Vini, vedi, vici

I came, I saw, I conquered Vieques… or was it the other way around?  I started the day with ten, long, clean fingernails.  I ended the day with zero.
I cannot recall how many hours I spent at Playa Media Luna a.k.a. Half Moon Beach entranced by the tide pools, waving grass, wispy clouds and bay’s colors.  Despite caking myself in SPF 50, I could not ward off the sun.  My forearms were so hot and felt so uncomfortable I wondered if I really could fry an egg on them. 
I knew I would be unprotected again on the trails, so I put my Marmot back on.  I continued along the singular trail that commenced at Sombe, lead to Media Luna and finished at – one of the locals’ favorite playas -- Navio.  In the last 36 hours on Vieques I acquired more of a feel for the scooter but halted at a mudpit the entire width of the dirt road to analyze the situation.  I noted three consecutive, enormous potholes in my path. An angel & a devil appeared on my shoulders to begin the debate.
Angel:  You should turn back, Michelle.
Devil:  But there’s only three obstacles!
Angel: True, but there’s still three.  Besides, you don’t know what happens to the terrain after these three…
Devil:  Maybe it’s smooth sailing afterward.
Angel:  Or maybe the trail is littered with hazards.
Devil:  Well, there’s only one way to find out.
Angel: Oh no.
Devil: Let’s just see how the first mudpit goes…
I had to see how I fared.  I could not turn away from Navio knowing that I possibly could have made it to the beach but didn’t try (I already gave up on Pata Prieta). No regrets, right?

To my right was a knee-high wall made of dirt, obviously meant to keep vehicles on their path.  To my left were tightly packed branches that formed a practically impenetrable wall and an 18” stretch of dirt.  There is my bridge, I decided.  I backed the motocicleta up so that I would be at speed (therefore, with more momentum) as I crossed the abyss.  Then, I rotated my wrist upward and the bike took off. 

I tucked in my legs, but in an effort to hold the handlebars steady my elbows were nearly perpendicular to the plants.  My left elbow got tangled in the branches and I leaned right in an effort to avoid more drag.  Mere inches away from the other side, I fell.  I was actually excited that I almost made it and completely blocked the spill from my memory.  Almost! I kept telling myself.  “Almost made it” is the last phrase before “did make it.”  My spirits were soaring, but it was still difficult to pick up the 280 pound bike.
Devil:  See, I told you it wouldn’t be that difficult.
Angel: I hope you’re right.
Devil:  Onward!

There was not a dirt span like at massive puddle #1, I opted to navigate massive puddle #2 on foot.  With a deathgrip on the front brake and my right hand on the throttle, I gassed the 125cc and found myself sprinting alongside it.  The task was sloppy but I did not dump the bike or my body.  In the 5 seconds it took me to traverse the mudpit I learned that applying gas made matters worse. 

So, at massive puddle #3 I decided to walk the Yamaha across, manually.  First, I broke off a tree limb and stuck it vertically in the sepia-colored water to gauge how deep this bad boy was.  I didn’t want my leg to be swallowed whole in the process of crossing.  The thick branch only sunk about ankle-deep.  Good news! I thought.

Through the three obstacles I prayed this would be the end of my trials.  How wrong I was, but after another curve I finally arrived at Navio!  Once again I drove right up to the beach and parked next to a stark, white Jeep.  As I laid on my towel I felt my muscles loosen. I had a slight headache from the sheer tension of riding around/through the potholes. 

The sky grew more overcast and the white, feathery clouds were replaced by battleship gray ones that bulged with precipitation.  A few beach-goers left.  I certainly didn’t mind getting wet (again) but was a tad worried about what the rain would do to the already gigantic puddles I crossed earlier.  Plus, I had been scanning the rock faces since my arrival and saw no signs of the aforementioned caves.  And last -- but honestly -- Navio was dull compared to Media Luna!
(photo courtesy of Steve The Magician)

Back on the bike, I rounded the corner and – once again – stopped to formulate a plan of attack.  Just three obstacles.  I remembered that massive puddle #3 was shallow and decided to ride through it, hugging the left side and knee-high dirt berm that demarcated the jungle from the trail.  I took off smoothly and was certain I would make it to the second chasm unscathed, but midway through the puddle my front wheel washed out in the loose, underwater gravel.  It all happened so fast.  The Yamaha finally stopped when it straddled the berm and I was launched off the side.  I slammed onto my right side in the dirty pothole’s water.  My head ricocheted off one of the many small rocks that caused me to fall in the first place.  I silently thanked God for my helmet.  Oh, everything on my right side ached! My arm was jarred but not broken (don’t know how!?)  My Marmot was smeared with soil in addition to my entire right leg.  Two of my lengthy, white fingernails were missing entirely and one was dangling (so I tore it off).

I painfully stood up to determine the extent of the damage.  My right leg had some surface gashes that barely bled.  The mesh of my backpack was sliced in addition to one of the right straps (it hung on by threads).  However, I did save the contents of my backpack – most importantly my camera, vial of medicine & insulin pump supplies – from wetness and harm by crushing only my right side.

Then there was the 125cc, front wheel still suspended mid-air over the berm.  For a 5’2” tall person, lifting 280 pounds of dead, lopsided weight was undeniably strenuous.  At this point a white Jeep carefully approached me from behind.  The couple must have seen my soil-covered right side because the driver lowered the window and asked if I needed help.  I masked my pain and embarrassment by light-heartedly replying “no, no, no, but thank you. I’m okay.”  Nonetheless the man got out and single-handedly maneuvered the Yamaha Zuma uphill and off to the side so his Jeep could continue… which left me to massive puddle #2.

If you remember, #2 was not quite as wide thus leaving some room for me to squeeze by the first time.  My elbow, hip and head throbbed and my legs still quivered from resetting the bike at the last mudpit, yet I thought I was in the clear and – in an effort to conserve energy – rode along the embankment of the hole.  I went possibly three kilometers per hour faster so that my front wheel would not be devoured by the gravel like before… but the front wheel and handlebars jerked as I sped through the jagged rock.  I reflexively whiskey throttled (the motocross term for when you’re falling off a bike and inadvertently pull back on the throttle to keep yourself on, thus wildly accelerating), but came to a dead stop as the front wheel smashed into a [I imagine, larger] invisible rock under the water.  I too came to a dead stop as all my inertia bashed into the handlebars and I fell to my left.  As I plummeted my only thought was Your foot is going to be crushed!  But I was already in motion, the Zuma was already in motion, and there was no more time to do anything.  I knew I was going to suffer a broken ankle (at the very least) from the impact of the convex wheel-well or the solid motor upon it.  I was utterly helpless; all I could do was watch the nasty events transpire, but miraculously the only cut-out section of the scooter landed directly overtop my exposed leg. 

I wanted to lay on the hard earth for a minute to catch my breath but I saw tires where there should have been handlebars.  From many years of four-wheeling around Wellsville, Ohio, I knew a rider never left a bike on its side – or upside-down – because it would drown the engine and leak oil everywhere.  Despite my anguish, I sprinted into the puddle to get la motocicleta upright.  I raised the Zuma by the handlebars as high as I could, then propped all 280 pounds up with my tender left hip.  I barely had the strength to maintain this position, but I leaned against my knees and tried to recover physically.  With one last surge of energy, I shoved the 125cc the rest of the way until it was vertical. 
My body trembled from the shock, exhaustion and adrenaline.  Bruises started to form. I visually examined the Yamaha: surprisingly no fluids escaped and it still had every lever.  Even better, all the shrouds and flimsy plastic pieces were intact (I have no idea how)! I restarted la motocicleta.

At massive puddle #1 I forced myself to think positive thoughts.  I envisioned myself skimming the water because isn’t attitude half of the battle? I can do this! Up and over.  However, in the seconds before I entered the last sinkhole my mental words of encouragement turned into frantic pleas with God.  Please, please, please God don’t let me fall again!  Like before, the branches reached toward me from the jungle.  As I drove by, I unconsciously and slightly twisted to avoid their grasp but that was all it took to cause me to lose my balance. 

I barely had the strength to push myself off the ground.  Floating in the middle of the pothole was one of my Reef sandals, face-down like I had been moments prior.  I noticed two more fingernails were gone.  I was completely defeated.  I did not even care about the bike anymore or if it was upside-down spewing liquids (it wasn’t).  I was no longer concerned with niceties such as staying dry or clean.  I just wanted to get the hell out of my hell.

I attempted to stand the bike up but both feet slipped in and out of my flip-flops thus, I had absolutely no leverage.  I grit my teeth and again threw all my weight against the Yamaha, but my feet slid again and both were sliced on the serrated rock bottom.  As painful as it was the bike was somewhat upright so I continued pushing, but my footing faltered entirely and I stumbled backward as the scooter returned to its position on the ground.  I cursed myself for wearing sandals.

Dead tired and overheated I could easily describe my feelings and motivation with one word: DONE.  Frustrated beyond belief I bottled all my rage inside.  Every muscle in my body burned and – in an act of sheer desperation rather than determination – I heaved that 280 pound monster upright.  The blue Jeep that stopped next to me must have seen some my battle with the bike and the depletion in my eyes because the woman passenger sweetly asked me if I needed a ride back to town.  Every ounce of me wanted to shriek “Hallelujah! Yes please!”  But I refused to abandon my friend Miguel’s motocicleta (not to mention it would cost a fortune).  Furthermore, I was embarrassed by my audacity at trying to best these obstacles so I reassured the Jeep renters I was “fine” so they proceeded down the trail.

By God’s grace, I returned to Media Luna and turned off the scooter.  I felt like the weight of the world had been removed from my shoulders.  I was undoubtedly drained, both mentally and physically.  My adrenaline supply was depleted so I started to fully experience all the pain that I was previously unaware of.  I just wanted my mom or grandma to tell me how well I persevered, but I did not have that luxury. I could not pretend I was “fine” anymore, nor did I want to.  So I lamented for about five minutes and felt wholly sorry for myself.  Actually, being honest and crying felt better than listening to myself lie to the various passers-by on the trail.  I believed I came to Puerto Rico to prove that women truly could travel solo and survive, but I realized no one cared if I fell once or a million times on that trail.  In truth, I was still trying to convince myself – not the rest of the world -- that I could do this trip.  My meltdown was self-induced by my pride and inability to cope with my own short-comings (in life, and on this scooter). 

Once I accomplished getting all the tears out of my system I was ready to move on.  With water from el mar a.k.a. the sea I rinsed off my jacket and the mud caked on the seat, brake levers, shrouds, footboard, wheel-well, mirrors, and helmet.  Beat up, I exited Sombe.  The devil in me still wanted to visit Playa Negra (a black-sand beach) and other parts of la isla while I had wheels. 
(courtesy of Steve The Magician, who ventured everywhere I didn't)

At the junction of 997 and 996 was a street-side kiosk called Barefoot (across from “the green store”) that came recommended from John & Elena.  I was famished from the last hour’s exertion but unfortunately -- at 14:00 on a Thursday -- el restaurante was not open.  Not far from Barefoot was Fun Brothers’ wooden hut.  Miguel was helping a couple rent jet skiis but shouted “Hey amiga!”  I loved that he didn’t treat me like la tourista tipica a.k.a. the typical tourist.  I turned off the Yamaha, walked right into the shack, and sat down on a cooler’s lid.  The couple left and Miguel asked “¿Que pasa?” I couldn’t divulge everything – like how I went to Navio despite his warnings, how I had la motocicleta upside-down, how I wrecked four times – so I simply said “Estoy consada” a.k.a. I’m tired.  For an hour I sat in the beach-side shack chatting with Miguel about the lottery, how often he visited the mainland, his plans for the business, his favorite destinations in Puerto Rico and mostly, where I was headed next.

When I informed Miguel I was driving to the city of Aibonito tonight, he wanted to know my route.  I actually wasn’t sure and left my map of the mainland in the trunk of the hire car in Fajardo.  He started rattling off directions and city names, but pointed out the best and quickest way into the mountains.  He told me “you should stay.”  Ugh, that was exactly what I did not need to hear because I was contemplating staying as well.  There were still areas and beaches of Vieques that I wanted to explore.  Plus, I really enjoyed Miguel’s company. 

I temporarily abandoned Miguel to buy us botellas de agua a.k.a. bottles of water and myself postcards.  Still starving I stopped at the always-full restaurante, Duffy’s. I struck up a conversation with the lone man sitting next to me at the bay by admiring his Louis Vuitton passport folio.  From there, Terry & Jason (the jolly bartender with dreadlocks) helped me narrow down my menu options.  Wanting to try local food I ordered fish & chips.

Terry – financial officer for the W Hotel – and I swapped histories.  Upon receiving the job offer in Vieques he uprooted himself from his comfortable life in Boston.  I could easily relate because I knew how scary it was to leave everyone and everything when I left for Australia.  One of the quirky stories Terry shared about South America was how he purposefully parted with all of his clothes in Argentina so that he could stuff his suitcase with delicious, cheap bottles of vino a.k.a. wine.  What a zealous traveler!  We both confessed that after hearing each other’s tales, we wanted to hit the road again to someplace new.  The chat lifted my spirits after my painful, dismal trek to Playa Navio.

With a full belly and Terry’s business card in hand (“in case you return,” he said) I regressed down the malecon and arrived at the hut with enough time to say goodbye.  That was when Miguel told me since I only had the scooter out for a few hours he was not going to charge me at all for the day.  “No, no, no” I argued.  “Si, si, si” he enforced.  I could not believe I was trying to persuade someone to take mi dinero a.k.a. my money. This was Miguel’s livelihood and yet he was giving me a freebie.  I insisted that he at least run my credit card for half of a day.  Nope.  The Puerto Rican stood his ground.  My last instruction from him was to call if I needed anything.  As I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders to walk off into the sunset, Miguel amicably said “love you.”

In my global wanderings I have never encountered a person as generous as Miguel.  His willingness to help touched my heart so deeply because he embodied everything I searched for in Puerto Rico – actually, in the world.  

“What lies behind us & what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us"
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes