Thursday, March 6, 2014

SAN JUAN - Day 2

We had never ventured out of San Juan, but all of that was about to change.  With a brand new Chevy and a full tank of gas at our disposal, it was time to hit the road.  We had picked up the handy-dandy 2014 Travel Map at the front desk of the Sheraton and decided to head west along the north coast to a place called Crash Point Beach.  It sounded cool and exotic – a rocky place where a historic lighthouse stood like a sentinel at the edge of the churning Atlantic and the wild Puerto Rico came alive.

That all turned out to be wishful thinking.  What we got instead was a lesson in just how big, bad and crazy Puerto Rico can really be.
When you look at a map of Puerto Rico the distances are deceptive.  We were used to covering an entire Caribbean island in a couple of hours, but it will take you at least two hours just to get from San Juan to the west end of the island.  And that's on toll highways most of the way, and assumes there is no accident, parade, road closure, or some other natural or unnatural disaster.

Our journey began smoothly.  I knew just enough Spanish to follow the freeway signs out of San Juan.  The landscape outside town was surprisingly mountainous, like the Land of the Chia Pet – steep limestone hills of karst all covered in lush jungle vegetation that looked like green fur.  Every once in a while we would crest a hill and get a view off to the north of the white-capped, dark blue Atlantic Ocean.  The wind was howling and Mother Atlantic looked really pissed.

First, we took Highway 22 for 85 miles, all the way to its end, just west of Arecibo near the sprawling town of Hatillo.  We exited onto Coastal Highway 2 and soon abandoned all hope.  The narrow, undivided road followed the coast, and was insanely crowded with endless traffic lights and shanty towns filled with the worst of American fast food schlock and in-your-face advertising.  Road signs were either inexplicable or non-existent.  There were roads going everywhere and everything seemed to be under construction.  It looked like they were rebuilding after a recent war.

The further west we drove, the sketchier and more rundown the scenery became.  Everything of value – houses, businesses, even farm equipment – were surrounded by fences or barbed wire.

By the time we got to Arecibo, the home of world famous radio telescope observatory featured in the James Bond film “GoldenEye” and the X Files episode “Little Green Men”, we had been driving for two hours and were apparently still several light years away from the island’s west end.

Part of the reason it had taken us so long was because we had gotten sidetracked by the freeway toll system which serves as a fine example of the utter state of chaos that is slowly taking over Puerto Rico.


When we rented our car, they asked us if we wanted to buy an E Pass – similar to our EZ Pass in Maryland – for the many tolls that dot every major highway on the island.  Since we were planning on covering some ground during our stay, it seemed like a good move.  For $9.95 a day, we could zip through each toll booth without stopping.

It wasn’t until we came to the first toll booth that I realized there was no transponder box attached to the inside of the windshield.  How would the toll sensor register that we had paid when we went through the toll?  Well, it wouldn’t.  And as we drove through, all hell broke loose.  Red lights blinked and loud alarms went off as we barreled through the toll like Bonny and Clyde.

When we came to the next toll, about five miles up the road, I decided to try and ask the attendant why our E-Pass – wherever the hell it was cleverly hidden – didn’t work.  We waited in an interminably long line and when we finally got to the toll booth we were greeted by a happy campesino, apparently fresh off the farm, who grinned at us madly and who spoke no English.  So we paid him $2 for the $1.35 fare.  He put the money in the cash box, then took $2.00 in coin from the same cash drawer, dropped $1.35 into the change basket on the outside of the toll booth and then handed us our .65 cents.  The light turned green, and we were on our way again.

I was like, “What the hell did we pay Thrifty $9.95 per day for?”

Inna hadn’t been paying attention when we signed the rental agreement, so none of this made any sense to her.  But being the logical thinking person that she is, she said, “Well, let’s call Thrifty and find out.”

I didn’t have the number for their local San Juan office – that was with the rental agreement back at the hotel, and nothing in the glove box shed any light on what the number might be – so we called the 800 number on the keychain.  We got a robot followed by canned music.

Meanwhile, we came to another toll booth.

We ran it again like dangerous desperados.  The bells and lights went off, but no one followed us in hot pursuit.

Thirty minutes, and three of four more tolls later, we came to the end of the freeway and pulled over near a roadside fruit stand.  At that point, a very perky lady in – I don’t know, maybe Kuala Lumpur – came on the line and asked us where we were.  When we told her we were in Puerto Rico, she put us on hold.  A few minutes later, she came back on the line and patiently explained the situation to us.

“There is no transponder in your car because the locals kept steeling them.  You did pay the daily fee for the E Pass.  But you don’t actually have the pass – at least not physically.  But we have an arrangement with the Puerto Rican Toll Authority.  They will send us the pictures of you running the tolls.  We will then check the license number and verify that you paid for the E Pass.  And then we will notify the toll people that you paid the toll through us, we will reimburse them, and the ticket will be waived.”

You really can’t make that sort of convoluted nonsense up.

As we crawled up the coast highway behind either a horse drawn cart, or perhaps a funeral procession, we occasionally got a glimpse of the ocean.  And it soon became clear that this part of the north shore was not going to have many sandy beaches.  Waves were pounding the rocky shoreline and tall columns of white foam spray towered over a sea of angry, dark, wind-whipped blue water, like an unbroken line of Old Faithfuls.

This had clearly not been one of my better ideas.

The original goal had been to go swimming and snorkeling at Crash Point Beach on the far west end but we gave up on that idea as soon as we entered the bustling armpit of Hatillo.
“Look, this is going to take us forever,” I said to Inna, who had long since stopped trying to figure out why she was being forced to endure this marathon drive.   The poor girl just wanted to lie out on the beach in the hot sun, read her book, and go for a swim.  We had been driving for over two hours, hadn’t eaten breakfast and were starving, and there still was no end in sight.

She had been reduced to asking me over and over again, “What’s at Crash Point Beach?”

“I don’t know what’s there,” I answered defensively.  “It was on the goddamn map and sounded like a neat spot way out on the far west tip of the island.  There’s a historic lighthouse.  And I thought there might be some interesting little towns to check out along the way.  But …”

I pulled the car into a Wendy’s and took out the map.  “Supposedly, there’s a beach right around here somewhere.  It’s called Sardinera Beach.  Let’s go there.”

We backtracked along Route 2 and started searching for a road heading off to the beach.  We figured there would be a brown or green park sign, advertising Sardinera Beach, but we never saw one.  It was all incredibly frustrating, and there was tons of traffic, and I just wanted to be back in San Juan where we knew there were some very nice beaches.  Why hadn’t I just left well enough alone?

“Let’s go back,” I said to Inna.

“Back where?” she whimpered.

“San Juan,” I said.

“Are you crazy?” shouted my lovely wife.  “We came all this way and we need to find Sardinera Beach.”

“Well that’s easier said than done,” I replied, as I angrily did another illegal U-turn and headed back west toward the freeway and salvation.

At that instant, I spotted a solitary, unmarked palm-lined lane on the other side of the divided road, leading to hazy openness in the distance that surely had to be the ocean. So we banged a quick left, barely avoiding a truck load of pigs, careened into a small parking lot in front of several shops with wildly painted windows, exited onto a busy neighborhood street leading into a rundown apartment complex, and then turned right onto the street with no name.

A half-mile down the road, after passing an abandoned vacation resort, we came to a line of shacks that looked like they had been wiped out in a previous hurricane, and the owners had just said, “Screw it.”  You see a lot of that all over the Caribbean.  There was a weather beaten, hand-painted sign reading Punta Maracayo Camping hanging above a small cantina that amazingly enough was open for business, its forlorn proprietor nodding off behind a counter.  There were no customers in sight.

But that wasn’t even close to being the oddest thing about this place.  To the left of the abandoned shacks sat a trailer park with a small guard house and a gate, sort of like a low rent gated community for mobile homes.  But it got even weirder because next to the gated trailer park was a Flintstone Village playground with a giant dinosaur, elephant, horse and lizard, painted in neon colors.  Bam Bam stood in front of the guard house, waving his big club in greeting.
By this point we thought we might be hallucinating, and we had no idea where the hell we were – Sardinera Beach was now but a fleeting memory – but we were certain there was ocean on the other side of those shacks and we would not be denied.  But first, we needed to find some place to park the car.  So I walked over to the guard house and asked the old coot inside if this was a public beach, and if so, where the hell we could park our car.  As usual, the guy didn’t speak any English, but he apparently got the general gist of what I was saying and he led me back to the shacks and moved a blue trash can in front of the cantina, making a space for us to park.

We gathered our gear and headed for the beach.  What greeted us was totally unexpected.  In front of us was a picture book blue lagoon the size of a small lake, and on the far side of the lake were dark volcanic cliffs, doing battle with the ocean.  Waves literally exploded against the jagged battlements in white clouds of spray.  But the lagoon was as calm as a kiddie pool.  The contrasts and colors were really quite spectacular.
Over the course of the next three hours we roamed the beach, swam around, and explored the rocks and tidal pools which were teeming with stoner blue-green algae; little fishies; and thousands of sea urchins, looking like little black spiked golf balls.  It reminded me of the rocky coast south of Icarai, Brazil, near Rio, and I felt like I was witnessing the beginning of life on Earth.

Several local families dropped by the beach while we were there, but for the most part, we had the place to ourselves.  We had gone through a lot to find our little private beach but it had definitely been worth it.

The sun finally started to broil our winterized skin, so we sought refuge in a line of palms.  Large iguanas came by from the nearby mangrove swamp to check us out, along with a great blue heron, assorted magpies, and several pelicans (my spirit bird).

Two amusing things happened when we were getting ready to leave.

The first involved a pervert, and the second a sign.

I was combing the rugged rocks, seeing how close I could get to a basalt blowhole where waves were hitting the stone walls so hard that I could actually feel the concussions, when a beat-up silver sedan pulled up out of nowhere about a hundred yards down the beach.  An older man got out, wearing grey slacks and a Pork Pie hat.  He was shirtless.  He seemed very interested in what I was doing but did not advance.  When he noticed Inna, lying in the sand, he walked toward her very furtively, hugging the edge of the dunes.  I don't know why, but I immediately got a creepy vibe off this guy.  He stopped at the edge of a line of large sea grape trees and eyed Inna intently, occasionally looking back to see what I was doing.  I thought he might be up to no good, so I started working my way toward Inna, who by now had noticed the guy.  When she stood up to check him out, he immediately retreated to the bushes and stood there silently, like he was trying to hide.  I was pretty sure what was coming next. 

So, I walked back to Inna and said, "Looks like a storm's blowing in.  I think it's time to go.”

She agreed and we started gathering our stuff.

Inna was changing her wet swim suit and putting on dry clothes. “Do you see that guy over there in the bushes?” she asked, wrapping a towel around herself as she changed.

“Yeah, I’ve been checking him out since he arrived.”

“Well you know what he’s doing?”

I knew.

“I think he’s jerking off.”

Inna took her bikini top and waved it at him as she flashed him the bird.  “Piss off, you scumbag,” she yelled and then we headed for our car.
It had been a very strange day indeed.

As we were putting our wet towels and swim suits in the trunk, I looked up and noticed a small sign above the entrance to the beach.  It read: Playa Sardinera.
I pointed to the sign and we both started laughing.

It turned out that in the end, we had found exactly what we were looking for. 
Imagine that.

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