Work has pretty much wrapped at Casarboles for this trip. The California half of the crew has already gone home, and Allysen and Jayce head back to Boston tomorrow. What did they get done? A lot, but not nearly as much as they’d hoped, by all accounts. A lot of cleaning, emergency plumbing, and uprooting of out-of-control flora. A lot of estimates from workers who promised to show up the next day and then didn’t. (What else is new?) So, things like broken windows and skylights are still broken. What can you do? Go back in February, is the current plan.
Although power was restored on their second or third day, internet service was not, so they were dependent on their cell phone data service for things like Allysen’s and Andrew’s trying to keep up with their regular jobs back home. I’m not sure how well that went, but I think I can guess.
One thing I do know, because you can see it here: They pumped the green swamp water out of the pool!
That pool will remain empty for now, because shortly after this picture was taken, they discovered that there wasn’t actually any water reaching them from the city, after all! No, they were draining the giant cistern all this time, and now it’s empty. Oh yay, no water! (Well, except for the small secondary cistern which, due to certain, uh, irregularities in the way it was hooked up, years ago, feeds just one toilet way in the back.)
Jayce also supplied me with some essential pictures of the cutest and most adorable of the stray cats wandering about this year.
I’m writing this from home, where I’m holding down the fort while Allysen, Jayce, and Allysen’s brother Andrew and our niece Lauren take on the challenge of working on the house, known as Casarboles. In case you’ve been sleeping in a cave, Hurricane Fiona recently tore through Ponce and the rest of Puerto Rico, leaving shambles in its wake, especially in the least prosperous and most vulnerable areas. There’s city water on the hill, finally, but no power as of the arrival of our company on the hill—except from a small generator, plus another small one Allysen picked up at Costco on her way from San Juan airport. Update: The power to the hill was finally restored, on the evening of day three, Monday. There was much dancing and celebrating, by all accounts.
President Biden recently flew into Ponce* to visit the disaster, instead of following the customary official route of visiting San Juan, which (because it sits on the northern coast and is sheltered by the mountains) typically suffers the mildest effects of these superstorms. I think the folks of southern Puerto Rico appreciated the gesture, especially since it stood in stark contrast to a previous executive’s tossing of paper towel rolls to people who were reeling from Hurricane Maria.
This trip by Allysen and company was actually planned before the hurricane, to fix a bunch of things that needed fixing. Now there’s more to fix. Mostly, from this storm, it’s damage to skylights and windows and doors, and a bent driveway gate that had something land on it. Plus, a general ravaging.
Am I sorry I’m not there? Well, I can’t say I’m envious of what they’re facing. I’m not physically in shape to be able to do much work anyway, and I’m tentatively glad to have some time to myself here, to try to focus less on my health and more on getting some of my own work done. But we’ll see.
I’ve been unable to extract any selfies from the crew, or pictures showing much of the state of the house, but here’s a very nice sunrise, photographed by Allysen the morning after their arrival.
*Side note of complete irrelevance: years ago, when my private pilot’s license was still current, I rented a beat-up little Cessna and did a little sightseeing out of Ponce’s Mercedita Airport, from the very same runway that Air Force One landed on two weeks ago.
One final thought about our trip to Ponce. And that is to extoll the greatest invention since fire: the zap racket. Can anything be more satisfying than the snap! of a mosquito being electrocuted? Or the aroma of barbequed mosquito? I don’t think so. Even from another room, that sound brings ringing cheers, especially when it’s snap! snap!…snappity snappity snap!
Here ends the reading of The Ponce Chronicles 2022.
My chronicling got derailed by a week of relentless activity. A pair of workers started showing up at 6:45 every morning (we are not morning people!!) to do concrete and brick repair, and to rebuild a pair of custom folding doors to the laundry area. In Boston, workers bring the materials they need, because for one thing, they know what they need. Not so in Ponce, where I repeatedly found myself clutching a hand-written list (in Spanish, which I do not speak) of materials I needed to buy at Home Depot. Kudos to the helpful employees of Home Depot Ponce, who deciphered my needs and filled my cart.
Allysen, meanwhile, went shopping for art to put on the walls to liven the place up. What she came back with astounded me: most notably an assortment of gorgeous x-ray photographic images of flowers, sealed in glass, by a remarkable artist named Albert Koetsier. Here are a few, up on the walls:
Trust me when I say that my photos do not do these pictures justice. In real life, they are stunning. And where did Allysen find these pictures? At a gallery? Nope. At a classy art emporium? Nope, although you can get his prints in places like that. Where, then? Marshalls. Yes, that Marshalls. We spent many hours hanging them in the right places. (I didn’t get around to taking pictures of them until we were in the throes of packing to come home, so no nicely staged pictures of the rooms, I’m afraid.)
Meanwhile, I closed off (for the third time) the Ho Chi Dog trail. I also channeled a jack-hammer operator and drilled inch-wide holes with a hammer drill through five-inch concrete in an attempt to drain a fish-pond area that cannot be kept filled (long story). It currently serves as a mosquito-breeding area, thus my attempt to keep it drained. Guess what? Five inches down through concrete apparently just put me into bedrock. No drainage! Aughh.
We made many other repairs (and failed to make still others), with occasional respites such as enjoying wine and cheese with our friend Cheryl, who is now director of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, a world-class art museum that is still rebuilding from earthquake damage from over two years ago.
We pulled an all-nighter the night before returning home. Final repairs, cleanup, packing, etc. I am somewhat north of my 20s and do not handle all-nighters the way I once did. (Okay, I am north of my 40s, also. Somewhat. And my 50s. And, er…) We watched a gorgeous sunrise over downtown Ponce and the ocean, complete with an exquisite sliver of crescent moon that you could just barely see here if I could figure out how to make WordPress display the full-sized image.
Then we got an hour’s sleep before heading for San Juan, rental car return, JetBlue, and total collapse after being greeted joyously by dogs and daughter at home. Three days later, we’re still recovering.
Past time for a few framing shots. Here’s the kitchen/dining section, looking from slightly up the hill down toward the pool. That deck on the far side of the pool is the one that I built last July. It hasn’t fallen down yet!
Here’s the living section, with an almost invisible Allysen inside at her computer.
Here’s Allysen working on a deadline. We spent hours trying to get her reliable internet at her usual place at the dining room table, but finally had to settle for a rickety card table inside, to be closer to the router.
The place is quite lovely, looking up from the pool. That’s a cork tree in the middle.
Is there a sight more, er, stirring than the writer trying to remember what the hell he was thinking when he started this novel?
By the way, here’s a quick view of all of The Ponce Chronicles, through the years (in reverse order).
Cutting off the Ho Chi Cat Trail. That was yesterday’s project. Just me an’ my rat wire.
A frequent complaint from visitors in the last year was that stray cats would get into the kitchen and steal their food. True! There is a multitude of stray cats (and dogs) on the hill, which is sad for many reasons. They stroll through the property at times, though I tried last year to close the Ho Chi Dog Trail for good. (Unsuccessfully, as it turned out.) But the cats manage to get into the kitchen—a separate structure from the rest of the house—even when the door is locked. If you ever watched the series Leverage, they were like Parker, dropping in by wire, from who-knew-where.
Actually, we did know where. Part of the idiosyncratic construction here includes skylights over the back part of the kitchen, which were added, or replaced at various times, using whatever materials were at hand, in true local style, with odd gaps and overlaps. The supporting structure looks like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing, mostly out of steel. Sturdy, but challenging to work with, after the fact.
Enter me and the rat wire, known less colloquially as hardware cloth. (Some guys who worked on our own house many years ago referred to the stuff as rat wire. Just for fun, I entered rat wire in the search box on the Home Depot website. To my surprise, it took me straight to hardware cloth. Anyway, armed with that stuff and some aviation shears and a bag of zip ties, I attacked the problem yesterday. I think I’ve managed to close all but one of the openings for the clever kitties. I saved the hardest one for last. That’s tomorrow’s problem.
Lexi and Connor really were here. I spotted them the next morning. They prepared breakfast for us and Frances and Che, and then packed up and departed for San Juan and parts far away. Meanwhile, the early-arriving workman was unable to come due to a family emergency, so I actually spent most of the day resting. (Well, except for what felt like a week online locating and ordering a ridiculously overpriced gasket for the door of the refrigerator freezer, and like that.)
Next day. Sitting at my laptop, enjoying the sea breezes. Signal from Connor: his flight to Boston on Frontier was canceled out from under him at the last minute. (Same thing happened to him getting down here last week. Do not fly Frontier!) After much hassle, he managed to get booked on JetBlue, but not until Tuesday. Meanwhile, Lexi was in the air between here and Ecuador, but she is now safely back at her hosts’ place in Quito.
I thought I might be driving to San Juan to bring Connor back, but he opted to spend a couple of quiet nights in an Airbnb, trying to refocus on his work. Instead, Allysen and I went to a free outdoor classical concert on the Ponce Plaza—very much like the Boston Pops on the Esplanade in the olden days, though a lot smaller. It was fun.
It has begun. Our annual trip to Ponce, Puerto Rico, for maintenance and repair on Casarboles, the home Allysen’s parents built. I arrived last night, but she has been down here for a week already. As I started this (I got interrupted, so it’s no longer true), the sounds of animated conversation in Spanish filled the outdoor spaces. Allysen was hosting a reunion of her middle-school classmates from the years she lived here as a kid. Most of these women she had not seen in over 50 years! They were a great bunch, and Allysen had a wonderful time. I took part for a while, but as most of the conversation was in Spanish, I eventually drifted off to, well, start this year’s Ponce Chronicles.
Prior to my arrival, Allysen and Jayce laboriously prepared the pasillo, or hallway, for painting of the ceiling.
Then Jayce flew home to take charge of the dogs so I could come down. Meanwhile, older daughter Lexi and her husband Connor had their own reunion here, Lexi flying in from Ecuador, where she’s involved in a four-month refugee assistance and training program. They’ve been off doing Puerto Rico things, and I haven’t actually seen them.
In the last twenty-four hours, since flying into San Juan, I have:
Driven all over Old San Juan on a circuitous course that looked like a fiendish meditation labyrinth. Allysen wanted to welcome me after a long day by taking me to a restaurant that featured a variety of craft beers. She didn’t know that the address was deep in Old San Juan, where a gnat couldn’t park, or that the restaurant itself would be invisible to the naked eye. We were both too tired to find central parking and walk, so we turned vaguely toward Ponce, while she hunted for other possibilities. Our labyrinth spiraled and twisted ever more hopelessly as we failed to find spots listed on GPS. Eventually we gave up, and by 11 p.m. settled down to macaroni and cheese at Casarboles.
Up early today, though, because in an accident of scheduling, Allysen’s reunion party was on for this afternoon.
Party over, it was all hands (both of ours) to the paint rollers, pouring white paint upside-down on a popcorn-plastered ceiling. Then—because it’s writ in the laws of reality—I was off to Home Depot to buy supplies for a worker who is supposed to show up at 7:30 a.m. on my second morning here, to begin banging out repairs to something just outside the bedroom door. I can’t wait.
We’re also hosting our next-door neighbors, Frances and Che, for breakfast in the morning. That will be fun. Except for the hour.
What am I doing still up? Time enough to post this tomorrow.
I still haven’t seen Lexi and Connor, who are leaving tomorrow. Are they really here?
We’re home! Back in Boston. I have never felt so tired in my life. I finished the deck railing well after dark on the last day and moved on to other essential repairs—such as securing the planks on a little bridge that were flipping up like a cartoon gag when you stepped on them. Here’s the final deck railing section, and the finished project the day we left:
By some miracle, we made it to San Juan in time to catch our JetBlue flight, after a near-all-nighter cleaning up the construction zone (the whole house) and packing. I tried to sleep on the flight, but it was a lost cause. Now, though, I’m all refreshed (hah!) after ten hours of sleep in my own bed. My own bed! I plan to rest for a week. Maybe two.
I thought I’d close this year’s Chronicles with some stray oddities.
Last year I wrote about the Ho Chi Dog Trail we’d discovered running through the property. Stray dogs had found a gap in the fence at one end and periodically came racing through in well-behaved packs, going about their business and disappearing up near the car gate. It was kind of fun, but not the sort of thing weekend renters want to see. I found the gap and plugged it with metal fence rails hastily zip-tied into place. That was a year and a half ago. This year, the gap was back: one rail knocked out and cast aside. Did the dogs do it? Who knows? But mark my words, they won’t do it again. We had the rails welded into place, by the fencing crew who were on the job last week putting up real fence in place of the mangled old cyclone fencing.
Speaking of putting things up, one small but important task was figuring out an appealing way to hang curtains in a room with concrete walls and awkward corners. Allysen came up with copper pipe as a great curtain rod, and I figured out a way to carve blocks of wood to drop them into, so they’d look good and be easy to take down, and yet not fall down when you wanted them to stay up. Securing them to the walls was the hardest part. Even with a hammer drill, that old concrete was tough!
I’ve yet to address a crucial subject: craft beers. They have a number of really good craft beer makers here on the island. You can buy their beers in the grocery stores now, which previously you couldn’t. My favorite is Ocean Lab Brewing Company’s Ocean Ruby Grapefruit Pale Ale. But weirdly, you still can’t get it in restaurants! If you ask for Puerto Rican beer, you get your choice of Medalla or Medalla. (Pronounced “meh-dah-ya.”) Medalla’s a light lager, on a par with Bud Light—decent enough, if you’re hot and tired and want to glug something to quench your thirst. But as a tasty brew with a meal? Not even close. When we asked the restauranteurs why they don’t carry the local craft beers, they said, “Not enough demand. Only the tourists want it.” Well, but… don’t you want to attract tourists?
Still, my preferred drink down here is rum punch, following a recipe created by Allysen’s dad, Phil Palmer. “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak.” Fresh-squeezed lime juice, dark sugar syrup, amber rum, and water (in the form of crushed ice). Top with Angostura Bitters and fresh-ground nutmeg. Simple, and unbeatable. We’ve cut the sugar some, and are more straightforward about the weak. So now we say, “One of sour, one-and-a-half of sweet, three of strong, and forget the weak.” (We still use the ice, of course.)
(At home, in fact, my recipe for frozen margaritas is based on this formula: “One of sour, one of sweet, three of strong, and three of stronger.” Lime juice, dark sugar, Triple Sec, and tequila. And lots of ice.)
Here’s the final rum punch of the trip, and a fitting close to this year’s Ponce Chronicles:
I haven’t posted in a while. That’s because I’ve been building a deck. If you haven’t been following, I’ve been replacing a rotted-out wooden deck beside the swimming pool at Casarboles, my wife’s family’s place in Ponce, Puerto Rico. I’m in a race against the clock (we leave for home in two days, having already extended our stay by two weeks), and it’s been a bear. In the middle of it all, I developed an ear infection, probably from protecting my ears with noise-canceling earbuds, complete with ground-in dirt. Did I let that slow me down? I did not! (Well, maybe a little.)
Here’s a sort of stop-motion record of what I’ve been doing:
Grinding and painting the steel supports…
Last floor plank laid, yours truly ready to keel over…
The new floor, shown to the audience in daylight by a far more attractive model; old, rickety railing system still in place…
Old railing gone, new railing begun… two days to finish…