We touched down in San Juan after a long, full flight with a surprising number of families with small children. David proved his child-wrangling experience when he had to basically capture and hogtie a small Puerto Rican boy during takeoff. The four-hour flight was cacophonous, but timely and otherwise comfortable. I sat next to an older lady who stayed stiffly silent, so I suspected she was uncomfortable with English. Several hours into the flight, I asked if she was going home or visiting (in English). She awkwardly avoided eye contact and flapped her hands jerkily in embarrassment.
"I - no... English, no." And she fell silent. I felt bad for putting her on the spot like that. I should have tried Spanish first.
So I stupidly stammered out, "Uh, está bien si, uh, puedo practicar mis, mi Español... un poquito?" Uh, is it okay if, uh, can I practicar mine, my Spanish... a little bit? My Spanish was painfully belaboured. I sounded like a moron. My neighbor, however, was visibly relieved and even chatted with me for a bit. She was on her way home from visiting her two grandkids in Texas. Her language was rich and fast. Mine was more like trying to breathe through a mouthful of pudding. All's well that ends well, though, because I was able to ask her to take a picture of San Juan as we were landing. It's the little victories.
As I walked off of the airplane I was hit by a wave of humidity. It's like walking into a bathroom that someone just took a hot shower in. I immediately felt sticky. David and I thankfully collected our luggage (he had lost bags on these trips before), and climbed into a taxi to take us to Steve Massey's house in Old San Juan. He's a professor (of microbiology?) at the University of Puerto Rico. The taxi blessedly had air conditioning, though the sun had long since fallen and the clouds above where heavy. Soon, though, the taxi ended up in the narrow cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan.
Old San Juan is undisputedly the coolest part of the city. It's a district that was built long ago, with tall colonial-style architecture, and a sort of close, unpredictable nature that is a remnant from when people still built cities for walking, not cars. Hills rose sharply, entrances below and verandas above materialized and vanished unexpectedly. Indeed, streets were too narrow almost for our taxi, he let us out almost a full block away from Steve's place.
We knocked on the a featureless, but very tall narrow door on the side of the street. The man who greeted us was very tall and narrow, just like his door. He was mostly bald, but conversed energetically in a distant english accent. His clothes indicated the kind of transplanted foreigner that was perfectly comfortable in the tropics: everyday shorts and sandals with a dash of acceptable shabbiness. He brought us inside. He lived on the upper floor beside the street, and his residence was a mostly-vertical hodgepodge stacking of open slatted windows, cool tile, and wood-furnished rooms. He lived alone, but good-naturedly offered us his two guest beds.
I took a few shots of Steve's place in the morning before anyone was up and about. There was a spartan quality to his decor, yet the style of the architecture was just... real neat. It was clearly the house of a comfortable bachelor. Everywhere there was evidence of a single person's habits. All kinds of potted herbs lined his rooftop, and the objects left about indicated comfortable, habitual living.
It was clear that Steve and David were good friends, genuinely interested in each other's lives and eager to swap gossip about the goings-on of Puerto Rico. The country (territory? state?) is in the grips of a very serious economic downturn, and its unique in-between political status grants the people very little power over its government. PR's fiscal policies have been seized from the government to a committee of policy-makers, and the extreme cuts to government spending has made quite a few people unhappy. Not least of whom are students of the University of Puerto Rico, who are currently barricading all entrances to campus, Che Guevara-style, preventing classes and any regular happenings of university life. Student strikes are relatively common here, but this one seems more serious, and is lasting much longer than usual. The strike means professors like Steve is currently on an unplanned sabbatical until further notice. He seemed fairly relaxed about the dire situation, laughing, "It gives me more time to write about my research! I prefer to work here anyway. It suits me just fine." I can see why. His flat was comfortable and had an undeniable cool factor that I would be loath to leave if I where him.
"So you're David's new PhD student?" he asked me suddenly, as we were discussing his latest research (which was REALLY cool, about communication networks taken from the Pentateuch). I blushed, giggled, and wormed in my seat like a junior high girl mistaken for a high schooler by her friend's hot older brother. No. I'm David's unpaid undergraduate slave.
After a fitful night's rest under an air-conditioning unit (that had two settings: full arctic gale and off), we awoke to catch a taxi back to the airport to board a small local flight to Mayagüez, which is on the side of the island we will work on. It made me a bit sad to leave Old San Juan, which was a very cool place. I drank in the sights of pastel buildings lining narrow blue-bricked streets as we weaved through them. Steve had said that the iconic blue bricks were laid over a hundred years ago, from the ballast of old ships. I hope to come back again before we leave, though it’s quite far from where we will be working. And after all, I am here to work, not to tour the sights. I had a feeling that I would need to repeat that mantra to myself several more times before the end.
We BARELY caught our flight, again. Though once we arrived, gasping, at the gate, I saw the the tiny two-prop Cessna with her total passengers (two other people) and seriously doubted that it would have left without us. We boarded, and when the captain gave the customary “I will be your pilot today” speech, he literally just swivelled in his chair to face us. I could have rapped him on the back of the head with my knuckles had I wanted to.
The flight was amazing. We took off (the cabin absolutely sweltering, I tried in vain tugging at the little nozzle by my head, but no relief came) to a spectacular view of San Juan by the ocean. We soon cut over land, with lush green jungle hills dipping and rolling under the clouds. Occasionally I would see a glistening brown serpentine ribbon, a river swollen with unceasing rainwater, winding through the green. The aircraft hummed and pulsed aggressively, pulling us westward. My head nodded and eyes felt heavy. I didn’t get much sleep over the last few days, and as spectacular as the flight was, the vibration and muffled roar of the engines lulled me to nod off for a moment or two.
We touched down in Mayagüez. The airport was little more than a strip of asphalt and a small building with air conditioning to wait for your taxi in. It was almost comically small after the mind-numbingly large international airports we left from.
I soon saw firsthand the sometimes-frustrating lackadaisical attitude of Puerto Rican timing. We had arranged for our rental car to pick us up when we arrived. It wasn't there. David was resignedly irritated.
“Of course.” He muttered, our luggage piled behind us on an empty curb in front of the little airport. He pulled out his phone and started to dial. “This doesn’t surprise me at all. We’ll probably be here for at least forty-five minutes until whoever-it-is decides to go have lunch and come back.”
It was two hours before our car showed up. The driver was genial, but David still pushed for a discount on the rental for the wait. He got it.
As we started to drive to Cabo Rojo (where we would stay), heavy clouds moved in alarmingly fast and dumped an incredible amount of rain. Apparently it rains almost everyday at about the same time in the late afternoon. This is nice for us, as we will be working in the field in the morning, and never past noon. Driving in Puerto Rico is a totally different ballgame. Drivers seem to play by a different set of rules, which include ‘get where you want, screw everybody else’, and ‘avoid death’, in that order. We decided it would be best if I only drive if absolutely necessary, which I am very okay with.
We soon arrived at our home, which will be two rented bedrooms in a house of a older Colombian woman named Gladys. We were greeted by her at her gate (which surrounds most homes here). She's clearly a grandma to many, and I’m sure we will be no exception. She ushered us in, warning us not to let her cat Trueno outside. Her house was very nice, and I would love to describe her and the house to you but unfortunately I need to wake up at 4am.
Here are some more pictures. I will post again soon about starting my field work and a few neat experiences I've had very soon.
A current undergrad of Psychology at the University of Lethbridge. I'm a budding scientist and... blogger?
My supervisor and professor, the protagonist of this blog. For more information on David Logue's research on Adelaide's Warblers, check out his website: