Tuesday, December 28, 2010

You Had Me at Potatoes

Certain Puerto Rican specialties simply cannot be found in the states.

No room for you at the W

So last night was Jonathan's last evening in San Juan and our first one back in the city. We decided to get together for dinner at Dragonfly, a pan-Asian place that offers small plates ideal for sharing--seemed like an ideal spot. Unfortunately, the city was overrun by cruise ship folks, many of whom decided to dine at the same place. After ordering, we sat for an eternity waiting for our food, while neighboring tables were consistently being brought food they didn't order. We did finally get one of our sushi rolls, but once we ate it and the waiter cleared our plates, they tried to bring us the same dish again. The nadir of the whole experience was when, after an hour had passed, they brought us our lobster shrimp dumplings. We each started to eat, at which point I got the strong suspicion we weren't eating fish. Turns out they were pork dumplings. We sent them back, explaining they weren't what we ordered. 5 minutes later the waiter comes back with the same dish, explaining that the dumplings were indeed fish, and that they had even cut into them in the kitchen. We all asserted they were pork, at which point the waiter said, "but, they have mango in them." We replied that what we ate had no mango, only pork. He insisted, at which point Michael had to assertively demand, "YOU try them."

I don't know what was worse, the pork taste in my mouth or the fact that the waiter was claiming we were delusional. This is clearly a place in which the customer is not always right.

It caused us to recall yesterday's ride to the airport in Vieques. Our American innkeeper was driving us, talking about life on the island. He mentioned the island's new W resort. When they first opened, in hopes of giving back to the community, they hired 60 percent of their staff from the island. Well, that didn't turn out too well so they expanded, pulling that 60 percent from the larger Puerto Rico area. That didn't work either, so they now recruit internationally. Turns out the Puerto Ricans aren't so great with the customer service, something we could have told them.

Thankfully, the night ended well. Back at our favorite bar, The Patio, I was able to order my favorite Puerto Rican snack, fried cheese balls. Warm, gooey cheese encased in a hard fried shell. It worked wonders eliminating the bad taste of pork and poor service.

More Small Planes

Loyal readers will recognize the photo as the stuff of Karen's nightmares. The Cessna 402 is the smallest plane she's ever flown. But it was a quick flight--only 20 minutes from Vieques back to San Juan. Best of all, it was overbooked by one passenger, so they asked for volunteers to ride in the co-pilot's seat. Guess who took them up on the offer? That would be this guy.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Bio hazard

We've spent the last day and a half on the island of Vieques, where we have enjoyed the beautiful beaches and for the most part (see more below) the laid-back vibe. One of the major attractions here is the bioluminescent bay--the very best of three such bays in Puerto Rico. So, once off the ferry and fully equipped with our rented Jeep, one of the first things we did was book our bio bay tour for the night.

The bio bay itself was memorable for its remarkable beauty, the tour was also memorable...It all started when our group had assembled for the tour and the operators realized that they had too many participants than spots in their van. As they explained, their other van had broken down as had one for another bio bay tour operator. "Does anyone here have a car?" they asked. We were the only respondents and were immediately assigned to transport ourselves and a lovely Indian couple from Minnesota.

As the rest of the tour participants, 15 or so, piled into the wreckage of their functional vehicle, we were pleased to have our own ride. Their van had limited seats, no side doors and the back door was latched with a piece of wood from the outside. The more than 15 passengers were crammed in like refugees.

Once on the road, we followed that van, driven by our trusty guide Samir (who kept asking us: "are you ready for adventure?"). We quickly turned off the main paved road onto a dirt path. The road--or perhaps we should call it adventure trail--was uneven, full of gut-wrenching turns, massive puddles, and mini ravines. We were relieved that the rental agency had not assigned us a Dodge Neon and wondered why the tour operators had not asked if we had an off-road vehicle. Michael, meanwhile, was loving this chance to return to his boy scout adventure days.

Once at our destination, Samir handed out our life vests and paddles, at which point he realized there were not enough paddles for all participants. I was left without a paddle. Thankfully, Michael agreed to paddle me around. At this point, our fellow participants are joking that we not only had to transport ourselves but also were paddleless, suggesting that our bio bay tour was more like a bio fail.

But we all ended up in our kayaks, were able to paddle around in the crazy illuminated waters, and even swim--until that unfortunate moment where that one girl was stung by a jellyfish.

Ready for adventure we are!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

PR: Permanently Retarded: Driving Edition

Given that ethnic and gender stereotypes abound when it comes to automotive piloting, I'm surprised there aren't more associated with Puerto Ricans. They are, without doubt, among the worst on earth. Other cultures have their idiosyncrasies--the Indian horn language, the Arab lane change haggling, Vietnamese chaos theory, the British penchant for driving on the wrong side--but the Puerto Rican motif is defined by a lack of ability to pay attention to the road, or even recognize that they are actually engaged in the task of commanding a hurtling piece of steel as it careens down the macadam. Indeed, it seems as if the only time they are paying attention is when they're doing something so ass-achingly stupid it's nearly guaranteed to end up on the evening news--yet at that point they're doing it purposefully. To wit:

Making a u-turn across four lanes of highway traffic

Backing out of a parking lot into a five-way intersection across three lanes, then stopping

Driving with the hazards permanently on for no reason

Driving 30 in a 55, in the left lane, while everyone tries to pass on the right at 60, except for the guy doing 45, whose left turn signal is jammed and whose radio is tuned to Reggaeton at maximum volume

Driving on the wrong side (narrowly avoided a head-on)

Appropriating the technique commonly referred to as a Polish road block--all lead cars in each lane drive at exactly the same speed, preventing anyone from passing and creating a moving barrier

Not driving at all; it's common practice to simply stop in the middle of the street--not in one lane, in the middle--to chat with one's friends

Parking anywhere you damn well please: in the street, on the lawn, in the driveway

Of course, the population can't be held to entire account. Consider the state of the infrastructure:

We have six different maps; all show the island and indicate that it has roads. After that, the similarity ends. Even for the major thoroughfares, there is significant disagreement.

Speed limits are posted in mph; distances are given in km. I shit you not.

Rentals charge by the gallon; stations pump by the liter.

Lanes are marked only on the biggest highways.

Many roads feature sinkholes. They are always unmarked and noticeably not recent.

There is always a dog in the way.

However, if one is able to achieve a transcendental driving state, a special case of relativity comes into play: one does not transverse the island; one simply enters a vehicle and allows the island to transverse you.

Merry Christmas from El Yunque

What better way to spend a day when everything except Walgreens is closed than to trek through the only rainforest in the US park system? It was warm (like California), wet (like Oregon), and featured plenty of evergreens (like your living room). So yeah, Christmas.

We spent the 23rd recovering at a beach resort in Combate--Karen and possibly Jonathan have contracted what I got--before driving to Ponce yesterday. Nice city--good size, quaint center, great art museum. Though we ate at what might have been the only restaurant open on Xmas eve, it was one of the best meals we've had.

Not unlike the one MD and I shared this morning. Off 52, near Guavate, lays what's known as the highway of pork. Dozens of lechoneras, each roasting multiple whole pigs on spits, hack into the beasts with machetes and serve it up in gut-busting quantities. Besides the pig, there's chicken, blood sausage, rice, plantains and macaroni salad. We split a plate (it was only 10:30) and it was still too much. But the best part was the skin: after roasting on a spit for 10-12 hours, the fat hardens into a crispy, toffee-like wafer that's crunchy and salty and porky and good. Bourdain had it right: this does not suck.

Karen was grossed out and waited in the car.

But the locals were stocking up for tonight, Puerto Rican mothers and grandmothers walking out with pounds of the stuff for tonight's feast. Lechoneras: the Honey Baked Hams of Puerto Rico. But better.

Merry Xmas, and enjoy whatever's hitting your table tonight.

Friday, December 24, 2010

PR: Permanently Retarded: Bar Edition

Hello, and welcome to Permanently Retarded: Bar Edition! The rules are simple: contestants take turns recalling first-hand face-palm moments encountered while on the island. If someone takes a pass, they buy that round. Let's get started!

Mad Dog: Medalla Light (there is no regular).

K-ron: Tostones. Are they hockey pucks? Could they be more oil-saturated? Could they lack more flavor? Could they be more ubiquitous?

Miguel: Answering machines. They don't exist. Need to make a dinner reservation, rent a car, or call the hotel? Better hope there's a live person 'cuz you ain't leaving a message.

MD: AC. It is never cold enough outside to not crank the AC and put on a sweater.

K: How many puertoricanos does it take to make a latte at Starbucks? Apparently no less than four, and not in less than nine minutes.

M: Asks waitress who works across from market, "Is the market closed on Sunday?" "Apparently."

MD: Many cultures are known for their sauces: salsa verde, nuoc mam, chimichurri; but the secret is out in PR: a ketchup and mayo mixture grace every table. Depending on the level of refrigeration (or AC) it comes in blanco, reposado and anejo.

K: Renting a car takes three days, ten people, 18 phone calls and memory reconstruction therapy.

M: Guide book says museum is open Sunday. Guard at museum says that it's closed Sunday, but open tomorrow. Upon return, it is still closed.

And that's the end of round one! All our contestants are still in the game, so let's move on to round two!

MD: The only three redeeming aspects of the Bacardi tour are the drink ticket, the other drink ticket, and that it's 10:00 in the morning. Oh--151, which can be used to clean vinyl records and remove nail polish, undergoes a charcoal filtration process to ensure easy drinkability.

K: Cave tour crowd control: get a ticket so you can queue for admission, which entitles you to wait in line for entry, after which you stand around waiting for the tram. Total queueing time: 2:00. Total cave time: 0:45.

M: Cuba Libre. It's a drink. If you ask for a Cuba Li-brA, every one acts like they don't know what you're talking about. If you order a Cuba Lib-ra, out it comes. Keep in mind this is only in the context of a bar, not a political debate.

MD: The local Chinese restaurant is called Han-Cream.

K: Pass.

M: We are in possession of three guidebooks. Not a single one could be considered accurate.

And that's it for round two! Drinks are on K-ron. Final question for all our contestants: what's the single most permanently retarded thing about Puerto Rico?

All: Driving!

Unfortunately, that's all the time we have today. Join us next time for PR: Permanently Retarded: Driving Edition!

Thanks again to our sponsor--Bacardi!

Parque de las Cavernas

Next stop the caverns, one of the largest cave networks on the planet, in fact. Unfortunately, you have to explore on a tour, admission into which is based upon a number assigned to us when we drove in. What was expected to be a 50 minute tour became a three hour exercise in how not to organize people in crowd form. Caves were cool though.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Science! It Works, Bitches

I grew up on Carl Sagan's Cosmos. I took astronomy classes from Yervant Terzian at Cornell. I'm a member of SETI. So seeing this--the Arecibo Radio Observatory--up close has always been a bit of a dream. And there it is: nestled between the karsts that define this part of the island's terrain. Big dish--the largest, actually, covering 49 acres. Even Karen was sort of impressed. Or she just humors her geek.

Cat adoption

While at Casa Grande, we were all adopted by a feral lapcat.

Detox in Utuado

After three nights of trying, unsuccessfully, to love Puerto Rican food (none of us feel the need to have any more tostones, the flattened then fried plantains that are saturated in oil and seem to accompany everything) we were in dire need of a respite. Thankfully we were heading out of San Juan to the lush jungle of Utuado.

After picking up the rental car (finally), and setting up Miguel comfortably in the back seat to sleep off his cold/flu, Jonathan and I were off. First stop: the Bacardi factory tour. Now, I've been on a fair amount of brewery/distillery tours in my lifetime, but this rates the worst. They don't let you in the factory, but instead tour you through a barely functional interpretive display. The best part was the fact that they forced us to board a ridiculous kiddie-tram to take the 1/2 block distance to the center. Other highlights included the poorly produced and barely informative video that was punctuated by the worst Bacardi commercials imaginable (featuring all the subliminal imagery we learned about in junior high plus butts, butts, and more butts, along with a weird scene in which a scantily clad bimbette was shaving a guy with a razor that we are still confused about). At least we got cocktails at the end.

Thus fortified, we began our journey into the forest. More on the Puerto Rican conception of driving to come, suffice it to say that we were very afraid.

Once arriving at our remote and rustic retreat, Miguel continued his napping while Jthan and I hiked and yogad. This was the view from our cabin.

Lack of Posts

It started Monday, when the Puerto Rican love of AC became all too apparent. Tours of the coastal fortresses of San Juan--lovely day for it; 80 degrees, light breeze--ended with a cafe stop--in the high 50s. Back on the street, into a shop, onto the plaza, into a taxi--the cyclic temperature and humidity variations don't bode well. By Monday night I was running a fever and hacking up things I did not inhale.

The car rental experience didn't help. Our plan was to pick up in San Juan and drop in Fajardo, once we'd circumnavigated the island. For whatever reason, such reservations can't be accomplished online. Also, you can't pick up before 1:00. And there's no official drop in Fajardo, even though that's where everyone's trying to get to for the ferries to the islands, and they won't let you take rental cars on the ferries. This was the first indicator that we'd soon be writing a post entitled "PR: Permanently Retarded." Look for it subsequently.

But we got it done. We even convinced them to let us leave the car on the lot and pick us up at the hotel the next morning (you don't want to drive or park in Old San Juan). Of course, the manager who had agreed to this--in person, 16 hours prior--completely forgot and it took ten minutes on the phone the next morning to jog her memory and convince her to pick us up.

Once we were in possession of the car, I knocked myself out on NyQuil in the back seat and turned driving and navigation over to team Kienzle. Which I'll leave to them to describe.

(BTW, the photo is taken from the San Critobal fortress looking west toward the big old one at the mouth of the bay.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

There's Music Everywhere

In the local square it resembles a mariachi band, but bigger. Dinner comes with a side of flamenco solo. The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico featured a rehearsal of the local philharmonic, an interesting accompaniment to our visit considering their Wagnerian, use-every-instrument-in-the-orchestra-or-else approach to Christmas music. And the bar directly under our hotel room offers salsa and jazz every night until two. I've been dreaming in Dolby.

PR's National Beer...

...is a light beer? It's also terrible. Apparently there's one other domestically produced brew, but it's worse.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Form of Cuba Libre, Shape of Chupacabra

Reunited with their space monkey Gleek, the Wonder Twins set out again to fight for justice...in the local bar, Patio de Sam. Good mojitos.

Mad Dog's been camping on Culebra the past week, eating local deer and deep fried pork chops. He'll be keeping the backseat warm on our drive around the island.

Which commences Tuesday with stops at the Bacardi factory and the Aricebo radio telescope. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Reporting from Old San Juan

Made it in about 12 hours. No delays, no lost luggage, though it was six degrees in Minneapolis when we connected. Step off the plane and see your breath.

It's much nicer here--80 with what Karen describes as "the kind of humidity that's good for your skin and hair." I guess I only get half the benefit.

Walked the old town after checking in; currently sipping rum drinks and plotting tomorrow before we head to dinner.

We're four hours ahead of our west coast readers for those keeping track.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Brooklyn BBQ

It's frighteningly cold--your tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker cold--so it's perfect weather for BBQ (but honestly, when isn't it?).

Met up with my friend Trac at Fette Sau in Williamsburg for the meat extravaganza--you place your order by weight. Here's a sampling of brisket, sausage, ribs, belly, butt, pulled pork and burnt ends beans. There was something green, but I ignored that. It all comes on one parchment-lined tray.

They also sell beer by the gallon and offer the most extensive bourbon collection in New York. And they were playing Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison album, the most metal record ever. Not to be missed.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Back in NYC

It's freezing here. But I listen to my mother--you lose 240% of your body heat through your head!--so I brought a hat.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Attack of Cute

For a year I've wondered why the gardeners propped up a branch more pathetic than Charlie Brown's Xmas tree: for the perfect persimmon!

Now, what to do with it?