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.