It’s 3 a.m. here in Ponce, and I just heard my daughter Jayce take off for home. That is, I heard the rumble of a JetBlue Airbus take to the skies from Mercedita Airport, which I used to be able to see from the hilltop here, before some trees downslope got too big and blocked the view. (You can still see it beautifully from our next-door neighbor’s lovely rooftop terrace.)
The reason I know it was Jayce taking off is not only that I just took her to the airport a little while ago, but because the only airline serving Ponce is JetBlue, and they have exactly two flights in and two flights out every day—and they are all in the middle of the night. The one to Orlando, connecting to Boston, leaves at 3 a.m.; and the one to JFK, connecting to Boston, leaves at 5:50. Okay, I suppose that’s not really the middle of the night (though it is to me), but it’s definitely the middle of the night when you have to arrive at the airport.
There isn’t a lot of other traffic from there, as far as I can tell. I once flew a Cessna 150 from that same runway, back when I was still active as a private pilot. It was great. I rented a plane and an instructor on one of my visits, and we flew around over the city and over the hill where the house is, before heading back. That was one well-worn Cessna, let me tell you. I described it as “quaint” to the family when I got back, but refrained from mentioning the peeling paint and the aluminum patches on the fuselage. I guess I can say it now. I wonder if that little one-man flight school is still in business. I hope so.
Only a couple of days left, and then we’ll be getting on one of those middle of the night flights home. Wait—does that make it a fly-by-night airline? Hmm.
Okay, I said I wouldn’t write much about it, but here’s a quick update. We’ve been in Puerto Rico for a week, give or take, and have even been joined by our friend Crystal, visiting from California. In general, the place looks great—especially compared to what greeted us last year. However, in keeping with the perversity of the universe, and to maintain a sense of continuity with the chaos of those earlier visits, Allysen arrived to find the refrigerator nonfunctional and the hot water on the fritz. Yippee! Amazingly, she was able to get people out to work on them, like the same day. Try that in Boston. A few days later, I arrived, and the same malfunction and miracle occurred with the washer, and a tech from Sears Service. There’s even a stray dog, named No Name, or He Who Has Not Been Named, or now possibly Toby. Cute little fellow. Thankfully, our neighbor Frances has decided to adopt him, not us.
We soldier on. The electricians are here to continue the improvements on lighting and wiring that they had already whipped mostly into shape. Esteban the Amazing—who over the last year finished installing all the new windows that the unreliable and thieving other guys had left undone—is now almost done converting the awkward swinging driveway gate into a sliding one, which will be motorized. When he’s finished with that, we have lots of other things for him to do.
Leaking pipes: we took care of that last year, right? Well, we did. And now we’re doing it again, with different pipes. Water coming up under the floor tiles when showering? Uh-oh. Are we making this up? No.
Crystal and I have tackled some painting: the stairs down from the parking pad, and the main deck. We learned that applying paint in direct sunlight—never the best idea—is an even iffier idea in the tropical sun. It’s gradually working out, though. Today (Sunday), Allysen crashed and napped while Jayce painted furniture pieces from Ikea, and Crystal and I painted—and then headed to the Thermal Springs in Coamo to soak out the muscle knots. Healing heat and minerals from the Earth!
Amazingly most of all, I have gotten some real writing done almost every day of the trip! Progress continues apace on The Reefs of Time. Yahoo!
Some of you may remember my Ponce Chronicles and Revenge of the Ponce Chronicles, telling the adventures of house repairs in Puerto Rico last winter. Well, we’re at it again, this time on our own house, here in Massachusetts. We’re renovating our downstairs apartment, in preparation for Allysen’s mom to move in. Fay is in her mid-80’s, and there are a lot of changes to be made for “aging in place.”
You may have thought from my recent posts that for the last few weeks, all I’ve been doing is plug my books. Indeed, no. In fact, we have been plugging the holes in our sanity, while researching accessibility, working with contractors, buying (or not buying) appliances that will work for someone Fay’s age, and so much more.
Do you like bathroom renovations? Who doesn’t, right? Right. We set out intending only to rip out the old bathtub/shower and replace it with a no-threshold shower, in hopes of preventing trips, slips, and falls. By the time it’s done (tomorrow, I hope!), we will have put in all new tile, toilet, fan, lights, walls—basically everything except the sink and the door. Fortunately, we found an amazing contractor who knew how to do everything we (Allysen) talked about. I cannot overstate the wonder of working with guys who are smart, knowledgeable, able to communicate clearly and share your vision, and do good work for a price that’s probably too low. We love these guys.
It hasn’t all been the bathroom, of course. I’m passing over the hardwood floors, the kitchen, the electrical work, the driveway, the porch lift… but I’ll get to those in another post.
And our role in this, besides signing checks? Painting, lots of painting; and rehabilitating the old kitchen sink cabinet that we decided, probably stupidly, to reuse. And making decisions? Oh yes…
Between us, I’m sure we spent hundreds of hours researching, measuring, and looking at refrigerators (we decided in the end to keep the old one), compact washers and dryers (used and refurbished), electric ranges, dishwashers… aaiiieee. It’s a Rubik’s cube.
Take selecting tile, for one. Oh, my head! Getting three people—Allysen, her mom, and me—all with divergent artistic sensibilities, to agree on style and pattern? And having chosen, discovering—after it was put down—that the tile company had sent the wrong tile for the floor? (Upshot: the tile stays, but the tile company refunded the money.) And selecting grout color?! Who knew it was important to pick out grout color?! And let’s not even get started on picking out the right toilet—only to discover, after attempted installation, that the one we picked out won’t fit.
All this with the date of Fay’s move breathing down our necks.
So, naw, I’ve done my fair share of hawking, but I haven’t only been hawking books these last few weeks.
My brother Chuck and his wife Youngmee were recently in Romania, and sent back some photos of the road they were on. Here’s a dog watching his flock. Totally what Captain Jack was born to do. But what does the dog do if the sheep start to slide?
And as for the rest of the picture, didn’t I see James Bond being pursued by international terrorists on that road? Chuck said they rented a red car, so that the wreckage would be easier to spot. Pictures by Youngmee.
A couple of months ago, I wrote of our two-week trip to Puerto Rico, where we labored like lunatic worker bees to complete extensive repairs and renovations to the home in Ponce that was built by Allysen’s parents back around the era that I was completing my undergraduate education. That was a productive but exhausting trip, and we got a huge amount done, but were left with a lot still to do before we could rent the place. Well, we’ve just finished trip two, which was exhausting on a scale that made our January efforts look like a milk run.
This time Allysen went for a full month, taking a leave of absence from her job. Her brother Andrew came for a while, our daughter Jayce came for a while, and I came for the final two weeks. I will say, as far as the physical surroundings go, it was a lot more pleasant (even in mosquito season) than it had been before. The pool was sparkling, Allysen and Andrew had already scored some nice secondhand furniture, and the work crews were starting to feel like old family friends. But the pace, especially in the last week, was punishing. On trip one, my main job was chronicling the work and making endless runs to Home Depot. This time, I was a lot more hands-on with smaller repairs, plus I kept on making endless runs to Home Depot.
On the flight home, we scribbled down a list of all of our deeds so that we wouldn’t forget. Here’s a small sampler of what we and our contractors accomplished:
Built a new concrete retaining wall to hold up the parking area
Widened the brick-lined parking pad, for easier parking
Repaired the main entry gate
Installed new keyless entry locks and deadbolts
Bought and transported nice, second-hand furniture for living and dining rooms
Had new table tops made by our wood guy for dining and coffee tables
Bought a modest smart-TV and tested streaming Netflix on it with our cellphone mobile wifi (it worked!)
Met with the family lawyer and learned how wills work in P.R. (differently from in the states)
Upgraded the alarm system (with many visits from the alarm company) and trouble-shot false alarms
Cleaned out gross cupboards in paneled bedroom
Built new cabinets and cabinet walls in area behind kitchen and closed up the ceiling in that area, to keep out leaves, bugs, rain, and wandering animals
Bought a modest selection of hand and power tools and used every one of them
Sanded and painted stairway rails leading down from parking pad to deck, to pool
Spent many hours repairing the dishwasher, only to determine that it really was dead, Jim; also, learned that dishwashers aren’t that common in PR, and you can’t go to Home Depot or Sears and just buy one to take home with you—so, no dishwasher
Began the job of replacing all the windows
Made a serious dent in the island’s supply of rum, lime, and assorted other drinkables
Semi-befriended two lovely, pregnant stray kitties
Checked out a few recommended restaurants
Got up every frickin’ morning at 6 or 7 to open the gate for workers
Swam in the pool (twice, anyway)!
That’s maybe a quarter of the list. Really. For the most part, we were so busy that we forgot to take pictures! Which is a bummer. But here, in a lighter moment, I did catch Allysen and Andrew:
And here are Estevan and Carlos getting started on the new wall:
The revenge? I arrived home exhausted—and instead of having a nice rest, promptly got sick. I’ve been sick for most of the last week, and am only slowly returning to normal. That just doesn’t seem fair. But I am now recovered enough that I can say this with greater confidence: Please pass me some frozen margarita.
I do not sleep a wink on the plane from Ponce to Orlando. We land a half hour late in Orlando; our connection to Boston will be tight. Exiting the jetway, I ask the JetBlue agent where the flight to Boston is. She shrugs. “What gate is it at?” I try not to blow my stack like “Anger” in the movie Inside Out—while screaming inside, Why do you think I’m asking?— as she points to a monitor down to the left. We run to look. It’s at Gate 8. Where’s Gate 8? The opposite direction, of course. We sprint.
At the gate, boarding has completed. An agent with a clipboard says, “Carver and Palmer?” and waves us on. As we buckle in, I hear a couple of really loud clunks beneath us. Must be our leaden checked bags being hurled on by annoyed luggage handlers, I think. But nah, there’s no way our luggage will make this connection.
This flight from Orlando to Boston—oddly, given the number of flights cancelled because of the storm just two days ago—is not filled. We have room to stretch out a little, on opposite sides of the aisle. Doesn’t matter; I still can’t sleep.
The approach to Boston is unusually scenic. We fly right over Providence, and for the first time ever, I can pick out the campus of Brown University (my alma) below. Shortly after, we fly a lovely approach to Boston over the bay, circling to the north to line up for a southbound landing. It’s a perfect (but oversized) emulation of the standard general aviation traffic pattern, flying a downwind with a line of planes on final going by on the left, turning base above Beverly Airport, where Allysen (many years ago) took her first flying lesson with me in the back seat, and finally low and slow down the north shore to a perfect, if windy, landing at Logan. We are home.
Amazingly, our luggage is home, too. I can’t believe it when I see our two huge old suitcases on the carousel. Probably those loud clunks were our bags—tools and tree trunks and all—being thrown aboard.
Uber won’t connect on my phone, so we take a cab from a stand at the curb. Gazing at the snowy, gray, dreary, landscape, we can hardly believe we have just left the land of mosquitos and sunblock.
It will take several days before it feels real to be back in Boston (and to catch up on sleep).
We are amazed and grateful at what we accomplished in those two and a half weeks. If only we had been able to finish it all. But we didn’t, and so, soon, we are going to have to go back and do this all over again!
[And with that, we return you to Pushing a Snake Up a Hill, with its regular blog musings. To read The Ponce Chronicles straight through from beginning to end, here’s the complete adventure.]
The pace on our last day is no different. Freddie and Heri are hard at work. Ricardo has given his exhausted crew of electricians the day off, but comes by himself to do a walk-through review of the final items that need work after we’re gone. The plumbing team is back, attending to a list of plumbing needs. Most are fixed, but not all, when they finally leave at the end of the day.
Several of the crews worked on the basis of agreed-upon prices for their jobs, and we are keenly aware that their labors have gone well beyond the scope of the original estimates. (At home in Boston, I’m certain some of this work would have cost at least three or four times as much.) We have decided to compensate them with bonuses. When I hand Ricardo the extra cash for his crew, as Allysen explains in Spanish why, he first looks surprised, and then he struggles to fight back tears as he embraces both of us. He has had to go after people and businesses for payment before—he’s told us of the money the government owes him for work done a year ago—but this might be the first time anyone has voluntarily handed him more than the agreed upon amount. We’re glad to do it. They have done a great job, without a word of complaint about the unexpected difficulties.
Michael the tree guy comes by late in the afternoon to cut us some slices of mahogany tree trunk to take home as souvenirs. His chain saw should make short work of that. Braaaaa-a-a-p-p-p! Well, it takes longer for the first piece than he thought. But it’s mahogany, after all. What do you expect? Braaaaa-a-a-p-p-p! Second slice. Braaaaa-a-a—! Wait, why is the chain hanging limply off his chain saw? Have we just killed his saw? Michael trudges off unhappily to his car for parts. Eventually the noise starts up again. And in the end we have our four slices: one for Allysen’s mom, one for her brother, one for us, and a smaller one for me to keep in my office. Someday I’ll sand it down and finish it with oil or varnish. Michael, too, receives his bonus with surprise and gratitude. “If you need me again, just call!” he says to Allysen—not in English—as he leaves.
Finally, one last errand to Home Depot, and a trip back to the Plaza del Caribe, to return the car to Avis—somewhat the worse for wear from the streets of Ponce. We never did get to the roof-sealing job. We will leave that for Heri to work on.
For a blessed hour, we enjoy wine and cheese with our neighbors Frances and Che, above the once-more-sparkling pool. We say our good-byes, and then, in a weary frenzy, throw ourselves into packing and final cleanup. (How, exactly, do you pack several slices of mahogany tree trunk in your suitcase, anyway?) We only have until 1:30 a.m., when Freddie will pick us up and take us to the airport! Laundry to do. (What? The water’s gone off on the hill again??) Construction debris to clean up. Tools to pack for return to Boston. Sipping rum punch (Allysen’s dad’s recipe), we somehow manage—and tumble into the car for our late-night ride to Mercedita (Ponce) Airport.
This may not the most unwelcoming waiting room in the Western world, but it’s in the running. And as always, it’s packed. Flights to and from Puerto Rico are always packed. With so many people flying these routes, why can’t they fly them at civilized hours?
Onto the plane! They embark and disembark from both the nose and the tail of the aircraft. With seats closer to the tail, we get to haul our carry-ons up the outdoor stairs. I find myself remembering a line from a very funny song, Cheap Flights (“If you didn’t pay to take the stairs, you’ll have to feckin’ jump!) Settling into our seats, surrounded by masses of moving people, I suddenly realize I’ve left my winter coat in the waiting room! I fight my way back to the tail exit and tell the flight attendant. With a little twinkle, she says, “You’re the second one!” And she gets on the phone to ask someone to bring me my coat.
Finally, all buckled in, we rumble down the runway and off into the night.
This is the day we would have arrived back home, if not for the storm up north. The place is strangely quiet. It’s raining, and the mountains are wreathed in fog. The clean, freshly filled pool sparkles and dances with raindrops. It’s just Allysen and me. We were expecting Paul Bunyan the tree cutter at 10, but he may have decided it was pointless to come in the rain. (Or perhaps pointless to come for people who can’t get money out of an ATM without a Broadway show.)
We have discovered that the skylight over the new washer leaks in the rain.
On the other hand, I think how beautiful the place looked last night, with strategically arranged LED floodlights illuminating the trees and the steps and the pool, and things like a little old roof leak seem not so bad. Also, last night Allysen found the wall sconce lamps for the dining room that tenant Veronica had taken off the walls and buried in an old closet. They are back up, and add a very nice touch to the dining room.
Today will be something more like a day of rest, with cleaning and small repairs on the docket.
Heh. Day of rest? We continue shopping for needed parts. Our destination, National Ferreteria (National Hardware). My repeated attempts to get my GPS to recognize the word “ferreteria” finally end in searching on “ferret area,” which instantly becomes our new name for the hardware center. Bonanza! Jelly jar lights for the outside corners of the house! We have spent hours and hours searching for exactly these lights—including trying to buy them on Amazon, only to discover that nobody ships to Puerto Rico. Well, here at National Ferret Area, we find a large stack of them on an end display, for $7 each!
So far, so good. We end up back at the mall (dark now, still raining hard). While Allysen shops, I move the car to a better location. Oops. In the dark and the rain, I drive over something. A bag? Box? Plastic jug? Whatever it is, it’s now stuck but good under the car, scraping along the asphalt. I get out with my tiny pocket flashlight to peer under. Something is definitely wedged there. Only one way to get it out, and that’s to lie on my back in the downpour and inch under the car. Damn, it’s hard to reach; why do they make cars so low to the ground these days? I finally get a finger-hold and yank it free. It’s… no, not a box. It’s a glove compartment from a car. That’s right, someone has ripped the entire glove box out of a car and thrown it into the parking lot, probably just so I could drive over it. Who does that?
Sopping, I ooze back into the car, and call Allysen. “Can you come out soon?” She recognizes the sound of my voice, and hurries out.
Back home, we change into dry clothes and attend to small repairs. In the laundry area, I discover that the electricians forgot to hook the washer drain hose back up after installing the new electric circuits. Rain continues dripping from the ceiling onto anyone who dares stand in the laundry area. Think you’ll get clean and dry, do you? I get the various hoses reattached, get them to stop leaking, and shove the machine back into place. We’ve got wet clothes to wash, you know?
After dinner from the food court, I tackle the dishwasher. It has power now, but still doesn’t run properly. I’m going to check the water inlet filter, which I know from our own machine at home can clog and keep a dishwasher from filling. I turn off the water supply under the sink. I start to loosen the fitting—and get a spray of water in my face. Surprise! The shutoff valve doesn’t work! I am half soaked again. Actually, water is everywhere; the dining area is open to the elements on one side, which is open enough when water is blowing from the sky. The tile floor looks like a swimming pool. The pool itself is threatening to overflow.
With so little time left, I keep trying to fix things. I seem always to need a tool that’s in the other section of the house. Did I mention that the living and dining areas are separate, with an open deck between them, the better to commune with Nature? Well, Nature is pretty damn wet tonight.
The one thing I have going for me is my Tilley hat, the best hat in the known universe, bought for me by my daughters a few years ago. At least my head stays covered as I dash back and forth across the deck. Here’s me in my Tilley hat, in a drier time.
But you know what? I think I’ve fixed enough for tonight.
As I type this, my efforts are accompanied by Heri whanging on a stone chisel shaping a large brick (loud), Michael cutting up a fallen tree trunk with a chain saw (really loud), and the quiet gurgle behind me (when I can hear it) that reminds me that the pool is filling again. By the end of this workday, the electrical work is almost done.
We have a number of people we need to pay in cash, which is something we hadn’t quite thought through before coming. Somehow we had assumed we could write checks. But that’s not how the service economy works down here. This means daily trips to the ATM, to pull as much money out as permitted, and going online to move funds around from the sources that are funding this effort. The trips to the ATM are not enough. All these guys have been working like Trojans, and they all need the money now. It doesn’t help when I go downtown with Michael to withdraw the money we owe him, and the ATM rejects my request. What? Soon comes a robot call on my cell from our bank: We have made so many withdrawals we have triggered a fraud alert. I try to explain this to Michael, who is growing restive and clearly wondering if this North American is scamming him. Michael does not understand a word of English and I speak very few of Spanish. I must call Allysen to translate. In the end, I must also call our bank back home (still open on a Saturday!) and get them to lift the freeze on the ATM withdrawals.
I really do not like walking around with wads of cash in my pocket, especially when that money is owed to someone else who worked hard for it. And in this case, the someone else who needs the money could bench press me with one hand.
Plus, I worry that the retirement accounts of everyone in the extended family, from my mother-in-law ( the primary owner) through me, to my children, will be gone by the end of these two weeks. And yet, it all must be done—whether the decision is made in the end to rent the house, or to sell it. The alternative is to let it decay and fall down around us. It’s far too beautiful a place, and holds too many memories, to let that happen. We press on.
(Coming next in Part 16, the National Ferret Area.)
[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]
Keep thinking. Our two weeks in Puerto Rico are drawing to a close—or so we once believed. Winter Storm Jonas is slamming the eastern seaboard with snow and ice, crippling more than one major city. Although Boston is not expected to get more than a few inches, our flight home takes us via Orlando, and a great deal of winter chaos lies between there and home. (Here’s a picture from space, courtesy of NASA/NOAA.)
As of bedtime on Friday, JetBlue still shows our flight a Go. I’m skeptical.
Around midnight, a thunderstorm moves over the hill. The lights flicker, then come back on. I hear a bass drum boom a little further down the hill, and think I see a flash over the houses that way. The boom sounds different from thunder; more contained and resonant. The lights go out and stay out. A blown transformer, I’ll wager. A few minutes later, I go to use the faucet. The water’s out, too. I crawl into bed, thoroughly discouraged. I am, I realize, getting really tired of this. Allysen sleeps. I sweat, in the absence of AC.
The morning brings neither power nor water. Allysen makes phone calls to report both. Our electricians are already at work. Power went out in a lot of the city, though some of it was protective, because of the storm. Ricardo looks tired; he was up all night, because his wife had a medical emergency. (She is apparently okay now, we are glad to hear.)
Fortunately, we have enough battery on phones to make calls. JetBlue still says our flight is a Go. I still don’t believe it. A half-hour on hold brings a live JB agent, who confirms our suspicions: we are going nowhere Saturday night. We rebook for Tuesday and wonder where we can get coffee.
Somewhere around 10 in the morning, both power and water come back! Another miracle! Coffee, wonderful coffee!
(Coming next in Part 15, Paying for all this work.)
[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]