Thursday, December 4, 2008

Thanksgiving in Puerto Rico

I knew it was going to be close, but in the end things fell into place nicely.  The last field field session that I had to attend for Climb Leader Development was the same day that I was to fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  I had reserved a seat on a plane that was going to leave Portland Saturday evening, but the airline rescheduled it for 3pm.  Thankfully I arranged it so I could help out with the Navigation Field Session in the morning, return home and grab my bags, and take Airport MAX to the airport.

While Puerto Rico seems like an odd place to celebrate Thanksgiving, it was ideal in several regards.  For the Spanish contingent of the family there was a direct from Madrid to San Juan.  As a Licensed Customs Broker, I knew that Puerto Rico was with the US Customs Territory, meaning that I would not have to go through Customs.  Throw in sunny and warm weather and this Free Associated State of the United States looks like a good place for Turkey Day.

Our home base was in Loiza, which is about 30 minutes east of San Juan by car.  Driving there the first time I passed by sand beaches and hoards of people lining up at wooden shacks.  Smoke from wood burning fireplaces left a distinct smell in the air.  Signs advertised deep fried cod and coconut milk.  The roads were narrow and twisty.  Locals sat outside of bars and watched the traffic pass by.  I was impressed by the amount of public art that I saw in the town center.

Once everyone had arrived and the local beach and pool had been explored, we set out to wander in Old San Juan.  At this I had been adapting  well to the erratic style of driving, so I was enjoying being behind the wheel.  Old San Juan was colorful, with old city walls and a couple of fortresses to explore.

I enjoyed walking along the waterfront and soaking up the panoramic view.  We were even entertained by pelicans dive bombing into the water for fish.  The highlight was exploring the oldest Spanish fortress in the new world - El Moro.

I was not content to spend my vacation in just an urban environment.  This was my first exposure to a tropic environment, so I wanted to head for the hills.  Thankfully Lozia was near El Yunque National Forest, located in the Luquillo Mountains.  We started by taking in the view from Yokahu Tower and checking out La Coca Falls.

Then we set up a car shuttle (thanks Tanya and Miguel) and hiked to La Miina Falls, where Scott and I took a dip under the shower of the falls.  Then we hiked back to the road via the Big Tree Trail.  Next we drove up the road to the next trailhead, where we would hike up to the Mt. Britton Lookout Tower, with another panoramic view of the lush green hills and blue ocean.  El Yunque Peak just seemed so close, so we ventured onward to this highpoint.  Unlike the other paths, this one was not paved.  I was a little concerned about getting out of the park before the gate closed at 6pm, but we made it out with time to spare.  I did not want to get stranded here, since I was due to play Jenga with my nephew in the evening.

It may seem ambitious to put together a traditional Thanksgiving dinner when away from home, but we pulled it off.  Credit goes to my parents from bringing a bag to cook the turkey in, a sharp knife for carving the bird, sage for the stuffing, and a potato smasher so my brother could cook mashed potatoes.  Mum and I had to make a last minute run for more yams at a local fruit stand, as we discovered that food goes bad faster in a warmer environment.

The day after Thanksgiving we headed West to the Karst region of Puerto Rico.  Here we visited the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, just south of Arecibo.  This is home of the Arecibo Observatory, the largest single-dish observatory in the world.  This 305 meter radio telescope is cleverly built in a limestone sinkhole.  If it looks familiar, you may have seen it one of your school textbooks or the films Contact and Goldeneye.  

Puerto Rico is home to three all season bioluminescent bays, so we signed up to take a Kayak tour of Laguna Grande, in the Northeast corner of the island.  It was a surreal experience to paddle up a narrow mangrove channel in the dark.  Along the way there were smells ranging from sweet jasmine to something that reminded me of sulfur.  The frogs were chanting 'coqui' deep in the underbrush.  The wake from the kayak glowed as we approached the bay.  As we paused I would dip my hand into the water and watch it blaze with color.  Amazing.

As my time in Puerto Rico came to an end I departed for Philadelphia, where I had a five hour layover.  I took advantage of the time and took the train into the Old Town.  It was a big adjustment to go from 80 degrees and sunny to 40 degrees and rainy.  Here I saw the Liberty Bell and toured Independence Hall.  I hurried back to the airport to find out that my flight had been delayed due to weather.  I was wondering if I would make it back to Portland in time to catch the last MAX train.  Luckily I was able to recover my luggage and dash onto the last train with the doors closing right behind me.

No comments: