15 April 2013

Sharing the world

"Who's to say what's impossible?
Well they forgot this world keeps spinning & with each new day, I can feel a change in everything
And as the surface breaks, reflections fade, but in some ways they remain the same
And as my mind begins to spread its wings, there's not stopping curiosity
I want to turn the whole thing upside down

I'll find the things they say just can't be found
I'll share this love I find with everyone
We'll sing & dance to Mother Nature's songs

I don't want this feeling to go away"
-- Jack Johnson [Upside Down]

It was still early morning when I hit the highway east, but it was already toasty.  The mid-March heat created a haze above everything that wasn’t directly abutting the ocean.  Although I was broke & wanted authentic Puerto Rican cuisine, I had a late breakfast/early lunch at a Subway for the sheer purpose of #1 using their running water to brush my teeth and #2 hijacking their electricity to recharge my Canon. 
The Arecibo Lighthouse was well-marked & easy to find.  Along the harbor, fisherman already had their lines in the water, waiting for the day’s catch.  At the entryway, I told the young lady who worked there that I liked her earrings – and I really did.  I wasn’t buttering her up.  She saw me with my backpack & rhetorically asked, “You took a taxi here?”  Conflicted, I thought in silence for a minute.  Part of me was so annoyed by being nickel & dimed everywhere throughout the country – for restrooms at Cueva Ventana, for full service gasoline at most fuel stations – that I wanted to say “De acuerdo! a.k.a. Of course!  The moral side of me thought I should simply be honest and pay the extra $2.00 but the notion of paying to leave my car in a rutty, unpaved lot positioned next to a public marina irritated me, so I lied and affirmed the taxi question.  Who said you could buy the Earth then pull a profit from it?  It's difficult to side with people who seek monetary gains for what was here long before the human race arrived.

Encompassed within the lighthouse property was a small petting zoo, aquarium & pirate ship-turned-jungle-gym.  I leisurely ascended the red brick walkway lined with flora & noticed the lizards were still out sun-bathing.

Not quite to the tippy-top, the blindingly white lighthouse had a large deck that offered 360 degree views of the boundless sea.  On the east side, I watched people tackle the surf at what I imagined was a “locals only” beach.  There were no amenities, which deterred high-maintenance tourists; a colorful mural that resonated with dignity for the ocean: “La poza no se vende, se defiende a.k.a. the pool is not for sale, defend it” & it was at the end of an unpainted calle that just became swallowed by the sand.  With my bird’s eye view I coveted those people & their lifestyle for about 30 minutes, for on this random Thursday the families were lounging & surfing – the same thing I was supposed to be doing this morning in Aguadilla!

Inside the lighthouse were awesome artifacts: a restored cannon/cannonballs, a towering anchor, and a sturdy trunk that looked straight out of Antiques Roadshow.  Up the blue, spiral staircase that was only spacious enough for one person, I spotted a lone paddle-boarder & the city of Arecibo.

As I exited the Arecibo Lighthouse, a girl who appeared younger than me inquired – in Spanish – about the price of the attraction & if it was worth it. I always beam with pride when a local thinks I’m the expert!  It means I’m approachable, like I blend in with the culture & look of the region.  I answered, it was a fine stop, but a bit overpriced at $10 USD.

I returned to my home (the car) & consulted with my two best friends (Lonely Planet.& la mapa).  The travel guide apportioned one paragraph for Cueva del Indio a.k.a. Indian’s Cave and did not even bother to identify it on its map.   Thankfully, the entrance was indicated by a hand-painted sign because it was not across from an “Esso gas station” as published.

There were two other cars in the sandy lot that doubled as an estacionamiento, but a group of 4 boys – only one of whom looked old enough to drink alcohol – still charged for parking.  The muchachos a.k.a. boys suggested a guided tour with one, but I had been in Puerto Rico long enough to know this meant a guided tour with an unspoken fee attached.  I declined but they remained sociable and gave me an overview of which paths lead where.

By myself, the bushes shortly gave way to the coastline & -- from the bottom – Cueva del Indio resembled just another rock.  As I hiked upward, I minded the hundreds of small sinkholes that unfolded on the cave’s roof.  One wrong step could lead to a sprained ankle or a tumble into natural wells.

Atop the pock-marked rock were expansive views of the ocean & I could see the Arecibo Lighthouse to my west.  To the east were 3 arches, nicely aligned (in the photo the second arch is blocked) although I later learned there were actually 7 total.  On plane, la cueva’s roof looked solid but[as you can see towards the end of the previous video & this one] there were sections missing.  One particular divot had been hollowed out by the Taí
no – Puerto Rico’s first people descended from northern South America – with rock slabs converted into large steps leading 15 feet down to a platform.  I sat there, feet dangling over the cliff, transfixed by the ocean’s rhythm.  It was like analyzing snowflakes: the waves perpetually undulating and slamming into the rock walls, however, no collision was the same.  Sometimes there was an explosion from the impact that sent a mist fifteen feet into the air; sometimes the surf polished the exposed rock, like a person spreading butter onto a piece of bread; sometimes cascades were created as the water diverged into thin, white veins only to plunge back into the sea. 

Also from the platform, was a shabby, wooden ladder fastened together by cords of rope.  I noticed there was a larger gentleman already at the bottom of Cueva del Indio so I figured if he didn’t bust the rickety ladder, neither would I.  On the sand floor of Cueva del Indio, sunlight punctured through the various sinkholes from above & the walls of la cueva were adorned with an abundance of Taíno petroglyphs.

Exploring this covered beach I found narrow pathways for water, a natural whirlpool that was illuminated in muted rainbow colors, the cave's namesake (a petroglyph clearly depicting a Tno indian), and a psychedlic pattern on la cueva's ceiling.  The design looked too decorative & beautiful to be natural.  It swirled around sockets scooped from the ceiling.  Oddly, no sunlight escaped the dugouts.  Only with my camera's flash could I see that these were upside down sinkholes (sounds like an oxymoron) inhabited by sleepy bats!
I climbed back up the deteriorated ladder & emerged to find the other visitors gone. As I made my way back toward el estacionamiento one of the boys who collected my parking money approached me with his dog close on his heels.  The young man – named Pito – simply started chatting and encouraged me to follow him.  He described all the fun to be had around Cueva del Indio like fishing (for fish and sharks).  Then, he showed me a small space with tidepools & the multitude of iguanas hiding on the green tree branches.  Without Pito, I would have walked right past the reptiles!  I was surprised to learn that iguanas can jump.  Pito was either showing off or sensed my disbelief, because he told me to be quiet & watch, as he attempted to catch one.  Sure enough, a split second before Pito’s hand closed around a medium-sized iguana, it launched itself to another branch!

I continued trudging along with Pito & his mutt, to the third arch from where I was able to see the remainder of the seven, stone arches.  Pito stopped leading at the fourth arch and we stood there, looking out at the infinite horizon.  Since the sun was directly overhead now, the water turned a transparent, azure color that revealed the massive rocks on the sea floor.  Pito told me to walk to the next arch, then look back.  I obeyed his instructions & was flabbergasted to see that I had been standing on a strata only three feet thick!  Here I thought I was perched on solid rock, but the ocean & wind had eroded everything but a weak strip of rock.

Before leaving, Pito showed me the other Indian at Cueva del Indio.  A formation that reminded me of the profile of La Bruja at Parque de Las Cavernas del Rio Camuy.
In el estacionamiento Pito, his canine & I rejoined the group of boys.  Though I refused a guided tour earlier, I sort of felt like Pito has hustled me by just appearing & giving me the tour anyway.  Puertoriquenos are always hustling!  Yet, I also enjoyed Pito’s quiet company and he showed/taught me more than I may have discovered on my own… so in the end I gave him a small tip.

The eldest chico offered to make me a drink at the kiosk there, but I declined.  The youngest muchacho started asking where I came from & what brought me to Puerto Rico.  Like everyone I encountered thus far, none of the guys could believe I was traveling solo.  Then, the same boy in the bright red shirt asked what I had experienced so far on this trip.  After I recounted the events, they all seemed in awe & I hoped maybe I had inspired them to explore their backyard.  I loved sharing my knowledge & experiences with them.  I was proud of all that I had accomplished in the last week & pleased to share Mother Nature’s secrets.  Before I hopped in the car, the same, youngest boy gave me one of the best compliments of my life.  He enviously said “Dang, I’ve lived here 12 years & you’ve seen more than I have in just a week!”

07 April 2013

Surfing or bust!

"Your true traveler finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. it is the symbol of his liberty- his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure"
-- Aldous Huxley

My tour of Parque de Las Cavernas del Rio Camuy lasted less time than expected due to the fact I only saw one cave.  Originally, I allocated two days of my vacation for Parque Toro Negro, El Observatorio de Arecibo & this park.  However, the miles – when straight – proved to fly by which left me with a day & a half to be a rover.  With two hours before the sun set, I had absolute freedom; an entire country at my disposal.

I studied la mapa & weighed my options: the salt flats in the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico, the lively southern city of Ponce, partying in San Juan, or backtracking to Luquillo beach.  However, I was not keen on backtracking nor extravagantly using fuel, so I opted to drive directly west to Aguadilla on the country’s east coast.

I was finally out of the mountains & swore it would be too soon when I saw a curvy road!  After days of staring at endless, green hillsides it felt like a homecoming to see the endless Caribbean Sea.  I was so starved for life, movement, the sky & everything else karst country lacked that I drove to the first – and a very popular – beach in Aguadilla: Crashboat Beach a.k.a. Playuelas.

With the sun drooping toward the horizon, I arrived to a tranquil scene at Crashboat Beach.  It was beginning to clear out, birds tweeted, the ocean lapped, fishing boats undulated in the waves, children jumped off the stone wall, and the silhouette of a lone pelican really set the mood.

That night I feasted on my usual, nomadic diet: tuna on crackers & an apple.  Near Playuelas, I cruised la carreterra 107 for a hospital (just like in Utuado).  However, I could not locate a place to sleep [in my car] where I felt near enough to civilization for safety but removed enough to feel unnoticed.  I pulled into a plaza with some fast food chains, barber shops & a supermercado a.k.a. supermarket.

I chose Wendy’s for my accommodations since it wasn’t in the back, wide-open estacionamiento & kitty-corner to a gas station.  I read about surfing in Rincon & Aguadilla and decided that’s what I wanted to do with my free time tomorrow.  The first business I called was no longer in business.  The second was already closed, so I left a message.  Lonely Planet included the company’s address so I planned to drop by bright & early to catch a surf lesson.

I fell asleep relatively early but awoke to the rowdy Wendy’s employees shutting down the building.  As I attempted to return to sleep I heard and noticed a man on a golf cart patrolling el estacionamiento – I assumed it was a security guard. Not wanting to a confrontation at midnight, I scanned carreterra 107 & thought it less risky to move across the street to the parking lot of Charlie’s Beauty Academy.

I settled into the driver’s seat again, but felt more vulnerable directly off the main road.  Plus, my shiny, bright blue Toyota just begged to be hijacked.  I drifted off to sleep for perhaps an hour until the dog in the house next door started barking.  Then, all the dogs started barking.  After ten minutes of incessant barking, I began to imagine what lurked outside my car door.  Eventually the ruckus ceased, but I was still unnerved & couldn’t help looking behind the car every five minutes.

Still without substantial rest, I willed my mind to relax.  That’s when the building alarm went off. It must have been the edifice next to Charlie’s because the sound blared through the city.  Now I panicked.  The dogs on alert had spooked me enough, but now someone must have truly been breaking in.  I sat up in the driver’s seat & waited to see the red & blue flashing lights race to the building.  With the alarm stuck on repeat, the police never arrived.  Ten minutes later, the sirens suddenly stopped.  What was happening?

Quiet again, I was wound too tight to relax.  After about ten minutes of silence, the dog started barking again.  When it finally stopped or was taken inside, I noticed people loitering outside the gas station’s store.  Their voices carried so I observed for awhile. An SUV on rims pulled in next to another vehicle. The driver got out & approached the already parked car, something was exchanged & the driver returned to the SUV.  I seriously thought I witnessed a drug deal. 

I tried to stay inconspicuous by reclining my driver’s seat & only popping my head up occasionally to sneak a peek. My antics continued for half an hour, and again I saw the same SUV pull up – this time by the car wash.  I convinced myself the supposed criminals had seen my waxed, new Toyota across the street.  I laid there, heart pounding, waiting for my demise.

At some point I passed out from sheer exhaustion.  I awoke with stinging eyes & a headache as the sun’s light skimmed the tops of the buildings along 107.  At least I survived the night.

With no specific schedule, I drove in search of Hang Loose Surf Shop on route 4466.  Located at kilometer 1.2, I struggled to read street addresses.  After a few go-rounds, I narrowed the area down to a few buildings that should have been the store… but there was only a fenced off field to my left and homes to my right. I probably spent the better half of an hour retracing the same two blocks on 4466.  Nothing in this part of Aguadilla even resembled a business district & I wasn’t holding my breath that the surf shop would even return my call from yesterday.  Therefore, I thought it better to pass on surfing & Aguadilla in general. 

Admittedly, I was disappointed, yet I’ve never experienced boredom so glorious! Now what?  Between Aguadilla & Arecibo was just sprawling coastline.  A few things remained unexplored around Arecibo so I regressed east, still unsure what  surprises the day held.

01 April 2013


"We have had an unspeakably delightful journey, one of those journeys which seem to divide one's life in two, by the new ideas they suggest and the new views of interest they open."
-- George Eliot a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans

Since my guiedbook stated the last tour departed at 14:00, I hurried southwest.   anticipated another nauseating ride because all las carreterras were wavy (&, as I learned yesterday, even straight carreterras on the map curved).Yet, the way was short – an unexpected reward in karst country!

I stopped at the security post at the entrance to Parque de Las Cavernas del Rio Camuy a.k.a. Rio Camuy Caverns Park. A genial, tall guard with very tan skin approached the Toyota.  He pointed me in the direction of the DRNA office & asked me where I was planning on eating dinner that evening.  Of course, I had no clue & responded honestly.  The guard in his mid-40s persuaded me to visit a specific roadside restaurante two miles away from el parque.  Like most Puerto Ricans I spoke to (or encountered) on this vacation, the man made a referral & explained his connection to the owner. I told the guard if I stayed in the area I would surely stop for a visit for which he insisted that I did one more time.

In el estacionamiento, I was welcomed by the planet’s largest coqui frog perhaps. It seemed caricatural though, almost cartoonish.  The “lobby” was comprised of wooden roofs, walkways & benches, but completely exposed to the elements.  Therefore, aromatic & neon flowers painted the green scenery (& ground, with fallen petals).
As I stood in line, I counted five tickets.  Obviously, one was for parking; one for admission; one for the headsets (offered in English/Spanish); and two to waste paper.  The group of about 30 people was ushered into a tiny, lackluster movie theatre. Afterward, the crowd waited outside for the actual tour to begin.  Here, the clouds opened up the floodgates.  I was the only person who carried gear – I couldn’t leave any valuables in the car just in case it was broken into – however the bulkiness of my backpack paid off because I was also the only person to have a raincoat handy (note: the gift shop sold panchos, but it was closed upon my arrival to el parque).  Solo, I got a front row seat but had to share my seat with the driver & another skinny Puertoriqueña a.k.a. female Puerto Rican.

Eventually a basic, orange trolleybus with wet seats pulled up.  Once all the visitors were situated, it wound downward on a spiral driveway.  El autobus stopped halfway down and – in the pause of the motor’s unnatural revving – more native, jungle sounds resonated: chirping birds, falling rain, drifting water.  It reminded me of an alarm clock with a “rainforest” wake up call.
The tram sunk deeper into the earth. Where the pavement flattened, the bus parked to let passengers off.  Each section of it became a small group.  As I sat in the last section, headphones at the ready, & waited my turn, I discerned shapes in the darkness of la cueva.  They looked like tree roots, delving into the Earth’s core.  
My group proceeded alongside la cueva’s rock wall towards estacion uno a.k.a. station #1. I noticed the sinewy roots were in rows & everywhere!  Closer, they actually looked more like teeth & their appearance altogether was like stepping into a Great White Shark’s mouth. 
Due to the steady rain, my group descended the slick cement walkways single file.  Everyone ahead of [and behind] me took baby steps and held the solitary railing with a death-grip.  Now a hectometer beneath the trolley’s origin, we pierced one of Cueva Clara’s 16 entrances.

On level ground, I stood in the grand hall with a cathedral ceiling and smooth, arched walls. Cueva Clara reminded me of the underwater “cathedral” in the Steven Spielberg movie about caves, Sanctum, because it could undoubtedly house the Titanic.  Stalactites were draped everywhere and threatened to knock out anyone taller than 6 feet.  Pock-mocked – but beautiful – rock formations sprung up from the earth throughout Cueva Clara, including La Bruja a.k.a. The Witch. The earthen colors ranged from dark, bubbly rocks that resembled boiling tar to fine, gold powder dustings on stalactites. 
Throughout the audiotour of Cueva Clara, I was cognizant of the sound of rushing water in the background. It was sort of creepy to always hear el Rio Camuy a.k.a. the Camuy River, the powerful force that hollowed out the solid earth I now stood on. Out of the darkness the group emerged into the gentle drizzle that penetrated Cueva Clara via a sinkhole overhead.  When I stepped to the ledge & lowered my gaze, there was Rio Camuy cutting its way through the entire park, south toward the Caribbean Sea.  This same rio carved more than 2,000 caves in the area (only 500 have been surveyed). 

I had only explored two caves, and although Cueva Ventana & Cueva Clara had distinctly different appearances, they both were awe-inspiring.  Never in a million years did I expect to adore caves.  When I rented the 11-part series Planet Earth, the most boring episode was Caves – so much so it was the only episode I fast forwarded through.  Desert, Tundra & Deciduous Forests all appeared more interesting than Caves. Five years later, I had a newfound appreciation and wonder for caves.  I no longer cringed at the sight of bats.  Cueva Ventana & Cueva Clara made me an inquisitor of these ancient, natural wonders.