Ponce Chronicles the Fourth: And Finally There Was Light!

This was in some ways the most difficult trip of our annual series, partly because problems we thought we’d fixed last time came back to bite us again. Just about everything that could go wrong, did. Water, electric, plumbing, appliances, even unexpected repairs to the roof. The cistern pump that we spent so much time getting to run? It burned out and seized when the incoming power line kacked, giving us an impromptu brownout. The nice remote-operated driveway gate? The same.

Eventually we got most everything fixed, though some of it had to wait until after we’d returned home. Some of it ran right up to the wire on the last day—when, of course, we had to go to the airport at one in the morning to catch our flights home. Tempers frayed. Somehow we got through it.

Here’s the power company truck on station, putting in a new line to the house. They told Allysen they were one of only two truck crews providing emergency services to the whole city of Ponce. They did a great job. Allysen and our neighbor Frances cheer them on.

Did I mention the guards? Because the old hotel just up the street is finally slated for renovation, they hired a security crew to keep kids and carousers out of the property. Imagine our surprise to encounter armed security guards right outside our gate. They were all ex-cops or current cops, and generally a very genial group. They had nothing to do but chat with us and our workers, and take care of the stray dog that adopted them. Startling at first sight, they gradually came to seem a friendly presence.

Our friend Crystal joined us from California for the last few days, and wielded a mighty paint brush. (Crystal was once my housemate, and it was she who introduced me to Allysen, more than a few years ago.) We promised her one day of fun, and were glad we had, because it forced us to take a day of fun for ourselves. We drove across the island and walked around Old San Juan for an afternoon. It was lovely.

Here’s a whimsical sculpture chair that was surprisingly comfortable to sit in. We called it the catbird seat.

And here’s a stray kitten we named Stet, who was getting a little bolder, day by day. I hope she makes out okay. Another week or two, and we would have brought her home, for sure.

Ponce Chronicles the Fourth: And Then There Was Dark

We have been in Ponce for two weeks.

Everything is a blur, including some of the stray cats who dash by, nearly invisible. The to-do list has grown like triffids. Here’s Allysen’s rundown, before things started cascading:

  • I need a plumber, electrician, tree remover, fence builder/repairer, pool plasterer, mason, construction handyman, and somebody to remove the “escombros” — the old refrigerator, sink, and junk that was supposed to have been removed months ago. Our best handyman’s now working for FEMA at twice the pay. It’s Christmas. In Puerto Rico, Christmas partying lasts from day after Thanksgiving through January 6th (3 Kings’ day/Epiphany) and then some. No one returns my calls.
  • We joyfully prep the first floor of the house for painting. For five days. Joy wanes.
  • Miracles of miracles, I found someone willing to do pool repair during the Christmas season!
  • The new electrician returned my call! He can’t come until February. I beg. He relents. The plumber promised to come but has not shown up. I text. I call. I pray. The fence guy said he’d measure and give me an estimate today. No show. Can’t find anyone for tree removal. Nor masons. We’re running out of time…

She forgot to mention that the new 1000-gallon cistern for backup water isn’t working because of a problem with the pump. William, the pool guy works on it… and works on it… The needed part, of course, is not readily available. Still, he persists.

Triumph! (No, not the pump.) The pool has been replastered and refilled! Just before the city water pressure goes belly up on us again. Water has been weak and intermittent for days now.

Jayce arrives to join us, and it’s her birthday. We get cake and ice cream. Upon opening the freezer drawer on the almost new refrigerator, we find the drawer won’t close. We are blasting cold air into the kitchen. The track is jammed—as it turns out, by a small loose screw lodged impossibly far into the mechanism. No way to fix it. The freezer opening is now closed off with plastic drop cloth and duct tape. Awaiting a repair visit from Sears. Yeah. The company that’s going under. Did I mention the fridge is new?

William finally gets the cistern pump working. Cheers and congratulations! An hour later, electrical power to the whole house goes bad, complete with sparks on the utility pole. We have enough power for lights, but not much more. No pumps, no micro, no washer… The electrician says it’s a bad ground (which he can fix) and a bad line coming in from the utility, which must await the power company. Have you ever waited for the power company in Puerto Rico?

Our major do-or-die project, after repairing the swimming pool, is repainting the master bedroom. Seemed straightforward enough, even though the walls and ceilings are pebbly cement and take forever to prep. But then we find the mildew behind the skimcoat on the outer wall, and hope goes out the window. A simple paint job has turned into mold remediation, external sealing, and replastering. Not for the first time I think, I hate painting. And… if I spent half as much time fixing the walls of my own house… (No, don’t think that way. Wrong thinking will be punished.)

As always, what success we have is thanks in no small measure to our neighbor Frances, who is Miles Vorkosigan’s mother Cordelia and Aunt Alys wrapped into one. (See Lois McMaster Bujold’s novels, if that doesn’t mean anything to you.)

Let’s end with something brighter. Here’s a little fellow who found his way into the living room and stayed just long enough for me to get a picture.

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Ponce Chronicles the Fourth: Happy New Year!

Happy Belated New Year, everyone! We started our new year in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where we’re beginning another round of upkeep, repair (yes, including Hurricane Maria repair, a year and a half later), and steady upgrading of Allysen’s mom’s house here (now available for vacation rental!)

Our first action—after a drugged sleep, after landing at the airport at 4 a.m. local time—was to pick up our reserved rental car from Enterprise. What we had reserved was a small SUV. What we got—the last vehicle on the lot—was a Ford F-150 pickup truck. Not the one of the older, reasonable-sized pickups, but a monster truck. This thing was up so high you could barely see the street, and it had the approximate turning radius of an aircraft carrier. (Oh, for my little Ranger, back home!) Fortunately we were able to swap it out for a Jeep “SUV”—a small crossover, really—after a week of lumbering around in the monster.

Then we began the inventory of everything to be done…

Oh, my head. That will come in the next installment. For now, here’s a picture of Allysen in a charming little place called 19 Barios, with excellent pizza and equally excellent locally brewed IPA.

And here’s the hillside at night, from our neighbor’s balcony. The brightly lit building in the center is the Castillo Serralles, and to the right is La Cruceta, both big tourist attractions in Ponce.

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Ponce Chronicles: Down to the Wire

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


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

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

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

Ponce Chronicles: Beauty Amid the Struggles

One of the striking things about Ponce, and I guess much of Latin America and the Caribbean, is that there’s so much beauty right alongside the poverty. I don’t always notice, because we’re so focused on working to fix things up. (This seems to involve a minimum of one to two trips a day to Home Depot, which I know much better by now than the Home Depot at home.) In my driving to and fro, I see a lot of the poverty and some of the demolished buildings, but I also drive past the lovely, modern Museo de Arte de Ponce (art museum, where Allysen’s mom used to work), and the old architecture of the Plaza.

A couple of nights ago, we went out to our favorite restaurant, Vistas, which has rooftop dining and a gorgeous view of the city. Here’s the skyline.

Up on the ridge, you see the giant cross, Cruceta del Vigía, which you can go up in to look out over the city. Just to the right of it is the Castillo Serrallés, which is a mansion originally owned by the Serrallés family, makers of Don Q rum. Those two structures are visitor highlights, and along with them is a Japanese garden (although I’m not sure it survived).

You can’t see our house, but it’s up there on the same road, a little above and to the right of the Cruceta. The “modern” building further to the right of La Cruceta is the last structure at the top of the hill—an abandoned hotel. In its heyday, Allysen’s family lived in that hotel prior to building the house. (Her dad worked for G.E.’s international division, which is what brought them to Ponce in the first place.)

Here’s what lay directly below us on the restaurant terrace: the old fire station and museum, and an old Spanish church, in the center of the Plaza.

A consolation of the loss of so many trees to Maria is that our view from the house is now less obstructed. I remember on my first visit here, back in the 1980s, watching a small plane come down over the hills, and following it all the way to its landing at the airport on the far side of Ponce. Then the trees grew higher, and we could no longer see the airport. Now we once again can watch the (limited) airplane traffic into town. There’s been a spate of military transport planes landing and sometimes circling, and I’ve been wondering if it’s been a bunch of planes bringing in supplies, or a single plane practicing landings.

Here’s the view in daytime. If you enlarge this image, you can just make out the array of windmills off in Coamo. I do not know how they fared in the hurricane.

Speak of the devil. As I typed that paragraph about the airport (at 1:30 a.m.), I saw bright lights coming down over the coast and touching down. Too early to be JetBlue. Who was it? I wonder. Aliens?* Coming to find the best tostones?**

*Nope, my bad. It wasn’t aliens; it was JetBlue from Orlando.

**In past years, the best tostones in town were to be found—I swear this is true—at Denny’s. Yes, that Denny’s. This year, the title might be up for grabs. The ones at Denny’s are still good, but no longer great. Sic transit gloria mundi.

 

Ponce Chronicles: Getting There Is Half the Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ponce Chronicles: Déjà Vu Strikes Again!

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

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

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

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

Hurricane Irma Looms

One mean hurricane is barely past, and now another is bearing down, this one on the Caribbean Islands and South Florida. I was just in Miami celebrating my brother Chuck’s 70th birthday, and all was peaceful. Maybe not much longer.

But before that, the islands are squarely in the storm track, with Puerto Rico first to be hit. Some of you will have read my chronicles of our work on my mother-in-law’s house in Puerto Rico. I guess all that new work is about to be tested. We can’t be there to help batten things down, so here’s hoping our faithful steward can do what needs to be done. (Of course, that’s just property. There are a whole lot of people of limited means down there who are staring down the barrel of this thing with everything to lose.)

Crossed fingers, blessings, best wishes, and prayers for everyone in the line of fire for this one. As well as for those still reeling from the effects of Harvey.

The Ponce Chronicles: The Work Force Awakens, Pt. 4: Plug & Pray

Chasing leaks. That’s how this trip started, what with tearing up a tile floor to find out where upwelling water was coming from. (We never did, not really. We couldn’t replicate the problem after the tile was up. We have guesses, but only guesses.) Other leaks were smaller, but equally enigmatic. We had some workarounds in progress.

Then, on our last-but-one night at Casarboles (tree house), I was showering upstairs, and Allysen ran in with cries of, “Stop! Water’s raining down into the closet!” Nooo!  (Yesss!)

Too late to get the plumbers before we had to leave, and anyway, all the pipes were in cement. It was up to me to see if I could find the leak. And amazingly, on the last day, I did. Silicone seal between shower tub and drain pipe was all deteriorated. Ask Freddi, and he says, in Spanish, “Oh yes, that happens. Phil always just put new silicone in.”  And so that’s what I did, carefully troweling it in, just like Doctor McCoy in the Star Trek episode about the Horta. And it cured the leak.  We think. There wasn’t time for really thorough testing. Plug and pray, that’s our motto.

In the last couple of days, we did that, and finished painting every inch of what seemed like a 7-acre deck, complete with railings, and caulked a bunch of molding in a different shower, and inventoried tools, and made little cautionary signs (bilingual) to post above the toilets, and of course made trips to Home Depot. And, oh, a hundred or so other things.

We took a little time in the evening of the last day—before the big, final push right through to 4 a.m. and departure for the predawn flight—to relax and enjoy a meal by the pool. It really was quite lovely. Here’s a selfie of the two of us, relaxing by the pool.

And here’s how Casarboles looks after dark. The place is pretty much ready for guests! We’ll be putting it on Air BnB and like that, very soon.

Oh—we’re home in Boston now, recovering. It’s snowing.

The Ponce Chronicles: The Work Force Awakens, Pt. 3

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.

 

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