Puerto Rico Travelog 2017

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Wednesday, August 23

Image result for christopher colombus statue areciboMy 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.

Image result for breadfruitI 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.

Image result for nam myoho renge kyoFeeling 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

No automatic alt text available.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.

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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).

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Image may contain: sky, cloud and outdoorIn 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.

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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!

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Happy Herculaneum Day!

On August 24 of the year 79 of Common Era, the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in the ash and pyroclastic material produced by the Mt Vesuvius eruption. The 79 eruption is the most famous volcanic eruption in ancient history, and recent comparable eruption events–like the one that wiped out the town of Plymouth, in the island of Montserrat–have been compared to it

The town of Herculaneum contained the villa of the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, of the Piso clan, a patrician family. The villa was a wealthy enclave that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea, and contained a large ancient library of Epicurean texts, many of which have now been deciphered and translated into English with commentary. Commentaries on these texts can be found in the Philodemus Series on the Society of Epicurus page.

In addition to the scrolls preserving the wisdom of the original Scholarchs–many of which are actual notes that Philodemus took while studying philosophy under Zeno of Sidon–there are poems and other works of literature. In one epigram, Philodemus invites his benefactor of the Piso family to celebrate the Twentieth, the traditional feast of reason that was held monthly by the Epicureans.

Philodemus is not the only great Epicurean in history who catered to the Piso family. The poet Horace also frequented the villa, and Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos shows the highly cultured and refined nature of the exchange between them. Herculaneum was a major center of culture, philosophy, and the arts.

August 24th has been declared Herculaneum Day by the Society of Epicurus, as part of the Epicurean Year initiative. Please enjoy it by sharing the wisdom of the Library of Herculaneum with others!

Further Reading:

The Epicurean Nag Hammadi

The Philodemus Series

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“Dangerous Totems”, the Civil War and Slavery

I personally find the monuments to be dangerous totems. – Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, speaking on the Confederate Monuments

We remember the Titanic, but we don’t erect a monument to the iceberg. – Stephen Colbert

America is going through a difficult time as a result of the rise of white supremacist ideology and its influence on policy-makers. Epicureans are historically known for avoiding politics as long as it’s advantageous, but when Trump compares Robert E Lee, who fought a seditious war against our country in order to be able to continue lynching and enslaving human beings, with people like Thomas Jefferson, who was himself Epicurean, then we sort of do have a dog in this fight.

Justice is defined as mutual advantage in our tradition, and it’s difficult to argue that it is just to engage in terrorist acts or to promote the fertile ground for them to take place, or to allow violence to thrive on our streets where sentient beings are hurt or killed, for the sake of a statue or totem–which is not a sentient being, and in particular one that represents the belief that some people can be owned by other people. Can a totem of this sort be so sacred, as to require or deserve our blood libations?

Even General Lee himself–whose own monument served as an excuse for last weekend’s violence–spoke strongly during the latter part of his life against the erection of monuments to his seditious movement, aware that the country needed to heal. The statue itself, if it could talk, would ask to be toppled! This issue is simply NOT worth fighting over. Like the Nazis, the Confederates lost the war. That should have been that.

This is no longer an issue on which anyone with even a minimal degree of credibility and moral stamina should remain a silent bystander. White supremacists are opportunists, have hundreds of cells of armed terror sympathizers, and have a hard-on for their cherished dream of a racial civil war so that they can gain a chance to swiftly engage in random acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, as they themselves frankly told the facilitator of this VICE special on the events of last weekend.

Jason, a SoFE member, had this to say about the Robert E. Lee monument that served as a lightning rod for recent Charlottesville violence: “To everyone who is claiming that the secession and Civil War wasn’t about slavery, from the horse’s mouth; VP of the Confederacy Stephen’s Cornerstone Speech delivered three weeks after Lincoln was elected and three weeks before the first shots of the war:

“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Further Reading:

Pondering White Supremacy

Recognizing the Real Robert E Lee – The Humanist

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My Favorite Free Speech Meme

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In Memory of Heather’s Legacy

“My child’s famous Facebook post was, ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,'” she said. “[Heather] paid attention. She made a lot of us pay attention.”

“Here’s what I want to happen,” she continued. “You ask me, ‘What can I do?’ So many people … I want this to spread. I don’t want this to die. This is just the beginning of Heather’s legacy – this is not the end of Heather’s legacy. You need to find in your heart that small spark of accountability. ‘What is there I can do to make the world a better place? What injustice do I see?’ … You poke that finger at yourself like Heather would have done. You take that extra step. You find a way to make a difference in the world.”

Susan Bro, mother of the Charlottesville terrorist attack’s victim Heather Heyer

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Despacito Sung in 40 Countries

I’m just catching up with my pop culture and am surprised to find the extent to which the song Despacito has caught fire on social media and is popular in probably most of the countries on Planet Earth. As a language nerd, it’s fun to see Asian and European people singing in Spanish. I’m not sure when was the last time that a Latin American song was this popular, perhaps during the Lambada craze (Brasil), or perhaps when Los Lobos sang La Bamba (California). This is a video of people from 40 countries doing covers of the song.

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The Havamal, on Loyalty

A man must be a friend
to his friend,
for himself and for the friend,
but no man must
be a friend of a friend
of his foe.

Havamal 43


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