Friday, December 31, 2010

goodbye tropics

Don't be a pig
It was finally time to head home, pile down comforters on the bed and take a few deep breaths before checking if all my research notes were legible. So here are a few belated highlights as I whip this Puerto Rico assignment into shape and indulge in a little flashback procrastination:
Wow. As I've hinted at a number of times, this pale scribe is no lotion-bearing beach bunny, but the white sand and dreamy coastline of Flamenco Beach lived up to the hype. After biking there to cross it off my to-do list, I had to return the following day and indulge in the full sensory experience (and get body slapped by a sneaky wave). On the drive over, I swear I saw a road construction flagger teasing a tarantula with the end of a pole. Or was that long-legged thing a crab? Shows how tired I must have been.
Got caught driving through a succession of downpour curtains blanketing the highway, and had to slalom through the resulting water parks on the pavement. Same thing at night, plus a few thunderbolts thrown in for good measure. In the countryside just south of town, the hills sprang to life after dusk, with frogs that chirped like rusty swing sets and fist-sized toads lurking outside my door.
El Yunque
At a deserted ecolodge on the south side of the park, the coquis really did eat all the mosquitoes, and a chartreuse 5-inch-long lizard stared at me from the wall across the room. Snails with shells the size of golf balls slurped up the exterior walls, and I could see a waterfall from my bed when the clouds cleared away. I hiked a bit up Rte 191, which crossed the park until closed by landslides years ago. Traipsing along through warm rain, I watched the road devolve from rutted pavement to jungle-reclaimed rivulet, turning back when the water crested over my sneakers and the route demanded a sharp machete.
Western mountains
You know you're driving a true back road when a half dozen dogs snoozing in the middle of a hairpin turn raise their heads up to look at your car but don't bother to move. That and the sight of basketball nets set up in the road. At this point, you also realize that you are very lost.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Lago Caonillas
Pinch me please. Did I really journey over 3000 miles from earthquake central to feel the damn ground jostle me awake last night?! Note to universe: I can get that nonsense at home. Thankfully, the quake didn't achieve enough vigor to rouse me from the suddenly squirmy bed of my rural mountainside ecolodge. Half-asleep, I probably remembered that the windows above me were just screens and metal shutters, not glass. So after a groggy time check I snuggled back under my guava bubble gum-scented covers and forgot about the whole experience until dinnertime.
The last week or so has been the usual crazy pace of road travel- meeting people, getting a crash course on their lives and eccentricities, then shuffling in new personalities and geographic locations. I'm losing track of the many guesthouses I've stayed at where the owners foster and adopt out stray cats and dogs. The evening serenade of coquis is a given, louder in some places (El Yunque rainforest) than others (surf town of Luquillo). And the quest for tasty well-priced vegetarian food never makes sense. A mini-mart on tiny Culebra island carries tofu, but I've been stumped to find more than one decent meat-free restaurant in San Juan.

Monday, November 8, 2010

vieques untamed

Vieques bunker
Another swoon-worthy visit to Vieques. Though blowing the place to bits wouldn't have been my first, second or third choice for a lazy day activity, it's no wonder the Navy didn't want to leave. Wild horses graze by the side of the island's twisting one-lane roads, depositing squishy brown souvenirs on the pavement. Teenage boys ride bareback, their bays pacing a quick yet restrained gait like hip-swiveling speed walkers. Two-foot-long iguanas feast in the bough of tall trees, and weaselly mongeese dash across overgrown stretches of pavement lined with sealed concrete bunkers. Miles of solitary sand beaches buffer aquamarine sea, reached by rough dirt tracks that end in "no trespassing - dangerous explosives" signs.
I took a second excursion to the island's ethereal bioluminescent bay, this time in a completely clear kayak, like Wonder Woman on the water. Crossing the darkened bay to our tie-up spot, fish careened just under the surface, leaving silver trails like never-ending sword marks of Zorro. Dinoflagellates, microscopic marine plankton that glow when disturbed, flickered like ghostly bubbles as the boat slid through the water under a moonless sky. Jumping into the water, I watched the fairy dust trails from my limbs until the tour guide made us climb back in.
On Halloween night, the local cops set up a checkpoint in Esperanza. A half dozen guys stood around, loaded up in bulky flack jackets and bearing rifles. They stopped all cars going past, but since not many people were out, they mostly just hung around and chatted amongst themselves, looking puffed up and unnecessary. A stray dog was trotting down the street, and I had to laugh when I saw it stop to piss on a patrol car's tire.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

natural disasters & other big surprises

Esperanza on Halloweeen
A few years back while researching in Chiapas, I recall the look of horror from someone when I mentioned that I was heading on to Tabasco soon. But . . . they've had lots of rain, he stammered. I hadn't read the regional news for a few days, and when I checked it that night it just so happened that the entire state was bathing in the largesse of its overflowing rivers. Without a hydroplane, a visit was impossible, so I took a literal rain check.
Fast forward a few years. Last night I was poking around the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques, noticing that waves at the usually placid malecon were cresting and showering passing cars. Stopping to gawk, I commented to a passerby about the spirited Caribbean waters, and he dropped a tidbit about Hurricane Tomas lurking a few hundred miles offshore. You'd think I'd pay attention to these salient details by now. Little kids in Halloween costumes hung over the side of the boardwalk, screaming with mock fear when the whitewater crashed and spritzed them.
After dinner tonight, I stopped by one of the local bars to gather their details for the book. As a reggae cover band droned on, the World Series played without sound, and a handful of rapt patrons texted as they watched the 8th inning of the game. I'm not a sports fan, but I was a San Franciscan far from home without anything better to do, so I pulled up a stool and quickly made friends with an SF couple at the end of the counter. As the bottom of the ninth inning sped up, the spectacle drew me in and I teetered on the edge of my chair. At three balls and two strikes, conversation stopped near the television and eyes leveled without blinking. As the batter struck out, we exhaled to cheer, and the bartender lined up free chichaito shots for his three San Francisco patrons. ¡Salud!

Monday, November 1, 2010


I'm currently on the ground in Puerto Rico, wilting in the late hurricane season humidity while researching the next Lonely Planet guide to the island. Friends from home keep asking me if I've been snorkeling or swimming, but until the sun's almost down, I'm reluctant to expose my skin to insta-cook.
San Juan was a rush of mushrooming beachfront high-rise condos, concrete streets running between them and a public bus authority that plies the roads but refuses to publish or post route maps. A breezy woman from the tourism office insisted that everyone knew where the buses went so there was no need to produce maps. (Yeah, right.) And that buses went places that tourists didn't want to go anyway. (Um . . . sure.) A desk clerk at the guesthouse confirmed my suspicion that residents were just as perplexed by the dearth of transit information. She'd somehow gotten her hands on a map a few years ago, and she'd kept it like a sacred object. An object that she let me borrow and photocopy, thank you very much.
A few highlights from my time in the capital of Borinquen:
  • an invitation to the birthday party of a dapper sexagenarian barfly in Condado
  • drinking my first chichaito shot (passion fruit flavored!)
  • chatting with a right-on bartender inside a crazy oyster-shaped restaurant
  • biking a few miles of the undeveloped PiƱones coast on a brakeless bicycle
  • finding the coolest live music club in Old San Juan by following rock music down a dark and deserted back alley
  • realizing that the best natural foods store in town was right across the street from where I was staying

Saturday, October 23, 2010

daily dose of wildlife

Roomy green spaces and unexpected pocket parks quilt San Francisco, and red tail hawks routinely terrorize legions of pigeons. But sometimes I crave truly wild places- expanses without buildings, landscapes with few people, and the rush of encountering large animals that make you feel small.
All the bases got covered during a recent day to the northern tip of Point Reyes. Driving to the trailhead, raptors with stern expressions and never-ending feet perched on wooden fenceposts, staring me down like miniature roadside gargoyles. Majestic tule elk vamped along the bluffs between Tomales Bay and the ocean, trying hard to exude that effortlessly photogenic look. At the tip of Tomales Point, seals bodysurfed angry white swells.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

epic day

I dragged my zombie-like self out of bed this morning to gaze at small dots on the ocean's horizon. Granted, these ant-sized figures were careening down raging 40-foot barrels of frothy sea water at Mavericks, one of the scariest big wave surf contests in the world. But if these fools could stand up to tempt death, the least I could do was wake up before 9am and run a brush through my hair.
The presence of ambulances and SUVs full of cops gave the impression that some kind of commotion had recently transpired, and I soon found out rogue waves had just pummeled hundreds of beachside bystanders, sending many to the hospital with broken bones, bloody arms and twitchy stories of near-drowning. From the safer upper bluff, thousands set up blankets and chairs to watch sets of monster tides crest and slap down everything in their paths, and we all sucked breath every time a surfer took the suicide plunge.