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Immersed In Puerto Rico … Same Same, Yet So Different

November 26th, 2017 · Tags:Cities · Restaurant · Wi-Fi

Puerto Rico … take two.

As with many a mainland kid in the ’60s and ’70s, Puerto Rico first showed up on my radar with the reading of Pastor Nicky Cruz’s “coming of faith” book “Run Baby Run.”  The gritty Christian bestseller chronicled Cruz’s take on Puerto Rican culture, dating back to his childhood memories of voodoo on the island, to his rise through the ranks of a brutal New York street gang, The Mau Maus, to his miraculous acceptance of Jesus Christ.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/april6/8t418c.html

Years later, my cultural education continued as I encountered millions of Puerto Ricans on Fifth Avenue in New York City for the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade — a multitude of beautiful brunette women, vibrant floats, red, white and blue triangular flags and flashy-clad men … all pulsating to the blaring salsa beat of the Caribbean.  Another spicy slice of life …

Then there was my stint dating a New York public relations professional of Puerto Rican heritage (a PRPPR) after our meeting at an electronics convention in Las Vegas … Coincidentally, my PRPR friend attends the very church in Manhattan, started by Nicky Cruz … I digress …

Each example listed above provided a true glimpse of the culture, yet none was any more conclusive than the fact finding in the parable of the “Blind Men and the Elephant.”  That is to say, each observation is valid but also woefully incomplete. Insufficient data.

Now in 2017, on the island at ground zero after Hurricane Maria, my Dirty Gig in Puerto Rico “completes me.”

After a month on the island, my limited world view is broadening with every person I meet … with every staple meal of pork and various rice iterations … with every stucco building, mountain pass, waterfall and palm tree … the survivors and victims of one vicious woman’s rath.

The other day, as the Dirty Gig ended another day (Dirty Gig — my disaster recovery assignment) our team of disaster experts, insurance adjusters and laborers mustered to discuss the day’s progress, plan our holiday schedule and remind the workers to return on Friday.

Someone made a joke warning the workers not to show up on Black Friday, still drunk or hungover.  Most saw the humor, laughed and heeded the warning.  One young professional came over and expressed an emotional, yet diplomatic protest.

“This is Puerto Rico.  Thanksgiving is about family.  We don’t get drunk.  That’s Mexico.  Thanksgiving is about family getting together and eating and giving thanks.”

I believe him.  Puerto Rico is about family and all the natives are family … at least that is my most recent observation.  They are the most relationship-oriented people I have encountered.  Each morning, the job begins with all the men and women giving each other a warm, polite kiss on the cheek and sometimes a fond hug.  All of the working men shake the hands of all of the supervisors and their coworkers to begin the day and to end the day.  Every one of them.

Often, a project-oriented task is slightly delayed for conversation and pleasantries to be exchanged.

Ha.  I ain’t gonna lie.  Sometimes, when some task is pressing on the job, I don’t do well with that part of the culture. I was raised in a very task-oriented, no-nonsense, farm family.  I confided in a co-worker that I love to socialize on the job, AFTER the work is done.  That is backward thinking on this island.  Accordingly, I seem to get less kisses than others from the locals on these scraggly cheeks. Hopefully I will learn warmer skills from this people-oriented culture.

Once the kissing stops and the work begins, the Puerto Rican laborers can hold their own with any workers I have seen in my travels.  They work hard and intense and smart and team oriented.   Once you get them started they are a workforce to be reckoned with.

Lately, I am seeing more of the hand-to-hand combat in the war against Maria.  My time at the wheel of the supply truck is over.  Now I work with the laborers lifting boxes from a warehouse of documents, and freezing the wet documents to arrest mold growth.  Pretty exciting, huh?

But, there was light at the end of the reefer trailer.  A day off on a Sunday, followed soon after by the Thanksgiving holiday.  Road trip!  Yes, the task of moving boxes from point A to point B does allow plenty of opportunity for this writer’s mind to wander, but little time to jot down the obscure thoughts.  But, get me behind the wheel, with a pen and a notepad, and soon, a blog is born.

 

On the day off, I hopped in the van and retraced my steps south of Carolina, PR through the mountains, to the coastal city of Ponce, PR … through some backroads where I encountered fresh floodwater from the previous night’s rain … hmmm “Turn Around, Don’t Drown?” … and then on to Highway 2 around the southwest corner of the island and eventually north to Hatillo, PR and then back to San Juan and Carolina (in a torrential downpour, by the way).  The roadtrip was basically a six-hour, clockwise rotation of about two-thirds of the island perimeter … “good place to get some thinking done.”

I thought about Puerto Rico as a whole, now a month into the visit.  I think Puerto Rico is a wonderful opportunity for all Americans.  The Territory of Puerto Rico is as American as Alaska or California or Vega, Texas.  If you travel in Puerto Rico, you can always encounter someone who is fully bilingual and friendly and helpful to send you in the right direction.  You see many of the same businesses to which you are accustomed to, back in The States.  You meet great people who have served in the U.S. military branches, dedicated to the same freedom goals as you and me.  But … but it is so different.  At times, you might forget you’ve left the contiguous United States.  In the next moment, you can experience some cultural difference that makes you think you are in another world.  It is a great way to explore, yet have the comfort or familiarity and security of your own culture.  It is the present … and it is the past.  It is common … and it is strange.  It is hospitable … and it is “foreign.”  You may belong … and then again, you may not.

The workers are great.  There’s more than one Juan, a couple of Hectors, two Angels, Sarai, Karina, Axel, Raul, Linda, Matt (PR’s version of Call Of The Wild’s Turtle Man or maybe Crocodile Dundee), Stefani, Carlos, Kellyan, Ura, Onix, Ney and many, many more.  Perhaps my new friend Danny is most impressive.  He is very proud to have been a Ranger in The United States Army and he wears his intense work ethic like a metal on his chest.  He leads the other workers by example.  He translates for me and he  is understanding when my instructions for the team sometimes seem to make little sense.  Ha … he even had to gracefully put up with my seldom-seen, but substantial temper one day … (for which I felt bad and was apologetic).  Ha … Danny’s wife even made an extra dessert for me on Thanksgiving — a very rich rice pudding treat that had exactly the same spices as my mom’s famous applesauce spice cake … delish.  If everyone in the U.S. services is like this guy, we are pretty darn well protected.  Oh … and the moment Danny really won me over?  When he told me that not only is he a drummer … he agrees that Rush’s Neil Peart is the best drummer on the planet.  Oh how I like to talk music on the job … I digress …

So … one day … I was driving along …

Lord only knows what sent my thoughts to my old favorite pastime — coining bogus band names, but I was toying with these: The Lincoln Logs, and also The Erector Sets … or better yet, Lincoln Log & The Erector Sets … I digress …

Driving in PR is a trip!  Forget about those white stripes dividing the lanes … everyone else on the island does.  It seems the white or yellow lines are suggestions, not mandates.  If you hit an open stretch of highway, slow down and make sure you go exactly the same speed as the car beside you so that no one gets around.  Conversely, if you go through a neighborhood or around a curve in a congested street, speed up for all the glory your multiple-dented car is worth.  Parking spaces seem to be about 20 percent tighter in the ultra-scarce lots on the island, and every car carries those battle scars.

 

iGuana:)

As wounded as the cars appear, they got nothing on the iguana.  Back in the states, we all know about roadkill.  In my native Texas, it is typically a rabbit, a possum or an ever-so-bland armadillo that seem to blend into our roads, once they are smashed.  Well let me tell you about the red and green spectacle of jungle island roadkill.  So sad.  My first sighting of an iguana on the island was the most spectacular combination of bright red bodily fluids, spilled out underneath an almost fluorescent green lizard chassis … about 2 feet of carnage, forked tongue to tail.  Yuck, man.

But not to worry.   Plenty more iguanas where that one came from.  One day on the Dirty Gig I was strolling over to the lunch tent when a green flash swept right beside my feet, out from behind a stack of scaffolding parts.  The thing almost scared the bodily fluids out of my chassis.  I have seen iguanas in college dorm rooms and on TV, but never trotting through a parking lot.  Yes, it looks like the awkward, almost mechanical movements of some Japanese horror flick, when you break it down in detail.  But, the creature somehow puts all this ugly movement into a pretty fast pace.  Weird.  I was so amazed.  I looked at the local workers nearby, to imply “Did you just see that!?!”  They were like, “nyuh!”  While I was marveling at the reptile mechanics, they told me they were thinking “you know iguanas ‘make good eatin.’”

I wonder, if you put an iguana on a leash, can you walk it into Starbucks as your service iguana?  I digress …

Just as life is different on an island for humans, it is a different world for other mammals.  There was a time at the worksite when we would see four or five stray dogs wander through each day.  And then there was one.  Four dogs have disappeared without explanation.  Interesting, about the same time the strays disappeared, an entrepreneur starting showing up at the job, service fried meat pies out of the trunk of their beat up car.  I pray there is no connection.  But if so, so be it.  Those empanadas are good eatin’.

And then there was one.  The remaining dog is the best, smartest dog I have seen in a long time.  He is a mixture of different ancestries, with Beagle appearing to be his strong suit.  He is a survivor and has a wound and a distinct limp … probably parked too close at the supermarket … sorry.  Everyone is taking care of the dog, although in this storm-torn economy, no one has rushed the dog to the vet, as we would in The States.  Here, people are already in survival mode … and accordingly, four-legged members of the family tree are a little lower in priority.  Ha … I suspect this dog will eventually develop doggie diabetes from all the handouts he is fed three or four times a day.  And his leg is getting better.  Just the other day, I saw a very nice gentleman at the company sneak up to the dog with a spray can of antiseptic.  Ha … the dog was wise to it.  Poochie lingered for just a moment, then darted away when the can was raised toward his wound.  He is a special dog … like this island … a survivor … resilient … he will heal with or without help.

I have suggested to the crew at the job that we should have a contest to name the dog.  Hmmm … Lincoln Dog … maybe …

 

On my drive through the mountains I spotted luckier dogs.  After I pulled off on a mountain side road, I rounded a corner that ended in a parking lot, hidden from the main road.  The lot was empty at one end except for some small Asian-made car that had been torched and burned to a special-recipe crisp. Near the incinerated car was a bit of graffiti extolling the importance of preserving the environment.  No idea if the two events were related messages. At the other end of the parking lot was three or four cars, some people on foot and a few dogs in a circle.  It was not a a dogfight — although cockfighting is totally legal here and there is a cockfight-a-torium about a block from my four-star hotel … I digress …). This was more of a love in.  Yes, good old fashioned, sanctioned, animal husbandry.  The people were apparently letting their pets breed … in the parking lot.  Ha … how charming.  It was weird.  One can’t help but to gawk for a second when such a deed is spotted, out there in the asphalt jungle, before looking away.  And this event was also bizarre, because one young man — all of the sudden — chased away one of the dogs with a swing of a baseball bat.  Ha … talking about ruining the mood.  I theorized one of the eligible bachelors must have jumped the line.  I drove away, puzzled.

Back to the green, green mountains.  I may have already used the comparison that the distant mountain peaks are covered in green grass that is as bright as the color of moss … almost fluorescent colored … not unlike the remains of a not-so-lucky iguana.  These sculpted, angular mountains must be what Diamond Head looks like on that other American Island.  Beautiful … impossible to capture photographically without a drone or an iguana cam …

It rains here most days — usually a brief downpour as ocean clouds hopscotch over the island.  To my enjoyment, our team sees 2-3 rainbows on most days.  The morning rainbow, the afternoon rainbow, the evening rainbow.  It was no more than 20 minutes after I commented that it was “always a partial rainbow” that my colleague Duan and I spotted a full arc of the seven colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, for the record).

All the rain makes for good eatin’, as the local horses might say.  Once you leave the most urban of the island streets, there are horses on the side of the road, tied up, with a tether fastened to a light pole or whatever, reaching just short of the roadway.  People tie off and graze their steeds just about anywhere.  Throughout my day of driving, I only encountered one horse gone rogue, walking down the middle of the highway … somehow missed by all the drivers as they strayed in and out of their lanes.  On one small-town street, I spotted a dozen horses dining take out in about a one-mile stretch. In another small town — Guayanilla — I spotted a rusty, decrepit, painted pony that had seen better days.  There was a closed, abandoned amusement park visible from Highway 2.  I pulled over hoping to get a photo or two.  Drats.  The park had a security fence and locks that didn’t allow a clear view, despite my trying all the back roads.  (Through the magic of Google Maps and satellite imagery, however, I found the merry-go-round in a pre-Maria aerial view from 2016) … mucho mas merrier days.

 

Sadly, I saw one of the boniest horses ever, underneath a young teenage boy — “abajo el muchacho” — seen first on the streets of Guayanilla, and also later across town after he made pretty good time, strolling through an open air marketplace near the sports arena.  Despite the horse’s meager condition, the youth looked so proud — a man about town — perhaps with his first “set of wheels.”

 

Back on the highway, there were many other horses that were neither tethered nor painted nor parked. After I passed through the college town of Mayaguez, it must have been time for some horse show, rodeo or other there were a helluvalotta birthday parties, somewhere.  The roads and the highways  were filled with horses being transported down the roads. However, I didn’t see but one or two horse trailers the entire day.  In PR, it seems the vaqueros simply accessorize their pickup truck beds with some railing, and load the horses straight into the truck bed.  Hmmm … I can barely remember on our family farm, that we had some livestock racks that would fit our old stepside ’64 Chevy truck … but I don’t think my dad ever hauled any animal taller than a pig or a calf in the truck … I digress …

They were everywhere — as many as four ponies in some pickups.  Unlike The States, I suppose in PR you can tell the size of a man’s horse by the size of his pickup truck.  LOL.

On a sadder note, I think I saw one of humanity’s saddest human conditions.  On the main street of Mayaguez, I noticed a beggar limping along in the median of the road.  As I approached, it was evident that one of his legs was swollen almost twice the size of the other.  His oversized leg was discolored and also had a huge open wound of some sort.  Getting closer, I noticed he had only one healthy arm.  One was a nub, stopping at the elbow.  In this day and time … was it leprosy?  I will never know.  Surely not.  It could have been any one of a multitude of illnesses.  It could have been the result of infections from intravenous  drug use.  It could have been some totally innocent malady.  So sad. As I drove by, I saw the man’s face.  He looked as if he could have been some handsome college professor with a beard and blondish-brown curls.  Man!  The rest of us are so fortunate.

(For the record, Internet sources say there was a leper colony originally on Cabras Island and then as medicines improved, located much closer to San Juan in the 1930s in Trujillo Alto, but the disease was eradicated from PR in the 1970s.)

I can’t think of an appropriate segue after such a horribly sad scene … suffice to say I continued on down the road.

Back to my original purpose in this blog, I stopped at several businesses — looking for Wi-Fi — in the fairly modern city … After so many small country stores and backroads, Mayaguez was obviously a more contemporary city, complete with the retail chains and restaurants you would see in any mid-sized American city on the mainland.  Ha … in an earlier blog, I referred to the Longhorn Steakhouse chain as a vital landmark, when I was lost and getting mixed signals from my GPS unit.  So … what the heck.  When I saw a Longhorn Steakhouse in Mayaguez, I pulled over.  After a month of mostly pork in PR, I “deserved” a steak.  It was peppery, in the black, cracked sense of the word.  Delicious.  But, alas, no Wi-Fi in Longhorn, at least not since the hurricane.  It was a Sunday morning, and I had beaten the “church crowd” to the restaurant … So, I had my pick of tables, and I was the only entertainment for the waitress.  She was impeccable, spoke English better than me, and she hung around just enough to make a conversation, but knew to back off to a safe distance when I started slicing beef and feeding my fat face:)  Ha … while I was sad there was no Wi-Fi, I chuckled that Longhorn Steakhouse in Mayaguez featured classic rock on the sound system.  While in the car, I have been listening to two choices on local radio: either the local favorite — salsa — (which I like) or the repititious, shallow pop music imported from The States, which I deplore. Ha … as I sliced sirloin in Puerto Rico, I was treated to “Rocking Down The Highway” by The Doobie Brothers.  Bon appetit.

About three doors down from Longhorn was Coldstone Creamery.  How could I resist?  So my first steak on the island was followed closely thereafter by my first pistachio- and amaretto-flavored ice cream, Puerto Rico style.  Yes! WI-FI too!  Also, Coldstone, true to its name, had the best air conditioning I have encountered on this planet.  The sweet, fully-bilingual college student serving up the cream was wearing a fur-lined, hooded parka … no, well I lied about the parka … but she agreed it was way too cold.  Had it not been for the opportunity to warm my feet around the Wi-Fi hotspot, I would have taken my cone to the car.  After a brief exchange of the Wi-Fi code … I was treated to the my first taste of the Internet in several hours … It was delicious.

Know what I sayin?