A week ago, I cancelled a planned writing retreat in the Mothership, because of the approach of Tropical Storm/Hurricane Henri, which at the time seemed aimed directly at Cape Cod. Fortunately for us, Henri turned out to be nothing much for eastern Massachusetts (in unfair contrast to Hurricane Ida, which is right now slamming the poor folks in Louisiana).
So I have come today to Falmouth on Cape Cod in the Mothership, for a five-day retreat. I am ensconced in an RV park, hooked up to electricity and water and internet, and with the blinds closed, I can’t even see the rows of RVs parked nearby. I guess tomorrow I’ll venture out and have a look. (As usual, and not intentionally, I arrived after dark.) One thing different this time is that I brought Buckbeak, my trusty moped, to get around the area on. This is my first time using the trailer that I was so focused on fixing up back in June. It worked great!
Aside from The Ponce Chronicles, I have been completely unable to write for months now. In hopes of changing that, I sit here in the Mothership, quite cozy and comfortable, listening to music I’m piping from my old Zune into the coach’s stereo. And yet I am agitated and anxious because I have not truly relaxed in a manner conducive to thinking in… I don’t know how long. I have five days here to unwind and start remembering what my writing was all about. No pressure!
I have a fridge full of good food and good beer, and also some chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies baked for my birthday the other day. (I just turned 42, give or take a few decades.) It’s a start.
Our Mothership, aka Winnebago Era campervan, needed to have some work done on the camper side of things. On advice of our mechanic, I took it to an RV center in Bourne, just across the canal on Cape Cod. It needs to be there for a week, and it’s an hour and a half drive. I did a lot of thinking about how to drop it off without Allysen having to drive all that way behind me to give me a ride home.
My solution was ingenious. Take the train. I packed my bike in the back of the camper, and from the RV center, I biked to a nearby restaurant, the Lobster Trap, and had an early dinner on their outside patio. (Inside, there was no consideration at all to Covid distancing or mask wearing. Seriously, how stupid can people be? Don’t answer that.) Then I stopped for some ice cream and biked a couple of miles toward the tiny platform beside the canal bike road where the Cape Flyer train stops on its way between Boston and Hyannis. I had my ticket; the train features a free bike-carrying car; I had an hour to sit and read. Perfect.
Except… when I pulled up to the crossing by the RR lift bridge, half a mile from my destination, the lights started flashing and I heard a train horn. What’s this? Even as I took a picture, I felt my heart sink. I watched as the Cape Flyer rolled by, close enough to touch, and slow enough to jump aboard if this had been a movie. Rumble rumble, onto the bridge, over the canal, and my ride to Boston was going, going, gone. If there’d been a bike lane on the bridge, I could have chased it to the next station (Buzzard’s Bay, not far beyond). But no.
I whipped out my phone and checked the app. What had gone wrong? Where’s that schedule? There it is, right there! Leave Bourne at 8:35 p.m.! Not at 7:00!
Which, upon closer examination, turned out to be true. On Friday evening. But this was Saturday, and on Saturdays, it left Bourne at 7. And yes, it’s the only train.
Ringa-ringa-ringa… “Hi babe, you feel like taking a little drive in the truck? To Cape Cod? Right now?”
No, let’s not talk about how stupid people can be, okay?
We’re home! Back in Boston. I have never felt so tired in my life. I finished the deck railing well after dark on the last day and moved on to other essential repairs—such as securing the planks on a little bridge that were flipping up like a cartoon gag when you stepped on them. Here’s the final deck railing section, and the finished project the day we left:
By some miracle, we made it to San Juan in time to catch our JetBlue flight, after a near-all-nighter cleaning up the construction zone (the whole house) and packing. I tried to sleep on the flight, but it was a lost cause. Now, though, I’m all refreshed (hah!) after ten hours of sleep in my own bed. My own bed! I plan to rest for a week. Maybe two.
I thought I’d close this year’s Chronicles with some stray oddities.
Last year I wrote about the Ho Chi Dog Trail we’d discovered running through the property. Stray dogs had found a gap in the fence at one end and periodically came racing through in well-behaved packs, going about their business and disappearing up near the car gate. It was kind of fun, but not the sort of thing weekend renters want to see. I found the gap and plugged it with metal fence rails hastily zip-tied into place. That was a year and a half ago. This year, the gap was back: one rail knocked out and cast aside. Did the dogs do it? Who knows? But mark my words, they won’t do it again. We had the rails welded into place, by the fencing crew who were on the job last week putting up real fence in place of the mangled old cyclone fencing.
Speaking of putting things up, one small but important task was figuring out an appealing way to hang curtains in a room with concrete walls and awkward corners. Allysen came up with copper pipe as a great curtain rod, and I figured out a way to carve blocks of wood to drop them into, so they’d look good and be easy to take down, and yet not fall down when you wanted them to stay up. Securing them to the walls was the hardest part. Even with a hammer drill, that old concrete was tough!
I’ve yet to address a crucial subject: craft beers. They have a number of really good craft beer makers here on the island. You can buy their beers in the grocery stores now, which previously you couldn’t. My favorite is Ocean Lab Brewing Company’s Ocean Ruby Grapefruit Pale Ale. But weirdly, you still can’t get it in restaurants! If you ask for Puerto Rican beer, you get your choice of Medalla or Medalla. (Pronounced “meh-dah-ya.”) Medalla’s a light lager, on a par with Bud Light—decent enough, if you’re hot and tired and want to glug something to quench your thirst. But as a tasty brew with a meal? Not even close. When we asked the restauranteurs why they don’t carry the local craft beers, they said, “Not enough demand. Only the tourists want it.” Well, but… don’t you want to attract tourists?
Still, my preferred drink down here is rum punch, following a recipe created by Allysen’s dad, Phil Palmer. “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak.” Fresh-squeezed lime juice, dark sugar syrup, amber rum, and water (in the form of crushed ice). Top with Angostura Bitters and fresh-ground nutmeg. Simple, and unbeatable. We’ve cut the sugar some, and are more straightforward about the weak. So now we say, “One of sour, one-and-a-half of sweet, three of strong, and forget the weak.” (We still use the ice, of course.)
(At home, in fact, my recipe for frozen margaritas is based on this formula: “One of sour, one of sweet, three of strong, and three of stronger.” Lime juice, dark sugar, Triple Sec, and tequila. And lots of ice.)
Here’s the final rum punch of the trip, and a fitting close to this year’s Ponce Chronicles:
I haven’t posted in a while. That’s because I’ve been building a deck. If you haven’t been following, I’ve been replacing a rotted-out wooden deck beside the swimming pool at Casarboles, my wife’s family’s place in Ponce, Puerto Rico. I’m in a race against the clock (we leave for home in two days, having already extended our stay by two weeks), and it’s been a bear. In the middle of it all, I developed an ear infection, probably from protecting my ears with noise-canceling earbuds, complete with ground-in dirt. Did I let that slow me down? I did not! (Well, maybe a little.)
Here’s a sort of stop-motion record of what I’ve been doing:
Grinding and painting the steel supports…
Last floor plank laid, yours truly ready to keel over…
The new floor, shown to the audience in daylight by a far more attractive model; old, rickety railing system still in place…
Old railing gone, new railing begun… two days to finish…
Progress! With a capital P. Here’s the pool deck yesterday. I filled in that gap and then some, today. Geez, I’m tired. But I have hope of getting it finished before we leave.
And here’s a new bit of railing. It replaces the well-crafted, elegantly curved railing that Allysen’s dad built, and which some boneheaded weekend tenant broke and tried to conceal by hiding the pieces in the bushes. Deep breath.
By the way, in case you’re wondering how I got those curves in the wood to so nicely match their pairs on the other side…
I found two pieces of warped lumber at Home Depot. Their curvature was exactly what I needed.
We interrupt The Ponce Chronicles for a special bulletin: My interview with author, publisher, and podcaster Richard Paolinelli was recorded just two days ago—from right here in Ponce, for my part—and has already gone live. In fact, here it is!
Puerto Rico is called the Isle of Enchantment. There is, in fact, remarkable beauty to be found just a short walk down the hill from Casarboles. The first thing you see is the Caribbean, just beyond the view of Ponce. From here, you can turn to your left to enter the grounds of the Japanese Gardens and Cruceta del Vigía.
We were treated to a private tour by the lovely activities director Luciris on a day the museums were closed (Allysen’s dad was once very active on the board of directors). We first entered the Japanese Garden, which might seem a little incongruous in this land of Latin culture, but it’s enchanting, just as promised. Here’s a view across the grounds.
And a strange and beautiful tree. I don’t know what kind.
Looking back at Cruceta del Vigía, which you can go up to the top in, but we didn’t.
Just around the bend in the road, you find the Castillo Serralles, now a museum but once a home for some of the wealthy members of the Serralles family, owners of the Don Q rum distilleries. It (and the gardens) are popular locations for wedding and parties.
I wasn’t at first very interested in seeing the inside of the Castillo (you’ve seen one Hispanic mansion, you’ve seen them all, right?). But was I wrong. The gardens adorning the grounds are breathtaking. Here’s a sampling…
Ending with a monkey pod tree:
For a while, all of the carpentry and masonry and plumbing floated away. And then, I admit, after the tour, I went back to the house and started work on framing an opening for the second aircon (!) and the deck.
Lexi and I walked around today, trying to map out all the circuit breakers—and there are a lot. She’s determined to create a reference for future sanity, and I say, You go, girl! Sadly, she flies back to Boston tomorrow, leaving just Allysen and me. Two more weeks to finish everything!
Back pain and sunburn and plumbing, oh my! And Puerto Rican rain, which comes fast and goes fast. The rain cools things down briefly and washes the Sahara sand out of the air, which is great. And wets all my lumber, which is not great. Here’s where the pool deck work stands:
While working on the deck, I’d had the recurring thought: Don’t hurt yourself. You don’t have time! And so, two days ago, while l/i/f/t/i/n/g/ h/e/a/v/y/ l/u/m/b/e/r/ m/o/v/i/n/g/ c/o/n/c/r/e/t/e/ b/l/o/c/k/s/ bending over to pick up a screw, I did something and my back screamed. I jackknifed to my knees on the brick pool deck and hollered for help. Lexi and Allysen were both in online meetings with headphones on and couldn’t hear me. Finally Allysen looked out and saw me and yelled, “Are you okay?”
So she came and helped. Some ibuprofen and massage, and an hour later I could walk around, and even do light work. Just not—as I learned repeatedly—bend over without bending at the knees.
Yesterday I got some unplanned sun while walking around the hill with Lexi, trying to map out the serpentine plumbing, which involves numerous lines heading in the general direction of the house, along with many, many lines leading to defunct sprinklers. Augh! Lexi is trying to build a map for permanent reference. The valves are hysterical. Should this one be open? Closed? Neither? Fredi came and explained them (in Spanish) to Lexi. “The pipes here are interesting…” One thing was crystal-clear in an all-important nest of three valves (literally in a nest of foliage and ants): Abierto… abierto… cerrado! Open, open, closed. Check. Got it. The one to the smaller cistern has to be open, but only if still another valve across the parking pad is closed. “Get it?” “Got it.” “Good.”
Only…right after Fredi left: Why is there no water at the kitchen sink?Aaaiee! Call Fredi! Oops, the cerrado should be abierto. Okay, water. Got it. Good.
Interesting facts: The cold water to the kitchen sink comes in by a completely different route from the (unheated) hot water. The filter in the little Diagon Alley behind the kitchen only filters water for the bar sink cold tap and the bathroom faucet cold tap. The small cistern up at the top of the hill supplies only the back-room toilet and one garden hose spigot. The cistern line to the kitchen (the intended beneficiary) was never finished, because we ran out of time on a previous visit and couldn’t figure out a route to run it without digging, anyway. Probably no time to do it on this trip. Sigh.
Today I’m going to start on the pool deck again, cautiously.
Here’s Toby, the adorable sato from next door, who likes to come and visit.
And yes, I finally finished that blasted AC installation. Looks pretty good, I think.
More progress, here on the house in Puerto Rico. I’ve begun tearing apart the pool deck, starting from the easy end. It’s supported by a steel framework, so I have to go in stages, wire-brushing off rust and painting on Rustoleum. I hope to get some of the new boards down soon, but first I have to figure out securing the near ends. The original is something of a kludge. Our refrain. Anyway, I must wait until the sun is safely low in the sky for my northern skin.
Meanwhile, an earnest, but young and inexperienced, plumber (who speaks no English) is working on some of the plumbing, mostly fixing leaks. I had to intervene when he installed the new kitchen faucet incorrectly. Not entirely his fault, as he had to deal with an, um, nonstandard sink and counter. But I sort of wish now I had just done it myself. And… the leak at the pump, which he just fixed, is still leaking. So he’s back at it. We just learned that he is the only plumber remaining at the company that used to employ a sizable and reliable team. No further information available, except that he seems to be a good kid who’s out of his depth.
Meanwhile, Frank the electrician has been working on the wiring. As nearly as we can tell, at least one original circuit failed somewhere in the concrete walls. So, disconnect it and reroute. Kludge, but effective.
Meanwhile, Allysen tries to get her regular work done.
It’s very windy here today! Off on the horizon, I can just make out the windmills at Coamo, turning in the breeze. Here’s a zoom shot.
I’ve made progress. I’ve constructed a small Quonset hut over the pump for the main cistern, a task left over from the last trip. Not elegant, perhaps, but for the last couple of years the pump and electric motor have been exposed to the elements, which can’t have been good. Now they’re snug and protected, more or less.
That, you’ll note, wasn’t on the to-do list I gave last time. There are many such things, and every one of them is going to take ten times longer than I estimate when I start it. Death, taxes, and ten times longer. You can count on it.
Remember the air conditioner I was working on? I got the frame installed around it. That took ten times longer, too. It doesn’t look good yet, so no picture.
Remember the pool deck I showed last time, in late-night mood lighting? Here it is, in daylight, close up. You begin to see the problem. They all have to be fastened from beneath. I estimate it will take… well, never mind.
Foliage in Puerto Rico is glorious. Here, to brighten the mood, are some trinitaria and flamboyán behind the house.