25 May 2012


“All the woulda-coulda-shouldas layin’ in the sun,
talkin’ ‘bout the things they woulda-coulda-shoulda done…
but all those woulda-coulda-shouldas all ran away and hid
from one little did”
-- Shel Silverstein

Though Miguel made me practice riding the 125cc scooter in the sand parking lot, I was a tad wobbly when I pulled onto 996 and continued to ride with my feet suspended outward for balance. Turning right onto 997 was awkward.  I expected it to be similar to steering a car or four-wheeler like on Santorini – using the wheel or handlebars.  But the Yamaha was more like steering a stand-up jetski, where simply leaning into a turn translated to the vehicle turning as well. Like I learned in skydiving (and it applied to all aspects of life) where your head goes, your body will follow.  I’m sure I looked unsteady as I putted down 997 and Jeeps overtook me at every opportunity.

997 looked vaguely familiar and I realized it was the same road Miguel and I traversed the night before to reach Esperanza from the ferry dock.  I was starting to draw my mental map of the island.  I approached The Seagate – as it is referred to by locals & Lonely Planet – which is actually the entrance to Vieques’ Wildlife Refuge and many of the island’s beautiful beaches (i.e. Garcia Beach/Playuela [locally] & Blue Beach/Bahia de la Chiva).
(Courtesy of Steve the magician)
All of the southeastern beaches diverge from this solitary road, so you really just need to decide where to turn off.  I passed Playuela and considered following the trail at the second turn-off to Red Beach/Caracas (locally) but I had my heart set on finding, ironically, Secret Beach/Pata Prieta & Playa Plata/Orchid Beach.  Yet, after Caracas the main road was replaced by a less motorcycle-friendly dirt road.  I pressed on, the only motorized vehicle I could hear in the area.  I fully planned on going as far east as possible (anything north of the road was restricted due to live mines leftover from the United States' Navy) but there were neon orange construction signs stating the bridge was under construction, so I backtracked a few blocks & followed the rutted trail to Pata Prieta.  I bounced around, veering to miss huge ditches, and locked up the brakes in time to stop on the plateau of a rocky and steep hill.  I immediately shut the bike off and rolled it backwards up to the plateau with much resistance (since there was no reverse).  From the hilltop I could not see Secret Beach and seriously doubted that mi motocicleta a.k.a. my motorcycle would have enough horsepower to make it back to the top once down.  And if it couldn’t, I knew I physically could not push it up the slope… geez, I struggled just to backpedal a few feet.  I considered hiking the rest of the way but had flip-flops on and gauged myself far away from the sea.  I had not been expecting the roads to be in such terrible shape (the map that most places in Vieques provided, drew the trails as thinner, gray, paved streets) so I sadly turned my back on my dream of swimming at Pata Prieta.
(Steve found Pata Prieta!)
My options were limited to Playuela and Caracas because they could be reached from the paved main road and they had wider, more level trails. However, after I emerged from the jungle trail, it hardly seemed I was short-changed with Red Beach/Caracas.
I know I say this about every beach but Caracas was paradisical. As I picked a prime spot to lay my towel, the tan sand was so fine it felt like I was caressing silk.  I could feel the intense rays of sun stabbing my pale skin. The blue waves became transparent in the sporadic sunlight from the threatening clouds lingering to the east.  I hoped it wouldn’t rain.

The menacing clouds continued to be blown eastward, and in a short amount of time the sun reappeared with guns blazing.  Although I wore SPF 50 sunscreen, I smelled my skin tanning.  Yet after enduring months of snow & freezing temperatures in Ohio, I welcomed finally feeling warm. I opened the 500-page novel I brought from home and started reading.

Then my curse kicked in…

I started thinking I had read too long.  I wondered what time it was.  I looked at the map & wondered what beach I could visit next without being late for my 14:00 appointment.  Then, the new me shook the old me & roared “GET A GRIP SISTER!”  Good grief.  I thought I had unwound compared to when I first arrived in Puerto Rico, but I was on this picturesque beach constantly checking my watch – and in essence waiting for the time that I would leave.  Realizing the little devil on my shoulder was about to strangle the little angel on my other shoulder, I mentally took charge of the situation. I wanted to enjoy this beach & this vacation.  I desperately wanted to let go – if only for this week – of my old routines such as always next-ing. Right then & there I refocused myself: Michelle, your heart brought you here to experience the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world.  Let go of everything else…

And you know what?  I truthfully did.  It was like I could physically feel the weight lift as my motives shifted and timelines extinguished.  My mood changed from rushed & tense to carefree.  And you know what’s even better?  I remained this way through the end of my trip.  You are here. Tonight you are going to quench your heart’s desire. You overcame yourself. I knew you would do it, I silently congratulated myself.

The bay was calm but waves continued to break on the rock walls that comprised the western end of the beach… and I wanted a closer look. The sun now beat on my back & I was grateful because the front part of my body needed a break from its UV rays. There were maybe 10 other people that I shared the entire beach with, so there were no on-lookers as I watched crabs maneuver in & out of the pock-marked rocks.  The wall of rock jutted into the Caribbean Sea and I saw two teenage boys jump off the point.
Back at my towel, the palm trees swayed in Vieques’ breeze.  The pavilion in the lawn started to fill with tourists hauling large coolers.  I continued to read & even reached the point of nodding off, but around 12:30 the beach became noticeably more populated.  Three pairs of wives & husbands situated themselves rather close to me.  I endured the couples for twenty minutes but they were the loudest, most obnoxious clan on the beach so I interpreted their cackling as a sign it was time to go.
En route to Alta Vista to clean up, I stopped by Miguel’s malecon shack to say hola una otra vez a.k.a. hello again.  He was overwhelmed with beach-goers in need of gear and didn’t really care when I paid him.  I didn’t really care either so I said I would call or talk to him soon.  At the parador I grabbed my waterproof, disposable camera, money, and multiple Ziploc bags I brought from home.

I decided to grab lunch at Bellybutton’s on the malecon which doubled as the meeting location for Abe’s Snorkeling’s tours.  I had a great view of the bay.  Unfortunately, the menu was limited and contained typical American sandwiches like a Philly cheesesteak or ham sandwich.  Likewise, there were only unhealthy side dishes like potato chips or french fries. I was hardly impressed – especially given the so-so service & steep pricing – but I only had 30 minutes before the bio-bay tour.  The numerous ceiling fans oscillated but it was so humid they merely moved more stuffy air around.  As I sank into the bar chair, it sort of felt like I was suffocating. I also became aware of my sunburnt face, shoulders and forearms.  My greasy lunch arrived and about half way through the sandwich this little guy showed up, panting.  I didn’t want to encourage the stray – and possibly rabid – dogs but he was adorable & if I was dying in a swimsuit and beachwear, he must have been miserable. 
Around 14:00 a very tan, tall, blonde young woman wearing an Abe’s Snorkeling shirt started collecting money.  It was time to accomplish the major -- and really only -- goal for this entire trip...

18 May 2012

First impressions

“What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds.  When you’re traveling you are what you are right there & then.  People don’t have your past to hold against you.  No yesterdays on the road.”
-- William Least Heat Moon from Blue Highways

After Miguel dropped off “Doug’s sodas”, he drove me to one of the three towns on the island – Esperanza – to check-in at Bananas.  The sky over the island was dark as Miguel drove me down an asphalt road (it turned out to be 997, the main vein between the two) with no edges, guardrails, or lights, through the jungle.  Even in the double-axle van we swerved to avoid the sporadic potholes & Miguel warned “Stay away from the edges [on the scooter].”

I wasn’t entirely sure that my reservation was airtight at Bananas because when I initially called two weeks ago the bartender took my name but told me to call back the next day to give my credit card information.  I called at all hours of the day & left messages but had not talked to a Bananas employee since the bartender.  As Miguel pulled up to the bar/inn it was a busy place.  I told the guy my name, but he assured me he had no reservation nor rooms available. Miguel excelled at keeping his word whereas Bananas completely screwed me over.  I tried the parador a.k.a. guesthouse next door but they too were booked.  I was homeless.

As I attempted to secure a bed, Miguel had been imbibing at the other end of the malecon a.k.a. waterfront at Tradewinds – his bar of choice.  As much as I wanted to find lodging nearby, I confided in Miguel that I could not afford more than $75 por noche a.k.a. per night & Bananas had been the only affordable option in Esperanza.  Miguel said he understood.  He made a phone call then relayed his good news.  He knew the owners & most of the workers at Tradewinds and was able to persuade them to lower the price of their only vacant room to $75 (which included breakfast)!

The room was the perfect size for me. I heard the birds – or were those frogs? – still cooing outside thanks to the fact that the room had no glass windows; only shutters (that were already open) and mesh screens. Elated that I wasn’t going to have to sleep in a sketchy motel, I didn’t unpack & rushed back to the bar to celebrate with my new friend.
Miguel was seated on a bar stool at a tall wooden table for two people, chatting with Candy.  I rewarded my travels with Malibu rum & pineapple juice.  Miguel introduced me to Kathy, the woman who lent me the room.  Everything on the menu sounded mouth-watering: catch-of-the-day, plantains (my favorite), and seafood galore.  With much dissonance I ordered the house salad loaded with yellow peppers, cucumbers & a homemade passion fruit dressing.  Candy accidentally brought the wrong meal to our table.  Miguel jumped on the opportunity and whispered “Hurry up & try it, that way they can’t take it back [to the kitchen].” I dunked the ball of deep-fried conch fritter into the cilantro, lime cream sauce and was in gastronomic paradise.  That accidental appetizer & my light salad was just what I needed to revive me.  Miguel tossed back more Medalla Lights, as did I with my Caribbean drink, and we chatted about his business, my life in Ohio, and my itinerary in Puerto Rico.  Upon hearing I visited the country solo, Miguel responded “estas loca a.k.a. you are crazy.”  I wasn’t offended.  In fact, it was very satisfying to be sitting in the island breeze conversing candidly with someone I had known for just an hour.  I never felt like an outsider and Miguel generously introduced to me all the people he bumped into (and he seemed to know every local).  The full stomach, alcohol, and exhaustion caught up to me an hour later and – much to everyone’s dismay – I bowed out to shower and sleep.

Going to bed relatively early, the Caribbean heat, and my sheer excitement to start my vacation in Puerto Rico meant I was wide awake by 7:30.  The lively, dimly lit bar from last night had a different ambience today.  The mood lighting was replaced with bright sunshine & the bartenders were replaced with Tradewinds’ cleaning crew.  As I drank my passionfruit juice & ate Zucaritas a.k.a. Frosted Flakes, I couldn’t believe this was my view:
I was only spending 48 hours on Vieques so I felt the need to cram as many activities as possible. Around 8:30 I arrived at Fun Brothers’ wooden shack on the malecon to pick up my scooter as Miguel & two other tan, younger guys were setting up shop.  While chatting with Miguel he inquired where I was staying tonight.  Oblivious, I just said “Como? a.k.a. Huh?”  Miguel answered “They didn’t tell you the room is only for one night?” I was ready to take the 125cc Yamaha motorcycle, explore the island & dip my toes in the sea, but now I had to deal with this mess. I was aggravated by this obstacle but – like a great friend – Miguel offered if I didn’t have anywhere to stay, he could sleep at a friend’s house & I could lodge at his house in Monte Santo.  I was floored by his generosity. Yesterday, I would have declined for fear of being murdered in cold blood, but today I declined because I did not want to impose & put Miguel out of his home.
So instead of driving to the beach, I walked back to Tradewinds & quickly repacked (I had unpacked everything when I thought I had the room for two days).  I asked Evey at the front desk if she knew anywhere I could stay.  I braced myself for the price tag & pulled out my cell phone to call Alta Vista a.k.a. Top View.  Yet, Evey picked up her cordless phone & called for me. Though Alta Vista was just two – uphill – blocks away, it was already humid and I was pulling 20 pounds of baggage. Evey told me it was a yellow building on the right.  I had walked past a few yellow buildings – all of which resembled houses – so at the next yellow building on my right I decided to ask the two police officers standing in the driverway.  “Permiso, donde esta Alta Vista? a.k.a. excuse me, where is Alta Vista?” “Aqui! a.k.a. Here!” was their response. Oh.

Leary of my newfound lodging, the owner – who doubled as the front desk staff – was helpful and informative.  He gave me an overview of the island and pointed out other useful places like a panaderia a.k.a. bakery, grocery store, and Puerto Diablo a.k.a. Devil’s Port, the southern point of The Bermuda Triangle.  Even better, the room only cost $65! The owner carried my bag up to the second floor, down a narrow outdoor hallway and handed over the key.  “You don’t have a balcony but you have the best view…the roof” and directed me to the terra cotta staircase next to my room.  As he returned to his post in the lobby, I climbed to the roof.  Now I understood why the parador was called Alta Vista.  I was delighted to see a panoramic view of Esperanza, 996 curving towards Mount Pirata in the west & Cayo Afuera – the tiny island off Esperanza’s coast.

Despite now having a room to sleep & leave my belongings, I still felt frustrated that I lost most of my day (since my bioluminescent bay tour was at 14:00) to minor complications.  But when I looked at my watch it only read 10:00!  Thank goodness I inadvertently awoke so early that day. With a full stomach & full tank of gas, I could still squeeze some beaches into today’s schedule!
* Tradewinds bar, restaurant, gift shop, and inn  787.741.8666
* Alta Vista which was never mentioned in my internet searches nor Lonely Planet 787.741.2440

12 May 2012

Adjustments [part II]

“A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.”
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

It was cold, crisp & dawn was breaking in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when I boarded my first plane.  Despite never leaving the airport, the air temperature in Atlanta, Georgia, was significantly warmer.  As before – and with all planes -- I kissed the metal frame that would skirt the Bermuda Triangle and be my vessel across the ocean.

Though slightly overcast, it was a bright day in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Still in my northern winter clothes, I changed from a zip-up hoodie, long-sleeve shirt, fleece North Face pants and tennis shoes into a blue tank top, loose gauchos, and flip-flops in the concourse.  The sliding doors opened up and I emerged into the warm, humid breeze.  Unbeknownst to me at the time of booking, Thrifty Rental’s office was off-site from Aeropuerto Internacional Luis Munoz Marin a.k.a. San Juan International Airport.  The shuttle bus was full except for one seat up front by the driver.  That’s one of the advantages of traveling solo: you are the easiest person to accommodate.

Sitting up front and being alone worked in my favor.  As couples tried to secure all their luggage and parents rounded up their children, I grabbed my red carry-on and beat everyone to the front of the line (thank goodness because the checking-in process is quite slow).  I was going to decline the dollar-per-day EZ-Pass until the pretty lady behind the counter alerted me that I would need it if I was planning on driving anywhere outside of immediate San Juan.  According to her (and she was 100% correct) there were many highways across the country that did not accept cash or credit card, only EZ-Pass.

Around 14:30 I pulled out of Thrifty’s parking lot and onto autopista 26 este a.k.a. highway 26 east.  I hoped to arrive at Fajardo -- on the northeast coast -- by 14:30 since that was one the four daily times a ferry left for the island of Vieques.  I would be cutting it close because the drive was estimated to take about 2 hours [via car].  If missed, I would have to wait until the last ferry at 20:00.  For the life of me, I could not grasp why the 40 mile drive to Fajardo required two hours… until I turned onto autopista 3 este a.k.a. east.  Then it made sense. Autopista 3 was more like a busy road.  With three lanes it weaved through the crowded outskirts of San Juan & Canovanas and was littered with traffic lights.  At every stoplight there loitered a group of 3 to 6 men on the median or corner, who – when the light turned red – dispersed and approached stopped vehicles to either beg for change or – more commonly – sell something in particular such as sunglasses.

Though navigating, I tried to take in the scenery that passed by in a blur.  The miles of dilapidated houses I saw in combination with the highway peddlers and thoughts of my co-worker who said “All of Puerto Rico is a slum” started to play on my emotions.  Maybe I idealized Puerto Rico & was going to be sorely disappointed?  Maybe it was a third-world country governed by the United States of America?  As soon as the thought crossed my mind I forbade myself from passing judgment so hastily.  Besides, regardless of the environment or socio-economic status of the country I was here for a week so I might as well deal with it.

I passed strip malls, a K-Mart, and the automatic toll booths the Thrifty employee had warned me about.  Then, autopista 3 narrowed to two lanes with the same stop-and-go traffic.  By the time I reached Rio Grande (a halfway point) I inferred there were two types of drivers in Puerto Rico: very aggressive and very unhurried.  50% of the drivers on the road incessantly honked if another car delayed even a millisecond at a green light.  These same aggressive drivers then furiously swerved into another lane, floored the gas pedal & slammed on their brakes at the next red light.  It was like watching the opening scene of Office Space in real life.

But in a way I understood their frustration.  The other 50% of Puerto Rico’s drivers maintained 10 to 15 MPH under the speed limit and obliviously occupied the left lane.  Their jalopies, rumbling and roaring, barely got up to speed before the light turned red again.

Even with the windows down on the autopista it was toasty.  Add in the numerous traffic lights and this northern-blooded woman was a sweaty mess long before arriving in Fajardo.  Briefly the autopista gave way to some countryside which made it feel more like, well, an autopista and I was able to actually reach velocidad maxima a.k.a. top speed.  All of the sudden, I saw the unmistakable giant to my right – and I knew exactly what it was!
There was no mistaking it.  The constant greenery, the mountain that broke up the usual level scenery and shrouded in a cloud forest, there was El Yunque (until recently, know as El Bosque Nacional del Caribe a.k.a. Caribbean National Forest). Even from afar it was still an amazing sight.  When the boyfriend & I had mapped out a loose plan, Ziplining through El Yunque was at the top of his to-do list.  Now alone, I would bypass the staple – probably the most popular site in Puerto Rico aside from Old San Juan.. As long as I could, I kept my eyes on El Yunque.  Throughout the drive I basked in the Caribbean sun yet the misty clouds never left El Yunque’s summit.  Now I understood why it was able to sustain its title of “rainforest”.
Nearer to Fajardo I caught a few random glimpses of the dazzling blue water at glitzy Luquillo Beach -- very popular among San Juaneros and Puerto Ricans alike.  I half debated pulling off the road, staying around Luquillo and taking the early ferry to Vieques, but I decided to stay the course.  I reminded myself that I would have my fill of beaches on Vieques.

The way to the port of Fajardo was well-marked.  Parking on the street (and for free) was scarce so I left all my hiking clothes and the bright blue Thrifty car in one of the many lots.  I arrived at the ferry terminal with 30 minutes to spare and searched for la officina de boletos a.k.a. ticket office.  You would think it was at the port, right?  Yet the only employees I could find were at the snack counter.  I saw a guy around my age that – I assumed – had a family since there were four, black rolling suitcases in his possession.  I picked him like a person chooses the ripest apple out of the pile.  I asked “Permiso, donde compras los billetes?” I knew I conjugated the simple sentence correctly but my American-accented-Spanish probably gave me away because the handsome guy replied “I speak English too.”  Ha! He directed me around the corner to a trailer that housed the ticketing office.

As soon as the boat from Vieques docked, people started lining up.  The crowd seemed to be mostly cackling teenagers and families hauling flatbeds stacked with bulk toilet paper, housing décor, and beach chairs.  I had forgotten that living on a small island meant importing everything (in fact, I later learned Vieques’ water is transported from the mainland via an underground pipe).  I hoped for an outdoor seat but the upper deck was not open.  I was dismayed, especially because fresh air helps combat my nausea.   I hoped for a window seat but those obviously were the first to be taken so I plopped down, in the center row in the center seat next to one of the many teenagers.
I never learned his name but he was adorable.  The round-faced teenage boy had dark skin which contrasted against the bright pink collared t-shirt he wore with a studded belt and tapered jeans.  Maybe it was just with me, but he didn’t act like the other immature tweens screaming on the ferry.  He asked me a few questions and I asked him a lot.  We chatted about what his class did on the main island (saw a show in San Juan) and our similar tastes in music.  Our conversation was light-hearted but it also kept my mind off the incessant pitching of the boat.  After we chatted – for what seemed like an hour – only 15 minutes had elapsed.  I silently prayed I wouldn’t bharf on my new companion.

An eternity later the ferry pulled into port at Isabel Segunda.  Though the sun was setting, my first view of Vieques was Punta Mulas -- the peach, colonial lighthouse atop the seaside hill.  The white wash and palm trees screamed of island life and Puerto Rico's early European influence. This was the stereotypical Puerto Rico I expected, instead of the run-down area by autopista 3 earlier.
Off the boat, taxis and vehicles swallowed the new arrivals and I called Miguel.  Yes, the same Miguel who wrote the wrong credit card number for my scooter reservation while inebriated two Sundays prior. In the States everyone I spoke to in Puerto Rico/Vieques insisted I “just call.”  Now it was time to see if there was weight to the Puerto Rican’s words.

As I waited for Miguel’s brown [raper] van, the crowd dispersed.  The remaining people were mostly tourists who were waiting on a taxi or trying to get their bearings.  Then I saw the same handsome guy from Fajardo – still with four suitcases that apparently all belonged to him.  He saw me too & asked “Where are you going?”  I replied “A a.k.a. To Esperanza.” He asked where I was staying.  Immediately my hyper-sensitive estrogen-filled self thought don’t tell a strange man where you’re staying! That’s the easiest way to get killed!   But it was still 100% truth when I answered “No estoy seguro a.k.a. I’m not sure.”  The attractive guy laughed, said “you’re crazy” & offered me a ride.  Luckily, I didn’t have to lie (because the scrawny 5’2” me did not want to get in a car with the muscular 6’0” Latino) and mentioned that someone was picking me up to transport me to my awaiting scooter.  Adolfo asked which company.  When I responded “Fun Brothers” he exclaimed “Oh! That’s my uncle!”  Yeah right buddy, I may be naïve but I’m not stupid I thought.  Trying to catch him deep in his serial killer lie I asked Adolfo how he was related to… and I never said Miguel’s name.  Clueless to my reverse psychology, Adolfo gave me his phone number and started telling me a little about his Uncle Miguel.  So there it was.  I was being paranoid.

I calmed down and around the corner came the beat up brown van.  Based on our few phone conversations I expected Miguel to be in his late 30’s, with jet black Spanish hair, a moustache and basically, look like a scraggly version of my Dad when he was young.  Actually, Miguel wore – in my opinion – trendy square-shaped glasses, a loose white t-shirt and strap-on sandals. He was bigger with salt & pepper hair and incredibly tan skin.  In fact, the only reality about Miguel that matched my idea of him was his genuine, frequent laugh.

I hopped in & Adolfo proved me wrong again by greeting his uncle. As the van pulled away from the port Miguel gave me the summary of family drama & why he was skeptical of Adolfo.  Ah, nothing like small-town – or in this case, small-island – drama.  Surprisingly there was no awkwardness, though I could tell Miguel was trying to be his version of polite when he said “Do you mind if I stop at the store? I gotta get some sodas for my coworker Doug who’s at the house.” Who was I to protest? This nice guy was giving me a tour of his island, in a sense, his home. Miguel pointed out we were now in one of the unsafe barrios a.k.a. neighborhoods.  He passed quite a few convenient stores & it occurred to me that we might not be stopping for soda. I may have just been smooth-talked by yet another guy.  Miguel left the van running but parked curbside to an unmarked, vacated mint green two-story building.  Now I’m about to be gang-raped.  So this is how I die I thought.  My palms began to sweat and my chest tightened.

Despite my total helplessness in this foreign ghetto, I steeled myself. If I was going to be slaughtered, I would still [attempt to] put up a fight.  I frantically searched for my small scissors with the 5” blades and pointed tips (the only item allowed by airport security in a carry-on) in my backpack as Miguel emerged with a bulging plastic bag… with four silver Diet Coke cans inside.  I wanted to beat myself up for entertaining such morbid, pessimistic ideas.  I was disappointed that I allowed myself to be brainwashed by my American friends’ heresay.

In retrospect I needed that shock to pop my familiar & isolated bubble.  Since 2009 – when I ventured to Australia alone – I had built an emotional barrier.  I worked at a business that cared only about its revenue; I lived in a fast-paced city where chain restaurants sprouted weekly; I was used to disconnected & disgruntled humans (myself included).

I was finally starting to let my guard down.  Here I was, 28 years old, with nowhere to sleep and a complete stranger driving me somewhere.  In just five short hours I made some profound, intrinsic adjustments.  1,800 miles from home the old me was long gone too.

* Fun Brothers is the only scooter rental on Vieques, as well as snorkel equipment, jet skiis and tours. Find them at the hut on the eastern end of the malecon (Flamboyan Street/996), 787.435.9372 or directly call my kind-hearted friend Miguel at 787.403.1830 (seriously, he doesn't mind).

05 May 2012

Adjustments [part I]

On a Monday – the day after I booked my flight & two weeks prior to my departure date – I started laying the groundwork for my trip but ended up completely striking out. First I called the Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales a.k.a. Department of Natural Resources (hereafter and locally referred to as "the DRNA") since travel books stressed having reservations at campsites. The automated system was entirely in Spanish – I was able to get the gest of the prompts thanks to my years of exposure to the language – and although I pushed the correct buttons, the phone just rang. So I tried the cargo ferry which would take my rental car from the main island to Vieques. Again, the phone endlessly rang. I hung up and attempted Blue Caribe (a bio-bay tour company). At least this time I was able to leave a message. Wanting to secure this tour I also called Abe’s Snorkeling but was forced to leave a message as well.

Three days passed and I had not heard from the companies I contacted. I assumed Blue Caribe checked its voicemails because when I called the second time the message stated the current date. This day Abe’s Snorkeling answered the phone but I was placed on hold for 10 minutes. Irritated, I hung up and retried the DRNA whose main office was located in San Juan. Again I was unable to leave a message for the campsite permits I desperately needed since I could not afford to stay in hotels for an entire week. I knew that there was at least one person working at Abe’s Snorkeling that day and I reached someone on my second attempt. I spoke [in English] with Consuela. I asked if Abe’s would still offer the bio-bay tour even though I was solo. She didn’t say no but she mentioned that there was already a confirmed group for the all-in-one kayak adventure which included the bioluminescent bay and mangroves and snorkeling. Consuela just offered me everything I wanted, without me knowing exactly what I desired.

As I’ve mentioned before, I plan the more important ventures in the beginning of the trip so I was a bit nervous that the all-inclusive bio-bay tour fell on my last day in Vieques. "What if it rains?" I asked Consuela. To my surprise she replied "That makes it all the more wonderful!" Who knew? When I gave her my credit card information to secure my spot she informed me of Abe’s 24 hour cancellation policy. "I will not be canceling" I promised her. Then she asked for my first name. "Michelle" I told her "M-i-c-h-e-l-l-e". "A beautiful French name" Consuela answered. "And your last name?"    "Escalambre. E-s-c-a-l-a-m-b-r-e."   She proclaimed, "Ah ha! A beautiful Spanish name!"

Immediately I connected with Puerto Rico. My hesitation and uncertainty to travel there morphed into readiness. Where I live -- in northeast Ohio -- I am frequently asked "Not to be mean, but what are you?" This non-politically correct question is met with my raised eyebrow & head cocked sideways. Then the person extrapolates and what he/she really meant to ask was if I am Mexican, Hawaiian, Asian or even Samoan? And when any stranger hears my common first name followed by my unique last name, the subsequent unfavorable reaction is "Oh. Wow. That’s long." Folks, it’s not difficult and though there are ten letters none are silent "j"s or involve umlats. Here, people generally don’t know how to approach my foreign-ness and unusual surname. I loved that my last name was natural to Puerto Ricans in the same way I feel more comfortable in my skin in California where Filipinos are hardly the minority.

The more I delved into my plans the more roadblocks I encountered. It took many unreturned messages before the phrase "on island time" occurred to me. Highlighted are the major differences between the northeast United States and our anomalous island-loving friends in the Caribbean Sea:

* EXPECTATION: In Ohio – and as learned in Economics 101 – competition means lower rates for consumers from businesses.
* ACTUALITY: In Puerto Rico, I stopped shopping around for the best price/perks and hurled my money at any company that simply answered the telephone. 75% of the phone numbers I tried were no longer in service.

* EXPECTATION: Punctuality.
* ACTUALITY: Despite all the literature that insisted on reservations with the DRNA, their hours are Monday through Friday, 8:00 – 11:00 and 13:00 – 15:00. These sparse hours benefit no one but the employees. Not to mention, I tried three different extensions to speak to any human being to no avail.

* EXPECTATION: Customer service.
* ACTUALITY: On a Friday night around 23:00 I called [what I thought was] the business number to Montana a.k.a. Mountain Explorer to leave a message for when the store reopened on Monday. To my astonishment someone picked up (apparently the digits on the internet doubled as the business number and a personal cellular number). I kept emphasizing the date I needed (since I would only be in the area one day), but no one jotted down my name, number, credit card information or any details. I hung up grateful for the information from the woman on the other end of the phone but confident that it was not confirmed. I also felt this way with Francisco Che’s tour when he repeatedly said "Yeah, just call me when you arrive in Puerto Rico. Yeah, just call me when you arrive in Puerto Rico." Forgive my haste but I was arriving in Puerto Rico one day before the only day I could fit this tour into my schedule.

* EXPECTATION: Professionalism.
* ACTUALITY: It was a Sunday around 21:00 and I was scouring the internet. I could not find any information regarding scooter rentals on the small island of Vieques except for a basic website that listed two companies. I rang the first company. Not surprisingly, the number was out of service. By default, if the second – and last – company answered the phone they would receive my business. I dialed Fun Brothers and a jubilant man answered in accented English. I knew something was off when I asked him, Miguel, a typical question about renting and – instead of answering – he just laughed hysterically like I cracked a joke. Oh boy. But beggars can’t be choosers so I unsurely provided my Visa account. That was Sunday. On Tuesday I received a call from Miguel admitting he "had too much to drink [on Sunday]" and that he wrote down the wrong credit card number. I remember thinking "Well, at least he was honest."

After dealing with the people "on island time" for the first week, I gradually stopped trying to get the Puerto Ricans to conform to my routines. I wanted structure. I wanted reservations and confirmations. But this was not Puerto Rico and trying to plan everything out was like trying to move the mountain. So, if the mountain will not go to Michelle, Michelle will go to the mountain.

In the end, I was the one who succumbed and changed. I accepted Puerto Rico & Vieques for who they were. They were not like the continental U.S.A. They were not fast-paced or concerned with the status quo. They were on island time. Once I internalized this I realized I embraced their culture as well. I didn’t want to travel to another Ohio, did I? No. I wanted to journey somewhere different and it had been a different – albeit aggravating – experience without me even setting foot on Puerto Rican soil.

I gave up trying to secure campsites with the DRNA. I gave up leaving discontent voicemails. I gave up combing the internet for lodging options in every city. I gave up my highly-organized tendencies and eventually I reset myself to "island time". Half laughing and half fretting, when I departed on 20 March 2012, my only confirmed events were a round-trip flight, rental car, bioluminescent bay tour and scooter.
On a sidenote, to aid future travelers I will include all the information I have at the bottom/end of the respective blog entries. As you will see, some businesses were totally reliable while others were all smoke & mirrors.
* DRNA office at Bosque Estatal de Carite a.k.a. Carite State Forest 787-999-2200 or the headquarters in San Juan 800-981.2005 x 222, 230 or 234 (good luck!)
* Cargo ferry (remember, in rental agreements vehicles are not allowed to leave the mainland... but if you want to gamble) 787-801-0250
* Passenger ferry schedule.