Twelve Days in Paradise–A Journal of My Family Vacation in Puerto Rico

09WednesdaySep 2015

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My August vacation to Puerto Rico was just what I needed after the publication of my historical novel, A Decent Woman in February 2015. After six, intense months of publicizing my book on social media, doing interviews, guest blogging, and being on blog talk radio shows to promote my book, I was pretty spent. By early August, the idea of continuing to write my second historical novel, also set in turn of the century Puerto Rico, was beginning to feel like a chore, despite my love for my new story and amazing, new characters. I needed a break. A writing break. My mind needed to vegetate a bit and my eyes needed new vistas, and my soul demanded inspiration, which I found during my late August vacation to the island of my birth, Puerto Rico.

On Thursday, as our plane made its final descent into Luis Muñoz Marin Airport in San Juan, my sister Elaine and I smiled at the turquoise waters and palm tree-fringed coastline below. We were home. Elaine hadn’t visited the island in twenty-five years and she was as giddy as I was to return to the birth place of our mother and grandparents, and the place where our great-parents landed in the mid 1800’s after their voyages by schooner from Italy and the Canary Islands. In flight, we’d shared what we hoped to see and do during our vacation and our lists were similar–pristine beaches, turquoise waters, salsa and merengue music, dancing, rum drinks, visits with family and friends, and day trips to mountain villages–FUN. We were on the same page of music. We would also celebrate our birthdays on this vacation. August 20, the day we flew from the US was my sister’s birthday and we would celebrate mine on August 28.

los primos en constancia 1963

As we collected our baggage and texted my cousin that we’d landed, my sister and I chuckled at the loud conversations in Spanish all around us. Puerto Ricans are loud, fun, gregarious, and they love to have fun, wherever they are. A couple of years ago, I read the results-wide poll of a world of the happiest people on the planet and Puerto Ricans took first place that year. I wasn’t surprised. Piped-in followed us out of the terminal to wait for our cousin, and the heat and humidity immediately slapped us in the face, waking us up after our 6 am flight from Baltimore. I instantly wanted an ice cold Medalla beer, a beach chair on a beautiful beach, and I couldn’t wait to slip into my bathing suit!

Our first evening in San Juan with our cousin Josefina and her Chilean friend was perfect–dinner at Pamela’s on the beach. And I mean ON the beach. We enjoyed a tasty dinner at tables and chairs placed on the sand in front of the ocean, where we stayed until late that night catching up and laughing at our antics as kids. Perfectly magical. After dinner under a nearly-full moon and sipping superb drinks called Caipirinha, made with Brazilian rum, we walked on the beach and finally set foot in cool, Caribbean waters. We toasted Yemaya, the goddess of the ocean and the seas, and I thanked God for my family and for this much-needed vacation. Stress seemed to melt off my shoulders into the ocean.

Caipirinha Cocktail, Caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail, made with cachaça, sugar and lime. Cachaça is Brazil’s most common distilled alcoholic beverage.Wikipedia

Ingredients: Half a lime cut into 4 wedges, 2 Teaspoons brown sugar, 1 2/3 oz Cachaça

Preparation: Place lime and sugar into old fashioned glass and muddle (mash the two ingredients together using a muddler or a wooden spoon). Fill the glass with crushed ice and add the Cachaça.

Served: On the rocks; poured over ice

Standard garnish: Lime, Sugar cane Drinkware: Old Fashioned glass

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I’d hoped to visit Isla de Cabras on this trip, an islet off the coast of San Juan, the setting of my second novel I’m currently writing, The Island of Goats, but with family schedules, we decided to visit the small island at the end of our trip since we would be returning to San Juan to fly home. I knew it was risky to put off, but the pull to visit family and friends was greater than more research, which I’d done boatloads of already!

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After spending Wednesday morning at the beach, we left bustling San Juan behind, headed to our hometown Ponce, in the southwestern coast of the island. We couldn’t wait to see our Aunt Elena and our cousins’s daughter, Mari and her beautiful baby, Mia Elena. How wonderful to see them after so many years. That evening we listened to the weather channels about the coming of what was thought to be Hurricane Danny, and feasted on a lovingly-prepared, traditional Puerto Rican Christmas meal of pernil, roast pork with plenty of garlic; pasteles, plantain mash with chick peas, capers, olives, and again, plenty of garlic; and arroz con gandules, rice with a type of black-eyed pea, courtesy of my aunt who is a tremendous cook. Tropical storm or hurricane, we vowed nothing would ruin our vacation! Elaine and I love extreme weather and rain, so we weren’t swayed by the news–we would help my Aunt make household hurricane preparations, and buy plenty of beer, wine, and food to help ride out the storm!

la jungla beach

In order to get ahead of the storm, we drove west and enjoyed two days at Playa Jungla, an incredibly pristine beach with mangroves near Guánica that you won’t likely find without taking a local with you. Simply amazing. We placed our beach chairs in a circle in the crystal clear water, and spent two days laughing, drinking, and dancing to the music courtesy of a family who brought their sound system to the beach. I never wanted to leave and started thinking of buying a home on the island. Could that be a possibility for me? My river place on the West Virginia side of the Potomac River is currently for sale, and with the sale of my home in West Virginia, I could put down a sizeable downpayment on a property to lower my monthly payments. The wheels in my brain were beginning to turn. Live in Paradise? Why not?

mangroves pr

On the drive from back to Ponce from Playa Jungla, Tropical Danny brought high winds and plenty of sideways rain, but not enough to fill the dry river beds and reservoirs after a three-month drought, which was a shame. Water was still being rationed in several towns and cities on the island, and Ponce was free of rationing. Many Caribbean islands were suffering the same drought and Tropical Storm Danny did some major damage to neighboring islands with some fatalities, which was sad to hear. But such is life on a Caribbean island with hurricane season from June to November. You prepare and that’s pretty much all you can do in addition to praying and hiding under a table.

Note: A Decent Woman opens with a birth taking place in a major tropical storm. Readers tell me they held their breaths while reading–check it out!

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On Tuesday morning, we awoke to blue skies and headed to our beach hotel destination in Rincón, on the west coast of the island, which we’d booked ahead for three days. We invited our Aunt and two cousins to join us, which is always fun. The more the merrier! Hotel Cofresí is beautiful and I highly recommend it. It is situated right on the beach with a great pool bar and famous coconut drinks–that’s what I’m talking about. We had three days of fun in the sun, took a day trip to the lighthouse in Aguada, and were already nursing the sunburns we’d acquired at Playa Jungla, despite the heavy sunblock and hats we wore to keep the sun from burning our delicate skin. We upped our sunblock protection and kept on driving, enjoying the coastline as little blisters began to form on my upper thights. Oh well, so much for saying I could never tan the front of my legs. They were a nice brown color, but I knew would soon peel.

By Thursday, we were back in Ponce and heard Tropical Storm Erica was slowly making her way to the Caribbean, headed directly for Puerto Rico. It was thought that this storm had all the signs of turning into a Category 2-3 hurricane, so we stayed local and visited the Ponce Yacht Club where we’d gone to dances and parties as young teens. Not much had changed at the Club, and we enjoyed the brand new, semi-salty outdoor pool watching dark, ominous clouds come from the north and go out to sea. The air was noticibly cooler, but the sun still beat down on us. By Friday, the news was that Erica was starting to fizzle out and we headed to downtown Ponce to shop for souvenirs to take home, with stops at a few botánicas, botanical shops, in town. We took photos of the Plaza and had coconut ice cream at our favorite ice cream shop, Helados Los Chinos, which specializes in tropical fruit ice cream. Their ice cream recipes haven’t changed since I was a baby–still incredible and still melt quicker than you can imagine in the heat, giving you a brain freeze quicker than you say, “cóco“!

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Late Thursday afternoon, cousin Mari took us to a local healer, Doña Chencha, who is one of the oldest healers on the island. I’ve written about my experience with her in a previous blog called “Healing with Medicinal Plants and Herbs in Puerto Rico“.

At ten that evening, Elaine and I put on our bathing suits, grabbed cold beers and headed to the patio to welcome Tropical Storm Erica, which was due to pass over Ponce at midnight. We joked that we’d do a rain dance and at exactly midnight, the rain started falling and the high winds began. We lasted about thirty minutes, enjoying the cool rain on our bodies, and chilly air. The power went off as we listened to the howling winds around the house, and the rain pounded the roof. When we woke up, there was no damage to my aunt’s house, but our towels were blown from the patio out back to the front of the garage.

Papa at the farm 1961

Saturday was perfect for a drive in the country and we chose the mountain towns of Villalba, Jayuya, and Orocóvis, which is the setting of my third novel,Mistress of Coffee and the location of my grandparents coffee farm. What a treat. Erica did some major damage to the mountain towns with dozens of downed plaintain trees and débris across the mountain road we climbed on our way to Toro Negro Nature Reserve, which in my opinion, rivals El Yunque Rain Forest in the north. My cousin did a great job dodging branches strewn across the roads and we ended up at Doña Juana’s waterfall, which is splendid! As we passed beautiful cement homes, humble wooden abodes, rushing rivers, and the lush tropical surroundings, again, I thought, “Could this be my forever home?” I could envision myself writing my historical novels from a lovely home nestled in the mountains with a view of a pristine river along with Oshún, the goddess of rivers.

Note: The goddesses Yemaya and Oshún are featured in my novel, A Decent Woman, as my protagonist, Ana Belén, has a special connection and reverence to the Yoruba goddesses.

ADW in Puerto Rico July 2015

On Sunday, we decided to drive to the mountains again. This time we’d visit a few rivers for bathing and communing with nature–right up my alley! As we bought supplies, we met two older gentlemen who said they were on their way to a birthday party in Villalba, which was exactly where we were headed. We joined the fun party at an amazing, rustic restaurant/bar high in the mountains with a perfect river flowing below. There is nothing better than sharing good times and dancing with friends, holding cold Coronas and hearing the sound of rushing water nearby. We didn’t get the opportunity to bathe in the river and I was hoping we’d get to before Tuesday.

I loved Villalba as much as I did as a kid and thoughts of selling my river place and my home in West Virginia continued peeking into my consciousness all day and on our drive home. My cousin Josefina is a real estate broker, so I decided I’d tell her about my idea. My sister was on board, as well. Could we do this?

Monday found us driving along the southern coast to join our new friends from Juana Díaz at the Guayama Yacht Club. We enjoyed a sumptuous lunch of red snapper, lobster in mofongo, plaintain mash with plenty of garlic (get the idea Puerto Ricans’ love garlic?!) with great red wine, which was not a good choice for a hot day!

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By Tuesday afternoon, we were saying teary goodbyes to my cousins and my aunt at the airport. Time just ran out and I realized I wouldn’t see Isla de Cabras on this trip. I will have to rely on my research and on the aerial videos I found on YouTube. We were very sad to leave Puerto Rico and hope to return in March 2016 for a family reunion. Elaine and I felt our mother and grandparents’ spirits strongly during this trip and leaving seems to reopen emotional scabs I thought we’d dealt with. We dearly miss our mother and departed family members, moreso when we’re on the island, and that will never change.

Note: As for finding a home in Puerto Rico. I am on the search and have contacted my cousin and another local realtor for properties in Cabo Rojo and Villalba, which we will visit in March 2016. It makes sense–I am Puerto Rican-born, I love every inch of my island, I write novels set on the island, extreme weather doesn’t freak me out, and…

A writer can dream, can’t she? Time to make a vision board for my forever home, which I’ve done before and my dream came true.

ellie

About Eleanor Parker Sapia

Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language social worker and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. She is a member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, and the Historical Novel Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

A Decent Woman is Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. The book was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends Latino Book Club. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is happily writing her second novel, The Island of Goats.

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