Monday, March 13, 2017

Puerto Rico Day 3

Here’s a few things about Puerto Rico.  Most of the houses don’t have addresses…and it seems to be the houses of every person we visit.  There’s no mailboxes.  They give their addresses as the neighborhood and then kilometers and hectometers.  So Livre Secondo K-8 H-3, City Name, PR Zipcode.  No GPS has any idea what that means.

Digitally savvy people, like my cousin Diana, give their addresses as GPS coordinates.  That’s the one address I know I can find, but we won’t be seeing her until tomorrow.

Puerto Rico has three political parties:  Statehood, Status Quo, and Independence.  Every politician is in one of these parties.  The largest party is Statehood, but the most aggressive is Independence.  Whenever there’s a vote for Statehood and the Indepenistas know they’re going to lose they tell their people to vote Status Quo to prevent Statehood from winning.  The average Puerto Rican knows little of Republicans and Democrats.  Trump has very little influence here so far.  No one is worried or even cares that he’s president.  

Pro-Statehood Political Posters on a Post

Puerto Rico has guyaba (guava) and mango as a common flavors for ice cream and candy.  Wild trees of these fruit seem go grow everywhere, along with bananas.  Mangos were hanging over the highway almost low enough to hit the roof of my car.  Everyone I’ve visited has at least two or three banana trees growing in their yards.

Adobo...a seasoning I use on an almost daily basis!  You never find that much Adobo in USA stores.

If you go to a gas station right now you’ll see $.67 for regular and $.78 for premium.  It sounds like a great deal, but the gas is sold in liters.  Fortunately the Velicidad Maximum signs are still miles per hour.  Switching to kilometers would have been rough.

Goya fruit juices in steel cans.

I don’t know what time I woke up, but I’m sure it was after 9pm.  I slept so well in my aunt’s spare bedroom with a fan going.  I thought I’d be sweltering, but March is a great month to visit the island.  It’s a sweet 70 degrees.  The weather reports here give temperature in Fahrenheit.  

I sat across from my aunt’s husband, who is pretty much the only “uncle” I’ve gotten to know well.  Yesterday we went to the horse racing lounge, which is literally in the middle of a neighborhood (with a doctor’s office and a bar here and there for good measure).  I bet $12, and he bet $2.  Then we watched the races and everything lost except one race I bet on for $2 which won $2.90.  -_-  Anyway, he parlayed my winning for a new ticket today.

Another street scene.  It was not easy to keep that rental car from getting damaged.

That’s where he left to as we were going out to start the day’s adventure.  Last time we visited 12 years ago he was forced to chauffeur us around all over the island.  This time he handed that duty to me.  I was proud to be able to take that weight off him.  We’re visiting his wife’s family, not his, after all.  I like driving myself.  The roads are dodgey sometimes, but I think they’re just as good as the ones on the mainland.  I haven’t had any trouble getting around except for the GPS issue.

Before we left I watched the local Spanish-language news.  It went like this:  A reporter reported the facts of an article objectively, looking and sounding very serious.  Next to her was a man in a bright blue suit with red lapels and a hat with a feather.  A ‘character.’  Whenever she reported something she would look at him and ask him what he thought of that.  Then the man would give his very animated and emotional opinion.  The reporter would nod or say, ‘I see.’  Or something else non-commital and then report the next news article.  When she was done she’d ask his opinion again, and he’d go into another rant.  It was like news and editorial and one. 

“Flooding will be happening in the northeast of the island from Rio Piedras from Other City name and people should move inland.  The risk of rogue waves are extremely high, and many highways are already flooded.  This warning will remain in affect until Friday night.  What do you think of this?”

“People must heed these warnings no matter how it inconveniences them.  The fisherman who was swept away on the pier last month refused to listen, saying he had to support his family.  Now he’s dead.  His wife is a widow.  How can he support anyone when he’s dead?  Only the foolish think they know more than the news.  We’re telling you to move inland.  Why must you be stupid!  Listen to us!”

“I see.  In other news…”

A lot of Hispanic TV seems to try to make things more colorful than USA TV.  The other thing my uncle-in-law watched was a Turkish soap opera dubbed in Spanish.  This seems to air four times a day because every time he turns on the TV it’s on.  Caro Paro or something.  The beauty norm from there is apparently light skin, huge dark eyebrows with penciling to make them appear even bigger, and black as midnight hair. 

This is the type of soap opera where a beautiful woman is often being irrational due to some offense against her loved ones, like going after the criminals, rival, corrupt police etc. with a gun she found, and a big strong handsome man has to hug the sense back into her as she weeps on his shoulder.  That’s not to say there isn’t strong female characters, but you never see a man acting irrationally.  If a man goes after someone who wronged him or his people it’s always with manly anger and righteousness.  Women get disarmed and hugged until the realize taking initiative is for men only.

There are movies with Puerto Rican movie stars which are delivered to theaters on Puerto Rico along with American movies.  Keep in mind Puerto Rico has the same population as California on 2/3rds of the land.  So it’s like if a Hollywood movie only released in California.  The market is small, and so is the budget.  The commercial for one I saw was a slideshow with music and text.  No announcer.  It was Island Love Affair, or something to that effect.  It showed the female lead who was apparently a popular Puerto Rican actress, and the same with the male protagonist, and then had some headline I didn’t understand, like ‘Romance, Intrigue, Drama’ or something, and the date it would be in theaters.  This movie might be based on a Puerto Rican telenovella, I’m not really sure.  Puerto Rico’s “Hollywood” makes them, but not as prolifically as Mexico.

These Puerto Rico celebrities show up at the sites of shootings and tragedies to talk to reporters.  Stray bullets hit a church somewhere today.  At the scene was some Puerto Rican star being interviewed.  She talked about how horrible it was.  It seems to be a morbid publicity op that’s common here.  It shows the celebrity ‘cares.’

Anywho, on the agenda today was to meet an aunt I’d never met before, Norma.  This is a half sister of my mother.  She’s almost the same age as my mother, but has a different mother than her.  They had the same father, who died in the great Puerto Rico flood of 1960.  My aunt Yamila said their father ‘pollinated many flowers.’  My grandfather sired 18 children in his short life.  Eight are still alive.  I’ve now met all the females.

I’m a not so young woman who’s childless.  Normally when you meet relatives they would want to know what the deal is.  With my family and extended family when they find out I have no children they just nod knowingly and say, ‘There’s always one.’  For some reason there are one or two Abraham women every generation who never have kids.  Me and my cousin (the one I visited yesterday) are this generation’s spinsters.  In my mother’s generation it was my aunt Yamila.  Before her were two sisters of my grandfather.  Before them was another great great aunt.  We Abraham’s are not romantic people.  Marriage and children are optional.  

My aunt tried to get us to stop at a hospital to meet a worker who she was friends with who wanted to see the gringa (me).  My mom declined before I knew what was going on. 

We continued to pick up Norma in Humacao, the city of my mother’s childhood.  The hospital where she was born is still there in the same spot, and so is the high school she went to.  Both immaculate stone buildings look nothing like the filthy dilapidated places she described from her youth, when she lived in a dirt floor house with no plumbing.  Things have improved tremendously since then, and still haven’t declined significantly.  I expected more poverty and desperation here.  I’m seeing poverty, but no desperation.  Puerto Ricans are a hardy and self-sufficient lot.

We brought Norma to a mall food court to munch and get caught up.  Norma looks 50, even though she’s 68, and is extremely hardy and boisterous.  Much gossip was shared, very little I understood.  I spent my time absorbing my surroundings instead.  This looked like any mall in anywhere America.  People were spending money on cell phones and jewelry.  Puerto Rico is no where near apocalypse-level crisis. 

A Puerto Rican Mall
There’s still tremendous crime.  When my aunt’s husband first came to get us in a super-market parking lot I tried to show him the prime rib I’d bought him and my aunt.  He shut the trunk of our rental and told me to hurry up and get in the car.  He’d been mugged at gunpoint in the same parking lot.

We also headed back home well before dark.  There’s some safety in the daytime, but not in every location.  You have to keep alert and avoid obvious dangerous scenarios.  A man with a flag was blocking an isolated two lane highway by the ocean.  My aunt said not to go near, but I did anyway since I could see from the front seat he was just directing traffic for a streetsweeper that was blocking one lane.  Her fear of banditos got my alertness back up.  It’s easy to forget you’re not on the continent here.

After we ate and gabbed with my new aunt we headed to another town to meet the last surviving member of my grandmother’s generation.  This is the sister of my grandfather, Carmen, aged 87.  Carmen lived on an insanely steep hill.  Norma told me to park between the broken vehicle and boat in her one car driveway.  The road was steep and the driveway was at a right angle to it.  I parked right on the street and put on the emergency brake.  I’m not Houdini.

So steep!

I’m going to digress to mention that Yamila also lives on an insanely steep hill.  You have to slam on the gas to get up the 50 feet to her house and it feels like you’re going to tip backwards.  Being on a steep hill is a means of protection.  It makes it difficult for the criminals to come for TVs and Refrigerators.  That doesn’t mean she hasn’t had rabbits and chickens stolen from her yard, though.

I loved my great aunt’s house.  It was a lovely concrete home, tidy and clean, but behind it was what got me excited.  She had the usual banana trees, but also gandules (pigeon peas) and pineapple bushes.  There was some green fruit the size of a soccer ball growing from a tree that is apparently used to make detergent and could be hollowed out and dried to make a bowl.  Chickens wandered freely, keeping the lizard population down.  She had two pens with black pigs!  Now that’s something I would do!  This woman had all the pork she’d ever need, and they pretty much just ate the ten million bananas she has growing (along with other stuff, I saw a big pile of mush).  This old lady has it figured out!!

My great aunt's house.  Lady in front is my aunt Yamila

That's my aunt Norma

Pigeons peas

On the way to the great aunt we went by some of the beaches.  I love Puerto Rican beaches because of all the vendors selling street food and all the little shops on the streets.  I asked if we could spend some time in this one colorful area.  It was agreed we’d stop on the way back.

I tried to do just that, but my aunt Norma said to keep going.  She was taking me somewhere better.  She brought me to a pier where all the water was brown, so I couldn’t take any pictures, and there weren’t any vendors.  -_-  Apparently she made me go there because one of the fishers (a woman) was her friend who she wanted to see.  I was annoyed.  

We brought her home and then headed back. 

My aunt made Bacalau (which I’m sure I’ve just spelled wrong) which is made from a boiled tuber she finds in her back yard and one fillet of salt cod split between four people.   

I guess I’m going to give my commentary on Puerto Rican food now.  You know how on Thanksgiving people joke that the only spice white people know is salt?  Well, I wish Puerto Ricans at least used salt.   

Menu from an authentic Puerto Rican restaurant.  Not a chili pepper to be found.

Puerto Rican food is BLAND.  They don’t use hot spices, not even pepper.  Most meals involve a tuber and meat.  Mashed plantain with meat on it is one of the main dishes called Mofongo.  Most things are seasoned with adobo and/or sazon.
Beef Mofongo

Shrimp Mofongo

Puerto Rico is loaded with wild tubers and plantains, so a lot of meals are made from a stringy waxy tuber that looks like a tree trunk called yucca, or ñames which are a round tuber with a hard skin that has what looks like palm leaves growing out of it.  Whether it’s the first one or ñames, it makes no difference, these things taste of absolutely nothing.  They’re just starch.  The last form of starch that’s plentiful, and has a relative strong flavor, is plantain.  

Fried rabbit with tostadas made from plantain
I may be about to lose my Puerto Rican card here, but I hate plantains.  They taste like banana flavored potatoes to me.  Yamila asked me if there was anything I didn’t eat and I said plantains.  So I got to avoid this Puerto Rican staple.

Bacalau is ñame, that tuber that tastes of nothing, with salt cod.  The salt cod is served instead of salt.  My aunt never uses salt on anything.  She boils broccoli and serves it with nothing on it.  The salt cod gives the tuber some saltiness, but the cod to tuber ratio is askew and you’re left with bland white chunks of starch with no seasoning. 

I just want to reiterate, Puerto Rican food is not spicy.  The national dish is arroz con pollo, which is chicken and rice.  Tastes great, but other than yellow rice I find myself craving salt and pepper.  If I ask my aunt for some salt it’s hidden in the back of her cabinet, like it’s some exotic spice.  At Puerto Rican restaurants you don’t find anything spicy.  The specialty by the beach is conch (you know that huge shell that you put your ear to to hear the ocean) mofongo or fritters (fried things).  

The highlight of my day was my great aunt’s house.  The rest was a lot of driving.  The gas tank still reads full on the rental car, though.  It’s all good.

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