatures awoke!

As Miranda & I began paddling, I noticed I could see my oar in the black water!?  I squealed! It was happening!  The right paddle, fully submerged, was a brilliant blaze of blue fire as it seared its way through the water.  I could plainly see the entire oar but even more beautiful were the ghostly blue trails of light flowing around it that eventually faded into the dark sea.  What I watched resembled scenes from Harry Potter, where translucent blue particles of light freely swirled then clustered into a bright Patronus.  With eyeballs bulging and my jaw gaping open, I rowed again, and again saw the oar illuminate.  On this moonless night I couldn’t see the droplets of water that ran off the paddle’s edge, but wherever they splashed I heard them plop and saw the water twinkle with life. 

Still in a rather tight group, portside I heard Steve chuckle to himself then exclaim “unbelievable!”  I cupped my hand and sank it into the water.  When I pulled it out of the bay, in the palm of my hand was a natural light show.  I stared at it for a few seconds and – as the dinoflagellates calmed down – my hand went pitch black again.  I dunked my hand underwater to release the microorganisms and surfaced with a handful another time.  This time I slightly spread my fingers… minute stars fluidly moved from inside my palm to my individual fingers then dripped back into the bahia.  I was so engrossed I repeated this basic action for twenty minutes but it never lost its extraordinariness.  Beth reminded us: we weren’t even in the bay yet!

My emotional cup started to runneth over and I could feel the tears building in my eyes.  I progressed to pouring a handful of water onto the narrow rim of the kayak.  In the millisecond that the creatures fell in the sky, they still glowed!   As they momentarily were immobile in a thin layer of water on the kayak’s edge, I could see each individual organism shining.  Soon there would be too much water on the rim and it would spill over the kayak’s inside, effectuating a waterfall of blue-green specks.  It was too much love.  I could not believe this was my life!   To those who have never had this surreal experience I could never describe the phenomena to you in a way that would express the perfection of it; I imagine it’d be like trying to extrapolate on how water tastes or skydiving feels.  My sole regret was that my mama was not with me to experience this!

Now inside Mosquito Bay, no one needed to row to see the spectacle.  The protists were so concentrated it was like staring at the heavens.  Unlike the open sea, they now willingly showed off their other-worldly glow.  Try to picture billions of ever-changing, shimmering stars laid out on an enormous, black blanket.  Now remember they were living, palpable, reachable stars.

It was not enough; the next-er in me needed more! As Miranda paddled, my left foot hovered above the water.  My heel slowly sank and every inch that went into the black bay lit with the same, fiery vibrance as my oar did earlier.  Dragging against our flow, I did not see just the outline of my foot.  I saw each individual toe as if I was looking at it with a green tint in broad daylight. 

I was still in a state of curious frenzy when Beth played another one of her tricks.  Though not the most tranquil or relaxing sound, she wildly slammed the solid rod of her paddle against the outside of the kayak affecting a loud THUD!  In a flash – literally and figuratively – I saw a whiteish-blue line zig-zag across the bay floor.  What the heck!?  Beth repeated the action, but this time we saw two beams of lasers in the same vicinity race in different directions.  Now, I felt like I was watching the movie Tron. 

Beth clued us in: plenty of fish lurked at the bottom of the bay for food, and when she startled them, they bolted through the turtle & manatee grass which in turn agitated the billions of dionflagellates.  Although it appeared the fish were bioluminescent as well, we merely observed the trail of disturbed dinoflagellates.  My whacks on the side of the canoe were hollow-sounding and lame, but Miranda had a knack for it.  We’d be paddling along, then suddenly Miranda would slam the oar down and we’d watch light trails launch all around us.   Once I watched two lines blast off from exactly the same point on the sea floor, at exactly the same moment.  The lines ran close and parallel to each other for a few seconds then – almost as if it was planned – one fish jutted 90º to the left, the other 90º to the right, at the same time, leaving the shape of a “T” glistening in the bay.

As tired as I was getting, one of Lady Gaga’s songs kept replaying in my head. I smiled, knowing all that I had accomplished throughout my two short days in Puerto Rico:  “I’m gonna marry the night, I won’t give up on my life. I’m a warrior queen, live passionately tonight.  I’m gonna marry the dark, gonna make love to the stark. I’m a soldier to my own emptiness, I’m a winner.  I’m gonna marry the night.  I’m gonna marry the night. I’m not gonna cry anymore.  I’m gonna marry the night, leave nothing on these streets to explore.”

Our tour’s departure time (22:00) neared but Beth had yet to see the headlights from the next group from Abe’s Snorkeling as they pulled up to the beach.  She asked if we would care to stay out longer?  No one objected. Still in the glimmering bay, we rowed to the only quarter we had not previously explored, and Beth showed us a haunting shipwreck.  It was a rather small fishing boat that probably housed a cuddy, but it looked so creepy – like a crocodile – the way some of it was above water but most was submerged.  It resembled a vessel out of the Pirates of the Caribbean

From far away, Steve instructed us all to “watch, watch, watch.”  His arms circulated in a frenzy as he quickly gained speed in the kayak.  At a speed of half of Steve’s maximum velocity, the entire bottom of the kayak illuminated and practically lit it up from underneath.  It was so unmistakably bright in contrast to the night, like someone shined a flashlight on Steve’s kayak as he furiously paddled.  It was so surreal I felt that at any second the plastic container would take off into the sky, similar to how Elliot in E.T. pedaled his bike so hard they began flying.

Eventually, the next tour group from Abe’s Snorkeling arrived and we had to hand off our kayaks.  Although I had the time of my life, I was water-logged from soaking in the water for seven hours.  Not to mention my northern skin had weathered the intense Caribbean sunlight for hours which was becoming quite painful.
When I returned to Alta Vista there was no more hot water for my shower, however, I didn’t mind because the coolness felt soothing on my fried shoulders, face, and forearms.  Interestingly, I had a lone text message from Adolfo (the guy who I thought was a creeper but turned out to be the cute nephew of Miguel) wondering if I would meet him for drinks.  I didn’t want to tempt fate or my safety (plus I was drained) so I declined but offered to meet for brunch manana a.k.a. tomorrow.  He avoided my question entirely but asked “Como estuve la bahia? a.k.a. How was the bay?” 

How do you describe [as I wrote it in my journal] “by far, the most breath-taking, natural, living thing”  you’ve ever seen?  How could I answer Adolfo when I could barely fathom what I had just experienced?  I was impressed and incredibly humbled by the dinoflagellates, which have peacefully endured, unphased by the goings-on of the world.  These marvels that hung in such a precarious balance with their ecosystem & environment, made a lot of my stresses feel petty.  Ironically, one of God’s smallest and least complex creatures influenced me to love, cry, prioritize and accept.  So, I simply responded: “UNREAL.”

Abe's Snorkeling has a great website!  787.741.2134 or 787.436.2686