Sunday, May 08, 2005

Kites, el morro, cemetaries, and where tourists Should Never Go,
San Juan, Bayamon y Loiza

Finally, back to Puerto Rico :)

Stretching from Santurce to Bayamón is the newest transit system in the world, Tren Urbano. It links San Juan's sprawl, consolidating traffic and struck me as revolutionary as BART is/was for the bay area. I am a BART superfan, AC transit too. I think the AC Transit UC Berkeley student program (and to a lesser extent its faculty program) is tre brillig. But TU is like, going to mobilize this area in a way not seen before.

Transit in PR is strange, large cities like San Juan and municipalities (like Santurce, etc.) have bus systems which are somewhat reliable (the more they serve tourist centers, the more reliable they are, it seems). In rural areas, they have "publicos" which are actually private cars that run taxi service up and down a main, single route-- you arrange for a pickup or wave one down (as they ply the same road, up and down, over and over... 2 lane highways thru towns that are sometimes less than 3 houses slung together near a cliff, sometimes smaller rural townships)... There is a lot of car ownership and use, despite the old roads (newer highways exist though, like the 2 we took on the ponce leg of the trip west) and most traffic depends on the car. But this ... this could really change the face of Puerto Rico. It links the University, the main medical center in the area, the city hall area, outlying (poor) Santurce all the way to Bayamón in a trip that shaves half an hour at least to any destination.

Driving to Santurce from Isla Verde, we pass this monument on the highway:

Terribly blurry but out the car window, seventy mph etx. "But its not a monument," (it is about 6 feet high, kneeling madonna in white marble), "it's a tomb gravesite."

When building the airport here, They bought the cemetary that lay here and moved all of its deepish, softish residents to another pasture free from metal vultures invading their dreams above... This ancestor's family refused, and stands as the only undisturbed plot along the highway to the airport-- next to which stands a landscape artist's rendition of flowers to read GOYA for the people above to see as they chime in unison, "they look like ants..."

I wish the pic turned out better.

Another monument seen along the highway:

Museó Histórica la Biblia (historical museum of the bible). Showcases scientific proof exhibit of man's living with the dinosaur 3,000 years ago, as well as a lifesized dino for kids to pose with.

Anyhow, Santurce to Bayamón's red mud streets via Tren Urbano. Bayamón is sleepy, colonial, pro-statehood, Spanish. The roads were soft with rainsoaked, fine red dirt turned redclay paste-- but there were no accidents, no destruction as there would have been in San Juan had the roads looked like this. Cars were parked solidly, outlasting the rain to dry back into hardcaked surfaces to be rolled up and out of.

The local historical museum's upstairs exhibit is a tribute to its long ensconsed, pro statehood mayor (whose son now is mayor). Downstairs, hundreds of strong portraits in black and white (a woman mayor in the early 20th century here)... but only one mention of the undercurrent of slavery here that is imprinted in the racial and social heritage of all on la isla...


"Carting sugar for shipment."

"Sugar mill at work."

How unselfconsciously the slavemasters and whipholders stand.

We boarded back on the train (which by the way is running for free now, testing kinks and getting knots out before official paid launch), back to San Juan proper and the car, and coaxed her thru the dizzy Norzagaray and La Fortaleza streets, with tourists in too big minvans trying to hug a nonexistant curb as they wind down the blue cobblestoned streets looking for RADIO SHACK and BEN & JERRY'S in the middle of historic san juan making the driving even harder...

April is the month of kites in Puerto Rico. Families buy $2 plastic kites at their local cash and carries, and a pinch or three of cotton twine for .69 cents (natch), and come to El Morro's backyard to hoist themselves into the wind, behind the fort that withstood the dutch, english, and rolled gracefully like a divorceé to the US' adulterous advances only because she thought a little free milk wouldn't steer the americano bull away from buying... (commonwealth is a mistress, statehood is a wife)

We head to El Morro, parking in front of the Museó de Americas:

And buying homemade, softfrozen helado - mantecado (ice cream, absolutely a mustbuy when in San Juan on El Morro's steps, under the sun with shoulders brown and recognizing this is isla de san juan bautista de puerto rico y The United States Of America as the sunlobstered tourists waddle up to the cart and say "Uno porFavor my good man!" a little too loud)... I like them much more than piraguas-- a really sinewy armed guy shaves a huge block over & over and drenches the shavings in thick flavored syrups like red and green, held in a plastic cup. *So* kicks icee's ass, but helado is my fav.

I felt like such a boriken when I told them they could ask 2 flavors of helado in one cup [coca y pina for me (sickos)], while we opened up our cash and carry purchases, sweets y kites:

back home i can eat nutella from the jar off of a spoon, but here its brilliance as a snack is captured in individual minipacks with individual minilicksticks... and new nutella candies too. curse nestlé's monopoly, they're keeping us in cali away from delicious leftwing, alternative chocolates.

ocean in front of walls of el morro

entrance to el morro, longlong winding paved path to the heavy gates inside.

We didn't go into el morro this time, I went last time... maybe when I finish these pics I'll post the older ones, all different...I love talking pr :)

Anyhow, my kite: the Puerto Rican flag, natch...

You'd think you would just spend five minutes flying a kite, pack it up, and drink a heineken in the shade of an alley bar just half a block away. No way man, not when you catch the dancing winds and the grass is green and there are no local kids trying to cut your kite down (only tourists who bought audacious kites for double digits, eight fins and glitter plastic tails that can't get off the ground, while your 2.69 jobbie is shamefacing them all, laughing above y beyond their sunburned cheeks)... Spent better part of a few hours flying kites, adding on balls of twine to fly the kites and dance them up until they are all but a memory; thin halved jakes ladder made of bleached cotton and coated in sticky helado from fingers making crude knots when adding on the third .69 ball of twine and sending it further into the atmosphere...

I laid on my back, arm under my neck and praying that the tickles on my ears were just grass in the wind and not ants (i have a deathfear of ants), holding onto my kite with an outstretched arm, thinking gonzo, thinking olympics, thinking freedom and standing here on this sole entrance to San Juan and the plain fact in history Puerto Rico has been a mistress of the greeks for nigh 500+200 years, that there are no tainos left, that batey is still a mystery, that there is now *mtv puerto rico*, that too many of my friends of friends are here on la isla working less than fulltime at WTOWorld, making no more than minimum wage and still paying 249USD for a psp, but it's not the united states here but is...

We roll back the twine on itself, bring our proud plastic champions back and hand them to a pair of ten year olds with eyes made wider by the sky they took in above. Wandered towards La Perla (which every guidebook on puerto rico told me not to do, and every friend on the island convinced me i must, at least if only to see the historic san juan cemetary...)

Crypts inside were cracked open; peering inside, voyeur eyes would find exposed ribs under faulty marble slate, along with fallen in tombs (family members are stacked on top of one another in a shelving system, either side of the depth of the hole has internment space for each vertically.)

One tomb was different than the rest of the Christ-rooted symbols she was surrounded by:


August 1, 1930

September 14, 1971

May her spirit be reunited with the creative forces of the universe.

Sha has no face, and is surrounded by a half and a full moon. She is made of and the atmosphere runs thru her. The earth sprouts forth, bleeding from organic life into the atmosphere and back into the earth again... and Reba Stewart stands open to it all. Beautiful and strange that a "witch" (as my friends called her, non-perjoratively) made her way into a little corner of cemetario santa maria magdalena de pazzis, viejo de san juan, isn't it?

We stood at the head of the broken wall seperating the cemetary from La Perla, the seafacing community town outside the protective walls of El Morro, best known in guidebooks for being a *drug haven* and unsafe, unvisited by anyone just visiting... There is only one 180 degree entrance to La Perla, making spotting of police/outsiders easy and imperative to some inside (*agua!* = policia). One road in, one out, thru a *one lane* tunnel that people honk in as they drive thru (as 2 cars cannot pass and cannot see into the blind stone turn)... but outside the cemetary there was little/no traffic of cars into la perla-- just foottraffic.

But it was daytime and we were bold and somehow languid at the same time from flying kites for so long, and we followed the white crumbling wall from the cemetary on down, where it turns parallel to and ends at the entrance of la perla and looks over the water, a wellworn path down speckled with cracked pieces of marble that have been scavenged from the cemetary to serve as seats above the sea for people like us, watching the water from *outside of* el morro and the walls of san juan...

Ended the day having the BEST empanadillas I have had on la isla: La Casa del Indio along the roads of Loiza:

this is where the empanadillas (fried dough filled with meat), bacalito (deep fried codfish, more batter than fish), rellenos (potato dumpling fried with meat), piononos (plantain mash filled with meat and fried), alcapurria (yuca fried with meat) are kept warm after being prefried... you get the idea.

Places that sell just fried snacks and that kind of food are called fritturas, but this one also had a bar and restaurant-- where I ordered mofongo and fried meat. Holy crap it was good.

Mofongo is a mash of plantains, chicharrones (fried pork skins), garlic, sometimes meat, adobo (carribean spice? i cant find it locally but use it here at home-- its a mix of finely ground salt, garlic, and oregano; my brand's GOYA)... it sounds weird and I didn't want to try it last time I was in pr cos of the pork rind thing, but its SO FREAKING GOOD.

And then they go and serve it with fried meat, making it like the best meal ever. Top five or ten, anyways. Okay, like big soft hunks of beef, dredged in the colonel's "11 secret spices" (secret my ass: cnl chicken bucket's recipe tastes *just like* mofongo con carne frita...) and fried.

Really, really good too. (mentioned that already, eh.) We ended up overlooking some of the open boardwalk areas of loiza, near the foodstands selling pinchos steps away from the beach and a beautiful view of el morro lit and majestic across the water in san juan, again outside her walls...

(pinchos: pr version of shish kebab: meat only over flame, drenched in "heinz 57 barbeque sauce" (really) and served literally hot off the grill.)

Visited loiza during the day too, but that's for another post!


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