Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Wayfarer In Her Natural Habitat, Part 8: Puerto Rico

Part 8 in an ongoing photographic study of a wayfarer in her natural we see the wayfarer in Puerto Rico, juxtaposed with the wayfarer's spirit animal, the cat. ;-) This will probably be the last post on here for awhile, other than the occasional single-photo spotlight post or brief update (like if I ever get published anywhere again update) post.

Shadow at Pinones
Hiding outside the Old San Juan wall

View from a hammock, Casa Grande Mountain Retreat

Hammock selfie attempt--not as easy as you think it is
Prowler below the lookout, Old San Juan
Old San Juan

Strong sun and banana tree leaves, near Utuado

Doppelganger. Felisa Rincón de Gautier, first female mayor of San Juan, near Paseo de la Princesa

Friend. Near the Felisa Rincón de Gautier museum, Old San Juan
At Casa Grande, under the flor de campana.

Sleeping it off, Old San Juan
One spot is as good as another for a nap.

At Casa Bacardi at Cataño
Mountain wall, near Casa Grande
Beach wall, Ocean Park

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Volcano Poem

New poem. I sent it to one place that rejected it. But rather than sending it out anywhere else, I decided it's probably better suited for my blog. So here it is. You may have seen reports in the news about a volcano erupting off the coast of Japan the last couple years. It's resulted in a new island...

News from Nishinoshima, Japan

It was long past
for something new 
and solitary
to be born.

the mountain
with the open mouth 
at its top
and spewed
for 2 years straight
then slept
for 10,000 more
so much
as a snore.

Apparently this also just happened in the South Pacific near Tonga. New islands must be the new black. Comforting to know that even Mother Nature can't resist a trend.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Sand Child

This is a short fiction piece I wrote a few months ago. Notes below the story.

Sand Child

You won’t believe I’ve seen a world that few even know about, since I’m only 6, I’m only black, I’m only female. (Take your pick. Denial is a hydra.) And I have no evidence but the people who were there, the ones who saw me disappear and kept saying my name until the sound of my heartbeat returned and took over. My heartbeat became my name and my proof that I’d survived. You can call me Sand Child though—it’s as good and true a name as any. It’s a gesture of belief.

The world that you don’t know, it took me into it sure as death takes a bullet out of a gun. It could’ve happened to anybody and it might never have happened to me had I stepped one inch over. I was running up a dune. I was nearly to the top. I was skipping past dead branches sticking out of the sand and aiming for the blue beyond the summit of the dune. If anyone had told me then I was about to fall into another world, I would’ve thought it’d be the sky, or a cloud on the other side, not a mountain of sand, not a cavern of beach dust.

The hole in the dune was barely bigger than my foot, but it swallowed me whole like it was meant just for me. I went 11 feet down, I sunk, I drowned. I was cut off from life by breath and by sound. I was dug for by my family and by a crew of strangers. They got their picture in the papers, their hands clawing at the sand even as the dune held me in its womb. They dug four hours before pulling me out, crusted in sand, caught somewhere between sleep and death. I had no pulse, no breath, the slowest of heartbeats. I was good as an old shell uncovered by the wind. I found life later in the hospital, long past the point when I should have survived. When I came to, everyone around me was saying my name.

I tell people now that I don’t remember a thing. But that’s just what I say to keep the probing questions away. You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you the truth. Even if I drew you a picture, in the sand or on a page, on a screen or in a song, down to the last detail, to the last speck of sand. It was dark and it was lonely, it was peaceful and different, that’s all I can tell, all you’ll understand. I’m 6 and you won’t believe me, I’m black and you won’t see me, I’m female and you’ll refuse to hear me. I’m Sand Child. I know there’s a world that was meant just for me.

Notes: I wrote this story in December last year. I sent it out to 7 different journals, all of which rejected it. The story is fiction but it was partly inspired by a real-life event in the summer of 2013, when a very young boy from rural Illinois disappeared into a hole in a sand dune at the Indiana Dunes along Lake Michigan. The boy was rescued after nearly 4 hours of being buried in sand and survived, fortunately--his parents say he has no memory of the ordeal. Devout Christians, they give all credit to God for their son's survival. 

Though I don't live far from the Indiana Dunes, I didn't hear about this incident until December 2014, when the Smithsonian magazine ran an article about it examining what caused a sinkhole to suddenly appear in a sand dune. I'm familiar with the dunelands around Lake Michigan, having gone to them for day trips with my family and school since I was a young child, just like the boy this thing happened to, and I thought it all a very unusual and mysterious story. I wanted to write about it, I guess as a way to try and make sense of it, but when I started to write I changed a number of details about the original incident, most significantly the gender and race of the child at the center of the story. The child in the real-life sand dune incident was a white boy. In my version, the child is a black girl. I made the changes not to better fictionalize the real-life event but because there were other events in the news at the time on my mind, and I was trying to process and comment on those events too. 

I read the Smithsonian mag story within a few days after hearing the Tamir Rice story on the news. Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old black boy in Cleveland who was shot and killed by a police officer in late November 2014. You can read more about his story here, here, and here. Tamir's story came along in a wave of killings of unarmed black Americans by police officers or by their fellow (usually white) citizens essentially taking the law into their own hands (even when absolutely no law was being broken). Along with these stories, there's been a tidal wave of cases involving violence and injustice against women and girls (and boys too) in recent years (Marissa Alexander, Rehtaeh Parsons, the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State case...sadly I could make a list of cases a hundred miles long and another few hundred miles after that). 

One case that was on my mind while writing this actually occurred nearly 20 years ago in Chicago, about a little girl who became known locally as Girl X. Girl X was a 9-year-old black girl living in one of the city's housing projects who was viciously raped, choked, poisoned, and dumped in a stairwell. She survived the attack and is still alive today, but she was left permanently blind, mute, and confined to a wheelchair. Her attacker was eventually found and sentenced to 120 years in prison. The attack on this girl came only a few weeks after the death of another little girl, named JonBenet Ramsey. The Ramsey case made national and international headlines, and indeed the entire country seemed obsessed by the case. I remember constant attention to the case on the news, on magazine covers, on the radio, on talk shows--the story was everywhere. By contrast the case of Girl X was mainly a local outrage. The difference was that JonBenet was white and wealthy and living in a suburb in Colorado, while Girl X was poor, black, and living in a housing project in a city that suffers chronic violence. (Albeit, the Ramsey case has never been solved.) Chicagoans were horrified by what happened to Girl X and sympathetic to her ordeal. Local news still occasionally reports on her progress. But I'll never forget reading one update online years ago under which a commenter complained about how much this case was costing the city of Chicago and taxpayers and put the blame fully on the child who had been attacked, writing that "Girl X has already cost the city millions of dollars" (I'm paraphrasing a bit, since the article no longer seems to be online--I also believe the commenter used the girl's real name, which was released with her family's consent years ago after she reached the age of majority). I'll never forget that comment. It struck me as appalling that anyone would blame a child crime victim, rather than her perpetrator or even the various systems that failed to keep her safe, for her own rape and abuse and for the cost of crime. Sadly, since reading that comment, I've read and heard it over and over again, the same victim-blaming and racist and misogynistic sentiment, too many times to count. The sentiment has been applied to Tamir Rice, to Marissa Alexander, to Rehtaeh Parsons, to the boys abused by Jerry Sandusky, to Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, to this girl in Montana and this child in Texas and this woman in Connecticut

It doesn't appear that any such sentiment was applied to the boy in the Indiana sand dune incident, or to his parents--perhaps because what happened to him was a weird accident of nature. But what if that boy had been black? Would the media (and local law enforcement) somehow have found a way to blame the child and/or his parents? And what if the boy in this incident had been able to remember what happened to him--would anyone have listened to his story afterwards anyway? Or would his testimony have been picked apart and partially discounted as a mere child's imaginings and misunderstandings? And what if there were "holes in his story"? Would the holes in his story get scrutinized and investigated as much as the holes in the sand dune that swallowed him up? Would they be chalked up to trauma, or to an absence of trust in his interviewers...and if the latter, would his interviewers ever think to wonder why that may be, to turn the scrutiny back on themselves?

Ever since Girl X, and even long before that, it's angered me the way our society has not only blamed some of its most vulnerable citizens (children, people of color, women of any age and color, poor people, disabled and elderly people, immigrants, LGBT people) for injustices committed against them, but also silenced, denied, ignored, or manipulated their stories. And it's not just their stories of abuse or injustice that get silenced or denied--even their stories of general life, of love, family, work, hope, redemption, pride, all gets pushed to the side in favor of stories by members of the status quo (men, white people, wealthy people, heterosexuals, cis-gender people, etc). And anyone who doesn't fit into the very narrow limitations enforced by the status quo is forced to find alternate, safe, other spaces to speak, to be heard, to be believed and respected. As a woman, part of me says thank God for these alternate spaces, the kind that allow women's stories like mine to be heard. I might even say that this blog of mine is an attempt to create a safe space where I can speak and be heard--though I admit that even here I still hold a lot back, always wondering and worrying if the things I reveal or disclose here might be used against me in some way some day. I put holes in my own stories about my experiences as a woman in this world, because I don't trust that my whole stories will be believed or respected. By some people, yes--maybe by people like me, by women maybe. But not by all. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this and does this. I know I'm not the only one. 

Just as part of me is thankful for alternate and safe spaces, part of me also thinks our society should be ashamed about the necessity of these alternate spaces. It shouldn't have to be this way. We shouldn't need them. The fact that we do is a testament to how much our country and our world fail and devalue people who don't belong to the status quo, who don't fit the default setting of white, male, straight, wealthy, educated, able-bodied. I admit: I wouldn't want to do without the other, alternate, safe spaces that all the world's various misfits and marginalized folks have created. As a female, I look for them and I need them. But if there was a chance to trade in all those alternate spaces for a world that didn't need them, for a world where everyone feels safe, heard, respected, where nobody falls through the cracks and the holes in a justice system and nobody needs to seek out the cracks and holes elsewhere just to keep themselves alive, where children don't get shot by cops and black people don't get arrested for being black and women don't get attacked by strangers, friends, neighbors, boyfriends, and ex-husbands and then told it was all their fault, I'd hand over the keys to this blog, this own alternate space of mine, before this sentence is even done.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

New World, Old Soul: Old San Juan

In Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
There must be a word for the love you feel for the person you become when you're traveling. It's not narcissism or egoism and it's not mere self-care or self-preservation--the meanings of those words aren't the feeling I'm thinking of. Maybe the feeling and the appropriate word are something like actualization--that meaning combined with a sense of happiness and relief that a dream of yours is actually happening and here you are living it out and handling things quite well. Enjoying yourself, surprising yourself, looking out for yourself, being yourself--the self you've always known yourself to be beyond your work duties, parental or spouse duties, routine everyday settled-life duties. Because one of the great things about travel is that, while it never solves anyone's problems, it does tend to bring out the better qualities in a person--qualities like open-mindedness, creativity, adventurousness, self-reliance, gumption, patience. And from there (or here, or wherever the traveler happens to be) it can give a person a much-needed boost in self-confidence, give her back her faith in herself, and maybe some new or sharpened skills and strengths to re-approach her old problems.

Life goes in two directions. Rooftop in La Perla, Old San Juan
Mural in Old San Juan of Ricardo Alegria, scholar, archaeologist, and cultural anthropologist
It's easy to get into a rut when not traveling, and easy to start feeling as if you've sold your soul to the gods of routine and making-a-living. Travel is one way that people jump-start themselves out of a rut--and even if it works for just a little while, for the few days or weeks or (oh you lucky duck) months you're on the road, well, sometimes that's all that's needed for a person to reclaim themselves, to re-acquaint themselves with the soul that got trampled in life's ruts before you decided to pick it up, dust it off, and run off down the road with it, right out of the ruts.

Calle Fortaleza in Old San Juan

Blind creation, in Da House Hotel, Old San Juan

In Plaza de Armas, Old San Juan

Calle Sol, Old San Juan
All of this brings me to a question that came to my mind while I was in Puerto Rico, specifically while I was in Old San Juan, the historic section of the capital city of PR. The question is: How do you travel?

It's not meant to be answered with a mode of transportation, like "by car" or "by plane, first-class and nothing else!" And it's not a question about whether you like to travel solo or with a group, with family, through an agent or on a budget or according to a guidebook's recommendations, etc. It's a question about how you bring yourself to a foreign place, your real soul self, and how you let that self bloom and grow while you're gone. How do you bring your soul to the places you travel to? How do you represent yourself as a person worthy of love and respect, your own and everyone else's, wherever you go in the world--and most especially how do you accomplish this in places where your soul is most vulnerable, when you're away from home?

I don't know why this question came to me while I was in Puerto Rico. Maybe it came to me because I kind of fell in love with the place. I enjoyed every day I was in Puerto Rico. The weather was warm, even in the mountains when it rained. The sun shone a good part of the time. The food, coffee, and mojitos were delicious. The people I met, down to the locals who gave me directions, the taxi drivers, and all the customer service folks I encountered, were all friendly and nice. I never felt unsafe at any point I was there--and that's a crucial factor for any woman traveler. I never felt unwelcome either, like I didn't belong, at any time--and that's a crucial factor for me.

Pigeons in the wall at Parque de las Palomas
Gato on the city wall by Plazuela La Rogativa
Iguana alongside path outside Old San Juan wall
The iguana sat up to watch a cruise ship passing by, Old San Juan
Belonging matters to me when I travel because I travel alone. What I mean by belonging here is feeling accepted and respected by others regardless of where I come from in the world and how different I may appear in a new or other place. Feeling welcome, essentially. Traveling alone can make a person feel adventurous but it also very often makes a person feel awkward at times. Sometimes you get ignored or slower and poorer service in restaurants while dining alone and sometimes after signing up for an excursion or tour you find yourself the only person in the group on your own amongst a family or a bunch of couples or old friends, who may not want to even acknowledge your presence. If you're female and alone, you're likely to get more unwanted attention and even suspicion from both male and female locals. This can come in forms ranging from benign to threatening, from being barraged with questions as to why you're alone and how can you travel alone as a woman and aren't you scared to being accused of traveling just to hook up with the local men to being outright sexually harassed or followed or propositioned. If you're an American female on your own, you may find yourself getting boxed into corners by local men (because it's always been men in my experience) who want to give you a piece of their mind on American foreign policy and media and culture, usually without letting you get a word in edgewise and regardless of whether you were interested in talking to anyone about anything at all at the moment (I found this to be especially the case in Ireland, I hate to say). On the other hand, you also often find yourself much more likely to meet new people and make new friends while being on your own. And you are undoubtedly more free to do exactly what you want and make this travel experience everything you want it to be, without having to compromise with the interests of a travel partner. And you can be yourself or try on a completely different self because there's no one around from back home to betray or belittle you with comments like "You want to go salsa dancing??!! Since when do you dance?" You can let your soul come out, basically.

At the legendary Nuyorican Cafe in Old San Juan. I didn't dance cuz I wasn't asked.

Any time you travel away from home, you're essentially making a contract with the world based on mutual trust. You trust the world with your freedom of movement and sense of adventure and curiosity, and the world in turn trusts you with its diversity of peoples and cultures and environments. Every tour, every trip, every vacation, every holiday, no matter how packaged or free-for-all or far-flung or safe-playing, is an opportunity for an exchange in trust, respect, and acceptance between the person traveling from one place in the world and the people living in the places being traveled to. It's also an exchange between the person traveling and the world's other places in their own right. This exchange in trust is especially important, I think, to a woman traveling alone, because solo travelers and women travelers are more vulnerable, and that's a fact wherever they go. From the perspective of this traveler, I'll say that some of these other places in the world make this exchange easy. Puerto Rico, for me, was one of these easy places. And I think maybe that's why I enjoyed myself so much there.

I know some of the easiness came down to Puerto Rico's friendlier relationship with the U.S. compared to many other countries. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and I'm a U.S. citizen. There was no hassle, so, with passports or customs or exchange currencies. English is pretty commonly spoken as well, and I've been exposed to enough Spanish in my other travels and back home in Chicago (which has a significant population of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and other Spanish speaking immigrants) to not freak out so much and panic like I usually do when confronted with another language. There's no doubt in Puerto Rico that the U.S. has heavily influenced the culture there--American retail and restaurant chains abound in San Juan and beyond, for one thing. There's also no doubt that Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries have heavily influenced the culture here in the U.S. Every day in the Chicago area, I hear and see the Spanish language and meet Hispanic people--from my next-door neighbors, who are Puerto Rican heritage, to half the people I work with, who are Mexican or Mexican American--and encounter various cultural exports from Latin America without even thinking anymore about where they came from--from tacos and burritos to chocolate to pina coladas to chihuahuas to Benicio del Toro movies to back-porch hammocks to probably 25% of the players in Major League Baseball.

The notorious Christopher Columbus, Plaza Colon
Wheat paste Jesus, alley in Old San Juan
Madonna and Puerto Rican flag (Virgen de la Providencia), Cathedral of San Juan Bautista
Detail of Raices (Roots) fountain at the Paseo de la Princesa
Puerto Rico felt easy me, but complex too. It's diverse ethnically, culturally, linguistically, just as much as the U.S. is--maybe even more so. And everywhere you go there are as many reminders of the Taíno people whose home Puerto Rico was long before it was ever called Puerto Rico, side by side with reminders of Columbus and European colonialism and African slavery and U.S. acquisition. In Puerto Rico, you're in the Caribbean, you're in America, you're in the U.S., you're in Latin America, you're in North America, you're in Puerto Rico, you're in Borinquen, you're in the New World, you're in the Antilles, you're in the West Indies, you're in Borikén. It's easy then for a traveler in Puerto Rico to decide she can take on whichever identity suits her and inspires her for the duration of a day or for her entire holiday--or is that just my Euro-American conceit rising to the surface, the same conceit that led a guy like Columbus and hundreds of millions Europeans after him and their descendants to think he and they could just come on over and take on and try on and change and rename and redefine and redirect a place that was doing fine without him and his European ways and Old World ideas?

Pale moon, Old San Juan wall
Isla de Cabras in distance, beyond Old San Juan wall
San Francisco, on Calle Sol, Old San Juan
Vejigante in Plaza de Armas
It might be conceit. Or it might be just my American-ness, the true American-ness of all of us who inhabit these two big New World continents and who've inherited all their messy, confused, complex, complicated, colonized, bloody, blending, building, ancient, new, developing, developed, declining, rising, superficial, and soulful conceits and sincerities.

Back in the day, I used to travel exclusively to Ireland. I used to go there looking for my roots, thinking that was where I belonged, where I wanted to belong. Beyond Ireland, I dreamed of traveling throughout Europe, but I don't even know why--I guess I thought Europe was where you went to get cultured, to lose your American naivete. It never occurred to me to question the notion that Europe naturally had all the culture and America and Americans had all the naivete. It never occurred to me to question if my soul's heritage was truly European or if it was actually something else, something different, something new and New Worldish. And it never occurred to me for a long time to travel in the Americas. Again, I don't even know why. Eventually I did branch out beyond Ireland to other European places, and to Australia (where I met more Europeans than Australians--indigenous or otherwise), before finally considering traveling to countries closer to my U.S. home: Mexico, Bolivia, now Puerto Rico...and with each one, it gets easier, it feels better, it feels righter. It feels old and new at the same time. It feels like long-lost self-love and long-looked-for self-acceptance. It feels like a secret truce and trust between so many American souls. 

Cafe in Old San Juan featuring open mic poetry nights on Tuesdays. Stopped in here for the open mic and surprised myself by working up the courage to read two of my own poems. Had a great night--wonderful poets, musicians, comics, singers here. My favorite of the night was a young slam poet named Egedeme who performed the two poems I've posted above and below this pic. You should check the place out:

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.