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…)

Puerto Rico: Worse Than We Thought

The situation on the ground in “our” part of Puerto Rico (Ponce) is apparently a lot tougher than we had come to believe. Allysen finally got through to the next-door neighbor for a talk via cellphone. She says conditions are terrible. Still no water, and this in the second largest city on the island. Still no power. They fire up the generator for about an hour a day to charge things up, and they’re being very miserly with the water that’s left in their cistern (which, fortunately, is larger than average for a home). They have enough food still, but many, many people are hungry. The land feels devastated, and for the first two weeks, they felt utterly abandoned. The National Guard was down there somewhere, they supposed, but nobody came up to their side of the city until just recently.

Her description of our property was pretty discouraging, too. We still haven’t seen any pictures, but apparently trees are down everywhere, making things look like a bomb went off. We’re hoping that the original report that the house itself is okay was accurate, but we just won’t know until somebody can send us some pictures.

Frances said in her whole life on the island, she’s never seen anything even remotely this bad. The kicker is that, prior to the hurricane, tourism had been on the rise. Cruise ships had been coming in—not just to San Juan, but to ports like Ponce. Even our house was getting rented. All that’s over. I hate to think how long it will take to rebuild a viable economy.

These folks still need our help in a big way—and will, for a long time to come.