Waiting for water to boil—Sunday, December 31, 2006

January 4, 2007 10:59 – 10:59

Casa de Loma—Sunday, December 31th, 08:15 am
I’m waiting for the water to boil for coffee. [Ten minutes later] The thing about a whistling kettle is that you need to remember to put the whistle back on if you want to know when it’s ready. I’m now here enjoying my morning coffee, listening to a mourning serenade of doves, and the occasional rooster. A neighbor is also hammering something. Maybe he’s harvesting coconuts. I doubt it. Here’s yesterday.

Ponce

We decided to head southwest to Ponce, which is in the warmest part of P.R. There, we encountered the hottest weather of our trip so far (mid 80s).

King’s Cream

We arrived in Ponce at about lunch time, but decided to treat ourselves to ice cream instead of lunch. King’s Cream is a popular local favorite. Like everything in Puerto Rico, the ice cream was brightly colored. But, alas, it was very strange. I’m guessing that it’s made with milk instead of cream, as it seemed rather thin rather than rich and creamy. I had a combination of almendra (almond) and chocolate. The almond was heavily laced with almond extract, which to me has a flavor that’s closer to cherries than to almonds. The chocolate was okay (as were the vanilla and coconut, which Katie & Karen had, respectively). But, watery.

We sat at the edge of a plaza that has free wifi, courtesy of Ponce. But, we didn’t have our computers with us. Adjacent to us, however, was the most photographed building in Puerto Rico.

It’s an old firehouse, built in 1883. Like everything else in Puerto Rico, the colors aren’t at all subtle.

The Road to Hacienda Buena Vista

Our destination was a coffee plantation a little northwest of Ponce. While it’s only about 10 miles from Ponce, the winding road makes the journey closer to an hour (watching a friendly anole streak up the exterior wall so he can roost on the kitchen window again).

Speaking of lizards, on the twisting road that winds its way up to the hacienda (plantation), they need a sign that says CAUTION: IGUANAS CROSSING. We almost ran over a 7 foot long lizard that was crossing the road. I asked about them later at the hacienda. According to our guide, it was an iguana de palo (tree iguana, but believe me, you don’t want one of these in the trees above you). They’re not native to P.R., and if you hit one, the locals say you win ten points. That’s because they’re devastating the local fruits and vegetables. They’re a problem that’s still waiting to be solved.

Hacienda Buena Vista

If you’re not careful, it’s possible to drive right past Hacienda Buena Vista, which is what we did. When you miss a turn in Puerto Rico, you sometimes have to drive several miles before you can turn around. Which is what we did. We were greeted at the gate by a friendly guard who told us where to park. We were then greeted by an English-speaking guide who led us in. While our tour was supposed to be in Spanish, apparently, they accommodate based on the language of the group. Our group, which began with six and ended up with 15, won the English lottery.

Hacienda Buena Vista began around 1833 when a guy from Venezuela bought the land to start a corn mill. The corn grinding apparatus is still there, which is housed in the building at the left in the picture shown below.

They built this 1,000 foot concrete canal—which includes an aqueduct (which has now been expanded to include a footbridge)—that carries water from the highest point in Hacienda Buena Vista hundreds of feet below to the waterworks for the mill.

There are some points where the canal tends to collect debris from runoff. So it was enclosed as a tunnel for those sections. Then, they had another problem: tree routes. So, young slaves were given sharp knives and sent into the tiny tunnels to cut away the roots.

Making our way up the path to the source of the water, Maritel Pagán, our guide, picked a leaf from a bay rum tree, and crushed it. As we were smelling it, she explained the this is the main ingredient for Old Spice. In Puerto Rico, they soak the leaves in alcohol, which absorbs the smell, and use the rubbing alcohol medicinally. Apparently, it’s good for scrapes, insect bites, and a variety of other skin complaints. Maritel adopted this 7 year old girl from Indiana, Indigo, as her assistant along the way.

The trail to the source of the water—which actually comes from Rio Canas—has a number of excellent views of a 200 foot waterfall, which is man-made.

From Corn to Coffee

When Hacienda Buena Vista was build in 1821, it began life as a corn mill. When commercial grain processing came to Ponce in the late 1860s, however, it became impossibly expensive to make money grinding corn anymore. So, the family that owned the plantation began the hacienda’s life as a coffee plantation, instead, in 1871. In 1898, much of the mill’s machinery was confiscated by the Spanish colonial government and melted down for making weapons used in the Spanish American war. What we saw there was largely restored. In 1899, there was a devastating hurricane, which basically wiped out all of the coffee trees, ending the 28 year run as a coffee enterprise. Following that, they turned to fruit—such as guavas. But, we didn’t see any fruit trees. Later, the hacienda was turned into a living museum, which is what we see there today.

Toys

One of the fun things we did on the 2 hour tour was to try out a dozen or more different toys from the late 1800s. Here’s where Maritel’s adopted assistant came in quite handy.

Seattleites

While there, we got to talking with a family from Seattle. They flew in for less than a week. That seems like a short stay for having to spend 18 hours or more on planes. The guy and his younger daughter went on the English speaking tour, while his older daughter, a freshman Spanish major at UPenn, went on the Spanish version, along with the rest of the family. We took turns manning each others’ cameras for a few photos. Here we are, getting ready to head back to the car.

Pito’s

After Hacienda Buena Vista, it was about 5:15, and our frozen lunch had long since melted. The GPS and Karen’s Fodor guide converged to suggest dinner at Pito’s, which is a seafood restaurant. Dining is all outside, with a beautiful sunset view of the Caribbean. Keeping us company just below was an egret, who was using what looked like the remnants of an old dock to conduct a little fishing.

Katie had the grilled salmon, which was excellent. It came with honey, which Katie pronounced as really good with the salmon. Karen had a house specialty, which was shrimp wrapped in bacon. It was pretty bad. I had shrimp in garlic sauce, and it was totally wonderful. We all three had the Lyonnais potatoes, which were an excellent complement to the fish. Karen and I tried a local beer, which I found too watery, but which Karen likes. She finished mine, which is good, since I needed to be sober for the 90 minute drive back to Casa de Loma.

Pool and Contact

Back at Casa de Loma, we decided to try the pool. In Canada, a 75 degree pool is considered quite warm. In Puerto Rico, however, it’s a bit brisk. We eventually did acclimate, however, and enjoyed about 45 minutes in the pool. We never did find the lights, however.

After swim and shower, we settled down to watch Contact. Although I read Carl Sagan’s book and Karen and I had seen Contact before, I remembered almost nothing from it, except for a broad outline of the plot. Katie didn’t like Jodie Foster’s character, whom Katie pronounced as too angry. I found the end interesting, as in the end, Jodie was forced to ask others to take her experiences on faith, something she herself wouldn’t do earlier for her love interest. I’m not much for taking things on faith either, however, so I found the end rather contrived. That ending always surprised me, since I thought Carl Sagan, who shared my birthday, was quite rational. But, it is fiction. And, perhaps it was one of Sagan’s ways of dealing with his own unresolved doubts.

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