What Is Puerto Rico Anyway???

Updated February 14, 2007

Time traveling: 1 day, 18 hours
Miles driven: 140 + 140 (to airport)
New stores: 23
Recognition ratio: 2/23
Coffee consumed: 92 oz
Spent on coffee: $3.40
Spent on gas: $50.49 (forgot to fill rental)
Spent on tolls/parking: $33.81 + $25 (airport)
Other expenses: $409.84 (airfare, car rental, room)
Medication: 4 fake Excedrin

February 9, 2007

Because of space restrictions at that weekend's Scrabble tournament in New York CIty, I was not able to play. This left me with a free weekend, and with 22 Starbucks listed and flights from NYC to Puerto Rico plentiful and reasonably inexpensive (though still higher than the sub-$200 fares I had seen listed when I did a search in December), I decided it was finally time to go.

I had scheduled my flight for 6:00 AM Saturday morning to give myself extra time at work (extra cash for my planned monthlong overseas trip), and I fully expected to be really tired during the trip. To try and adjut my body's clock I had gone to bed around 6:00 on Thursday and slept a number number of hours (with interruptions) until 7:30 Friday morning. By 3:00 Friday afternoon I was tired and a little dizzy, so I left work and slept until about 6:30. I had hoped to sleep until 10:00, but I just couldn't manage it.

No point in wasting time tossing and turning, so I went back to work for a few hours before finally heading up to Manhattan to visit some Starbucks and then trying to see the midnight movie, Wings of Desire. Unfortunately, I arrived maybe 10 minutes past 12:15 (when the movie usually starts), and those crumb bums at the Sunshine had closed the box office. Bah. So what could I do but go ahead and head towards JFK. I pulled off the freeway at the last exit before the airport, Rockaway Blvd, sorted out the stuff I needed to take in my backpack, and went to sleep.

February 10, 2007

I awoke for to make the kiwi at 3:37, sleep as fuck, and shocked that 4:00 AM so close. I reset my alarm for 4:11, turned on the engine, and tried to go back to sleep. At 3:50 I gave up and got back on the freeway. I reached the Long Term parking area about 4:10 and found a space very close to othe entrance to the Air Train.

The check-in line for the main cabin was long, but to my surprise American Airlines designates Puerto Rico as "domestic", and I was able to check in via the kiosk. So far it was going much more smoothly for me than for the poor young woman, voice cracking and on the verge of tears, who claimed her wallet (and ID, presumably), had been stolen and that she desperately needed to get home.

After explaining to the TSA agent that she needed to read "NOLASTNAME", I cleared security right at 5:00 AM, giving me plenty of time. No problems with my deodorant gel.

The bookstore, Hudson News, was closed, which surprised me. Later I would see a smaller version closer to my gate, but I was preoccupied with my near disaster. I had set my passport and boarding pass atop the paper towel dispenser in the bathoom while brushing my teeth, and I left it there. I did not realize this until I reached the gate and went to retrieve my phone charger. I immediately rushed back to the bathroom in a panic, and I spotted a man handing something to a member of the airport staff, cleaning crew maybe. I could see the boarding pass sticking out of the passport, and I shouted out to her "PASSPORT?". She smiled and handed it to me. Whew! Close call. My situation would not have been as bad as that of the crying-girl, but I would had missed my trip nonetheless. I could have boarded the plane without ID, but my arrival in Puerto Rico could have been problematic, or maybe my arrival back in the States.

My next issue was to try and find a working power outlet. Three tries, and three strikes. Then I spotted a thin column-like contraption sporting the Samsung logo. The device had multiple outlets, but they all specified MAX 2A (amperes?) and did not appear to work for my phone charger, despite the fact that I could see another mobile being charged. What gives?

Just as I made this discovery, yet another inconvenience materialized, announced by the gate attendants--breakfast would be provided for a fee, not for free. I was left to purchase a bagel from au bon pan and to be grateful for the banana, apple, and yogurt I had consumed just in case.

I slept on and off for 2 1/2 hours, and then I pulled out the laptop and continued trying to plot locations. Microsoft Streets & Trips was not able to locate a single one, for several reasons. While its database has Puerto Rico streets, it does not appear to have addresses. Often didn't matter because only a few of the store listings had addresses, and the street names were in English anyway, not the way they are on the map. So I had to eyeball the map, scanning for streets and neighborhoods, to try and get my blue dots as close as possible.

Upon exiting the jetway I approached an American agent and asked, in English, about the Starbucks. When I switched to Spanish, she seemed more comfortable, and she gave me directions that led me right to the location. I waited in line until I got the attention of a barista and asked about the manager. She got him on her mobile, and I explained that I needed to find out if this location was operated by Starbucks or licensed. He manager said it was run by the same company as the others, but the high price for a tall coffee, $1.90, made me suspicious. I drank a sample anyway, but I asked the customer ahead of me to ask for a receipt so I could jot down the store #: 88008.

I caught the shuttle out to Budget and never had to show my passport.

Kia Rio, controls similar to that of a Hyundai.

Had trouble getting my bearings right away. Once I figured out what highway I was on, I exited and made the first turn, and when all the cars heading the opposite direction started honking, I worried I was on a one-way street. That turned out not to be the case, but I did discover that I had misplaced my comb. Either it fell out of my backpack, or I left it back in my car at JFK. Damn, but my hair was looking nappy.

Esso, Walgreens

Took me a bit to get my bearings, but at least traffic, around noon, was not bad.

Oh, yeah, very warm weather, which meant girls in skimpy clothing--yeah, baby!

Found Avenida Ashford and stumbled across a Starbucks, but not the one I expected--this one was La Galeria. I went ahead and took the $2.00 parking hit because I needed the time to talk to the manager. I confirmed that the airport store is operated by Starbucks, and I obtained two additional store listings and general directions to several other stores I had not found on my map. All that was good news, but the bad news was that the store, nor any of the others, I was told, had electrical outlets for customers. Another bit of bad news--Santander Tower was not open weekends. I'd have to skip that store until my next trip, which probably wouldn't be for at least three years, maybe as many as five.

While waiting outside to take a photo a pretty young woman walked by selling "pastelitos". I asked what they were, and she said they were like an empanada. I figured I might as well try the local cuisine.

Sign warning of possible tsunami. Not a heartening sight.

Some security guards were visible in front of various areas, but not the overwhelming security presence I saw in Mexico City.

$2.50 parking next to the Condado store, so I took my chances on a side street.

Same brand of sugar in the raw, but the regular sugar packets are different.

When the first parking garaged charged me $2 instead of the posted $1.88, I thought it might have been a glitch. But at the Hilton, where I did not see any other viable parking options, I was charged $3.20 instead of $3.00. Must be a tax on parking!!! Dude, that's so wack!!! The trip was getting more expensive by the minute.

Koko and Paco (their real names--I did not make them up)

Beautiful day, 2:00 PM, heavy traffic into Old San Juan. Heavy police presence as I neared the old city, and on top of that, what appeared to be military uniforms (brownish/greenish). Does Puerto Rico have a military?

While looking for the Starbucks/parking I spotted a really pathetic looking old lady sprawled on the ground. Later, as I walked to the hostel and other Starbucks, I saw more homeless, but not what I would call "many". Less than I expected, really, if I had any expectation at all.

As I suspected, parking in Old San Juan was in short supply. But I lucked out and found a 20-minute loading spot. Unfortunately, besides the wait to speak to the supervisor, there was some construction a few doors down from the Starbucks that was intermittently blocking the narrow taxiway. I had to wait at least five more minutes for the taxis to move for my phot, and I returned to my car in the nick of time, with an agent just a few cars down from mine, talking to some man who was trying to talk his way out of a ticket (I presume).

Incidentally, the two taxi drivers standing in front of the store seemed to be taking their delay in stride, even thought it was presumably costing them money.

Old San Juan was so densely packed with pedestrians, combined the very narrow streets, that I was forced to do something I loathe--pay attention to the road (generally a waste of time). I had to add Old San Juan to my list places where I was unwilling to watch video, read, or do shots of Jagermeister while driving.

Spotted the same young woman selling pastelitos--that was a looooong distance she had walked.

I was torn between abandoning the traffic mess in Old San Juan and heading to a different area. That would mean I'd have to return by 10:00 to check into the hostel however, so I kept trying to find parking. At some point I lost the ability to control my direction because the police were closing this and that street and forcing traffic away. I probably ended up a good mile from where I wanted to be when I finally found a parking space. By the time I neared the hostel, I learned that the street closure was due to some parade with many horses. The lead horses in each wave were trained to clop their hooves very loudly, and this had the effect of setting off many car alarms. The crowd didn't care--people love parades. I think they just get in my way.

I finally checked in to the hostel and was pleased to learn that I would receive a set of keys with which I could enter at any hour. Not that it would be too late, given how little I had slept the night before.

I then went to the other Old San Juan store, where the barista would not fill sample cup to the required point. But at least they sold the short and I only spent $1.70.

Something historic called "el moro", I think.

I had been holding off eating in anticipation of good native food, with plantains, perhaps in Old San Juan, but the parking situation made that infeasible. It was past 4:00 when I left Old San Juan, and with the sun setting I figured I needed to rush to photograph as many stores as possible. So to tide me over, at the Cala Costas store I tried a pastry, something called a guava quesito, warmed in a convection oven. Other items not found in the U.S. included cornbread (I think) and "fresh" orange juice. Not squeezed like in France and Spain, but not bottled either.

At the 9th store, finally ran across a barista who had heard of me, saw TV footage.

United States Postal Service! Subway, Church's UPS Store

Sense of vanity finally took over, and I had to buy a comb. I can't say for certain the my action was unrelated to the presence outside the Garden Hills store of three skimpily-clothed blonde cuties of indeterminate ages.

Macaroni Grille, Chili's, Fuddruckers

At the Plaza San Patricio store the barista repeatedly used a phrase that was new to me, "que cool!"

Chatted with the mother of a cousin who lives in Puerto Rico, but it turns out they live two hours away in Arecibo. I wasn't up for a 4-hour round trip, but my cousin was supposed to take her boyfriend to the airport around noon Sunday, and perhaps we could meet after.

When I left Plaza San Patricio it was dark, so my focus shifted to food, food, food. I head out towards the Esmeralda store and spotted Restauante & Bar Manchego. By the time I pulled into the parking I was so famished that my head was starting to hurt bad and I was weak. It was 7:15, and all I had eaten was the guava quesito, the pastelito, a PowerBar on the plane, and an apple and yogurt around 5:00 AM before boarding the plane. Not nearly enough!

The restaurant advertised Spanish, Creole, and Cuban food. Not Puerto Rican, but they served rice, beans, and plantains--that was good enough for me. As long as those three items are on the menu, I don't care if the place bills itself as Outer Mongolian!

The host/waiter recommended the churrasco. It was expensive, but what the heck--sit down meals were few and far between during my trips, and I was making good money. The steak was excellent. The portion was smaller than I expected of a Latin restaurant, but it didn't matter, because the plate was plenty to fill me up, and I did not have the means to effectively take any away for later. And to the restaurant's credit, the quality of the meat was excellent, much better than the oft-gristly cuts offered at the mom-n-pop joints.

Immediately upon finshing meal I gulped down two fake Excedrin, my vitamin, and my gingko. The latter was very important because I had already learned, the hard away, that skipping the pill resulted in a severe withdrawal headache.

Wi-Fi is BluZone, not T-Mobile.

Puerto Rico still crazy about Ricky Martin! Facec splashed over a couple of papers. Brings back memories of when I was a kid in Panama and crazy for a (pre-Ricky) version of Menudo.


And of course, Wal-Mart!

With the two Bayamon stores, sixteen total for the day, I had had enough and headed back towards San Juan. I knew I would not be able to sleep, so I wandered around for a while. On one of the main drags, Ponce de Leon, not too far down from a theatre showing a play or musical, I spotted a place called Frenchy's. I asked a policeman, and he seem to stumble over his words trying to explain that it was a club with scantily clad women dancing. The cover was $20, and that would have turned me away in the U.S., but I was curious about Puerto Rico, so I went in. A male host of some sort asked right away what drink I wanted--no escaping that. I took my Budweiser (in a can, unusual for the U.S.) and chatted with an attractive dancer. Dance prices, $30! Again, that would have been a no-no in the U.S., but I was still curious. Like some of the East Coast clubs, this one had a practice I dislike, that I had to pay the bouncer/host for the dance instead of the dancer. Furthermore, he asked for a 10% tip. However, I learned something juicy, that full service was offered for $160. Not something I was interested in, but interesting to know that it was being offered up front like the clubs in Quebec. The $30 dance was good enough, my curiosity was satisfied, and I took off.

The streets in that part of town were quieter than I would have expected, but just as I left the club they filled up with theatre attendees exiting. As always, there were plenty of police about. Not too far from an officer (the kind wearing the brown uniform) I spotted an apparent streetwalker, a transvestite. Wondered what the relationship between them and the cops was.

Returned to my car relieved that it was still there. I hadn't been willing to leave it unattended for too long.

Returned to Old San Juan and the streets were still packed. I looked around for street parking, wondering if it would be safe to take it, but the issue was moot. I had to park in the garage. I returned to the hostel about 12:30, and there was a long line waiting outside the discoteque the manager/owner had mentioned. When I got up to my room, I could still hear the thumping, and I was very glad the smaller room, away from the club, had opened up, because the thumping in the other room would have been overwhelming. Still, it hardly mattered, because by 3:30 I had still not managed to get to sleep. Part of the problem was the heat--but at least with a room to myself I was able to sleep in the nude. But that in itself had another effect, because heat tends to arouse earthly passions, and with all the skimpily clothed women standing right outside the hostel and wandering around Old San Juan in their short short skirts, I was consumed with desire to have one (or more) of them up in my room.

That's one of the advantages of sleeping in my car when it's cold. Between trying to stay warm, trying to get comfortable, and concern about being hassled by cops and locals, lust was generally far from my mind. Given how unsexy I feel when the temperature drops below 20, I wonder how penguins reproduce at all..

February 11, 2007

Shortly before 7:00 AM, still needing much sleep, I gave up and decided my best plan was to try and finish up those seven Starbucks and try to catch that earlier flight.

Don't think the Guest House was heavily populated that weekend, because there was no spare soap to be found in the bathroom like there usually is. I had to make due with lukewarm water and use my briefs to scrub with (hadn't brought a washcloth). I had forgotten my small towel in the car, so I used the bedsheet for drying. I was rather pleased with my creativity until I returned to the parking garage and realized I had forgotten my briefs. Darn it, they were almost new, too!

More obligatory historic stuff.

While reshooting Condado Plaza Hotel an older woman got caught in my frame and started staring at me. She came across the street looking at me, and I told her right away I was not interested in her, but instead the Starbucks. She stood behind me for a while, and then she, in a hushed voice, explained she had no money to get anywhere. Her hushed voice was strange, because there was nobody around. I offered her a ride to her destination, nearby Old San Juan. Her demeanor was pretty strange throughout, and she complained of pain. I gave her two of my remaining four fake Excedrin tablets. At the end, I gave her $5 hoping she'd just get out of the car. She took her sweet time, sighing and complaining--meanwhile, the car behind me was honking. Before she shut the door she asked if I would give her my coat--very kooky.

It was around 9:00 when I returned to Bayamon to reshoot the two stores, and the streets were still pretty quiet, shops mostly closed. Some Starbucks were opening pretty late too, so I was glad I had pushed as hard as I had the previous night.

Well, that was patently illegal, but they really need to put more street signs up. Not that Puerto Rico is bad--I've seen much worse, like Massachusetts. On the other hand, I gave the drivers waiting at the light something interesting to look at. Like can be pretty bleak for some people, so I figure I owe it to others to provide amusement. And to keep them on their toes, as the occasional misdirected saunter down a street can do.

Son of a bitch! An endless stream of motorcycles holding up traffic as I tried to return to the Esmeralda store for a better photograph.

Oooookay. Do all Guaynabo police offers kiss while waiting at traffic lights, or do those two know each other?

Ruby Tuesday, Sally Beauty Supply, Scotiabank

At my first new store of the day, Plaza Guaynabo, I waited patiently for a woman to finish putting on her makeup, hoping she would be leaving. But no, she went into the Starbucks and decided to hang out, thus blocking my shot with her big honking SUV.

Meanwhile, my hair was looking a hell of a mess no matter how many times I brushed it. Bah. I was surely scaring off any potential Puerto Rican paramours.

Gas prices displayed in liters, but the speed limits in miles.

Elevated lookout perches for security in large shopping center parking lots.

Old Navy, OfficeMax, Borders, Panda Express, Uno

Unlike the (presumably) local bookstore at San Patricio Plaza, the Borders had an expansive (proper use?) selection of English-language books.

Holy shit! American charges no fee for taking an earlier flight on the same day on a standby basis, but to confirm my seat on the 3:50 flight would cost $600+!!! One interesting note--when I asked the AA agent how many seats remained, she said "about two handfuls". Never heard that before.

On the way to the two Hotel San Juan locations I finally spotted a massage parlor, Angel Hands. Actually, I had seen one the previous day on Frankling D. Roosevelt, but it was closed. I was putting my chances at at the 3:50 flight at risk, but I was too curious to see what could be had. The massage was decent, but, similar to the strip club, not inexpensive like I had imagined--prices comparible to the U.S. And I got shorted on the time too, but that ended up working in my favor.

Did the two final stores as quickly as I could, and then as I made for the airport I got a call from my cousin Nancy. She lived an hour away in Arecibo, but she happened to be at the airport dropping her boyfriend off. The timing worked out well.

Lost a good 10 minutes heading the wrong way before I finally found my way to the airport. But in my confusion, and distracted by the phone call, I forgot to gas up the car. Cost me a good chunk of change.

Spent as much time chatting with Nancy as possible before heading to security. The long line caught me off guard for some reason, and I started to worry about my seat. But luck was with me, and I made it to the gate at 3:30, in time to get the very last seat! And, thankfully, time enough to get some overpriced food, without which the flight would have been miserable and painful indeed.

The passenger to my left happened to be from Stamford, and when I mentioned the annual Scrabble tournament there he actually had heard of it, which surprised the heck out of me. So I yammered on and on about Scrabble until he grabbed the in-flight magazine. I took that as a clue. That's what separates me from my younger self, the ability to sense these social clues.

When we touched down, I put my hand in my coat pocket and found... my missing comb. D'oh! Retardation continue as I thoroughly botched my trip back to Long Term Parking. First I got on a train without even reading the sign, and it was just one that looped around all terminals. Then I did it again, but I got off before I wasted too much time. The next train was the right one, but I took it one station to far, out to parking area C. Finally, probably 15 later, I set off for the Atlas Park store that I had missed the previous week.

Whoa, there, Nellie! You're driving a manual now--get used to it!

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