Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Fractured Paradise

It makes me very sad to see and hear what’s happened to Puerto Rico after the hurricane last summer. It’s a wonderful country filled with gracious people and a sunny climate that matches their disposition. When we were there it was a tropical paradise that has now been fractured but not broken. It’s been hit hard but it will recover, on its own, because that’s the resolve that defines the character of its people.

It was a little over a decade ago that we went there as a family. Of course, that was BC; before children and the lifestyle changes those little munchkins bring along with them.

You know you’ve arrived in a tropical island when there are leaves in the hotel lobby because of the trees planted there. Foliage adorns just about every nook and cranny in the hotel as well as the boulevards throughout the city.

On top of our list of spots to visit was a jaunt to Puerto Rico’s famous ‘Old Town.’

Old San Juan is the oldest settlement within Puerto Rico and the historic colonial section of the city of San Juan. This enclave of narrow blue cobblestone streets and flat-roofed stone and masonry buildings date back to the 16th and 17th century. The area has been totally refurbished, remodeled, and adapted to present-day living. It is at once, charming, seductive, expensive and a true trip back in time.

Old Town is located on a small and narrow island which lies along the north coast, about 35 miles from the east end of the island. It’s united to the mainland of Puerto Rico by three bridges. The entire swatch of crumbling ruins, innovative adaptation, and tourist haunts beckons both tourists and locals alike. It’s a labyrinth of wonderful old buildings, ancient courtyards, back allies and hidden passage ways. Our return several days later in sunlight presented a totally different experience.

Puerto Rico has all the obligatory tourist attractions, many of which we experienced and many we just scratched the surface. I particularly wanted to head north to visit Rincon Beach, made famous in so many of those 60’s surfing songs and movies. Our Puerto Rican excursion back then reminded me of our recent visit to Cuba and the realization that we share this planet with a whole wide world of different people and places. One popular tourist destination made an indelible mark on my creative side and left me soaked with excitement.

El Yunque, pronounced Jun-kay, is an enormous source of pride in Puerto Rico and one of the main drivers of the island’s tourism industry. We took the obligatory shuttle bus from our hotel deep into the rainforest for a walking tour.

The rainforest is a trip back in time to a land of ancient forests, forever waterfalls and stifling humidity. The wet air hits you like a face plant into an oven when the bus doors first open. Your body immediately begins to bubble up tiny droplets across your forehead and dampen your clothes to your body. Despite the oppressive heat and roasting sun overhead, it’s an incredible journey back in time.

Years later, I tried to re-imagine our trek through that rainforest when I was writing my first novel ‘Love in the A Shau.’ The oppressive heat and humidity beating down on me that day had to have been what our soldiers experienced on those dangerous search-and-destroy missions in Vietnam back then. I tried to capture that visceral experience for my readers.

Located on the eastern part of  Puerto Rico, the 28,000-acre forest has over 240 species of trees; 23 of those are found nowhere else. Over 50 bird species live among the forest’s crags and waterfalls. When we looked up, all we could once see was a thick, lush, emerald green canopy of tabonuco and sierra palm trees. But that was before Hurricane Maria obliterated the only tropical forest in the United States and left behind a scene so bare one can now see the skyline of San Juan 30 miles to the west.

Much of what we experienced is gone now, torn apart by the hurricane. “It was like a shock to the entire system,” said Grizelle Gonzalez, a project leader at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, part of the United States Department of Agriculture. “The whole forest has been completely defoliated.” She said, and then added with a slight smile, “But don’t worry, the rainforest isn’t gone, it’s just temporarily altered. Mother Nature works on a different time scale. It will all come back. It just takes time.” *

I certainly hope the same can be said for the island of Puerto Rico. It’s a wonderful land of beautiful beaches, warm-hearted people, and fond memories for our entire family.

We have another family vacation planned for this summer; ten days in and around London, England. It’ll be a return visit for our two adult children only now with their own brood in tow. For Sharon and me it’ll be creating new memories of introducing our grandchildren to a far wider world than Apple Valley, Minnesota and Lone Tree, Colorado. A good time is sure to be had by all.

·        * New York Times Article dated October 12th, 2017.

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