Monday, December 31, 2012

O Carib Isle!

On Tuesday we arrived at Chateau Cervantes in old San Juan. The hotel was done up in a sharp, moden style, but it was strangely empty. We wandered down to the promenade by the bay. The promenade was opened in 1991 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas. GH loved the bluish tiles paving the roads. The city wall rose on one side of the promenade. It opened in the San Juan Gate, through which visiting Spanish dignitaries used to pass into the city. A little square by the right side of the gate was very charming. It had a little fountain and a pool. The colors were so brightly present. We had a very late lunch at Aureole, a restaurant bar across from San Jose Plaza. Our first taste of how slow service was here.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around the narrow streets, peeking through wrought iron lattices into homes, GH photographing all kinds of architectural details. I especially liked Salvador Brau Plaza, with its wide and gentle slope. On the eastern side of the square was the Carlos Albizu University. At the south-eastern corner rose San Francisco Church. After resting in our hotel, we strolled back to Le Convento, a former convent turned into a hotel. Outside the imposing building on the north side of Cathedral Square, a basker played his guiter and sang. Several of us tourists drank in his voice. Dinner in the terrace restaurant was well worth the wait.

In the morning we visited San Felipe Del Morro Castle. El Morro, as it was called locally, sat on the north-western headland of the city and guarded the entrance to San Juan harbor. On the left of the road to the castle was the calm baby blue of the bay, on the right was the restless aquamarine of the Atlantic Ocean. The massive fortification consisted of six levels. The main gun deck gave a beautiful view of the deadly bottleneck of the bay. Lunch at Sam's Bar, two doors away from Aureole, fortified us for more walking. We thought that la Perla might be a charming village by the ocean, but it turned out to be a destitute neighborhood, stinking of garbage heaps. We explored Sol and Luna Streets and saw the homes of Concrete Poetry and of the father of Puerto Rican music. Luna Street was the home of the literati. I fantaszied about renting a place here during my sabbatical, to learn Spanish and to write.

The next day we flew from the smaller airport of the two to the island of Vieques. We saw seafood flown in together with us. The nine-seater plane was steadier than we had thought. GH drove our rented jeep to the Green Beach at the western end of the island. Horses roamed freely in the fields. They were rather small and mostly brown. The water at the Green Beach was amazingly clear. It was also warm. The algae gave the water a greenish tinge. Our hotel Trade Winds was on the Caribbean side of the island, in the town called Esperanza. Before driving south, we treated ourselves to a massage at the W, and then had drinks at its lounge. The massage was, quite frankly, disappointing, but the lounge had a stunning view of the ocean.

We went to the Mosquito Bioluminscent Bay with the adventure company called Abe's. In our eleven kayaks, our group paddled out into the dark waters, following the green light tied to the head of our leader. When the full moon went behind the clouds, we could see better the light in the water created by planktons. The light, when we stirred the water with our hand or paddle, was white or bluish-green, very faint. You could tell that the light was not that of the foam because it appeared in the water, and not only on top of it. After riding back into town, we had dinner at a very fine restaurant El Quenepo, opened years ago by a couple who retired from the mainland. I had the local dish called mufongo. It was like a yam basket but made out of mashed plantain. Mine was filled with lobster.

Our second day on the island, we wanted to see as many beaches as possible. The Sun Bay was a long and lovely stretch of sand, lined with palm trees. A wedding rehearsal was taking place while we were there. I liked La Chivas, or the Blue Beach, better, however. It was smaller, more scaled to humans. It was empty enough for me to sunbathe in the nude. Between the two beaches, we visited the other town, Isabel, on the northern coast. It was a forlorn sort of place, with dilapidated houses and abandoned stores. We ate at Bieke's Bistro, the only place opened for lunch, it seemed. A Puerto Rican woman who grew up in the US served us; she preferred the laid-back life of this seaside town to the hassle of the mainland. Dinner was at the overly expensive Orquideas, back in Esperanza, because the cheaper places were crowded or unappetizing.

In the morning, we had time before our flight back to the main island. We drove to see the famous ceiba tree near the long pier. More than three hundred years old, the tree was known to me as kapok. It grew not only in the Americas, but also in Africa and Asia. Africans living in the Americas would stuff their pillows with the white fluff to remind themselves of home. The Vieques tree was colossal. It reminded GH of an elephant not only because of its age but also because of its wrinkled folds of bark. The tree was much bigger than an elephant. Some of its roots rose to a height taller than me. These roots formed walls as hard as stone. The younger branches, a green one shooting into the air, were spiked, to deter feeders, I suppose. The leaves, for such a huge tree, were very small. Two birds chirruped in its branches. A lizard of some sort scurried into a hole in the bole when I came near.

The plane that took us back was even smaller than the one in which we came. We flew over the towns of north-eastern Puerto Rico. Almost every house had its own swimming pool. It was easy getting a cab from the airport to Condado, to the neighborhood of Ocean Park, where our hotel was. Pamela's Numero Uno was an address as well as a boast. The first house on Santa Ana, it faced the Atlantic Ocean directly. Outside the gated community ran McLeary Road, a relatively quiet residential street that turned into touristy Ashford Avenue, and beyond that, Calle Loiza, with local shops, restaurants, pharmacies and supermarts. We had dinner at La Chola, a Peruvian Carbon restaurant on Loiza. My chaufa mixto was delicious, fried rice with chicken, beef and shrimp. Is "chaufa" Spanish transliteration for Chinese chow fun?

It was Saturday night, a night for drinking and dancing. I had heard about Splash from the couple sitting next to us during lunch at Mango's. The bar on Calle Condado had a patio and a small dance floor with a deejay, but nobody was dancing. We decided to walk to Circo Club in Santurce. On the way we found a darkroom bar but nothing much was happening. Circo was better. It had three bars on two levels and, later at night, opened another room, a grander affair, for dancing. GH talked to a couple from Toronto. Days before, a family from Toronto flew with us to Vieques. Whether from New York or Toronto, we were all in Puerto Rico looking for warmer weather.

On our last day, I wanted to see the Museum of Art, which GH passed. We had a very good brunch together first at a Caribbean cafe on Loiza. Bob Marley grinned from its wall. I had a Puerto Rican pot of Provincial rice with chicken and meat. The museum was housed in a Neo-classical building. I saw the portrait of the governor's two daughters, by the father of Puerto Rican painting, Jose Campeche. The still lifes--soursops and avocadoes--of nineteenth-century Francisco Oller combined Impressionism and Realism. Abstract art came late to Puerto Rico and the art on display was not very compelling. The video of a boxer punching high at a bunch of plantains was mesmerizing. When the bottom fruit finally broke off, the stalk dripped sap suggestively. The retrospective on Rene Santos, a Nuyorican who died young of AIDS, was revealing of a painting practice based on newspaper ads and photo-novels.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, the best thing was the show on Richard Pagan, a Puerto Rican artist who died in Italy at the age of 35. The influence of Matisse was clear in the coloring of the paintings in the first room. In the next two rooms, the works showed the influence of De Kooning, whom he came to know while living in Southampton, New York. The last room, with its big-format paintings, showed, however, his successful fusion of the styles of Post-Impressionism and the New York School. In a free-floating blue, his figures swam or flew over suspended patches of color, seen as if beneath water. I was reminded of my recent flights over the ocean, when one was both flying above the water and swimming in it, so clear and faded were the masses of greens and blues under the surface of the water. Pagan gave up marine biology in favor of art but the love of the ocean, its translucencies, dissolutions and liberties, suffused his mature art.

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