Monday, October 09, 2017

take a picture

When I lived in Bolivia, and later Nicaragua, I had this strange feeling that my blue eyes could bore holes into people. I had this idea that they were beacons of light that shone out of my face and were noticeable from across the room. But my glacial blue gaze was nothing compared to the intensity of the stares that M and I got in India.

There are signs posted in tourist attractions that chide people for teasing or taking pictures of people without asking permission. I thought this was aimed at American tourists who might want to take pictures of monks or the flocks of women in colorful dress... but no, it's because the flocks of women in colorful dress try to take pictures of the pasty white tourists in khaki. The signs don't specify that you must receive permission of course. So even after receiving a "no"to their queries M and I had many photos taken of us. So many that we considered charging 100 rupees per.

We brainstormed ways to avoid getting our pictures taken:

  1. say no
  2. stick your tongue out in every snap
  3. pull your hat down, cover your face, turn your back, or otherwise obscure the view
  4. charge money
  5. say, in Tamil or Hindu or Urdu or Telegu, "I'm so glad you want to take picture with little old albino me."
  6. have a bodyguard yell at people
  7. pretend you are deaf or mentally challenged
  8. take their phone/camera and run
  9. flash them boob
  10. speak only in Quechua or Romani or other obscure/potentially made-up language
  11. kick them in the balls
After a day at the caves, we stopped at Bibi-Ka-Maqbara a palace and mausoleum built in 1650 for Aurangzeb's dead wife a la the Taj Majal. For some reason there were hordes of teenaged boys trying to take our photos. We tried 1, 7, 10 and enlisted T in 6. At first he was resistant but he soon blossomed into a very good yeller. 

Perhaps because I'm a delicate flower and star of many unwanted photo, it was determined at one point that I was too dainty to use a squat toilet. At a roadside restaurant, I was stopped from approaching the outhouse by Auntie with the admonition that I "wouldn't like it," I almost knocked her down in my insistence that if she didn't let me use it I would pee myself...well not really, I'd just squat elsewhere. People would have definitely snapped photos of that. 

CAAAAAAAAAAAVES

At 7AM, we stepped off the train in surprisingly good spirits to find our chariot awaiting:

party bus!
After a brief stop at the hotel and for breakfast (where we tried every variety of dosa except "noodle" we were whisked off to Ajanta Caves, 29 Buddhist temples carved out of rock between the 2nd centrury BCE and 650 CE. (Are you impressed by my use of the updated common era versus year of our Lord convention?) A UNESCO World Heritage site (my 33rd), the caves were used as ancient monasteries and worship halls and feature paintings that depict the lives of Buddha and tales from Ayasura's Jatakamala and sculptures of a variety of deities.

In practice, it was a lot of climbing stairs in the hot sun. Because the caves are still considered active worship sites, we were asked to remove our shoes outside each one. As I was wearing sandals with no socks, at one point S offered me his socks. At first I thought that was supremely weird and sort of gross but I accepted them anyway and let me tell you -- lifesaving move. As the day progressed the outside of the caves got hotter and hotter and due to the increasing crowds (which were never terrible actually) we had to remove our shoes farther and farther from the entrance. Pro tip: wear socks with easily removable sandals.

I'm afraid that besides saying that the caves were terrifically impressive and the paintings and sculptures beautiful, I can't comment on their historical, artistic, or religious implications. My nephew-in-law echoed my feelings when he said at one particular cave, "I think we've seen this one before."










At one point, my sister - who never travels without snacks - broke out her collection of Kind Bars. Everyone got some - including one of the guards and a particularly aggressive monkey. As we sat there enjoying dark chocolate and sea salt or maple and glazed pecan or caramel almond bars, we spotted a white woman with pretty impressive dreadlocks. K chitti turned to me in amazement to ask how her hair got like that. I likened it to the hair of a sadhu - Hindu hermits who regularly sport dreads.

After hiking 24 flights of stairs to see 32 caves all I wanted was a blissfully cold sugar-filled Coca Cola. You may not be aware but in the USA Coca Cola is made with high fructose corn syrup which is gross. The real sugar cola of other nations is the real thing. Anyhoo Mina, like all good Indian mothers, was trying to get me try every single variety of Indian food and drink - even resorting to stealing food off other peoples' plates for me to try. Each time she would suggest a different type of juice, I would more emphatically insist on my preference. It went sort of like this:

M: They have pineapple juice here! You must try.
Me: I'll have a Coca-Cola please
M: sweet lime! delicious!
Me: Coca Cola please
M: juicy mangos! the best in the country!
Me: Coke
M: How about tamarind? You like that, right?
Me: CO-CA-CO-LA
M: And Mary, what juice would you like?
Mary: I'll have a Coke too.
Insufferable Americans.

The very next day we set out for Ellora Caves. Ellora Caves, my 34th UNESCO World Heritage site, sort of picks up where Ajanta leaves off. Built in 600 CE, the 100 caves represent the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain religions. Only 34 caves are open to the public and we decided to work our way from the outside in - 1 through 16.









By Cave 10 or so, in an effort to keep the kidlets engaged, I asked them to help me learn to count in Hindi. (My brother-in-law's family actually speak Tamil, but live in an area where Telugu and Urdu are spoken and learn Hindi in school.) Anyhoo at one point, my niece-in-law and I were walking up a set of stairs counting them as we went when behind us a guide joined in: ek - do- teen- chaar. As such, we bonded with the guide who let us into the inner sanctum of the cave.





In the Buddhist tradition you walk around the Buddha, or stupa, or temple itself three times clockwise. The kids and I (despite not being Buddhist) did so. I do think the guard may have actually negotiated a big tip from S. So thanks S, it was totally worth it, (I also think this situation might have occurred more than we realized. The perils of herding Americans through India.)

Cave 16, which is actually at the center of the complex, and also known as the Kailahsa temple, is considered one of the most remarkable cave temples in all of India because of its size and architecture. Most remarkably, it is carved entirely out of one rock. The interpretive signs explain that it was carved from the outside in and that the "sculpture carved here are not there by accident." Double duh. The Kailasha temple, dedicated to Shiva, is a freestanding multi-story complex larger than the Parthenon (per WIkipedia). I think most tourists just go to this one cave out of the 34.
This is conveniently where my phone died and my brother-in-law has yet to send me the photos I took on his phone.

After climbing 31 flights of stairs, and seeing half the caves, we decided to call it a day. This decision was not met with approval however; T's mother thought that since we were so far away from the US and may never get back to Aurangabad that we should finish seeing all the caves. M and I, without lunch, and already having walked all day were unwilling to continue. Our argument that we would no longer enjoy seeing caves was met with resistance but eventually accepted with the promise that we would one day return to see caves 17-34. I have a ten-year visa. It's doable.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

train dreams? cabin fever? all aboard?

I always thought of sleeper trains as glamorous chambered cars like in British murder mysteries or Harry Potter. As you might have guessed, despite years of British meddling, Indian trains are a little different. Allow me to elaborate:

Directly after the ceremony, the entire family packed into taxis to the train station. By whole family I mean my sister and me, her husband, his elderly mother and aunt, his brother and his brother's wife and two children. At first, because the taxis had not arrived to the house together, all the luggage and all the women were packed into one car. In a fleeting moment of clarity I vetoed this plan in favor of having at least one person of the male persuasion in each car. (When I say clarity I mean terror at the thought of the two white chicks and the two old ladies arriving alone with ten suitcases.)

So that's nine people to keep track of as we wended our way through crowds, up escalators, over bridges, down stairs, and running to a train we were typically late for.

You should note that many Indians have never seen an escalator before coming to the train station and are therefore a little fuzzy on its proper use. I am not particularly good at escalators either, living in perpetual fear that I will be sucked into one and disappear forever, but I am a relative pro. I am also, all things considered, pretty pro at navigating train stations, but I will admit that I was overwhelmed to the point of having a mild panic attack. I didn't cry but I was close.

S (T's brother) had graciously made all the arrangements and sprung for an air-conditioned sleeper car. We settled into one of the train compartments and broke out a porridge dinner. This was the only meal on the entire trip that I passed on in favor of more American fare: a cheese sandwich and a granola bar.

The cars do not have compartments per-se. Only curtains separate the bunks from the hallway and the beds themselves are numbered and assigned to people. As such our berths were scattered throughout the train. We were lucky though to be pretty close together; M and I had top bunks above T's mom and auntie (K chitti).

I didn't take this picture but it's a fair representation


Pro tips:

  • Wear closed toe-shoes or at least socks if at all possible.
  • Bring a sleep sack and travel pillow. They provide blankets on the train but they're not suuuuper clean. 
  • There is a Western style toilet and a squat toilet. Your choice but if you think aiming is hard without a toilet to sit on, try it on a moving train. (That's where the closed-toe shoes come in.)
  • Keep your "carry-on" and shoes on the bunk with you....even if you might have peed on them. 
  • The tea is really good and didn't kill me so it might not kill you either.
  • If you happen to be sharing a "compartment" with strangers and you have the bottom bunk, you may want to stake your claim by laying down as soon as possible. Otherwise, a family like T's who have bought the top bunks will insist that they have the right to sit with you and this will set off a string of heated arguments to the point of potential insult. Maybe. (Ok this really did happen on the train home. Ironically M and I had already moved to K chitti's bottom bunk elsewhere on the train to sit there together so the arguments weren't strictly necessary.)
  • HAVE FUN! IT'S AN ADVENTURE!






Let's eat raita way (ha!)

After Golconda Fort we went to lunch. Because of their religious responsibilities the men were limited to a bland diet: no garlic, no onion, no chili. M and I, under no such restrictions indulged in the smokiest, butteriest paneer makhani on the planet. (Evidently it's better because it's yak milk.)

From there we went to the Salar Jung Museum. The Museum was established in 1951 and declared an institution of national importance in 1961. As in many tourist institutions, it is more expensive for foreigners and there was a separate charge for taking photos, something I'd never seen before and which we unnecessarily paid as I took one sole photo in the entire museum:

There was an entire room of canes with carved handles!

For some reason, T and his family insisted on going through the galleries in order. We made it through 17 galleries before melting down and returning home to prepare for the next day's ceremony.

The next morning, my sister and I ate breakfast and lounged around all morning. To be perfectly honest, I thought she was being antisocial and weird as upstairs the ceremony for T's father was happening. I kept pressuring her to go but she showed little interest. Finally we walked up to find all the men sitting bare-chested and in dhotis (like a loincloth) around a fire built on bricks on the tile floor. M and I were quickly escorted into a back bedroom where we sat with the rest of the women relatives until the ceremony was over...well that explains M's reticence to join. She knew that the easiest way to survive the ceremony as a Western introvert is wait until the praying is over and the food begins!

And what food it was. According to custom, all the food must be local to India and not have any spices that could inflame the passions. Spread over a banana leaf we were served sweet banana in sugar, raw bananas, green bean curry, cucumber raita, sweet cheese, sesame jaggery (molasses), mango with lime, sweet poori (pancake), badai (lentil donut), paysam (lentil with milk), cilantro curry leaf chutney, and lentil with jaggery and basil and a wide variety of milk sweets.

This was also the moment that M's family noticed that I was taking notes and so I was subject for the rest of the trip to a little bit of good-humored nosiness: what are you writing? did you write that down? do you know how to spell that? are you writing about me?

Yup, I'm noting all the wild and crazy customs. So for my readers a reminder: in Indian society it is very important to only give and accept things with your right hand. Many Indians also eat with their hands and that is a right hand only endeavor as well. Luckily my Nepali friends from grad school had trained me extensively in the art of balling rice (and not inquiring after what specific animal part I'm eating) but I'm still pretty messy. It amuses me to reflect on the fact that I am unskilled at eating. To be perfectly honest, I also don't enjoy the feeling of having oily fingers or curry under my nails; it is the same sensation as having a wet sock. But I'll just have to practice more. Bring on the daal!




Monday, September 18, 2017

I went to India - in March!

Every year my brother-in-law T returns to India to perform puja for his father who passed away a few years ago. And every year my sister begs me to go for moral support - -not for T but for her. So we met up at Heathrow Airport and between naps and sort of gross airport food they began to quiz me on all the names of T's family members and their honorifics: Sukumar, Gayathri, Hurshikesh, Darani, Lalita, Bhavana, Kamu, Suresh, Sleepy, Grumpy, Doc. I was well-versed when we landed in Hyderabad bright and shiny at 5AM.

The trip alternated between high-intensity activity and sitting around doing nothing but eating. I like to do both, of course, but more balance might have been welcome. Day 1 we napped and chatted and went grocery shopping. T's mom wanted to make sure that we had good old American food like butter, bread, cheese, and ice cream. (We had already brought tea, coffee, and Nutella.) I looove going to grocery stores in other countries. As an American I find that the fluorescent lights and ordered aisles full of insipid canned goods soothe home sickness and I'm fascinated by which foods are imported. Oreos and ketchup seem pretty universal. Anyway, I immediately established myself a reputation as the more adventurous sister when I bought mosambi (sweet lime) juice and some tamarind-chili chews.  (If you want to send me some of those candy I'll love you forever.)

In my mind, most of the vacation centered around food. I spent much of every: day asking "What is this? How do you make this? Can I have more?" Sprinkled throughout my notes are names of the foods I tried:

idly: small flour pancake with coconut chutney
sabudana khichidi: tapioca balls with ground nut and lime
jaggery: molasses
badai: lentil donut
poori: fried bread
noodle dhosa: dhosa filled with noodles? a travesty

On Day 2 we ventured out to Golconda Fort. Golconda, which according to Wikipedia means round hill, was built, expanded, and finally abandoned between 1150 and 1687. It is the home of the Hope diamond and water-testing goats.


Although my sister M and T and I were travelling with his brother, niece, nephew, cousin, cousin's wife and cousin's child, the guide only addressed the whitest among us. It was disconcerting to say the least. I'm not always a good listener and I sometimes wander off but I was unable to do so on this tour because the guide would not speak to the group unless M and I were paying rapt attention. Maybe he expected a giant tip; little did he know that neither of us carried any money on the entire trip.

We entered the fort at the Victory Gate (clapping portico on the map), where the sound of a handclap under the dome, through some acoustic magic, can be heard at the top of the fort. The nine of us stood there clapping for a while before hiking up a few thousand steps in the hot hot sun (this will be the theme of our travels in India) to explore the Hindu temples, the mosque, the royal chambers, and ye olde ice cream stand.

We were often surrounded by hordes of schoolchildren in uniform with a brave few approaching M and me to ask where we were from.  Honestly, there were very few tourists for them to practice on. I saw only a group of sweating Canadians, some Italians and a lone Korean (who ignored any guides who approached him like he could see through them.)



I only absorbed a few facts during our tour:

  • The walls in the royal chamber also have an acoustic trick. a whisper in one corner can be easily heard on the opposite side of the room. The queen's makeup room, by the way, was larger than my apartment. 
  • The fort had several water storage tanks. In order to maintain quality they would have goats drink the water before drawing it for human consumption. If the goats survived it was ok to drink. I'm not sure how logical this is as a goat can eat a tin can and I can't.
  •  The fort was the center of a very lucrative diamond trade. 
  •  Some Indian reporters are sarcastic and dismissive of the guides and clapping tourists: read it. It's hilarious.
  • T does not like having his picture taken and has asked that I not publish any photos of him so despite having rare people photos, I can't put them on the blog.
  • The Hindu temple was designed to look like a bull.




See?

See from a different angle?

While I didn't retain much -- I may have sweat out much of the information -- it is a recommended visit, if only for the workout - and imagining the following views from the 1200s.














The Loved Ones - an ode to/from Evelyn Waugh

Last week I picked up an erratically highlighted version of The Loved Ones by Evelyn Waugh. Touted as "a dark and savage satire on the Anglo-American cultural divide" I read it more as a misguided love story surrounded by death. 

British Dennis Barlow is an uncouth pet mortician while his love interest Aimee Thanatogenos (her name roughly translates to “beloved of the race of death”) is Waugh's imagined "typical American woman": feeble in intellect, indecisive, sentimental, perpetually immature. But at least she works in a super classy cemetery and is also being courted by the head mortician, an artist in his own right. 

Funny but somewhat surreal, the book was lent an additional layer by the streaks of orange my anonymous highlighter provided...including some words and phrases on the cover and on the copyright page! In an effort to provide meaning perhaps I will transcribe them here. I know that you'll never read it to the bottom but beware spoilers.

Read into them as you will: 

nourishing taproot of tradition
1948
they don't expect you to listen.

It's the secret of social ease in this country. They talk entirely for their own pleasure. Nothing they say is designed to be heard."

fatuously called the "right" side of sixty
he now aspired to the honours of age.

one gets in a groove and loses touch.

Beverly Hills.

Bel Air.

doyen
colleen.

gloaming
monacles
The time was apt for
toddling.

five-to-two
We can't all be at the top pf the tree
ate at drug-stores.

I always think how much better not to have anything to atone for, eh?

The head-lamps of the waiting car spread a brilliant fan of light
Hollywood Boulevard.

prune and polish
a young man of genius,
Hollywood is my life.

The studios keep us going with a pump. We are still just capable of a few crude reactions--nothing more. If we ever got disconnected from our bottle, we should simply crumble.

Once or twice when I was in liquor.

Whispering Glades Memorial Park,
hatted and freshly painted.

sombre good taste
carbolic,
these were the branded drug,
as a monk will repeat a simple pregnant text, over and over again in prayer.
Presently the telephone rang.

207 Via Dolorosa, Bel Air.

incineration?"

"The best will be good enough."

niche in our columbarium
Grade A service
Happier Hunting Grounds

Artists are by nature versatile and precise; they only repine when involved with the monotonous and the makeshift.

buzz-bombs
umbrageous
others had their pets emabalmed
she-bear
It is forbidden by California law to scatter human remains from an aeroplane
snakes-and-ladders
house-match
equanimity
leaden effort
moke
maybe you feel kind of allergic to the assignment?"

has been,"
footled
right here right now."

urbanity
Britisher
How say
wop
blunt Nordic terms
pudgily
fishmongering
cordwaining
englishry.

tocsin.

yeoman
false and fruity tones
we all suffer for the folly of one.

In a world of competition people are taken at their face value. Everything depends on reputation-- 'face' as they say out East. Lose that and you lose everything.

Times without number
necropolis
news-sheets
patois
Golden Gates.

They were vast, the largest in the world,
gabled,
pigeon-cote.

Whispering Glades,
Mortuary Hostess.

Before Need Arrangements.

inhumement, entombment, inurnment
immurement,
insarcophagusment.

The casket is placed inside a sealed sarcophagus, marble or bronze, and rests permanently above ground in a niche in the mausoleum.

The Park is zoned. Each zone has its own name and appropriate Work of Art. Zones of course vary in price and within the zones the prices vary according tot heir proximity to the Works of Art.

starting
mottled
cornice.

They fixed that stiff,"
"so he looked like it was his wedding day. The boys up there surely know their job. Why if he'd sat on an atom bomb, they'd make him look presentable."

slipping on her professional manner again as though it were a pair of glasses,
Waiting Ones
leave-taking
Something dark is best to set off the flowers."

sacristy chest
apotheosis
Slumber-Room
leave-taking
chaise-longue
pince-nez.

half-exposure in the casket,
chaise-longue?"

The leave-taking is a very very great source of consolation. Often the Waiting Ones last saw their Loved Ones on a bed of pain surrounded by all the gruesome concomitants of the sick room or the hospital. Here they see them as they knew them in buoyant life, transfigured with peace and happiness.

a last beautiful memory on the mind."

I am a foriegner. I have no intention of dying here."

morbid reflexions.

death is not a private tragedy of your own but the general lot of man.

Hamlet
'Know that death is common; all that live must die.'

the Chinese were said subtly to distinguish one from another of their seemingly uniform race,
Mortuary Hostess
croon
livery
crimson grease;
photographs
They are the greatest help in re-creating personality.

"Braces.

suspenders."

leave-taking
'Burn him up cheap.
Folks pretend to love their pets,
sortie
redolent
embalming rooms
inclined china slabs,
pressure pumps,
deep gutters
heavy smell of formaldehyde.

cosmetic rooms with their smell of shampoo and hot hair and acetone and lavender.

paunchy.

nugatory
He had only to be seen with a corpse to be respected.

voice assumed a peculiar tone when she spoke to him.

carotid suture
Radiant Childhood smile."

Waiting One
Loved Ones
swirling and gurgling of taps in the embalming rooms,
rubbery cheeks
Within two hours the main task was complete.

but the oeuvre was designed for the amber glow of the Slumber Room
blue stipple work around the eyelids
"A tendency to open in the inside corner?"

I worked a little cream under the lid and then firmed it with No. 6."

When I send a Loved One into you, I feel as though I were speaking to you through him."

Had they been mother and child I should have taken both,
There is something in individual technique -- not everyone would notice it perhaps; but if I saw a pair that had been embalmed by different hands I should know at once and I should feel that the child did not properly belong to its mother; as though they had been estranged in death.

outfitters
raised the arms and set the hands together, not in a form of prayer, but folded one on the other in resignations. He raised the head, adjusted the pillow and twisted the neck so that a three-quarter face was exposed to view.

leave-taking in the Slumber Room.

ante-room
hot-house
cornice.

cumulus
catalfalque.

as ageless as a tortoise and as inhuman;
holm-oaks
Whispering Glades held him in thrall.

sat in purdah, hidden from curious glances.

langurous,
lychgate
guichet.

abstracted
miasma
unregarded
coxswain
Animals are a headache in cemeteries.

Annual.

they appreciate the privacy, too, same as cats."

bosky
wattle
haricots
simple bronze plaques; flush with the turf. bore the most august names in the commercial life of Los Angeles.


peace cane dropping slow,
fruiterer.

verisimilitude.

pickled in formaldehyde
painted like a whore,
Shrimp-pink incorruptible,
irrefragable
a treatment needing special Soul;
Do you think anything can be a great art which is so impermanent?

Once you start changing a name, you see, there's no reason to stop. One always hears one that sounds better.

between psychology and art and Chinese, you had the mortuary in view?"

blue rinse and set,
the Dreamer
I was just glad to serve people that couldn't talk.

I'm just a handmaid to the morticians
carillon
laid his card along the teeth and gums.

grim line of endurance,
We know cases who have only experienced real love after several years of marriage and the arrival of Junior.

a stamped and addressed
he is British and therefore in many ways quite Un-American.

he is cynical at things which should be Sacred.

barbary goat
columbarium."

sing an orison
bran-tub
They have proved themselves in the lowlier tasks to be worthy of the higher.

the Dreamer
embalmers' room
swish and hiss of the taps,
oilcloth curtains
dabbed herself under the arms with a preparation designed to seal the sweatglands,
first freshness
The truth is that morticians, however eminent, are no paid like film stars.

The mothers of great men often disconcert their son's admirers.

pince-nez
positively insulting clothes.

tartarean
You would say, would you not, that a non-sectarian clergy-man was the social equivalent of an embalmer?"

belfry
tartan
dalliance
rough-hewn
BRUCE.

CANTY
skirl
hogmanay,
maun
crapulous.

missive
spoke the tongue of Los Angeles;
eagle-haunted passes
An umbilical cord of cafe and fruit shops,
ministrations
swilling out corpses.

on the horns of a dilemma
Whispering Glades the most wonderful thing outside heaven.

'half in love with easeful death'
you're the nautch
spasmodic
the instruments and chemicals which are the staples of feminine well-being,
barbituates
the staple of feminine repose.

It came at length brusquely, perfunctorily, without salutation or caress. There was no delicious influx, touching, shifting, lifting, setting free and afloat the grounded mind.

the empty streets flamed with light.

The East lightened. In all the diurnal revolution these first fresh hours alone are untainted by men.

the slopes became a dancing surface of light,
mortuary
incuriously
sheeted dead.

Aimee's death Dennis
rival in love, Mr. Joyboy.

these are wild words."

nutburger?

"Cyanide. Self-administered."

abandoned weeping.

Panegyrics
collecting-van.

allow me an old man's privilege
Even among the best you find a few rotters.

No one in Southern California, as you know, ever inquires what goes beyond the mountains.

penury.

Whispering Glades was ideally equipped for the smooth movement of bodies.

man-handled their load to the crematorium.
apposite,
madcap,
stylists
filmdom
American ethos...
mass-mind of America,
the compulsion to 'package everything, even love and death...





















Sunday, September 03, 2017

I went to Puerto Rico - in December!

For Christmas my sister invited me to Puerto Rico and despite the threat of having to share a room with a sixteen year old and a four year old, I jumped at the chance. My sister E is notoriously uptight well-organized about vacations. Generally, she releases a spreadsheet to the whole family months in advance that includes lodging, travel times, etc.



So it was a surprise when my sister abdicated all responsibility for planning beyond booking the flight and house...even though I roll the same spreadsheet-y way:

And it went well! Except I couldn't find any Christmas carrollers with whom to get drunk. Ah well.

Day #3 we moseyed over to El Yunque National Park. The guidebook says to stop at the Visitor Center but I'm telling you now that it's not necessary...unless you super duper have to pee or you enjoy paying $4 for documentaries about something you'll see later. There are no trails that leave from the Visitor Center. So choose some trails to hike, arrive directly there, and be aware that after around two there will be no parking anywhere. We stopped at Yocahu Tower and counted the steps three times (travelling with a four year old is interesting) and then hiked to the Mt. Britton tower whining much of the way (travelling with a four year old is interesting). On the way back sooo many people asked us if they were almost there...and many of them were wearing t-shirts from midwestern states...and my sister and her family struck up conversations with each of them. Peak Minnesota. Then it was so crowded that we couldn't park at any of the trailheads so we went home and beached.





The next day we ventured into San Juan, the gorgeous city founded in 1503. One of the tour guides referred to San Juan as in international pit stop which, although irreverent, gives you a sense of its original purpose as a much-coveted stopover for merchants and later a much fought-over location fortified up the wazoo. As big fans of the National Park Service we went to San Cristobal and Fuerte El Morro to see these forts. And I learned a new word!

 Not to be confused with


One of the guerites at Castillo San Cristóbal is called "El Guerita del Diablo." Local legend says that soldiers often disappeared randomly from the guerite. The Devil got them! It;s more likely, however, that soldiers left their post to go to the bar or meet up with their boos, and decided to never come back. El Guerite del Diablo it is currently inaccessible to the general public, but it can be seen from the upper part of the fort.
See?

After the first fort we took a lunch break Cafe Manolin where we scarfed down the best mofongo on the planet. Mofongo, for the uninitiated, is plantains fried then mashed with salt, garlic and oil and then stuffed with meat. The general consensus is that it was delicious but sits like a rock and was perhaps was a one-time thing. (I have pictures of my giant food baby but I reserve the right to not display them to my ten readers.)


El Morro was stunningly byootiful:





After we were hot and tired and fort-ed out we left to wander through the city. We stopped in some random churches but the highlight, especially for my niece Elena, was Parque de las Palomas. I'm not sure that she was aware that Paloma is Spanish for pigeon and that the park would be filled with her least favorite vertebrate but she weathered it with a minimum of screaming.


The next day we headed to Fajardo where the older kids and brother-in-law went kayaking. I had neglected to say in the planning that I wanted to go NIGHT kayaking to see the bioluminescence so I also neglected to go with them because I was afraid I would fry. Instead, my sister, the kidlet, and I swam all day, stopping only to eat something called arepas but definitely not arepas but still pretty good.

Brother-in-law had only ONE thing that he really really wanted to see: Arecibo Observatory. Not because he's a big fan of the movie Contact but because he's a giant nerd.


So we obliged! According to their website "Arecibo Observatory is a research center operated by SRI International, USRA and UMET, under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF). and NASA. As the site of the second world's largest single-dish radio telescope, the Observatory is recognized as one of the most important national centers for research in radio astronomy, planetary radar and terrestrial aeronomy." I don't know what any of that means and even though it was explained through a short movie, several displays, and a tour guide I still don't.





Because we didn't order a rental van in a timely manner, we were stuck with two cars. Every day I would have to bribe someone to come with me and that day my sister took the bait. So I drove to our next stop through winding Puerto Rico back roads, with E gasping any time I was anywhere close to driving us off a cliff or into another car. Such drama. (Some of you may have driven with me in Nicaragua and know that I am perfectly capable but perhaps a little Latina in my driving style.) Our next stop was Hacienda La Esperanza. Managed by Para la Naturaleza, a Puerto Rico-based conservation group, the Hacienda highlights the sugar industry and the enslaved persons that made it possible.
A press for sugar cane


Fully mechanized operation (from West Point foundry!)

A collection of machetes,

The area was beautiful, the tour comprehensive and informative, and the legacy of slavery was not glossed over.

That evening we stopped at Bebo's, a VERY popular roadside barbecue joint out by the airport. I thought I did a good job ordering (without a menu and as a vegetarian) but learned that my niece doesn't actually like yucca or platanos and was (rightly) sick of beans. Ah well.

After days at the beach and driving around I really didn't want to go home and immediately applied for a job at the university measuring urban street trees...but I didn't get it so it left me open for other adventures to write about soon!

(For realz though, I went to India. You'll enjoy this.)