Friday, December 28, 2007

Eating healthy in Puerto Rico

... is not inexpensive.

True, tropical fruit is fabulously cheap: papaya - 69 cents per pound, a large pinaple 75 cents....
....but vegetables, wow, $ 8 for 6 organic bellpeppers (that's more than a dollar for a bellpepper!) - and only slightly less for nonorganic - imported from USA; $ 6.45 for a small container (less than a pound) of organic tomatoes - imported from Canada ($4.50 for a similar container of nonorganic).
The prices for lettuce and other available veggies are sky high and .... there is no variety, nothing but a few anemic lettuces ( mostly romaine, sometimes iceberg), celery, bell peppers, tomatoes, cilantro and a lot of brown tubers with different shapes, which I avoid, presuming them all being - like potatoes and yams - starches rather than vegetables.
Every time I try to shop for veggies I dream of a Whole Foods store with its fabulous assortment of hundreds of kinds of fruits and vegetables, many of them organic, or of Atlanta's World Farmers Market, where veggies are almost as plentiful as at Whole Foods, but cheaper - though far fewer are organic.

What's with all those vegetable imports in Puerto Rico??? Don't veggies grow in the tropics?

Perhaps I'd believe it, had I not seen on zoom's blog that she has a vegetable garden - and my institute also has an organic farm and greenhouses where tender greens (sunflower, purslane, etc.) and - mostly green - veggies, like kale, spinach, etc. are grown.
Next Friday I am planning to visit a local farmers' market in San Sebastian, a small town in the mountains, otherwise famous for its hammock weavers and its splendid, though not easily accessible, waterfall in the jungle.
Meat, on the other hand is cheaper here than in the USA and a lot of it (beef) seems to be imported from Urugway. I wonder whether Urugway meat industry is any better than USA or if that meat is as inedible as nonorganic American meat: equally loaded with hormons, antibiotics etc.
And - for the true health gamblers: the fabulous, fluffy, melting in your mouth Puertorican pastries with almonds and guava cost only 79 cents for a large one. Yumm :-(((
Yesterday afternoon and this morning I inspected the plot for my future garden and found it being in a dappled sunlight in the morning, shaded in early afternoon and in more direct sunlight in the late afternoon. Now, a question to tropical vegetable gardeners: what herbs and veggies I should most luck growing there?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

To buy.... or not to buy. That is the question

very suitable for the days of after Christmas shopping madness.

No, I do not participate in the general shopping madness - but am pondering a question whether to buy furniture. If I want to move to the unfurnished apartment I need to either buy new furniture (which seem rather ugly here: the preferred furniture color here seems to be all the "lovely" shades of poo: from beige to brown. Brr... And the shapes are either too countryish crude or too twisted ornamental - definitively not me. I am afraid I would have constant nighmares surrounded by this type of furniture) .. or get my remaining ones shipped.

Yet - less than three months ago - I promised "kids" who help me with my countless moves, that there would be no more moves with furniture and stuff. And I sold and gave away most of my Finnish and Swedish well loved arctic birch pieces, my white Italian leather sofa and armchair. And now I am dreaming of IKEA - something light, simple, unassuming, unpretential, unserious even - something that would function perfectly as furniture but did not feel confining.

Uh, huh, why oh why IKEA aren't you here? Shopping would be so easy - and so enjoyable.

Without you I have to wander among many small local furniture stores with really, really heavy, dark and ugly pieces, almost crying... yet I can't move to the apartment I like and sit, eat and sleep on its pristine white ceramic floors!!!

Monday, December 24, 2007

My secret Christmas wish list

I have been nursing my secret blogger' s Christmas wih list for a few weeks.
I wished that I could paint like Heather, photograph like Carina, write like Jen or Sara, etc. etc.

But when a time came to post it.... the monopoly cable company operating in Aguada, Choice Cable, the most incompetent, uncaring and, perhaps, corrupted cable company in the entire world, gave me - and everybody else here a Christmas present we are likely to remember a long time: 4 days so far- and counting - without internet!

(I finally got connected through a slow like molasses, but working! oh miracle! dial up connection. )

So my top priority wish is a different cable company! What's yours?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Tropical Christmas party dress

Today is a Christmas gift exchange and a Christmas lunch party at the institute, and later a festive gourmet dinner at Natural High Cafe in Rincon for the graduating program participants.

So I spent a moment this morning in front of my closet trying to figure out what to wear: evening wear being too "evening" for the occassion, party cruise wear too "cruise party", resort wear too "resort": the western coast of Puerto Rico has a - difficult - style all of its own: not the San Juan Puerto Rican smart dolled up in the absolutely latest fashion, but either a very sporty casual (wore mostly by surfer guys) or if more festive, than " I pretend I don't care about fashion or elegance... yet I don't want to look dorky" ( wore mostly by gals and local guys).

Finally I noticed a long, Caribbean sea blue silk dress with a deceptively simple cut, which I bought for myself in July, because I loved the color, even though the dress was at that time " a tad" too tight for me - and in a size I wasn't able to wear since 1999.

I tried it again just before Thanksgiving and - despite having lost 16 pounds - the dress was still too tight for me. 'Oh, my', I thought, I would never have guessed that I was that much of an optimist when I bought it.
But this morning the scale showed an 19.6 pounds of a total weight loss during the two months I have been here trying on this Living Food Lifestyle. So I tried the dress again.... and finally it fit me like a glove! Hurra!

I added a strand of discarded corals of the same azure shade of Caribbean sea, which I got for my nameday ot the beginning of this month - and voila, I was ready to "dazzle" and dance salsa, merengue , bomba and whatever else we were going to dance today... and no matter whether I knew how to dance it or not (women my age can get away with a lot, lol)! Who needs food when you feel good!

Merry Christmas partying everybody!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Caribbean birthday

I don't think I ever had my birthday party at a beach bar - after all my birthday is in December.

But this year I have been celebrated on my birthday in balmy Puerto Rico, so a beach bar was appropriate - and this particular one - Shipwreck Bar and Grill was perfect! It is fun and colorful during the day and fun and imaginatively illuminated by night, its menu is creative and the food really good. But I am getting ahead of myself fast forwarding to the evening party, while there is still the whole day to be described.

The day started very early, with a 7 am trip to the first secret birthday destination, which turned out to be a snorkeling/diving excursion (by Taino Divers)

to Desecheo Island:

The coral formations there are great. See for yourself:

We stopped at three different sights, one most suitable for divers, the other two for both divers and snorkelers. I was with a couple of friends, one of them an avid diver. He claims he spotted a large nursing shark, but nobody else in the tour group of 12 - 6 divers and 6 snorkelers - seen it. The whole tour was a such a quintessential Caribbean experience: the azure water, corals in all shapes and sizes, balmy weather, international company. We returned to port at 2 pm - after lunch of sandwiches on board and had to scramble to the next secret birthday destination, which turned out to be one of my most favorite places in Rincon: the Secret Garden Art Gallery!

Secret garden has great art by local artists and a fantastic location: a huge tropical, jungle like garden right on one of the beaches (see their video)!

I have visited the galery before, shopped there for a few of Christmas presents and had my eye on a couple of Roberto Ortizs (who runs the gallery) paintings for myself...and today I was going to get one of them as a birthday present. Wow, was I elated! (If you browse through Roberto's paintings on the Secret Garden's web site, you can see it: the painting of a fan like cliffs of Cabo Rojo) .

But we could not linger at the gallery or in the garden this time, since we had to hurry (hurry, hurry!) to a third secret location this day: a sunset whale watching sail with Katharina Sail Charters on a sailing catamaran.

Well, we haven't seen any whales, but the trip was lovely and the sunset amazing - as usual.

Hungry we disembarked and entered the Shipwreck Bar. Their menu is inventive, but we haven't hesitated much ordering our appetizers: mussels in white wine sauce, shrimps won-ton and calamares in a spicy sauce.

We wolfed all this accompanied by a bottle of wine... and discovered that we were completely satisfied with just appetizers. (Their portions are for very young and very hungry surfers). But for the sake of a birthday tradition we order one piece of cake for the three of us and I was reminded that I am not young any more, when my friends started discussing with the waiters how to squeeze the appropriate amount of candles on that piece of cake. Finally, a compromise solution was reached - just one candle! Suits me perfectly.

I would not mind having more fun and active birthday like this. Viva Puerto Rico!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Parranda or noise pollution

One parranda - especially one I participated in (see post: Yet another car, another cat and another dwelling) - was fun. But today a parranda at a beach bar and camping - three properties away from mine - started at noon with such an incredible noise volume, that not even ear plugs are able to help at this distance. So instead of a deserved weekend rest, at the beach, at a hammock, reading, I was forced to hide from that noise pollution in my office. And I wonder: are ALL Puertoricans deaf? They must be, if nobody protests either the construction noise (see post: I am moving... again) or a perpetual parranda in a quiet residential area. I certainly can't stand it without a permanent damage not only to my ears but my brain, as well.

The day would be glorious... if only the natives could celebrate Christmas a lot less noisily!
To listen to some parranda music (at a decent volume) go there:

Friday, December 14, 2007

A poor raped virgin

I went to the vet yesterday with my new find. Kitty was at first terrified by the pet carrier, but soon calmed down despite of - or may be because of the examination, parasite and ear mites tests and receiving three shots.

When we were at the vet a truck came in with a young, white horse on it. The horse looked very sad and had scratches near her eyes. I asked the people who came with her what kind of a problem the horse is having and was told that she was raped last night... by a guy, whom they managed to put under a citizen arrest and deliver to the local police. But the poor horse felt really sad and really sick. The horse's owner announced that she was looking for a big, guard dog, and since I just joined the newly formed local association for the protection of animals, I was able to point them to the association as a source of guard - and other - dogs, and at the same day they adopted an abandoned German Shepherd/Husky mix.

I hope the horse will feel better soon. But I still wonder what can posses a male human being to rape a horse!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Santa Lucia

It's morning of December 13 and all across Sweden girls get up very early, dress in long white gowns, put a candle crown in their hair (if they are chosen to be a Lucia) or a candle in their hands and form a procession - a Lucia taaget .

In Oesterskaer, the far outburb of Stockholm, deep in the Swedish archipelago, my daughter and her friends used to form such a procession, walking around the neighborhood in the dark early morning hours, singing a Swedish version of an old Neapolitan Santa Lucia song and offering saffron buns (Lussekatter)

and ginger snaps (pepparkakor), while the visited families would offer them an (alcoholfree) gloegg, otherwise usually a strong concoction of red wine, vodka (or cognac), spices, raisins and almonds.
Since it was winter in a northern country, it was usually cold, often bitterly cold, and the girls wore their white gowns over full winter clothes, which made them look a bit more like snow bunnies than willowy maidens. Boys joined in the fun, too, as star boys (stjaerngossar) .
There are many - and conflicting - explanations while the 4th century's Sicilian saint became so widely - and enthusiastically - celebrated in Sweden. One, the most plausible, is the light she bears in the darkest month of winter.
On this 13th od December I wake up in Puerto Rico, to the sound of surf and the sight of cocos palms framing the beach in front of my cabin... and nowhere in sight is there a Lucia, or a single saffron bun or a glass of gloegg. Not even a Lucia doll, since I forgot to pack her with me - and I feel sorry for myself. I'd rather be in Sweden today!
From the Swedish associations and clubs in Atlanta invitations drop into my email box to various Lucia celebrations there and I have to answer to all: "Sorry, can't come, I am in Puerto Rico" - and again I feel sorry having to miss all that fun. :-((
Oh, well, perhaps next year I could treat myself to a Lucia in the arctic, snow, cold, reindeers and ane of the arctic ice hotels. I haven't been to Northern Sweden since the year before my spouse, Erik, a real Norrlaenning, born and raised north of the Arctic circle, died 15 years ago.
But maybe after all this time I could be able to enjoy a visit to Norrland without him? Or if not to Norrland, than to either Stockholm or Skaane - two places I lived in - both with and without him?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Yet another car, another cat and another dwelling

Uff, it was a busy weekend. Too busy to hang around in a hammock....

During the last week the old car I bought developed a problem and was stopping at changing gears, or just out of the blue and after some frustrating - and even scary - experiences I decided to return it to the friend I bought it from, and she agreed to take it back and suggested refunding all my money, but I insisted she keeps some of them as a payment for my using it for almost a month.

Then I went to a car rental agency, rented a car and went searching for another car to purchase.

First, however, I promised to spend part of the weekend in question with a visiting friend and was showing her all the local beaches from Aquadillla to Anasco, when near the Table Rock beach in Aguada I spotted a large white villa overlooking the beach, that bore a discrete sign of two apartments for rent. The owner was inside so we went exploring.

There was a nice, cool, and very white (white ceramic floors, white walls, white trims, white kitchen cabinets, etc.) two bedroom apartment with an ocean view both from the living/dining room - with a white walled patio - and from the second bedroom/study, while master bedroom overlooked a large tropical garden. This apartment has a private entry gate (white, as you probably guessed it), car parking for more than one car and a private part of a garden. And a washer and dryer is in a nook outside the apartment - just the way I like doing laundry in the tropics - al aire fresco.

I liked this apartment from the start, since - contrary to my experiences in Puerto Rico so far - there was nothing shabby about the place, and the price - for a quiet beachfront location - was far from astronomical. However one advantage of the place - it was unfurnished and thus I could do it exactly the way I liked it - turned out to be a short term disadvantage: it was unfurnished and I have no furniture here, and - with the necessity to buy a car asap - I felt like I could not start furniture hunting - even for a minimalist living - before Christmas, while my current place was rented till December 20, and I wanted to move by then.

I informed the new landlord about the dillemma and we found a solution: they had also a fully furnished and air-conditioned studio on the other side of the villa - yet also with a view of the sea and the beach, and I could rent it now and when I had time to go shopping for furniture I could switch to the two bedroom apartment - unless, of course, somebody else claimed it first. So I decided to take the offer and risk at worst renting the studio till the end of the winter season - or to look elsewhere again, if somebody claimed the larger apartment. So we quickly penned a pre-rental agreement, I paid a security deposit and we continued the tour of beaches.

My friend tried surfing in Rincon with a guide (she is my daughter's age), while I had fun snorkeling - there are coral reefs here and great visibility. We played too long and when we were done, all car dealerships were closed. We went home, where we found that our neighbors were hosting a parranda - a Puerto Rican - more temperamentful - equivalent of Christmas caroling with all kinds of Caribbean music, all kind of instruments, song, dance, food, drink - a loud and rowdy, deliciously fun party to which we were instantly invited.

So we went car hunting on Sunday morning. My visiting friend proved invaluable here, since I know next to nothing about cars, while she could even spot if a part of the car was repainted after an accident and such some - boring yet important - practical things. So after visiting about a dozen of car dealerships on highway 2 between Rincon and Aguada, and her turning up her nose at everything she saw, we narrowed it first to two possibilities and finally settled on a nice looking 2002 Mazda Protege.

I offered to pay with American Express, which has no spending limit, but they did not accept Amex - nor any other credit card - so I - a bit in a culture shock, since I am oerhaps too used to pay by credit or debit cards for everything - finally agreed to give them two checks: one for $1000 to be cashed right away and one for the remainder to be cashed 10 days later, to give me time to sell some shares from my brokerage account ( which I would have done to pay an Amex bill within a month anyway - I do not carry any debt) to my checking account.

I could have gotten financing for the car from the dealer, but learned that it would cost me 18% in annual interest (yes, yes, financing in Puerto Rico is definitively not cheap - and neither are cars) and the average return I get on my stock portfolio ( save for the international part of it, due to dollar being practically in free fall since the beginning of Bushe's and Cheney's Iraq misadventure) is less than 18% a year, thus a no brainer was to sell some stock instead of financing the car - and negotiating a lower car price for a cash deal as an additional sweetener.
(My daughter, however, an MPA and CPA that she is, became so horrified by my check postdating routine that she immediately tranferred the amount in question from her savings to my checking. We have our differences: I keep everything in stock while she keeps about $20000 - $25000 in cash as a buffer. Perhaps wise - and sometimes very convenient I have to admit.)

So, after a purchase agreement was finished and I got my temporary vehicle licence ( the permanent one is supposed to arrive within 30 days), I got my new car to take with me.
I wondered a bit about insurance, but was informed that a basic insurance is included in a sticker that every Puerto Rican car must have on their front windshield - if a police spots an expiring sticker, the car is towed away and the owner/driver fined. I only had to purchase a full coverage insurance separately.

Now, armed with two cars, my friend and I went to the car rental agency to return the rental. And there she spotted a tiny, abandoned kitten, no more than three months old: white and grey, with blue eyes, skinny, hungry for both food and affection. My friend said "hey, kitty, kitty" but the kitten took one glance at her and then one glance at me and...without a slightest hesitation jumped into my arms. Thus I became a "foster mother" of yet another kitty and had to stop at a store, purchase kitten food, litter, box, carrier etc. etc.

Before the nightfall the kitty ate an inordinate amount of food, made a lot of use of her new litter box, groomed herself meticulously and fell asleep on a pillow next to mine.

The local vet is closed today, so tomorrow we go to have her checked out, treated if need be and given all the protective shots a kitty requires.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Flaming June in Ponce

Isn't she magnificent? So vibrant and so peaceful, so supple-bodied and so delicate facial features.... my baby!

Well, yes, I know that Frederic Leighton painted Flaming June in 1895, and his model would have to be about 130 years old by now and thus could not have been my baby. But she is so much alike my daughter, a thoroughly modern contemporary woman, a vibrant auburn haired, highly intelligent beauty. Venus in every woman is eternal!

Both Daughter and I love Flaming June not only for that likeness, but most of all for the sheer beauty of the painting, its lines, colors, its very, very subtle shading.

When we found out that the original was in Ponce's Museum of Art, we had to include a visit to the museum in our trip around Puerto Rico. There, Flaming June is prominently displayed framed by other striking pre-Rafaelitan paintings. Yet, she dominates, subtly but certainly.
Just like my baby, wherever she finds herself ;-).

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Food dreams

December is a month of celebration for practically everybody, but I have - in addition to the common ones, like a birthday of San Nick (December 6), Swedish Santa Lucia (December 13) Christmas (December 24-26) and New Year's Eve (December 31) - also a couple of personal celebrations: one of my namesdays (the birthday of one of my patron saints, Santa Barbara, December 4) and my very own birthday on December 17.

Six celebrations in one month - I think you agree with me that it is way too much, and I should be careful not to give in to too many temptations in order not to overindulge. I started all right, celebrating my namesday with a dessert of star fruit in a red fruit ( mostly raspberry) puree. Mmm, good.

But soon after that I made my first food mistake of the month, when I visited my favorite food blog from the Dominican Republic , after living for over 6 weeks almost exclusively (save for a brief Thanksgiving recess) on organic vegetables, fruits and young greens like these:

At luzcace blog I became dangerously exposed to the menus of their lavish Christmas Eve and Christmas Day buffets, which made me salivate and dream of - be it unhealthy - but familiar FOOD!
And - to make things worse, I became exposed also to images like this:

Oh, my! No wonder that tonight, at the Eve of Sant Nick I had pretty weird food dreams.

The night started with a dream of a desk drawer in my office, full of pastries, typical Puertorican French puff pastries with guava, almonds etc. They filled my entire drawer, pedantically arranged on white paper-lace doilies. Nibbling even on a single one would ruin the whole esthetics of the composition, so - in the dream - I kept looking into the drawer every now and then - and kept closing it without touching any of the pastries.

But after this exercise in food lust and food restraint I - still in a dream - went to a party.

There, a lot of elaborate - and yummy - appetizers were served by waiters in tuxedos on huge silver trays, but whenever I felt tempted to taste any of the appetizers, they would all explode like geizers or vulcanoes!

My - once - favorite bef bourgignone erupted into a vulcano of red wine sauce with pieces of beef falling down like rocks. A cheese fondue with herbs - another - once upon a time - cold weather favorite food of mine - kept bubbling like a cheesy Old Faithfull in Yellowstone, then suddenly erupting and overflowing in its creamy goldness, too hot ( and too scary?) to even dip a breadstick in it. And so - da capo al fine .

I admit that this seemingly endless food 'dance' was increadibly fascinating, but I became sad, nevertheless, realizing that I might stay hungry for the rest of my life - being able only to look at ordinary food, but not eating it. :-((

Finally, early in the morning, after I killed the alarm clock, to keep sleeping for a while longer, I had a final dream about a simple, organic, soft boiled egg from a free range hen. It was made viennese style, in a lightly buttered glass, topped with young sunflower greens and dulse flakes. Even this simple egg, however, is not a part of a 100% "living food lifestyle". Yet, on account of celebrating Saint Nick's birthday I gave in: during a lunch break I went to a store, bought 6 organic eggs from free range hens (they would not sell me just one) and enjoyed one for lunch exatly the way I dreamt it! Ha!

....But it is only December 6 - how on earth am I going to withstand all the other temptations of December??? and with FIVE more tempting eggs in my fridge??? I might even be tempted to create a zabaione.... ;-)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A weekend at El Yunque

View of El Yunque

Wow! Isn't El Yunque magnificent? The breathtaking vistas,

View from El Yungue toward the sea

the lushness of its flora, the richness of its fauna, the magnificent waterfalls

La Coca waterfall

and its natural swimming pools

El bano grande

We were lucky: during our weekend visit it rained only during the night and the weather during the day was glorious, sunny, allowing far far vistas. We drove first to the interpretive center, learned about the endangered Puerto Rican green parrots, view exhibits, picked driving and hiking instructions, then drove all the length of 191, stopping to have a quick glimpse at all the roadside attractions.
El Yunque is very friendly towards mobility impaired people: sights like La Coca waterfall, and El Bano grande can be enjoyed from the car.
Then we took a couple of different length hikes: a pleasant stroll to La Mina waterfall, a more challenging climb to the old tower near the top, a fun trek from El Bano del Oro to El Bano Grande with a dip in each.
If I did not work at the west coast of Puerto Rico, I would move in an instant somewhere close to El Yunque: not only it is a natural wonder, but, as if it was not enough, it is located only about 36 km from San Juan, and about 5-10 km from glorious, sandy beaches. May be when I stop working?