Sunday, November 26, 2006

Vacation in Puerto Rico - Trip to San Juan

Danny had estimated the trip to San Juan would take about two hours, so we grabbed a quick breakfast and hit Highway 22, (named after Luis A. Ferré) which is Puerto Rico’s version of the turnpike.  The tolls were about what you would encounter on a similar stretch of US highway, but the roads were bumpy in contrast to the well maintained freeways.   

Driving in San Juan is similar to driving in Boston or any other congested American city: a nightmare.  Traffic moved at a crawl but eventually we found our way to a parking garage in old San Juan near Plaza de Colón (Columbus Square). Columbus Square

It was only a short walk to San Cristobal, which was built in the 16th Century.  The fort is a vast maze of tunnels, dungeons, outposts, ramps, and barracks (the soldiers slept 12 to a bunk), and was cleverly constructed to repel enemy attack, yet could hold troops for an indefinite period, thanks to an ingenious irrigation system.  There were numerous examples of period weaponry, including canons and rifles.  From San Cristobal, we walked along the northern coast to San
Felipe del Morro
, a somewhat smaller fort with many of the same features. 

A sentry post

A sentry post from above.

In Condado, we found an Internet Cafe, where we had our first contact with the outside world while taking a break from walking. 

Condado is known as a "gayborhood", but it was not a blatantly gay neighborhood like parts of the Cleveland/Lakewood border.  The lack of openly gay life was rather disappointing and I became a bit irritable since I stupidly wore a pair of sandals for walking, and the strap was cutting into the back of my ankle.  After being unable to locate a gay restaurant advertised in the Breeze, we ate dinner at a Chili’s before heading out to a gay bar at the Atlantic Beach Hotel which Danny wanted to show me.  On the way, we belatedly spotted the restaurant we had been seeking.  At the bar, we found ourselves in the midst of aging gringos cruising for young Puerto Ricans. 

As we left the bar, we learned that the other side of the street had lost power, and it was very dark.  We hastily headed to the safety of Danny’s car and endured a hellish drive out of San Juan, assuaged by, of all things, a rebroadcast of the 2005 Cleveland International Piano Competition on San Juan’s NPR station.   

Friday, November 24, 2006

Trip to Puerto Rico - Thursday

By the time we awakened Thursday morning, we learned the fate of the Senate had been decided in favor of the Democrats.  As far as I was concerned, this was icing on the cake.

We had already decided to take a break from sightseeing.  So, we headed to Danny's house to pack the items he decided to send to Ohio, including some clothes, a set of bed sheets, and his Star Wars collectables.  It totalled 39 pounds in weight. 

Danny's house, under renovation, with his car parked
in front.

After going to the post office (Puerto Rico uses the U.S. postal system) to mail the items back, we went to Danny's brother Javier's place and spent some time relaxing.  Danny's nephew, Gabriel, is a bundle of energy.  

For dinner, we decided on Don Quixote restaurant in Aguada, which was a chance to sample some real Puerto Rican food.  We ate too much, and took some food with us in a doggie bag.  This proved useful as we headed to a secluded spot on the coast, where we watched the sunset.  A cat insinuated itself with us, and I gave it a few nibbles of our leftovers.    

Unfortunately, the cat couldn't take a picture of Danny & me together. 

The heat was very oppressive Thursday.  As evening approached, we decided to see a movie at the Aguadilla Mall.  Multiplexes in Puerto Rico are similar to their American counterparts, and they usually get movies the same time we do.  They even have the pre-show "don't talk during the show, turn off your cell phone" admonishment, in Español, of course.  We saw Borat, very unrefined, but hysterically funny.  It was interesting to see a film in English with Spanish subtitles, especially when the subtitles were written to give the impression of Borat's broken English. 

Next entry:  Friday in San Juan...

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Trip to Puerto Rico - the Caves and Arecibo

When we awakened Wednesday morning, we learned that the fate of the Senate was still undecided.  No matter, as the Democratic sweep of the House and Governors races was enough to cheer us. 

Wednesday was the day I was looking forward to since we began planning the trip.  After a quick breakfast at El Meson, we were heading East on Route 2.  We went through Isabela and Aricebo on our way to the Rio Camuy Caverns.  Unlike the previous day, the routes were well marked with plenty of signage.  The towns we passed through left the impression of being solidly middle class.  With the exception of the Spanish signage, one could have easily thought one was in Florida. 

On entering the park, I spotted a family we had seen Tuesday at the Castillo Serrallés.  After buying our tickets, there was a brief video presentation before we were all herded to a tram.  We then headed down a seemingly treacherous pathway toward the entrance to the caverns. 

Puerto Rico has the third largest underground cave system on Earth.  The park service has created a narrow path running the perimeter of the cave, with two outlets at either end.  Entering the cave, we quickly lost all sense of space and direction.  The temperature was cool in contrast to the heat outside.  Lights were discreetly placed at strategic points, but it was still dim inside.  Our eyes began playing tricks on us.  On the ceiling we saw a Native American face in profile:  He was scowling at us.  As we moved toward the center of the cave, the scowl turned into a grin.  To our right was a network of stalagmites and stalactites.

 Straining to get a better look at them, I slipped and nearly fell before grabbing a railing for support.  The exit at the opposite end of the cave beckoned to us, and we heard running water.  An underground spring delicately flowed with water suitable for drinking.  We all took a sip. 

By now, we were in bright sunlight. 

Looking down, we saw the Camuy River running into another cave mouth 150 feet below us.  Reentering the cave, our tour guide informed us that the local bat population was sleeping just around the corner.  There was no need to worry ourselves about bat guano, he said.  It was covering the railings we were holding. 

Exiting the cave, we waited a few moments for a tram which took us to a hilltop lookout where we saw the gigantic sinkhole which created the caves thousands of years ago.  We were some 400 feet above the river, and 250 feet above the cave entrance.  After taking the tram back to the center, we immediately washed the bat guano off our hands.

By now we were hungry, so we ordered hot dogs at the small concession there.  Hanging around there was a real dog, very skinny with visible ribs.  One of the things about Puerto Rico that really bothers me is the huge number of stray dogs there.  There is virtually no animal control set up there, and I get the impression many citizens don’t spay/neuter their pets.  Danny says that work is being done to improve the situation, but I saw little evidence of it.  I felt sorry for the dog.  He seemed very sweet natured, and I gave him some of my hot dog.  He was timid, but willing to sit still for a photo.  Part of my heart broke.

Danny and I then headed to the Arecibo Radio Observatory, getting briefly lost on the way.  I’ve been aware of the Arecibo Telescope since I was a boy of 13, having seen it on Cosmos.  This was the part of the trip I was anticipating most.  The dish is set into a sinkhole at the top of a mountain.  Getting to the mountain involves a number of steeply winding roads, and getting to the facility means a very challenging uphill walk.  Both Danny and I had to catch our breath afterward.   
For those impressed by size, the Arecibo dish measures 305 meters across, the largest in the world.  Built in 1963, it is scheduled to be shut down in 2011.  It has mostly been used for ionospheric and stellar observation, but it probably best known for SETI work. 

The Arecibo facility was most famously featured in the movie Contact.  But I was surprised to learn how broadly the film misrepresented Puerto Rico in general and Arecibo in particular.  It’s not in the jungle.  The people don’t live in shacks.  It’s near an upper middle class suburb and visiting researchers live right at the facility, dormitory style.  The young workers in the “touristy” parts of the facility are local high school students. 

The Arecibo Telescope from the air...

Seeing the telescope up close was a thrilling experience.  I recommend it for anyone who visits Puerto Rico.  Photos don’t do it justice, but I’m posting a few.  There was also a scientist with a real telescope through which we were able to view the sun and a large sunspot (using a filter, of course).  We again saw several tourists from the Castillo Serallés and the Camuy Caves, and they took the picture of Danny with me above.  

After resting for a while at the hotel, we went to Danny’s father’s home for dinner.  His stepmom cooked a lasagna which was quite good.  

After heading home, we watched a bit of the news before going to sleep.  I dreamed of taking the Camuy dog home with me.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Trip to Puerto Rico - Tuesday

Rincon, with the island Desecheo in the background.

Initially, we had planned to take it easy Tuesday and get our bearings.  But we were both feeling so enthusiastic that we decided to head out to Rincon and Ponce.  After a quick “desayuno” (breakfast) at McDonald’s we headed south on Route 2--part of the main highway that runs along the coast of the island.  Puerto Rico’s roadways run the gamut from pristine to nearly unpassable.  The main roads tend to be in good shape--Route 2 is as well maintained as the best interstate highways on the mainland.   Then there is the question of the drivers.  Puerto Rico’s motorists seem to have taken Boston style discourtesy to new depths.  Whereas in Boston turn
signals are seen as an extravagance, in Puerto Rico they seem to be an abberation: the only time I saw them activated was when they were on by accident.  Puerto Rican drivers have mastered the art of the cutoff and the double lane change.  I now understand why liability insurance is provided by the government and insurance companies don’t do business there. 

We took some dizzying roads to the beach at Rincon, which is mostly poplated by American surfers and hippies.  We walked around the lighthouse there, and I had to use a filthy bathroom (really, I would have preferred to pee in the woods).  Overall, I was not impressed.  We soon headed south again.  

In Ponce the roads became confusing and we drove through a bad neighborhood on the way to the El Vigia and the Castillo Serallés.  Although Puerto Rico has the strongest economy in the Carribean, there are pockets of poverty, especially in the cities.  With some directions from a street vendor, we were back on course and up a steep hill to El Vigia, a massive concrete cross built in the 1980s.  We took an elevator which ascended to the horizontal section of the cross, and we were able to get some spectacular views of Ponce.  The interior section was also air conditioned, thankfully.  Another couple showed up as we were heading down.

That's an elevator shaft running up the front of the cross...

After perusing the Japanese Garden, we headed to the Castillo Serallés.  The Serallés family owned the largest sugar cane plantation in Puerto Rico.  They produced DonQ rum and were fabulously wealthy.  Our tour guide was an attractive Puerto Rican guy named Daniel Arroyo, who occasionally faltered in his English.  My Danny helped him a number of times, and I began to wonder if I could make it as an English speaking tour guide if I moved to Puerto Rico.  The house is stocked with artifacts from the 19th and early 20th Centuries, such as an Edison cylinder record player.  There were a number of Americans on our tour, including the couple we saw in the cross.

Just a model, the real one is much bigger!

On the balcony, our tour guide offered to take a picture of Danny & me with Ponce in the background.

By now, it was late afternoon and we nagivated our way back to the main highway just in time for the rush hour.  It took us a while, but we found ourselves at a Sizzler in Mayaguez, where we gorged ourselves before heading home.   

We stayed up late in our hotel room as we watched the election results and the beginnings of a Democratic sweep.

Trip to PR: Getting there is half the fun...NOT!


Getting there is half the fun...NOT!

Danny and I were already awake when the alarm rang at 2:45am.  
Motivated by nervous energy,
we showered and headed to the airport.  We had already packed and put the bags in the car
Sunday.  The airport was quiet and after checking in, we headed to the gate where I napped until
we boarded the plane. The flight to Atlanta was uneventful.  We then faced a three hour layover.
If you're going to be stuck in an airport for hours at a time, Atlanta is the place to be.  The
airport is huge and has a good variety of restaurants.  Our first obstacle came as we were
preparing to take off for Aquadilla.  There was a passenger in front of Danny who was behaving
strangely.  She became unruly and refused to turn off her cell phone.  The stewardess had to
become firm and advise her that the situation was not negotiable and if she refused to comply,
we would return to the gate and she would be removed from the plane.  So, she turned the phone off, and as soon as the stewardess was looking the other way, turned it on again.  As the flight progressed,
she kept pouring little bottles of liquor into her drink, became docile, and passed out with her
legs splayed over the tray.  As we were descending into Puerto Rico, she had to be awakened so
she could sit up before we landed. 

As we approached the island, Danny became increasingly excited, which brushed off on me.  As
we saw the coast, we could make out coral formations near the shore.  Our plane, heading south,
banked east and we approached the runway, which is literally on the corner of the island.  As we
were about to land, I could make out the palm trees.  We quickly deplaned and were greeted by
the balmy weather, as a sense of relaxation came over me.  What a relief after the dry cold of
Cleveland.  The baggage claim was efficient and within minutes, Danny's brother Javier was
there with his wife and two kids.  The enthusiastic affection in Danny's family is very moving to

We headed out to the parking lot where Danny's old car, a 2003 Toyota Echo, was waiting for
us.  It's in better condition than I had expected and I had to wonder if it was a good idea for
Danny to buy a new car here instead of shipping the Echo from Puerto Rico. 

As we headed to the hotel, I immediately began to sense that Puerto Rico is a land of
contradictions.  Gasoline is measured in liters, distance in kilometers, and speed in miles per
hour.  Proud of their Spanish background (Español is the primary language, with English a close
second - although 80% of the population is bilingual) the island is overrun with American fast
food restaurants, and signs advertising "servi-carro" (Wendy's) and "auto-mac" (McDonald's).  

Puerto Rico is on Atlantic Standard time.  They neither "spring ahead" nor "fall back", so they are
one hour ahead of Eastern time during the cold months, and the same during the warm months.
We reached the Villa Forin hotel about 5pm and were wiped out.  Danny and I took a quick
shower and rested for a while before heading out to meet up with his family for dinner. 

We headed to the rendezvous point, a nearby Walgreens, and got a few supplies before the
family showed up.    

By now it was dark, and we began the drive to a restaurant on the coast in Aguada that was run
by a Puerto Rican gentleman who, coincidentally, had spent two decades living in Cleveland.
We compared notes on Cleveland and talked...and talked...and talked as we waited a near
eternity for dinner.  As it turned out, there was only one cook and it took a while to prepare our
dishes.  Puerto Rican cuisine generally agrees with me - too much so, as I gained a substantial
amount of weight on the trip.  During the latter part of the meal, we had an upexpected visitor.


After we left, I heard the surf outside.  Then, Daniel Sr. led a caravan around several parts of the
island, and Danny commented on the new developments that had sprung up in the last year.  We
also drove through a blatantly cruisy park in Aguadilla.

We got back to the hotel around midnight, and I effortlessly fell into a blissful sleep.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Shout out from PR!

Hi guys.

I'm at an internet cafe in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Having a great time so far, and very pleased by the election results. Tuesday Danny & I went to Ponce. Wednesday we hit the River Camuy caves and Arecibo observatory. Will give a detailed post upon my return home.

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Zsolt Bognar plays Tchaikosvky at CIM

The CIM orchestra is the best orchestra of its kind I’ve ever heard. These kids are also on a higher level than a number of professional orchestras I’ve heard. They play together, in tune, and intonation problems are very rare. I’ve never heard Loebel conduct before, but he certainly held them together.

The concert began with Beethoven’s overture from The Creatures of Prometheus ballet, played at a brisk tempo, but lacking in the bombast which characterizes too many Beethoven performances.

Following the overture was Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto, somewhat off the beaten track, performed by soloist Zsolt Bognár. It was appropriate that the concert began with a ballet overture, because there are sections of the concerto which sound balletically inspired. The last movement is a case in point: It begins with a series of declamatory chords followed by a response. Most pianists bang out both parts with the same volume, not so Bognár, who gave these sections contrastingly. Bognár is a rarity among pianists--a virtuoso technique coupled with sensitive musicianship, and more than a dash of imagination. It takes that kind of poetry to make this Concerto work, and not sound like the kind of bombastic hardware Tchaikovsky heard too often in concert halls these days. To say I was impressed is an understatement. So was the audience. It has been years since I heard an audience splitting its palms and cheering for such a prolonged time.

The Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition that followed was well played, but after Bognár’s performance, a bit anticlimactic.