Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Best Shower

After a few days of exploring and camping in a very warm climate, I was overdue for a shower. We were on the verge of bailing on the rental because of plumbing issues and another, shower related detail a couple of paragraphs down. I waited to shave because I wanted to look bedraggled or crusty for negotiations with our host. Turns out the whiskers were not necessary because the host could not have handled the situation better.

The shower is located among floor beams and cinder blocks underneath the shanty. There are a few patio blocks on the dirt to stand on and a drainage system entirely satisfied by gravity and the very steep incline falling away from the place. I can say with no hesitation that this shower has the best view of the rainforest, mountains and valleys and the most unabashed lizards I’ve encountered in a bathroom environment. If someone on the other mountain wanted to see what the gekko does, they’d have a clear view.

The half inch pvc pipe coming out from someplace dark has a shutoff valve on it that serves as the faucet handle. The water feels cold at first. All 7 teaspoons per minute. Rinsing of hair takes patience. Cleansing the rest of my large self takes time.  I’m not sure I’ve appreciated a shower as much.

Leaving was necessary but sad. The plumbing problems did not resolve, and there was another matter. We returned in the afternoon when I had so needed the cleanup to find the shower running and a watch obviously belonging to a gentleman of great discernment- our uphill neighbor. There had also been a teensy bit of concern on our first day out because things seemed to be not quite in the same order we left them.

Our host spoke to the neighbor who explained that his water supply was not working, and that was why he had been at our place. The shack is served by a cistern between the two properties and a network of pvc pipe and valves laid along the ground.

Again, I was to feel right at home the next morning when our decision to leave was forced by the flush not working. In addition to the occasional gunfire and junk cars, there was apparent sabotage of the water lines the next morning. The line to our tank was moved ten or so feet out of place, flipped over and the fitting broken off. There was no connection to the supply for our rental.

It all felt so familiar.

Puerto Rico

Although they don’t get voting representation, our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters live in American territory. It’s hard to believe I’m in America sitting here in the shanty in Anasco.

Very wet clouds off to the east.

A line of evening traffic to the south coming from Mayaguez.

We are high up on route 411 with views of the mountains, fields and ocean to the west. I hear drumming, a djembe by the sound of it, and singing- not recorded but live if I were to guess. Crickets, tree frogs and dogs are pretty constant. Birds fluttering from trees and chattering are more occasional. What looks very rural by day takes on a lighting design much more like a city at night. The air is soft and moist. When we first stepped off the cramp fest that was our Newark-Aguadilla flight, the smell is that of stepping into a greenhouse.

Driving here is fun and nerve wracking.  Unless we are on a major highway, there are no straightaways and no level stretches. Roads are curved and steep beyond anything we’d ever see in Maine. This is for the same reason that we don’t see any pickup trucks in yards with snowplows on them. Plenty of beater trucks, but no plows. There are inclines here that feel like the dreadful upward part of a roller coaster, and downslopes where you have to stop and then creep because you can’t see anything past the hood, and the road may just as likely take a 90 or 120 degree turn in the part you can’t see.  In snow, you couldn’t get a snowcat up one of these places much less a four wheel drive truck.

Below our shanty there is a tar road that looks, because of perspective as though it goes uphill very gently. Observing vehicles from the deck tells a different story. Sedans snarl and strain to go what looks like about 7 miles per hour, and an SUV comes through that gets stuck spinning on leaves and has to go back down for a running start.

Having gotten around on St. Croix during a couple of trips, Puerto Rico is a much more relaxing place to drive. Here, as at home, they operate for the most part on the right hand side, except for any occasion when you encounter another car on the twisty roads, in which case they always drive in the middle. The driving pace is a lot slower here as well, with no great straight roads with people going 70 and clearing the 3 foot mahogany trees by six inches or so as they do on St. Croix.

The other thing I found actually very nice about driving here is that there is not a lot of tension about who goes next at an intersection. This is because: A) everybody goes at once; B) nobody does it aggressively, and C) it seems to work fine.

In spite of the spectacular view from the Shanty, we had to leave. The fluch didn’t work. At all. I consulted with our host on putting in a vent pipe and doing something to clear out the hippy-style barrel-in-the-ground septic system. The other disconcerting thing was finding the shower running and a men’s watch in the shower area upon returning from the beach.

The loose dogs were ok. The trash and horse manure strewn walkway were authentic and charming in their own way. A nightly soundtrack of very confused roosters, dogs, jungle noises and club music and car alarms was also enchanting in its own way. Intruders and no place to-ahem-go, were not going to work. The junk cars, occasional gunfire and crazy neighbors actually made the place feel like home.

Traveling and the Big Lie

Right now I’m staring past Megan’s foot. It’s atop a weathered 2x6 rail that could so easily be the rustic studio on Matinicus. If it were, I would be looking past her foot into the scape of  frisking horse tails of white surf, granite fortifications shaped by molecular structure and the last ice age scraping through, sharp salt breezes, brilliant blue gray water and endless spruce trees.  I would also likely be huddling with watery eyes and cursing the wind chill, and her foot would be wrapped in smartwool and rubber boots  Instead I see lush fields, triangular mountains piled high with jungle trees, massive airborne humidity and a flat ass calm ocean. Ears are filled with free range chicken talk, an occasional moo, goat blat, bird, and passing Puerto hip hop from car windows.

If you are traveling, I can heartily recommend a light dose of 5htp, a version of tryptophan available over the counter without the necessity of stuffing, gravy, family dynamics or pant size changes. It is especially helpful at keeping one’s adrenal and irritability glands in check if you’ve had a 9 hour layover in Newark and arrive in western Puerto Rico at 2:30 in the morning and have to drive up into the rainforest to meet your Airbnb host, without much in the way of road signs or brain function. 

I’ve always loved maps, and so looked a bit before we left Maine, then followed my nose for a bit to find Sur 107 out of Aguadilla.

I can also heartily recommend the GPS lady inside of Verizon android phones. My nose was good for getting out of town, but she made it possible to navigate the twirly up and down switchbacks once we left the main roads. She was spot on.

After picking up Brandon at the Casa Linda restaurant parking lot , we shoehorned into side roads and driveways where it seemed the car would need to bend in the middle to make it. Our host hopped out to swing the gate so we could pass by the shredded carcass of a Hondoyota and into the manure spotted parking area.  Several (fortunately) friendly dogs and an elderly gentleman who muttered in some vowel rich and tooth-free version of two languages greeted us.  I shoehorned and bent my 3:45 a.m. brain into not thinking about how we could possibly turn around the next day, and embraced the shanty in the mountains.

Now after a day of finding grocery stores, walking the Rincon beach, listening to all the goats, chickens, car horns, turkeys and other profusion for the ears, we are able to relax.

I am always emotionally thrown open by travel. It’s exhilarating and scary and the sight of small children saddens me a little until I remember traveling with small children. Being out of my usual tracks puts my own life tracks right in my face for reflection even as I’m soaking in new sights and sounds and getting away from those grooves and ruts.

This time I was struck particularly hard by two things. One was my prejudice, the other the great ordinary beauty, love and daily function of a stupefying number of people you encounter traveling.

At the bus station in Maine, two obviously Islamic gentlemen were praying in a corner; one a very tall and unsmiling and bearded older person and the other a dour 20-something. They prayed and parted and the young man, looking tired and vacant, boarded the bus with us, stuffing his back pack in the overhead bin.

The logical brain first says, ‘don’t be a dick,’ but then says ‘there’s no security screening of any kind on buses, this bus is full, passing major bridges and tunnels, groups claiming association with Islam have publicly and repeatedly promised to strike the United States, this would be a great way to wipe out people, stifle the economy through fear of buses and costs of increased security screening, and paralyze a major Boston artery, and whoah, I need to not ever watch Homeland again.’

The ‘don’t be a dick side’ lost.  The fear was powerful and physical.

The irrational brain was plain scared and thought of finding another way to Boston.

All this coursed through me in 45 or so seconds.

I realized as we got rolling and Megan handed me a swig of wine, that staying on the bus, and trusting was actually- in this day of slickly marketed fear campaigns by ISIL, presidential candidates and news outlets alike- a radical act of peace and brotherhood.

Coming out of the old white cocoon that is Maine, I am overwhelmed by the shades of beauty, young and old, that I see in airports, on city streets and in stuffed subways.

The big lie, the really, really Big Lie is that we live in a dangerous, bad world.  Yes, there are horrible things done to innocents.  There is poverty and corruption.

But how many times in a 36 hour travel process did I see- just in my tiny little perceptual scope- Dads and Moms loving and caring for their babies, older couples sitting together, janitors doing their jobs, baggage check staff making the effort to help with a smile, friends walking together, those alone going in the direction that was right for them in that moment? In my 36 hours, I must have seen tens of thousands of simple, loving, decent good things done. Multiply that by every place that wasn’t in my little world view and what do you get?

Fear gives control and these days fear is a red hot sales vector for ISIL and presidential candidates alike.

Mr. Rogers, help me out here, but isn’t love and ordinary life so much, so astronomically much bigger and better? How come we don’t see it?

Actual Surfing Class

My six awesome surfing runs probably totaled about 4 seconds of upright time, but I learned a few things.  The best run was laying down at the end of the session and catching a wave that had me going about 28 knots into the channel or safe zone. 

That I tried at all was something. It was an ordeal; a transformative one. The experience was also one of those that if you really knew, you’d just find a ukulele and sit on the beach crooning to your sweetie instead.

My first mistake among many, perhaps my second mistake after signing up, was that I forgot shoes. By the time we’d walked down the scorching tar road and ouchy, rocky path carrying surf boards and gotten the final “site specific” advisories about currents, channels and scary places, it was the time to “paddle, Paddle, PADDLE!”

"See that channel there? You can rest there, and see out past the breaking waves? You can rest there. In between, you MUST NOT STOP." Had herding instinct not impelled me forward, I would have just taken a walk on the beach, but I hopped aboard and tried to get a feel for paddling, while promptly regretting the 3 beers worth of fortification I’d taken in prior to the class orientation.

Our group got as far as the inside stretch of calm water a or so hundred feet off the shore. The instructors watched the waves and the channel out to the outer safe zone where there was a gap in the big curling breakers. They then gave the signal to charge. I was awed by the noise and the bounciness of the ocean, but tried to get a good rhythm going and to take advantage of my stringy arms to get good long strokes. It didn’t really happen until the end of the session, but I did get the feel for that part at least.

I could see the reef looking like it was about a foot under water as the waves started plowing toward us and the time had come to contend with a real wave on a real reef that would just as soon peel me off the board like a post-it. I dug into the water as hard as my 53 year old 3 beer self could manage and did the push-up maneuver as that wave bore down on us.  Even with the clear instruction back at orientation to do the snap push-up move and to hold on tight to the edge of the board, the force and noise of the wave yanking me in five directions and blasting my ears and head was much more than I expected. Somewhere from the water balance and movement cortex (thank you Charlie, John, Clayton and Steve Ross once again), I felt what I had to do, and never got flung off or flipped over. There were several more to get through, over and under before reaching safety.

The waves kept coming and we desperate baby sea turtles paddled until the instructors told us two things. First, we could sit up on the boards and rest, and second, to have a look back to the now distant shore to see how far we’d come.

As much satisfaction as it gave me to get out there without dumping myself, it was as good as my performance got for the day. 

Humility and reality came into play. I was overwhelmed and had just enough common sense to know it.  I decided I’d just sit on my board out past the breakers and wait for class to be over and hope that no one noticed. No f-ing way was I getting in the middle of that churning mess again.

There were two intervening circumstances. First was that being out past the breakers is not really the same as being out past the big breakers. There were a couple of oh F moments where I had to do a quick turn and a panicked wave survival move through an extra big wave. 

The other circumstance was my baby sitter, B. She knew I was in over my head and stayed very close by the whole time. We talked about the Outer Banks where she lived, Prince Edward Island where she had relatives and had lived and my humbling experience- feeling like a fairly tough person who has taken up lobster gear in January 20 miles off the Maine coast, but who suddenly feels like a total wuss. She probably kept me talking to avoid having me lock up and become a major management issue. That wasn't going to happen, but I appreciated the attention and concern.

Eventually, the nagging voice came back and I decided I needed to try a wave. I got in position, paddled when they said, stood up when they said, and fell off immediately. The white water rushed over me and I found my way back to the board with some help from B. This was not a problematic fail because the run was so short that I only had to paddle a little way back to the outer resting zone.

Try number two was a different story, and was the worst/best/most brilliant/scariest thing I’ve done in a good long while. Even though it was a complete and extended failure, it’s what I kept coming back to, feeling later in the evening, and what dazzled in my mind’s eye as I got sleepy.  Fail or no fail, it’s all playing in the ocean, which I like, especially in such warm water.

I paddled when they said. I tried to stand up and maybe made it for a half or possibly a whole second before dumping myself. This time, however, I couldn’t get back on the board and got rolled and tumbled and thrashed by the next wave. I could feel the coral at about knee level. B came to the rescue and said not to worry about the board. Another wave was coming like a Viking battle charge and we went flailing about and trying not to touch bottom on the reef. B then told me to swim under the last wave in the set. This was surprisingly easy. It was not, however, the last wave in the set. Nor was the next or the next after that.

At some point, I told B I felt stuck. Pounded down, trying to paddle out, pounded down, rolled around, trying not to stick my feet down into the corals, swim under the wave. After what seemed like a very long time, there was a calm period and I got paddled back out and rested again, this time with a wary eye to the west’ard. She asked me how I felt. “Salty,” I said.  

As much as I’ve never been a real water person, I managed not to get water in my nose or a mouthful, or a lungful. All the same, everything tasted very salty when she asked.

The nagging voice came back and I offered myself a third swing (“Hey batta batta, hey batta batta swing! … Whiffah”).  Strike three actually saw me upright for a moment and then falling off the back of the wave.

I tried a couple more times with comparable results. The last run, when it was time to quit, was the best. I could have laid down the whole way in, but got up, went for maybe a foot and a half this time, fell again, got back on my board, followed B’s instruction to get toward the stern of the board to avoid going nose under (and ass-over-teakettle as my mother would say) and screamed into the tranquil spot in what felt like a rocket thrust of surf.

Somebody has to be the worst in the class, and today was my turn. All the same, it was about action and play-time in the water, and felt safe because of the Rincon Paddleboards professionals that were looking out for me.

The rest of the day and evening, I had visions going on behind whatever I was doing at the moment. Visions of blue water, white water, motion, loud charging wave sounds, and most of all, the sense of connection, the pleasure and fear and respect that come from interacting with an all-powerful environment.

In my sleep, I saw giant waves, and had some idea what to do.
Somewhere around the corner to the left was where they took us for the initiation...

Surfing Orientation

During orientation from Justin, a very brown and fit combination standup comic, motivational speaker and surfer dude, we were informed we were all going to “do great,” or “awesome” and would be driving to a different surf location, which sounded to me like the spot where Megan and I saw giant waves a couple days earlier.

We were also advised that if we needed to exit our surf boards, we could not go straight in the water because we were surfing over a reef and it was not deep enough to accommodate long limbs pointing straight down (such as mine).

I also had not really understood that there is a significant wave breaking zone where one must paddle to beat hell and not stop for fear of getting “thrashed” – which is a term I would become directly familiar with, and involves repeating cycles of getting pounded, and vigorously rolled a bunch of times, finding the direction of up and starting over.

Paddling must be done on the board in what is much like locust position in yoga. This requires holding one’s upper body up off the board while paddling.  And breathing. What is different from locust in a surfing context is that you also have to paddle to beat hell, do a quick pushup maneuver to avoid getting pummeled when a wave comes, and are very far from being on a mat on a level floor with a soothing voice telling you to be in the moment.

It was hard being told that we would “all do awesome,” and strongly suspecting I would do otherwise.

I was with three other students. I was at least 20 years older than the next oldest guy, who came from North Carolina, and probably equivalent to the combined ages of the Swedish couple.

If there was a Group W bench for surfing, that’s where I was headed. (See Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie.)

Why I Decided to Try Surfing

Day two on Puerto Rice took us to San Sebastian, a good way into the interior to seek out a waterfall. Megan loves waterfalls, and now I do as well. After more adventures with GPS and narrow, silly-straw shaped roads through giant bamboo groves and hanging vines, we charged up one last stupefyingly steep incline, so steep that horizontal grooves were cut in it to aid traction. Buckety buckety up we went.

The crustafarian gentleman who took our parking money directed us to the paths for the different falls and made sure to point out the bar down the hill. After a modest hike through more dark, Indiana Jones-ish jungle, we arrived at the upper falls. The water falls about 4 stories to a large pool with sitting rocks on one edge, a beach on the other and a rock platform with a swinging rope for the adventurous.

We watched two couples of tan, body-hairless and nearly naked examples of youthful physical perfection gracefully swing out and drop into the pool, one going so far as to GoPro his descent after releasing the rope.

At first it felt pretty ballsy just for us to be here in this wild place and to get in the chilly mountain water to paddle around. I couldn't help eyeing the rope with the nagging sense that I ought to maybe just swim to that side and think about it. A few naggings later, I was getting ready to leap and telling myself not let go too soon for fear of grievous injury. Surprisingly to me, I went for it and didn’t let go until I was out and up as far as I could go. Of course I had to do it again. 

The ribbon that got cut in my brain was that after years of financial terror, feeling professionally like I couldn’t make a mistake or I’d be sunk, or that I couldn’t seem to do anything but make mistakes, I was thoughtlessly doing something fun and a little scary, but scary in the fun way.

Hanging out on the Rincon beach and watching the surfing classes got me nagging at myself again. There in a corner of the beach, young kids and adults had short wave rides and quick falls into the water on mellow little waves. It looked fun and was something completely foreign to me. After a couple glasses of beer, I signed up for the next morning’s class.

The next morning I wondered what I’d been thinking and was relieved when I showed up and the class had been canceled. The gracious woman explained she’d accidentally called my ex-wife at 6:00 in the morning and offered to reschedule me for 1:00 p.m. and to throw in free paddle boards for Megan and myself in the meantime.  Customer service.

The paddleboard experience brought doubts. How was I going to surf if I was slow acclimating to a paddle board on a flat calm morning? Even with that hesitation, I had no idea how much more intense and intimidating the surf class would be.

Where I thought I was getting a surf lesson
Gosa Linda Falls
This is in part because the class I watched bore no resemblance whatsoever to the class I was taken to.  I told them I wanted the surf equivalent of the bunny slope, but no.