The Ponce Chronicles 2024 — Part 3

It’s quiet here on my last full day in Puerto Rico (for this round). All our guests have left. Crystal back to L.A., which we hope hasn’t washed away in the rains there, and A’s cousin Vanessa and her husband Cesar back to South Carolina, via San Juan. The air here has turned intensely humid and muggy. Earlier, we had a brief wind-and-rain storm that made me wonder if I’d missed the memo about an approaching hurricane. Wish I’d taken a picture.

Tomorrow, I return to Boston, while Allysen stays to greet Jayce and her boyfriend who are flying down from Boston at the same time I’m flying north from San Juan. We’ll pass each other over the Atlantic. While I start dealing with house issues at home, Allysen will be working with a contractor she’s found to do some of the larger repairs needed here. (Cesar and I fixed a bunch of small things, including—long-time readers will recognize this—yet another patch on the fabled Ho Chi Dog Trail.)

I’m going to close out this chapter with various pictures from the visit. First, Crystal and Allysen at El Yunque…

An egret at the beach at Caña Gorda…

An interesting tree in the dry forest right next to the beach…

And an evening at a new discovery, a delightfully idiosyncratic Ponce restaurant, El Rastro. This is Vanessa and Cesar.

I’ll be back down at the end of February. Lots to do between now and then.

The Ponce Chronicles 2024 — Part 2

In our first week on the island, we’ve kept to our promise to relax and rejuvenate. Our good friend Crystal arrived from L.A., and we’ve spent a lot of time just gazing out from the hilltop. Sunday evening, we took in a free concert on the Plaza by the Ponce Orchestra. Today (Tuesday), we drove to see the rainforest at El Yunque National Forest. This is not the Amazon; it is small, charming, and still recovering from the hurricanes and earthquakes of recent years. The signature La Mina waterfall remains closed, but smaller pools and waterfalls were open. Allysen waded right into one of them. I, with my exosuit (portable O2 concentrator) on my back, had to stand clear and enjoy her splash.

Tomorrow, our thoughts turn to some repairs, but mostly I’m staying hands-off and seeing if I can focus the book.

The Ponce Chronicles 2024 — Part 1

With Covid behind us, we have arrived for our annual visit to Casarboles, the home that Allysen’s parents built in Ponce, Puerto Rico, back in the early 1970s. The house and grounds are lovely, as always, and all the previous years of work are paying off. Also, last year saw a lot of extra work done by Allysen’s brother and a friend. Yes, there is plenty still to do, but this year we’re going to be more relaxed about it and give ourselves time to just enjoy being here. And for me, fingers crossed, to write. Is this us?

The pool deck I rebuilt is still standing!

So far, we’ve mainly slept, shopped for supplies, and hung out on the dining veranda enjoying the view. The trinitaria are in full, gorgeous bloom. (Can you find Waldo?)

The Ponce Chronicles, Winter 2023 — Part 4

We’re in the final throes. We leave Monday morning, and it takes at least a day to clean up and put everything away. Myriad small repairs underway. The wooden door just got its fourth and last coat of polyurethane. Looks pretty good, if I say so myself.

Allysen is taking a crack at sanding the surface of one of four giant mahogany disks cut from the tree that went down in Hurricane Maria. These will make great table tops, if they can be smoothed from the uneven cuts and finished adequately. (I’m amazed anyone was able to slice these things at all.) Dunno if it’s doable or not, but they’re quite beautiful pieces of wood.

You know how I said I was reserving time in this trip for writing and enjoying the tropical environment? That proved to be mostly a lie—at least the time for writing. There was just too much to do, and no one else to do it. At least the pauses between tasks, looking out over the hill, were restorative.

Last night we finally got together with our dear friends and neighbors Frances and Che. Frances is recovering from a medical procedure, but she looked great. Che’s English can be hard to understand, but there was one thing he said that I got: “If there’s anything you need, anything at all, you’ve got it. We are family.” Pause to make sure I understood. “We are family.”

That seems like a good place to wrap this season’s run of The Ponce Chronicles. Probably the next time you hear from me, I’ll be back in Boston.

The Ponce Chronicles, Winter 2023 — Part 3

Yesterday was Allysen’s birthday! We celebrated by…er…spending the day waiting to see a doctor at the “urgent” care clinic in downtown Ponce. In a freak accident, Allysen somehow scratched her eye with her thumbnail and was in considerable pain. After waiting four hours to be seen, we were told “We’re not really equipped to treat eyes,” which would have been nice to know at the start. But we came away with a prescription for some eyedrops, and they seem to be doing the trick. She’s feeling much better today and was able to do her regular work at the computer.

We did celebrate in more proper style with a nice dinner at Vistas rooftop restaurant, overlooking the city.

This was Crystal’s last day here, so I drove her to Mercedita Airport at the obligatory 4 a.m. hour to catch the JetBlue flight out. Before leaving, Crystal singlehandedly painted an entire bedroom for us! Bless you, Crystal. (For readers who do not know Crystal, she was the one who first introduced me to Allysen back in the day, when she—Crystal—was a housemate of mine in Cambridge.)

I know I said I would do no sanding, because lungs. But we had a half-sanded varnished door which had to be finished or it would be ruined by the elements, and I absolutely was not going to let Allysen keep sanding it with a possibly scratched retina. So I extended my O2 hose, donned an N95 mask, and finished it with a power sander. I was covered with dust, but my airways remained clean under the N95, and now it’s finished. Sanded, I mean. We still have to polyurethane it.

Too much remains to be done to leave on our original date, which was tomorrow. So I changed our flights, and we are staying until next Monday. Wish us luck!

Here’s another shot of the pony that sometimes comes up to our back fence, munching on an offering of greens. We don’t know his real name, so I call him Horsie.

The Ponce Chronicles, Winter 2023 — Part 2

Work continues apace, here in Ponce. Our friend Crystal flew out from California to join us, and she’s been painting up a storm in one of the bedrooms. I have been working on a multitude of nagging repairs. Allysen has been project-managing, while holding down her regular job, no mean feat.

On my first trip to Home Depot, in the evening, I was driving down Las Americas Avenue and found myself looking straight ahead at a breathtaking view of the crescent moon and two planets. The first chance I got to take a picture was in the parking lot at Home Depot. Not great resolution, but here’s the moon with Jupiter (above and to the right) and Venus (below).

We took most of Friday off to drive into the mountains to a coffee plantation and café. Unfortunately, they were no longer giving tours of the plantation, but we had a nice lunch including coffee from beans grown right on site. And the drive along the winding mountain roads was exciting, as always. At a stop for gas, I learned of the existence of something called Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey. I did not buy a bottle to try, but I sort of wish I had.

Here’s the three of us in front of a water wheel at the coffee plantation.

And here, from the café, you can see some coffee trees growing on the hillside.

Sunday we took off to the beach, which is about an hour’s drive west from Ponce. There’s  a lovely secluded stretch away from the main public beach, which Allysen’s parents discovered decades ago, and is still the preferred place to go. We couldn’t see much evidence of it, but we were in the part of the island hardest hit by the earthquakes a few years ago. The epicenter was not too far offshore from where we were.

Because my meds require me to be very careful about sun exposure, I didn’t spend much time in the water, but here’s the splendid view I had from under a shade tree. That’s Allysen and Crystal cavorting in the Caribbean. Lunch afterward at a nearby hotel got me my first tostones of the trip—excellent.

Today…back to work!

The Ponce Chronicles, Winter 2023—Part 1

Here in Ponce, Puerto Rico, folks have been busy for a while. Allysen and Jayce came down in late January, and Allysen’s brother and a friend joined them, and a little later, their wives. I stayed in Boston with McDuff for that part. When I came down on February 14, everyone except Allysen had gone home, and I caught the baton in midair. Lots to do! (In case you missed the previous installments, this is work on the house that Allysen’s parents built in the 1970s and ultimately retired to.) If you look really closely at the picture above, you can see Allysen in the living room, working away at her job. And here she is, having just heard some horses go by on the hill above.

Some important stuff was already done. Andrew and his friend Paul replaced the two skylights that had blown off in Hurricane Fiona, and the bent gate was fixed, and Allysen and Jayce between them scraped and painted the stairs down from the parking pad. All of which was work I was delighted to miss! Because of my pulmonary fibrosis (can you hear the O2 machine puffing in the background?), I am officially off the “strenuous and hazardous” work details, meaning no heaving lifting, sawing, painting, etc. Nothing with dust or chemicals in the air.

That’s left me with a bunch of smaller jobs, like drilling into concrete to reattach a door to the tool shed (masked!), figuring out how to cover up a counter gap left from the earthquake a couple of years ago, figuring out how to put mosquito screen over various odd-shaped openings around the skylights where you have to attach to concrete, figuring out how to replace the broken cover over the pool pump equipment. But no deck building! No, no, no, not this year, and not any year ever again. Oh, and figuring out where and how to store the backup generators that somehow got stashed in a really inappropriate place.

Part of “figuring out” things is figuring out how to buy what you need. There’s Home Depot and Costco, of course, but they don’t have a lot of what we need. Take storage for the generators. The obvious solution is a small shed, and we even agreed on where one could go. But the two stores I just mentioned don’t have the right size. Amazon, of course, has everything, including exactly what we need. But most Amazon merchants won’t ship to Puerto Rico. Why? I don’t know. I’ve probably complained about this before, so I will spare you the rant.

Still, we’re making progress. We have vowed to spend some quality time on this trip actually enjoying the island where Allysen spent several years growing up, and we even have plans of where we want to go.

I am reserving more time to myself, to work on the book. So far, though, I have not found my way through the quicksand that has impeded my progress with the story. (If you are tempted to ping me and ask, “When is the next book going to be done?” please don’t. When I have something to report on that, I will report it.)

Meanwhile, I have seen only one (!) stray cat and no dogs, and that makes me a little sad. But we do have the occasional hummingbird, and a very sweet horse that wanders into the yard just below us, and that always brightens our day. And the trinitaria behind the house are beautiful!


The Ponce Chronicles 2022, Part 6, The Final Part

My chronicling got derailed by a week of relentless activity. A pair of workers started showing up at 6:45 every morning (we are not morning people!!) to do concrete and brick repair, and to rebuild a pair of custom folding doors to the laundry area. In Boston, workers bring the materials they need, because for one thing, they know what they need. Not so in Ponce, where I repeatedly found myself clutching a hand-written list (in Spanish, which I do not speak) of materials I needed to buy at Home Depot. Kudos to the helpful employees of Home Depot Ponce, who deciphered my needs and filled my cart.

Allysen, meanwhile, went shopping for art to put on the walls to liven the place up. What she came back with astounded me: most notably an assortment of gorgeous x-ray photographic images of flowers, sealed in glass, by a remarkable artist named Albert Koetsier. Here are a few, up on the walls:

Trust me when I say that my photos do not do these pictures justice. In real life, they are stunning. And where did Allysen find these pictures? At a gallery? Nope. At a classy art emporium? Nope, although you can get his prints in places like that. Where, then? Marshalls. Yes, that Marshalls. We spent many hours hanging them in the right places. (I didn’t get around to taking pictures of them until we were in the throes of packing to come home, so no nicely staged pictures of the rooms, I’m afraid.)

Meanwhile, I closed off (for the third time) the Ho Chi Dog trail. I also channeled a jack-hammer operator and drilled inch-wide holes with a hammer drill through five-inch concrete in an attempt to drain a fish-pond area that cannot be kept filled (long story). It currently serves as a mosquito-breeding area, thus my attempt to keep it drained. Guess what? Five inches down through concrete apparently just put me into bedrock. No drainage! Aughh.

We made many other repairs (and failed to make still others), with occasional respites such as enjoying wine and cheese with our friend Cheryl, who is now director of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, a world-class art museum that is still rebuilding from earthquake damage from over two years ago.

We pulled an all-nighter the night before returning home. Final repairs, cleanup, packing, etc. I am somewhat north of my 20s and do not handle all-nighters the way I once did. (Okay, I am north of my 40s, also. Somewhat. And my 50s. And, er…) We watched a gorgeous sunrise over downtown Ponce and the ocean, complete with an exquisite sliver of crescent moon that you could just barely see here if I could figure out how to make WordPress display the full-sized image.

Then we got an hour’s sleep before heading for San Juan, rental car return, JetBlue, and total collapse after being greeted joyously by dogs and daughter at home. Three days later, we’re still recovering.

The Ponce Chronicles 2022, Part 3

Cutting off the Ho Chi Cat Trail. That was yesterday’s project. Just me an’ my rat wire.

A frequent complaint from visitors in the last year was that stray cats would get into the kitchen and steal their food. True! There is a multitude of stray cats (and dogs) on the hill, which is sad for many reasons. They stroll through the property at times, though I tried last year to close the Ho Chi Dog Trail for good. (Unsuccessfully, as it turned out.) But the cats manage to get into the kitchen—a separate structure from the rest of the house—even when the door is locked. If you ever watched the series Leverage, they were like Parker, dropping in by wire, from who-knew-where.

Actually, we did know where. Part of the idiosyncratic construction here includes skylights over the back part of the kitchen, which were added, or replaced at various times, using whatever materials were at hand, in true local style, with odd gaps and overlaps. The supporting structure looks like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing, mostly out of steel. Sturdy, but challenging to work with, after the fact.

Enter me and the rat wire, known less colloquially as hardware cloth. (Some guys who worked on our own house many years ago referred to the stuff as rat wire. Just for fun, I entered rat wire in the search box on the Home Depot website. To my surprise, it took me straight to hardware cloth. Anyway, armed with that stuff and some aviation shears and a bag of zip ties, I attacked the problem yesterday. I think I’ve managed to close all but one of the openings for the clever kitties. I saved the hardest one for last. That’s tomorrow’s problem.

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:

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