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.