Friday, October 24, 2008

My year in Puerto Rico

Last Sunday was my anniversary of living in Puerto Rico.

I decided to leave the island as soon as my professional obligations permit, most likely during spring, as I absolutely can't imagine spending another rainy/hurricane season here.

I could live here during a few winter months... but there are probably more comfortable places in the Caribbean to spend winters, which I haven't yet discovered, so I am not likely to return to PR.

Right now my overall impression of Puerto Rico as a place for me is : a hell with some elements of paradise....., but given sufficient time outside the island my memory might change to a paradise with elements of hell... I usually remember adventures warmly, even if they have been hellish at the time ;-)

What was paradisic in Puerto Rico for me:

  • Climate ... but in winter only... I love being able to wear light summer clothes all winter long, swim in the warm, calm, beautiful Caribbean sea,
  • Nature ... its beauty and its unexpected diversity, considering that it is such a small island. Granted, Puerto Rico does not - by far - have the natural diversity of fauna or flora of , say, Costa Rica, but it is both beautiful and diversified nevertheless. And Puerto Rico has some really breathtaking beaches.
  • People... though as friends, coworkers and neighbors only: they are warm, helpful, cheerful... Puerto Ricans as citizens are not my kind of people: I dislike traditionalism, conservatism, unwillingness to stand up to authorities and demand fair treatment by them... and, most definitively, I dislike what happens to many Puerto Ricans when they get behind the wheel .... it is like dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde... ;-)
  • San Juan Viejo... it is utterly charming despite its commercialism. I moved to Puerto Rico after visiting the Old San Juan only and imagined the whole island to be as charming... A big mistake... the rest of the island is an architectural disaster, completely devoid of any elements of charm.
What was hellish for me in PR:

  • Housing. Definitively THE main contributor to my perception of Puerto Rico as hell. I have NEVER had to move so many times in such a short period of time. Only twice during my year in PR I moved because of the job change, while four times I moved because of the hidden flaws in the dwellings I rented: noise in the first dwelling, dangerous electric shower in the second, lack of water in the casita when the stream dried out, and having been trapped there once due to idiotic construction of inoperable windows, overheating due to nonexistent insulation in walls and ceiling in my current condo. I would have moved again in a heartbeat again from my new condo, despite its breathtaking view of the sea and of magnificent sunsets, were it not for the high deposit I paid... the hope that the problem won't be so pronounced in winter... and lack of more suitable alternatives near my work. I thank heavens, though, that I have resisted signing the rental contract for one year: my expensive, so called luxury condo ... is overheating so badly that - except for the (huge, I admit) balcony and its sea breeze - the rest of the condo is practically uninhabitable in the afternoons and evenings - where I want to spend some time there. And the bathroom without a window and without ac makes even morning grooming an exercise in futility: one gets sweaty within a minute of leaving the shower!
    So I have decided to NEVER AGAIN rent a place without central a/c in a hot climate. And there are NO dwellings with central a/c for rent in PR - as far as I know!
  • Climate between May and November: it is awfully hot and humid! Yet, I am used to hot and humid. I have lived on a barrier island in Texas, where it gets a lot hotter, and I was very comfortable there. I have also lived in Florida in summer, and was comfortable also. But in all tropical and semi tropical places where I lived I had a central a/c at home, or - like in Costa Rica - lived so high up in the mountains, that a/c was not needed, and I was not forced to suffer heat and humidity both outside and inside! And the heat and humidity (without a/c) in PR creates a mold problem I have never had to deal with before PR (except for a short period in Costa Rica, but I left CR in mid June)... and never want to deal with after PR! And I haven't even mention the hurricanes, yet, the occasional lack of water and electricity during the hurricane season. No, PR in summer IS HELL! Both for people and electronics.
  • Roads are almost as bad as in most of Latin America, which is far poorer than PR and not a part of USA. So there is not a lot of excuse for PR authorities to have neglected them so badly. They are hell on cars.
  • Inequality, overblown and inefficient bureaucracy etc, - did you know that PR, despite it being a free associated state of the USA ranks as FOURTH MOST UNEQUAL country in the Americas???

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My new - all in all - $400+ starter motor...

... or how to be taken to the cleaners (twice???) by car mechanics in PR.

In my last post - from less then two weeks ago (I know, I have been neglecting this blog) I wrote about the troubles my starter motor caused me... and that I had it fixed after a couple of hours of wasted time and a $ 130 in towing ($45) and parts and labor for the starter.

I thought the problem was fixed. But no... yesterday I went to the airport in San Juan to drop in my daughter, who was leaving after her long weekend visit. Parked the car... but when I was ready to drive back, the car would not start. The airport security came to help, noticed there was electricity: sound signals worked, lights worked, radio worked... but the car would not start.

They tried to bust it anyway, but to no effect. They said it was my starter. Whaaat? Said I?
I had it fixed less than two weeks ago!!!!

They shook their heads... So I called AAA, now knowing it offered services in PR.

A towing truck came in less than half an hour. The towing guy tried to bust it, also, not trusting the security people... and the same no result. Starter, he said. I repeated that I had it fixed less than two weeks ago. He, too, shook his head and towed me to the nearest Western Auto in Carolina.

"You need a new starter" - they told me. "It will be $ 170".

I reapeated that I had it fixed recently.

"He rebuilt your starter" they told me. "But it did not work. You need a new one. $ 170, will be ready in 45 minutes".

So there I was : 120 miles away from home, two deadlines looming and I have already taken too much time to entertain my daughter during the weekend and driving her to San Juan.

"OK", I said.

But after half an hour the guy, Carmelo, calls me back:

"We have a problem" he says." This is not the part you need. The regular starter won't work in your car". He did not explained why. He only shook his head, when I asked and continued: You need a special starter. There is one in Lakeland, Texas, which we can get here in one and a half weeks (he knows I am 120 miles from home, before he askem me that previously) ... and there is one on the island, which I can get in about half an hour, but it will be that much" and he shows me a price on the computer of $ 296.

I had a distinct feeling I was being taken advantage of ( you know , the Blink factor), but... what was I to do: renting a car, driving to Cabo Rojo and driving back in one and half a week would cost me more that the difference (of about $ 100) in quoted starter prices, so I agreed.

The part arrived within the half hour as promised and the car was fixed within a bit more than an hour. But the final bill did not show the price of the starter as previously quoted at the computer screen. It was the same as Lakeland price - if I remember correctly. Only a few other parts and services were suddenly added to come to a definitively not cool $301.

I have been taken to the cleaners: twice, presumably... though the first time might have been in a misguided wellmeaning....

Handy men and car mechanics - two groups I have very bad experiences with ... almast always trying to take advantage of single old ladies. That was the reason I sold my house in Texas when my spouse died and swore never to buy another one, so I would not have to be at handyman's mercy - or bother my neighbors every time I got a repair quote to verify just how badly they want to rob me.

But how WHERE can I live without a car, to be able not to be at mercy of car mechanics????

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Making a grand entry... the WRONG way!

Mayaguez Resort and Casino - terrace in front of IFC meeting room

This morning I - inadvertently, I swear! - made a huge traffic stop when entering - by car - Mayaguez Resort & Casino, to attend a breakfast meeting of the Mayaguez International Friendship Club.

I pulled into the entry gate too far away to reach a parking ticket, so I stopped the car and got out to pick my ticket up. That went realtively well, although already inconveniencing a few drivers behind me... but when I got back into the car and tried to start it... nothing happened.

Again and again. I opened the mask, to see if battery screws needed tightening, messed with them a moment and ... hotel personnel started coming to get me off that spot. First they tried the jumper cables, but when these did not help, they pushed my car away, so the others could pass me.

I could not believe how many cars I managed to stop during this five minutes (?) of my car mishap!

I told the parking attendants I was about to be late to a meeting. "Don't worry", they told me, "your car can stay here until you get back and then we shall see what we can do."

Now, THAT, I call a first class service!

I enjoyed the meeting, got the tow truck called in by the parking staff, after they failed to start the car with jumper cables. "Starter" they told me "not the battery". The tow truck took it to Mercado Auto Electric downtown, a garage that specializes in alternators (don't ask me what that is, I have no idea), starters, generators, regulators and all things electrical.

The car is now fixed. Starter changed. Parts and labor total $68.78, which, I was told, is a very good price.

Tow truck was $45 and a very nice conversation with its driver, who told me about his adventures driving an 18-wheeler through the entire USA and Canada, when he worked there. He knew how to speak Spanish to a foreigner, and even threw in some English words, when I looked confused, so I understood quite a bit of it. Too bad I did not know I could have used my AAA in Puerto Rico, but I know now!

The worst was the close to 40 minutes wait for a coworker to come and pick me up from the garage, as it is downtown, tight spaces, hot, nowhere to sit and cool down. And, of course, after I pick up my car from the garage, I'll have to try and not get lost, among the maze of narrow, congested streets. But I'll manage somehow :-))

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Pumpkin cakes - Puertorican style: Barriga (?) de vieja

Funny thing. I get into AMPI's kitchen this morning to make myself coffee and I see our cook making some kind of a dough. I ask and am told we are going to have traditional PuertoRican fried pumpkin cakes: barriga de vieja?
I am just guessing at the spelling, if it is supposed to mean "an old woman's belly pounch"????

So lunch today for lunch is rice and corn beef, avocados and those "old women's belly paunches" .

Ouch. Still, I had two of them :-))

Too bad I had no camera with me. :-(((

But here is a message to local readers: if you ever have too much of some crop: avocado, calabazas, bananas, whatever, AMPI will be thrilled to accept a donation of foodstuffs.

We have 52 mostly low and very low income clients to feed and a very limited budget.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Pumpkin pancakes

I found this unexpectedly versatile recipe for pumpkin pancakes - a traditional treat of Polish cuisine, which I did not know. Should be handy for all, who "suffer" from an overabundance of calabazas (I think they can be frozen, if needed).

They can be served in either sweet or savory version.

Basic recipe: make a dough as for pancakes: mix flour with egg and a bit of salt. Then add shredded raw (recommended) or cooked minced pumpkin, so that the dough is a thick pancake variety.
For a savory version add minced onion and/or some spices: red paprika, cayenne, chili, whatever you like.

Fry pancakes :they should be slightly puffy to taste their best.

Sprinkle confectioners sugar over a sweet version and serve with sour cream . The savory version is in Poland traditionally served with duck... or venison... but they taste good alone, too, also served with sour cream.
Buen provecho!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Good news and bad news

Yesterday my blood sugar started acting real bad, 270 fasting blood glucose was a reason for serious concern... (normal is 80-120) but yesterday I was lucky.

I was recommended another doctor, this one in San German. I called his office, told his assistant exactly the same in Spanish, what I told the other one last Friday... and got a completely different reception.

Learning about my blood sugar she put the doctor - who spoke English - on the phone and after a short exchange he asked me to come right away and he would fit me between other appointments, as my blood sugar level was serious.

Well, it got up to 370 by the time I got to his office and my blood pressure was 190! Horrible.
The doctor told me what to do to get both down asap, ordered a battery of tests... and told me to make a follow up appointment for next week.

When I was leaving his office I heard him apologizing profusely to a person with next appointment slot, that my emergency caused him to wait 15 minutes.

Yes, this doctor makes appointments, like in any other country.

And accommodates what he sees as emergencies.

And apologizes to a patient who had to wait a few minutes because of this.

I am inclined to treat it as a first swallow of hope, that Puerto Rico can get organized, if only there is some will and some goodwill.

I would make a champagne toast to it, but at the moment I am not supposed to drink champagne. So orange juice it is!

As for my health: I had to refuse (beg, actually) being declared unfit to work, no matter my blood sugar and blood pressure levels, because I have an important deadline and - at the moment - am absolutely indispensable (I know, cemeteries are full of those, but I am still standing... well, sitting ;-)), so I made some accommodations in my work schedule.

Instead of the regular 9-12 hours straight at my desk I now shall work in the morning (3-4 hours, till I get tired) then exercise (swim, walk), eat, rest, ( a total of 2.5-3 hrs), work again... (3-4 hours, or till I get tired) and so da capo al fine till the work planned for the day is done and I am still feeling ok. Hopefully that way I'll be well and the work will get done. :-)
Wish me luck... if you feel so inclined ;-)