06 May 2013

Desperation

"Say that I was starved, that I was lost & weary, that I was burned and blinded by the desert sun, footsore, thirsty, sick with strange diseases, lonely and wet & cold, but that I kept my dream!"
-- Everett Ruess

I was in desperate need of a few things.  First, a real shower. I last properly bathed on the second day of the trip (after the bioluminescent bay although I jumped into fresh water at El Canon de San Cristobal on day 4).  Since that second day I had been sweating profusely & it was now day 6.  So, I flocked east to Playa de Cerro Gordo a.k.a. Fat Hill Beach which boasted “restrooms, showers, fire pits & other beach amenities.”

Second – and far more important – rest.  My body was showing signs of deterioration. On my left leg alone, I counted over 60 mosquito bites. Along with the large bruises from crashing the 125cc in Vieques, at least 10 more bruises decorated my shins & knees.  The bumps [which led to the backs my legs itching insatiably] had engulfed the entirety of my legs and spread to the tops of my feet.  Rubbing my legs felt like caressing a toad.  Additionally, my hands and arms developed red blisters & my feet were terribly swollen.

Although my body looked awful, I felt fine.  No headache, fever, chills nor pain – other than the muscle fatigue from abseiling and wrecking earlier in the vacation. I wanted to avoid a Puerto Rican hospital at all costs so I told myself I would stick it out two more days, at which point I would be back in the U.S.A.

Playa de Cerro Gordo was foreboding from the outside, where the streets were lined with peddlers & a tall, dark, metal fence.  However, after I paid the $2 entrance fee, there was a sprawling estacionamiento.  La playa itself was not as impressive as others on Puerto Rico, but the atmosphere was relaxing.  Spanish music blasted from stereos, the ocean lapped, children frolicked, & there were no bothersome bugs.  Perhaps the best – and simultaneously most torturous – part of sitting under the shade of the palm trees, was that all the nearby beach-goers were barbecuing.  Still living off of tuna salad, apples & basic rations (which had been my daily meals for the past three days) I was voracious, like a shark smelling blood, with one whiff of the chicken, steak & pork being grilled.
The day wore on peacefully & uneventfully.  I wandered around the deserted facilities for 20 minutes in search of the promised showers. Apparently the “showers” were open-air faucets lodged in a stone wall, simply meant to wash off with fresh water.  I probably looked odd as I toted my entire toiletry bag to the “showers” but I finally felt thoroughly clean afterward. 

I could camp at Playa de Cerro Gordo, but the vibe beyond the wrought iron fence of this balneario a.k.a. public beach  was disconcerting.  I packed the Toyota & drove east, through the golf-capital of Dorado, toward San Juan


At twilight, I entered the neighborhood known as Isla Verde in San Juan, which was a far cry from the central montañas:  fast food chains lined Avenida Isla Verde, high-rise condominiums blocked the ocean views, groups of well-dressed people crowded the streets, car horns honked, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic, & neon signs lit up the night. I changed into my fanciest outfit – gauchos, a plain turquoise tank top & flip-flops – and strolled into the bar area of el restaurante, Metropol.

The dining tables were full, but I was the only person at the bar.  Deprived of all amenities during my time in the interior of Puerto Rico, I imbibed a mango daiquiri.  That’s when Danny a.k.a. Daniel Jay, the second bartender, suddenly asked me where I lived.  This first question was the segway into a drawn out conversation that lead to Danny asking if I would like to go out with him tonight.  I declined – lying that my flight home was tomorrow – but the ever-persistent Puertorique
ño informed me he was planning on moving to New York City in a month & that maybe we should keep in touch.  I obliged and shoved the bill on which Danny wrote his full name, mobile number & email into my journal.


I planned on sleeping in the well-lit estacionamientos that surrounded Avenida Isla Verde, but every lot had security and charged hourly for parking.  Free-loading was not going to be so easy in San Juan  Next, I entered a residential area off the main drag where a familiar, ubiquitous sound returned to me: the chirp of Coqui frogs. Now dark, I wanted to relax here but I didn’t feel like I blended in entirely.  Since it was a Friday night, residents hung out on porches & visitors constantly pulled in & out of nearby houses.  If I saw someone sleeping in a car outside of my home I would call la policia.  I patrolled the busy avenue and two vehicles ahead of me, a truck vacated its curbside parking.  I swooped into the spot.  That night I probably slept the best & felt the safest, despite the non-stop music from the many bars across the street.

Sleeping in wasn’t an option as I wasn’t shaded by treetops or cloud coverage in San Juan.  Here, the sun shined and there wasn’t even a wispy cloud in the sky.  I drove into Old San Juan – a peninsula off the glitzy, resort area of the city that maintained its early colonial flare – and pulled into el estacionamiento enclosed within stone walls at Castillo de San Cristobal a.k.a. Saint Christopher’s Castle. 
 As one of the first visitors inside “the biggest European fortification in the Americas”, I ascended the multiple staircases & ramps to the rooftop (level 3) where I played soldier, peaking out from behind the embrasures and spying from the garitas a.k.a. sentry boxes.

On el castillo’s highest terrace, one sight broke up the monotony of cold, tarnished stone. Three white flagpoles vigilantly stood.  There was barely a breeze on this hot morning, and the flags limply laid: one American, one Puerto Rican & one unknown.  It turned out to be an antiquated Burgundy Cross symbol.  From here, I had a view, an expansive view of the area. A barge crept into Bahia de San Juan a.k.a. San Juan Bay, pastel buildings caught my eye, and the concentration of Old San Juan abruptly stopped at the Caribbean Sea.

From this vantage point I made out Castillo San Felipe del Morro/El Morro – the second, older fort commenced in 1539 – protecting the other corner of Old San Juan.  With the sun & mercury rising, I stepped inside the labyrinthine corridors of el castillo.  It wasn’t hard to imagine myself as a solider in the days of old, as I sauntered through the dimly-lit hallways, explored the barracks, and studied candid sketches from a desperate captain taken prisoner. I doubt the captain – in the last days of his life – knew his drawings would endure the test of time & that the fort would be a tourist highlight some 400 years later.
Everywhere I explored, within el castillo’s walls, wreaked of stoicism.  For example, tiny slits in the stone wall for firing ammunition let the faintest hints of daylight in; each window had been reinforced with thick wooden slabs (or boards entirely); rusted gates were still on their hinges; secret tunnels had been blocked; a monument of cannonballs was on display.  Even from the World War II observation post, it sounded like the sea relentlessly battered the fort.

Aside from the two castillos/forts, Old San Juan had much more architecture.  Scattered throughout the area were clean buildings with ornate details.  What buildings lacked architectural design, they made up for it in color.  Bright coral, sunshine yellow & other Caribbean colors decorated the already beautiful seaside town along with fountains and statues galore... even its graffiti popped with color!
After lunch at Horario’s – that came highly recommended from a local for its authentic cuisine – of mild pollo criollo a.k.a. Creole chicken and amarillos a.k.a. sweet plantains (amarillo meaning “yellow”, the yellow/ripe fruit) I felt I had conquered the dense neighborhood.  Across la bahia the non-historic part of San Juan extended into the Atlantic Ocean & with a few hours of daylight remaining, I had one last goal.  It was more of an emotional adventure:  I desperately wanted to find what I had forgotten a long time ago, on my first trip to Puerto Rico.

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