Monday, December 30, 2013

End of journey always brings sadness to me

Well, The Amazing Ms. D and I have come to the end of our time in Puerto Rico. We had a great time here. We spent a lot of time with family and explored the San Juan area more than we had in our recent trips. 

But the end of a trip always brings sadness to me. Yes I am happy to be heading home. However the end of a trip brings thoughts of all of the things that i didn't get to do. I start questioning my choices. 

Should I have gone to the Museum of Contemporary Art, instead of the Museo del las Americas? Should we have gone to Ponce? 

At the same time I am mourning the end of an adventure. I love traveling. I love finding someplace new. Seeing something I haven't seen before. Heading home means the journey is over. It changes me from traveler to homebody. From explorer to native.

Anyway, tomorrow it's back to NYC.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Museo de las Americas is a must see

Museo de las Americas

One of the highlights of visiting the Museo de las Americas (web site) in Old San Juan is the “Indian in America” which is a permanent exhibit. This is recognition of over 20 tribes from around the Americas. What makes this exhibit special is the statuary produced by Filipe Lettersten.

Felipe Lettersten (1957-2003) was a Peruvian born child of Swedish parents. He was an amazing artist who made it his life’s work to pay tribute to the many native tribes in existence throughout the Americas.See video here He used a method of making full body casts of members of a tribe, and then using that cast to create full size bronze casts. He would often travel up and down the Amazon and other South American rivers on a boat that contained his portable workshop. He would introduce himself to the tribe and show examples of his previous work. He would spend several days getting to know the members and leaders of the tribe. When he convinced the tribal leaders to agree he would choose a subject and spend several hours creating a full body cast of them out of a quick hardening foam. This process included completely covering the face of his subject (except for breathing holes) for about 10-15 minutes.  Eventually he would return with a fiberglass copy of his statue as a thank you to the tribe.

Lettersten took on this life work upon realization that these tribe were disappearing. They were (and are) being assimilated. The 1992 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first arrival in the America’s brought to his work to the worlds notice. He felt that he should try to salvage some memory of the tribes by honoring them in statue. See the NY Times article here

The Museo de las Americas has one of his statues for each of the 20+ tribes in the exhibit along with a 15 minute video about Lettersten and his work.

Another permanent exhibit at the Museo de las Americas is “our African Heritage.” This is actually an incorporation of another museum that used to be in San Juan. This exhibit covers the history of slavery in Puerto Rico and discusses the on-going influence of the African diaspora in today’s culture, music and food.  

After the museum

The Museo de las Americas will take about 1.5 hours to see completely.  That leaves a lot of time to see other sights of Old San Juan. Nearby are El Morro, the National Gallery and Museo de San Juan.

Also nearby is the Quincentenial Plaza with an interactive fountain for children to play in and piragua vendors (flavored ice cones). There are many good restaurants on Calle San Sebastian.

La Puerta del San juan
 Finally, I would suggest walking down Calle Santo Cristo to the Plaza del Convento. Turn right here and stay to the left of the Museo del Ninos. This will take you down to La Puerta Del San Juan. This was originally the main entrance to city. You can see and feel just how strong the walls of the city are. 
Garita and Puerto del San Juan

Una Garita

On La Princesa
 Make a left and walk down the promenade along the water. Above you are garitas, lookouts and guard stations. When you get to the Raices fountain turn left onto Paseo de la Princesa. La Princesa was the main prison in colonial times. It is now the home to the Puerto Rican Tourism Company. This promenade is home to many artisans selling their goods. This will lead you back to the waterfront where you can pick up the trolley or walk back to the bus depot.
Paseo La Princesa

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Don't expect things to work like home.

BxTeacher in Old San Juan

Today was a day of changing plans and crowd avoidance. We had planned to go to Museo de lasAmericas in Old San Juan. This is a new museum in the building of the InstitutoCultura puertoriqueno near El Morro. Things were looking good. We caught the T5 bus not 2 minutes after we got to the stop in Isla Verde. The weather was beautiful. There was no traffic and we breezed right into the bus terminal in 30 min.

Then we encountered our first problem. 3 cruise ships were in dock. That meant that almost
A busy day in San Juan port
8000 people were being discharged where we were at the same time. We just missed the trolley to El Morro, so we waited, and we waited, and we waited. After 45 minutes it finally showed up again, completely full with people who had boarded at the stop before ours, near the ships. No room for anyone to get on. Now, some people might complain about there not being enough trolleys to service the crowd, but one must remember when travelling that things are NOT dine the same way as home. It is Christmas week. I don’t know the holiday schedule for drivers or what it would have taken to change it.

Cafe El Punto
Instead of complaining a traveler goes with the flow. The trolley to the center of Old San Juan came by empty, so we jumped in. We went to Plaza de las Armas which is where the city hall is and our earlier discovery The Poet's Passage. From there we walked around Old San Juan. We had lunch at Cafe El Punto on Calle Forteleza. This was a wonderful find. It is in an old house. Some of the rooms are tallers for artists, some are the dining rooms and the kitchen is in what was the courtyard of the house. He alcapurias were good and the beef empanada was excellent.

We walked into some of the souvenir shops, looking for better quality and avoiding the tourist traps.
Truth in advertising
One good shop is Mi Pequeno San Juan, owned by the same artists that own The Poet’s Passage. I also picked up 2 pounds of artisanal Puerto Rican coffee to have when I get back home. We also stopped by plaza de las palomas and took some pictures.  By that time it had started to rain in OSJ so we changed our plans and headed home, adding time to visit with family to our evening.

The point is – you can be tourist, make a schedule and stick to it come hell or high water. I have found that this leads to frustration and fights with The Amazing Ms. D leaving no one happy. Or, you can be a traveler and take what the day gives you. Will you see everything that you planned to? Probably not. Will you discover new things that you didn’t know were there? Most likely. Will you be more relaxed and have a more enjoyable vacation? Definitely!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

When large chain stores take over something good is lost.

There is a trend that I have noticed on my past few trips to Puerto Rico, which has become even more obvious this trip, maybe because it is Christmas time. It is that shopping here is identical to shopping anywhere else in the United States. Now you might ask “why is that a problem?” Well, I feel that there has been something lost by this homogenization of America, and the world.

I first really noticed this 8 years ago when I traveled to Moscow. One of the things I had been looking forward to was seeing the G.U.M. department store. For years I had heard about the “largest department store in the world. It was even in the Guinness Book of World records. Well, I obviously had not kept up with post-soviet changes. I walked into G.U.M. and found a modern mall, complete with all the biggest European and American chains. Bath and body Works, Nike, Addidas, Gap. All were represented. Right outside of Red Square, another, underground mall with more big name stores.

I have also seen this here in Puerto Rico. The malls used to be full of local stores and chains. Puerto Rican malls had a Puerto Rican flavor. Stores sold local merchandise. Just before Christmas we went to Plaza Las Americas, the biggest mall on the island. The three anchor stores – Macy’s, JCP and Sears. Inside – Gap, Foot Locker, Clarkes, Victoria’s Secret, etc, etc, etc. In all we counted 3 locally owned stores (not counting the barber shop, nail salon or other service shops). I wrote before about how Old San Juan was becoming just another cruise town. Well that is because the same thing is happening there. Marshall’s, Walgreens, Wendy’s, Subway, Senor Frog’s.

Now I am not just being nostalgic for what used to be. Nor am I a tourist who feels that locals should forego good shopping so that I can get an “authentic experience.” But something is lost when every place looks the same. That is true in the U.S. and outside of it. If shopping in Butte MT is the same as it is in San Juan, which is the same as it is in Palisade’ Mall, then the differences between culture and experience have been papered over, not for what is best for the people, but for what makes the most profit for the large mega-companies that own these chains.

There used to be a company called Los Bohios. I made the high quality ceramic pottery that was sold in almost every hotel. But they couldn’t compete with cheap imports. There used to be many locally owned places to guayaberas I could only find 2 places in Old San Juan and only Sears in Plaza Las Americas.

All I am saying is that something has been lost.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Why Isla Verde is the best place to stay in Puerto Rico

Most of the Caribbean Islands that I have visited give you two basic choices of accommodations (if you are lucky) – The big fancy resort or the small funky guest house. Puerto Rico has other options and the Isla Verde area (see map) is a great place to find the kind of stay you want. Isla Verde is right next to the airport between the beach and lagoon. It is a tourist center, but it also has many Puerto Rican amenities.

Let’s start with the feel of Isla Verde. It is a tourist area. However it is also the place that many locals come to go to the beach. So the area has shops and restaurants for both groups of people. It gives Isla Verde a down home feeling that Condado (the other San Juan resort area) doesn’t have. There are restaurants for all income groups including many that serve criollo cooking. I strongly recommend MiCasita Restaurant for inexpensive down-home cooking. It is also served by 2 supermarkets and 2 Walgreens drug stores

Isla Verde is also well served by the San Juan public transportation system. It is a 40 min bus ride from the Old San Juan bus terminal (near the port) and the new convention center. This means that you don’t NEED a car, especially if you are here to just sit on the beach. On the other hand there are 3 local car rental agencies in the area. Isla Verde sits on route 26, on the main highways into San Juan. This route connects with the other main highways (autopistas) so getting from here to other parts of the island is easy, as long as you don’t hit traffic (here called tapon).

Isla Verde has many high end, beach-front hotels. The El San Juan Hotel and Casino (here) and the Intercontinental (here) are two old fashioned resort hotels on the beach. There are others. The area also has its share of funky guest houses.  But what makes this area our favorite are these factors.

Isla Verde has a long history of condominium development. Not time shares, but full owned condos. That means that there are a lot of condo owners who are looking to rent their apartments. This trip we rented a 2 bedroom over-looking the beach for $2500 for the month. There are other condos and prices will range based on amenities and distance from the beach. Many of the condos come with parking included (a perk that hotel don’t offer). But the main reason we love Isla Verde is this:

To the east

To the west

This is the view from our apartment. One of the nicest beaches on the island. We can walk the beach in the morning. Sit under a tree and watch the water. There are places to rent ski-doos, banana boat rides, and paragliding.

All of these things together make Isla Verde our home away from home whenever we come to Puerto Rico.