The Ponce Chronicles, 2020 Edition, Part 5 — More Earthquakes!

Another shudder-thumper, a 6.0 quake, struck on the morning of our last day in Puerto Rico. It shook the house alarmingly, as we were engaged in a frantic race to finish final repair projects, clean up, get everything put away, and get on the road for a two-hour drive to San Juan for our flight back to Boston. It was scary, but everything seemed okay where we were, and we got right back to work. We didn’t get any action photos, but picture me up on the house roof here, securing the acrylic skylight in the wooden structure to the right, where it was booming every time the wind got under it.

Roof of Casarboles

Our last two days had been spent in the traditional way: working to frayed nerves to get painting projects done (Allysen and Jayce), feverishly finishing various small repairs (me), and with mutters of resignation transfering to the list for next year the things we didn’t get done this year. Most of that final push was done without power in most of the house, because of a blown transformer that knocked out our part of town. Our little generator-that-could was reserved for the fridge and microwave and phone chargers. Fixing things by flashlight! That’s the ticket! Do, or do not. There is no try. Hope it all looks good in daylight.

From the various quakes, we suffered some minor (we hope) cracks in extremities of the house. But after that final one in the morning, Frances next door reported seeing a building collapse downtown, from her terrace vantage point. Many damaged older structures will probably have to be knocked down. I don’t know how many people lost their homes, but thousands were sleeping out of doors, for fear of quakes in the night bringing their houses down on them. Still another hit that evening, but we were already winging our way northward at 530 mph, and heard about it later.

Throughout this ordeal, our personal suffering was largely limited to sleepless nights and repeatedly having the bejesus scared out of us as our concrete and cinder-block house (built by Allysen’s dad to exacting standards) shook and shuddered and swayed around us. But for others nearby, the costs were physical and dire. Folks still getting back on their feet from Hurricane Maria got slammed once more by nature. Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes are not a part of the normal life of Puerto Rico. It is a cruel irony that the area hardest hit by Maria was also at the center of the quake activity. This beautiful island needs help. It’s part of the United States, and it deserves to be treated that way.

Coming home from a trip, especially a work trip, is always a great relief to me. But never have I been so eager to get home as from this one. I woke up this morning, earlier than I wanted, and couldn’t get back to sleep even in the comfort of my own bed. With every quiver of our three-story wood-frame house, I thought, It’s just the wind, just the wind. Is it an earthquake? No, no, it’s just the wind.

 

The Ponce Chronicles, 2020 edition, Part 4

 

Time for an animal report! Never mind the iguana. He’s an interloper and was chased off. No, I mean dogs. We’d gotten a complaint from one paying weekend guest about dogs running loose on the property. Really? we thought. Sometimes Toby from next door would come over. But he’s just one dog, and he’s sweet but shy. We were mystified.

Well, a couple of nights ago I was sitting at my laptop enjoying the view, when I saw a brown dog run down the steps and veer off down a side path. At first I thought it was Toby, but he didn’t respond when I called, and I didn’t get a good look. Then a second dog followed: a brief glance at me, and then down the path after the first. And then a third… and then a fourth. I got up and followed. These were no doubt strays, though they looked healthy and well fed. They showed no interest in me; they were busy making their rounds, posse on patrol, nothing happening here, folks, go back to what you were doing.

They moved with expeditious speed, doing a circuit of the house, and then past the pool and up the hill and gone. Gone where? Was there an opening in the fence?

A check the next day confirmed that—surprise!—there indeed was a place where the iron bars had worked loose enough for dogs to slip through. The Ho Chi Dog Trail! And it passed through our property. It took me an hour or two to secure the opening. I haven’t seen any dogs come through since.

But the stray cat count is up to five now. And they’ve started serenading us at night with mournful yowls. I glanced down from the deck last night to make sure there wasn’t a critter in actual distress, and I discovered an orange sort-of-tiger cat sitting on a brick wall gazing around placidly. When he saw me looking at him, his expression clearly said, “Who you lookin’ at, buddy?” Miffed at my intrusion, he ran off.

I turned and did likewise, except for the running part.

Cat visitor up close
One of the cute tigers.

The Ponce Chronicles, 2020 edition, Part 3 — Earthquake!

Just a few hours after I posted my last report, minimizing the effects of the quakes, the real one hit—6.4 magnitude­—at 4 a.m.! It was a bone-rattling, house-shaking event that sent us leaping out of bed and running out of the house in our skivvies. It felt and sounded like a freight train hitting a bad section of track, with us sitting on the floor of a boxcar. It was scary as hell, especially for us earthquake neophytes. It was followed by aftershocks, and we spent a sleepless night, waiting for the next one.

In the moment of the quake, the power went off throughout most of the city, with the exception of the airport and scattered locations. We later learned that power had gone off for most of the island. [As I typed those last sentences, we just got another little shudder. Will I get used to them?] We soon learned all about the tectonic plates sliding past each other not far offshore. If it was scary for us, it must have been terrifying for the folks living closer to the water. Very soon there was a traffic jam of cars coming up the hill in the night: families who’d fled the coast in fear of a tsunami. Many of them were camped out on the road just below us, the next day. Fortunately, the tsunami never came. Here’s a government map showing the epicenter, just offshore.

Earthquake epicenter on map of PR

Ironically, this was the year we’d finally decided to buy a small generator for power outages, to keep essentials like the refrigerator going. I’d bought it in Boston just before we left and mailed it, via USPS, to ourselves in Ponce. It was here, but still in its box. I’d bought a jerry can, but hadn’t filled it. Our wonderful neighbors Frances and Che, who have a whole-house generator, had us in for breakfast; and then I set out looking for gas. I found a city eerily still. Some gas stations were open, but not much else. One Walgreens was letting people in one at a time as others left. I got my gas and a second can, and headed back up to try the new generator. Soon it was muttering away, keeping our food cold and our phones charged. The electrician had not yet installed a transfer switch for the house circuits, so we just plugged the fridge in directly to the generator, and one more extension to power phone and laptop chargers. What a relief! Fortunately, we only had to depend on it for about ten hours. Power came back on late the first evening after the quake. We were amazed; we’d expected a much longer wait. You go, utility crews!

In all, we came through it okay as far as damage is concerned, if you don’t count the fraying of our nerves. Every little aftershock since has had us glancing at each other anxiously. It was Jayce’s birthday, but we decided to put off our planned celebration a few days, especially since nothing in the city was open.

I was scheduled to return home the night after the quake, leaving Allysen and Jayce to do a few more days of work while I saw to things at home, but this turn of events had us pondering whether I should stay in case of further earth-shaking developments. The decision was taken out of our hands by the cancellation of JetBlue flights to and from the island that night. Hasty rescheduling ensued. Now we’re all leaving together on Saturday. Poor Captain Jack and McDuff will have to stay in the doggie hotel a few days longer!

In other news, I got the hot water flowing again (for a few hours, before the power went out). I was wrong about my amateur diagnosis of the wrong voltage. Apparently those heating elements just corrode away all the time. They sell them at Home Depot in blister packs like disposable car chargers.

And now, with the power back, the hot water is back, too. Hrahh! And I just now saw tonight’s first JetBlue flight land, on the other side of the city. Whatever was wrong, they got it fixed!

The Ponce Chronicles, 2020 Edition, Part 2

posted in: Ponce Chronicles 1

No time for a real report today, as I have to leave shortly to pick up Jayce at the Ponce airport. She’s landing at 2 a.m., this being one of the more merciful JetBlue arrival times.

Mainly, I wanted to reassure everyone about the earthquakes, which apparently are in the news everywhere. We are fine. We’ve felt a bunch of them now, including a cluster early this morning. But nothing damaging, so far. I understand that some folks west of here and right on the coast have not been so lucky. My heart goes out to them; first the hurricanes, and then this. But just to repeat: we’re fine.

Here’s the current flight track of JetBlue, inbound. Okay, off to the airport!

 Flight-into-Ponce-Flightawaredotcom.jpg

The Ponce Chronicles, 2020 edition, Part 1

Not again! Ik thought. No, wait—that’s the opening line of one of my books. That should be: “Not again!” I yelled, turning on the hot water for a tired-after-travel shower, and finding only cold water. Hadn’t we fixed the hot water last time, fixed it to last? Maybe not.

We are back in tropical Puerto Rico, to work on Allysen’s mom’s house. And despite my not-very-tough-guy screech at the cold shower, it is still quite beautiful here on the hill. We arrived in the middle of the night on New Year’s Day, and slept in. Most of our luggage wouldn’t arrive for another day and half, due to a last-minute flight change. And with just Allysen and me here, it was very quiet. Here’s a snapshot view.

And another, looking out over the city at twilight:

In the first two days, we have started making a list of all the things that need fixing and upgrading for renting to vacationers and weekend guests. (Why has no one complained about the lack of hot water? It is a mystery.) But never mind that. Here are some more interesting, er, points of interest:

  • Yesterday, we had two very small earthquakes, rock and sway! (In years of living in Puerto Rico, Allysen had never felt an earthquake.) Apparently there have been a lot of them around here lately, as a couple of tectonic plates nearby sidle past each other. To Californians, I’m sure it’s nothing. To us, it was rather disconcerting.
  • That sudden, deafening banging sound in the house was not a late firework, but the washing machine on spin cycle. (Call Sears repair. Sigh.)
  • There are still plenty of dogs on the hill, as they periodically erupt into loud group conversational howls. Fun.
  • Also, we have our traditional couple of stray cats wandering through the property. This year it’s two young tigers. I have decided to call one of them Burning Bright. Not sure about the other.
  • I periodically hear a train horn in the distance, which is odd, because there are no trains on the island. Must be from the shipping port, perhaps switchers moving cargo around.
  • We had local, artisanal pizza one night, and local craft beer the next night. Here’s Allysen learning to take a selfie with me, and Allysen taking a spousie, said spouse with a local IPA.

Oh—the hot water? I took some things apart, and discovered that our hot water heater (a really small 120 volt tank) had been professionally installed to a 220 volt line. Okay, things officially feel normal here now.

Tonight? Cold showers and rum punch!

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.

View other installments of the Ponce Chronicles.

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.

View other installments of the Ponce Chronicles.

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.

 

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