Saturday, January 1, 2011

I know why the caged lagartijo sings...... (for T.)

I just came back from a visit to Puerto Rico, where, like the lagartijo in my abuela's marquesina, above, I felt caged behind the ubiquitous metal bars (even in gated communities such as this one). Sadly, a close family member is extremely elderly and ill so it may have been the last time I saw her. This obviously brought up the usual dysfunctional extended family dynamics but in the midst of this I still managed to get out of the house for short periods of time and observe some of what one of my tweeps referred to as the current state of the Island, its name Isla del Encanto (Isle of Enchantment) that they changed to its opposite: Isla del Desencanto.

The local surreality including the TV show Super X-Clusivo that I have written about here before (, with the homophobic cross-dressed puppet "La Comay" continued to attract wide audiences. SIDEBAR: Due to a serious case of Academentia, I did not mention that s/he recently gave the program over to a sycophantic infomertial-like interview with an allegedly ex-gay minister who plies his homophobic trade with soft-core hate-speech, claiming to accept gays while offering to convert them from their sinful ways. The puppet and her grotesquely stereotypical macho sidekick repeatedly advertised the man's guidebook to "conversion" on screen.

But I digress. As usual I was blown away by the exquisite, luxuriant trees, flowers, plants, the beautiful sky and clouds, as well as the sound of tropical rain storms (lots of those, we had a "cold front" which means in the 70s, lots of winds, and small scale tsunami-like waves and choppy waters). As usual the cries of the coqui frog had a narcotic effect, calming me down in the midst of a very stressful time, as I listened in the silence of the dilapidated fabulousness of the period 1970s bathroom, complete with psychedelic tiles Almodovar's set designers would envy. As usual the old school glass window panes that open laboriously in their corrosion by the turning of a lever and which screen-less, allowed for countless painful insect bites. I silently prayed these were not going to infect me with Dengue fever as I slathered on the allergy gel. As a mostly deracinated mixed interloper living outside the Island - and this year they had a record 2% population drop due to the thousands leaving for elsewhere - I always feel that the insects recognize this weakness, and prey upon it.

Aside from the family turmoil, an unexpected natural phenomenon echoed my anxiety - a jarring earthquake on Christmas Eve, which was 5.4 on the Richter Scale but fortunately caused no injuries or deaths. It knocked things off walls and led to cracks on the walls in some areas. We were quite near to the epicenter. One cousin's wife muttered "temblor, temblor" we were later told, but I was inside and I heard a loud explosion (no one knows what that was, but we speculate an electrical power plant because the lights went out fortunately we have a generator, which only the well-off can afford but is useful when the power goes out as often as it does here) then felt the ground move underneath me and the house itself - two stories and concrete - literally sway from side to side. This was my first earthquake and despite its relatively small scale I was terrified. So terrified that I stupidly lost my appetite and am still regretting pushing away the plate of arroz con gandules that I had in front of me when the earth moved.

As always, I ate massive amounts of local food - white rice with red beans that include pumpkin, piñon (layers of ground meat seasoned in the local manner with layers of fried sweet plantains, a kind of Puerto Rican lasagna), mofongo with shrimp, tostones, flan, and lots of the awesome local coffee (I brought home 3 bags of beans from different local producers, very exciting! I wish people would learn that our coffee is outstanding).

Mofongo filled with shrimp, roasted peppers and onions in a creole sauce at Bebo's Cafe

Modernist housing projects in ruins

We made our usual pilgrimages to the big attractions in San Juan - the biggest mall in the Caribbean, Plaza Las Americas (which thrillingly now has a farmer's market!), and Old San Juan. The former features Macy's and as my mother puts it a very "upscale" J.C. Penney's and many familiar chains from Old Navy to BCBG, Mango to L'Occitaine. It also features a mock Old San Juan colonial quarter area, and Valet parking. There I always enjoy observing the local women in skintight pants, leggings, or short skirts. The rampant epidemic of bedazzling. The vertiginous heel heights. And of course my favorite: the Puerto Rican Neutrals: animal print, patent leather, metallics, and bedazzling. Ideally, you would rock at least 2 of these at one time. For example, I wore silver and leopard print sandals with a snakeskin print tote. (Michael Kors, purchased at of course Macy's which has the convenient Valet parking). Nothing to take the edge off family trauma like retail therapy. Another kind of therapy is afforded to me by observing the physiognomies and body types of the women, which assure me about the normalcy of my own appearance given the pervasive anorexic WASP beauty ideal of the city where I live.

However, in order not to develop diabetes and gain massive amounts of weight, I have to lay off the comida criolla and watch the supermarket aisles. The only places where you can find an approximation of healthy foods as defined in the US are - get ready - Wal-Mart, or very posh delicatessen places like one we went to where a week's worth of prepared deli foods, vegetables, nuts, fancy olive oil, whole wheat products, etc. ran to 300$. Organic milk was not available anywhere. The supermarkets I visited had meagre healthy options and the supermarket ads in the local paper hawked food that as my sister remarked when we saw a huge ad for TANG powdered juices, canned Vienna sausage, Velveeta, etc. "Puerto Rico is where US junk food goes to die."

Local products advertised in the papers.

Old San Juan was the same as last time - beautiful Spanish Colonial homes restored and beautiful but now in many cases occupied by Domino's Pizza or Burger King or tourist shops hawking souvenirs made in China, Thai or Guatemalan clothes, others offering "deals" on jewelry - all aimed at the cruise ship crowd who spill out onto the clogged streets periodically. Nonetheless a few of the old school stores selling house linens and baby clothes with hand made embroidery in the Spanish style, cafeterias selling local coffee and delicious pastries like La Bombonera, with its modernist sans serif sign, Andalusian style tiles, and naugahyde booths. Puerto Rican Arts and Crafts is my go-to place for hand carved Santos (this time I got Saint Anthony of Padua, who finds one a husband....), jewelry and coffee.

Although sadly, I was not able to find any of my favorite UFO related magazines featuring articles about extra-terrestrial sightings on the Island or the other-worldly origins of the Chupacabra, I did learn about a fabulous new publication, Agenda para la quinceañera. Much like Bridal magazine and the like, this one helps the spoiled tween plan her big coming out celebration. Such popular events and other elegant Island soirees are covered in our local women's magazine, IMAGEN, and are a rich source of my other favorite thing: the Island's unusual, creative and sometimes unpronounceable names.

The annual article in El Nuevo Dia (from yesterday's newspaper) recounted some of the highlights in creative naming practices for 2010:
In just one issue of IMAGEN I was able to compile the following list:
Elan (yes, like the French word, and with the accent on the a)

WOMEN: (always the best ones)

With this beautiful cascade of local Dada Poetry, I end my brief travelogue of my very sad and stormy but also fascinating and amusing trip to the Island in the end of 2010.

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