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…
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.
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!
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…)