My Quickie Culebra Vacation Part II
(Note: This is a continuation of My Quickie Culebra Vacation Part I.)
Yes, I know it has been several weeks since I wrote the first part of my trip to Culebra. As a matter of fact, we had just arrived in the town of Dewey in the previous chapter. Right away, I could see this wasn't Puerto Rico even though technically and legally Culebra belongs to the Commonwealth. In actuality it was drastically different. The main difference being that instead of being comprised of populous urban areas stuffed with high rises, Culebra was much quieter. The winding hillside streets and buildings of Dewey brought to mind a phrase: "Quaint Caribbean." A quaint Caribbean feel to not only Dewey but to the entire island of Culebra (population 2000 give or take a thousand or two depending on what day of the week it is).
The first building in Dewey to draw our attention was the Hotel Kokomo, just feet away from where our ferry landed. In the office (which doubled as a hotel check-in and real estate office) I found out that one could live like a king during a stay on Culebra by arranging in advance to rent one of many private homes in the Dewey area. Unfortunately, I had decided to do the beach bum routine and spend the night on the beach (more on that later).
Our first order of business was to find a restaurant. After walking several lazy blocks and noting more of the completely laid back atmosphere of Dewey, we spotted a sign for El Caobo restaurant which, according to the sign, featured mafongo. That was for me mainly because on Andrew Zimmern's Bizzare Food on the tube, he highly praised mafongo when he visited Puerto Rico. Also, I am embarrassed to say, despite five years living in Puerto Rico when I was a kid, I never once ate mafongo for some strange reason so I was curious. I asked a driver in a pickup truck waiting at an intersection the location of El Caobo and he said to hop aboard and took us there. On the way he mentioned that he owned a home that he was trying to rent out and pointed it out and told us to go on in whenever we wanted to take a look. Wow! Folks that give you rides and invite you to enter their unlocked homes whenever you wanted. Yes, this was Culebra and definitely NOT Puerto Rico.
We got to El Caobo aka Tina's where we encountered the proprietor, Marco, who looked and sounded like a Culebran version of Akim Tamiroff. I almost expected Robert Jordan from For Whom The Bell Tolls to come walking in the door and for Akim/Marco to say, "Don't provoke me, Yankee!". So Luz and I ordered our meals...mafongo and we waited and waited and waited. They cook things from scratch at El Caobo. And in the meantime we drank and drank and drank can after can of Medalla. By the time the meals were served I was fairly well buzzed. I remember a bit of what Marco (Tamiroff) told me, mainly that he preferred slow to busy days because he could relax more. Like I said, things are VERY laid back on Culebra.
The meal done and the sun setting we set out once again. This time to find a shuttle bus to take us to Flamenco beach where I planned on doing my Nature Boy routine. A van slowed down near us and I shouted out to the woman driver where a shuttle bus could be found. She replied by asking where we were going. "Flamenco Beach." Hop in, I'll take you!" Like I said, this was definitely NOT Puerto Rico. The woman turned out to be the famous singer/songwriter who claims to be "married" to the Culebra Bike & Kayak shop, AMY JO ELLIS. What really got my attention was her mention of the kayaks. See, I love snorkling and kayaks make it possible to reach normally inaccessible beaches, coral reefs, and the surrounding smaller islands near Culebra. I filed that away for future reference when I would have more time to spend on Culebra instead of the measly day I would be there because of my wife's insistence on not losing even a single day of work.
We got to Flamenco beach and Amy Jo continued on to her singing gig at a local club. This is where I had to be very careful in my sales pitch to sleep at the beach. I knew my wife would hate the idea so I very subtly promoted it for weeks as much preferable to staying at a hotel. I thought I had her totally brainwashed until the moment we got to the sandy beach. Suddenly, my wife exclaimed: "Insectos, animales, y...FANTASMAS!!!"
"Insectos, animales, y...FANTASMAS!!!" she repeated.
Uh-oh! My well-laid plan to sleep on the beach was immediately falling apart. I could possibly build up a case about why insects and animals would not be a problem camping out on the beach but I had no defense against the charge of FANTASMAS---ghosts. Now if you ask my wife in the bright light of the dayt if she believed in ghosts, she would laugh off your question. However, trust me, she believes in ghosts. When I work late at the computer and go upstairs to sleep, the bedroom light is ALWAYS on. Why? Fear of ghosts. When she had to work in 35 miles south in Kendall and could have stayed at my sister's home which was temporarily vacant and cut a lot of time out of her commute...no go because of ghosts. Yeah, I could sort of sympathize a bit since I used to believe in ghosts...when I was about FOUR! Okay, I did have something of a relapse a few years later when we lived in the Dos Pinos neighborhood of Puerto Rico. One stormy night I was frozen with fear in my bed.
"HELP ME!!!" I whimpered loudly.
Seconds later I heard growling down the hall.
"HELP ME!!!" I repeated.
"What the hell is the matter with you?" barked my father from his bedroom.
"THE FLY!!! The Fly is on the wall! HELP ME!!!"
"A fly? YOU WOKE ME UP BECAUSE OF A FLY?"
"Not a fly. THE FLY. It's on the wall and it is going to kill me! HELP ME!!!"
After some loud cursing, my father stomped down the hall and turned on the light.
"OKAY, WHAT DAMNED FLY YOU WAKING ME UP ABOUT?"
"It disappeared when you turned on the light."
So my father turned the light out and screamed, "A SHADOW! You woke me because you're scared of a SHADOW?"
"Oops!" I thought it was THE FLY."
Okay, so you can understand why I was a bit sympathetic to my wife's ghostly fear...but just a bit.
Now we had to find a place to sleep so we grabbed a shuttle bus (you can go to most anywhere on the island aboard frequent buses for just 3 bucks) and returned to the Hotel Kokomo in Dewey. Unfortunately the hotel office was dark and I already began making plans to sleep on a dockside bench when a young blonde woman that we later found out was Krista from Minneapolis, opened the office door. We were fortunate since we caught her as she was about to close up for the night. We booked a room and in the morning we woke up to a glorious scenic view and room service that brought us a continental dinner along with a full staff available to serve our every need including even wiping my tush.
Okay, I'm kidding. We got a small room with no TV and the view was only that of a wall but it had something very essential, namely air conditioning. Basic as the room was we both had a terrific sleep. No insectos. No animales. No fantasmas. And, above all, no stifling heat which probably would have made it impossible to sleep at the beach.
Since it was still fairly early in the evening, we decided to wander around Dewey for a bit and indulge in yet more refreshing Medallas.
One thing that Dewey does not have is a wild nightlife. Entertainment mostly consists in sitting at outdoor restaurants and sipping la cerveza which was fine by me because I just wanted to relax. While relaxing we took a stroll down the street and came upon a Methodist church which had Friday night services going on which we could easily view from the outside because of the wide open windows and front doors. As we stared in, the preacher was speaking in Spanish to his flock which, like him, consisted entirely of (as far as I could tell) Puerto Ricans. In the middle of the sermon he seemed to stare directly at me as if to invite me inside. If that happened I had a question for him. No, the question had nothing to do with the nature of God or the afterlife or anything like that. My question was about something much more mysterious: WHEN DID PUERTO RICANS BECOME METHODISTS?
I'm not kidding. When I was a kid in the Commonwealth, Puerto Ricans were almost all Roman Catholic or secretly practiced some Santeria related religion or both. The ONLY Methodists were Americans from the mainland. The only religion less likely than Methodism for Puerto Ricans to be (IMHO) would be Lutheran. Hell, I even knew a Jewish Puerto Rican. That was Kenny. His folks were from the States but Kenny was born in Puerto Rico. He spoke perfect Spanish with a Puerto Rican accent. And when the olive skinned Kenny talked in Spanish he sort of morphed even more deeply into a Puerto Rican due to his hand gestures and facial expressions. One thing about Kenny though, is that he had what we would today call an "anger management problem."
Kids used to love yelling insults from buses at other kids on the street. When I heard such insults I barely took note since it was so common. In the case of Kenny, he would go berserk. Should some kid on a bus yell "PATO" ("Pato" or duck was a local insult) at him, Kenny would respond by screaming angrily and flashing obscene hand gestures. However, when a kid yelled "MARICON!" At Kenny, he would go completely over the edge, running after the bus and banging his fists on the side. Sometimes he would follow a slow moving bus for over a mile punching the side and screaming. Yeah, I think Kenny did have an anger management problem which is why his parents sent him to sessions with the "Play Doctor." "Play Doctor" being a child-friendly euphemism for a shrink. For several weeks after his "Play Doctor" sessions began, Kenny kept inviting me to join him at a session. I think his "Play Doctor" wanted to see how Kenny interacted with other kids. At first I turned his invitation down. I figured such session would be boring. However, Kenny changed my mind but telling me it was okay to shoot the Play Doctor with arrows. That was for me.
It was at the Play Doctor session that I developed my lifelong skepticism of about shrinks. The Play Doctor was constantly taking notes and asking both of us dopey questions. He even spoke to us eight-year olds while reclining on the floor so as to be on our level. Then he handed us the toy arrow guns. That was when the fun really began. Kenny and I shot arrow after arrow right at the Play Doctor, specifically at his forehead. Meanwhile the Play Doctor calmly took notes and kept asking us why we were being so aggressive. He seemed not to accept my reply that we enjoyed shooting him because it was FUN!!!
I didn't notice any change in Kenny after his Play Doctor sessions ended. He still went out of his mind with anger whenever he perceived even a slight insult. Kenny finally was cured many years later in a place called the Parrot's Beak region of Cambodia when he was shuttling in troops and supplies as a helicopter pilot. I met him after that out in California and what the Play Doctor couldn't do, Charlie's missiles did. Knock the uncontrollable anger out of him.
Also in that Dos Pinos neighborhood was someone who I was sure would someday become a Supreme Court judge, Alan Chalfin. In fact, whenever a Supreme Court vacancy comes up, I almost expect Alan Chalfin to be named. The first memory of the word "lawyer" came about when Alan was arguing with my mother about something and my exasperated mother declared to Alan that he should be a lawyer what with all his arguments pleading his case. It was from Alan that I first learned about Kenny being a bit, well, not quite balanced.
It was my first day at Commonwealth School in Rio Piedras. Mrs. Randolph, the principal, accompanied me to my third grade class and introduced me. Unfortunately, there wasn't much room in the classroom so my desk was temporarily placed by the door, next to a few steps leading to the outside. That was when Kenny shoved my desk a couple of inches...enough to go tumbling backwards down the steps. To this day I have the upside down image of Mrs. Randolph walking into her office looking at me in shock as I was trapped in my desk falling backwards down the steps. The image forever frozen in my mind like an instant flash picture.
That was when I first met Alan Chalfin who helped me drag my desk and books back into the classroom as he laid out a very legalistic argument about when Kenny must be punished.
And that punishment came a few months later when The Monk who had an ever greater Anger Management problem moved down the street. Not only his face but his entire body turned beet red whenever he became angry which was frequent. It was Alan who conducted a trial against Kenny. Somehow he remembered every transgression Kenny ever committed and then as judge and jury, pronounced Kenny guilty and assigned The Monk to carry out the punishment. The Monk enthusiastically complied by beating the crap out of Kenny.
But tough as The Monk was, the one person who was feared above all others was Baby. He was called Baby because he looked completely unlike a Baby. Actually he looked like a very angry Ed Sullivan, complete with hunched up shoulders, as caricatured by numerous comedians. No one knew of anybody ever beaten up by Baby but due to his fearsome appearance there were many rumors. When Baby became angry at you, which could be for any reason such as merely existing, he would just point his finger at you and nod his head up and down with a cruel expression on his face which was dominated by thick eyebrows that merged together. At that point he would walk very slowly in your direction so fortunately you had the opportunity to flee. An opportunity of which I availed myself on many occasions. Unfortunately Baby was relentless. No matter how far you ran, Baby was sure to pursue you with his slow relentless gait. Sometimes I would run a half a mile away, completely out of sight of Baby only to see him maybe an hour later walking straight in my direction as he repeated pointing at me and shaking his head up and down meaning I was marked for death...or worse. To this day, I still have the primal fear that Baby is still pissed off at me and has walked all the way from Puerto Rico on the ocean floor only to carry out his delayed revenge.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Baby was that he was the adopted son of a priest (remember there were no Puerto Rican Methodists back then that I could recall) who lived across the street. The priest used his house to conduct worship services and weddings. Plus he was a nice guy who often paid us kids a few coins to polish his ornaments. So how could a kid raised by such a friendly priest turn out as miserable as Baby? That was a question that we often asked ourselves.
And a question I am asking myself right now is how could I have started writing about Culebra and gotten so off track with flashbacks of a childhood in Puerto Rico? I have yet to recall the best part of my vacation...snorkling in the reefs. And for that account, Dear Reader, you will have to wait for Part III (or IV or V) of this series.