Wednesday, August 23
My nephew Xavier picked me up from the airport. As our conversation progressed, I noticed he thinks and speaks in Spanglish–indiscriminately mis-matching sentences in both languages–and learned he’s into bitcoin and wants to possibly cloud-mine crypto-currency. He even knows about monero, which gets its name from the Esperanto word for “currency” and is supposed to be more private than bitcoin. I’ve actually been looking into crypto-currencies with curiosity, but am not nearly as enthused as he is, and have never owned bitcoin.
I quickly realized why he’s showing libertarian tendencies: he told me that, with the fiscal crisis, there’s a huge awakening and many people are realizing that the banking cartel can’t be trusted. Like with Greece and many other jurisdictions, many of the island’s ailments can be traced to Wall Street corruption and predatory lending (which is not to say that the island’s politicians are less corrupt than the wolves of Wall Street). Many people have left Puerto Rico in recent years, and many of those who stay, are learning to innovate and think differently about the problems the island faces.
He drove me through an ocean-side road (I took the initial picture above from the car) and took me to see the giant Christopher Colombus statue in Arecibo. He’s planning on moving to Texas and joining the growing portion of the local demographic to do so in recent years, together with his sister–who is unfortunately in a part of Texas that is now flooded due to Hurricane Harvey.
During the drive, I noticed beautiful and nicely-kept ocean-front properties next to architectural eyesores. It’s sad to see so much dilapidated housing in what is otherwise a paradise. Around half a million people have left the island to move to the states in the last decade as a result of the worst fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico’s history, so many of these houses are probably abandoned for good and can be had at foreclosure prices.
Thursday, August 24
I wasn’t born on the island, but I did grow up here and still remember eating límbers as a kid. There’s a man in my parents’ town that still sells límbers, and made a couple of deliveries of them this week. I decided to look up the history of límbers: in 1928, early aviator Charles A. Lindbergh made a stop on the island and was welcomed with a dessert made with ice, frozen juice and pieces of fruit–sort of like a fruit smoothie, except that it’s frozen solid. The most popular ones are made from coconut, peanut, and fruits like guava, tamarind, lemon, etc. He asked what the name of the delicious treat was, and the locals named the concoction after him (Spanglishized “límber“), as the dessert previously had no name.
I rediscovered the simple pleasure of límbers that I enjoyed during my childhood, and what a great solution it is for the heat. In the 90-degree heat and humidity of the Caribbean, the experience of drinking fresh, cold fruit juice or of eating límbers is much more pleasant than it would be in other environments.
I’ve been experimenting with brewing maví (a tropical root beer) at home, and now I plan to make my own versions of límber when I get back to Chicago.
It rained during the afternoon. I absolutely enjoy the aroma of fertile, tropical soil. Puerto Rico is lush and green. I remember feeling this same feeling the day I left, as my dad drove me to the airport two weeks after a hurricane: no natural disaster can really destroy the island’s ability to recover and produce its own food.
There’s an all-pervasive sharing-economy on the island. I don’t think it’s a function of poverty. It seems to be a cultural feature, and a function of over-production actually: friends and neighbors who own land produce so much, that in order to not waste their leftovers, they frequently gift each other plantains, bananas, avocados, fruits, breadfruits, and whatever else they have. One of my uncles–who owns a few acres in the mountains and grows huge amounts of food–planted a few plantain trees in the back of my parent’s home in the last few weeks, and the breadfruit tree in the back of my parents’ house has about seven small breadfruits and a large one that I harvested and my mother cooked. A single breadfruit can feed a small family for a couple of days.
One thing I almost didn’t hear was the coquí: a tiny frog that always makes its sound at night. It is native to the island (although they have now been introduced to Hawaii). Many people listen to rainforest coquí recordings after they move away from the island in order to sleep better, with the familiar and comforting sound of the motherland. It seems like many populations of coquí are going extinct. Initially, I wondered if the iguanas–who are not native to the island, but have been introduced in recent decades and caused great harm to the ecosystem–were responsible for the demise of the coquí, but my uncle says iguanas are vegetarian. I did hear the coquí toward the end before I left the island in Caguas, a city nestled between the mountains where my brother lives.
Saturday, August 26
I learned my mother’s secret to the best oatmeal in the world: she crushes the oats until they’re fine and powdery, and (in addition to traditional cinnamon and brown sugar) makes them with evaporated milk–which is also higher in nutritional value per volume.
I also learned that mom’s technique to preserve breadfruit is to half-cook it by boiling, and then to freeze it. She has enough frozen breadfruit in her two freezers to feed them for weeks. Breadfruit, if preserved so that it does not go to waste, is considered a solution to world hunger, and is processed into flour in places like Haiti for that reason. It’s versatile, rich in protein and many other nutrients, cooks like potatoes, can be fried, boiled, or used to thicken soups, and its flour can be used to make bread or cake.
Sunday, August 27
I’ve been waking up to nature’s alarm: the cock’s crow early in the morning. This is a recurrent theme in the folklore of the jíbaros (peasants) from the mountains. Who would’ve thought that a modern descendant of dinosaurs would have this utility for centuries, and that even in the age of iPhones and very sophisticated alarms, it would still be relevant?
Spanglish code switching produces mix-ups funny and numerous enough to fit a sitcom in almost every family. My cousins visited and we shared a few “lost in translation” anecdotes. One involved the time they went to Florida and confused E-4 with I-4, passing their exit and then having to turn back, losing a few hours of vacation time on the road. This happened because “I” is pronounced in Spanish as “E” is pronounced in English, and one of my cousins was giving instructions in Spanish while thinking in English.
Another one involved my aunt Tita and her husband, who used to always argue about everything. The instructions they were given were to “turn at a Stop (sign)”, but in Spanish the word “STOP” is “PARE”. They had lived in New York for so many years and were so steeped in Nuyorican culture that they set out looking for a “party” in the city of Aguadilla (a house party?), thinking that that’s where they were supposed to turn.
Tuesday, August 29
This was the most difficult day for me and for my family. There was family chaos, and chaos at the airport. The reason for my visit was to spend time with my parents, as my father is having serious health issues, which got worse. While attempting to leave, I missed both stand-by flights that my brother, who is a flight attendant, had put me on–and my phone died, of all times, the morning of the day that I was supposed to leave. The battery was full, so that was not the issue. It simply turned off and did not turn on again. I was stranded at the airport and had no way of communicating with family. I stopped at Jet Blue to see how much a flight to Chicago might cost: the price for a last-minute flight was over 1,600 dollars. All the out-going flights were over-booked with all the airlines. I ended up going to the airport’s Office of Tourism, where they allowed me to go online and look up my google contacts, write down some numbers, and call family members to help me find a new flight for the next day and pick me up at the airport.
I had to end up buying the ticket (with another airline) to avoid being stranded during both hurricane season (which lasts through October) and the greatest mass migration in history out of Puerto Rico.
Also, on Tuesday morning, a nephew of mine had a car accident and a niece of mine who lives in Texas had her house flooded by the hurricane.
Tuesday was the day of ordeals and upgrades.
Feeling helpless and powerless, I thought about a beautiful parable from the Lotus Sutra, which I studied when I delved into Nichiren Buddhism: the idea of turning poison into medicine.
It’s true that I lost my flights and had almost zero chances of getting a flight to Chicago using stand-by tickets, which have the lowest priority, but the last-minute flights I was luckily able to afford took me home on first-class seats. I suspect this is because most people can’t afford these seats, so sometimes they become available at special pricing at the last minute because the airlines just want to fill the seats.
It’s true that I had to spend an extra day, but I had a great time the next morning with my sister-in-law, whom I hadn’t seen yet, who gave me an architectural tour of OSJ, and I took care of some essentials (like getting a new phone).
It’s true that my dad was taken to the clinic Tuesday morning, but it was a very good one with personalized care that my brother was able to find–in spite of the health care crisis, which is part of the larger fiscal crisis on the island–thanks to his wife’s connections with health care professionals, and this made it possible for all his issues to be addressed.
It’s true that my phone died, but I decided never again to do business with Virgin Mobile, and my brother took me to a mall and talked me into getting an iPhone. I spent some money, but I am convinced the expense is worth it. I have a new toy!
I had seen my ex-partner prior to the Puerto Rico trip, and we had talked about how I was paying a high rate on my mortgage because I was one of the people that Bank of America had discriminated against by giving a higher interest rate to Hispanics and Blacks, as per a lawsuit that gained notoriety around the time that the Occupy movement emerged. This in spite of the fact that my credit score has been over 800 for decades. My partner connected me with his mortgage broker, and during my trip I had been emailing her back-and-forth. Looks like I’ll be able to get two points lower on the interest rate, and still pay about the same with a fifteen-year mortgage. Another upgrade.
When at a disadvantage, when powerless, one can always find ways to turn poison into medicine.
Wednesday, August 30th
My sister-in-law took me to the airport, but not without taking me to Old San Juan to do some touristy things first. While there, I took many pictures of the beautiful 500-year-old architecture, and we had brunch at the oldest restaurant in the New World, La Mallorquina.
During our lively conversation, we discussed potential investments and solutions to the Puerto Rico crisis. She has acquaintances who are investing in the burgeoning local medical cannabis industry, and I mentioned the possibility of bringing kava kava to the island and cultivating a Boricua strain of kava. I believe this plant has as much potential as cannabis: it mainly grows in the Pacific Isles, which is on the other side of the world and expensive to import to the West. Since Puerto Rico is much closer and has perfect tropical climate for it: it could easily grow its own kava strain and compete with Pacific Island prices, with lower transportation costs due to proximity. There are now many kava bars in Florida, California, and elsewhere, and the pharmaceutical industry also has a hand in the kava pot. Kava is a natural medicine against anxiety and sleep-aid.
Inside La Mallorquina, I found this painting which is just as elegant and just as Spanish as everything else one will find in Old San Juan.
Trivia: Old San Juan is the oldest city in the United States, and the second-oldest in the New World. I’ve tried to investigate what the oldest street in Old San Juan is, but was unable to find anything specific, except that the blue cobblestones that we now see were set in the 1700’s if I’m not mistaken, and were not part of the original streets in the 1500’s. If anyone knows or thinks they know what the oldest street in San Juan are, please leave a comment below.
More trivia: The big island of Puerto Rico is the third largest within the United States, and the commonwealth of PR is the largest and most populated of the current US territories, with over 90% of the territorial population living here. Below is San Juan’s Town Hall (the Alcaldía de San Juan, in Spanish).
In the back, is La Fortaleza (“The Fortress”), which is the oldest governor’s mansion in the New World still in use today. Governor Ricky Roselló lives there.
Notice the pastel colors: most buildings in Old San Juan are a visual and architectural feast. Strict regulations govern the preservation of the architectural heritage of Old San Juan, which was founded in 1521, and even when the inside and structural foundations of buildings require updates from time to time, the external façades must always remain the same according to regulations that apply only to the historical zone. Old San Juan feels like the most elegant and the most Mediterranean of all the towns in the Caribbean.
In this picture, at the end of this road is the Capilla del Cristo (the Chapel of the Christ), which is at the edge of a cliff and inspired a strange and confusing legend about a lady who apparently threw herself down this precipice into the Atlantic Ocean after saying good-bye to a Spanish sailor she was in love with.
There are many versions of the legend, and it could be true, but it’s also probably a concoction made for visitors of San Juan–just like the piña colada, which was invented here in the sixties.
Puerto Rico is at a cross-roads and going through fiscal difficulties. But the Puerto Rico that I grew up in during the 80’s and 90’s–which at the time had possibly the highest standard of living in the entire Spanish-speaking world–still remains underneath it all like a jewel beneath the dust of the present crisis, and it’s still as culturally and socially complex as it’s ever been–too complex to label. In the midst of crisis-induced poverty, it’s extremely fertile and rich in resources, and in resourceful people. In the midst of assimilation, it remains the most authentic and vibrant Hispanic culture, much more than those we find in New Mexico and Texas.
And with it being my motherland, I naturally feel toward it as a Jew might feel toward Sion, or as a Rastafarian might feel toward Ethiopia. Borinquen is Sion to all Boricuas. For all the frustrations and grievances I may have, like a family member, the island always feels familiar, intimate, and warm to my soul. One Love!