Sunday, April 28, 2013

Razor Grass, Rain, and Other Adventures




It looks like harmless grass, doesn’t it?  And it looks like they’re enjoying themselves, doesn’t it? 
Well it isn’t.  And they…well, they were, but no thanks to the grass!!

This weekend, Josh and Amanda and I went camping in El Yunque.  We wanted to hike the Tradewinds/Rio Sabana trails, essentially hiking from the North to South end of the national rainforest (and back again).  Since round trip it should have taken about 8 hours of hiking, and the two of them have 2 tents and 3 backpacks down here, they suggested camping in the forest.  And how could I pass up an offer like that? 

With the help of our favorite trip-planning website, we planned our route for the day.  We figured that, according to the information on puertoricodaytrips.com, we should have about 2 ½ hours of hiking to reach a potential campsite, where we’d drop our packs, then maybe another hour and a half to go to the end of the trail and come back to camp.  Easy day. 

Start of day.  We're such rebels.

Since the article was written on prdaytrips, though, the trail has been “closed,” and because of that, the trail has not been maintained.  I’m pretty sure this slowed us down. 

We did take this into account.  The article said we’d come to our turn-off from Tradewinds Trail onto the Rio Sabana Trail after about an hour and a half of hiking.  Yet after nearly 3 hours of hiking, we decided we’d probably missed it and gone too far.  We turned around and hiked about 20 minutes before deciding to stop for lunch.  There, just to be SURE, Josh dropped his pack and ran back and farther than we’d gone to see if we hadn’t gone far enough.  40 minutes later he came back, and said nope.

We continued back up the trail.  About 25 minutes later, we did find the trail we’d missed.  But we could understand why we’d missed it the first time.

Here’s the picture from puertoricodaytrips, and what we were looking for:

photo from puertoricodaytrips.com

Here’s what we actually saw:



(see the remnants of the ribbons?) 



Once on the right trail, we started keeping our eyes out for a good camping site.

But not before we went through the worst patch of razor grass yet. 
What is “razor grass,” you ask? 

Well, it’s grass.  Looks harmless enough, right?



WRONG!

This grass wants to make friends.  So when you walk by, it grabs onto you and refuses to let go.


 If you brush by, it digs in and cuts.  Like a razor. 
Obviously the grass doesn’t understand how to make friends.

Its not fun to walk through if you don’t have long pants and long sleeves, therefore. 

Thankfully, I was wearing pants, but Amanda had capris, and her shins got really scraped up.  Josh’s did too, but for some reason his didn’t bother him like Amanda’s did (or at least that’s what he claims). 
Josh had a pair of pants, so Amanda put them on…and tied them with not one, but several knots to make sure they wouldn’t fall down! 



So anyway, we were dealing with that. 
Did I also mention it was raining off and on all day long?  Well, it was.  Enough to keep us nice and cool, and also enough (we discovered later) to pretty much soak the outer layers in our packs.

The entire Rio Sabana trail was only supposed to be 1 ¾ hours long, so we expected to come to the “potential camping spot” noted on our map after 30-45 minutes.  Yet an hour into the trail, all we’d seen were steep drop-offs, foliage-covered slopes, and patches of razor grass.  Not a good camping site in sight, and I for one was beginning to consider the possibility that we’d have to finish the hike and camp in the picnic area at the end of the trail (even though that’s technically not a camping area according to El Yunque rules).  And then, finally, Josh spotted a patch of calm water from the trail, and when he scampered down the bank to go check it out, discovered an idyllic sandbar where we decided to make camp for the night. 



We left our packs there, and equipped only with a bottle of water and our cameras, we set off to finish the Rio Sabana trail.  It was almost 4pm by this point, but we figured we couldn’t have more than 30-40 minutes left until the end of the trail. 

Without packs on, we all felt light, agile, and energetic.  We picked up our pace considerably.

…It still somehow took us 52 minutes to emerge at the picnic area.  Whoever decided this trail should take 1.5 hours start to finish should revisit that thought. 

We took some time to sit at a picnic table, celebrate the completion of our goal, and enjoy the waterfalls near the pavilions.  Then, we booked it back up the trail.  It was 5pm by this time, and we wanted to make sure we had time to set up the tents and cook in daylight.  Josh set a ground-eating pace, and we made it to our campsite in 40 minutes. 

Amanda and I set up our tents on the sandbar, while Josh got to work on the food using our makeshift campstove (a cooking pot with charcoal in the bottom and the grill-rack from Josh and Amanda’s grill laid over the top).  The sun went down, and we saw a few fireflies (the first Amanda and Josh had ever seen in real life!  Can you believe it?)  After a tasty dinner of chili dogs, we bathed in the river, then sat around the dying embers of the coals, underneath a palm frond that sheltered us from the rain.  (It was raining again, did I mention?) 

our dinner spot

Our campsite fulfilled for me every childhood dream I’d had of discovering the perfect forest oasis in which to set up camp.  Ever since reading The Boxcar Children when I was young, I wished I, too, could find such a perfect river-fed pond…calm and deep enough to bathe, clean enough to gain water to cook.  I wanted to use my resources like the kids in the story did.  When Josh tied his water bottles to a log, then threw them into the cool water to let them chill overnight, I felt like we were doing just that.  We had everything we needed at that campsite.  I wish we’d had more daylight (and maybe a touch less rain) to enjoy it and play in the water. 

Sidenote: I really didn’t mind the constant rain.  The only thing that bothered me was the thought of having to put on my sodden, sand-encrusted shoes again the next morning and squelch my way down the trail.  …And the worry that my things and I would be too wet for me to feel warm as I slept. 

Sleeping that night was filled with sounds.  The coquis sang in a hundred-part chorus, the stream rushed by at the feet of our tents, and rain pattered overhead.  It was loud, definitely, but quite relaxing.  And surely not something everyone gets to experience. 

It rained most of the night, but thankfully the river level only rose about 6 inches.  (Much more and we would have been in the water in our tents!)  Our cooking pot did seemingly get swept away in the night, though.  Well, that, or a team of rabid mongooses (mongeese?) stole it away under cover of darkness. 

camping RIGHT on the water. only advisable because
the river was so calm and slow-moving at this point.

In the morning, we packed up our wet tents and were on the trail by 8:10.  This time, with slightly lighter packs, confidence in where we were headed, and motivated by the thought of the dry change of clothes waiting in the car, we made the entire trip from campsite to car in just under 3 hours.  (Pretty big improvement from nearly 5 hours to get there the day before!) 

I think all 3 of us would agree on several things after this trip.
1) It was worth it.
2) We are glad we hiked the trails, but we probably wouldn’t do them again after doing them once.
3) Razor grass is evil!!!  

It's blurry, but this is what my arm looks
like after the trip.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

And in 2nd place...


When I run, I run for me.  I run to stay healthy, challenge myself, and improve my times.  I am not a competitive runner.  I’m not fast enough.  And that’s okay with me.  When my students (who see me running all over the city in the evenings) tell me I should go to the Olympics, it makes me laugh.  They don’t realize that most of them could probably keep pace with me if they tried—at least for a mile or so. 

I never in a million years dreamed I’d be in a position to win anything in a race.  I am the runner who finishes the race, grabs her bottle of water and banana, and takes off without bothering to stay for the awards ceremony.  I’ll check the results online, and if I’m in the top 50% of competitors, I’m quite pleased. 

Of course, that mentality changed in Puerto Rico.  As I’ve mentioned before, running as a woman on this island is…profitable, generally.  Especially for longer distances.  I have somehow placed in my category and taken home prize money 4 times now.  Usually it’s a prize just in my age category, not the overall.  The odds are generally in my favor.  In the mens' category (age 25-29, as an example) you might find 50 participants.  The same age bracket for women might have 5-10 runners.  So it's pretty easy to place in the top 3-5 women in my age bracket.

Sunday, for the first and probably last time in my life, I took home 2nd place in Women’s Overall for a 10K.  I got a nice trophy (a trophy!) and $75 cash.

…Of course, placing like I did was pretty easy.  There were only 2 women signed up for the 10K run. 

So when you think about it like that, should I really be proud of my prize?  I was only racing against one other person, and I didn’t win. 

That’s why I don’t race competitively.  Because, yes, I should be proud of my prize.  I did it.  I finished the race.  And what really matters and what should determine how proud I am is my finish time, not my time in comparison to the other runner’s.  

So for me, second place fits.  Sunday's run wasn't a personal record time for me...but nor was it my worst time, by a long shot.  
I'll take it.  
And I'll keep on running. 

the finish line. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

44 Days


There is something inherently peaceful about a cloudy, cool day on the beach.  Yesterday was one of those rare Puerto Rican days in which no patches of bright blue sky poked out all day long.  Rain was intermittent, but mostly the clouds just hovered in the sky, a breeze made it almost chilly, and Jenni and Kelsey and I sat on the beach without sweating or putting on sun screen.  It was peaceful.  It was relaxing.  It was a good day.

At about 3pm, it started to rain just as Robert and Sonja pulled up.  We headed off together to get pinchos and alcapurrias (ground beef surrounded with plantain and fried).  On the way, we took a back road through the countryside.  All three of us in Jenni’s car were in giddy, excited moods and totally, totally soaking up how beautiful the world around us is.  To some, the view might have been just a scrubby field with a few skinny cows.  To us, though, it’s part of our sliver of paradise.  And it’s gorgeous.

As the year draws to a close, we spend a lot of time talking about what we’ve left to do and see this year, and in making plans, “next year” comes up a lot.  The people I spend the most time with are the five US teachers who will be returning to Guayama next year.  Consequently, they inevitably mention a plan for an adventure next year, then look to me with a little apology.  I don’t mind.  It will be interesting, though, to see what next year and Guatemala will bring.  I told Jenni yesterday when we were talking about it, and it’s true.  I can see myself liking Guatemala as much as I love it here…but I’m not sure it’s possible to like anything more

I didn’t really expect to fall in love with this island the way I have.  But I’m completely enamored. 

I have 44 days left in Puerto Rico.  There are so many things I want to see and do one more time, or for the first time. 
44 days.

44 days to sit in peace on the beach, to drive through the mountains, to soak up the sunshine.  44 days to savor time with my students (who I will really really miss next year).  44 days to eat pinchos and mofongo and tostones.  44 days. 

“Smile on the past, savor the present, and always look forward to the next step.”
And I do.  

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Flat Tire of Old San Juan


In my experience, flat tires often turn into good stories.  I hope you enjoy this one as much as I do.

Last Friday, I picked up my friend Lauren from the San Juan airport just before 4pm.  We planned to meet some of my friends for dinner at 6pm, so we had a bit of extra time to kill.  I suggested we take a preview of Old San Juan, just driving through it, since we were close.  Lauren thought that sounded fine.

The day was cloudy, with spatterings of rain.  As we drove along the coast, I assured Lauren that in the sunshine, the water is ten times more beautiful.  She took my word for it, but I think was suitably impressed even by the grayness. 

Traffic backed up in Old San Juan, and we sat bumper-to-bumper on the blue cobblestone streets waiting to exit.  (I hadn’t factored in the fact that on Good Friday, of course there would be tons of traffic near the cathedral).  Stopped on a narrow street, a man tapped on my window and motioned toward the back of my car.  I thought I knew what he was getting at, but had Lauren roll down her window anyway.  “Tiene una goma vacia.”  Yup.  Empty tire.  Got it. 

Well, we couldn’t really stop or pull over where we were at, but thankfully traffic was moving at about 3 miles per hour, so we inched along until we reached a parking spot across from El Antiguo Casino (which, up until that day, I did not know was a casino). 

Lauren and I got out and pulled out my spare tire, tire iron, and the jack from my trunk.  Both of us had changed a tire, or watched one being changed, before, so we dove right in.  After we got the jack in what we thought was the right spot, we realized that I didn’t have the L-shaped bar to crank it up.  Helpful.  We improvised, using the edge of the tire iron. 

While we worked on that, a helpful tourist couple asked if we needed help.  We said we’d accept it, if they were offering.  It’s probably a good thing we did, as the guy asked if we’d loosened the lug nuts, and we realized that’d be a good thing to do before the tire was suspended in the air.  We put the jack back down, and he loosened 3 of the nuts.  The fourth one wasn’t moving.  The tourist apologized and said he didn’t want to break my tire iron, and suggested we call someone.  Lauren has AAA, so she called and they sent someone our way.  We thanked the tourists, and they went on their way.

A few moments later, as we stood in the wind essentially just staring at the tire (because we certainly couldn’t loosen the tricky nut either), a homeless man making palm-frond flowers (and missing just a few teeth) wandered up and asked if he could help.  We shrugged, said AAA was on their way, but he was welcome to try.  Well…he didn’t really know what he was doing, and didn’t accomplish much.  But he tried for nearly half an hour.  As he was working on it, a Puerto Rican man came by and noticed we didn’t have the bar for the jack (we were in the process of lowering the car again, after homeless genius had decided it’d be easier to loosen the nut without gravity pressing down on the tire and found his hypothesis incorrect) and offered to go to his car and get his.  Sweet.

He came back, lowered the car down, and began working on the stuck lug nut.  At about this point, the homeless guy shrugged and accepted defeat.  He asked if we had any change, we apologized and said no (are we bad people? Maybe.), and he went on his way.  Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican gentleman was having no luck either.  After a few minutes, he took my tire iron in hand and set off down the street, first in one direction, then the other, without a word. 

Lauren and I were…perplexed.  Obviously he meant to come back—he’d left his tools with us, and he had my tire iron.  But just what he intended, we were not sure.

We watched him go over to the casino and talk to the guard standing outside for a moment.  The guard disappeared for a while, and then came back bearing a 5 foot long metal bar, which he gave to our helpful stranger.

The man came back over to us with the bar, which was like a square tube missing one side, and his intentions became clear, finally.  Putting the tire iron back on the lug nut, he attached the metal bar to one end and used it for extra leverage.



Now, this approach may have been successful…if my tire iron hadn’t given up and broken under the strain.

But not to worry!  Helpful Stranger assured us he would go get the iron from his car.  And he set off again. 
“Is he going to give me his after he uses it?  He just broke my tire iron!”  I complained. 
Lauren shrugged and empathized. 

Our helpful Puerto Rican returned with his tire iron and was finally able to loosen the stubborn lug nut…just as the tow truck from AAA pulled up.  We assured him we had things under control, but the tow driver stayed and watched just to make sure.  Our helpful stranger quickly and efficiently changed the tire (although we somehow lost a lug nut in the process…it just vanished into thin air).  Tow Truck Driver waved and drove off, Helpful Stranger did the same, returned the bar to the casino worker, and we all went on our way…me with a broken tire iron and missing lug nut, but a working spare tire. 

The whole process only took about an hour and 15 minutes and the help of 6 strangers.
Welcome to Puerto Rico, Lauren!  Bet you didn’t think this is how your trip would start.  I sure didn’t.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Bats and Sun and Fun


What a fantastic day yesterday.  Kezia and I set off at 8:00am, bound for adventure.  Our plan was to hit up two caves—Cueva Ventana and Cueva del Indio—and then end up at the beach for the remainder of the afternoon.  I had been to Cueva Ventana (the Window Cave) before, but Kezia hadn’t.  And neither of us had been to the other two places.

Today was one of those days where, for me, the drive was half the fun.  Route 10 is one of my favorite drives in PR, even though there’s one twisty, winding section in the middle that slows you down a bit.  The mountains, valleys, and lush greenery make it worth it. 

We arrived at Cueva Ventana with no problems, and I noted that, again, the property has undergone some upgrades.  The price to see the cave has gone up, but no one charged us for parking in the Texaco lot this time, so it evened out.  A new gravel/stairway has been put in place up the hill, and at the entrance to the cave there are now a few stairs and railings.  Let’s just hope that’s the end of the improvements, and they don’t install lights inside the cave or something.  Going with your flashlight is half the fun.

Kezia and I took our time in the cave, exploring the different formations and looking up at all the bats.  (The girl loves bats.  I like them, but she LOVES them.)  Then, we took our time at the window overlooking the valley (even though we had to share the view with quite a few other people yesterday, which made it slightly less awesome).    
























The next stop was Cueva del Indio, just outside of Arecibo.  We got there with pretty much no problem, thanks to the directions Robert had given me the day before. 

Cueva del Indio is a beautiful place to visit.  The cave is located in the rocks on the coast, carved out by the waves over time.  A ladder leads you down into the cave, which is light and airy because the roof is no longer completely there (due, again, to water eating away at the rocks).  Inside the cave you can find Taino petroglyphs as well as tide pools, bats, and fun little passage-ways to crawl through if you dare.  We spent maybe half an hour poking around, then scooted back out and made our way to the beach, our final stop of the day.


Entrance to the cave is where the ladder leads down.

Looking up after climbing down the ladder











Taino petroglyph

Inside Cueva del Indio


We took the scenic route to Mar Chiquita in ManatĂ­, driving along the coast until the road cut away and we had to connect briefly to the main road before cutting back out towards the ocean.

One thing I loved about adventuring with Kezia today was that she is as laid back as I am about getting lost.  When I missed an exit, took the next one, then decided to take the back roads back in the direction we needed to go without consulting the map first to make sure the road I was on would lead to the one we needed, she didn’t bat an eye or raise a question.  We’d get there one way or another, and if we ended up driving in circles or something…what did it matter?  We weren’t on a schedule.  It was a very relaxing car ride.



My route on the back roads did end us at the correct place, by the way.  We found Mar Chiquita to be beautiful—the sand soft (though it was the coarse type that sticks to you no matter how often you try to keep brushing it off), the sun hot, and the water refreshingly cool and clear.  We spent some time bobbing in the water, then parked ourselves in the shade of a palm tree and relaxed most of the afternoon.  Kezia repeatedly asked me, “Why haven’t we done this before?  This is nice.”  I agreed wholeheartedly.  Hopefully we’ll make it more of a frequent occurrence to have Saturday adventures before the school year ends.  

Mar Chiquita

Friday, April 5, 2013

We are Positive People!


It’s a fact of life (especially in Puerto Rico) that things don’t always go according to plan. Yet with a bit of positive thinking and a “glass half full” attitude, it’s generally possible to salvage a pretty great time.

Take, for example, the first three days of my friend Lauren’s visit to Puerto Rico over spring break. 

On Friday afternoon, I picked her up from the airport in the rain.  In an attempt to be an excellent tour guide, I swung us through Old San Juan before turning towards Guayama.  Well, first we hit traffic on the cobblestoned streets of the old city, and then, as we were stopped in a bottle neck, a man on the sidewalk tapped on my window and motioned to the passenger rear tire, saying, “Una goma vacia.”  Wonderful.  The story of our tire change, which took over an hour, is enough to merit its own blog post.    Suffice it to say that we were delayed enough to miss our dinner plans (which ended up being okay, because it was Good Friday and the restaurant we’d been planning on was most likely closed anyway, so my friends opted to eat at home).  We stopped at Dominos on our way to my house, since the major chains were still open.

Saturday morning, the plan was to visit San German and see the Conventa de Porta Coeli—the 2nd oldest church in Puerto Rico.  There’s a museum attached, and we’d read it was worth a visit.  I’d never been to San German either, so this day was to be a new experience for both of us.  We did our research and noted that the church was only open Wednesday through Sunday, so we planned accordingly for Saturday.  We got there without getting lost (well, we did miss an exit and have to turn around…but no big deal), and found the church with no problem.  Unfortunately…it was closed.  A guard told another tourist that the hours have recently changed to be Monday-Friday.  So no church for us. 
Porta Coeli (closed)

At least the town is pretty, though.  San German is the 2nd oldest city in Puerto Rico, and the city center is quaint.  Like  Old San Juan, but without the manicured perfection.  The streets are cobblestoned, but not in blue.  Some buildings are impeccably painted in bright colors, but not each one.  To me, it seemed in a way more real than Old San Juan, if that makes sense.  Anyway, we wandered around for about half an hour, then came back towards Guayama.


San German, PR

Easter Sunday, despite cloudy skies and spatterings of rain, we piled into the car and headed to Ponce before 8:00am.  We boarded the ferry to Caja de Muertos with no problem, and the boat pulled away from the harbor more or less on time.  But then it got to the mouth of the bay and turned around.  The captain explained that due to the weather, we would wait 10 minutes to see if wind directions changed, and then see whether it would be possible to go to the island for the day.  Long story short, the trip was cancelled, the day stayed cloudy/rainy, and rather than going to one of Puerto Rico’s most beautiful beaches, we ended up at Chiriopolis in Arroyo. 

On Monday, thankfully, our luck started to turn around.  But even before it did, we kept smiles on our faces (thank goodness Lauren is such a good sport!) and made the best out of each day.  We had a great time Friday night hanging out with Robert, Sonja, Scott, and their visitors on the roof of the apartments.  Saturday night we had a fantastic meal at Musafa and enjoyed time with Kelsey and Kezia.  Sunday we were at least on a beach, it didn’t really rain on us once we got there, and we had good company (and another good dinner that night).  And as Lauren pointed out, for her, rain over palm trees was still preferable to Wisconsin’s current snowy situation. 

Monday, everything actually went according to plan.  We hiked Toro Negro in perfect weather, made it to Corona West for an hour or so in the afternoon, and enjoyed Mexican for dinner.  (Okay, the only hiccup on Monday was that originally we were going for Thai food, but that restaurant was closed.  It ended up okay though, because as we got to know our waiter at Tequila’s and told him we’re from Wisconsin, we found he’d been in the National Guard and at Fort McCoy, and even remembers the mall in La Crosse.  Small world!)  

On top of the watchtower in Toro Negro

Near the start of La Piscina Trail in Toro Negro
































Tuesday was pretty great.  We visited El Yunque (had great weather), went to Luquillo in the afternoon and Lauren finally got to see the way a PR beach looks in the sunshine (bright blue water and soft sand…and lots of palm trees).  Dinner at a restaurant in the strip of kioscos in Luquillo, and then we did the bio bay tour in Fajardo.  We had a great night for it, as the clouds completely blocked out the moon and the water lit up brightly. 

El Yunque National Forest

Luquillo, pR


And Wednesday, our last day together, couldn’t have been better.  We left Guayama pretty early and made for Old San Juan.  We only hit a bit of traffic, and enjoyed a late breakfast at CafĂ© Mallorca.  The rest of the day included El Morro, a fantastic lunch at El Jibarito, my first ever visit to the capitol, and a sunny stroll along Paseo de la Princesa.  We finished the night at our hotel with a bit of relaxation and went to bed really content with our vacation. 

El Morro, Old San Juan

el capitolio de Puerto Rico

fountain along Paseo de la Princesa


So you see…a bit of positive thinking the first few days brought us some pretty perfect days our last three together.