Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 10

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:

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 9

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…

Okay, back to work!

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 8

Progress! With a capital P. Here’s the pool deck yesterday. I filled in that gap and then some, today. Geez, I’m tired. But I have hope of getting it finished before we leave.

And here’s a new bit of railing. It replaces the well-crafted, elegantly curved railing that Allysen’s dad built, and which some boneheaded weekend tenant broke and tried to conceal by hiding the pieces in the bushes. Deep breath.

By the way, in case you’re wondering how I got those curves in the wood to so nicely match their pairs on the other side…

I found two pieces of warped lumber at Home Depot. Their curvature was exactly what I needed.

 

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 7

Puerto Rico is called the Isle of Enchantment. There is, in fact, remarkable beauty to be found just a short walk down the hill from Casarboles. The first thing you see is the Caribbean, just beyond the view of Ponce. From here, you can turn to your left to enter the grounds of the Japanese Gardens and Cruceta del Vigía.

We were treated to a private tour by the lovely activities director Luciris on a day the museums were closed (Allysen’s dad was once very active on the board of directors). We first entered the Japanese Garden, which might seem a little incongruous in this land of Latin culture, but it’s enchanting, just as promised. Here’s a view across the grounds.

And a strange and beautiful tree. I don’t know what kind.

Looking back at Cruceta del Vigía, which you can go up to the top in, but we didn’t.

Just around the bend in the road, you find the Castillo Serralles, now a museum but once a home for some of the wealthy members of the Serralles family, owners of the Don Q rum distilleries. It (and the gardens) are popular locations for wedding and parties.

I wasn’t at first very interested in seeing the inside of the Castillo (you’ve seen one Hispanic mansion, you’ve seen them all, right?). But was I wrong. The gardens adorning the grounds are breathtaking. Here’s a sampling…

Ending with a monkey pod tree:

For a while, all of the carpentry and masonry and plumbing floated away. And then, I admit, after the tour, I went back to the house and started work on framing an opening for the second aircon (!) and the deck.

Lexi and I walked around today, trying to map out all the circuit breakers—and there are a lot. She’s determined to create a reference for future sanity, and I say, You go, girl! Sadly, she flies back to Boston tomorrow, leaving just Allysen and me. Two more weeks to finish everything!

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?

 

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