Friday, September 28, 2007

Elaine went diving!

Elaine went diving yesterday!

Until recently she's been very happy snorkeling and pretty much staying on the surface. Then she started free diving to see what's under coral ledges and to get a closer look at what's down there. Of course, once you start that, you want to stay down longer than you can hold your breath. That leads to wanting to breathe underwater which in turn leads to... SCUBA!

Our dive instructor/buddy and good friend Darryl gave Elaine "discover SCUBA" dive for her birthday. As he puts it, it's the "drug dealer's approach to SCUBA - give 'em a free one and get 'em hooked." Well, she pretty much is hooked. So she's starting her certification training. She's doing it along with our friend Marisol .


I am riding Chocolate. I've been riding before and I really enjoy it. I'm just not very good at it. It doesn't matter - we get to share our favorite activities and passions.

Speaking of passions, last night we took our first salsa dance lessons. Stay tuned for more on that.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What a party!!!!

The first-ever "Everybody who has a birthday in September" birthday party was a smash! Everybody had a great time. Marisol - whose birthday actually was on Monday - said it was the best birthday she'd ever had. A headcount at one point had 80 or more people at Ola Lola's (where 20 is a crowd). Taking a hint from the UFO stand around the corner, people spilled out into the street. Cars were parked from Ola Lola's nearly half a mile down to the crossroad leading to Villa Tropical and to Tropical Trailrides. The roast pig (lechon asado, which was fabulous!)

was GONE! There were only a few bones and scraps left for the dogs. We ran out of several liquors and beers. So many people brought fabulous side dishes and everyone pitched in to help both at the end and to keep Ola Lola's clean throughout the evening.

The idea for a party in September started originally as a party to celebrate Elaine and Michelle, who share a birthday day. Then Suzanne wanted to have a party for Marisol. Ana wanted to celebrate her birthday at Ola Lola's, too. Jennifer wanted a party for her husband Trevor. All these plans were going on separately. We started pulling them together into one big bash, the "Everybody with a birthday in September Party." We knew there were at least six people to celebrate.

When we called all the September birthday people up front to sing happy birthday, there were 15 (we think...not sure if we got everyone)!

There are so many people to thank for making this party such a huge success:

Suzanne for taking the lead, organizing the "outside" stuff, bringing decorations and supplying Ola Lola dips.
Lesa, Brian and Carlos for arranging for the pig roast (and Ramon, with help from our neighbor Felix, for preparing and serving such a delicious dinner).
Kendra who made special birthday crowns for the "guests of honor."
Ana for arranging for the DJ who did a great job keeping the music going and people dancing (I'm especially grateful for the DJ. Usually music is my department. I was just too bloody busy to even think about music! Great job, Juan.)
Everyone who contributed side dishes and desserts, and everyone who contributed to the cost of the pig and the DJ.
Elaine of course. I can't even begin to describe her huge efforts before, during and after the party.
And EVERYONE who came, shared their evening with us, had a huge great time, helped keep things picked up and kept us smiling, and helped make it a wonderful party that we ALL enjoyed.

I had very little time time to take pictures (too busy running out of stuff in the bar) but Suzanne is sharing her pictures on Shutterfly. The pictures above are hers, too. Thanks, Suzanne!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

On culture, part 2

The friendliness Elaine wrote about extends to Puerto Ricans off the island as well.

When we were in Milwaukee for the kite festival, we met several Puerto Ricans currently living in Milwaukee (Milwau-ricans?) .

First we met Maritza and her daughter Tashi. They heard about the festival - and that a kite team from Puerto Rico was coming. They came to the festival because of that - to see the equipo de chiringas de Puerto Rico. They also brought Maritza's 95-year-old abuelo (grandfather). They had never been to a kite festival before, let alone seen teams of sport kite flyers. They were warm and welcoming and gracious and very happy to talk about "home." They even brought a Puerto Rican flag for us to autograph.

We also met Brandan, originally from the island but now a graduate student at the University of Marquette in Milwaukee. Seems one of the world's top experts in karst (which is what most of this island is made of) is at Marquette. Brandan went to Marquette to study so he could come back "home" and study and hopefully teach about the karst here.

We spent nearly two hours talking with him, reminiscing about the places we all know, bringing him up to date on changes on the island, and talking island politics.

I'm not sure who was happier talking about the island, Maritza and Tashi and Brandan, or us. We all enjoyed the shared sense of "home."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Of cars and culture

“Though North Americans found graitfying opportunities for investment in the islands, they were less gratified by the tempo of island life, especially in Puerto Rico. They seemed unable to appreciate any of the virtues of its culture, while being repelled by what were, in their view, all its faults. The people were courteous and courtly, uninterested in material wealth, committed to enduring social relationships, accepting of hierarchy, Catholic but not fervent, hypersensitive on issues of honor, generous to a fault. On none of these counts could they be expected to win over the North Americans, who viewed themselves as supremely rational, hardheaded, yet idealistic liberators whose fortune it was always to do well while doing good, representing the nation of the future, energetically endorsing hard work above sociability, business above agrarian enterprise, equality above courtesy, frankness above politeness, money above kindness – and Protestantism above Catholicism.”

Jack Delano – pg. 2, Puerto Rico Mio: Four Decades of Change (1990).

“In the impoverished countryside and the urban slums, living conditions were horrendous…What most impressed us, however, was the dignity, hospitality, gentleness, patience, indomitable spirit, and unquenchable sense of humor of the people in the face of the most appalling adversity.”

Jack Delano – pg. 24, Puerto Rico Mio: Four Decades of Change (1990).

The two quotes above are from a book of photographs of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans that I bought for John. They personify the culture we are experiencing here and love so much. They are clearly reflected in so many of our interactions with the people here, most especially in the last several days since we got back from the states.

It began with more car trouble. Arrived at 4:30 am on 9/12 to find our car’s power steering had gone kaput. Later that day we drove it to the specialized auto repair shop our friend Marisol found for us – W R Auto Parts – some dozen or more miles east of us on Carr. 2. I took the car and my poor pigeon-Spanish and managed to explain the problem. The young man who helped me could not have been more patient, and willing to use his English while helping me with my Spanish. He explained that it looked like the pump was the problem and with apologetic body language and words said this would be costly, and perhaps even more expensive if it turned out to be the rack and pinion steering instead. “Quanto?” I asked. He wrote $125 p.s and $225 r/p on the back of his business card. I’m no expert on car repair prices but I knew this was less than half we would likely pay in the states so I grinned with relief. He also said they were very busy – might not be able to get me in until Monday, but then started asking me where I lived and pointing to the Ola Lola sign on the car, wanted to know about the business. I managed to give enough info in Spanish for him to get a sense of where and what we were, and then it was his turn to grin – hugely. “Oh!” he exclaimed, “the place where they wave at you and are always really friendly!” Turns out he has a friend who stayed at Villa Tropical who told him about us and he had driven by…once. I acknowledged that was indeed Ola Lola’s and that we used the car to get our supplies for the bar. He then stated that he would fix the car the following morning (Friday) and said if I could get it there by 8 a.m., they could be sure to have it done before they closed for the weekend Saturday afternoon, even if it was the rack and pinion steering. He added more fluid, showed me the type to buy (cheaper than regular power steering fluid), and reminded me to keep adding it to protect the problem from getting worse. No charge.

I came home and shared with John how his “viral” marketing strategy of waving and smiling at everyone who passes had reached well east of Isabela already. And sharing the joy of interacting with someone who obviously was happy to help, and not purely for economic reasons.

That evening, while driving in the dark to pick up a pizza for our late dinner and a couple of last-minute groceries for the weekend, the car died…completely. I barely made it up the cliff, with its steep slope, narrow lanes, and twisty curves. It finally came to a full stop on the side of the road about 1/10 mile past the top of the cliff, and a good distance from the Supermercado Coop (where we get groceries), any open gas station, the pizza place, and home. It was 8:30 p.m. and I called Marisol on my cell phone. “I’ll be there in 10 minutes…just need to get the kids in the car,” she said. Her husband was not yet home from work and it had to be a huge interruption with a 2-year-old and an 8-year-old to get ready for bed, but there was no hesitation, question, or overlays of quid pro quo attached. It was just the generous (“to a fault”) nature of a true Puerto Rican friend – our Puerto Rican sister – responding to a need.

She got there and we tried to figure out if we could use the jumper cables in my car to start the car. It was dark. I had no headlights; one of hers was out. Her van’s battery was hidden and we couldn’t seem to get things hooked up. She used my cell phone (had left hers home in the hurry to get there) to call her husband. He said he was on his way and would be there soon. Meanwhile, Marisol left to go pick up our pizza.

Within 20 minutes, JR, Marisol’s husband, pulled up in a pickup with a friend. He told me not to worry, kissed me in greeting on the side of my cheek, introduced his friend to me who also kissed my cheek, and then hooked up the jumper cables to the truck. At about the same time, a police car stopped and shined its light on our little band across the road. Once they saw we were trying to jump start the car, they made a u-turn and came across the road to join us. “Where’s Marisol?” Junior (who goes by “J.R.”) asked. I told him she went to get our pizza. There was no hint of anything other than understanding acceptance and he went back to work, talking in Spanish to his friend and the police officers. The car started with the jumper cables, but as soon as they were removed, it died completely. Marisol returned and immediately gave me my change from the pizza and began translating for me. “It’s the alternator, they’re saying,” she told me. For the next 30-40 minutes, conversations in Spanish whirled around me causing me to both realize how far I have to go with my own Spanish language acquisition and yet somehow making me feel a part of it all.

During that time, the four men agreed that the car, even if we could keep it running, was unsafe to drive home especially given that I would have to once again go down the cliff’s twisty road to get there. They helped push the car to a safe place in front of a house further off the road, with Junior assuring me that the people who lived there were his friends and would not mind. Jose informed us that his twin brother, Anki, had a shop where they fixed alternators and starters and that he could fix ours the next day. Jose also called Anki to see if he could come and look at the car that very night, right there on the side of the road, but that turned out not to be possible. He wrote down Anki’s phone number as well as his own personal cell phone number on the back of one of his business cards, saying that if we had any problems contacting his brother to call him first thing in the morning. Discussions ensued about having the car towed to Anki’s shop in Isabela as well as forming a plan for how I could most easily and inexpensively fix the problem the following day. The plan, as laid out through Marisol’s expert translation was as follows: 1) We should return to the car early in the morning, remove the battery, take it to the gas station up the road and get it fully recharged (would take about an hour), then replace the battery in the car and immediately drive it to Anki and he would fix it.

Marisol then drove me home with the pizza, all the while talking to me about how she would call Anki in the morning and arrange everything since he did not speak English, and would help us with rides and translation as needed to get the whole thing taken care of the next day. I got home at 10:00 pm, smiling from ear to ear with the whole experience of people so generously offering assistance bursting in my chest.

Next day, our guardian angel, friend and Puerto Rican sister, Marisol, once again gave us reason for our hearts to overflow with gratitude for the wonder of this new home, its people, and our inclusion with them. She spent the day helping us. First, she picked up John and they went to get the battery charged. While waiting for it to charge she returned to our house where the two of them had a yummy breakfast of waffles and preserves (homemade by our dear friend, Donna, in Wisconsin) while I rode Chocolate for his morning exercise. Marisol and John left, got the charged battery, replaced it in the car, and checked with another mechanic just down the road to see if he could repair the alternator. He said that he didn’t have the equipment to check the system accurately to be sure it wasn’t more than that and recommended none other than Anki as the place to have it done properly. Marisol and John returned to our house where John and I swapped places so he could get Ola Lola’s ready to open. I drove our car, following Marisol to Anki’s place, a small open cement “underbelly” to his parents’ house on a crowded street in Isabela.

There I explained (and Marisol translated) that our power steering had gone out as well and, given that the previous owners of the car had replaced the alternator with a new one last December, I wondered if there might be some connection between the problems (or even, a separate electrical problem that was not related to the alternator at all). The information was respectfully considered, but within a matter of minutes, Anki had determined that the alternator was indeed bad and was suggesting that if we took it back to the place that the previous one had been purchased and there was a warranty, we could simply get a new one for free and then he would put it in. Marisol jumped at the idea and I called John to say that she would be driving me back to the house (well out of our way once again) and we would be picking up the receipt, which thankfully we had saved.

I admit at this point I was more than a bit skeptical. Here was this guy pulling out a grungy looking alternator from the car and handing it to us on a dirty rag and saying that if we returned to the store where it was purchased 9 months ago, they would simply hand us a new one and we could bring it back to him and he would replace it. I became even more skeptical when I saw the receipt with about 20 exclusions to the warranty – exclusions such as incorrect installation, misuse, etc. How the heck could we prove this was the alternator under warranty, much less that we hadn’t violated any of the provisions, especially since the alternator was out of the car.

However, I was soon to be reminded we were simply traveling through a continuum that was part of Puerto Rican culture, Puerto Rican honor, and Puerto Rican generosity. We arrived at the store, the alternator was replaced with a new one and a new warranty with no questions asked. After a small hesitation on her part and a bit of convincing on my part, I was allowed to buy Marisol some windshield washer fluid and a new lamp for her front headlight which was out as a small – very very small – token of my appreciation for this miraculous saving of $125, the cost of a new alternator.

By this time it was after
2 pm, and Marisol had to make several phone calls to insure that someone else could pick up her nieces from their school and her son from his, activities she usually takes does every weekday from 2-3:30 pm. She then drove me back once again to Anki’s, where he installed the new alternator, tested it, and evaluated our cooling and air conditioning system (our AC fan is disconnected because it doesn’t rotate correctly on the spindle), all in the rain as his shop had two cars in it and was full. Once I knew that repairs were going to be completed soon, I tried to insist that Marisol return home because I knew she had a 5-10 pm class that evening at the university and still hadn’t eaten since breakfast, completed her homework, or taken time for herself and her family. Instead, she stayed by my side, being sure that anything and everything that was said was translated into English to keep me from any confusion or problems and to be sure I could leave safely.

As Anki was finishing the job, his brother Jose, the police officer, arrived in his civilian clothes. He had come just to be sure that we had been able to get the car fixed without any problems. Anki then finished the job and told us the price - $30! I was once again reminded that there are more important things to Puerto Ricans than getting rich. I paid him and Marisol and I finally parted company, leaving her to rush home with barely enough time to change her clothes and hug her kids before having to leave for her graduate level class. There are no words for the gratitude John and I felt and still feel. The only small repayment I was able to give her was to print out her homework (her printer’s ink cartridge was out) and give her an Ola Lola smoothie to go when she stopped by our place, for the 5th time in less than 24 hours, running late on her way to class.

The next day was almost as miraculous and revealing about the nature of the heart of Puerto Rico. Marisol called me first thing in the morning to see if I wanted her to meet me at the place that fixes power steering. We agreed that I would call her if I needed a ride; but would first find out what needed to be done and how long it would take. She called me no less than 3 times to be sure I did not want to be picked up or if we needed her to get anything for us at the store. I drove the car to W R Auto Parts where I was once again greeted with the friendliness typically reserved for longtime customers and close friends in the states. The power steering problem was diagnosed; it was only a broken hose. Several hours later, they had finished fixing it, testing it, replacing fluid and clamps, and I was ready to go. All of this was communicated with a mixture of Spanish and English and mucho patiencia with my poor communication abilities in the former language. The bill? Twenty dollars, plus tax, with a 90-day warranty.

And so, in some 60 hours of what would have been previously thought of as “car repair hassles,” John and I emerged richer than ever, with our hearts overflowing. There are no words to describe how amazing and wonderful the experience was and how much we love our new lives, friends, and the culture here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Gotta love TSA...not

I We feel so much safer with TSA on the job.

So we're going through airport security. TSA had a hissy-fit over a cheesecake - absolutely would not let it on the plane in our carry-on, despite the fact the same inspector told us earlier we COULD take it. What was wrong with the cheesecake? Its texture. The texture of a cheescake is illegal on an airplane! Apparently it meets the TSA (unwritten unpublished seemingly random) definition of "cream or gel."

I shoved (frustration apparent) the cheesecake at the TSA supervisor "Here. Happy birthday!"

"Isn't there someone in the terminal you can give it to?" he asked.

"NO! It's just the two of us. There isn't anyone else!" So he threw a whole cheesecake (our second flan de queso that did not make it to our friends and family in the states) in the trash.

TSA also confiscated our sealed Blue Ice freezer pack - in spite of the fact one of their agents told us a week or so before such freezer packs were okay as long as they were sealed and frozen. We specifically talked to a TSA agent well before our trip to ask about the ice packs.

BUT - the exact same TSA screeners let us take a six-inch-long pointed metal tent stake on the plane in our carry-on. We really didn't mean to or even care about it. It was at the bottom of the bag with all our kite lines, which was stuck in a carry-on bag.

Let's see. Which is more dangerous? Six-inch metal spike or cheesecake.

I DON'T GET IT!!!! But Bush's creation, the TSA, is on the job protecting the flying public from cheesecake and frozen ice packs.

Do you have any TSA yes-no stories? We'd love to hear them. E-mail them to ...commisseration welcome.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

In el supermercado

The produce section at the Metro Mart in downtown Milwaukee

We needed to pick up a few things so we stopped in a grocery store in Milwaukee. When you walk in the door of this particular store, you walk right into the produce department. I just stopped and laughed. And took pictures like a silly turista.

One look around was a reminder why most of us gringos bemoan the lack of fresh vegetables on the island. The produce department was HUGE! The wall of ORGANIC vegetables alone was bigger than the entire produce department at the Coop. As we walked through the rest of the store, the variety was nearly overwhelming.

Oddly, we had much the same feeling in the JetBlue terminal at JFK on the flight back to the States. The number of little restaurant choices in the airport food court was mind-boggling, at least for a few minutes. Once we got to Chicago and Milwaukee it was wonderful to have that many options.

For the most part, except for the produce and the restaurants - oh, yeah, and the beer choices - I don't miss so many choices.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A belated Happy Birthday

In the rush to replay the tragic events of 2001, CNN must have missed the media release about Elaine's birthday on September 11.

Happy birthday, Elaine!

Turns out she shares a birthday with a number of our friends. September 11 is not just a day of tragedy. It is a day to celebrate your arrival in this world. So for all of you CELEBRATING on that day, happy birthday.

Great week in the States

Elaine with Amy's black Lab, Molly , on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan.

We had a great week back in the States. We spent the weekend performing at a kite festival in Milwaukee and hanging out with great friends. Then off to Northern Indiana to sent way too short a time with our friends Jen and Jason. Then back to Michigan to spend a couple of days with Kennedy Anne and her mom and to see other family and friends. There are new pictures of Kennedy Anne and of the festival on Flickr.

We're back with a whole bunch o' new stories and pictures and a new appreciation for our island home.

It was an almost perfect early fall week in the Wisconsin and Michigan. When we lived there, I loved fall in Michigan. Fresh, crisp apples (we brought some of those back with us). Apple cider. The yellows, oranges and reds brilliant against the evergreens and the blue sky. The first cool days when I could get out my sweaters. Okay. I still love all that - or at least the MEMORY of it. I miss the apples (apple pie is my absolute hands-down favorite). And the cider tasted every bit as good as I remember. But I don't miss the cool much at all and I don't miss my sweaters nearly as much as I thought I would.

We went for several walks on a Lake Michigan beach but it is certainly NOT the same as our beach at Shacks. Even after just a few days away I missed the ocean. (And our dogs. And our horse. And Lola's.)

The lake is very different from the ocean. The ocean's rhythms are slower, longer, deeper. The lake's wind-driven waves are shorter and more frenetic. The sound of the waves on the lake is more constant with less break between waves, more like wind through the trees.

Elaine hit the other big difference between the ocean and the lake: You can be ON the lake or NEXT to the lake on the beach, but it is difficult if not impossible to fell organically connected to the lake. For one thing, the Great Lakes are too cold to stay in for very long. Lake Michigan rarely gets above the low 70s and that only late in the summer. Visibility in the lake for snorkeling or diving is at best very limited. And unless you're diving on Great Lakes shipwrecks, there just isn't that much to see. The fish aren't as colorful or as plentiful. There is no reef. Don't get me wrong. Lake Michigan is beautiful. For years I wanted to live on the lake. But I've felt separate from the lake, never a part of it like I do the ocean.

But we're back home now. Our first day back we managed to cram it all in - horseback riding, running the dogs, taking care of several transportation crises (more about that to come), Getting ready to reopen Lola's and finally an after dark snorkel.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Find the scorpion fish

The camouflage is almost perfect. I ran into this guy (almost literally) right at the very end of an early morning dive this morning.

There are a couple more pictures of him (her? I can't tell) on the Flickr site. There are also more pictures from this morning's dive and snorkeling yesterday. BTW, I LOVE the new camera/housing. Hope you like the pictures with it.

Now the bad news - This will probably be the last post for a few days. We're supposed to get an "upgrade" but it could take as long as a week. So-o-o, we'll see ya on the flip side. Have a great week!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Back again...

in more ways than one.

First (and most obviously) we have internet access, at least for the moment. It's been very sporadic for over a week now. Uploads have been difficult because it keeps randomly cutting out, interrupting the upload. Choice Cable is supposed to fix it today or tomorrow. We'll see. But we have it for now so on we go!

The second back is I HAVE MY NEW UNDERWATER CAMERA AND HOUSING! WOO-HOO! all of you who are tired of my whining about not having it can come back and read again. The new camera is a Canon Powershot A640. I really like this series of cameras. The new housing is an Ikelite, NOT another Canon. This is all thanks to Elaine (who may have gotten a bit tired of listening to me whine about it also). We still haven't resolved the other issues with Canon but that has lost some of it's urgency. I can take pictures in the water again and that's the important thing! Thank you, Elaine!!!!

The third "back" is the ocean. Yesterday for the first time in nearly two weeks - since Hurricane Dean went by - the ocean was calm enough and clear enough to really enjoy snorkeling or diving. The reef squid picture is from our snorkeling adventure yesterday. We were out a long time. Darryl and I are supposed to go diving this afternoon but there are thunderstorms in the area. Guess it depends on what's happening at 5:00 pm. Right now it's raining and thundering like crazy. (Amber hates thunder. He's lying right under my chair. If I get up, he gets up and follows me around like a...well, like a scared puppy.)