Puerto Rico Part 2 — Birds of a Feather

Andrea and I have been back from PR for three weeks now, but the good memories linger.  This was a special vacation for us in that we hosted our longtime friends from Rome (Italy!), who like us, were feeling worn-down by winter, and jumped at our invitation to R&R with us in the tropical Caribbean.  Andrea had met Linda and Bruno back in the 1970’s while she was on a year-long sabbatical in Rome.  They remained fast friends, and after Andrea and I married in 1988, they became my friends as well.

Andrea and I arrived in PR a week before our friends, acclimating to the post-hurricane realities of life on the island.  The two-hour drive west from the San Juan airport to Isabela gave us an eyeful of houses with blue-tarped roofs, downed power lines, and non-functioning traffic lights.  But the natural landscape was returning to its former beauty, with bright green vegetation after four ensuing months of tropical sun and rain.  We arrived at our familiar seaside destination happy to be soaking up the sun’s warmth and the raw Atlantic’s greater than usual ferocity.

I wrote some about our first week in Isabela in my previous posting.  We happily adapted to the easy-going rhythms of a beach vacation, enjoying the fabulous summery weather and dramatic coastline that had been drawing us back each February for the past twelve years.  Mostly, we felt a physical and emotional thawing out, a gradually deepening sense of relaxation and inner well-being after catching up on sleep and spending many hours in the full sun.

By the time we drove back to San Juan one week later, we were ready to receive our guests.  Andrea had visited Linda and Bruno in Italy two years earlier, but I hadn’t seen them in a decade.   Our reunion at their airport hotel was a joyous one, and the drive back filled with animated conversation.  Linda is an Italian- American from Cleveland OH who has lived and worked in Rome for most of her adult life, most of it  with her Italian-born husband, Bruno.  Both are now retired, like us, though Bruno, an architect by training, continues to work a small, family farm where he grows the multi-use, subtropical grass, vetiver.  Linda only recently retired from her position as a university linguistics professor.

Half-way back, we stopped for lunch at our favorite roadside restaurant, El Buen Café in the town of Hatillo, and feasted on some traditional local sandwiches – Cubanos and Media Noches.   As we finally approached the Isabela shoreline, we pulled over for the fine coastal view.L-B-A-1

Our guests were as pleased as we were with our spacious, 3-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a coral-colored condominium complex right on the ocean.  The complex is adjacent to Isabela’s old fishing village (Villa Pesquera) which now consists of mostly open-air bars.  After helping our guests settle into their new digs, we all don shorts, sandals and t-shirts for a sunset walk along the beach.

The next day is Valentine’s and Bruno reminds me of my offer the night before to drive into town to find suitable gifts for our ladies.  It’s fun navigating the narrow streets of Isabela Centro with him in search of flowers, and the locals are happy to point us to one of the many shops offering such.  My Spanish is sufficient to accomplish the simple transactions that yield us some beautiful roses and sunflowers. L-A-1

Over the next two weeks together, we fall into a gentle rhythm of breakfast on the ocean-front patio, morning yoga or a refreshing swim in a marvelous outdoor pool, and planning for a daily outing.  The northwest coast of the island has a succession of expansive beaches and swimmable tidal pools, ideal for snorkeling.  Because the Atlantic is so windswept and wavy this season, we settle on just a couple of swimmable beaches.  The beach at Jobos is protected on its eastern side by large montones and we enjoy several afternoons there, laying our towels and gear under the shade-bearing palm trees along the beach.  This beach is a favorite of the locals as well as being the center for the gringo surfing community on its western side.  A couple of the restaurants there have excellent fresh seafood and we enjoy some hearty lunches there.3-in-water

After returning from our outings, we often rest and plan for our evening meal – most of which we prepare ourselves.  Bruno is an excellent cook – mostly vegetarian soups and other dishes, many with pasta, and often with fresh seafood as well.  Linda is the regular salad maker.  We’ve discovered a very decent supermarket near the Aguadilla airport where we can get fresh organic produce and many of the other whole foods we’ve grown accustomed to. Our dinners are always festive, sometimes complemented with wine or beer.  But we all find ourselves content to mostly just take in the beauty of our immediate surroundings.  The roar of the surf is a 24-7 backdrop that supports us all in its dependability and regularity.

After supper, we sometimes drive up the steep hill to the Isabela central plaza for an evening stroll and some delicious ice cream.  A mass is being celebrated in the plaza’s Catholic church one evening and we all sit in the back, taking in the enthusiastic singing, and the magnificent seascape mural behind the main altar.  On many evenings, we get out the cards after supper to play a fun Neapolitan card game that Bruno and Linda have taught us.  None of us miss our lack of a TV connection.

A few days before we returned to San Juan for a fun-filled last weekend there, Andrea and I were walking along the Isabela beach at dusk.  We noticed some small shore birds in the distance, nibbling treats from the sand as the waves receded.  Among the tiny sandpipers were a pair of larger birds with large orange bills.  As we tentatively got closer, we identified them definitively as oyster catchers, and stopped to attempt photos.  There was such a bounty of small shellfish to feast on that they tolerated our intrusion for some precious minutes.

We’d occasionally seen these distinctive shorebirds in prior years and had carefully read their description in Andrea’s Puerto Rico birding guide.  They usually appear in pairs yet maintain some yards distance between them when hunting.  Their long narrow bills, bright orange, are chisel-shaped – perfect for opening mollusks.  They cut the hinge muscles of clams and mussels with surgical precision, and then easily pry them open.  Larger waves sent them scurrying, and sometimes taking flight with a high-pitched squeal, usually returning to their original spots. AMOY-by-Alan-Wilde

Watching this amazing pair in action as the sun set into the Atlantic, I thought about couples, and the synchronized dance of closeness and cooperation, yet a certain respectful distance, that allows a species to mate for life. Turning to my life partner Andrea, and thinking about our bonded Italian friends, I took pleasure in the knowledge that our mutual pairings partake of a natural and universal prototype.

John B, 3/24/2018




One thought on “Puerto Rico Part 2 — Birds of a Feather

  1. As a participant in the experience described here, I would like to say something about my first encounter with Puerto Rican people on their home turf. Before we left Rome for San Juan to join Andrea and John, Italian friends wondered why we were going there for our winter get-away and weren’t even sure where it was or whether it was part of the US; a cousin in Florida who would be leaving from there on a Caribbean cruise the following month expressed concern about safety in view of what she’d heard about the high crime rate and the debt-ridden economy. But at the end of our two week stay, I can definitely say every single contact we had with the local population was positive – they were friendly, helpful and even proud to be of assistance in any way they could; this was true not only of the friends of our friends and those displaying their products at the farmers’ market, but also people in shops, on the beach and in supermarkets and eating places where English was not spoken. At our evening visit to a packed church in the small town of Isabela, during a Mass to mark the beginning of Lent, a middle aged woman came over to us and welcomed us in Spanish inviting us to join them for refreshments at the end of the service. The custodian at the beautiful art gallery in San Juan doubled as a guide, going out of his way to provide interesting personal information about the artists, the exhibits and Puerto Rican culture and history. I have traveled a good bit but can’t say there are many places I’ve visited where every contact was a pleasurable experience. I wish them well and every chance in rebuilding their beautiful island.


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