Monday, August 17, 2009

Tired of Waiting?

Wander over to the food blog. Think of it as hold music, while you wait for me to get my thoughts together.

Driving, this would be the part where you fall asleep for half the state of Tennessee and I keep myself alert by singing songs from The Muppet Show. In my head.

You'll wake up soon. Then we'll talk.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bitch One and Bitch Two

Joey started by asking his passengers if we had kayaking experience. Mary and I raised our hands. So did Bitch One and Bitch Two. He asked about kayaking at night. The two blonde college girls raised their hands again. We did not. Joey nodded, issuing a little warning about how different this might be, kayaking at night, in the ocean, through mangrove channels, in a tandem kayak. “The most important part is to listen to your partner,” he warned. “Paddle right. Paddle left. Listen.”

The tour van shuddered and twitched along the road from San Juan to Fajardo, where our crew would meet up with tour guides for a night kayaking trip to a lagoon filled with bioluminescent creatures. Mary and I talked about this possibility before we left Rome, and we caught the only available tour on the spur of the moment and with about ten minutes to spare. Spontaneity is the soul of good travel.

In Fajardo, we all climbed out of the van. Bitch One and Bitch Two, two sisters from Jacksonville, Florida, came to experience the glowing plankton with their little brother, a high school kid, and their father, Chuck. Mom stayed back at the hotel to rest up. Apparently she still felt woozy from leaving her iPhone in the back of a cab on their first day of the trip. “We called her number over and over, but the guy never answered to bring it back!” lamented Chuck. Imagine. Along with the Jacksonvillians, we met a pair of spunky older women from Houston, one named Peggy and one named Sue. I could not keep them straight. I called them Peggy Sue. Who wouldn’t?

Joey described the drop-off point at the beach in Fajardo as a national park area, restricted to public use in order to protect the little dinoflagellates spinning and shining in the water. The beach looked the same as any other beach: same fried food vendors, same groups of families, same deteriorating public bathrooms. Along the rocks by the shoreline, rows of tandem kayaks rocked in the surf. We let ourselves be strapped into life vests, and a guide named Kevin called everyone together for instructions.

He paired us up, making sure everyone had a partner. He looked at Peggy Sue. “Are you both okay going as a team, or would you each prefer your own guide?” he asked. Kevin looked maybe twenty, eager, sweet, but perhaps a little naive as to the attitudes of Texan women in their sixties. “What is THAT supposed to mean?!” Peggy/Sue retorted, one hand gripping her kayak paddle. “Do you think we are LESS CAPABLE, Kevin? Do you think we can’t do it because of our age? Huh? Why don’t you ask some of them if they want to go with a guide? Huh? Huh?” The crowd laughed nervous ha-ha-ha’s. Kevin started saying “No no no nononono” with Puerto Rican speed. Another guide said to Peggy/Sue “You’ve got the paddle, ma’am, whack him!” I momentarily pictured our kayaking trip being delayed by a riot of tourists in life vests pummeling a young Puerto Rican biologist for his ageist comments. Instead Peggy/Sue held her paddle aloft and screamed “Girl Power!!” Tension: diffused.

Bitch One and Bitch Two rolled their eyes and checked their fingernails.

Once in the kayak, Mary and I took about two minutes to figure out that game. Perhaps on some level, as travel partners, we had already formed some sort of telepathic bond when it came to Paddle Left, Paddle Right. Regardless, we were silent and swift and probably ready for Olympic kayaking competition. Other boats spun in circles across the ocean waves, smacking into docked boats or each other. Dusk turned sky and sea a milky blue.

As we made our way into the mangroves, the sound of the surf faded like someone had closed the door to the sea. Over the swish of paddles moving water and the startled squeaks and crunches from some other boat running into the mangroves (never ours--okay, maybe ours once or twice), we heard Bitch One and Bitch Two.

“Oh my GOD! Quit paddling! What the hell are you doing?! That guy ran into me! What an ASSHOLE! Oh my GOD, sir, YOU are an ASSHOLE! Oh my GOD! I can’t believe you just called that guy an ASSHOLE! Oh my GOD, I SO don’t care! This trip is SO LAME! Why are you paddling on the LEFT?! Paddle on the RIGHT, you IDIOT! Don’t CALL me NAMES, it’s NOT my FAULT, it’s that ASSHOLE! AND it’s DARK! I CAN’T SEE!!”

Without ceasing.

And these are the two who raised their hands regarding kayaking experience. Meanwhile, Mary and I paddled as fast as we could to get away from the girls, the asshole, the screaming, whatever cloud hovering back there turning the experience murky and dark.

Have you ever seen moonlight through a mangrove landscape? Imagine Picasso’s blue period, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and a midnight voodoo ceremony with stark white bones. Mangrove arms draped down to brush the top of the black water; the moon sat on the top of the trees, except where it spilled in rings around the curve of the paddle. Every shift of the channel felt like farther into some Conradian heart of darkness, our eyes adjusted to this new shade of night, and then....everything opened up. We reached the lagoon.

My only reference for lagoons is the 1980’s movie with that effeminate looking guy who made most preteen girls envy Brook Shields for being the one to teach him how to talk. Blue Lagoon.

We saw no sign of Brooke. The water shimmered with surface light from the moon and a lighthouse in the distance, but this was supposed to be the bioluminescent bay. The water was supposed to shimmer with light from below.

One stroke later, it did. Our fellow kayakers discovered this almost simultaneously, and a soft chorus of “ooo’s” and “aahs” rippled across the water. With one stroke, a million bazillion little pinpoints of blue light vibrated underwater. Mary and I dipped in our hands, wiggled our fingers, stroked back and forth. The blue lights shivered and danced underwater. These are living creatures, little bitty plankton, and generally what kayakers do is annoy the heck out of them. Our fascinated strokes and splashes set them aglow with aggravation. It was delightful. It made us giggle. It made everyone giggle, except you know who.

In the van on the way back to San Juan, Joey asked everyone about their trip. He asked if we had trouble maneuvering, if we had listened to each other and figured out a rhythm for paddling. Immediately, Bitch One and Bitch Two set in. “It was TOO HOT! BUGS kept BITING me! It was TOO SHORT! We couldn’t stay with the glowy stuff as long as we WANTED! It was TOO EXPENSIVE!” These two were like Goldilocks if she never found any of the “just right.”

Mary and I smiled at each other in the back seat of the van. “Well,” said Mary, “I thought it was FABULOUS! I would GO AGAIN!” I said “SO would I. It was AMAZING.”

The girls took out their iPhones and started texting away. They weren’t listening.

Advice for Going Out at Night in Puerto Rico

—Check your bank balance first. This will be expensive.

—If you head towards Old San Juan, wear flats. Seeing other women jam their spiked heels into the old cobblestone streets is quite entertaining, but not something you want to try yourself.

—Order mixed drinks with caution. Some bars get a bit too creative with the “mixed” and toss in some extra stuff just to stretch the bottle.

—Watch out for the guy with the parrots.

—Plan on music selections from the Allman Brothers to Justin Timberlake. Do not expect anything remotely Puerto Rican. Or even Spanish. Or even Latin.

—If you want to run with “La Gente Linda,” the beautiful people, head for the strip of bars and restaurants in Condado.

—But wear a scarf. Tall buildings=wind tunnel.

—If the mayor of San Juan bumps your table, don’t expect him to apologize. Don’t look at his security detail with a look of disgust that says ‘did you see that guy?’ They saw him. They’re watching you, too, buddy.

—Let go of the concept of a jigger or shot glass as a measuring device for alcohol. Bartenders go more by color. If the drink is slightly clear (tequila) with a bare hint of green, it counts as a margarita.

--Take an escort, just in case you have more than one margarita.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

La Comida

Sometimes I crave an ambience more than a cuisine. When someone asks me what I want to eat, I have trouble naming a particular food but I can describe perfectly the setting I want to surround it. On the rare occasions when Husband and I decide to venture out of our own house for a date night, he’ll ask me what I want for dinner. “I don’t know,” I’ll answer, “but I know I want it on a white tablecloth that blows slightly in the breeze of an outdoor café with hanging baskets of pink flowers and a view overlooking a cottage garden.” He’ll respond with “I’m in the mood for Chinese.”

Every meal we ate in Puerto Rico satisfied my hunger for aesthetics as well as nourishment. After Uncle picked us up from the airport and shuffled through traffic to home, he sat us at the kitchen counter and served us bowls of silky white bean soup, habichuelas. We needed that simple dish to help settle us in while we simmered with excitement and plans for the week.

Language also plays a big part of our food experience; I love the way some dishes have the perfect names for what they are. Think “steak.” Simple, straightforward, uncomplicated, utilitarian. Steak. This follows in other languages, and one of my all-time favorite dishes prepared by our Puerto Rican family epitomizes this trait: Papas a la Huancaina. Say it with me. Papas. A. La. Wan—ki—EEE—na. Now say it fast: papasalawankieena. It sounds like fun, right? Something based in comfort, yet playful, full of unexpected ingredients or little surprises, right? Exactly. Originally a Peruvian dish, my Puerto Rican family introduced us to this potatoes and cheese sauce creation years ago. Pillowy lumps of mashed potatoes sit on a bright bed of Romaine lettuce leaves. A turmeric-rich, golden cheese sauce coats the dumplings and whole olives get tucked into niches and edges. That hit of vinegar and salt deepens the richness of the sauce.

Uncle made this for us, as we begged him too, as we always do. He halved hard-boiled eggs and placed them like students in neat rows. Dairy, protein, carbohydrate, vegetable. Done. And once the name gets stuck in your head, you’ll hear it like a music lyric all day long: PapasalaHuancaIna, papasalahuancaina, papas, papas, papasalahuancaIna.

My cousin Cynthia cooks like I do: gladly. We both enjoy eating, but we love the cooking part just slightly more. With young children still at home, Cynthia measures out her day according to meals. Mary and I reaped the benefit of this, spending time watching her fry tostones and bake chicken and hold the baby and answer our questions in English while answering her daughter’s questions in Spanish and wipe up the water on the floor with one foot on a paper towel all while looking beautiful. You know: motherhood. She pan-fried pork chops marinated in ginger with limes, picked from the tree in their yard. On the day we went kayaking (story comes later), she fixed us canoes—baked whole plantains stuffed with a rich beef filling and topped with melty cheese. Mary and I returned salty and sticky, bug-bitten and exhilarated, and stood at the counter telling our stories and eating canoes.

The day we made it to Naguabo, we ate lunch at a little stand on the side of the road. They call it a boardwalk, but it isn’t really that. It’s more of a hodgepodge of scraps of wood and metal, layers of plastic sheeting, bungee cords and two of the most important elements: a bar and a deep fat fryer. These pop up along most of the beach areas—the one in Luquillo beach stretches for a quarter mile and offers coco frio. (Green coconuts kept in a fridge, then brought out to have their ends chopped off with a machete. Stick a straw in to sip out the rich milk then use the straw to carve out soft tubes of white coconut meat. I watched the machete part and missed Husband).

As we pulled into the strip in Naguabo the sky started to turn a shade of lavender, and the stray dogs moved from their spots in the middle of the street to flop under tables and benches lining the beach. The snack stand/bar smelled of fried things, seawater, beer, cigarettes, hot sauce, old wood, hot metal, aftershave. Perfect. Uncle ordered us plates of fried whole red grouper, beans and rice, doughy pockets of crab and shrimp, sweet strips of fried ripe plantains, and cold beers. As we picked apart our fish, pulling out flaky sheets of white meat, the sky opened up and tucked us into that cozy atmosphere of being dry when the world is wet.

Back home, Mary and I call each other with frantic questions. “What was in that sauce again, do you remember?” “I think it was….bay? Was it bay or oregano?” We know we can both turn to the internet for help, Googling various dish names and sight-reading recipes like music—does it have enough garlic? Does it seem too heavy with the tomato? Finding the recipe, the nuts and bolts, the basic instructions for how to season and fry a fish like the red grouper we ate in Naguabo—that I can do. Where are the instructions for conjuring up rain hammering a tin roof awning, the worn wood of a picnic bench, a puppy curled up sleeping under a barstool? I want the recipe for a white skiff anchored offshore, nodding to the ocean as it rocks in the surf.

Friday, August 7, 2009

(Brief Interlude)

Happy Anniversary Husband!

Hill? Check. Coyotes? Check.
Just waiting on the time.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Where Did They Put That Road?

My uncle fell in love with a Puerto Rican woman. After shuffling around the globe with his missionary parents for eighteen or so years, he dug his feet into Puerto Rican sand and committed his life to her. He calls himself a gringo still, but I can’t tell what singles him out among Puerto Rican men his age. He has the same olive skin, the same gentle weathering of his features, the same penchant for hyperbole in his stories, pronouncements and warnings.

One day he took us driving. Locals call this ‘going to the island,’ as the city of San Juan feels too metropolitan and global to be of the same geography. We began with a stitch through the right half of the island, wrapping around the central mountain range toward Juncos. Flamboyan trees waved us along with their spiky red and orange feathery boas. Some sort of purply-pink flower competed for attention. Uncle knew exactly where he wanted to take us, but he could not remember exactly which way to go to get there. Mary and I shared a thrilled look that said “oh goody, we might get lost!”

We dropped down from the mountains and skimmed through little towns. As the asphalt curved and dipped, we tunneled through a tree canopy and caught only brief glimpses of pasture on the other side. Humble country houses in pinks and greens sat along the edge of the road reminded me of old women in housedresses waiting for a bus into town. I sat in the back seat snapping pictures, trying to catch that sense of motion and privilege that comes from letting someone else drive. My eyes blurred; I watched the greens, pinks, reds, yellows flash by the open window like an old movie backdrop replaying the same footage over and over, trying to make it look like the actors were headed somewhere.

We planned to stop in Naguabo for lunch. Naguabo, the town, pulls itself up the edge of the hillside like a girl trying not to get her skirt wet. One side drops down, however, and lands right in the surf. This means they have good fried seafoody things. We were on a hunt for good fried things to eat. Uncle turned right and left trying to pick up the right thread of a road; I watched more scenery, Mary told stories of family back in the States. We passed through the sweet kiss of an afternoon downpour, and rolled up the windows. The rain stopped and we rolled them back down. The air smelled like lime popsicles as the tree canopy disappeared and we reached the peak of the mountain. Below, the surf.

Back in the car, we found Naguabo the same way one comes into Summerville: suddenly, and without fanfare. It’s an “Oh. Here we are.” Not an “Yeah! We made it!” The town looked like a cluster of painted cinderblocks piled at precarious angles, and chickens jutted back and forth across the road. We were in Naguabo, but we had not found the beach. Uncle pulled over to ask directions from a guy walking down center of the street. In his lilting, perfect Spanish he asked the guy if there were still places to get fried things on the beach. “Yes, yes,” said the guy, “just go down here, take a right….” etc. All in English. Even in this tiny town, where chickens own the streets, a native speaker recognized a Gringo and decided to test out his own half-decent English, even after that Gringo had given the island most of his meaty years and it had taken the love of his life. He knew he would never be seen as Puertorriqueño; others knew it, but his nieces just could not see it. He just seems to belong.

Uncle found the spot with the fried things. I can’t wait to tell you about it, dear reader, but that gets into a discussion about food, which deserves its own entry. Tomorrow, then. Tomorrow I’ll tell about food.

From the Enchanted Land to La Isla del Encanto

On the ride from the airport in San Juan to my uncle’s house in Condado, Puerto Rico, cars swirled around us on the highway like determined gnats. I noticed a lack of license tags promoting one cause or another. I found that refreshing; the stateside fascination with promoting love of cats or dolphins or the teacher’s union via an additional two bucks on the tag fee really has gotten out of hand. On the island, the majority of license tags offer identical dingy white backgrounds, identifying numbers, and the pertinent information: Puerto Rico, Isla Del Encanto. Puerto Rico. Island of Enchantment.

I live in Floyd County, I thought, as a taxi swerved across three lanes of traffic to turn left in front of us. Floyd County calls itself “The Enchanted Land.” I do not bring this up for the purpose of comparison; one does not compare tropical island vs. Northwest Georgia. But the coincidence flashed through my mind, along with brief snippets of my childhood, as we whizzed through another risky intersection. My cousin Mary and I, both currently residing in the land of seven hills, three rivers, two sushi restaurants and a host of loose cannons, flew down for a week-long vacation at the home of our very generous cousins. We went without an agenda, other than to spend some time on the beach cooking from light biscuit to golden pie crust. We wanted to spend some time getting to know our cousins’ lives and loves. We wanted to explore, get lost, drink something cold and eat spicy food. I loosened my grip on the car door, leaned my head back on the seat and got ready to be enchanted.

It did not take long.