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Tragedy After Maria In Puerto Rico; Other Stories

December 9th, 2017 · Tags:Arts · Cities · Coffee Shops · Hotels · Satire · Wi-Fi

Rooftop Filter, Carolina

The Dirty Gig is full of characters … never a dull moment … And Puerto Rico was no different.  Working at the storied El San Juan Hotel in Carolina, Puerto Rico, one of my colleagues supervised a laborer named Ura who just stood out above the others … for his personality and attitude … not to mention his willingness to do whatever he was asked on the job.  He was always beaming a smile.  He sometimes jogged or almost danced through the workplace.  When it was safe, he jumped over stacks of empty boxes about four feet high, almost in a single bound.  As if by command performance he did a standing-still backflip the other day when I asked if he could.  No prob.  Of course, he can juggle too.  The guy is just a born entertainer. (I challenged him to take up the unicycle … I digress…)  Although I suggested he should move from Puerto Rico stateside and be a sports team mascot, my colleague nailed it mo better. She said he should try out for some role at Disney … bingo.

 

Linda, Ura

Ney

I hope that someday Ura is starring in made-for-teens comedies, recording records and having dances named after him on the mouse ear channel … 

After getting to know Ura and his friends, I was reassigned.  I left the hotel site and on Saturday returned to a project at a documents storage facility, 20 minutes to the east in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.  The following Monday, I received bad news from workers at the documents job.  Apparently, a worker in Carolina was abducted off the street in Carolina, after work.  Authorities found the body late Sunday, I think it was.  Even though I had bounced between two different projects, many of the workers knew each other.  One of the laborers on my team was beside himself with grief, but worked anyway because things are pretty tough in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, to say the least.  The mourning working told me his brother had been killed.  Wow … I knew one of his brothers, and asked if that was the one.  It wasn’t … Later I learned the sad man was referring to his childhood friend as “his brother.”  I was relieved to find out it was not the real brother who I knew.

However, as more pieces of the story fell into place, the man who died was the real brother of my friend Ura.  How horrible.  I can’t imagine surviving a hurricane, scraping by to live after your real job has been washed away — all while keeping such a great attitude — and then having such a major part of your world whisked away by violence.  So  horrible.  A couple of days later I left the island, without having a chance to talk to Ura.  My condolences, mi amigo!

What good times with many of the workers in Puerto Rico … hardworking people, but always laughing and treating one another with such respect and affection.  Ha … I even benefitted from this familiar attitude, receiving a 10-inch Puerto Rican style flan dessert on the morning I left the job.  Yum … (message me if you want the recipe …)

So … I am going to learn to cook flan, without a Jello-brand box.  I learned much in PR, including the meaning of a word very, very similar to Ping or my last name, Pingel … change just a letter or two, and you have one of the most vulgar words in the language.  Ha … Now why doesn’t that surprise me?  No more jokes about Pingo Rico …

The last three weeks in Puerto Rico, I stayed at the El San Juan Hotel, where I also worked temporarily.  What a grand old hotel.  I knew it was pretty opulent the moment I walked in, even though there were plastic sheet barriers in much of the lobby, and fans airing out the hotel after the recent storm.  Ha … a few days later, I found out I had only seen a side entrance.  Behind the plastic barriers there was a showcase of beautiful woodwork, a hidden casino, an immaculate theater and one of the largest crystal chandeliers I have ever seen.  Yes … opulence. 

 

El San Juan Reflections

My room at the ESJ Hotel was excellent.  Much of the property was unscathed by the storm.   This was not the case for the top of the hotel.  Apparently there was at one time a barbecue restaurant up on top, with what looked to be a pretty expansive greenhouse-type enclosure on the roof.  I say it looked to be because most of the outer covering of the structure was gone after the storm, with only parts of the frame remaining.  How do I know this, since my job at the hotel was in the basement? Well … what can I say?  I am prone to wander.  One night, I was lured to the top floor after hearing about the giant, super moon/blood moon phenomena.  I rode the elevator to the top, slipped out a door and was outside looking over the downtown area of Carolina.  There was little danger.  An earlier rainstorm and its lightning had long since passed and there was a safe fenced enclosure on the roof.  But, unfortunately, the clouds were still hanging around.  By the time the moon peeked out from behind the clouds, it was high in the sky and not all that spectacular.  Oh well … I like to explore these properties when I can, snapping a few photos here and there.  … Shot some time exposures of an old school neon sign … The neon was unplugged, but a nearby exit sign shed light on the topic. (The pelican was added at a later date … I digress …)

 

Time Exposure, Photo Composite

Oh, by the way, the Wi-Fi at El San Juan was excellent in my room every night, even if I had to continue to re-up with my room number for the free service each night. 

You may have seen in a previous post that just a few weeks prior, I had been staying at a really nice Wyndham resort property — but being further from the city, the Wyndham didn’t have satellite TV or Wi-Fi inside or on the roof.  (I checked.)  … Ha … it got worse.  One night after work, I reached the Wyndham around 7 p.m. and headed straight to the nice buffet.  Immediately after dinner, I was returning to my room when people started poking their heads out of rooms up and down the hallway.  The power had gone out.  Well … actually there was no power being delivered to the hotel already — the infrastructure of the island had pretty much been wiped out.  Everything was on generators.   So … as soon as the power went out that night at the hotel, all of us guests — all of us working in the disaster industry — all cursed one person collectively.  We all knew someone had forgotten to call the diesel tanker to come fill up the huge portable generators — the life support machines for the huge property. (We were not on the job at this hotel, btw, just guests.)

Why this night of all nights to lose power?  It was very discouraging for me, because I had absolutely no more clean work clothes and already had plans to do laundry.  But … did I mention there were no working washers or dryers at The Wyndham?  Yes … my big laundry night was going to be handwashing clothes … in a shower stall, with no tub, to boot.  Then couple the handwashing laundry evening with no light in the room.

I had to tell myself this was nothing but a minor inconvenience. All around me every day were people who had lost everything … people who barely had any clothes left, much less a washing machine or electricity.  Some were eating leftover military rations handed out as the first responders first arrived at the island.  So, I wasn’t too worried about hand washing in the dark.

 

Ha … I decided to make the best of it.  I fired up the remaining battery power on my laptop and played some sweet tunes from my iTunes shuffle.  For light, I was in luck.  That evening I happened to have brought “home” my flashlight from the job.  But, the narrow-but-bright beam wasn’t cutting it.  I remembered an old photographers’ trick I learned from one too many readings of American Photographer magazine, and I snatched up a bottle of purified water from my table.  A plastic jug is great for diffusing light. I shined the flashlight through the clear jug of water and it acted like a nice lamp shade, spreading the harsh, tiny beam into a warm glow … kind of a disaster relief style holiday “luminary.”  Ha!  “What atmosphere!”, as I sloshed around in the shower, fully undressed, all of my clothes soaking in the soapy suds under my feet.  It was quite the scene.  I figured it must have looked like someone cleaning the wooden casks at a monastery winery … “Stomp, stomp them grapes …” … Ha, the voice of Mel Tillis filled my imagination.

“I’ve got to lose these blues

before I take myself back home … 

Stomp stomp them grapes.”

Hmmm … I wonder if Mel repeated “stomp”  in the lyrics is for emphasis or because he was famous for his stuttering??? ( I digress …)

Washing the clothes by hand was no problem.  Hang drying them in a hotel room with no open windows in a place as humid as PR was another story.  Literally, it took about three days for the clothes to dry, and that is if I also took a hot iron to them.  Never before have my steel-toed work boots stuck out from below a pair of pants with a crease.

The concern, of course, was mildew.  I think I was successful in preventing my workclothes from becoming a walking Petri dish of fungi.  I mean … it was raining almost every day, sometimes twice.  As discussed earlier, the first few weeks in PR, I felt cheated if I hadn’t seen at least two rainbows per day.  Yes, there was fungus among us …

 

But, when life gives you fungus, make toadstools … or something like that.  A couple of days later, with semi-fresh clothes, I headed out for one of my first days off in Puerto Rico.  Like a bullet, I shot out for El Morro, the old colonial-era fortification overlooking the ocean on the north side of the island.  I don’t have a bucket list, per se, but if I did, El Morro would be planted somewhere near the top of the list.  But dang it … When I got to the fort, the gates were locked.  The park was closed.  All the other turistas and I had to settle for walking around the massive walls that protect the main structures.

NYU Friends

 

I was disappointed to find the fort locked up, but hey, I only had to drive 15 minutes from The Dirty Gig project.  My friend and co-worker Rony explored and I talked to two young tourists who had scheduled their trip to Puerto Rico months before Hurricane Maria “whooped up” on the island.  The two NYU students visited the island anyway, unable to get refunds … they too made the best of the situation.  Nice ladies … fun.

 

So … all of us photo buffs circled the property, getting the obligatory external shots of the guard windows … the nearby cemetery … the outside of the fort … and thats when I saw some unusual subject matter.  Yes, the fungus to which I just referred.  Huge mushrooms were everywhere, fluorishing or should I say “sporing” in the lush, green, overly moist grass surrounding the park.  I crawled on my belly up an embankment to shoot the wild mushrooms at gnome level, hoping to also catch the military structure in the background of the photo.  It kind of worked … Not a bad shot for my fungus album.

Rony, El Morro

 

Uprooted

 

No Wi-Fi to go with the no admittance at El Morro …  Even so, the return trip, a week later was to share the historic site with Rony.  We shot more photos, then drove downhill into the heart of Old San Juan.  Wow …. I was going to show him the huge U.S. military hospital ship anchored over by Senior Frog’s cantina … but the darned thing was gone.  We kept exploring, and found the true sign of civilization.  Past the massive, uprooted banyan tree in the plaza, beyond the rum bars at the nice street market, we spotted our old friend, the green mermaid of Starbucksdom.

Know what I sayin?