Monday, February 23, 2015

Puerto Rico: Playas Are For The People

Mural at beach in Carolina, Puerto Rico--The Beaches are for the People

My first full day in Puerto Rico I took a ride out to Piñones, a town on the north coast of the island, about 10 miles east of San Juan. I rented a bike for 4 hours from a vendor in Ocean Park and rode out from there. Along the way, I kept knocking into poles and (almost) the occasional pigeon and person (the bike was a little top-heavy and hard to control) and stopped at every third person I passed to make sure I was still on the right path. Even so, I managed to get a little lost, turning right at the cockfighting arena instead of keeping left by the Ritz Carlton (right, left, cockfighting ring, Ritz Carlton—what’s the difference, really?). I also stopped to take a picture of a mural that caught my attention—a tall, wide piece filled with characters bearing slogans and topped with the three wise men bearing gifts for a missing Jesus. I stopped simply because I thought the mural especially well-done—in doing so, I ended up learning something about Puerto Rico that all the guidebooks I read beforehand failed to mention, something important, something political, and something with a history dating back nearly 20 years.

Cockfighting arena, Isla Verde, San Juan...donde esta little Jerry Seinfeld?

The mural that stopped me in my tracks is in the parking lot of a beach in the town of Carolina, best known as the home of the Luis Muñoz Marin international airport and birthplace of baseball great Roberto Clemente and the poet Julia de Burgos. Behind the mural is a camp that activists set up 10 years ago, in 2005, to protest a hotel development plan and protect the beach and its ecology for the people of Carolina. The presence of this camp—a decade-long continuous protest—stands as the longest act of civil disobedience in the history of Puerto Rico.

I wouldn’t have known this if a man hadn’t been pulling out of the parking lot as I stopped to take the picture. He called out to me from his truck and told me to go in, gesturing to the thicket of trees behind the mural. I thought maybe there was a restaurant somewhere there in the trees and the man maybe worked there and was trying to drum up business, so I just smiled back at him politely and kept focusing on my picture taking and keeping my clunky bike upright. But the man kept saying “It’s free!” And it became clear he was trying to tell me something important. As a plane from the airport was choosing that moment to fly right over our heads, I only got bits and pieces of what the man said: “It’s free”; “You can go in”; something about Piñones; something about a camp; something about the number ten. The last bit he flashed at me with his hands and fingers. And that was all I caught and understood before he pulled out onto the road and I cycled on ahead to Piñones.

As I cycled on, I tried to piece together what the man had told me. I guessed there must be campgrounds there behind the mural that were open until 10:00 PM. The 10 he flashed at me couldn’t mean a $10 cost to get in or stay there, because he kept telling me “it” was free. It was some place open until 10 in the evening then. That must have been it. Meanwhile, I had to have my bike back at the rental place in Ocean Park by 5:30, so if I didn’t spend too much time at Piñones, I’d try and stop in and look at the campgrounds behind the mural, because I’d nodded to the man that I would and there was something about it that seemed so important to him that intrigued me.

Now, there’s an important detail to consider in the paragraphs above. The plane flying over our heads, the one that blocked out much of what the man was trying to tell me, is a fact of life now to the people in Carolina. A good chunk of what used to be an area of mangroves and sugarcane is now the international airport—and what isn’t airport land has largely been converted into other corporate and industrial property for pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies. Noise pollution has become an everyday bane for people living within proximity to the airport (something I know about myself, having grown up close to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the world’s busiest). And because of corporate development, little of the natural habitat of Carolina is left except what clings to the shoreline in between Isla Verde and Piñones.

A word about Isla Verde and Piñones—despite their closeness to each other, there’s a marked contrast between the two communities, especially along the shoreline. Isla Verde, which is technically part of San Juan, is a community of expensive high-rise hotels and casinos (such as the aforementioned Ritz Carlton) that sit right on the beach—which means good portions of the beach are off-limits to non-residents and non-patrons of the hotels and condos. You gotta pay to play on the playas here. Piñones, a neighborhood of the municipality of Loíza Aldea, is poor in commercial development and tourism but rich in natural beauty and Afro-Caribbean culture. Parts of the beach at Piñones are clustered with food shacks and rustic beach bars that sell coco fríos (chilled coconuts with a straw stuck in them for drinking the milk right out of the fruit) for 2 bucks each and classic Puerto Rican specialties like mofongo and fish fritters. The smell of roasting chicken, shrimp and pork, smoke rising from the multitude of outdoor grills, and salsa, reggaetón and bomba music are everywhere at the entrance to this community, but if you walk or cycle on further, there’s a boardwalk leading to a state forest and beach, el Bosque Estatal de Piñones, with a nature trail and several wild, secluded beaches. It costs nothing to enter the state forest or sit on the beaches—all of Piñones is free and welcoming to locals and tourists alike.

Ocean Park playa, looking east towards high-rises of Isla Verde
Carolina playa (the playa under dispute), looking west towards Isla Verde hotels

Pinchos in Piñones
Coco frio
Fishing at Piñones
Whatever happened to Miami Vice? ;-) Abandoned food shack/bar at Piñones
At Piñones
Playa at Piñones

In between the beaches of these two communities is Carolina’s beach, one that gets much less attention from tourists and guidebooks to Puerto Rico but one that has the same beautiful sands and ecological treasures just as the others do. What Carolina’s beach, or playa, also has is the potential to end up very much like highly developed Isla Verde beach or protected Piñones. It all depends on who wins a dispute over the future of the playa going back 20 years: a group of locals and environmental activists that calls itself the Coalición Playas Pa’l Pueblo or a major, multi-property hotel and resort developer named Eduardo Ferrer Bolívar.

The origins of the dispute are in a contract signed in 1996 by then-governor of Puerto Rico Pedro Rosselló González that leased five acres of the Carolina coast to Desarrollo Hotelero Carolina, Inc., a company whose rights were bought up for $6 million by Ferrer Bolívar. The contract granted Ferrer Bolívar—who already owns a hotel complex right by the Carolina playa, mainly the Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde Beach Resort—a 99-year lease on the property. Locals in the area guessed Ferrer Bolívar would turn these five acres into another Marriott complex, complete with a hotel, spa, and parking lot. Such a development would make the playa off-limits to the people of Carolina and block them from their own coastline. Environmentalists also objected to any development, citing the presence of leatherback sea turtle (a critically endangered species) nests in the area.

Skip ahead to 2005, when those who had been objecting to any more development along the coast claim Ferrer Bolívar’s enterprise had begun moving dirt and sand and cutting away plant growth, despite still not having full approval to do so. One factor was the lack of an environmental impact study when the contract was originally signed or any time since then. A number of activists responded to these beginnings of development by setting up a camp on the playa. Ten years later, that camp is still there.

The camp is located off the road, behind the mural in the parking lot, in a thicket of trees. It’s a true camp, with tents, a porta-potty, and outdoor grills. It also hosts a family of cats and dogs, who laze and take shade among the coastal growth that lines the paths through the camp leading to the beach and sea. For something that’s been around for 10 years, it doesn’t look too shabby. The camp and the energy and resistance behind it exist on paper as well as on the playa. As of only a few weeks ago, the Coalición Playas Pa’l Pueblo has collected 8,500 signatures objecting to corporate, resort, and hotel development on the contested five acres and supporting the creation of a protected status for the coastline—a Bosque Costero de Carolina. (The coalition also has online petitions that you can sign and a Facebook page where you can find out the latest news and show your support.)

Part of the camp at beach in Carolina
Carolina beach kitty

View of the sea and sand from camp at Carolina beach, some of the natural habitat visible too

With 20 years having gone by and no proposed hotel complex in sight, it may seem like the people of Carolina can breathe easy. But in December 2012, Ferrer Bolívar sued the municipality of Carolina and the camp coalition for $5 million in compensation and removal of the camp. I have not been able to find whether this suit has been resolved--if anyone who reads this knows of any updates regarding this lawsuit, I'd appreciate it if you leave a comment below. The fact that the coalition to protect the playa is still collecting signatures and still demanding a definitive act of support from the governor says everything about how vulnerable the playa still is to development.

Now, since I’m not Puerto Rican and am only here for a few days as a tourist, readers might ask why I decided to blog about this issue. For one, because it’s interesting and important. It was certainly important to the man I met while photographing the mural. He didn’t have to tell me anything about what I was photographing. He could have just written me off as a vapid tourist, only interested in Puerto Rico for the sunshine and rum drinks or as a playground for spoiled Americans. But he trusted me with an issue affecting his home, and by going back to visit the camp, finding out what it was all about, and writing this post, I’m trying to honor this local man’s trust in a tourist and foreigner.

Also, as someone who’s been traveling quite a bit in recent years, I’ve learned that reckless tourism and over-development (and the ensuing local cultural and environmental destruction) are huge problems all the world over. I think it’s up to travelers to try and remedy that, to do what they can to travel with a sense of ethics and sensitivity to local and regional cultures and landscapes. And I think it’s up to tourists to make it clear that part of the reason they like to visit other places is for the chance to experience local authenticity and pristine landscapes. It may surprise some developers and tourism promoters that not all travelers are seeking solely luxury and convenience. And even those travelers who do like luxury and convenience probably agree that whole regions and countries shouldn’t be transformed, carved up, and handed over to developers just for their sake.

And it seems like in this case, of the public beach in Carolina, that’s what’s at stake here. Most of Carolina has already been physically transformed for the sake of corporate and economic development —but at least the people there still had their local beach to go to, their piece of the beautiful sea, the palm trees, the sun and sand, and the kind of unique local identity that springs from living along a Caribbean coastline for generations. A hotel and spa complex—yet another of many hotels and resorts right down the road from Carolina—will literally get in the way of what the people of the area have rightfully had and known for generations.

Playa of Carolina, with natural habitat visible on left, Isla Verde hotels on right in background
And does this area really need another hotel resort and spa? The pictures I’ve shared in this post show just how many there already are on the beaches in the area. What could another massive development on the beach possibly boast that all the other ones don’t already have? My bike ride from Ocean Park to Piñones was all I personally needed to convince me that another big hotel is hardly what’s needed around here. Though I was told my ride would “follow the coastline” or “follow the beach walk,” half the time I had no view whatsoever of the water…because of all the tall buildings in the way. Instead I rode past miles of neighborhoods, high-rise hotels and resorts, fast food joints, bars, hell even a cockfighting arena. And one wrong turn and I could have ended up on the tarmac at the airport. But I kept on because of what I was promised at the end—a laid-back little community and a forested, public beach called Piñones.

Hopefully the governor of Puerto Rico and all the Puerto Rican powers-that-be will soon recognize what treasure they already have in the playa of Carolina. The treasure is already there—it doesn’t need any developing or perfecting. Just protecting. But don’t take my word for it—take the word of the people of Carolina. The people have spoken, and the people should be heard and respected. The playas are for the people. Las playas son del pueblo.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Valentine Poem

This is a new poem I wrote for Valentine's Day. Some notes follow the poem.

Last Page of a Long Overdue Love Letter

...because I thought you should know
that it was nothing you did and nothing
you couldn't give me. I just needed
time. Forgive me for taking so much,
for forgetting the ticking on your end
too, and what it must have felt like
for you. Did you really think it had
anything to do with your brother 
and his friend, with what they said
the night I lost my watch on our walk
home? I can't remember his name,
his friend. I don't think I even knew
his name. Did you really think he made
any kind of impression, that he could
be of any interest to me other than
a kind of prop to make you jealous?
Forgive me
...because I don't know how to fix this.
Time has not been much of a help
after all. And even as I write this
I realize I took too much. With love...

Notes: I wrote this poem with the idea of someone finding the last page of a love letter, a page separated somehow from the rest of the letter, and then imagining what happened between the writer of the letter and its recipient going solely by what's revealed in this one piece of the letter, this one piece of a longer story. I wanted to write a poem that reveals just enough so that the finder of the letter, the accidental reader, would be tempted to piece together a scenario or even an entire relationship based on this one page, but that also leaves out enough so that the original recipient, the intended reader, is still the only one who this letter, even just a portion of it, is meant for, the only one who knows what's being said and referred to here. While it's for the accidental reader to try and figure out what happened, it's for the intended reader to decide whether the writer is being sincere. 

Still missing you but it's easier now...

In Spain, on the Camino de Santiago

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Ignore this jazz below. This is just to register my blog on some website. Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain...

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Monday, February 9, 2015


Sometime today, this blog hit the 40,000 page view mark. While I definitely viewed it as a milestone when I first noticed the number on my blog stats today (I'm posting about it after all, amn't I?), I didn't think it was all that impressive at first. I've always viewed this blog as a pretty low traffic getter, especially compared to so many other sites and personal blogs out there. But then I looked at it another way. Since this blog has been around for just a little over 4 years (first post on Jan. 12th, 2011), that averages to 10,000 views a year. That's pretty amazing to me. While I do share my posts on the few social media sites I'm on (namely Facebook and LinkedIn), I'm not that aggressive in "marketing" myself or manipulating my posts for the sake of clickbait or "content strategy." Moreover, all my life I've been a very shy and introverted person, a member of a very large family (by American standards), not much of a joiner nor a leader in social situations, and not that confident or self-assured as readers who don't actually know me might assume given that I'm a woman who travels alone a lot.

In other words, I'm used to fading into the background or being overlooked, so much so that I just assume that's what I do. And as far as this blog is concerned, I've always been convinced that most of the people who come to it are probably people who were looking for something else and just landed on one of my posts by mistake. I don't track how long anyone stays on my blog (I'm neither that self-obsessed or stats-obsessed), but my assumption is that a lot of the views might not be very long-lasting or "deep." In the days when I was still trying to get my women-only tour company going and I was doing a lot of cross-linking between my tour website and this blog, I wondered how many hits on both the website and blog were from foreigners mistaking "wayfaring woman/women" to mean something like a mail-order bride. This is especially my hunch in the weeks when I notice a sudden spike in views from Russia or Ukraine or some place similarly unlikely. I imagine somebody in a big fuzzy hat all wrapped in bear-fur rugs sitting at a lap-top with a feeble wifi connection studying and scouring my blog intently, trying to translate my midwestern Americanese ramblings, and wondering where on this damn blog the women-for-sale are. I'm always doubting that I might actually have some fans or regular readers out there--other than the ones I'm related to and the ones I pay of course. (Joking.)

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is, an average of 10,000 views a year suggests maybe there is somebody out there who hears me, reads me, gets me, likes me. And if that's true, and if you're hearing/reading/getting/liking this, then thank you. Thanks for your time and attention. It means a great deal.

If you care to, you can take a look back at my very first post, just for kicks and giggles. You'll see the intention of this blog has evolved a little bit--less travel-focused, more writing-in-general-focused. We'll see if I'm still doggedly blogging in another 4 years, and how may of you are still around, and how I, my writing, and the world have evolved. My only hope is that if I keep up my current rigorous beauty regimen, I'll look as lovely as this fellow blogger/writer:

Maybe I'll even finally have upgraded to the Mac too! (Just kidding--I can barely even operate one.) Anyway, thank you again for tuning in, and thank you to anyone who's ever shared one of my posts or pieces of writing over the past 4 years. Look for some posts on Puerto Rico and writing stuff in the next few weeks.

The very first pic I ever posted on this blog. Me in Bolivia, 2010.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Clark Street Bridge Bride & Groom

Wedding party crossing Clark St. Bridge, Chicago
This photo was taken a few years ago in the early evening of early fall in downtown Chicago. It's of a very small wedding party leaving Clark Street Bridge over the Chicago River. The party was having pictures taken on the bridge with some of Chicago's skyline in the background. I had tried to get a picture of the group when they were still posing in the middle of the bridge, but I wasn't fast enough. So I got them walking away.

I like this picture because of a little details that were caught, like the bride taking care to keep the train of her dress off the sidewalk of the bridge and the fact that the bride is the central person in the frame and the most identifiable. The others in the photo are a bit of a guess. I'm guessing one of the men on the bride's right is her groom...but which one? Is the other the best man? Of the two people on the bride's left, either could be the photographer. The man in the gray jacket seems to be providing direction, pointing out the spot where the group should stop and pose next. So maybe he's the photographer. But it's the other woman in the photo, the blonde with a ponytail and wearing a suit, who appears to be holding the professional camera. So maybe the blonde with the ponytail is the photographer...or could she be an unconventionally attired maid of honor?

I also like that some of the walkway of the bridge can be seen--maybe too much to make it a good photo by most standards. But you can see the steel grid that underlies the faux-concrete walkway, which adds a bit of grit to the scene, a bit of the toughness and distinctiveness of Chicago. This is not a fairy-tale wedding scene. Chicago is not a city that harbors fairy tales. And a wedding party as small and straightforward as the one in this photo appears to be doesn't seem to have time or interest for complicated fairy-tale photo set-ups anyway.

Clark Street Bridge is a bascule bridge, or a drawbridge. It goes up from time to time. Even bridges sometimes feel the need for a break and a stretch. Along with other bridges on the Chicago River downtown, such as the Lasalle Street Bridge, it is known for its dark red curving trusses. Glimpses of these bridges can be seen in many movies, from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to The Untouchables, Road to Perdition, The Fugitive, and Transformers. The poet Carl Sandburg also was inspired by Clark Street Bridge, as he was by many places in Chicago--he titled one of his poems after the bridge, and you can read it here. "Dust of the feet/ And dust of the wheels..." And once a bride tried to keep her dress out of the mess of dust and feet and wheels...

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Spider Poem

This is another poem from the reject pile. I posted two others in recent weeks. Some notes follow the poem.

The Spider

The spider selects
the misfit places of a house
to make her web.

Corners out of reach,
crevices out of sight,
under the cabinet and right above
where the pie crusts get rolled out,
between the crosshatch on a flimsy outdoor fence
that rattles with every lake-driven wind.

She has her own reasons for such

It has nothing to do with you,

This second she squats blot-like
in the corner where the walls meet
a deuce of inches down from the ceiling,
the low one,   
right above where the cat always lies.
She will not be moved from this spot
no matter how many hours
the cat waits
for her to fall and
sacrifice herself
into a snack.

The human has not come home yet,
has not fed her feline friend.
This second the human squats
on a stool in a shady corner
of the city
between the crosstalk of a man
who waits and watches
and another who whimpers
for her to fall and
sacrifice herself
for a snack.


Notes: There's no deeper meaning to this poem or anything. None of the creatures in the poem stand for anything else. A few years ago I tried writing a poem about a spider. I left off after a few lines and only came back to them last year. Somehow I turned it into a poem about my former, unsatisfactory, and socially inept attempts at participating in Chicago's nightlife because, really, I couldn't think of much to write about a spider after a few lines. 

This is the 3rd of three rejected poems I promised to post beginning a few weeks ago. And the post before this one, American Off-Season, is another piece that was rejected. Expect to see a lot of my rejected stuff on my blog this year. I suppose some writers take rejection of a piece to mean that your work isn't ready to be read yet. I'm sure this is true for a lot of my poems and stories. But as nice as recognition and acceptance of something I wrote can be, my main reason for writing is to reckon with particular emotions and experiences of mine, as well as with images and scenarios that I find especially interesting or inspiring or haunting, and after a certain amount of effort putting all these feelings and images down on paper (or onscreen), I always feel I just need to set the whole effort free and put it out there somewhere. Send it to a friend, or to an editor or journal. Read it out to my counselor, or to a group of strangers at an open mic. Or post it up on my blog. For better or for worse. Just let it go. Consider this 2015 to be The Year of Release.