Get Adobe Flash player

Viva Puerto Rico! Reclaiming Paradise Lost To Maria

November 12th, 2017 · Tags:Uncategorized

Well, as some of you know, The Dirty Gig (a disaster recovery assignment) has taken off to PR … Puerto Rico.  As a communications type, I am still trying to get used to seeing the PR abbreviation without thinking “public relations.”

The Texas driver for the airport run was scheduled to arrive at 4 a.m., which should have allowed me to sleep until 3 a.m. But wrong.  The body clock didn’t want me to be late, and said “Get up at two.”  Reluctantly, I listened to my body and did as I was told.  We picked up two more guys and were to DFW Airport by 5:15 a.m.

Ha … right off the bat it started … this Larry David-like syndrome of random stuff that seems to follow me around:)  I found a lost laptop computer in the plastic trays that are stacked in front of the security screening line.  It is, of course, not mine, but since I found it, I am immediately suspect.  And of course, in this day and time, I thought “what if this is a terrorist booby trap?”.  It was not.  I was sufficiently harassed, a little over X-rayed on my electronic devices that I did not find … and happily on my way.  I wonder how many other travelers had seen the lost Lenovo laptop, but were smart enough to just let it be.

Hmmm … we were scheduled to land in San Juan, Puerto Rico just after lunch, so I thought I should buy some food for the plane.  Funny thing about airport  carry-on food, it’s about $5 per piece of bread. So, I think the airport is the one place where buying an overpriced-but-quality-ingredients Starbucks sandwich makes sense.  Granted, they no longer have the cool goat cheese and ciabatta bread foo-foo sandwiches at DFW International Airport like other Starbucks, but the turkey sandwiches will suffice.

Ha … I always get funny looks when I buy food only, and forego the caffeine at a Starbucks … Ha …. I thought I was going to get screened again for suspicious behavior.

Finally onboard, there was FREE in-flight Wi-Fi from my old, old friends Gogo.  However — be advised — they pulled the plug on “free” somewhere over the Gulf Of Mexico … and I am sure my pen pals who where enjoying very engaging conversation on-line suddenly wondered if my plane had gone down.  Rumors of my having to parachute are greatly exaggerated.  Well … did they pull the plug or did American lose ground-to-air Wi-Fi? Hmmm … Or does American have satellite to air Wi-Fi connectivity?  (They had ground to air …)

We land.

We go to get our rental car.

It has been rented to someone else, so we go to a second rental desk and score a mini-van.  Ha … anything will do, knowing the island is overwhelmed with shortages.

We headed east out of San Juan, Puerto Rico and continued toward Carolina, PR and Rio Grande, PR, with directions provided by one crazy GPS … We had input the hotel address but the “fool-proof” technology decided to show us the countryside — via a tiny, winding two-lane strip of asphalt up and over the large hills, with a multitude of oncoming cars, swerving tight around the curves, all racing toward the same goal … their afternoon beer. After several near misses with the locals who know the curves better than us … or at least they try to drive like they do … my co-worker and I turned around and stopped to ask directions from three caballeros who were drinking beer at a tiny gas station on the side of the hill.  Total serendipity.  One of the guys was wearing a colored arm band from the hotel, because he worked there.  Nice guy.  Gave us great directions, and soon we found our hotel.

 

The night before we reported to our work site, we checked into the once-opulent, previously luxurious Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort.

http://www.wyndhamriomar.com/#gref

 Wow.  This place must have been something back in the day, prior to Hurricane Maria having her way.  The hotel footprint is huge.  Lots of marble.  Immaculate swimming pools surrounded by remnants of the tropical rainforest “nextdoor” … lots of palm trees and unseen, exotic songbirds.  It’s a resort’s resort, with a casino, golf course and its own little piece of beach.  For the most part you can still see and appreciate the domed great room of the lobby, the marble columns, festive tile work but there are also places where lot of wet drywall had been removed, with scaffolding set in place for the rebuilding process.  

A gentleman at the front desk is from Brooklyn and has been working at the property for 20 years. The surrounding grounds are a spectacle of palm trees, with cloud covered mountains for backdrops.  The golf course looks immaculate … and totally empty for the time being. (I am kind of wondering if the bird chirping is electronic … haven’t spotted one of those birds yet!:)

Through the huge lobby, and down several hallways, past the casino, we find a convention room transformed into the dining area, for the buffet. The tres leches was #TDF … but served only one night!?!  There was an unusual mix of people — mainly men — all on the island to provide an area of expertise to rebuild the island … primarily electric utility repairmen, security guards, Doctors/Nurses Without Borders types, Army National Guard and a few of the disaster recovery people I work with on what I call “The Dirty Gig.”

The unusual mixture of vocations led to interesting dinner conversations.  A young security guard, prayed before eating, and told me he was missing his family back in Tennessee.  He’s the son of a pastor who was an Oregon Duck trackster in college, fortunate and fast enough to have run the relay with former Dallas Cowboy Mel Renfro back in the day at Oregon.  I am reminded of a co-worker (sadly now deceased) from previous Dirty Gigs who also played sports at Oregon — a linebacker on the football team, if memory serves.  My friend Al — rest in peace — did a stint as a Hollywood stuntman back in the day … performing the famous Belushi-falling-from-the-ladder scene in “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”  I digress …

A few days into the trip, interesting conversations seemed to be everywhere.  I think the turmoil and upheavel on the island  was making people more drawn to conversation …

 

I met an ex-patriot from Brooklyn — now a full-time PR resident, who had no kind words for the outspoken Puerto Rican officials who had so crassly criticized our (and their) President Trump … in effect biting the hand feeding the storm-ravaged territory. The gentleman, a plumber by trade, said the people of Puerto Rico had never been much for taking care of business, or themselves or anything.  Sounded a bit like an over-generalization to me … but what do I know?  He described a welfare mentality, a land of no income taxes and a vulnerable society with no home owners’ insurance in this often-targeted hotspot of “Hurricane Alley.” He said most either have no car insurance or have insufficient coverage … and many are now without transportation.

That is all hearsay.  But what I can tell you is that Puerto Rico is wounded much deeper than what you see at first glance.  Sure there are massive traffic sign pillars here and there, bent over like so many discarded children’s toys … and the once lush green mountainsides and valleys look like shrapnel hit them in a war zone … but many buildings appear to be okay.  The deeper problem — as I am sure you have read — is the power situation … the lack of electricity.

I saw a line of 400-500 people waiting on the sidewalk of a local The Home Depot on my second day on the island.  Talking with a security guard, I learned the line was allowed into the store for one item only.  Everyone was buying electrical generators … or “plantas” as the locals say … (as in power plant, I presume).  The Home Depot had set up the store with one way in, one cash register area open, and one way out … all traffic and trade was to distribute the precious generators ASAP.  Pretty efficient.

It is interesting, and so very sad to talk to some of my native co-workers on The Dirty Gig.  They show up at 7 a.m. and put in a long, hard, days work as if nothing was out of the ordinary.  But if you take a moment to find out their situation, it breaks the heart.  One of the most positive, energetic and resourceful workers on the job is living in his car, next to his demolished house.  He bathes outside with water from lord-knows-where … probably from the daily downpours.

Another worker told me half of his home was out of commission, and his mother’s home was destroyed.  Meanwhile, he and his wife and baby are staying at a relative’s house, sleeping under the stars on a balcony.  Each morning they wake to find more insect bites on their toddler.  It is so endearing to see people so strong and tenacious, and grateful for the opportunity to make some money in this horrible situation.

I can’t imagine the hardships they are experiencing.  I am not even handling this off-the-grid thing … It has been days since I have been able to get Wi-Fi on my laptop, with only a few spotty hits on my cell phone … Thank goodness for Wal-Mart.  Most of their stores I have visited here have Wi-Fi up and running.  My cell phones have been pretty useless most of the time … so far.  My first time off the grid since about 2003. Wow.  Where are the Google Loon Wi-Fi spheres I have heard so much about (Wi-FI balloons launched to provide connectivity to the island)?  No Wi-Fi in The Wyndham … but what a great hotel, although she’s sporting a nasty black eye earned in her fight with Maria.

A sandy beach butts up to the back of the Wyndham resort property, the only thing between us and the ocean.  The sunrises are real and they’re magnificent (yes a Seinfeld reference … I digress).  Pretty much every day begins with light showers, and then scattered clouds, resulting in a morning rainbow …  And there is usually an afternoon rainbow too. Rats, I wanted a rainbow for a backdrop when I stopped at a stadium Roberto Clemente built for kids to play baseball in Carolina, PR.  Then sunshine.  The another rainbow that night on my long drive back from Hatillo, PR … a nice little city near the northwest surfing corner of the island.  (They say the stadium suffered several million dollars worth of damage.)

 

Without TV, I was totally out of the loop for the entire World Series.  Ha … I thought I had heard and misreported to someone that Houston had already won the series … then I found out there was still a game left.  So, yes I am a prophet.  Actually, there was one TV at The Wyndham that worked.  But it was at the bar, down around the pool.  On the last night of the series, I slid into the water and splashed around prior to the game.  There was more luck.  Puerto Rican TV was featuring just about every Pudge Rodriquez career highlight ever recorded.  Pudge will always be one of my favorites, having revolutionized the position behind the plate … and doing it in Texas, for the most part.  So, I was swimming around and catching highlights, gazing up at the stars, feeling the ocean breeze and thinking that things couldn’t get much better … but they did.

 

Just after Pudge threw out a baserunner on the TV, I saw a little black mouse run past one side of the bar, and he was turning on the speed and trying to steal away to the second bar, when out of nowhere jumped this badass, semi-wild, mixed variety cat.  Swoosh!  The little mouse was “dead in the water” so to speak … no he was out at home.  As if in celebration, the cat then snatched up the mouse and started parading around the bar … Running to my left.  Then rushing back to my right, as I was floating around.  Ha … then a couple of hotel employees joined the parade, chasing the cat (with mouse in mouth … the cat’s mouth) back and forth.  It was pretty hilarious.  What a perfect night at the pool … what with highlights and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom-worthy survival-of-the-fleetest action to boot.  I digress …

 

For me — the journalist me” —  The Dirty Gig in Puerto Rico began with much promise.  When I reported to work, I was told I was “just the guy” for supply procurement and delivery … LOL … a.k.a. the truck driver.  This made me very happy, actually, because the first few days saw me travel to Carolina … to Bayamon … to Hatillo (on the far northwest corner of the island) and way down south to Ponce … yes as in Ponce De Leon.  What more could a road-tripping blogging conquistador wish for, than to hit the road with purpose and see the beauty of the island and the devastating aftermath of the storm as well.

I was loving it.  You may know, I “cut my blog teeth” on an 18,000-mile roadtrip, solo, throughout the entire mainland United States.  when I drive, I always put a note pad beside me, because lots of blogging ideas come to mind, behind the wheel.

Ha … my job was much more than driving from point A to point B to load supplies.  It was much more of a contest to see where supplies might be available, traveling over roads that might be open, using one of several GPS units I was carrying, all of which just may or may not be working.

As the rough roads began to massage my mind and throw in gear my imagination, I envisioned that my supply guy job was much more like the duties of the old character on a TV western:)  Anybody remember cowboy Rowdy Yates on Rawhide? Ha … if memory serves, that was the role played by Clint Eastwood, and he was the scout looking for water on the pioneer trail, ahead of a wagon train.  (I may be mixing several gems from the Western genre in this day dream) … but anywho, as I drove the truck through the wilds of Puerto Rico, that was my main objective — to find water (well, packing boxes too) for the hundred plus workers back at the job.  In the mainland, when was the last time you lived more than a day without electricity, and had to scramble to find water to drink?  Not only was potable water hard to find in PR, when I did find it, often the retailers had imposed a one-case-per-customer limit.  So, I had to ride my pony … er, drive my van to several stores to get just a few cases of water … 

About that water … Love the name of the local bottled water — Nikini … to me this speaks of the most minuscule, bare swimsuit.  But, after perusing the contents on the bottle, I have found enlightenment.  Inspired by the indigenous tribes that once populated this island, in the tongue of the Taino culture, “’Ni’ means water and “Ki’ means the spirit of the earth.”  There … we all learned something.

It was not just the water that was hard to find — it seems in Puerto Rico, at least at The Home Depot — customer service and any sense of urgency are more scarce than Aquafina.  Granted, we on The Dirty Gig are spoiled in The States.  When we enter the Pro Services area of a Lowe’s Home Improvement or The Home Depot, our company logo is immediately recognized, because we are one of the biggest national purchasers at those stores.  In PR, the locals had never heard of our company.  Ha … at first they would barely give me the time of the day, never stopping their friendly chit-chatting with local carpenters or mom&pop subcontractors, or woever to help out a crazy Gringo (me).

At first, I will admit, I was chapped.  I worked in retail early in my adult life and still remember the archaic concept of customer service.  So that’s what I expect.  But, bear in mind, this is Puerto Rico.  Technically, it IS The United States … but it is totally different.  One must move slower, converse more freely, laugh and smile more and do the cordial smalltalk … and then maybe you discuss what the jobsite needs when everyone is comfortable with that.

The salespeople were just not coming round quick enough, so yes, I pulled out the big guns.  I played up the crazy Gringo to the Nth power … yes … I rapped in Spanish one day for the fine people at the Pro Desk at The Home Depot.

“Yo tengo tres amigos … muy fieles y muy buenos … son estos companeros …”

Ha … I don’t know if they were laughing at me, or with me, as the saying goes.  Did they think I was funny … or just an imbecile.  I don’t know.  Nor do I care.  All I know is that somehow my bilingual skills, or lack thereof, had worked the magic.  All of the sudden — after I quit being the ugly American, always in a hurry — the staff in the store started grabbing my stuff (merchandise … merchandise!) and actually pulled down the pallets of supplies from the shelves … Crazy but true.

Ha … I realized I had used good cop/bad cop strategy, with me playing both roles.  First I came in barking, then I left rapping about “mi perros ladran bien” (translates “my dogs bark good”).  Ha.  I bonded with the Home Depot peeps at three or four different stores over an area of a couple of hundred miles.  Never let it be said that I won’t take one for the team … playing “the foo” to get what I needed for the troops.

And I just thought the employees at the stores were slow … you should have seen the rate at which consumers “moved” through the stores.  Yes, once again, initially I was put out by this and thought my eyes rolling would get guys to move to one side of the aisle.  It did not.  So … finally I realized humor was the key to getting inside the heads of my Puerto Rican brethren.  Here’s an example.  One day these two guys were pushing a big load of 2X4 lumber and some ladders stacked high on the special little orange supply carts at The HD.  They of course parked their load as close to the cash register as possible, never caring that their load was blocking in-and-out traffic for about a quarter of the store.  I stopped my advance … as if there were any choice.  I rolled my eyes, to no avail.  I stopped.  I thought about it.

I yelled “Everybody Limbo!”

And I bent backwards from the knees, stomping around and swaying in my steel-toed workboots, slinking down toward the ground like a noodle, and I acted as if I were going to try to limbo under the obstacle.  Ha … the gruff carpenters laughed and smiled and bumped fists with me and got the hell out of the way.

Off to another Home Depot for more of this rich, cultural exchange.

 

Ha … did I mention I was carrying multiple GPS units?  Well … My personal iPhone from AT&T was pretty much useless.  My work iPhone from Verizon was worse … very, very little cell signal throughout most of the island … Because of this, someone on the job had the nice idea to get me another phone … one with a local provider.  So … each day, while I was out of coverage areas, the messages would build up and marinate in my inbox.  Then when my travels took me through an area blessed with cell coverage, all three phones would sound off like the calling birds back at the hotel.  Actually, the rapid fire buzzes, vibrations and electric alarms were more akin to the rapidfire of an assault … but I thought it was too soon to use that analogy … I digress.

Ha … after several old messages came in, then there would be an onslaught of messages from several people asking me to respond to all of the other messages I had just gotten.  And here is the most hilarious part.  I would respond that I “could not respond earlier” because my messages would not go through.  Finally when I hit a really good area of coverage, my messages would go through, and I would get alerts from the arrival of my own messages … because people had put all three of my phones in the message thread.  Ha … I had messages propagating … or multiplying like rodents in my inbox.  It was a bit annoying … especially since I had signed a company pledge stating I would not read messages while driving.  Do you know how irritating it is to drive in a strange land, where traffic lights are not working at all in any intersections … very dangerous … and then having to pull over to read a message … and then realize it is your own message being delivered to your other phones.  Not funny, ya’ll.  I digress.

So, one day, I was headed to a new Home Depot — there were two in the city of Bayamon.  One of my GPS units found the first store easily.  Luck of the draw, the pallet of empty boxes I was picking up, had been secured at the second store in that town.  No worries … I punched in the other GPS coordinates.  Great.  The magic technology took me deep into the heart of a PR barrio … pretty rough.  I would have pulled a u-turn, but the streets were too narrow for the truck I was driving that day … not to mention littered with broken palm trees, displaced trash dumpsters, new and age-old wreck cars, unrestrained Pit Bulls and a few rogue pieces of a McDonalds or Burger King indoor kiddy slide.  I pulled out another GPS and punched in the address … It rerouted me for a few minutes, then pointed me back into the urban no-man’s land I had just left.  F-F-F-F-Frustration!  What could I do?  I drove back to Bayamon HD #1.  They assured me I had the right address.  But to be safe, they gave me oral directions.  I followed their instructions, which passed no noticeably orange bigbox retailers, but however, took me into the aqua, pink, purple, sky blue and other pastel colors of Old San Juan … where the streets are even more narrow than my favorite barrio.  I was not amused, and finally got out of the tourist area, and its one-way maze of nightmares.  I made big circles on the more prominent streets.  No HD.  I returned to HD #1 and this time they actually hand-sketched a map.  I give them a 10 for their effort and about a minus six for their cartography.

I followed this explorer-worthy map to the tee … No HD!  By this time, my Locks of Love hair was in danger of hasty removal, falling prey to my anger and confusion.  Finally, I remembered something a Home Depot lady said about a Longhorn restaurant near the Home Depot.  I punched in the cafe name, and voila, the GPS took me straight to the objective … just two hours late.  Ha … Guess what.  When I finally, finally got there, my order wasn’t ready.  And for the record, the mapbuilders had left out a crucial turn on a major thoroughfare … but they had good intentions, and they knew what they meant.

Man … the much-sought-after hardware store was nextdoor to a multi-screen cinema and a Wal-Mart.  The parking lot was busier than rush hour in Bangkok … no it was worse … it was more like an anger-filled Dallas Cowboys parking lot after a lost to The Eagles (only an example) …  I escaped with my life and lived to get lost another day … 

Speaking of Bangkok and Thailand, especially around the northern town Bayamon, there are some pretty impressive limestone cliffs rising out of the terrain, in the middle of cityscape.  The formations are similar to the cliffs that make up James Bond Island in the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand. Ha … you would think my friends the mapmakers might have used one of those huge landmarks as a landmark on my map … but ny-oooooh.

Bayamon … Ha … is that an old Ricky Martin song?  I am not up to speed on my Ricky Martin hits, so I just pretended it is and drove around the town singing it to the tune of one of his songs.  Interesting.  One of the guys I met at lunch told me Ricky Martin keeps a home in PR.

To carry on that comparison, after the tornado hit the island, to me, PR looks like Thailand if shrapnel hit all of the trees.  The trees have made a comeback and there is already lush foliage all around, but you can see lots of broken and barren trees in the thick woods … and of course there are lots of huge uprooted trees laying over on their sides all along the roadways.  This is scary, in the mountains there are still broken, downed power lines outlining the roads.  One has to assume that there is no danger at this point in the game, but then again, one must never assume.  Also scary … lots of concrete utility poles left leaning along the sides of the roads, with God only knows keeping them up.  I confess, I pucker up a little every time I drive by one of those.

Know what I sayin?