Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 2

As I said last time, I dropped Jayce off at the San Juan airport today, to fly home. (She is, in fact, already home with the dogs!) Time was, we used to fly straight into Ponce from Boston, via NYC or Orlando. But those flights stopped with the pandemic, so now we have to come in through San Juan, a two-hour drive over the mountains. (Just as well, as it turns out, since there were no rental cars to be had in Ponce.)

This year’s car has a stereo unit that picks up your smartphone as soon as you plug it in to charge, and shows your phone’s GPS display on a larger screen. This would be great, except for the occasional lag in update of the display. Said lag (and poor road signage) has resulted in some missed turns and frustrating detours. Today, after dropping off Jayce, I headed to Costco, not too far from the airport. I sort of spiraled in, like a vulture looking for its next meal to give up the ghost. Eventually, this and that aligned, and I made it.

After stocking up with various consumables needed for the house, I paid and headed for the pizza area. I had never eaten Costco pizza, despite my brother-in-law Andrew’s long-standing testimony to its excellence, and I thought: The time has come. So I bought a slice. I liked it! I ordered a whole pizza to bring home and hit the road.

Now, ordinarily, the route from San Juan to Ponce is pretty much a straight shot over the mountains on the reasonably well-maintained highway, PR52. Due to ongoing construction, Google Maps told me I’d save 20 minutes by taking an alternate route: Route 1, winding through the mountains. Have you ever seen the Snake River from an airliner while flying across the U.S.? Wind and curl and curl and wind and loop. Serpentine to the power of 10. That’s PR1 through the mountains, except much narrower, with tight turns, back and forth. Fractal, like the Norwegian coast. Throw in a driver in a Corvette who seems desperately to want to pass the car ahead, and who treats the single yellow lane marker like the centerline of a runway. And the little beer joints on the righthand side of the road, from which cars randomly back out into traffic. It’s fun! I pass some private driveways that look like the first hill of Cedar Point’s Millennium Force*. I’m getting a taste of the mountains. Despite all this, the detour ends up cutting my projected drive time by half an hour. That must have been some backup on 52!

Arriving home, I put the pizza box on the kitchen counter and went to find Allysen. I came back a few minutes later to find one of the neighborhood stray cats up on the counter, pizza box open, scarfing the cheese off the top of the pizza. He got almost half of it before I chased him away. Testimonial to Costco pizza?

Now what do we do (humanely) about the influx of stray cats on the hill??

*The Millennium Force is my favorite rollercoaster! I’ve been on it just once.

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 1

Today I dropped Jayce off at the San Juan airport to fly back home to Boston after 17 days (corrected, with apologies!) of sweat and toil in the Puerto Rican sun. Okay, I exaggerate. She wasn’t actually out in the sun most of the time. But she did work hard!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. If you’re new to the Ponce Chronicles, Ponce is the second-largest city in Puerto Rico, where my wife Allysen’s parents built a home back in the 1970s. Sadly, her parents are no longer with us, so the home now belongs to Allysen and her brother. It’s a beautiful place, and popular among weekend vacation renters. It’s also a place that requires constant, intensive upkeep—which we’re not here most of the time to provide. So, usually, once a year, we come down to work on needed repairs. Sometimes much needed repairs, such as after Hurricane Maria and last year’s earthquakes. And this time, the pandemic. Not that Covid attacked the house. But it kept us away for longer than usual, allowing things to slide. (Unfortunately, we have been unable to find a caretaker who can both see to the needs of guests and perform the necessary level of ongoing maintenance. We really need a couple of people. If you know anyone in Ponce…)

Allysen and daughter Jayce came down 17 days ago to get started, while I stayed home with the dogs. Earlier this week, I came down to relieve Jayce and—with a few days’ overlap—send her back to take care of the dogs.

So much work needed! My first day I was officially resting in honor of Father’s Day, so all I did was fix the dryer vent and refrigerator freezer-compartment drawers, which someone had removed for God-knows-what reason. After that, I fell apart in the heat and was essentially useless for a day, until I got back into the swing of things and renewed my old friendship with Ponce Home Depot. I shudder to think how much money we pump into the Ponce economy via Home Depot!

I’ll get to the repairs in another installment. Last night we took Jayce out to celebrate her time here, and we drove along the southern coast, ending at a restaurant that had been recommended to us, name of Lordemar, in the town of Patilla. The view was spectacular! We watched the Strawberry Moon/Supermoon rise from the ocean. The restaurant was… interesting. Could have been really charming, if they’d upped the service and ambiance just a little. Menu-wise, they were 86 on my first two choices, so I settled on filet mignon, though I’m not a big steak eater. It was quite tasty! It was served with lovely silver cutlery! Huh. I’m kidding, of course. It was served with really bendy plastic utensils that were nearly incapable of cutting meat. The rest of the meal was sort of like that. The tostones were excellent. The wine was swill. The beer was Medalla, which is basically the local Bud Light.

But the view! The sea and the moon and the pelicans and the little black birds that chased each other territorially across the lawn! Priceless.

Sorry, I guess we didn’t get a picture of the little birds. But you can picture it in your mind’s eye, right?

 

Shakedown Cruise and Writing Retreat

I’ve headed back to my favorite part of Cape Cod for Writing Retreats, this time as my first expedition in the Mothership! Here I am taking command, ready to leave, having worked the dock crew’s fingers to the bone getting everything ready.

A few minutes after this is taken, I hit the spacelanes, full of confidence.

You know, everything looks different from the bridge of this ship. I like this perspective. My, aren’t those F-150 pickups the most adorable little cub trucks? Wait—is that a Ranger like mine, or a toy truck? Must be a toy. My Ranger isn’t that little.

The confidence takes a hit an hour in, when I make a stop and discover what I forgot to pack: my wallet. Drivers license. Money. Credit cards. Nooooo! Grumbling, cursing, 180 turn. Back home for the wallet. Then back onto the spacelanes, somewhat deflated. The more so when the Check Engine light comes on. Gritting my teeth, I forge ahead. Real spacemen don’t stop for no stinking Check Engine lights! Would Neil Armstrong have stopped? Hell no!

(Okay, I eventually stop and scan the code. Non-mission-critical. Steady on course, Mr. Sulu.)

I arrive and set up in the dark. Why does this always happen? Connect water—check. Connect power—check. Remove bike from bed in back and lock it to the picnic table—check. Check that we’re level. Oh no. The site isn’t level. I jockey back and forth in vain. I wonder if this is why there’s a bag in the back marked “Levelers” full of oversized Lego pieces. I wonder what to do with them, hoping it doesn’t involve jacks. The internet comes to my rescue. It doesn’t involve jacks, but we’re not done setting up yet. It’s gonna be a long first night. Well, at least the wifi router in the cabin connects to the campsite wifi without trouble. (Yet…heh-heh.) Things will look better in the morning. Repeat after me.

Here’s the Mothership in daylight. Things do look better.

And here’s what you do with those oversized Lego pieces. You drive up onto them.

And here’s what you do to reward yourself. The campground is literally right next to the bike path.

The learning curve has begun.

Meet the Mothership

Here at the Star Rigger Ranch, we have made a major addition to our family: a 2010 Winnebago Era campervan, propelled by a Mercedes r/o/c/k/e/t/ diesel engine, with a mere 24-foot parking footprint. In other words, a whale. Hence one of the names we’ve given it: Moby Van. Mostly, we call it the Mothership. Here it is…

Mothership in driveway

It’s perfect for two, though it has seating for four. Plus dogs, of course. It’s tall enough for us short people to walk around in comfortably. And it has a bathroom with shower. We hope to start taking weekend trips this year, and in the slightly more distant future, do some real cross-country traveling. We have friends and family in Florida, on the West Coast, and everywhere in between. We’d like to see them all, and see the country, as well. And, of course, I’ll be using it for writing retreats. In fact, I plan to give it a shakedown cruise for a retreat in about a week. Stay turned for reports.

There are some things that need to be fixed, none of them critical. Basically it’s in really good condition and mostly needs a good cleaning and stocking with supplies. I’ve been learning more than I ever wanted to know about RV life, in hopes of avoiding silly mistakes.

This is obviously a major investment, one we never would have made without the generosity of my sister-in-law and dearly departed brother, who left me some funds with the instruction to “do something you will enjoy.” This started as a dream of Allysen’s, but she’s infected me with the bug—a throwback in many ways to my childhood—and I’m looking forward to some travel (and writing) on the road.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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. 

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