Looking at Dome's Beach from El Faro Park

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I guess I've written so much about how great Rincon is, it's time to make it real and tell you a few bad things you might want to know before you make the move. We spoke to a few people from Puerto Rico before we moved here and the biggest issue that always came up was the "island" way of doing things. This means that sometimes things move very slowly here and you have to be patient. Coming from Los Angeles this could be quite an adjustment as people in large cities, like LA tend to expect promptness and the freedom to move through their day and tasks with speed and a certain sense of urgency. Yeah, that's not going to happen here.

I really don't know all the reasons for the slower pace, but weather definitely plays a role. The daily rains of the hurricane season break into the day and although its not oppresively hot, the heat and humidity make a siesta seem like a great idea. Also most of the roads are small and cannot be travelled at high speeds. When you get in a car in Puerto Rico it's best not to be in a hurry, enjoy the ride, chances are your destination will still be there whether you drive 60 or 35 mph. Because the roads are smaller, roadwork makes more of a disruption, a lane closed can mean your errand will tke twice as long as planned.

There are other related issues; when we went to register our car at the DTOP (Puerto Rico's DMV), we waited in line to get the right paperwork, then had to go to a different building to pay the fee, before returning to the DTOP to get our registration stickers. While we were waiting to pay the fee, the computer system went down, apparently it happens a lot. By the time the system came back up and we had paid the fee, when we returned to the DTOP, the office was closed, seems they close at 12pm during the summer months.

So the biggest issue: time, if you can't adjust to Puerto Rico's schedule you will make yourself go nuts. On the other hand, living in the Caribbean tends to make you more relaxed and the time issue becomes a way to meet new people and when all your days end with a beautiful sunset on a sandy beach, it's hard to feel too stressed about anything.

For me, the worst thing about Puerto Rico is the endless fast food restaurants that line the streets of the bigger towns. Anyone expecting a Caribbean paradise of small quaint towns with nothing but local authentic cuisines is in for a big disappointment. Mc Donald's, Burger King, and Wendy's are here in force, sometimes all right next to each other. Luckily, Rincon only has one such fast food place, a Burger King on the edge of town. There's also a Quizno's in a mini mall, but I think that's about all the chain type places around.

The language could be an obvious problem for many people. Spanish is the official language and all the street signs and official notices are in Spanish. However, many people on the island speak English and there is usually someone in each store or government office that speaks English. We've met people in Rincon who have lived here for over 10 years and are proud to say they've never learned Spanish, but I really don't think you'll be able to enjoy the culture and traditions of Puerto Rico without some Spanish knowledge.
There are other things; a stray dog problem, some graffiti, trash on some of the beaches, a difficulty finding some of the things we loved in LA (Trader Joes), but these are minor and could be a problem wherever you choose to live.

I really can't think of much else bad to say about our town, Rincon, and the island of Puerto Rico. Maybe 2 months here isn't a long enough time to see the uglier side of things, but I honestly believe that whatever comes our way, as seen through our sunset tinted glasses, nothing will be enough for us to question our decision to move to the "Island of Enchantment".

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The 411 on the 413

Everyone knows PCH, California's coastline highway, but I'm here to tell you about the 413, Rincon, Puerto Rico's own coastline highway. It's really not a highway, just a 5 mile stretch of 2 lane road that circles around the point that holds Rincon's best beaches. It's called, "The Road to Happiness", at least on the stickers you see everywhere here in town.

But it really is the road to happiness, not only because of the amazing beaches, but also because of the views from the hills above the beaches, the sunsets from El Faro (the lighthouse), and the all the quirky roads, businesses and people that line and branch out from the 413.

It starts just outside the main plaza in town, a north west spur off highway 115. Just past the marina, which is basically just a small boat landing, the first few beach areas you come to, Tres Palmas and Steps, are part of the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve. These beaches are protected areas, hold plenty of tidepools and coral and are ideal for snorkeling, but can also get big surf in the winter months. A bit further, the 413 splits, to the left is a road that leads past the lighthouse and dead ends at the old nuclear power plant, but holds some of Rincon's best surfing spots, Dogman's, then Maria's and just south of the lighthouse, Indicators. North of the lighthouse is Domes, and then Spanish Wall, named for a remnant of the Spanish struggle to keep invaders off the island.

To the right of the split, the 413 travels up to an area known as Puntas and then 3 other roads off the 413 lead down to a couple more exceptional surfing spots and beautiful beaches as well as some beach side bars with the most amazing sunset views you will ever see. In Puntas, the 413 winds through a residential area, populated by locals and North Americans. There are churches, schools, and small businesses lining the 2 lane road. The Lazy Parrot, Banana Dang, Mar Azul Surf Rentals and some small bakeries and guest houses are also on this stretch of the 413.

Our street, Sector Cuchillo Pina intersects with the 413 at km 5.3, near its end as it drops back down onto the 115 again, a few miles north of where it started. It's nowhere near as famous as PCH and never will be (hopefully), but where PCH has a romantic coolness, the 413 has a magical magnetism and truly lives up to its nickname as, The Road to Happiness.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It's a Dog's Life...

By law, Los Angeles county doesn't allow dogs on even one square inch of beach, ever. There are certain secret spots that we would take the dogs, but always with the threat of being ticketed. It's ridiculous. On our first visit to Puerto Rico we watched a surfer head out into the water and his 3 dogs follow him in. They paddled out as far as they could then came back and played on the shore until he was done. They were the happiest dogs we had ever seen and reminded me of Sancho when I used to drive him down to the Huntington dog beach.

I've been taking Sancho to the beach since he was a puppy. He loves the water and is fearless when chasing a ball or a stick into the waves. He's almost 10 years old now and his trips to the beach had become less frequent due to athritis in his front legs, he just can't walk very far. But in Rincon, we can put him in the car and go to the beach for a quick trip without having to make a full day of it. He spends about 15 minutes swimming and gets great exercise without putting too much strain on his old legs. It's made him a much more active dog and I'm assuming much happier.

Our other dog is Pud, a little over a year old, he has taken much longer to get used to the water. We couldn't even get him in the car to go to the beach, but he has started to follow Sancho further out every day, he's overcoming his fear of the water and even gets excited now when we jingle the car keys signaling a trip to the beach. Our neighbor, Angelo, has 3 dogs that he takes down to the beach every morning to run and hike. I don't see a big business for dogwalkers in Rincon because people have the time to do it themselves and a beautiful place for the dogs to get exercised.

California prides itself with having no privately owned beaches, supposedly the beach is for everyone. But I guess that doesn't include dog owners, at least in Los Angeles County. The attitude here in Rincon is that the beach really does belong to everyone and everything. The dogs and horses and yes, even tourists, who roam the beaches can enjoy them without worrying about being harassed. Pud and Sancho don't have to stay home, we don't have to drive miles and miles, they can enjoy the warm Caribbean water with us and the other lucky Rincon dogs.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Welcome to the Jungle...

When we bought our house it hadn't been lived in for quite awhile and the grasses, shrubs and vines were threatening to overtake the entire property and they did, at least the hill below the house anyway. The landscaping wasn't a priority for the first few weeks we were in Rincon, but soon after Cyndi got bored with the work she was doing in the house and wanted to tackle the jungle that was our yard. The first thing we did was to hire a machete man.

We see these guys all over Rincon, walking with their machetes, so through a friend we contracted to have Sergio, a blade for hire, come by for a full day's machete work for $45. Our friend told us this guy could clear our whole property in one day, so when Sergio got to our house I explained how far our property went and to cut down everything that wasn't a fruit tree. For the next few hours I heard chopping and chopping and still more chopping, but I couldn't see Sergio. Finally after about 3 hours I saw him taking a break near a tree. I put on my work shoes and carefully slid down the hill, through the vines and trash and leaves to see what he had done. Of course Sergio spoke no English so most of what he said I couldn't understand, but I did get that he saw Papaya trees, Mango trees, Coconut palms, banana palms and two other types of fruit on our property.

He gave me a small green fruit picked from one of our trees that looked like a lime and said it was a quenepa. He seemed very impressed with this fruit and when I obviously looked like I didn't understand he took one and bit the skin in half and then sucked on the core. I did the same. It had a large seed suurounded by fleshy fruit that stuck to the seed and tasted a little sweet, a little sour, but not unpleasant. They aren't really eaten so much as sucked upon. Since then someone has told me that quenepas have the same amino acid, triptophan, found in turkey that makes you sleepy.

He also gave me another green fruit that had a yellow glow and said this was parcha, (passion fruit) and this grew on a vine down on our hill. We then made our way further down the hill to where he had been working. He had cleared about half a football field where the hill leveled out and turned into a ravine, but was mostly level. There were giant palms and flamboyan trees covered with vines that formed a canopy shading the sun. It was beautiful, but so hard to get to. I asked him if maybe he could spend the rest of the day working closer to the house.

And he did, but about an hour later came up to say he was done and that tomorrow he would bring a helper and they would get everything cut back in 3 more days work for $100/day. We told him we could pay for one more day and that he would need to work close to the house, but we couldn't afford any more. So the next day Sergio and his friend cut back most everything closer to the house and they even cut a termite nest out of our beloved flamboyan tree, but there was still a lot of work to do.

So we bought a machete, some clippers, a hand saw, a rake, a shovel and a couple pair of work gloves. After the plants were cut back so much trash was exposed that had made its way down the hill we needed to clear the trash before we cut anything else back. There were all sorts of left over construction items, aluminum cans, plastic water bottles, toys, a sink, even a refrigerator. Then Cyndi took to clearing all the cuttings further down the hill into the ravine. Occasionally I would help, but Cyndi really did most of that work and the we actually felt like we were getting the upper hand on the jungle that surrounded us.

We made our way to the side of our house where the banana palms were and harvested the first fruits of our labor, a giant bunch of bananas that were still green, but big and ready to be ripened by the sun. It was nice to be able to offer our neighbors something in return for all they had given us. We've since harvested quite a few bunches of bananas and made shakes, pancakes, fried bananas and even frozen chocolate covered bananas. It's been about 1 month since we had Sergio machete our jungle and its starting to creep back up on us. We actually love the trees and shrubs, but the vines end up taking over and killing everything so its back down the hill, machete and rake in hand. I don't think we'll ever have a manicured landscape, I guess we're not hoping to control the jungle, just contain it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Buen Vecinos! (Good Neighbors!)

Being Americans in Puerto Rico, we weren't sure if we would be accepted by the locals. We knew when we purchased the house that the driveway was partly encroaching upon one of our neighbors property and then we spent 3 months with a construction crew tearing up our house and piling trash up in the yard, nearest the other neighbor. So when we arrived we knew that we should tread lightly. We also had spent a week here previously and felt very welcome as tourists, but we knew that didn't necessarily translate to a warm welcome as a neighbor.

Our neighbor to the south is named Consuelo and she speaks pretty good English, she used to be a teacher. Her family owns quite a bit of property in the area, in fact we bought our house from her sister. But it was her sister who built the driveway that encroaches on Consuelo's property which is one of the reasons they didn't get along, or so we have been led to believe. She has 2 sons who live in other parts of Puerto Rico, but visit often. Consuelo has had us over to her house a few times and she and her sons have been very friendly, but the issue of the encroachment seems to hang in the air and I don't think we'll be very comfortable with them until that is settled.

Our closest neighbors, Gilberto and Clotilday are on our north side and speak very little English. Apparently they had been parking one of their cars in our driveway on that side of the house. When we first met them they asked if it was ok to continue parking there, but we had just contracted to install an iron gate and in 2 weeks, they wouldn't be able to. They also asked if we were on vacation. It wasn't the warmest welcome, but I'm sure they thought we were going to be one of these absentee Yankees who buy the house and use it a few times, then forget about it and the responsibility of being a good neighbor. Once they understood we would be living in the house permanently, they changed.

Everyday Gilberto or Clotilday bring us either avacados, mangos, eggs from their chickens, lemons, papays, breadfruit or plaintains and always ask how we are faring. They say, "Buen Provecho", as they have bring whole plates of Puerto Rican specialties and their son Osvaldo brings over tostones (mashed and fried breadfruit), his specialty. We have been overwhelmed by their hospitality and generosity. They are both fond of explaining how best to prepare each item and seem to genuinely enjoy teaching us Spanish words and eager to learn those same words in English. The first week we were here, Clotilday invited us to come to her granddaughter's 5th birthday party. We drove about 15 minutes to a beautiful condo development near the water where her other son, Orlando who is fireman in Mayaguez, lives. Few people there spoke English, but once again, Gilberto and his family went out of their way to make sure we had plenty to eat and drink. I thought we might feel uncomfortable, but the guests were nice and interested in hearing about how we came to move to Rincon.

About a month after moving here we had a barbecue and invited the few people we had met. I grilled chicken and pork ribs that a neighbor down the street Angelo, had brought. Consuelo came by for a short visit also bringing a bottle of wine. Another neighbor on our street, Katka, brought banana and coconut pancakes and of course Gilberto and Clotilday brought a basket of wine, bread and fruit. The rain had stayed away that Sunday afternoon and the giant Flamboyan tree kept our patio cool. I watched Cyndi as she handed our new neighbors a blue plastic Dixie cup full of wine, the food was so fresh and the spirit of the evening made me want to hug everyone. I knew we would be happy here.

Oh Yeah, What Happened With the Car?

So I guess I never really explained why I got an "I told you so" about Cindy shipping her car. To recap, Cindy felt very strongly that she should ship her car here to Puerto Rico, I felt she should not. Cindy really shopped around and found a company, Total Car Shipping that quoted a price that was about $1,000 less than anyone else. They are a broker that uses a number of shipping companies to get the car to Puerto Rico. The company that would ship the car from Florida to Puerto Rico was Rosa Del Monte. A representative of Rosa Del Monte suggested that it would take about one week to get the car to Orlando, Florida and then 10-15 days to Puerto Rico from there, so Cindy planned on shipping the car one month before we left, allowing they would let the car be stored for one week free of charge if it got there before we did.

As the date of our departure grew close, Cindy stayed in contact with the shipping companies and another company that was shipping the car from LA to Orlando told her that it would probably take a lot longer to get the car to its destination, so Cindy asked to have the car picked up about 5 days earlier than originally planned, that was a good idea.

After we arrived on August 1st, Cindy started looking into when her car would arrive. We knew it hadn't gotten there yet, but were renting a car and that cost would add up quickly. After one week, Cindy's father and stepmother, Ed and Heidi, came to help with the move and we were able to turn the rental car in, but still no word on when the car would arrive.

Finally a few days before Ed and Heidi were to leave we got word that the car would arrive on Saturday, August 15th, a full 3 weeks after the original date we were told. But that's not the worst part. Along with the cost of shipping the car, Puerto Rico imposes taxes on any car brought in. Both Total Car Shipping and Rosa Del Monte quoted Cyndi a cost of around $800 in taxes. When we got to the Departmento de Hacienda, where the taxes were to be paid, we were told it would cost $2,114 in taxes! Apparently the government of Puerto Rico uses the mysterious "Black Book' to calculate a vehicle's worth and in this "Black Book" Cindy's 1996 BMW 328i convertible with 150,000 miles and a Blue Book value of $6000 was worth $14,000.

Knowing full well a fight was useless, and desperately needing our car, we paid the taxes and picked up the car. We were told the battery needed to be charged, but at Rosa Del Monte, they started the car for us and off we went.

Overall, having a reliable car in an unreliable environment is all well and good, but nowhere near worth the stress and unpredictability of having to ship it. The road from San Juan to Rincon is lined with all sorts of car dealers, to me it seems there are far too many cars on the island, surely they aren't all lemons. We felt very fortunate that the car wasn't damaged or worse and the first few days of driving in Rincon in our car was nice, but we soon came to the realization that a convertible BMW wasn't exactly an ideal car in Rincon and we staring thinking about finding a way to trade it for a Jeep.

I had a specific Jeep in mind. It was a red Wrangler I had seen parked at a local hardware store with a Se Vende sign on its windshield. When we spoke to the owner, Jesus, he told us to come down, we could drive the jeep and he could see what we had. We knew right away that this was what we needed. In the 2 weeks we had the BMW, the interior had been thrashed from sand and sea water as well as the dogs and the hardware store loading up. Jesus called us later in the day to say he would be happy to trade the Jeep for the BMW and $2000. Unfortunately, we said, we didn't have any money, we needed to trade straight across.

3 days later Jesus called to say his daughter needed a car and he would accept an even trade. Somehow things had worked out again. Somehow Fate or Destiny or another of the mythological or metaphysical beings had descended upon us and bestowed its gift, and once agin we were thankful that the saga of the shipped car had a happy ending.