Monthly Archives: July 2010

Plans

Well, it’s the end of July and, in theory at least, this Friday I am meant to be on a plane winging my way back to Sydney after my 3-month gig with the IMF is done.  To be honest, part of me really wishes this was happening as I miss my family, friends, and my fluffy boys.  Coincidentally, my being deposited back in Sydney was scheduled to happen at exactly the same date had I just gone travelling so – yes folks – it’s now nearly 5 months since I left Sydney.

Over here in the Caribbean, the project has hit some serious hitches, including the potential withdrawal of a large amount of funding crucial to its success.  The Eastern Caribbean governments have asked me to stay on and, since the IMF funding for the role was only for 3 months, they are currently working out how I will be employed and by whom.  Right now, I don’t know how long this will be for, but the part of the project I’m busy on right now will take another 2 months, so I imagine it’s at least that long (aside: I nearly typed “lone”…sigh).

I’ve mumbled something to them about wanting to be home by Christmas, and my fingers are crossed that maybe I can fit in a few weeks travel to Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, Guatemala and Puerto Rico (again – totally loved that place) before I wing home on Qantas.  But I guess we’ll see.  When I told Mum I’d be back by Christmas for sure, I think her heart sank: she was hoping I’d say “August” 😦

David and I spot a horse on the side of the road. One of the many farm animals who live on the island

During the 3 weeks leading into this weekend, I was caught up in a travel whirlwind: Puerto Rico, Grenada, Trinidad and Miami.  You’ve seen some of the posts, but there are a couple left to come.  I now have a couple of weeks at “home” before heading to Trinidad again on 6 August, and then Antigua on 17 August, which is a bit of a relief: I can fit into a regular routine of work and swims again before jetting off.

Not knowing when I’ll see my beloved home again can be tough going.  But, whenever I feel too homesick, I go for a swim, and think: “I’m.  Swimming.  In.  The. Caribbean.” And soak it all in. 

When I get home I don’t want to regret anything about being here, so I need to embrace every moment.

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You say Grenada

It took my a while to work out where I’d heard of Grenada.

Memorial plaque remembering the victims from 1983, on THE wall where the victims were lined up

In case you’re as dense as I am, in 1983 Grenada, an island nation in the southern Caribbean, was invaded by US forces after a bloody coup in which the Prime Minister and around 12 other members of the sitting Government were lined up against a wall and shot. 

The Courtyard where the PM was led to. He was then shot against the wall behind me

The ringleader of the uprising was the Deputy PM, who lived just across the road from the PM.  Rumours began to circulate about a death plot against the Deputy, who responded by gathering up some supporters and staging a violent coup.  Over 20 years later, after he was released from prison, the former Deputy PM confessed that, every single day, he wondered how different things would have been if he’d just walked across the road and spoke to the PM about it. 

Looking down Grand Anse Beach to St Georges

We had a meeting in Grenada, so I spent a few extra days there and kicked off each morning by swimming on the stunning Grand Anse Beach, a long white sand beach with the usual clear blue water the Caribbean is famous for.

Timothy, overlooking St Georges, on my private tour of Grenada

On Saturday afternoon, one of the team I work with, Timothy, took me on a quick tour of the island and showed me the place that the PM was shot.  Timothy was in school when all this happened but he remembers the US helicopters flying in overhead.  Why did the Americans care?  Well, remember that we were still in the midst of the cold war and the Americans were worried that, with Cuba so aligned to Russia, another Caribbean island was about to fall to Communist influences.  So, on the pretext of looking after 800 US students on the island, in they came.

The gorgeous St George's harbour

Grenada is a lush, incredibly mountainous island, with a capital (St Georges) set on a gorgeous Mediterranean-style harbour.  Yachting fans have already discovered this place, and a section of the enclosed harbour is lined with mega-yachts. 

My buddy Huddy

I travelled to Grenada with Hudson (or Huddy as everyone calls him), who works with me in the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank and has made it his job to show me Caribbean hospitality ever since I arrived (Huddy’s a sweetie).

On the Saturday, I took myself on a hair-raising drive around the island (so hair-raising that Timothy shook my hand for braving it…).  Think hair-pin turns + wild drivers = a couple of seriously near misses.  Along the way, I came across Lake Antoine, which sits in the crater of a dormant volcano and is known to bubble when there is volcanic activity on nearby islands, leading locals to believe that it is connected to an underground network of other volcanoes. 

An Aeroflot wreck at the abandoned airport

There was also this deserted airport, now occupied by some cows, goats and a couple of old planes that are slowly disappearing courtesy of the weather and being stripped by locals.  The airport was abandoned when the new international airport (built by the Cubans) was finished, but when I drove into a sectioned off area near what seems to have been shops, a scary looking dude in army greens came out to scare me away.  It worked.

Airport resident

The US invasion wasn’t the only trauma that the island has suffered.  In 2004, Hurricane Ivan slammed straight into the island, causing damage totalling a massive 200% of GDP.  With great determination and international aid, the island was virtually rebuilt although the scars of the damage can still be seen.  The Parliament building was destroyed, and Australia is helping out by funding its rebuilding as a green-energy building. 

Houses cling to the steep hills in Grenada

Grenada is famously known as the “Spice Isle” and is one of the world’s leading growers of nutmeg; a drawing of nutmeg actually appears on the flag.  The nation is rebuilding its crops, which were destroyed by Ivan but are now nearly at full steam once again.

The best story that Timothy told me about the hurricane, though, flowed from the destruction of the local prison.  In the wake of the mayhem that hit the island, the Prime Minister was busy checking out the damage.  He looked up to see the prisoners walking past him, calling out “We’re going home.  Just let us know when you’re ready for us to come back.”  And they promptly went to their homes and helped their families and with the clean-up and rebuilding. 

When the prison was repaired, they all came back, with only one prisoner needing to be apprehended by the authorities after he, unsurprisingly, made a break for it.

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Sozzled in San Juan

 

Looking down Calle de Cristo from my hotel (Maria's is on the right)

The luminescent blue bricks roll under me as I attempt the journey back to my room: it seems I am a smidge sozzled, nursing sore knees and blisters.  In pursuit of my food assault on San Juan, I am making my way back from Maria’s, famous for their “smoothies” and enchiladas.  It turned out that the smoothies are somewhat smoothier with the addition of some of the local squeeze: some Don Q (short for Quixote, natch) rum.  My passionfruit frozen smoothie was delectable, if the enchilada a tad disappointing.  Not to worry; this is just a brief culinary stop. 

Preparing for the 4th of July

Let me start at the beginning of my day: it was the 4th of July, and I was in the US.  San Juan, the least American of all America.  The day predicted extra traffic both in and out of San Juan.  I had an early start to join my tour to El Yunque (pr: yoong-kay), the enormous and spectacular rain forest on Puerto Rico’s north-east coast, just 45 minutes out of San Juan.

In an act of spectacular environmental foresight, in 1903 President Roosevelt set aside land for national parks, to be untouched, and El Yunque (Puerto Rico having been nabbed from the Spanish just 5 years earlier) was one of the first areas to be protected.

On arrival at El Yunque, we drove up, up, up into the beautiful rain forest, stopping at waterfalls along the way.  When we reach our destination, the guide announced that we would be walking back down down down to the waterfall, and expect to see locals barbecuing and swimming in the many rivers and waterfalls along the way.  After he had finished, I realised I hadn’t been listening properly: what did he say?  How long is that walk?  Did he say that we start the walk at 2,100 feet above sea level, and end at 1,800 feet? 

What goes down...

As I set down the enormous number of stairs as part of a my little tour group, the only thought that kept grinding through my brain was “What goes down must come up”.  A feeling of dread set upon me as I replayed what I could recall of the guide’s little talk and asked others what they had heard: if I had to walk up this, it would be far worse than even my Santorini debacle.  Seriously, how much is an air lift outta here?

Locals lapping up the waterfall on a hot day

We eventually came upon the waterfall, supposedly the reason for our walk.  It was nice, with numerous local families splashing about in the falling, cool water.  But there was no time to lose: we had to get back up.  I was hoping to make up some time by letting my fellow tour passengers linger by the waterfall.  But they didn’t, those American bastards. As we set upwards, I counted off the steps, happy to be knocking off the upward journey…only to head down…AGAIN: Nnooooooooo!

Eventually, although I wasn’t too far behind the rest of the group, I pleaded with a family walking in the opposite direction: how long they had been walking?  5 minutes.  Really?  REALLY?  Yeah, but watch the really steep part. “Whaddaya mean?  This isn’t it?” They laughed.  Cruelly.

Thank goodness, it turned out not to be as bad as I thought, and I made it to the top, civilisation, complete with blistered tootsies and sore knees. 

The Croque Madame.

We headed back into San Juan and I made up for the trauma with a lovely brunch at one of the very nice cafes, St Germain, where I tried a Croque Madame (croissant with ham and cheese, cooked in egg).  I was inspired to have this by a post I saw on NotQuiteNigella, introducing me to what looks to be quite the brunch place, Baroque Bistro at the Rocks.  Even though Lorraine’s post was all about the cooking classes, I couldn’t get over the Croque Monsieur on the brunch menu.

Inside Maria's (not your average looking smoothie bar, but I loved its seedy quality)

After a snooze, my search began for the famed “smoothies” at Maria’s on Calle de Cristo.  When I arrive there, I am confronted with the rum question. And you know how that turned out. I can report that I made it back to my room in one piece (it helped that the roads were blocked off for 4th of July so only had to focus on dodging Americans). 

Late that evening, ventured out in search of Mexican food.  Yeah yeah, I know I’m in Puerto Rico, but proximity is everything in my book.  I LOVE great Mexican, and find the flavours deeply intriguing.  I hope to visit Mexico on my way back home, and maybe fit in some Spanish and cooking lessons. (Naturally, I’ll tell people it’s to see the Mayan ruins but, between you and me, it’s to taste the genuine article: mole, chipotle, halapenjo…).

The funky El Madre bar

My hotel recommended a place called La Madre, and it was a knock out.  Great service, excellent frozen margarita, and offering a mix of traditional and modern Mexican cooking.  The atmosphere was almost early dance party – a hazy pink and blue lighting, funky bar, beautiful people (+ moi) and great food.  A video of Cirque de Soleil played on the wall, perfect for a lone diner!  The friendly waiter talked me into the duck and mushroom quesadilla and, even though I was a tad full from my drunken pitstop at Maria’s that afternoon, I succumbed. 

Duck and mushroom quesadilla (sorry about the terrible shot)

A quesadilla is like a double-sided crispy crepe with cheese inside.  While I couldn’t finish it, the dish was a stunner and perfectly balanced by tamale, salsa and guacamole on the side.  Mmmmmm…if only I’d been hungry enough to go for a dessert…

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Happiest people in the world

Happy Enrique

“Puerto Ricans are the happiest people in the world, Enrique reported proudly, “We have over 20 celebrations during the year”.  Parades, days off, and carnivals to rival anything anywhere in the world, he reckons.  And doesn’t his smile prove it?

Enrique is one of the many artists on Puerto Rico, and he makes these stunning little sculptures of people dancing – how amazing is the movement in those little dresses.  Of course I just HAD to have one!

I was on my way to the Bacardi distillery, a 50 cent ferry ride across the bay.  Although Bacardi Rum was founded in Cuba (in 1862), after the revolution the Bacardi (the emphasis is on the “di”) family fled Cuba and ultimately established their main distillery in Puerto Rico where they continued to build the Bacardi empire.  Although Bacardi has operations are all around the world, this distillery produces 85% of the world’s Bacardi Rum.  I was pretty disappointed that the tour doesn’t actually take you to see the real distillery (they stopped doing this after 9/11), but instead shows you the history of the company, some actual and replicas of the original distilling equipment, and teaches you about the making of rum.  Oh, and you also get free drinks at the end.

Ugly bat symbol

One thing people want to know is why the Bacardi symbol is a dead ugly bat.  Apparently, Senora Bacardi saw that fruit bats would hang out next to the first distillery, and she wanted to make it the symbol of the rum to represent family unity, good fortune, and good health.  Notwithstanding this, the bat is still ugly.

First comes fermentation – add molasses to yeast to convert to alcohol, a process that takes 24-30 hours.  Next, it’s distillation, where the alcohol evaporates and condensates to form two different by-products: heavy-bodied and light-bodied alcohol.  These then get blended, and the ageing process begins where the rum is stored in white oak barrels for 1 to 16 years.  Right now, this distillery has 1 million barrels ageing, and produces 100,000 gallons of the stuff every day. 

Where's Johnny?

In case you are wondering, there WERE in fact pirates of the Caribbean, who were famous for drinking  – wait for it – rum, except theirs was never distilled, so it burned on the way down!.

Our tour guide’s accent is so heavy, and she talks so fast, that I don’t hear her saying words to the effect of “Please wait outside for the train as you are not allowed to walk around the distillery unaccompanied.” So off I go and get picked up by two guys who inform me of this rule, and drive me to the visitor’s center even though I am only 50 metres away from it.

Bacardi informs us that they are the “No 1 premium spirit brand in the world”, although I have no idea what this means.  There was, however, a court case where it was decided that if someone asks for a “Bacardi and coke” they MUST be given a Bacardi and not any other brand of rum.  This is particularly so on Puerto Rico, which has 8 different brands of rum and where they regard Bacardi as a Cuban rum, even though it’s distilled here. 

The most exclusive rum that Bacardi produces is the 16-year aged Premium Reserve, which you can’t buy outside the Caribbean, and which you don’t mix, but is closer to a cognac.  Naturally, I buy one and avail myself of the engraving service to write “Time2Dance 2010” on the front of the bottle while I treat myself to a free drink.

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The Street of San Francisco

It was my first morning in San Juan, and I was determined to test out a mallorca; a sweet bread that Puerto Rico is famous for.  My research tells me that the most renowned breakfast place is La Bombonera, and I set out on the hunt for this little morsel.

$3 coffee dude

After wandering down Calle de San Francisco (literally the street of San Francisco…or Saint Francis Street if you really want the English translation) I am accosted by a guy who clearly moonlights by talking to tourists on the street, who he then latches onto and bombards with information about the city.  His day job is working at the Tourist office, so he is able to give me a few tips, and of course I know I am expected to give him one in return.  I fork over $2 and he asks for another dollar (“for a coffee; I’m broke”).  I suggest he has enough for a coffee and say my good byes.

When I arrive at La Bombonera, the place is full, but the window display has me drooling already.  I am beside myself with anticipation: St Kitts has NOTHING like this!

I pull up a stool alongside the locals at the counter, and the menu displays a mix of the usual stuff (bacon, eggs, fruit) along with various types of mallorcas.  My head spins as I read that they serve it plain, or with various combinations of ham, cheese, eggs, bacon and other brekkie delights, which I couldn’t understand as my limited research had turned up the fact that it was sweet! 

The plain mallorca (in my defence, it's not all that big...)

I played it safe and ordered the plain mallorca, grilled.  It automatically comes with powdered sugar on top.  It was mouth-wateringly good, much like a brioche but lighter, but as I eat I watch longingly as they prepare the savoury versions…

Fresh mallorcas

They start with a snail-shaped bread like this (but without the sugar).  You can buy these ones to take away.

Grilling Mallorcas

And fill them up with savoury items, then put it onto a grill.  When it’s all done, they sprinkle sugar on, cut it in half and serve it. 

I quickly realise that playing it safe was a massive mistake; I should have ordered one of the savoury ones, dammit!

Along Calle de San Francisco

Not to worry.  As I head off along Calle de San Francisco toward one of the two forts that San Juan is famous for (and which you are meant to visit; I never actually get to either fort, by the way…), lady luck shines upon me: less than a block from La Bombonera is Cafe Mallorca, the second most famous place in San Juan for breakfast! 

Do you remember that scene from the first Lord of the Rings film where they stop riding, and the hobbits pull out their pans, ready to kick off some home cooking.  Aragorn looks on, horrified, and exclaims “But you’ve already HAD breakfast!”.  The hobbits explain: “But this is second breakfast!”

Life is short.  In I go. 

Second Breakfast

After chatting to some helpful locals, I order a coffee (cafe con leche), a ham and cheese mallorca, and a small fruit plate (well, I had to do SOMETHING to compensate).  When the mallorca arrives, I must say that I found the combination of sweet and savoury rather scrummy (so much so that I took myself back to La Bombonera on my final day to knock over another one).

Hanging out in Old San Juan

After second breakfast was done, I hitched a ride on the free bus that trundles around Old San Juan.  As I waited, and gawked at the beautifully restored colourful buildings, it seemed that hanging over balconies, checking out the street life in Old San Juan, is something of a local pastime.

So, what do you serve?

On the journey, I noticed this rather intriguing poster, advertising a local restaurant, Cafe Aureola.  Could this be a strip club?

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Ola!

View from my room

The 4th of July weekend, and I’m off to Puerto Rico.  It’s just a 1 hour flight but, with all the waiting at the airport and the grind through US immigration, the whole thing took around 5 ½ hours door to door.

Yep, it looks like any old US city

On arrival in San Juan, it strikes you as any other US city – tall buildings, good roads, new cars…except everything’s in Spanish.  It’s amazing how a place can be American and Spanish at the very same time.

I have never understood the difference between Puerto Rico and other Latin American destinations, so here goes. 

Inside El Convento

Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island northwest of St Kitts, just east of the Dominican Republic.  Until 1898, it was wholly Spanish, but after the Spanish-American War, the US inherited it as a territory under the Treaty of Paris.  Residents of Puerto Rico are US citizens, although they don’t vote for the President.  But then again they don’t pay federal taxes either, so would you complain?  They struggle between wanting their independence, and not at all minding the financial support that the US gives them.  Plus, their no 1 industry is tourism from the US.

It’s famous for its coffee, and inventing the pina colada, the salsa (the dance, not the dip) and Selma Hayek.   

I decided to splurge and stayed at El Convento, a converted Carmelite convent (one taxi driver described it as “Caramelised” at which point I had Masterchef withdrawals).  It’s in Old San Juan which, as you would expect, is the old part of town.  El Convento was established back in the day that unmarried women were regarded as financial burdens on their families (boo!) and if they wanted to enter a convent had to travel to Cuba or even farther flung destinations.  A rich widow established the place, became mother superior, and invited in poor unmarried souls to stay.  After the nuns left, it became a dance hall and ultimately fell into disrepair until Woolworth (of the US Woolworth dynasty) bought it and spared no expense converting it into the most famous hotel around, attracting Hollywood and actual royalty.  Even today it’s the No 1 hotel in Old San Juan, and the service was charming and incredibly friendly. 

My room was on the top floor with these lovely views of Old San Juan.

Dinner, Friday 2 July

San Juan is renowned in the Caribbean for its cuisine: not just Puerto Rican or Spanish, but great food from many different regions.  On my first evening, I had a reservation at Pikayo, one of the top restaurants on the island, famous for its neuvo Puerto Rican food.  The decor was all bright and modern lighting, and waiters fled by in their crisp white button-up shirts.  I ordered the tasting menu, which was 5 courses. 

Cheese and Chocolate souffles for dessert

Each course came out of the kitchen as if it was on speed – my head span as all 5 of them were served within around 50 minutes, often one dish arriving just as its predecessor’s empty plate was whisked away.  The meal kicked off with perfectly cooked fois gras, then a beetroot and cream cheese salad with hazelnut sauce.  It kind of went downhill after that, with prawns and chorizo sausages in a combination I was assured would work, but didn’t.  Oddly, all savoury courses were accompanied with sweet sauces, something that was fine on one or two dishes, but a little much on all of them.  Even the butter was flavoured with honey and toasted sesame seeds.  Then, in a strange twist, dessert was two mini soufflés, one of which was gruyere cheese and guava sauce, which didn’t 100% work either.

I did find out later that Puerto Rican cuisine is traditionally a mix of sweet and savoury, so that probably explains it.  Even so, I found the meal a tad odd and enjoyed other meals there more.

Old San Juan's irridescent blue cobblestoned streets

It really didn’t matter, though; it was exciting being somewhere that was so Spanish.  Luckily, in Old San Juan at least, people are able to switch from English to Spanish and back again with no effort.  However, by the end of my first day of rather sad “Ola’s” and “Gracias’s” I realised that, if I stood any hope when I finally visit Cuba and Mexico, I’m gonna have to get me some Spanish under my belt.

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