The Ponce Chronicles, 2020 Edition, Part 5 — More Earthquakes!

Another shudder-thumper, a 6.0 quake, struck on the morning of our last day in Puerto Rico. It shook the house alarmingly, as we were engaged in a frantic race to finish final repair projects, clean up, get everything put away, and get on the road for a two-hour drive to San Juan for our flight back to Boston. It was scary, but everything seemed okay where we were, and we got right back to work. We didn’t get any action photos, but picture me up on the house roof here, securing the acrylic skylight in the wooden structure to the right, where it was booming every time the wind got under it.

Roof of Casarboles

Our last two days had been spent in the traditional way: working to frayed nerves to get painting projects done (Allysen and Jayce), feverishly finishing various small repairs (me), and with mutters of resignation transfering to the list for next year the things we didn’t get done this year. Most of that final push was done without power in most of the house, because of a blown transformer that knocked out our part of town. Our little generator-that-could was reserved for the fridge and microwave and phone chargers. Fixing things by flashlight! That’s the ticket! Do, or do not. There is no try. Hope it all looks good in daylight.

From the various quakes, we suffered some minor (we hope) cracks in extremities of the house. But after that final one in the morning, Frances next door reported seeing a building collapse downtown, from her terrace vantage point. Many damaged older structures will probably have to be knocked down. I don’t know how many people lost their homes, but thousands were sleeping out of doors, for fear of quakes in the night bringing their houses down on them. Still another hit that evening, but we were already winging our way northward at 530 mph, and heard about it later.

Throughout this ordeal, our personal suffering was largely limited to sleepless nights and repeatedly having the bejesus scared out of us as our concrete and cinder-block house (built by Allysen’s dad to exacting standards) shook and shuddered and swayed around us. But for others nearby, the costs were physical and dire. Folks still getting back on their feet from Hurricane Maria got slammed once more by nature. Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes are not a part of the normal life of Puerto Rico. It is a cruel irony that the area hardest hit by Maria was also at the center of the quake activity. This beautiful island needs help. It’s part of the United States, and it deserves to be treated that way.

Coming home from a trip, especially a work trip, is always a great relief to me. But never have I been so eager to get home as from this one. I woke up this morning, earlier than I wanted, and couldn’t get back to sleep even in the comfort of my own bed. With every quiver of our three-story wood-frame house, I thought, It’s just the wind, just the wind. Is it an earthquake? No, no, it’s just the wind.

 

The Ponce Chronicles, 2020 edition, Part 4

 

Time for an animal report! Never mind the iguana. He’s an interloper and was chased off. No, I mean dogs. We’d gotten a complaint from one paying weekend guest about dogs running loose on the property. Really? we thought. Sometimes Toby from next door would come over. But he’s just one dog, and he’s sweet but shy. We were mystified.

Well, a couple of nights ago I was sitting at my laptop enjoying the view, when I saw a brown dog run down the steps and veer off down a side path. At first I thought it was Toby, but he didn’t respond when I called, and I didn’t get a good look. Then a second dog followed: a brief glance at me, and then down the path after the first. And then a third… and then a fourth. I got up and followed. These were no doubt strays, though they looked healthy and well fed. They showed no interest in me; they were busy making their rounds, posse on patrol, nothing happening here, folks, go back to what you were doing.

They moved with expeditious speed, doing a circuit of the house, and then past the pool and up the hill and gone. Gone where? Was there an opening in the fence?

A check the next day confirmed that—surprise!—there indeed was a place where the iron bars had worked loose enough for dogs to slip through. The Ho Chi Dog Trail! And it passed through our property. It took me an hour or two to secure the opening. I haven’t seen any dogs come through since.

But the stray cat count is up to five now. And they’ve started serenading us at night with mournful yowls. I glanced down from the deck last night to make sure there wasn’t a critter in actual distress, and I discovered an orange sort-of-tiger cat sitting on a brick wall gazing around placidly. When he saw me looking at him, his expression clearly said, “Who you lookin’ at, buddy?” Miffed at my intrusion, he ran off.

I turned and did likewise, except for the running part.

Cat visitor up close
One of the cute tigers.

The Ponce Chronicles, 2020 edition, Part 3 — Earthquake!

Just a few hours after I posted my last report, minimizing the effects of the quakes, the real one hit—6.4 magnitude­—at 4 a.m.! It was a bone-rattling, house-shaking event that sent us leaping out of bed and running out of the house in our skivvies. It felt and sounded like a freight train hitting a bad section of track, with us sitting on the floor of a boxcar. It was scary as hell, especially for us earthquake neophytes. It was followed by aftershocks, and we spent a sleepless night, waiting for the next one.

In the moment of the quake, the power went off throughout most of the city, with the exception of the airport and scattered locations. We later learned that power had gone off for most of the island. [As I typed those last sentences, we just got another little shudder. Will I get used to them?] We soon learned all about the tectonic plates sliding past each other not far offshore. If it was scary for us, it must have been terrifying for the folks living closer to the water. Very soon there was a traffic jam of cars coming up the hill in the night: families who’d fled the coast in fear of a tsunami. Many of them were camped out on the road just below us, the next day. Fortunately, the tsunami never came. Here’s a government map showing the epicenter, just offshore.

Earthquake epicenter on map of PR

Ironically, this was the year we’d finally decided to buy a small generator for power outages, to keep essentials like the refrigerator going. I’d bought it in Boston just before we left and mailed it, via USPS, to ourselves in Ponce. It was here, but still in its box. I’d bought a jerry can, but hadn’t filled it. Our wonderful neighbors Frances and Che, who have a whole-house generator, had us in for breakfast; and then I set out looking for gas. I found a city eerily still. Some gas stations were open, but not much else. One Walgreens was letting people in one at a time as others left. I got my gas and a second can, and headed back up to try the new generator. Soon it was muttering away, keeping our food cold and our phones charged. The electrician had not yet installed a transfer switch for the house circuits, so we just plugged the fridge in directly to the generator, and one more extension to power phone and laptop chargers. What a relief! Fortunately, we only had to depend on it for about ten hours. Power came back on late the first evening after the quake. We were amazed; we’d expected a much longer wait. You go, utility crews!

In all, we came through it okay as far as damage is concerned, if you don’t count the fraying of our nerves. Every little aftershock since has had us glancing at each other anxiously. It was Jayce’s birthday, but we decided to put off our planned celebration a few days, especially since nothing in the city was open.

I was scheduled to return home the night after the quake, leaving Allysen and Jayce to do a few more days of work while I saw to things at home, but this turn of events had us pondering whether I should stay in case of further earth-shaking developments. The decision was taken out of our hands by the cancellation of JetBlue flights to and from the island that night. Hasty rescheduling ensued. Now we’re all leaving together on Saturday. Poor Captain Jack and McDuff will have to stay in the doggie hotel a few days longer!

In other news, I got the hot water flowing again (for a few hours, before the power went out). I was wrong about my amateur diagnosis of the wrong voltage. Apparently those heating elements just corrode away all the time. They sell them at Home Depot in blister packs like disposable car chargers.

And now, with the power back, the hot water is back, too. Hrahh! And I just now saw tonight’s first JetBlue flight land, on the other side of the city. Whatever was wrong, they got it fixed!

The Ponce Chronicles, 2020 edition, Part 1

Not again! Ik thought. No, wait—that’s the opening line of one of my books. That should be: “Not again!” I yelled, turning on the hot water for a tired-after-travel shower, and finding only cold water. Hadn’t we fixed the hot water last time, fixed it to last? Maybe not.

We are back in tropical Puerto Rico, to work on Allysen’s mom’s house. And despite my not-very-tough-guy screech at the cold shower, it is still quite beautiful here on the hill. We arrived in the middle of the night on New Year’s Day, and slept in. Most of our luggage wouldn’t arrive for another day and half, due to a last-minute flight change. And with just Allysen and me here, it was very quiet. Here’s a snapshot view.

And another, looking out over the city at twilight:

In the first two days, we have started making a list of all the things that need fixing and upgrading for renting to vacationers and weekend guests. (Why has no one complained about the lack of hot water? It is a mystery.) But never mind that. Here are some more interesting, er, points of interest:

  • Yesterday, we had two very small earthquakes, rock and sway! (In years of living in Puerto Rico, Allysen had never felt an earthquake.) Apparently there have been a lot of them around here lately, as a couple of tectonic plates nearby sidle past each other. To Californians, I’m sure it’s nothing. To us, it was rather disconcerting.
  • That sudden, deafening banging sound in the house was not a late firework, but the washing machine on spin cycle. (Call Sears repair. Sigh.)
  • There are still plenty of dogs on the hill, as they periodically erupt into loud group conversational howls. Fun.
  • Also, we have our traditional couple of stray cats wandering through the property. This year it’s two young tigers. I have decided to call one of them Burning Bright. Not sure about the other.
  • I periodically hear a train horn in the distance, which is odd, because there are no trains on the island. Must be from the shipping port, perhaps switchers moving cargo around.
  • We had local, artisanal pizza one night, and local craft beer the next night. Here’s Allysen learning to take a selfie with me, and Allysen taking a spousie, said spouse with a local IPA.

Oh—the hot water? I took some things apart, and discovered that our hot water heater (a really small 120 volt tank) had been professionally installed to a 220 volt line. Okay, things officially feel normal here now.

Tonight? Cold showers and rum punch!

Tesla Roadster Asteroid Bound!

posted in: adventures, space 0

The launch of the Space-X Falcon Heavy was spectacular, and I so wish I had been there to see it. After seeing the space shuttle Atlantis launch (in person), I know that a video can only hint at the experience. Still, what a video! Watch it all the way through to see the two boosters make their Hollywood-perfect landings, and Elon’s red Tesla and its mannequin starman float among the stars!

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster Is Headed to the Asteroid Belt

The Shootists

Allysen and I went shootin’ yesterday. That is to say, we took a firearms safety class, which culminated in our firing a few rounds into paper targets in the adjoining shooting range, and coming away with safety certificates.

Let me explain. We’re not exactly gun people, we don’t aspire to gun ownership, and we’re both strong supporters of gun-control laws. But guns are part of our culture, and it seems to make sense to have some basic knowledge of how they work. Plus, the actual aiming and shooting at targets promised to be an enjoyable challenge. (My previous experience with firearms consisted of firing one bullet at a tree with my grandfather’s rifle, when I was a kid.)

This, however, actually started some years ago, when Allysen and Jayce went to a women’s-only, all-day training program, where they learned about and got to try out a variety of guns, ranging from muzzle-loaders to revolvers to modern pistols. Also, bows and arrows. They had a great time—they learned a lot, in an atmosphere that was friendly and supportive, and largely devoid of macho bullshit. Allysen wanted me have a chance at the same kind of thing, and so as a surprise present, she researched local ranges and found one that had good reviews, no NRA requirement (!), and basic classes.

As it turned out, this class was interesting, as much from a sociological as a firearms-learning perspective. But it sure wasn’t what she’d experienced before, or was hoping for. The instructor was affable and a decent teacher when he was on topic about basic gun knowledge, legal requirements, and safety. But when he wandered into the morass of anti-gun-control political opinion mongering, I just wanted to stuff a sock in his mouth. Except, you know, he totes a gun. Loaded. With a chambered round. (I already knew about some of this stuff; I learned it from Jack Reacher novels.)

I was particularly troubled that he was urging gun neophytes to carry loaded weapons, with a chambered round ready to fire. His analogy was this: If a bad guy comes at you, not having a round in your chamber ready to go is like saying you’ll fasten your seatbelt right before you crash your car. Wellll, that’s just a load of dingoes’ kidneys, in my opinion. Fastening your seatbelt ahead of time doesn’t threaten the safety of others around you; carrying a locked and loaded weapon just might. Sure, it’s possible there will be that rare situation when you’re attacked without warning and maybe being ready to stop the baddie at a moment’s notice will be good. But mostly, I think it’s a recipe for shooting the wrong people, either by accident or in the heat of an argument.

Another bit of codswallop was his assertion that banning bump stocks—devices to make your gun fire faster, definitely useful if your plans for the day include shooting up a crowd of people—was equivalent to banning the remote starters on car key fobs. Ahhh…. no, I don’t think so.

Debatable advice like that notwithstanding, we learned some interesting and occasionally surprising things, such as that having a license to carry a concealed weapon means you must conceal the weapon. I never knew that. I always assumed it meant you could conceal the weapon, not that you had to. But it turns out if you make your sidearm visible to others, that’s considered brandishing the gun, and that’s a felony. Oops. (We didn’t get into how this applies to carrying a rifle, which is sort of hard to conceal.)

Eventually we all got to go into the range, and we each popped off a few rounds from a 22 revolver and a 22 pistol. That part was definitely fun—but disappointing, because we thought we’d get to do a lot more hands-on learning than we did. I was hoping we’d have a chance to try a bigger variety of hardware, maybe including a rifle. But nope. Pop pop pop. Here’s your certificate. Go thou and apply for a firearms permit.

Will we? Well, if I look like I’m getting ready to carry a concealed weapon, please give me a sedative, confiscate my credit cards, and send me to bed. But target shooting? And maybe clay pigeon shooting? I think that could be fun. We’ll see. 

Ponce Chronicles: Down to the Wire

Our time here is nearly up–we’re down to hours now–and there is so much yet to do! I spent most of the last two days rebuilding some of the outdoor stairway railing that Hurricane Maria demolished. Finishing that job, and fixing the wobbly top step once and for all, were my priority items for our final two days. My work yesterday was interrupted three or four times by brief rain squalls—each lasting just long enough to force me to get all the power tools gathered up and carted inside, and then blowing over. I think that was the first day I did not go to Home Depot–yay!–which helps account for my actually getting a lot done. (Though I did have to ask Allysen to pick up some drill bits and screws at Sears.)
This may not look like much, but it involved a lot of drilling through the channel iron posts that are part of the original construction. More than one drill bit died in the replacing of these rails! And the belt sanding. I hate belt sanding! But it sure does the job. The water situation is still not resolved, despite our having influence in high places, via Frances next door. The city water has always been iffy, due to insufficient pressure to get a decent supply up to the top of the hill; but this year it’s worse than ever, and I don’t think it can be blamed solely on the hurricane. With the demise of the original, underground cistern for backup water, Allysen finally did what we’ve talked about for years: She went and bought a 1000 gallon plastic cistern and pump, which will be installed after we leave by Ricardo (who is not just an electrician). Here it is, presented for your edification by Jayce.


Next time we’re here, by Grabthaw’s Hammer, there will be enough water to run the washing machine! And the new toilets, yes, they will work! And the showers!

Today I rebuilt the first step, with multiple interruptions to help with transferring images and videos of the hurricane cleanup for submission with the insurance claim. Wouldn’t have been so hard except that the current internet service here is just a hair above nonexistent. Which is making posting this a challenge!

Never mind that. This here step’s goin’ nowhere.

Ponce Chronicles: Getting There Is Half the Fun

The Northeast blizzard of early January delayed flights everywhere. Daughter Jayce headed down a day later than planned, and Allysen’s mom returned to Boston from a visit to L.A. two days late. Still, my flight seemed a go, three days after the storm.

When you fly from Boston to Ponce, you can take either JetBlue or JetBlue, and you can connect at JFK in New York, or in Orlando. Either way, you arrive in the dead of night, around 4-5 a.m. Fair enough. But my flight out of Boston was delayed, and then delayed again, and it looked increasingly certain that I would miss my connection to Ponce.  And there wasn’t an open seat to Puerto Rico on any airline for several days. Nail biting time. If I took the flight to JFK and missed the connection, I’d be stranded there with no options for joining Allysen in time to be of any help.

The good Help Desk people at JetBlue in Boston offered me one hope: Run now to the gate where a flight was about to leave for LaGuardia, and then get myself by hook or by crook to JFK to catch my Ponce flight. “It’s a deal!” I cried as I hotfooted it to the gate. Bless them, I was met by a flight attendant who was already checking on his iPad on my best way to get from LaGuardia to JFK. The basic idea was a cab, but a broken water main at JFK had snarled up car traffic going into the airport. (By the time we were coming into LaGuardia, he was able to report that traffic was moving again.)

My seatmate on that flight turned out to be doing exactly the same thing, except that he was connecting to Minsk, in Belarus. So we shared a cab, and got there in time, and I found myself eating JFK food court food right when I would have been doing it anyway.

Sidebar: Going through TSA in Boston was a breeze. The TSA staff were helpful, smiling, friendly. In New York, it looked like the zombie apocalypse. I had no trouble, but all the staff were vacant-eyed and grim. Why is that? End sidebar.

The Ponce flight was itself delayed, as it turned out. Daylight was not far off, as I stumbled down the stairs from the tail of the plane and set foot on the Isle of Enchantment. Some people can sleep on planes. I’m not one of them. I was feeling pretty bedraggled by the time I got to the house.

There was still no running water. But at least the toilets worked, if you carried water from the pool. I fell into a brief but deep sleep, in which I dreamed restlessly about having a really intense dream, about… I don’t know what, because it evaporated the moment I woke up.

Time to get to work… (to be continued…)

Ponce Chronicles: Déjà Vu Strikes Again!

If you remember my chronicles of the last couple of Januaries, it’s happening again. We’re in Puerto Rico, repairing damage to the house that Allysen’s parents built. Last year we got it all fixed up and available to rent, at last. And then came Hurricane Maria. The people here did heroic work clearing away fallen trees and generally cleaning up the huge amounts of debris left from the hurricane. Despite that, it turns out the damage was considerably worse than we had believed.

Allysen came down first, a few days after Christmas. Her initial discovery: no running water. (Power and water had been restored a least a month before to the neighborhood, but water to our place was nonexistent. This was not a hurricane issue so much as a chronic utility issue.) Her second discovery: three of the four toilets were unusable (even when supplied by buckets of water from the pool). It turned out that when the great mahogany tree came down in the hurricane, its roots ripped up a section of the septic line. The one toilet that did work had a huge piece of cracked concrete hanging over it, looking like the Sledge of Damocles. Large sections of fence were mangled, and the newly installed driveway gate was bent. An accident that mashed the rental car was just the icing on the cake. (No one was hurt, thankfully.)

Through all this, Allysen remained astonishingly calm, steady, God-trusting, and of good cheer. If it has been me here alone, I think I would have locked up, thrown away the key, and headed back to the airport.

While this was going on in Puerto Rico, I was contending with a little blizzard in Boston…. (to be continued…)

Last Day in Iceland: Reykjavik

We had already planned to spend the day seeing the city of Reykjavik, and it turned out we had picked the day of a huge annual Culture Festival, a little like our First Night. The parks were full of musicians and people celebrating one way or another, and it also turned out to be a day when nobody minded if you parked on the grass at the edge of the overfull parking area. (Coming from Boston, where that would be an invitation to the tow trucks, it felt like a big boon.)

Here’s a picture of the National Library, which unfortunately was closed.

Across the street was the National Museum of Iceland, which I got no pictures of, but which had a lot of interesting exhibits about the history of Iceland (something I was completely ignorant about). After working our way through that, we set off on foot to see the “grim church”—which was not at all grim, but a magnificent modern cathedral named Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church with a towering steeple you can go up in for a view of the city. There was a music festival on in the church, as well—unrelated, I think, to the city festival—so we listened for a bit and then went topside for the view.

The fellow on the pedestal in front of the cathedral is Lief Erickson, the statue a gift from the United States, back in the 1930s. I’m not sure what the occasion for the gift was.

Next morning was departure day, with an early drive to Keflavik and the international airport. Their method for handling departures was interesting, to say the least. After working our way through a long duty-free store—I’ve never seen so much chocolate and licorice and booze in my life—we spotted the sign to our gate: 20 minutes walking time away, according to the helpful sign. (They might have mentioned that sooner, I thought.) We sped up. At the end of that race, we found ourselves at the end of a pretty narrow concourse, where people were trying to get on four different flights with the exact same departure time and were gathered in a big scrum. (“Are you in the line for Boston?” “No, this is the line for Dulles.” “Toronto is over there.”) Boarding was via stairs—one last lungful of crisp Iceland air before stepping into a flying canister full of the last flight’s exhalations.

Somehow we made it, though. Four hours later, I was peering down at the Maine coast with its splattering of islands—I had no idea there were so many!—and less than six hours later, we were back in Boston. Home again.

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