Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 6

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?”

“NOOO!!!”

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.

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 5

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.

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 4

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.

Before:

After:

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.

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 3

I’ve been here at Casarboles (Treehouse) in Ponce, Puerto Rico, a week and a half now, and it’s amazing how little I feel I have accomplished, despite feeling that I’ve done nothing but work. How can that be? All those trips to Home Depot, all that hardware purchased and wrestled around, all those damp, pressure-treated two-by-fours carried home in the little Kia rental car to be laid out in the sun to dry. Surely that counts for something.

Exhibit 1: Here’s the picturesque pool deck, which I’ve featured in photos in past years.

What you can’t see in the picture is that the whole thing needs to be replaced. Not the steel supports that Allysen’s dad built—they’re still solid—but all the decking, and all the railing. Since we can’t get anyone in our time frame to work on it, I’m afraid it’s my job. Hence all the two-by-fours. (Yes, I know I could order them and have them delivered, but I need to hand-select them to weed out all the warped, knotty, and split ones. Because they’re going to be decking and railing.) By the way, have you checked the price of lumber lately?! Anyway, that, I thought, would be my first big job. Except…

Exhibit 2: Jayce—in a laudable fit of cleaning and inspecting while she was here—discovered that the AC to the master bedroom was full of mold and ready for the junk heap. Well, no problem, I said, we’ll just replace it. Except that it wasn’t installed in a window. I had to chisel it, literally, out of a wall.

And then repair and build a new framework in the wall to hold the new, smaller unit.

And then trim it all off so it looks good. Days later, I’m finished with the first two parts, just starting on the trim. To be followed by paint. Soon, I hope, we’ll be able to move into the room. If it sounds like I know what I’m doing or am particularly good at any of this, well, remember that I’m a fiction writer. One step up from a grifter.

Amidst this, my brain has been hard at work trying to figure out how to rebuild the pool pump cover, which was badly designed and has warped and fallen apart. And the once-solid gate to the “back forty,” which now solidly thunks on your feet when you try to lift it aside from where it’s propped because it fell off its hinges last year. Or how to set up a gauge and alarm on our water cisterns, which are just big, dumb black plastic tanks.

Yes, the city water went off for about two days, due to electrical problems involving the no-doubt ancient pumps pushing water up the hill. Our cisterns kept us supplied, but only barely, owing to the fact that the way one discovers that the water is off is when your cisterns run dry. In this case, it was Frances next door who ran out first and alerted us. Usually, it’s the reverse. Well, at least we had the pool to shower in. But the water’s back on now, and the tanks are full. (For now!)

During all of this, Allysen has continued to work her regular job during the day, remotely just as she did from home. She does her part on the house around the edges of that work, on the domestic side of things.

Much of what we’re doing would be necessary anyway, but are really necessary if we’re to keep renting the place.

Let’s close with a nice picture. Here’s Jayce and Allysen on the outdoor terrace of the Vistas restaurant.

See that little (giant) cross up on the top of the hill? Our house is a smidge to the right of it. The best view of the ocean and the coast comes just as you are driving down the hill past La Cruceta (the cross).

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.
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