© 2002, 2009, 2017 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Over the past 30 years, I've vacationed in the Spanish-speaking US territory Puerto Rico more than 10 times, and I've passed through its capital, San Juan, on the way to Venezuela and various Caribbean islands. [As I prepare this essay, it's October 2017, and the island has just been completely devastated by Hurricane Maria. And as I get ready to post this essay, it's a year later with a lot of damage still.]
From a trip over Christmas, 2001:
[Diary] To while away the 90 minutes until flight time, we went into the First-Class lounge and enjoyed hot tea while sitting in comfortable chairs in a sunny window. Our flight left on time. The twelve of us seated in First Class certainly got excellent, friendly service. The extra room was appreciated. The food was rather exotic, but nicely presented. It felt a bit strange, however, to have linen napkins, and real silverware. Our scheduled flight time was 3:18 hours, and it was a smooth ride. We landed in San Juan 15 minutes early but had to wait for a gate. The 80-degree-F weather was quite an improvement over the 30 degrees back home.
We collected our rental car and set out for Playa Caribe, a small family-friendly hotel on the southeast coast that we had stayed at a number of times before. The local maps and road signs (or lack thereof) left much to be desired. First, we missed the exit to go south. Then coming back, we missed the exit, but, luck was with us, and, eventually, I found my way off one freeway, around a few streets and back on going in the other direction to finally head south. Finally, nine hours after leaving home, we were settled into our new home. The first thing we did was to take off the plastic screens that had been installed for the air conditioning, and switch off the A/C. Soon a very nice breeze had cooled the room. The crashing of the waves about 30 feet away was soothing and would help us sleep. It also drowned out any noise from neighbors.
[Diary] It was Jenny's 48th birthday. Her Majesty slept late, and apart from a shopping trip to a nearby town, spent the day sitting on the beach and lying in a hammock. As usual, I took over the kitchen, and served very adequate meals, which often involved salads. The day started out cloudy and rainy, but that soon gave way to partly sunny skies and 82 degrees. The breeze made it pleasant to be on the beach. There had previously been a fenced-off swimming area, but the current was very strong, and the ocean floor very rocky, so it really wasn't a place to swim. The new owner had put in a swimming pool and removed the enclosed area in the sea.
We quickly settled into a routine: sleep late, have a leisurely breakfast, work (I took my laptop), read, swim, chat with other guests, eat, watch news on TV (particularly the German channel Deutsche Welle, which had some informative programs in English, including reactions from the man on the street to the first day of using the Euro), and retire late. We met some very nice people: a couple from Atlanta and a honeymooning Dutch couple with whom we planned to keep in touch. [I am very happy to say that more than 17 years later, we are still in touch, and they have three delightful daughters. I've visited them several times in Utrecht.] One evening we had a potluck snack/dinner down on the beach. Three couples contributed food and drink, and we had four hours of lively conversation.
[Diary] One day, we decided to use the rental car and check out some accommodation in the northeast of the island, an ecolodge near the southern entrance to the rainforest. We remembered the windy road to the rainforest. Years ago, a landslide blocked the road that went through the rainforest. We walked a short way along that road. A local was dropping off some hikers who were trekking six miles to a waterfall we could see from the road. He said it was eight miles to the landslide, but we weren't interested in hiking that far. The ecolodge didn't excite us much, so we didn't get a brochure. We did, however, visit a nice-looking inn with a spectacular view of the eastern coast. This place had possibilities for a future visit. We took the coastal road back to our hotel.
The weather continued to be warm and mostly sunny. A couple of days were very windy, with many gusts over 20 mph. There was always a breeze, but not usually over five mph. Most days some brave guests swam in the sea. Every day keen surfers sought the best waves nearby. Jenny usually ventured into the ocean for a quick dip, and then swam in the pool for 30 minutes. One evening before dusk, we walked along the shore. Another evening we sat in chairs near the shore, enjoying the cool breeze and the sounds of the waves.
Another day, we revisited the hot springs at Coamo, about 25 miles away as the crow flies. A drive along part of the mountainous, scenic highway seemed like a good plan, but, again, we were tricked by poor sign posting. We missed the scenic route completely, but did enjoy winding through the mountains, even if we didn't really need to be there. We finally caught the freeway south and reached Coamo. The area was more built up since our last visit nine years earlier, but the hotel still looked attractive. By 4 p.m. we were back at Playa Caribe.
One evening, we drove into Guayama for dinner to give the cook a night off. We ate pizza, which was a nice change from salads. We also shopped for the barbecue we were to attend Friday evening with a group of guests at the hotel.
On the last day, we drove into the town of Patillas where we picked up ice and a few more necessities for the barbecue. About 15 people attended. We dined well on hamburgers, hotdogs, fajitas, salad, chips and salsa, and coconut layer cake. A most enjoyable evening was had by all.
[Diary] We rose early, enjoyed our last breakfast listening to the waves, packed and checked out. We set off for San Juan about 10 am. We had arranged to have lunch with the parents of a former teaching colleague. Norma was an ESL teacher at Terraset in Reston, but had married and moved to Istanbul, Turkey. She was visiting her parents who had spent a day with us at the beach on a previous trip. We enjoyed our visit, and Norma's 10-month-old daughter, Selin, was delightful.
We got to the airport in plenty of time. Check-in went smoothly, and, although the line for security was long, it helped to pass the time. For no apparent reason, everyone was removing their shoes to be X-rayed, so we did too. We had exit seats, which gave us extra room. We had a good flight during which we enjoyed a very nice salmon dinner and saw a good film. Our trusty taxi driver, neighbor Joe, came to collect us from Dulles Airport. After unpacking, we joined him at his house for coffee and snacks.
This was a most enjoyable, relaxing trip. For me it was also very productive, as I worked about half-time developing a new seminar. Now we were back into the routine of home life. While it wasn't 85 degrees, at least it was milder than January can be.
From a trip over Christmas, 2008:
[Diary] Feliz Navidad! (That's "Merry Christmas" in Spanish.) Being a frequent flyer, I accumulate a lot of points, and the best way to use them is to fly even more, but for free. So, this Christmas, we decided to spend a week in the sun, in Puerto Rico, to the east of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. We've visited quite a few times before, but always during the Christmas-New Year break as that's when Scott was out of school. However, our previous visit was in April 2007. However, now that Jenny was back teaching fulltime, once again, she was constrained by the school calendar.
[Diary] Our Airbus A320 departed, on time, at 8:15 am, pretty much full. It was a cold but clear day. We took off to the north then headed east over Maryland getting a great view of the whole of the Chesapeake Bay. We then flew south overland. Flying time was estimated at 3:45 hours. I advanced my clock one hour to GMT-4 time.
The flight was uneventful, just like a flight should be. Although I was tired I wasn't able to sleep, so I read, worked on some puzzles and started this diary. Almost before we knew it, we were on approach to Puerto Rico, and the view out my window was of bright blue sea, beaches and, yes, sunshine. We touched down right at 1 pm, local time. Soon after we got to the baggage carousel our luggage arrived and we were out at the curb waiting for the Avis Car Rental shuttle bus. We were dropped off at our Hyundai, and navigator Jenny was pressed into service. The temperature was in the high 70s F, just like winter should be.
We headed east on the autopista (freeway) towards Fajardo. Since almost all the signs on the road and the shops and businesses were in Spanish, I switched to Spanish mode. And although they use the metric system for most things, the speed limit signs are all in miles per hour! The freeway system had been under construction for many years. As to when it will be finished, the answer is probably "mañana" (literally "tomorrow", but really "whenever", maybe "never"). Near the east coast, we turned south passed the old U.S. Navy base of Roosevelt Roads.
It took about 1:40 hours to get to our destination, Playa Caribe, a little piece of Heaven, and a small hotel at which we'd stopped five or six times before. Two friendly guys checked us in to our favorite block of rooms, 30 yards in from the pounding ocean. We were in a ground floor room with a king-size bed, cable TV, table and chairs, refrigerator and mini kitchen. Outside on the verandah we had a table and chairs. Hammocks hung in the coconut trees. The first thing we did even before we unpacked was to take off all the plastic window screens (installed for the air conditioning), so the breeze could blow right through from front to back, or vice versa. No artificial air conditioning for us, thank you very much! Once we were unpacked and changed into beachwear, I made a pot of tea, which we had with some snacks. It was all rather civilized.
We managed to stay awake all afternoon and went to the hotel restaurant at 6:30 pm. Jenny had a very nice pasta, chicken, and shrimp dinner, and I had a great bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. We capped it with glasses of iced pineapple juice.
To wind down, we read, played computer games and listened to my newest album, from the young female Welsh singer Duffy. Lights out at 9 pm.
[Diary] After breakfast, we drove into Guayama, the nearest large town, where we shopped for groceries. The sun was very intense and we both remarked that if this was winter, how hot could it be in summer?
We had salad and sliced meat with glasses of passion fruit juice while sitting out on our verandah being serenaded by the crashing waves. After that strenuous effort, Jenny retired to a hammock with a novel.
We lazed away the afternoon, snacking whenever the mood took us, and watched several TV shows. Lights out at 9 pm.
[Diary] We were awake at 7 am after 10 hours of pretty good sleep. Her Majesty was served breakfast in bed, which she consumed while reading a novel. At 11 am, we started watching a series of TV shows, pausing to fix lunch and to allow the chambermaid to make our bed, change towels, and sweep the floor.
The afternoon was spent in much the same fashion, with reading, music (can you say "Duffy"?) and the crash of waves. Once again, we had a steady intake of calories throughout the day. I started a novel, the latest from J.D. Robb, "Salvation in Death". Then we watched a movie that was mildly amusing. Lights out at 11 pm.
[Diary] It was 8:30 am by the time we were awake. Once again, the butler delivered breakfast-in-bed to Princess Jenny; tea and cookie, with cereal and fruit. Then it was reading time until 10 am. It was sunny out, and a bit warmer than the previous day. Several lots of new guests came to sunbathe on the folding chairs under the palm trees. Some women even took off their tops. Well, I ask you! I marched right out there and gave them 24 hours to stop that behavior.
Before starting on some work, I made sure I really was ready, by doing a series of logic puzzles. As that went well, I set about making detailed plans for a business trip I'd be taking to Sacramento, California, soon after we got home.
We spent much of the day reading and snacking, following by snacking and reading. In short, we took it very easy. Jenny did some lesson preparation just in case she decided to go back home and to work.
Supper was a very casual affair, and we read until lights out at 10:30 pm. However, for me, my brainstorming continued until at least midnight, by which time, I was overtired.
[Diary] I was awake soon after 5 am. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!) Unfortunately, my brain kicked in soon after, and all attempts to get back to sleep failed, so, at 6:15 am, I got up and dressed. Day broke as I went north along the beach dodging the crashing waves. I walked more than a mile before the sun rose. It was a brilliant orange ball rising over the eastern sea. However, not long after, rain clouds moved over it and I could see heavy rain falling in the distance out over the sea.
Back at the hotel, I met some new residents, and chatted awhile with them. Then I gave the wireless internet connection one last try, and, lo and behold, I got connected. A bunch of email went out and, of the flood that came in, only two messages were of interest, and there was no new work waiting. Yes!
At 8:30 am, Jenny stirred, so I made tea. We'd bought two very large Asian pears (sometimes known by their Japanese name "nashi"), and treated ourselves to one of them for breakfast. It was absolutely delicious. Then it was on to reading, listening to music (can you say "Duffy"?), and computer games.
We "vegged out", lying on the bed watching quite a few shows on TV. Basically, we took a holiday, and did things we don't ordinarily do.
Soon after 5 pm, we hopped in the car and headed off to the east taking a random local road deep into the mountains and through little villages. Once it got dark, it was hard to see all the sharp turns and narrow parts of the road, but that just made it a bit more exciting. And a few of the locals didn't believe in headlights. We finally emerged in the town of Patillas, and from there, we went back home on the main highway, arriving at 6:29 pm, just in time for our 6:30 pm dinner reservation. Jenny had a well-done steak with rice and beans, and I had catfish with rice and beans. Once again, we had ice-cold pineapple juice. Lights out by 11 pm.
[Diary] Jenny's 55th birthday; holy Toledo! As with all the other days on the trip, I served her breakfast in bed. I worked solidly for about six hours, taking breaks now and then to stretch and snack. Jenny lay in the hammock and read.
At 4 pm, I stripped down for Rafael, who gave me a full body massage for 75 minutes. Despite the fact that he was quite physical, I was so relaxed that I nearly went to sleep. He was a physical therapist who came to the hotel after work, on demand.
After supper, we went to the hotel restaurant for dessert; we shared pineapple flan and vanilla cheesecake. I had a cup of café con leche (coffee with milk), but it was very strong, and not quite how I expected it to be. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!) However, it didn't keep me awake.
[Diary] After our usual light breakfast I planned to do some work, but I got distracted listening to music (can you say "Duffy"?) and playing computer games. Around noon, I finally got going, and put in a couple of solid hours.
We snacked for lunch. New neighbors arrived, bringing everything a small army might need for a New Year's Eve BBQ and party. Late afternoon, we joined up with our immediate neighbors to talk, snack, and then have supper together on our joint verandah.
Jenny met a couple who had no car, so, after several days at the hotel they were ready to go somewhere; anywhere. So, at 10:30 pm, we headed out looking for a convenience store, so they could buy some supplies. As we found, almost everything was closed for New Year's Eve. However, as we approached Patillas, we found a place open, and it was very busy. We arrived back at the hotel at 11:50 pm, just in time to hear the New Year countdown by the partygoers and to see a man light up a very large string of pretty fireworks he had hanging from a palm tree down on the beach. After that, it was pretty anticlimactic; everyone packed up and went to bed, which was fine with us. Lights out at 12:15 am, and we were asleep very soon after.
[Diary] New Year's Day; prospero nuevo año!
We were awake at 8:15 am. We had a light breakfast, which just about used up our food supplies. I made a picnic lunch, and then got my last email fix before we packed our bags.
Reluctantly, we checked out at 11 am, and some fellow guests joined us. We stopped at a convenience store for some snacks before dropping the guests at a beach just outside of town.
We took our time driving back to San Juan. Being a holiday, traffic was very light. The weather was wonderful, and we had the windows down all the way. By the time we got to our hotel it was 1:30 pm; however, no rooms were available until 3 pm, so we had our picnic lunch in the shade by the pool. I'd found the Coqui Inn on the internet. It's near the international airport, had all we needed, and was quite cheap. It was painted in brilliant colors with nautical murals. (A coqui is a local species of frog. It is featured on all kinds of souvenirs.)
I sat in the foyer and worked on this diary while Jenny wrote some postcards and read. At 2:45 pm, our room was ready, so I moved our gear into room 218, on the second floor, way at the back through a maze of open corridors. There was a sizeable kitchen, which was a bonus. Right about then, we decided to forgo spending the afternoon in old San Juan in and near the old fortress. Instead, we found a second, larger pool near our room, and went there to sit in the sun. Rumor has it that I was even seen swimming, a rare sight. Although the water was mostly in the sun, it still felt cold, but I took the plunge anyway, and recovered fairly quickly. After some 10 laps, I'd gotten the exercise bug out of my system, and then I sat in the sun reading my favorite English grammar book, "Woe is I", by Patricia O'Connor. (I kid you not; doesn't everybody take a grammar book on their vacation?)
Back in our room I hooked up to the free wireless internet connection and got some New Year email from friends around the world.
At 7 pm, we went out to eat and buy gas. We ended up at a "traditional Puerto Rican place", Burger King. Lights out at 9:15 pm with the ceiling fan on all night.
[Diary] The alarm was set for 5:20 am, but I was wide awake at 4:15 am. (Don't you just hate that!) We checked out of the hotel just before 6 am and drove the five minutes to the airport. The rental car shuttle bus air conditioning was so cold it was a shock to the system.
We ran our cases through the U.S Dept. of Agriculture X-ray system, and then checked in. As Puerto Rico is a U.S. Territory there was no immigration check. We stopped off at a café for some empanadas and hot chocolate. The lines at security moved quickly, and, soon, we were at Gate 34 with 40 minutes to wait before boarding.
When traveling, I find it interesting to look at all the places flights are departing to and arriving from. At that time, these were Anguilla, Antigua, Bonaire, Grenada, Panama City, St. Croix and St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands), St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Santo Domingo, Tortola and Virgin Gorda (British Virgin Islands), various cities within Puerto Rico, and a number of cities in the U.S.
United's flight UA972 boarded, and I was first on the Airbus A320. It was a full flight. We took off, on time, in very pleasant weather. The Captain told us that he expected a bit of turbulence during the 3:52-hour flight, and that the temperature at IAD was currently 32 degrees F with the possibility of light snow when we arrived. Right about then I knew it was a mistake to go back home!
As soon as we lifted off, my body cried out for sleep. However, after repeated attempts to get comfortable and to sleep, I gave up and just closed my eyes and planned my trip to Sacramento, the capital of California, the following week.
Back home, we unpacked, Jenny got a load of washing going, and I went off grocery shopping. Basically, life was back to the usual. However, we sure were missing that natural warmth.
Adios, mis amigos (goodbye my friends).