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Waiting For The Sun In Vieques
If I had been thinking, I might have figured out that the email promotion for the plush beach resort on Vieques was dirt-cheap because it was for the earliest days of the off – that is, wet -- season. What did I know? We are a two-artist family and for us a Caribbean respite consists of take-out Jamaican beef patties from a bodega in nearby Waterbury, Connecticut. My children, a girl and a boy, attend the kinds of schools where many if not most of their friends bolt for Telluride or Costa Rica or at least Orlando over spring break. Some years, when we have room on our credit cards, we haul off to Tucson to visit family and fill up on guacamole and those saguaro-studded vistas that wipe the winter from the brain. We are used to any sort of getaway being a wing-it affair and have grown – in some undeniably defensive way – to like it that way. Even my kids claim to genuinely love down time at home, our freezer stocked with Heath Bar Crunch and their mother willing to sling up eggs to order pretty much any time of day.
It had been a tough year, even aside from our Leaning Tower of Unpaid Bills. By March, I was on the upswing from a leave of my senses that had nearly derailed me. For almost eighteen months, I had been unable to discern any strip of daylight above the sea of regret in which I found myself suddenly adrift at midlife. It was the riptide of hormones that eventually took me under until one spring day, I crawled out the other side and loaded up a few vases with tulips I had planted in the darkest moments the prior November. I was exhausted but hopeful, bursting with apologies I wasn't sure I could ever articulate. What was I supposed to say to my beautifully unscathed children?
What we needed, what I needed most of all, was to get out of town. I not only wanted an absence to sweep the melancholy from my house, but to force the kind of togetherness only a vacation can allow. I wanted my kids to see me as I was meant to be: smiling, at peace, the get-it-done, multi-lingual, at-ease-anywhere journalist. The rock-solid foundation of the family. The person who wasn't a basket case.
What we needed was a white-hot beach. I wanted to scour tide pools for shells with my children or drape myself along a patch of sand and watch their bodies leap around the turquoise waves. And then my solution arrived, courtesy of the Inbox and my American Express card: a five-star hotel opening in Vieques. Forty per cent off rooms, free this, complimentary that, on a gemlike little island studded with sparkling beaches and a sprawling nature reserve one tiny plane hop from Puerto Rico. Sold! We would leave when the kids got out of school and return tanned and whole, the family tighter than ever.
Securing the cheapest flights meant that my daughter and I needed to leave a day early, and we set off with our books and carry-ons, our luggage crammed with filmy sun dresses and quarts of sunscreen in every SPF. On the plane, we riffled through the Vieques research I had dug up: food trucks and coves to explore, the bakeries and drives and promenades that we would insert between our beach expeditions. My daughter pored through an article about the bioluminescent bay on the island, caused by billions of small organisms that glow when the water is disturbed. I read about the history of the US Navy's weapons testing on the island, which the Pentagon had ceased in 2003.
"Otherwise, I'll be happy just to hang on the beach all day and body surf," Ava said.
"You're my daughter all right," I said.
When we changed planes in San Juan Airport, the sight of pineapple juice carts and vendors dispensing café con leche signaled a singular delight: Tropical Brain Suspension was imminent. When our little Cape Air Cessna flew into chunky, black clouds, though, I was worried less about the plane being banged around by lightning than I was about the weather and my looming disappointment. When we landed, the rain was driving with force enough to pummel my shoulders, bared optimistically upon takeoff in anticipation of our midday arrival in Vieques. My daughter and I braved the downpour in our flip-flops and ran across the tarmac to the tiny airport, where we found our way to the W Hotel welcome lounge. It was air-conditioned to suit a much dryer day and under our soaked clothes, our skin prickled from the chill.
"Welcome to Vieques!" the host beamed, holding forth two glasses of juice.
"Was this rain in the forecast?" I asked. The forecast I never bothered to check. If he gave me the wrong answer, the hope in my voice was poised to leap into panic.
"Yes, the rain is now here to stay, but we like it when it arrives," he said. "It was beautiful until yesterday!" The man's good cheer was so close to infectious that for a minute I thought he was delivering good news. Instead he handed down a death sentence on my beach vacation fantasy. All that money, all that anticipation: all out the window.
"Ava, let's call the boys," I said, meaning my husband and my son Ray. "We're going home."
"Mom," she said, "that's not funny."
"You heard him," I said, pointing to the picture windows that shook from the pounding storm outside. "It won't stop raining until October."
"Something like that," he said, still grinning.
"My God," I said to him, my bloodless face clearly alarming my daughter, who looked as stricken as I felt. I wished he'd lied to me, shooed off the downpour as a passing squall, assured me of blue skies in a mere five minutes.
I was aware that my daughter had witnessed quite enough despondency in the not-too-distant past. I needed to find a way to shroud my sense of misfortune and keep it together. But it was the beach – not a soaking one – I thought we needed as the antidote to all. I took the forecast personally, as a true betrayal. My high hopes had blurred what should have been obvious (or at least, easily researchable) but I nevertheless felt tricked by this man, the whole conspiratorial island of Vieques and in fact, the entire Caribbean Sea.
We attempted a nibble on a biscuit, finished our juice, and slogged through the hurricane to the van and then, the hotel. The reception staff greeted me with similar bonhomie, as if there weren't a river where the driveway once had been, as if my heart weren't bruised from my foolish oversight, as if I was ecstatic about arriving on the first day of the rainy season.
"So you don't want to go home, where at least the weather's nice?" I asked Ava as we made our way to our room along the W's flooded walkways. In my mind were the great, candy-striped peonies I had left behind in Connecticut, and the waning light of a summer evening on our back porch.
"I swear, Mom, I don't care about the weather and neither will Ray and Dad," she said. "And neither should you."
Now that my 13-year-old daughter was parenting me, for her and all of our sakes, it was time for me to buck up. Our room was refrigerator cold, and I marched straight into the tub to blast it full of hot water.
"Look, the beach is right there," said Ava from the porch. I went to join her in my robe. The sky seemed as dark and thick as putty and the air bore close upon our skin. The sand lay ghostly under the mist and we listened to the swish of the waves below. "The palm trees look so green," she said.
After my bath, I perused the contents of my suitcase, devoid of any shred of rain gear. It would have been easy to stick a plastic poncho in among my bikinis and cover-ups. I have bought dozens of them over the years, for camp and overnights and soggy track meets. "I guess I won't be needing this," I said as I brandished the bag full of sunscreen.
My daughter shrugged. "You still might," she said.
While my daughter napped, I paid a visit to the front desk. As much as I could fake it for my family, I needed people trained in hospitality to help keep my spirits up. I approached them near tears and one woman touched my hand with tenderness. I apologized for my state, but I felt foolish for being so surprised by the turn of the weather.
"You need to take your family to El Resuelve, the best place to eat on the island," she said. "You need to do the Bio bay and drive around the old military barracks, and visit the beaches, even if it's not sunny. You will still find Vieques beautiful."
"Promise?" I said.
"You will want to come back," she said. "There is more to the Caribbean than sun."
Not for a girl from Boston.
In a few hours, with borrowed W umbrellas in hand, we hopped a taxi to Isabel II. We strolled along the soaked streets looking for signs of life. Yellow light from streetlamps glowed but illuminated nothing on the sidewalks. I took note of a bar on the main plaza that I would check out when my husband arrived. A shopkeeper pulled the metal grate over the door of his haberdashery, and the mannequins in pressed guayaberas and straw Trilby hats vanished for the night.
We hadn't reserved at Conuco, pegged as one of Vieques' better restaurants, but we found it on the second floor of a pink stucco building on a side street. Ava and I were the only diners and we perched at a seat by the wide-open window overlooking the desolate town. Rain pounded on the tin roof above two stationary paddle fans also fabricated from sheet metal. A marguerita was cold and sweet and Ava and I shared crispy cod fritters and devoured an order of mofongo, served on a plate with geometric flair and a fan of sliced limes.
The boys arrived the following day during a respite from the showers, and the van splashed through puddles on the airport road to the car rental. In the office, I pulled my husband to one side and gave him my woebegone best as the sky darkened for a fresh downpour.
"Are we just going to pretend it isn't pissing down rain all over our first vacation in years?" I asked.
"Actually," he said, "we are."
"You don't think this is a huge waste of money?"
Mark jingled the keys to our new PT Cruiser, and his smile both confused and buoyed me. "No, I think this is perfect," he said. "Who the hell cares? It's just rain."
Just rain? My daughter, my husband, and everyone I had met so far on this island kept repeating these same words since I'd arrived. Perhaps it was my childhood in New England, where beaches turn charcoal dark in summer storms that cast gloomy reminders of shipwrecks and lonely widows. I spent one waterlogged summer on the seacoast of Maine, my hair frizzed up under the hood of my rain slicker. I was heartsick for the empty restaurants with lobsters milling around the tank, and for the hopeful owners who prayed for nothing more than a passel of sunburned tourists.
Now that the boys had arrived, the stakes seemed even more perilously high. We had to keep two teenagers busy and we had to make the family (and myself) whole again. Under the circumstances, there was little to do besides eat, and as much as he loved the manicured grounds and the heated pools at the W, my son wanted to venture elsewhere for meals.
We took the car across the island south towards the beaches and on the way stopped at El Resuelve, which was shuttered for the day. The rain fell steadily but we parked the Chrysler and ambled along the perimeter of the marina to settle upon a food truck for pinchos – finger food. The odor of roasting meat and hot cooking oil wafted from the one called Rompe Dieta de Lula as we waited for sizzling chicken skewers, pastelillos filled with spicy meat and green olives and crispy papa rellenas. We strolled along the avenue through the tourist town of Esperanza. It should have been packed with vacationers, but it was almost deserted. We decided to wait out the shower at another restaurant on our list, a tropical wooden structure with the most Fort Lauderdale of names, Bananas. Mark and I ordered a beer and chomped on a tasty mound of homemade potato chips while the kids wandered off, content to be in each other's company and explore alone. The air was tranquil and, perched on patio with my husband, watching my nearly grown kids wander off together conspiratorially, so was I.
It wasn't even 2:00 by the time we drove slightly east to the beaches, first to Blue Beach, which shimmered invitingly in photos I had perused while planning our trip. It was too wet and so we turned back, noting the location to place our towels should we return. Next we headed for the place I had craved the most in my dream of Vieques, Secret Beach, or Pata Prieta. As we cruised the road leading to its hidden coves, we passed herds of feral horses, some with white seabirds perched on their backs. We scaled a small hill and Pata Prieta revealed itself before us, the electric blue water from the photographs now steel gray. Mark and the children wanted to swim and they had worn their bathing suits in anticipation of a spontaneous dip. The water churned under the black sky and they ran with whoops and yelps headlong into the surf. I walked the semi-circle of the cove, back and forth, wading in periodically to let the water swirl around my ankles to wash them clean. I repeated this as if it were a ritual and for a moment the clouds parted and I saw the seat of my daughter's bright pink bikini pop above the wave as she dived.
"Mom, you've got to come in," Ava cried. "The water's fantastic!"
"Thanks, I'll stay right here," I replied.
"But you can't feel the rain when you're floating in the water," she said.
It made perfect sense and maybe one day I might believe her.
We continued to eat our way around Vieques – dinner at the Inn on the Blue Horizon, once the best hotel on Vieques, at least until the W came to town in all its understated glamour. In the morning we took breakfast at a panaderia in Isabel II, with café con leche, donuts and fried eggs. I hadn't bothered with sunscreen because although it wasn't pouring, the rain loomed above us, relentless and threatening.
"Isn't this great?" my husband kept asking, or saying. The kids were excited for the Bio bay excursion, which we planned to make that night after dinner at El Resuelve.
Instead of waiting pointlessly for the sun to appear all day, we took a drive along the military road to see the old naval bunkers abandoned when the Navy left the island. In time we began to see eerie-looking doorways buried into soft shapes under the hills, barely visible through moss and vines. My husband was intrigued enough to stop and photograph each one we passed. We were alone out there on this abandoned road, and the structures had a strange and neglected beauty that could inspire both a fairy tale and a horror story.
"Are we near the beach?" Ava asked.
I sighed and gazed around at the mist, indistinguishable from the sky. "I will never dry off after this week," I said.
Ava made sandcastles and Ray ran sprints along Red Beach while I went to sign up for the Bio tour and fetch lunch from a food truck. I walked past the horses to the car, and envied them for their peaceful countenance. We had four days left. I wondered how long it would be until the children started making noises about ditching this wet island.
We sat on towels on the damp sand for spicy jerk chicken and massive Cuban sandwiches from Sol Food, a truck painted with blue sky and white clouds. For the briefest moment, the sun flashed through as I sipped on a cold Presidente. There was no avoiding it – the island was sinking into me and I felt it all: the quick toasting from the sky, the closeness of my family through these al fresco meals, the pleasantly growing distance between this beach and my home.
El Resuelve was closed again, the patio furniture stacked up on the drenched terrace, and the neon lights turned off in a scene of utter dejection. Sheets of rain made the driving treacherous and so we stopped at Al Meson Criolla, a café with an orange metal roof. It was not on our or anybody's list of things to do in Vieques but it was clean and the chicken smelled glorious. We all ordered pollo asado al carbon, and I volunteered to drive to the launching site of the Bio bay tour to see if the weather would thwart us. In truth, I wanted a few moments alone. I was all too aware of the destructive power of an unhappy mother, no matter how gamely she tries to hide it, and my family deserved better than I was giving.
As I headed east, the rain got so dense that I could no longer see the road. I kept driving, believing in the sanctity of landmarks I might recognize. The PT Cruiser slipped beneath me, even at 5 miles per hour, and when I plunked into ditches along the perimeter of the road, or veered into swales, I jerked out of them, praying that this low-riding pleasure mobile would stay intact. It was June 20, the second longest day of the year and though it was 6 pm there was only the vaguest hint of daylight. My hands clutched the wheel and as I breathed, I felt panic coil in my stomach. I pictured my cellphone where I'd left it on the table at the restaurant, believing I'd be gone for fifteen minutes. I had been driving for an hour. I could see no hotel signs, no roadside attraction, no other person, even, who might have ventured outside and to whom I could ask directions. I didn't know if I was on the north or south part of the island but I knew I had to stop, so I parked on a dead end on a tiny patch of road hugged by a cluster of jungle. I took the keys from the ignition and perched barefoot in a soaking shirt and blouse on the hood of my car. I let the rain soak into the pores of my skin. I listened to the broad leaves of the kapok and mango trees shake overhead. I waited. All winter, I had sought solitude and believed that in order for my crisis to pass, I needed to distance myself from the people I loved. How wrong I had been.
Within ten minutes, I hopped back into the car. It was night and there were still no people, and not even a goat or a chicken to guide me home. But in time, I spotted a few semi-familiar signs, one to a hotel and bar, one marking entrance to the National Wildlife Refuge that covers much of the island. Onward I crept, grasping onto anything I recognized as a crucial knot in a lifeline. Finally I pulled up to Al Meson Criolla, where my family stood on the porch.
"Hi Mom," Ray said.
"I guess the bioluminescent tour is canceled tonight?" Ava asked.
"Umm, guys?" I said. "Were you a little worried that I had driven off a cliff?"
"We figured you needed a little break," Mark said. "And no, we weren't too worried." He carried a brown bag, which contained my roast chicken.
I longed for a bubble bath and then, to eat my dinner inside the crisp linen envelope of our bed at the W.
"Tomorrow is the first day of summer," I said.
The skies opened up again on the morning of June 21. When it halted, for an hour here or there, with the air misty and thick, we bolted for the beach and when I closed my eyes I heard the waves and my children's voices. It was unlike any Maine day I had ever known. I was far away – we all were. We snacked on carnitas, chicharrons – fried pork rinds - and gritty bottles of lemonade, sharing everything and getting similarly stuffed as if it were Thanksgiving dinner.
Later, on the way to the launching point of our tour, we stopped at El Resuelve, whose cheerful sign seemed like a relic from better, sunnier days. None of us was really hungry but by now it was a ritual.
"Are you open?" I asked a man who appeared with a quizzical look from behind a kitchen door.
"No, not tonight," he said.
"They say it's the best restaurant on the island," I said. "Will you be open tomorrow?"
He gestured across the drenched patio, raised his arm skyward and shrugged. "Come back," he said, not specifying when.
After meeting up with our guide and the rest of the group, we bumped along in a van to Mosquito Bay where we covered ourselves in bug repellant. We paddled out in our kayaks to see the mangrove swamps, whose decomposing roots allow those unicellular protozoans, called dinoflagellata, to proliferate. It is these micro-organisms that, in some strange alchemy, glow when the water they inhabit is agitated.
Eventually the guide gave us the go-ahead to clamber into the water and I saw it at once. The more I waved my hand the greater was the micro-organisms' excitement and the brighter was the swoosh of strange green light. The four of us swam a bit from our boats, under supervision from our guide. We knew we had to share this phenomenon, this astonishment, this bit of sorcery practiced in these tropical waters. As I stirred the area around my arms and feet, I was probably aware that the eruption of light in my movements' wake had a greater reason on the planet than to make me feel alive and unified with the people I loved. You can't look at one of life's mysteries and think it exists for you. Right?
Ava was correct. I could barely feel the rain when I was in the water. It began to fall softly then more urgently, warm Caribbean rain, the same temperature as the sea.
"Let's get back into the boats in case the wind picks up," said our guide.
"Mom, you've got to see this," said Ava. "Go under and look up."
When I submerged, I looked up to the sky. Somewhere beneath the vast blanket of clouds, the planet and the sun were aligning into perfect order for summertime. Just under the surface, the cool, clear water erupted with ghostly flashes of blue and green light. Individual raindrops that caused a downpour that caused an unknowable and dazzling reaction for a girl, her brother, his father and his wife to see. Together.