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.


Ponce Chronicles: The Work Force Awakens, Pt. 2

The pool deck at start of day yesterday, many shredded sanding belts into the job. The Work Force really hates sanding.

The pool deck at day’s end, many rivulets of sweat later. (We did other stuff, too.) Can you spot the board we missed, which I saw right after putting everything away?






Here are a couple of Puerto Rico’s more charming critters.

Still getting work done on the book, though the Force is ready for a vacation. Maybe in some nice, sunny place.

Ponce Chronicles: The Work Force Awakens

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!

Chilling in Miami

Here’s a pic of my brother Chuck and me, shot by Chuck’s wife Youngmee. I’m on a brief stopover in Miami, en route to Puerto Rico. Chuck looks well, despite having started a second round of chemo, which we are hoping and praying will keep him going for a good long time to come. Echoing hopes and prayers would be welcome.

And here is Youngmee, with the two adorable and extraordinarily energetic new puppies Jahng and Tntn.


Yes, by the way, another round of Ponce Chronicles is coming up, as we strive to complete the renovation and update work on Allysen’s family’s house. That is, we’ll be doing another round of work. I probably won’t write too much about it, as I’ll be trying to focus what writing time I have on the book rewrite, which is coming along pretty well.


1 2 3