Friday, February 27, 2015

Rainforest Bouquet

Flor de campana, aka Brugmansia, a flower with narcotic effects, in the central highlands of Puerto Rico
This is a post for the picture people, the flower people, the rainforest people, and the people who love all things wild and green. These are pictures I took while staying at a beautiful place in the central highlands of Puerto Rico, near the town of Utuado. The place is called Casa Grande Mountain Retreat, a remote hotel and restaurant tucked away in some mountains and rainforest. The owner is an American man from New York who bought and renovated the property, a former coffee plantation, some 20 years ago. It's a little hard to get to, even if you've rented a car--it's about 20 minutes drive from Utuado and takes some driving up some winding, narrow, switchbacked mountain roads. But it's well worth the trip. I spent 4 nights there, with my own cabin with a little balcony and hammock overlooking the freshwater pool and a few coconut trees. It rained often, off and on, and it was sunny often too. Sometimes the sun shone and the skies rained at the same time. Sometimes the rain was heavy, most often it was like the misty rains in Ireland. The sun, however, was always heavy. It was hot during the day, cooler at night. At night, I was serenaded by crickets, frogs, birds. One evening I was momentarily alarmed by the sound of a coconut falling from the tree right outside my window, hitting the ground, then rolling into some bushes (it sounded like a splash and then a crash to me at first--I thought it was a prowler who had jumped into the pool and then superfast jumped into the foliage). One morning I woke to the "gobble" song of a male screech owl right below the window by my bed (I thought it was a turkey...before you judge, remember I'm from Chicago, people).

Misty early evening in the mountains around Casa Grande

View from restaurant at Casa Grande. My cabin was the one right off the pool at left of pic.
Stepping out my cabin door at Casa Grande.
I didn't do much at Casa Grande. It's not a place for to-do lists. Internet service is nearly non-existent, and cell phone service is very limited as well. There are no TVs, radios, or phones in the cabins. No air-conditioners. No alcohol or smoking allowed on the grounds or in the cabins (though the restaurant has bar service during dinner). The menu in the restaurant is vegetarian and vegan friendly and the chefs and cooks endeavor to use locally grown, in-season products in their creations. Everything I had there was delicious. Casa Grande also doubles as a facility for yoga retreats--there was even one going on while I was there, a group from Boston. There's a space for yoga classes every morning, along with opportunities for massage treatments and guided hikes. I admit I didn't take advantage of these opportunities. Massages tend to give me migraines believe it or not, and my daily exercise at Casa Grande was self-limited to swimming laps in the pool, walking up and down the road while looking for flowers and little lizards, reading profusely, writing not so profusely, listening to the aforementioned evening creatures at night, watching clouds during the day, and swaying in my hammock at all hours. I've posted pics from this rigorous routine below, and describe (when I can) the plants and flowers and such to be found in this gorgeous part of Puerto Rico.


See the houses tucked away in the green?

See the house behind all the green?

At right is a coral tree, at left is a tree covered in dozens of nesting white egrets.

Fruit of a bismarck palm tree

Bismarck palm tree

Travelers tree

Roadside menu

When I snapped this pic, I didn't even see this little lizard there until after I'd uploaded the shot.



Monday, February 23, 2015

Puerto Rico: Playas Are For The People

Mural at beach in Carolina, Puerto Rico--The Beaches are for the People

My first full day in Puerto Rico I took a ride out to Piñones, a town on the north coast of the island, about 10 miles east of San Juan. I rented a bike for 4 hours from a vendor in Ocean Park and rode out from there. Along the way, I kept knocking into poles and (almost) the occasional pigeon and person (the bike was a little top-heavy and hard to control) and stopped at every third person I passed to make sure I was still on the right path. Even so, I managed to get a little lost, turning right at the cockfighting arena instead of keeping left by the Ritz Carlton (right, left, cockfighting ring, Ritz Carlton—what’s the difference, really?). I also stopped to take a picture of a mural that caught my attention—a tall, wide piece filled with characters bearing slogans and topped with the three wise men bearing gifts for a missing Jesus. I stopped simply because I thought the mural especially well-done—in doing so, I ended up learning something about Puerto Rico that all the guidebooks I read beforehand failed to mention, something important, something political, and something with a history dating back nearly 20 years.

Cockfighting arena, Isla Verde, San Juan...donde esta little Jerry Seinfeld?

The mural that stopped me in my tracks is in the parking lot of a beach in the town of Carolina, best known as the home of the Luis Muñoz Marin international airport and birthplace of baseball great Roberto Clemente and the poet Julia de Burgos. Behind the mural is a camp that activists set up 10 years ago, in 2005, to protest a hotel development plan and protect the beach and its ecology for the people of Carolina. The presence of this camp—a decade-long continuous protest—stands as the longest act of civil disobedience in the history of Puerto Rico.

I wouldn’t have known this if a man hadn’t been pulling out of the parking lot as I stopped to take the picture. He called out to me from his truck and told me to go in, gesturing to the thicket of trees behind the mural. I thought maybe there was a restaurant somewhere there in the trees and the man maybe worked there and was trying to drum up business, so I just smiled back at him politely and kept focusing on my picture taking and keeping my clunky bike upright. But the man kept saying “It’s free!” And it became clear he was trying to tell me something important. As a plane from the airport was choosing that moment to fly right over our heads, I only got bits and pieces of what the man said: “It’s free”; “You can go in”; something about Piñones; something about a camp; something about the number ten. The last bit he flashed at me with his hands and fingers. And that was all I caught and understood before he pulled out onto the road and I cycled on ahead to Piñones.

As I cycled on, I tried to piece together what the man had told me. I guessed there must be campgrounds there behind the mural that were open until 10:00 PM. The 10 he flashed at me couldn’t mean a $10 cost to get in or stay there, because he kept telling me “it” was free. It was some place open until 10 in the evening then. That must have been it. Meanwhile, I had to have my bike back at the rental place in Ocean Park by 5:30, so if I didn’t spend too much time at Piñones, I’d try and stop in and look at the campgrounds behind the mural, because I’d nodded to the man that I would and there was something about it that seemed so important to him that intrigued me.

Now, there’s an important detail to consider in the paragraphs above. The plane flying over our heads, the one that blocked out much of what the man was trying to tell me, is a fact of life now to the people in Carolina. A good chunk of what used to be an area of mangroves and sugarcane is now the international airport—and what isn’t airport land has largely been converted into other corporate and industrial property for pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies. Noise pollution has become an everyday bane for people living within proximity to the airport (something I know about myself, having grown up close to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the world’s busiest). And because of corporate development, little of the natural habitat of Carolina is left except what clings to the shoreline in between Isla Verde and Piñones.

A word about Isla Verde and Piñones—despite their closeness to each other, there’s a marked contrast between the two communities, especially along the shoreline. Isla Verde, which is technically part of San Juan, is a community of expensive high-rise hotels and casinos (such as the aforementioned Ritz Carlton) that sit right on the beach—which means good portions of the beach are off-limits to non-residents and non-patrons of the hotels and condos. You gotta pay to play on the playas here. Piñones, a neighborhood of the municipality of Loíza Aldea, is poor in commercial development and tourism but rich in natural beauty and Afro-Caribbean culture. Parts of the beach at Piñones are clustered with food shacks and rustic beach bars that sell coco fríos (chilled coconuts with a straw stuck in them for drinking the milk right out of the fruit) for 2 bucks each and classic Puerto Rican specialties like mofongo and fish fritters. The smell of roasting chicken, shrimp and pork, smoke rising from the multitude of outdoor grills, and salsa, reggaetón and bomba music are everywhere at the entrance to this community, but if you walk or cycle on further, there’s a boardwalk leading to a state forest and beach, el Bosque Estatal de Piñones, with a nature trail and several wild, secluded beaches. It costs nothing to enter the state forest or sit on the beaches—all of Piñones is free and welcoming to locals and tourists alike.

Ocean Park playa, looking east towards high-rises of Isla Verde
Carolina playa (the playa under dispute), looking west towards Isla Verde hotels

Pinchos in Piñones
Coco frio
Fishing at Piñones
Whatever happened to Miami Vice? ;-) Abandoned food shack/bar at Piñones
At Piñones
Playa at Piñones

In between the beaches of these two communities is Carolina’s beach, one that gets much less attention from tourists and guidebooks to Puerto Rico but one that has the same beautiful sands and ecological treasures just as the others do. What Carolina’s beach, or playa, also has is the potential to end up very much like highly developed Isla Verde beach or protected Piñones. It all depends on who wins a dispute over the future of the playa going back 20 years: a group of locals and environmental activists that calls itself the Coalición Playas Pa’l Pueblo or a major, multi-property hotel and resort developer named Eduardo Ferrer Bolívar.

The origins of the dispute are in a contract signed in 1996 by then-governor of Puerto Rico Pedro Rosselló González that leased five acres of the Carolina coast to Desarrollo Hotelero Carolina, Inc., a company whose rights were bought up for $6 million by Ferrer Bolívar. The contract granted Ferrer Bolívar—who already owns a hotel complex right by the Carolina playa, mainly the Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde Beach Resort—a 99-year lease on the property. Locals in the area guessed Ferrer Bolívar would turn these five acres into another Marriott complex, complete with a hotel, spa, and parking lot. Such a development would make the playa off-limits to the people of Carolina and block them from their own coastline. Environmentalists also objected to any development, citing the presence of leatherback sea turtle (a critically endangered species) nests in the area.

Skip ahead to 2005, when those who had been objecting to any more development along the coast claim Ferrer Bolívar’s enterprise had begun moving dirt and sand and cutting away plant growth, despite still not having full approval to do so. One factor was the lack of an environmental impact study when the contract was originally signed or any time since then. A number of activists responded to these beginnings of development by setting up a camp on the playa. Ten years later, that camp is still there.

The camp is located off the road, behind the mural in the parking lot, in a thicket of trees. It’s a true camp, with tents, a porta-potty, and outdoor grills. It also hosts a family of cats and dogs, who laze and take shade among the coastal growth that lines the paths through the camp leading to the beach and sea. For something that’s been around for 10 years, it doesn’t look too shabby. The camp and the energy and resistance behind it exist on paper as well as on the playa. As of only a few weeks ago, the Coalición Playas Pa’l Pueblo has collected 8,500 signatures objecting to corporate, resort, and hotel development on the contested five acres and supporting the creation of a protected status for the coastline—a Bosque Costero de Carolina. (The coalition also has online petitions that you can sign and a Facebook page where you can find out the latest news and show your support.)

Part of the camp at beach in Carolina
Carolina beach kitty

View of the sea and sand from camp at Carolina beach, some of the natural habitat visible too

With 20 years having gone by and no proposed hotel complex in sight, it may seem like the people of Carolina can breathe easy. But in December 2012, Ferrer Bolívar sued the municipality of Carolina and the camp coalition for $5 million in compensation and removal of the camp. I have not been able to find whether this suit has been resolved--if anyone who reads this knows of any updates regarding this lawsuit, I'd appreciate it if you leave a comment below. The fact that the coalition to protect the playa is still collecting signatures and still demanding a definitive act of support from the governor says everything about how vulnerable the playa still is to development.

Now, since I’m not Puerto Rican and am only here for a few days as a tourist, readers might ask why I decided to blog about this issue. For one, because it’s interesting and important. It was certainly important to the man I met while photographing the mural. He didn’t have to tell me anything about what I was photographing. He could have just written me off as a vapid tourist, only interested in Puerto Rico for the sunshine and rum drinks or as a playground for spoiled Americans. But he trusted me with an issue affecting his home, and by going back to visit the camp, finding out what it was all about, and writing this post, I’m trying to honor this local man’s trust in a tourist and foreigner.

Also, as someone who’s been traveling quite a bit in recent years, I’ve learned that reckless tourism and over-development (and the ensuing local cultural and environmental destruction) are huge problems all the world over. I think it’s up to travelers to try and remedy that, to do what they can to travel with a sense of ethics and sensitivity to local and regional cultures and landscapes. And I think it’s up to tourists to make it clear that part of the reason they like to visit other places is for the chance to experience local authenticity and pristine landscapes. It may surprise some developers and tourism promoters that not all travelers are seeking solely luxury and convenience. And even those travelers who do like luxury and convenience probably agree that whole regions and countries shouldn’t be transformed, carved up, and handed over to developers just for their sake.

And it seems like in this case, of the public beach in Carolina, that’s what’s at stake here. Most of Carolina has already been physically transformed for the sake of corporate and economic development —but at least the people there still had their local beach to go to, their piece of the beautiful sea, the palm trees, the sun and sand, and the kind of unique local identity that springs from living along a Caribbean coastline for generations. A hotel and spa complex—yet another of many hotels and resorts right down the road from Carolina—will literally get in the way of what the people of the area have rightfully had and known for generations.

Playa of Carolina, with natural habitat visible on left, Isla Verde hotels on right in background
And does this area really need another hotel resort and spa? The pictures I’ve shared in this post show just how many there already are on the beaches in the area. What could another massive development on the beach possibly boast that all the other ones don’t already have? My bike ride from Ocean Park to Piñones was all I personally needed to convince me that another big hotel is hardly what’s needed around here. Though I was told my ride would “follow the coastline” or “follow the beach walk,” half the time I had no view whatsoever of the water…because of all the tall buildings in the way. Instead I rode past miles of neighborhoods, high-rise hotels and resorts, fast food joints, bars, hell even a cockfighting arena. And one wrong turn and I could have ended up on the tarmac at the airport. But I kept on because of what I was promised at the end—a laid-back little community and a forested, public beach called Piñones.

Hopefully the governor of Puerto Rico and all the Puerto Rican powers-that-be will soon recognize what treasure they already have in the playa of Carolina. The treasure is already there—it doesn’t need any developing or perfecting. Just protecting. But don’t take my word for it—take the word of the people of Carolina. The people have spoken, and the people should be heard and respected. The playas are for the people. Las playas son del pueblo.