Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico

Map Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, University of Texas at Austin



The Room by the Sea
Rincón
Our Vanishing Beach
25-Peso Font
Betances
Betances's Nation
Who Will Pick the Coffee?
Other Economics
Return to Cold River
Born on the Beach (by Nia)
Misconceptions
Bacalao
What is Bacalao?
Clouds
(For photo descriptions, please hover your mouse)
The Room by the Sea
1 June, 2014


“There’s our old neighborhood, Nia.” I said, pointing out the airplane window as we descended over San Juan.

Nia peered out and shrugged. “I don’t really know where to look.”

We dropped lower, over the lagoon bridge.

“Aw Nia, they took away the flags.” I pointed at the long line of empty flagpoles along the bridge. All through our time living in Puerto Rico, that bridge had been adorned with hundreds of flapping Puerto Rican flags.

“I don’t remember the flags,” she said.

But there was another thing that she did remember.

“Get ready for the clapping, Baba!”

As the plane’s wheels touched the ground, the passenger cabin broke into a thunderous applause.

An hour later, we were in our rental car and driving through the metropolis. It all felt pretty much the same, like we’d never left. Nia was on her cell phone with her mama. “We’ll be in Rincón in time for the sunset,” she said.

Rincón is a beach town located on the island’s west end, where many Puerto Ricans like to go when they need a vacation. Even if you live in a tropical paradise, you still need to go on vacation once in a while. As transplants, we adopted the Rincón habit early on in our eight years here, and became hopeless addicts. We also adopted a little beachfront hideaway called the Coconut Palms Inn as a second home.

I accelerated along Highway 22, visualized the destination, and hummed the song that always takes me back:

“There’s a room
By the sea
In an old house
With a view and a breeze”

(by Susan Brehm)


Two hours later, Nia was asleep in the back seat and I was hopelessly lost in Puerto Rico’s web of curvy mountain roads. My plan was to drive to Rincón my favorite way, one that passes through an exquisite karst landscape that looks like a miniature version of Yangshuo in China. It also goes up an over what I consider to be the world’s prettiest hillside. But years away from the island had fogged my memory, and I’d lost my way.

And the clock was ticking! The sun was getting lower. We didn’t want to miss the sunset in Rincón!

There was only one thing to do.

I pulled over at the next roadside bar for an ice cold Medalla.

The barkeep pulled out a golden-yellow beer can, thwacked the top with her index finger, listened to make sure it wasn’t frozen solid, wrapped a white napkin around the sweating aluminum, and handed it over to me. I downed the first half of the 10-ounce can in five delicious gulps.

Back in my seat, I dug out the road map – not that it was going to help much. I also spied a road sign for one of the more significant routes. It wasn’t the one I wanted, but it went more or less in the correct direction. It would get us there.

An hour later, we arrived. I reached back and nudged Nia’s leg to wake her up.

“Oh, I remember this place,” she said as she sat up. “Fun times.”

“Go stand in front so I can take your picture,” I said.

Just then Angel, one of two long-time employees, ran out through the gate.

“Hi Pete! I tried calling you. I was just about to take off. Oh, my! Look how big you’ve grown!” Angel smiled at Nia and reached for my camera. “Go stand next to her,” he said.

“Is it okay if we wait to check in for a few minutes?” I asked as I posed next to Nia. “We need to go check out the sunset.”

I didn’t tell Angel that I also needed to check out something else.

But Angel seemed to instinctively understand me. He looked up and nodded, solemnly.

“No problem buddy,” he said, as he snapped the picture.


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Rincón

Rincón’s Spanish history goes back to the 1500s, when a few sugar plantations were started here. Although the town is located on a corner-shaped headland on the island’s west end ("rincón" is a Spanish word for "corner") the town was actually named after early planter Don Gonzalo Rincón. Some sources say Don Gonzalo was at first a butler for another planter named Don Thomas Castellón, who died and left him his land.

A few decades prior, Christopher Columbus became the first European to visit Puerto Rico when he docked nearby on his second voyage. This was November 19, 1493. The theory is that Chris docked at Enseñada Calvache in Añaso Bay, which is at the other end of the exact same curve of sand upon which the Coconut Palms Inn is located. Chris had been under orders from Spanish rulers Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain friendly and loving relations with the natives. But his voyages and their aftermath involved the opposite sentiments, and within a few decades nearly all the natives were wiped out.

Sleepy Rincón rose to international prominence when it hosted the World Surfing Championships in 1968. This was the same year that operations were halted at BONUS, Rincón’s blue-gray domed nuclear reactor that graces the beachfront at the area’s best surfing spot. The facility was built in the early 1960s to test the feasibility of an integral boiler superheating concept, and ran its first chain reaction in 1964. The building was essentially a big experiment, so it came as no surprise when expensive design changes were needed, ones that made it cheaper to just shut the building down and start all over again somewhere else.

And Rincón remains: sleepy and beachy.

However, there is getting to be less and less beach!


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Our Vanishing Beach

We noticed it after our first few years of coming to Rincón: The golden strand of sand in front of the Coconut Palms Inn seemed to be getting narrower. A few named storms had come through over the years and we figured that had something to do with it.

Then we came one time with our next door neighbors from San Juan. Our neighbor, whose name is Fernando, had grown up vacationing in Rincón because his uncle’s family owned the Cofresí Resort, a popular and clangorous spot located just down the beach from the Coconut Palms. Fernando hadn’t been to Rincón in quite a while, but he waxed poetic of long childhood afternoons spent playing on the wide beach as the sun descended and finally disappeared while all the adults sat up at the bar and drank.

When Fernando got to Rincón this time, he took one look at the beach and became very depressed. He nearly loaded his family back into the car and drove back to San Juan.

So what is the deal? Is it global warming?

And how many more years do we have left to enjoy this special place, before it disappears?

And how will it feel, when my precious Room by the Sea crumbles, and washes away, only to exist in my loving memory?

Ah yes, here it is: The classic lesson of acceptance. Everything, everything is impermanent.

After Angel took the picture of Nia and me in front of the Coconut Palms Inn sign, he handed me back my camera. Nia and I walked through the gate, into the garden. We could already hear the crashing of the waves. My throat tightened as we rounded the whitewashed side of the house.

And there it was: the beach.

I smiled and breathed in deeply. The narrow stripe of golden sand was still there, for now, looking pretty much as just as we’d left it.

However it is true that this beach is experiencing long-term erosion. Research indicates that it probably began sometime between 1977 and 1987. If you want to describe it in wave-ology terms, you could say that the sandy coast backed by unconsolidated alluvial deposits is being severely eroded by complex nearshore bathymetry affecting wave refraction, diffraction, and reflection.

So it isn’t necessarily related to global warming. However, human activities have had an impact.

In 1983, around the same time people began noticing the beach getting narrower, a marina and breakwater/jetty system were constructed nearby which adversely affected the sediment budget. In response, property owners began building seawalls and revetments. In 1995 it was predicted that this human response would lead to further destruction of the beaches, as the waves scoured the sand at the base of the walls.

As I made my beloved run along the beach for perhaps the hundredth time, I noted that this prediction had indeed come true. I often had to jog out through the waves in order to make it around places where seawalls had been built. Conversely, I usually had plenty of dry sand to run on along the stretches where there were no seawalls.

Now, in addition to this already-in-progress erosion, the beach will have to face a rising sea level.

The estimates vary. Some experts predict a 0.6 meter increase in sea level during the remainder of this century. Others assert the level will go up by as much as 1 to 2 meters by the year 2100.

All agree that there is little we can do about it, now. Even if we stopped all carbon emissions tomorrow. The deed is done.


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25-Peso Font


“Where are we going, Baba?” asked Nia.

On our second day in Rincón, I drove into the heart of Mayagüez, one of Puerto Rico’s largest cities, which is located only ten miles away.

“Oh, I thought we’d go have a look at the Mayagüez Cathedral. It’s always nice to go look at the cathedral. Every old town in Puerto Rico has a lovely plaza, where on one end you’ll find the mayor’s house, and on the other end, the cathe—"

“I know, Baba.”

Truth be told, I had other reasons to go see this particular cathedral.

We drove into the congested city center and slotted our tiny Mitsubishi Mirage into an overstuffed paid parking lot. Then we walked up the hill in the warm morning, towards the spire.

I stood in the plaza, faced the cathedral, and closed my eyes. I didn’t need to go into the cathedral, not yet. I knew I would not get to see the baptismal font anyway. I knew the famous font had been bought by some local businessman and relocated to his house.

When I re-opened my eyes, it was 1865. It was a Sunday.

In my imagination, the baptismal font was placed out in front of the cathedral. The minister stood next to it. To the right huddled a group of men, led by a distinctive bearded gentleman who held a bag of money.

Then a wealthy-looking man, likely a local planter, approached the font accompanied by a family of his slaves. A female slave carried a baby in her arms.

Just before this mother brought her child forth to the baptismal font, the bearded gentleman stepped forward and gave her 25 pesos. She turned and handed the 25 pesos over to her owner.

The child was baptized a free person.


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Betances


Ramón Emeterio Betances, also known as “Father of the Puerto Rican Nation” and “Father of the Poor,” was born in 1827 in the nearby town of Cabo Rojo.

Another good name for him would have been “Father of the Abolition.” And not just Puerto Rican abolition: Spanish abolition as well.

Betances was anything but poor. Born to a prominent family, he was sent at age 10 to study in Toulouse, France. He went on to become a medical doctor, surgeon, poet, and prolific novelist, in addition to everything else.

Betances came from a family described as “mixed race,” although his father owned some slaves who toiled alongside his free workers. A significant event seems to have occurred in Betances’s psyche while he was away in Paris studying medicine in the late 1840s. This was when his father successfully sought to have the family reclassified to “white” in order to obtain further legal and property rights as well as to enable one of his daughters to marry a Caucasian.

This action seems to have disgusted Betances, who considered his family “not whitish but blackish.”

When Betances returned to Puerto Rico from France in 1856, one of his many social activities was to start a secret abolition society. Herein he helped to draft the “Ten Commandments of Free Men.” At this time, Puerto Rico had a population of approximately 600,000 people, of which about 50% were classified as “white,” 40% were mulattos and free blacks, and about 10% were slaves. This differed markedly from nearby Cuba, where one in three people were slaves (and where abolition came later and after much more of a struggle).

If you were a slave in a Spanish colony at this time, you had three ways by which you could become legally free:

*Step on a land of free Spain, i.e. a Spanish territory where slavery did not happen to exist;

*Be given your freedom by the free will of your owner;

*Pay your owner a specified amount of money to buy your freedom.

Earlier, in the 1840s, Betances had worked to get an article passed whereby a newborn was free if a sum of 25 pesos was paid at baptism. This price went up to 50 pesos, post-baptism.

In the years that followed, Betances and his colleagues stood, Sunday after Sunday, at the baptismal font at the Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria in Mayagüez and waited for slaveowners to approach with newborns. In this manner they freed, one at a time, maybe more than a thousand people.

This “freedom” was rough, however. Free blacks at the time were subjected to massive discrimination in Puerto Rican society. (And they still are, as evidenced by our own personal experiences. But those are different stories.)

Betances did not have his sights set on abolishing slavery only in Puerto Rico. In 1865, one of his closest associates (Julio Coronado Vizcarrondo) moved to Madrid, where he helped establish the Spanish Abolition Society as well as an influential newspaper. He worked for the passage of the Moret Law in Spain in 1870, also known as the “Law of the Fee Belly,” a statute that granted freedom to newborn children of slaves as well as to any slave child born after 1868.

And on March 22, 1973, Spain abolished slavery in Puerto Rico. Actual liberation was not immediate nor without serious opposition and struggle, but March 22 is celebrated to this day as Abolition Day in Puerto Rico. When we lived here, my wife and I always had to keep this in mind and plan our work schedules around it, because it is a territorial holiday and our son did not have school on this day.

Abolition in the rest of the Spanish colonies proceeded, of course, with varying degrees of struggle and delay. Cuba in particular was a fight. Slavery there of more than 400,000 people continued until 1880.


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Betances's Nation


Ramón Emeterio Betances was said to have been very happy when slavery was abolished in the Spanish colonies, and proud of the direct role Puerto Ricans played in the political process that achieved it.

Betances went on to spend his final 26 years continuing to fight, mostly from exile in France, for an independent Nation of Puerto Rico.

Naturally he was vehemently opposed to the USA’s annexation of Puerto Rico, which was clearly imminent in the days following the sinking if the USS Maine in 1898.

This event occurred only days before Betances died. From his death bed, he was quoted as saying:

"No quiero colonia, ni con España, ni con los Estados Unidos. ¿Y que les pasa a los puertorriqueños, que no se rebelan?"

“I don’t want a colony, not with Spain nor with the United States. And what is the matter with Puerto Ricans, that they don’t rebel?”

Betances died in France on September 16, 1898. He was almost in poverty. His remains were not repatriated to Puerto Rico for 22 more years.

But he is and was remembered.

A massive crowd assembled in San Juan in 1920, when Betances’s remains finally arrived.

It took two days for his caravan to make the trip back to Cabo Rojo.


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Who Will Pick the Coffee?


For all you readers out there who are 114 years old, you will remember when Puerto Rican coffee was hailed throughout Europe as the world’s finest.

Coffee was (past tense emphasized) one of Puerto Rico’s top exports, right up there with sugar and tobacco. It all started when some beans were brought from Martinique in 1736, and it really took off when some Corsican immigrants settled in west-central Puerto Rico in the 1800s and made coffee their main thing. By the late 1800s, this island was the world’s 6th leading coffee producer.

But the industry has had a rough go over many decades, as tends to happen. Hurricanes and competition have traditionally been the primary obstacles chronically forcing people to seek other means of economic survival.

I can assure you, though, that the Arabica beans grown in the high shady mountains of Puerto Rico’s Cordillera Central are still utterly exquisite. And I know my coffee. I am a person from Seattle.

Puerto Rico’s coffee industry suffered a particularly sharp decline during this past decade. One of the causes was a serious erosion in reputation, promulgated by unscrupulous behavior by the island’s three biggest roasters.

I detected this situation back when I lived here, but I was not sure exactly what was going on. Back then my favorite bag of coffee to buy in the grocery store was one put out by a little company called Café d’Aquí (“Coffee of Here”). It was one of the cheapest bags of coffee available, but damn was it GOOD – when you got a good bag, that is (which was most of the time). However I did notice that my Café d’Aqui could be inconsistent. Occasionally I got a bad bag.

Here’s the deal: Puerto Rico now consumes about 300,000 quintals of coffee per year, but only grows about 80,000 quintals. Thus, the island must import coffee. The island’s three biggest roasters (Yaucono, Café Rico, and Café Cream) control 80% of the coffee available here. And in past decades their bags have been graced with the words “Puerto Rican Coffee” printed on the outside.

As you can see, the numbers hardly add up. Most of that “Puerto Rican Coffee” was not grown in Puerto Rico. Much of it was far lower grade robusto beans, imported from somewhere else. There have been some publicized seizures of illegal imports in recent years, confiscated while en route to big roasters, and this has brought the issue to the public eye. It has also helped to instigate a revival of the Puerto Rican Arabica to its rightful place as a boutique product, up there with Jamaica's Blue Mountain coffee.

The new Governor of Puerto Rico is on board with the revival. An October 2013 article in The Jamaican Observer reports of the Puerto Rican government's plans to generate 6,000 new coffee jobs and cultivate an additional 16,000 acres during the next two years. To accomplish this, the government plans to recruit workers and award $4.2 million dollars in fertilizer incentives. Another $670,000 will be made available to growers and brokers under a subsidy program intended to stabilize the local market and spur production. Agreements had already been signed with 25 nurseries.

Sound good? Does to me!

But here’s a more somber note:

Puerto Rico’s 2013 coffee crop was the smallest in modern history. Only about 40,000 kilograms were collected.

Today many high central farms sit abandoned. Only about 4,000 coffee farmers remain, compared to more than 11,000 just a decade ago. Prior to the recent government incentives, getting seeds had been a big problem, along with the skyrocketing price of fertilizer and the emergence of insects.

But those aren't the biggest problems.

The biggest problem, now, is that no one wants to pick the coffee. Each year the island loses as much as 35% of the crop because no one picks it.

In an attempt address this gap, the new government has renewed an executive order issued by the previous administration: You can go and pick coffee and not be penalized. You can still collect your welfare check, in addition.

Seasoned pickers earn about $50 per day; that’s at $5 to $7 per 28-pound bag, plus another $2 per bag in state and municipal government subsidies.


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Other Economics


Back in Florida, we spoke about Puerto Rico’s long-running economic problems.

A new legislature was elected in late 2012, along with the new Governor, 42-year-old Alejandro Garcia Padilla, sworn in January 2013.

In addition to rehabilitating the coffee industry (a rather modest goal), what are the new government's goals?

Here are a few of the Padilla administration initiatives, which I gathered from an April 6, 2014 story on latinofoxnews.com:

*Transform the island into an “investment bridge” between Spain to the United States/Latin America by creating fiscal and legal incentives for Spanish investors. (Currently, trade between Puerto Rico and Spain is quite sparse at $875 million in exports in 2012.)

*Internationalize the economy by reorienting it towards foreign services, mainly banking, engineering, and computer technology.

*Along these lines, create a platform for foreign firms wanting to export services to North America, and for local companies to break into the European market.

*Invest $300 million in tourism, and get Iberia Airlines to resume flights between Madrid and San Juan.

(I’ve always wondered what’s going to happen to Puerto Rican tourism when USA citizens are finally allowed to go to Cuba on holiday once again!)

*Continue to foster biotech and infotech. Invest an additional $100 million in these industries the near term.

I was heartened to read that the new government intends to continue bolstering pharma on the island. This makes sense: the 10 most important firms in the sector already have extensive operations here.

In fact, biotech was why we lived here. From 2002 through 2006, I was intimately involved a project that began as a field with cows in it. By the time we finished, we’d transformed that field into a mega-manufacturing biotech campus (with a few cows on the side).




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Return to Cold River


One of my best and last memories of leaving Puerto Rico in 2010 was of Nia smiling as she climbed the steps up from our swimming hole, next to our beloved and much-used campsite high in the Toro Negro rainforest.

“Baba, let’s come back here when I’m ten,” she’d said. She was referring to the journey we are currently on.

“Okay!” I’d replied. And over the next four years, I periodically mentioned to her our promise to return to Cold River.

Now I was on a mission to make that pledge come true. And a visit to the Toro Negro Forest was the perfect detour along our drive from Rincón back to Nia’s godmother’s house near San Juan.

As we drove, Nia told me she remembered the camping place, and the pool. But she firmly reneged on her promise to go for a dunk.

“I’m not getting in that water, Baba. I remember it was COLD!”

I bit my tongue. First we’ll go for the hike, I decided.

The afternoon clouds hovered and boiled, but did not spill, and we had a lovely mile or so walk up through the forest to another special place of ours, a place where I traditionally take a picture of Nia with a wildflower in her hair. On our way back down, some sun even splashed and filtered through the thick canopy of El Bosque Toro Negro, the exquisite Black Bull Forest.

But had we worked up enough of a sweat to make Nia want to go for a swim?

We reached the campsite. I changed into my swimming suit. Nia did not.

We went to the creek and the pool. As Nia watched, I climbed the natural rock slide by myself, slid down it, and splashed into the refreshing water.

“That was fun, and this water feels so GOOD!” I said, floating on my back. Nia smiled, but gave no indication that she would change into her suit.

Then, for some reason, I began to sing.

“Nia went a-swimming and she got her toesies wet.” (I sang this line three times.) Then I finished the verse: “But she didn’t get her (clap clap) wet, yet.”

Nia’s smile grew bigger as I moved on to verses about kneesies and thighsies. “But she didn’t get her (clap clap) wet, yet!” I sang each time.

When I finished the song, Nia laughed.

Then she said: “After I change into my suit, sing it again!”

I was happy to oblige. And happiest to sing the final line of the song at the top of my voice, as she slid down the rock and landed in the water.

“She finally got her SWIMMING SUIT wet!”





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Born on the Beach
by Nia


You know how sometimes, if you get to know someone and where they’re from, it turns out to be kind-of interesting?

Well listen to this person’s story…

She was born and raised in Puerto Rico for five and a half years. Her first words were in Spanish. She attended a preschool called Babies New World, and graduated with an “Excellent English” trophy.

She’s always been ready for a new adventure, like attacking the waves at age two. This girl wasn’t afraid of anything.

This girl was born on the beach. Literally. The hospital she was born at is right on the beach.

This girl loves her brother, mother and father. Now, this family is a cool mix. The girl’s father comes from Washington State and so does her brother. Her mother is from a mix of different places. The girl herself was born on a small island in the middle of the Caribbean.

This girl also loves her godmother. They have fun together every time they see each other. This godmom is a great godmom to this girl.

This girl loves to read and to play. She can be in the car, at the library, or just at home, and a book can entertain her.

She remembers how, at Babies New World, if you were bad they would throw you over the fence to be eaten by the iguanas (of course they never did that).

She also remembers the house with the orange walls.


This girl lives in Colorado now. She remembers a lot, and misses a lot.


And what she misses most is the beach.



And this girl is me.






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Misconceptions


Over the years I’ve noticed that a lot of people in the USA don’t know very much about Puerto Rico (nor did I, before I lived here).

For example, many are unsure where it is, and unaware that it is part of the United States, and that you can come here for a value tropical vacation within four hours from many US cities on a three hundred and fifty buck flight.

And over the years I've wondered if some of the things I do hear said about Puerto Rico are actually true. With what little time I had left to kick out this blog post, I thought it’d be fun to investigate a few of them. I’d have loved to spend more time into this.

Statement #1:

“If Puerto Rico became a US state, it would be twice as poor as Mississippi.” True or false?

Answer: Pretty much true. The latest US Census Bureau data on Mississippi lists per capita income at $20,670 and median household income at $36,619. Puerto Rico doesn’t lag so much in per capita income ($16,210 in 2010, when it was still falling), but its median household income of $18,660 is about half of Mississippi’s.

Statement #2:

“Two-thirds of Puerto Ricans are on public assistance, and the island has a 20% unemployment rate.” True or false?

I didn’t find data on the public assistance claim. Regarding unemployment, the USA Department of Labor reported a 15.2% unemployment rate for Puerto Rico in January, 2014.

Statement #3:

“Puerto Rico has one of the highest population densities in the world.”

True or false?

Answer: False. At 416 people per square kilometer, Puerto Rico is not even close to places like Singapore (7,405 per square km), Hong Kong (6,787), and Monaco (18,861). Source: The Word Bank. Countries comparable to Puerto Rico in population density are the Netherlands (495) Lebanon (428), Rwanda (427), and India (411).

Statement #4:

“Puerto Rico has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the world.” True or false?

Answer: Totally false, according to regularly published data from the World Health Organization. The most recent data came out just a few weeks ago. Puerto Rico consumes a yearly average of 5.4 liters of alcohol per capita age 15 and older (the WHO breaks this down further into beer/wine/spirits/other). This is well below the United States’ average, which is 9.2 liters, and far below the heaviest drinking countries i.e. Belarus and Moldova, which are in the high teens of liters.

Puerto Rico does drink a lot more than Togo (2.3 liters per capita), and a whole lot more than Pakistan (0.1 liters per capita).

Statement #5:

“The port of San Juan is one of the busiest container seaports in the Western Hemisphere.” True or false?

Answer: False, I think. I could not find San Juan on the World Shipping Council’s list of top 50 container seaports by volume.


Statement #6:

“Puerto Ricans are extremely beautiful.”

Answer: True! And I have the data to back it up:

Puerto Rico has won Miss Universe five times and Miss World once.

All of the United States combined have barely beat out Puerto Rico in this category, winning the same titles only eight and three times, respectively.


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Bacalao


Late on the Saturday afternoon before we left, I stumbled out of a university building in the metro-area sector of Bayamón and staggered across Betances Street.

I was dazed, confused, fried. I had just spent the entire day taking Level III of the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) exam. The tests are given in English in pretty much every country of the world, on the first Saturday of each June.

I didn’t feel I’d done very well. My mistake this year was probably in over-studying. I was so tired of the material by the time I took the test that I had lost the ability to think clearly about the topics.

Also, my day had begun at three A.M when my eyes opened I drove to the testing site. This was because I was paranoid about finding the place. Even though I’d spent years and years living in an adjacent municipality, called Guaynabo, I had never stopped getting lost in Bayamón. To be fair, Bayamón can be pretty confusing and chaotic even for native-borns.

As I approached the testing site in the early morning blackness, I had to smile. I’d be taking my test in a building that spanned over the roadway; a building I’d gazed at dozens times as I’d driven back and forth beneath it in heavy traffic, totally lost while trying to find something else.

Now it was Saturday early evening, and I’d finished the damn test. The usually-teeming streets of Bayamón were quiet, peaceful.

I climbed into my Mitsubishi Mirage, feeling defeated, and cracked open a nice hot Medalla (sarcasm intended). I’d stocked the car with some beers in anticipation of this moment, but the car had been in the sun all day.

I got on the highway, turned on my favorite radio station (Radio Oro, 102.5), reclined, and realized, once again, how much I’d loved living here. Soon I cracked another steaming hot beer. And I felt even better.

Nia, unlike me, I knew had been having an awesome day. Or days rather. She’d been hanging with her godmother Danaise and they’d been doing all their usual fun stuff: shopping for back-to-school outfits, getting nails done, seeing a movie, visiting Mom’s, going to Chuck E. Cheese’s, etc. Meanwhile I’d gotten to spend my last day before the test cramming (thank you, thank you Danaise!).

But crap! What if I’d failed the test? I’d worked so hard, all year, to prepare for it…

What, what could I do, now, to make myself feel better?

It took me only about one second to think of it.

There's only one thing to do in situations like this: Go to Piñones for a bacalao!

"Piñones" and "bacalao" are two words that may be unfamiliar to you. I am mentioning them because they are words worth knowing.

Let me put it this way: when you arrive in Seattle, Washington, a good idea is to go to Dick’s Drive-In for French fries.

And when you arrive in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a spectacular idea is to head straight to Piñones for a fresh hot bacalao!

Even if you don’t like to eat batter deep fried in grease, a visit to Piñones is an indispensable component of any Puerto Rican visit. And it is just minutes from the airport! And when you get there, you would never, ever believe you are right next to a major metropolitan area. As soon as you round that corner on the coastal road east of the airport, you enter a raucous, boisterous world of beach, food shacks, bars, music, foliage, dirt, greenery, and surf unlike anywhere else on Earth. There the bacalaos and alcapurrias are fried over smoky open wood fires by the roadside. And the Medalla, of course, is always way more than cold.

I pulled over at my usual spot, traditionally run by a very fat woman who sat on a couch at the end of a veranda and watched TV and collected the money while her employee worked over the open fire at the opposite end. You always had to walk down the aisle and pay “La Gorda” (the fat lady) $1.10 in exact change before you could get your bacalao.

With concern, I noted that La Gorda wasn’t there.

But her bacalaos were. A charming black woman served me up a fresh one, kept warm suspended in a wire rack over the open grease pot. She accepted my money herself: $1.25.

I went and sat near where La Gorda used to sit.

And I sunk my teeth into the BEST bacalao I have EVER eaten in ALL my life.

HEAVEN!!!!

It was flawless. The codfish imbedded in the warm soft fried dough was perfectly salted. The edges of the bacalao were crunchy. Green plant specks also imbedded in the dough topped off the experience.

A total, authentic Puerto Rican delicacy.


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What is Bacalao?


Even if I gave you the recipe (which I don’t have), you’d have to practice a lot to get good at it. Better to just come to Piñones.

A bacalo is a mixture of flour and salt cod that is fried as a floating pancake in a huge pot of oil. The popular name for it in Puerto Rico is “bacalaíto,” or “little bacalao,” but the ones served in Piñones are anything but little.

The name is Portuguese. ‘Bacallao’ is the Portuguese word for cod, or stockfish.

Here’s an interesting side-story I came across while researching this:

In the year 1472, Portuguese explorer Joao Vaz Corte-Real was granted land in Azores by the king of Portugal because he had discovered “Terra do Bacalhau,” or “the Land of Codfish.” It became a phantom island, reported on several Portuguese maps and nautical charts in the 1500s.

Was this the Americas? We don’t know. If it was, it means that Corte-Real arrived in the New World two decades before Columbus.


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Clouds


After eating the best bacalao of my life, I continued eastward into the interesting municipality of Loiza.

I could keep on writing, on and on, about Loiza, about its African-ness, about so, so many other things.

But we haven’t the time. It is time to move on.

One thing I still need to say, though:

If I had to identify the one thing about Puerto Rico that I miss the most, I’d say it’s the evening clouds.

Almost every single day in Puerto Rico, no matter where you are, columns of white cumulous clouds build over striking green hillsides and reflect the slanting afternoon light. They proceed to turn orange, then pink, then purple, and then disappear amid the chirping of coqui frogs in the soft warm night.

After stopping for gas in Loiza, I turned onto Highway 185 in the sunset and took the long way back, over the mountains, back to Nia’s godmother’s house.

Along the way I pulled over and attempted to photograph the clouds.

My pictures don’t do it any kind of justice. But here they are anyway.


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