Monday, March 17th
The long awaited journey to Puerto Rico had finally come to fruition! Postponed last fall due to foul weather on the island, we made a hasty last-minute change to our planned foray on the east coast (that foul weather thing again) and by Thursday night preceding a Monday departure, we were booked for San Juan, hotel found, and flip flops packed in place of parkas. Yeah, boy!
Packed, feeling jolly despite a 3:15 a.m. wake up, and on the road under a Texas sky embedded with spring stars, we arrived at San Antonio International Airport with our customary 1 hour, 10 minute leeway. The jolly quickly segued into panic when the double entry door slid open to reveal a mob scene that would hold several candles to rush hour at Grand Central. And at 4:55 a.m.??
Kudos to Southwest Airlines for having the art of coordination and efficiency figured out; our time in their check out line was minimal despite a very long line. But that's when "art" disintegrated into "utterly profound, mismanaged, chaotic, incompetent, sloppy handling of a gazillion travelers", more commonly known as The Security Line. But let me tell you how I really feel....
Taking a cue from a passenger a few spaces down the line, we checked our boarding passes for that golden, coveted, new-to-traveling phrase of "Pre", equating to an ethereal walk "down that way, pass the line, to the right through security" where one no longer must de-shoe, show themselves semi-spread eagle naked to some stranger, and still be ready for a friendly little pat down. Nope...just like the old days; show your pass, put your bags on the conveyor belt, follow the "com'on" signal through the metal detector....and DONE!!! I had it...I had a "Pre"! Marty, however, did not. And no...I didn't stay with him.
Flushing with hurry, I made it to the Southwest gate and noted promptly the "Flight 325 - final boarding call" over the PA. I'm sure I looked somewhat frazzled (PANICKED!) as I noted the sympathetic look of the gate fellow as he explained he could only wait so long before he legally had to bar the door. Marty's text said he just might make it, but alas....no way was that going to happen in time. Realizing our fate, my mind spun in multiple directions as I tried to figure out the escape plan.
A quick talk with Mr. Nonempathetic at the desk got me the reassuring answer of "There's no way we can get you on a flight today. Want to come back tomorrow morning? Or I could try stand by to Austin, but you'd have to take a big chance."
Adding insult to injury, I asked about our luggage that was about now taxiing to the hold-short stripes on the runway.
"Yes...they're on the plane." Pregnant pause.
"Ummm...yeah. But we're not...", I managed to squeeze out with just a trace of the voluminous sarcasm clawing at my throat.
I decided to cut my losses, leave this fellow to his own sadistic ways, and try to regroup my spinning-out-of-control thoughts. Looking up the walkway, I saw Marty in a March hare mad stride to the gate...and I believe some actual fire spewing forth from his nostrils.
"Our flight left...give me a minute to work on this.", I offered.
"I'm going home...I'm done!" was about all that the poor man could form with his steely lips.
As is the case in extreme emergencies, one must take motherly charge, I've learned. "Sit down...take a deep breath...just relax, honey."
The glare and more glare rather nicely nonverbally communicated the words that the small children nearby were thankfully spared.
I took my chances and queued up to the desk once again; however, this time I aimed for the most kind lady who I'd noted helping, actually helping, another traveler. After I briefly explained our situation, she emphatically apologized, noting that it's Spring Break season on top of the busiest time of day on Mondays...6:00 a.m. flights.
"Let me see what I can find here...it's so busy, but let's see what's here other than stand by." Bless her!
Within ten minutes this Southwest angel had found a way to get us to Puerto Rico...on the same day. Glory be! She planted our new itinerary in my hand (San Antonio - Nashville - Baltimore - San Juan), shushed us to the gate across the hall, and wished us a great vacation. That, folks, is Golden Customer Service!!!
We lifted into serene sky just beginning to blush with the pink of a new day. Whew.
What a ride! Chilly Nashville, then snowy (very!) Baltimore. Admittedly, it was kind of fun to watch the snow whirling and twirling out the window and know by day's end we would be wiggling our toes in the sand.
The uneventful final leg brought us gliding above azure Caribbean waters that hugged the seductive curves of the north coast and met its conclusion with a butter soft landing on Puerto Rican soil.
But....ummm...was our luggage??
Kudos once again to Southwest Airlines and the on ground folks in Puerto Rico for taking our arrived-on-schedule bags to the little luggage babysitting room and keeping them pacified until Mommy and Daddy arrived. What a relief!
We profusely thanked the good folks, then found our way to the rental car pick up lane, all the while salivating at the prospect of our first taste of the island delights we'd been reading up on. We weren't quite sure what mofongo or mangù were, but we were determined to find out!
Welcome Dinner - local style!
GPS up and talking to the traffic eyes in the sky, we set out eastwardly from the San Juan airport. The area on our trajectory was the small northeast coastal communities of Pinones and Loiza, the area settled by freed African slaves and known for its rich African traditions including the vejigante masks - wildly colorful spindly face masks that are reminiscent of a 1960's Peter Max nightmare. In actuality, these masks are traditionally used to celebrate the Festival of St. James and were representative of the Moors (the bad guys in this case, hence the ner'do well look) and their defeat by the Spanish in the 12th century. This area is also known for its array of local food served authentically from road side eateries that could qualify from casual cafe to shanty. That was our mission at this particular moment!
Dusk was announcing itself in beautiful island language by the time we hit Pinones, but we knew we were in the right place when all the little eateries began to appear. Most had open flame pits, an absolute necessity for the succulent skewers of chicken and pork offered up to hungry souls.
We pulled off onto a sandy spit of open space, locked up, and walked back to the open air cafe casually set with wooden tables, plastic chairs, and locals. The heated glass case at the front near the fire pit was filled with a plethora of fried objects...flat, puffy, cylindrical, round. Called frituras, these are a staple offering all over the island and contain meat, fish, plantain, yams, cheese, or nothing but fried dough. Fry baby, fry!
Our nice waiter spoke just enough English and helped us navigate to the mofongo and mangù with sides that would fit the "traditional" quota in style. Marty dined on mofongo (fun to say, fun to type!) - a staple concoction of mashed green plantain banana, seasonings, and oil, and stuffed with whatever suits your (or the cook's) fancy. In this dinner, it was plain mofongo (you're saying it aloud...admit it!), and Marty went with conch in criollo sauce, Puerto Rico's amalgamus answer to island creole, on the side. I had a delectable dish of fried-ish pork cubes with the fabulous criollo seasoning and a side of mangù (also fun to say/type!), another plantain dish made of mostly mashed plantain with oil and a little salt, and topped with sliced onion. (Click here for a link to a quick video I took....and here!)
I wasn't sure what to expect, but let me say I am a convert! What a delicious dish! Plantain in island culture equates to potato in American culture....and the tastes could qualify as cousins. Every so often one can find "sweet plantain", but most often it's the green variety and served in a starch-like manner. I also hear they're pretty chock full of nutrition (albeit also chock full of a little too much oil...)! We washed all that local goodness down with the local cold one...Medalla (which I think means "Wow...this is good!") and made our way back to the car after a little post-dinner digestive viewing of the group of middle aged locals enjoying a Monday night out over food and drink. I noted that the women, at least in this particular group, had remarkably youthful skin. Must be all that oil.
Unfortunately, darkness kept us from viewing the scenic route we were on along the upper northeast portion of the coast as we made our way to the Wyndham in Rio Grande. The dark would belay little to us, but I can tell you there were some pretty fabulous tree tunnels that made for an eerie ride at times!
Another "tradition" we discovered on this first roadway jaunt is that Puerto Ricans must have Italian instructors in driving school. Wowzer... keep alert, y'all!
Once clear of the seaside communities, we rolled the windows down and inhaled deeply the fresh salt air. What a soul wash! The temperature was perfect sea-breeze balmy, the night sounds were a joyous chorus offering up novel sounds to our ears, and the palm fringe silhouetted against a night sky seemed to tickle and tease the moist air. As we rounded one of many curves, the moon coyly announced its presence by way of a softly illuminated evening cloud, surreally sporting a silvery lining. Only offering moments to enjoy this ethereal sight to any who would notice, la luna became impatient and dramatically appeared atop the cloud, pouring a soft moon bath over the landscape and leading us onward.
Check in went seamlessly, and feeling invigorated by our novel meal, sea air in our lungs, and the tropical cornucopia surrounding us, we decided to take a stroll out to the beach. What a delight, what a treat, what a rush of night beauty encased in moonlit shadows sprinkled through palm fronds gently undulating like a sensuous island dancer. The beach was virtually ours as I gleefully shuffled my toes in the warm sand. The ensemble of waves gently announcing their arrival upon the sand accompanied by the night creatures' chorus -- familiar bug songs competing with the frog songs so new to us -- lulled any residual of the day's weariness into tranquil smiles.
It was hard to disengage from this enchanting spot, but a good night's sleep was our ticket for a full day tomorrow. As we managed to pull ourselves away, I winked at the moon ...
"We have a date tomorrow night, ya hear?"
Paula A. Reynolds
Traveler or Tourist?
All photos used in this blog were taken by the author, the author's husband, or found via images.google.com Photo credit is given if possible.