Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Tuesday, November 09, 2010
Monday, July 19, 2010
Above: The landscape of cheap consumer goods and unfettered capitalism.
After our vacation to Puerto Rico, it felt like the summer was already over; after all, we knew we wouldn't have many opportunities over these warm months for much fun or relaxation. Of course, I shouldn’t bitch; after all, like many, we’re also scraping-by week-to-week and month-to-month for rent, utilities, and to meet the expenses of sustaining this urban existence.
Fortunately, we’re working (many aren’t): I’m still at the New School and have also been teaching two ESL classes a day for five days a week in Times Square. Teaching has definitely become a gratifying and transformative occupation for me. Subsequently, this summer, has also become my season for change, in which I’ve decided it’s high-time to “sober-up.” For the past two months, I’ve not sipped a drop of drink, nor inhaled a puff of plant. This has been the longest I’ve gone without these “vices” since graduating High School back in 1997. Yep, I’m “getting clean,” time to cease the daily damage I do to my brain and body with toxins.
To tame the proverbial “monkey on my back,” I’ve been running every other day, exercising regularly, eating healthier, and consuming a large dose of reading. Admittedly, this hasn’t been easy, there have definitely been moments of near “relapse,” when I wrestle with that old insatiable urge to partake of the pleasures I previously partook. But I stay strong. I maintain.
Of course this summer of 2010 has been a fitting moment to acknowledge, accept, and overcome my own addictions. After all, it’s been rather difficult to even think about really having a good time, when considering the unavoidable damage being done to the planet from our larger, more aggressive, collective addictions.
Yes this summer will mostly be remembered for the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which started with an explosion on April 20th on the Deep Water Horizon offshore oil rig. Accordingly, each subsequent day of news coverage would stream live video footage of a ruptured pipe, 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, frustratingly going glug, glug, glug, glug, while the ocean around it helplessly became more and more polluted.
At this time, BP has finally managed to put a “working” cap on the gushing well and appears to be very close to having a “relief well” established. Nevertheless, it has been very aggravating to see how inept, slow, and powerless this industry is at preventing, stopping, and cleaning-up an industrial malfunction of this magnitude. It took months to stop the gusher and will take years to return the Gulf to it’s natural condition. Of course, this is an oxymoron; because the sludge is here to stay.
Oil companies have had the technology to “drill baby drill,” at deeper depths and more dangerous locations. However, they apparently never invented nor experimented with the necessary mechanisms to stop nor clean-up such accidents. Dumb.
Week after week, the news only offered-up new techniques and gizmos to stop the crisis. However, it was obvious that BP had (like any good addict) lost control and was just pulling-out any sorry-ass excuse they could to “fix this.” One could almost imagine some team of scientists tirelessly working overnight somewhere at a chalk board trying to come-up with new whacky ways to stop this disaster. My biggest complaint is that there was no contingency plan established in the first place and that no matter how much oversight goes into future offshore drilling, it will never be “worth the risk.”
Yes, the frustration shall continue. And why not? After all, we are (as President Bush said during his Administration) “addicted to oil.” And the oil industry is like the junky, still trying to inject a needle into an infected arm, trying to drill deeper and deeper, all while the mess it created is not even close to being cleaned-up.
President Obama rightfully demanded a six-month moratorium on “deepwater” oil drilling so as to investigate “what went wrong” and to ensure appropriate regulations are put into place to prevent a disaster like this from ever happening again. However, federal judge, Martin Feldman, overturned the moratorium claiming, we cannot conclude that "because one rig failed . . . all companies and rigs drilling new wells at over 500 feet also universally present an imminent danger." He’s right; however, why risk it? Why gamble away the environment?
We always have and we will continue to do as we’ve always done -sacrifice our future well-being for quick immediate profits. The reason Judge Feldman overturned the moratorium is because he has had stock in big oil and, likely, still benefits from this super industry. Then again, don’t we all? After all, where do you think all the cheap crap we purchase comes from? ...Oil. That’s right, we’re the ones using cars, plastic bags, toys, etc. etc. The oil industry is our “pusher man” and we’re too wrapped-up in this habit to ever break it. The oil industry is entangled in almost every aspect of our political and economic life. We cannot beat this “addiction” until we have a new one to off-set our insatiable appetite for our energy “high.”
Rachel Maddow brought-up some excellent points on her July 23rd show. Maddow said, “The oil industry is the most profitable industry in all of human enterprise and as such it is the most influential.” Maddow then offered-up some startling figures to consider to see the oil companies’ influence on our lives. For instance, “Even if you look at the large costs BP has incurred so far in the gulf, $4 billion (as of last week), this amount is still less than a 3rd of BP’s profits from last year alone.” Moreover, “If you look at all the oil in the gulf, which is an estimated 184 million gallons, this amount only represents a quarter of how much oil is consumed in American in one day.” ...One day?! Ouch!
These are certainly grim, startling, and sobering figures that make me want to read more Chris Hedges columns (like this one) and sadly, have a stiff drink while watching (to quote Jim Morrison) "the whole shit house go up in flames."
But I won’t, because I refuse to believe this fight is over yet.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
According to the New Right, these two interpretations are exactly what this expression means. They argue, "Muslims are moving-in and taking over." And, "We must return our Nation back to the way our Founding Fathers intended." The yellow Gadsden Flag, depicting a coiled timber snake (used by Benjamin Franklin to symbolize the American colonies) with slogan, "Don't tread on me", flies proudly over Tea Party rallies. This flag was initially used by American revolutionaries against the British Empire. But today, this slogan and flag have been dusted-off by "average Americans" who believe the "enemy" isn't from abroad but from within their own government. Of course, this view is perplexing; especially since our current government was chosen in an honest election by a majority of American people. Nevertheless, "Teabaggers" still feel the government is "tyrannical" and "does not represent them." They are paranoid and afraid the government is "trying to take away [their] freedoms."
Such hyperbole is utopian, sensational, and dangerous. America (whether one accepts it or not) can only -like all human civilization- move in one direction, forward. Admittedly, this "forward" progression may not always appear to be moving in the upward and enlightened pace we'd hope to go. In fact, there is a very real danger that we just might blow-it. We could plunge into a dark age guided by religious mysticism and totalitarian political ideals. Yes, the American experiment could fail; however, it will not be because of the fears of the “Teabaggers.” Actually, it is the very backward and confused ideals of the New Right that represent the greatest threat to an educated, pragmatic, competitive, and -most importantly- democratic America.
Of course, there are those who will argue -all for different reasons- that America already failed. There are also those who'll assert I only consider New Right/Tea Party hyperbole a "threat" because I am an Atheist, Liberal, and Democrat. To which, I'd reply - and damn proud of! So, "Don't tread on me!" Politics is messy. However, one of the greatest assets of our country is that we can all debate our opinions, protest our dissatisfactions, and have freedom of (and from) religion. None of us know where America is going, nor can we honestly say we're proud of where our country has been; however, there are very real values, ideals, and customs I trust we all respect, enjoy, and strive to protect at all costs.
Perhaps my perceptions and understandings of "this Nation-Thing" (a.k.a - "our way of life") are dramatically different from those of the New Right? After all, unlike my more conservative and paranoid countrymen, I'm not concerned about having "more" Muslims in America (and feel a Mosque should be built wherever, even if two blocks away from "Ground Zero"). Sure, I'm an Atheist and would prefer to do without religious institutions altogether (however, I also understand the need for people and cultures to have something to believe in); besides, America is about religious freedom - for all.
I'm also someone who voted for and continues to support President Obama. Nevertheless, I'm still critical of his policies (as one should always be of their elected leaders). Admittedly, my criticisms are often that he's not "socialist" or "radical" enough! …Gasp! That's right, I said it, let us "spread the wealth!" In fact, I agree with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who recently asked wealthy people to donate part of their fortunes to charity. Regrettably, greed still pumps through the bank accounts and veins of many Americans who will hypocritically muse on Sundays about "the generosity" of Christ, while refusing to pay taxes that “support the general Welfare” of their neighbors any other day of the week.
The Tea Party Movement has recently drafted-up a "Contract from America". (Interesting how this is a contract "from America", as if this one fringe movement can assume it speaks for the entire nation). Anyway, since this document purports to speak from America, I suppose now is as good of a time as any for this American to chime-in on his thoughts and opinions of this document.
The “Contract from America" opens with three guiding principles. The first, regards "Individual Liberty". I'm mostly in complete agreement with these initial sentences; however, I find it confusing to see the Right stand in defense of "individual liberty", when they are also so concerned with what goes on in the privacy of LGBT Americans' homes. Of course, I'm also very suspect of this paragraph's concluding eight words - "free from excessive control over our economic choices." This is clearly in defense of corporate privatization and de-regulation.
I do agree Americans should be allowed to purchase (or not purchase) what they want (assuming they have the capital to do so); however, what the Right tacitly chooses to ignore, is that in the United States, large corporations are considered "individuals", yet often act above the same laws we expect individuals to follow. Americans (nay, citizens of the world) need to admit corporations have far more power and persuasion than any one individual; thus, there must be more regulation and oversight so that businesses are not allowed to commit anymore crimes against the environment and humanity. If corporations want to remain competitive and sustainable then they should be turned into co-ops, so that the wealth and work of the company is more fairly distributed.
The second guiding principle of "The Contract from America" regards "Limited Government". Of course, I disagree with this Reagan-era relic; firstly, because I believe the danger of limiting government (anymore than it already has been limited), means government can become increasingly unaccountable to the citizens it should represent and protect. When government isn't in control, private corporations are, and when this happens, civic life is no longer democratic but instead a competitive game of who can, or cannot afford the necessary services rendered.
When there's a disaster, do we want the police, fire, and military to show-up, or, a privatized corporation? Unfortunately, this recipe of "Disaster Capitalism" is already happening. More frightening, is what those on the Right would prefer happen to American Health Care, Social Security, and Education - auction it off to the highest corporate bidder so that only those able to afford these services receive the “best” product. When human beings and their needs are only seen for profit motives, then humans lose out. What's most perplexing is that many on the Right come from impoverished and destitute situations that are the direct result of corporate deregulation and un-fettered capitalism. Despite this, these misguided (and understandably angry) people still foolishly believe corporations have their best interests in mind. This is where Republicans and Democrats part-ways and have since President Franklin Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights.
Paradoxically, it almost seems as if New Right/Teabaggers share many similarities with certain Anarchists and fringe Leftist groups regarding their concern of limiting our government. The New Right wants government "out of our lives" much like Anarchists wish for no government at all. I know where these folks get their paranoid ideas and it is shame they’re unable to see the snake-charming trickery influence the radio talk-show circuit holds over their lives. Of course, if these folks are really concerned with their privacy, they may want to look-back into the many Bush-era Department of Homeland Security policies that initiated much of this Big Brother mentality. Agreed, President Obama has done nothing to remove these policies for the good of our nation. I suppose, Kurt Cobain was right, "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not watching you."
Ultimately, all this "limited government" rhetoric is based on a host of silly paranoid scenarios. The Tea Party movement is constituted of a combination of conspiracy groups. There are the "truthers" who believe “9/11 was orchestrated by the government.” The "birthers" who believe President Obama is “not an American citizen.” There are a growing number of Militias, all apparently keeping watchful-eyes to the skies for "black helicopters" and our borders from "illegal" immigrants. There are the "oathers" who fear the possibility of an impending martial law, in which "Americans will be rounded-up into concentration camps." Lastly, there are the Dominionists who are inspired by the pulp-fiction of Tim LaHaye and animated by a Christian Nationalism, which seeks to replace the Constitution with a theocratic "Christian Nation." All these groups are adamantly opposed to a multicultural United States and vehemently resist globalization. (I can assure you, resisting globalization will not make for a competitive United States.)
The final guiding principle of the “Contract from America” regards "economic freedom", which wrongfully asserts, "The most powerful, proven instrument of material and social progress is the free market." This point also argues "any other economic system, regardless of its intended pragmatic benefits, undermines our fundamental rights as free people." I could more easily "buy" this point if I hadn't already seen the very real damages a free market economy has and continues to do. Accordingly, individual "economic freedom" is not the same thing as the unfettered, unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism that perpetually consumes and wastes-away our depleting natural and human capital. Something needs to change within our current system. The current outmoded machinery must be reformatted and upgraded for the future.
The rest of The Contract from America is a ten-point list of demands. I shall now offer some preliminary thoughts on each…
1.) Protect the Constitution
The complicated thing about the US Constitution is that is was written in 1787. Since then, things have (thankfully) changed and fortunately, so hasn't this founding document. Americans have amended the Constitution so that African Americans and women can vote. Thus, if we never changed the Constitution, we'd be an even more racist and sexist nation than we already are. I think there should be more Amendments made to the Constitution; after all, we need to better meet the ideals of our country while also accepting the challenges of this evolving world while bravely moving into the future. The Constitution is a founding framework that must be used to guide us as a nation and should be amended when necessary. Period.
2.) Reject Cap and Trade
This concern is completely irrational, unless, I’m confused and those on the New Right are concerned that the Cap and Trade bill doesn’t do enough? But I think this has more to do with our dependence on “cheap oil.”
It is essential -as we continue to see from this summer's BP Oil Disaster- to regulate corporate pollution and begin cutting-back (and removing altogether) our emissions. The reason why rejecting cap and trade is not an option is the environment. Secondly, the proposals for cap and trade policies will make economic incentives for corporations who follow these policies, those who continue to break the rules, will be fined. Good. Make no mistake, global warming is not a “theory.” Global warming is a fact. Unfortunately, those on the New Right, continue to spread disinformation and do so at the peril of our children's future.
3.) Demand a Balanced Budget
Agreed. Let us “balance” the budget. Fortunately, President Obama has already reduced taxes for 95% of Americans. Thus, I’m confused as to why the “Tebaggers” are so adamant about insisting the President has "taken their money." Agreed, he has proposed taxing the wealthiest top 5% of Americans. Good. Tax away and let's "balance” the budget.
4.) Enact Fundamental Tax Reform
This "single-rate tax system" sounds a lot like a "flat tax" to me and is something that is not only unfair but will not work in a nation with such a diverse and imbalanced range of wealth over poverty. Fortunately, President Obama's tax plan will decrease taxes for Americans making less than $250,000 a year and increase it for anyone above this. Again, the budget will be on its way to becoming more “balanced.”
5.) Restore Fiscal Responsibility & Constitutionally Limited Government
Blah… blah… blah… This contract is so repetitive.
6.) End Runaway Government Spending
Sure, let’s redirect the massive amounts of money spent on defense and take back all that money given to the failed banks in the “bailout.”
7.) Defund, Repeal, & Replace Government-run Health Care
Again this is just more of the same “privatize it all” and "let the corporations rule" mentality.
As everyone should know, we (unfortunately) don't have a single-payer "government-run health care" system; in fact, under the recent Health Care Reform Bill, Americans can continue to keep the Health Care they have through their own health care providers. Of course, there is a whole host of rumors and misinformation circulating about "death panels" and "taxpayers paying for the health care coverage of 'illegal' immigrants." This is all foolish.
8.) Pass an 'All-of-the-Above' Energy Policy
This is just a way for the oil companies to push for more "drill baby drill" bullshit. Nope. The only way for America to "reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources" and create competitive jobs is by implementing and creating green and sustainable energy alternatives. There is no "going back" and the jobs that are "lost" because of ending our oil addiction will be well worth the many more we gain with clean energy and remaking our wasteful and outmoded infrastructure. We need to promote the next generation of energy efficient automobiles, now.
9.) Stop the Pork
Local projects are often essential to the well-being of a working America. Thus, these should continue to be presented and approved by Congress on a case-by-case basis. Agreed, there is wasteful spending throughout Washington on projects often carried-out in the interests of certain K Street lobbying firms. Thus, there should and must be oversight; however, to "put a moratorium on all earmarks until the budget is balanced" would be completely destructive to the well-being of long overdue infrastructure upgrades and welfare programs.
10.) Stop the Tax Hikes
Again, President Obama has cut taxes for 95% of working Americans. Enough said. However, this concern to "stop the tax hikes" is regarding "the income, capital gains, and death taxes, currently scheduled to begin in 2011." Now, I'm not as knowledgeable as I plan to be this election season on all of these tax terms; however, I suspect most "average Americans" are in the same "turbo-taxed" boat as I am.
After doing a little research, I discovered the "income, capital gains, and death taxes" are all items most Americans will never see or need to be concerned with. In fact, such "tax hikes" are only in place for the super rich. Thus, most people will never need to be so concerned with avoiding a capital gains tax, because they'll never be liable to pay it.
I suppose in a way, I do agree with the Teabaggers on this one. After all, if someone has "earned", invested, and saved their money, then they shouldn't need to be taxed again later on the investment’s assets. However, like I said, I'm not as well-versed (as I plan to be) on this subject. However, I do agree that in the sake of "fairness" the criminals at the top need to be taxed. As Fiorello La Guardia once so unapologetically roared on the floor of Congress, "I am simply going to say it, soak the rich!"
The working American poor
Monday, June 21, 2010
Dear Members of the Muslim American Society,
Over the last two weeks, I have watched and read the local news with disgust. As an American, I am so embarrassed and ashamed by the Islamophobic and racist actions expressed by the citizens of Midland Beach, New York. I would like to think they do not represent the America I have been taught to respect and value; however, as I have seen from this and other instances, I fear America is not as enlightened and advanced of a country as I'd want it to be.
I realize many Americans are still angered and afraid of the 9/11 attacks. But despite that horrible event, the ignorance and racism expressed toward your group are unjustified. Moreover, if the terrorists intended to spread fear and discord, then they have obviously succeeded. It frustrates me to see the people of Midland Beach and Lower Manhattan damaging more of our American ideals by trampling your freedom to live and prosper peacefully as a people.
It angers and saddens me to see your religious group fall victim to these bigoted, ignorant, and misguided views. I am ashamed by the actions and statements of these citizens. Your Muslim religious organization should not have to face this hate and anger. Although I am not a religious person, I do respect and value the indelible American right that is our freedom of and from religion. I am sorry to hear you're group was refused the opportunity to build your mosque in Staten Island. I hope you will be able to find a community to welcome you so that you can worship your religion in peace.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
My last night in New York, before leaving for a ten day vacation with Ena in Puerto Rico, would also be my last night as Asst. House Manager at the 92nd Street Y (where Ena and I met). During my two years at the 92/Y, I've had the opportunity to hear, stand beside, and even meet various influential, inspiring and unsavory politicians, writers, and entertainers. On this last night, the 92/Y was hosting it's annual fundraising "gala" for the "pissed-off and privileged" backers of this reputable Upper East Side Hebrew organization. After the catered dinner, the patrons sauntered into the Concert Hall to hear the irritating and unnecessary musical stylings of Barry Manilow.
Once Manilow's set of tacky tunes concluded, I hugged our house manager, and friend, Nancy Kito farewell, shook hands with co-workers, and stole a bottle of Manilow's wine before marching-out the door. Later, while packing at home for our trip, I drank Manilow's awful wine and in a sick way, savored it's bitter-sweet taste, knowing this would be my last perk from the job.
The next day, Rigo graciously drove Ena and I to JFK. Where we check-in at the American Airlines counter and are charged $25 for my luggage. I'll never understand how a company (that already charges so much for it's airline tickets) can feel justified in financially raping it's customers - twice. Of course, there was also the usual mechanical search and savagery from the TSA thugs. As I stood in line, I watched a family of Iranians with two young children make their way through the gauntlet of security and wondered what these children must have thought? They looked scared. What would children in the future think of this system? After all, things weren't always like this. I suppose, things change.
The two toddlers clung tightly to their mother's legs, screaming and crying through the whole sad and ridiculous ordeal. Somebody keep an eye on that three year-old girl! She might have a bomb in her stroller!
I laced-up my sneakers, buckled my belt, and we made our way to the gate.
* * *
Four hours later, we're in Puerto Rico. As always, the first thing that hits is the humidity. We take a cab to The Beach House hotel, which is conveniently located in Isla Verde. Despite the Beach House's "chic" external facade, the room is nothing to get excited about. In fact, The Beach Hotel feels less "boutique" than it does "tacky." Despite the garish room, a girl at the front desk gives us free drink passes for the bar, which is right on the beach. We sip a couple Rum and Cokes under the palms and then take a stroll along the surf. Eventually, we grab food at el Alambique Bar and Grill. After dinner, Ena and I have some more drinks and lose some cash in the stupid slots at el San Juan Hotel and Casino.
The next morning, we eat desayuno at a small cafe'. Frustratingly, there's no orange juice; however, the strong coffee con leche makes-up for this loss. Since we have some time to kill before our Air Flemenco flight to Culebra (a small island 17 miles east off the Puerto Rican mainland), we decide to nap on the beach so as to better shake-off our New York anxiety and comedown to that relaxed no sense-of-urgency-attitude of the locals.
After our nap, we catch a cab to the airfield, and have a few rounds before our flight in the small airport bar called "el Coqui". The aircraft is also small and only fits 10 passengers. The flight itself is amazing! We watch the city of San Juan and Isla Verde pass by below. After that, it's a straight-shot along the northern coast and then nothing but ocean. At one point, someone in the plane notices a whale in the water below. As we approach Culebra, the plane makes it's descent over Flemenco Beach; below, we see clear tropical water and coral reefs. The plane races between two hills to finally land on the small airstrip of Culebra's airport.
We gather our bags and then make our way to the Carlos Jeep Rental counter; unfortunately, Carlos gives me some hassle since my credit card cannot cover the $500 "security hold" for the rental; fortunately, Ena has her card and the rental place allows us to put the "security hold" under her name instead. Nevertheless, it's annoying to have these additional costs thrown at you while on vacation. But no surprise; I suppose, like everyone, I'm just annoyed I'm not wealthier. Whatever, we're not going to let my weak bank account prevent us from having a proper vacation!
After we get the jeep, we drive about a mile to Dewey -the small village center of Culebra- to get supplies and have lunch at Mamacita's, which is a great restaurant, bar, and lodging house located right beside a small salt water canal. Local fisherman and boaters often float-up to the dock to disembark and have a drink. In the trees and along the dock lounge large green iguanas, sun-bathing while watching the tourists eat.
Our drive to the Culebra Beach Villas is beautiful. There are no houses along the winding road once you pass the airfield, only trees. The island is designated a national wildlife refuge, so it's the perfect place to "get away from it all". It's also an ideal environment for Leatherback sea turtles to lay their eggs along the beach and for sea birds to nest in the trees. We take a bumpy and muddy dirt road along the Flemenco Lagoon to get to the villas where we'll be spend the next four days, soaking (burning) in the sun, swimming, snorkeling, and relaxing. The first thing we do after checking-in, is to change into our swimsuits and take a swim in the beautiful warm ocean.
On our last of four nights in Culebra, we eat dinner at a small restaurant called "Barbara Rosa's", which is owned by an older woman (whom I assume is Barbara Rosa). Barbara runs the place from out of her own kitchen and living room. There are no waiters and no kitchen staff. We walk in to Barbara's living room (which has a TV playing CNN footage of the spewing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico - reality comes crashing in) and step-up to a small window where Barbara takes our dinner orders. There are no booze, because Barbara "doesn't drink"; however, she says "you can BYOB if you want." We don't. After placing our order at the window, we take a seat on her front porch, and wait to be called. "Nick! …Your dinner is ready!" The food is good, a true "home-cooked meal" (please ignore the wilted lettuce), but the experience itself is another great reminder of just how small Culebra is.
After dinner, we drive to Mamacita's for drinks. But before this, we visit the studio of Culebra artist and musician, Jorge Acevedo. His studio is a small brightly painted shack full of paintings, t-shirts, and bongos (one has a little green gecko dancing on top of it). I purchase one of Jorge's silkscreen t-shirts and have a conversation with him about his "fish" symbol (which I'd noticed earlier painted on the side of a rusted-out tank on the edge of Flemenco beach. This tank is a leftover remnant from U.S. military training operations that happened here from 1903 - 1975.) Jorge tells me that the "the dancing fish is a symbol which represents the synthesis between the bones of the fish and the dancing human figure." He explains, "It's all a matter of perspective. For instance, the old-timer fishermen see the island as a place to fish; whereas, many of the younger generation see it as a place to celebrate and dance." Jorge tells us he'll be playing with his band at Mamacita's later, we tell him "We'll see you there."
We have some pina coladas at the bar with some of the local Culebrenses. One islander, an old man named Juan, hobbles onto the dock, sits down beside us, and takes out a small laminated card from his wallet, which reads, in Spanish, "My name is Juan, I was born here in Culebra, in 1934. I am 73 years old." Juan had scribbled and erased-out his age a few times, indicating he'd carried this card in his pocket for at least a few years. This card was obviously Juan's "free drink ticket" and best way to start-up a conversation with tourists. I indulge and decide to buy Juan a shot of Malibu rum. The old man could not speak very well, he mostly used gestures to communicate and small incomprehensible grunts. Juan is friendly; however, "talking" with him was like playing a game of charades.
Eventually, Jorge's band set-up their equipment and began an energetic set of great Caribbean music with lots of percussion. Most everyone in the place couldn't help but dance and clap along with the rhythm. Above us -as if nature herself wanted to join-in on the dance- the palm trees began dripping-down heavy sheets of warm rain, which didn't dampen the audience's enthusiasm; instead, the water was a welcome refreshment as it cooled our warm bodies.
Much later, while walking back to the beach villa, we're stopped by our neighbors who invite us to have some drinks and to dance with them. Our villa neighbors are a large, noisy, group of islanders (most speak English) who stay-up late into the night drinking and dancing. Ena and I join them for some rum and weed. I accidentally break a glass on the deck, which is always a super party faux pas, especially when everyone is dancing barefoot! Nevertheless, we laugh-off the accident and start back-in dancing and sweating some more. Eventually, someone suggests going for a midnight swim; accordingly, we all change and jump into the warm ocean under a beautiful moon and star-filled sky.
The waves crash and recede back. I breathe with the movement of the waves. I'm at peace. I kiss Ena, "I love you." This is definitely one of those too-few and amazing moments that really make life worth living.
The next morning, we check out of the beach villa, say farewell to our neighbors, and take one last look at Flemenco Beach. I make a promise to myself (as I did last time) that I will return here again. We then drive into Dewey to return the snorkeling gear and grab breakfast at one of the few spots in town with working WiFi.
After returning the jeep and checking-in our luggage at the Culebra airport, we walk along the side of the airfield toward the Happy Landing Bar, where Ena beats me at billiards, we listen to reggeaton, drink Medallas, and watch as local teenagers sell drugs in the parking lot. I think of buying some weed off them, but know we'll be back in San Juan soon enough; besides, it's always easy to score in la Perla.
Eventually, it's time for our flight. As the small plane's engine roars to life and we begin to take-off, I feel a little choked-up watching as the little island passes by below. Part of me really loves Culebra, it's just such a simple and peaceful place; so different from the intensity, aggression, and stress of New York. Of course, I may entertain romantic thoughts of returning here to "retire" (as if retirement will ever be an option for my generation), but I also know too much of me would be unable to live in such a peaceful place as this. Likely, I'd go mad. I suppose I'm too addicted to the activity and intensity of New York. I'm of the breed that needs stress and challenge. Sure, Culebra is a beautiful place to visit for relaxation, but it's best to remain untouched and untainted by the influence of aggressive city folk like myself.
When we return to San Juan, we pick-up a rental car and drive to the Acacia Seaside Inn, which is an excellent place to stay. Our room is clean, well-lit, has an awesome shower, plasma TV, and deck that walks out onto a large jacuzzi pool. Whenever I return to San Juan, I'll make sure I stay here.
After freshening-up at the hotel, we take a drive to viejo San Juan, to take photos of the cobblestoned streets, Spanish influenced architecture, and score some weed in la Perla. We have dinner at an excellent restaurant called el Asador. After a brief stroll through the old part of the city, we drive back to the Acacia Seaside Inn to smoke and relax in the jacuzzi outside our room.
* * *
After eating desayuno at the same cafe we ate every morning in San Juan (not because the food was really great, but because it seemed to be the only place not owned by a large fast-food chain), we do some laundry. Unfortunately, I stupidly put a cheap red towel in with the load and, subsequently, turn all our whites pink. Damn! However, we don't get too sore about the ruined laundry - "What are ya gonna do?" Besides, it was time for us to leave San Juan and drive east to Rio Grande, where we'll stay at the el Yunque Rainforest Inn for the next three days to read, write, and -most importantly- explore the rainforest.
That night, while relaxing in our cozy room, we hear, outside the room's many large windows, a symphony of coqui singing their hypnotic mating song through the night. The small frogs' rhythmic noise make for the perfect natural lullaby.
The next morning, we have breakfast downstairs on the veranda with Bill and Laurie, the Rain Forest Inn's two owners. Bill and Laurie have owned the Inn since 2003. Over the past seven years, they have (with help from friends/family and dedicated volunteers) renovated the entire property. The Rainforest Inn is a gem, a secluded compound along the western edge of el Yunque Rainforest. Apparently, when Bill and Laurie first bought the place there was no running water, nor electricity. Before they arrived, the property itself had been abandoned for years because of damage from hurricanes. Originally, the buildings and property were owned by Bill's uncle, David Humphrey -an eccentric inventor and designer- who came to Puerto Rico sixty-five years ago.
Over an amazing breakfast, Bill, Laurie, Ena and I have an interesting discussion on human evolution, "how people who live in the city are more prepared for the future than those living isolated in the country", and emerging technologies. Bill and Laurie are an interesting and hospitable couple. Bill is obviously a very intelligent man who is also very knowledgeable about the natural environment.
At some point, Bill asks, "What kind of a hike are you interested in having today? …Aggressive? …Easy?" I know he senses we're up for a bit of an adventure, so he suggests hiking the La Coca trail, which crosses three streams, takes about 3.5 hours to complete, and concludes at a secret waterfall and swimming hole in the middle of the rainforest.
After coffee, we change into appropriate clothes for the hike, grab some fruit, granola bars, water, towels for a swim, and toss this all into a backpack. Before leaving, I ask Bill one last time for the directions to the waterfall so that I can write them down. "What's the matter?" Bill asks, "Too much pot in high school?" I chuckle, but wonder if he smelt the blunt I smoked on the balcony last night? Likely he did; however, I'm sure I'm not the first guest of his bed and breakfast who partook of nature's finest weed.
Ena and I take the quick drive to the entrance of el Yunque Rainforest and make our way deeper and deeper into the wilderness. As we drive, our ears begin to pop from the rising elevation. We pass la Coca Falls and then keep our eyes open for la Coca trail head, which -according to Bill's directions- should be a bit up the road on the left.
Once we spot the trail, we park the rental car and commence on our journey into the rainforest. For most of the first half of the trail, we're walking downhill. Ena gripes a bit about the mud on her shoes, which I warned her about before the hike; nevertheless, the breathtaking scenery is worth getting dirty over and so we make our way deeper into the jungle.
All around us, gigantic trees reach into the sky as thick vines snake-down from bird-filled tree tops above. Various flowers and plants, that one would need years of study to ever properly describe, dot the sides of the trail. We press-on until we finally get to the first stream. I'm a little nervous Ena may fall into the cascades, or that one of us might hurt ourselves on the slippery rocks. Since I cannot find an easy spot to cross, we decide to take-off our shoes and wade through the rapids. On the other side, we put our shoes back on and continue our trek.
We hike and hike, until we reach the second stream, then the third. It's here, after passing the third stream, that we begin to hear the sound of stronger rapids ahead. We must be close to the spot where Bill told us we'd find a "very steep, muddy, and overgrown hill". We follow the sound of the rapids and are soon right above them. I look down a steep and overgrown hill and tell Ena "The best way for us to get down there is to slide down on our ass." So, we make our way down slow and steady until we reach the large damp rocks beside the water below.
Throughout the hike, Ena and I kept joking "We hoped all of this walking is worth it." Of course, once we made it down the steep incline and looked-up at a huge (five-story tall) rock face, plush canopy of jungle foliage, and roaring waterfall, we knew all this hiking was definitely worth it.
We sat for some time in awe - amazed and humbled by the sheer power and majesty of the breathtaking sight before us. From the rocks along the shore, we could feel a faint mist from the waterfall as it cascaded down through a deep crevice in the rock face. It did not take long for us to strip-off our clothes and dive-in to the cool water. We swam right below the pounding waterfall and then pulled ourselves up onto a large rock in the center of the natural pool. We sat on this rock for a long time to feel the cool mist pelt against our healing sunburns.
The most amazing thing about the towering waterfall was to imagine the centuries it must have took for this one, constant, cascading stream of water, to cut-through and erode-away parts of this massive rock. The scene before us was older than our parents, grandparents, countries…history itself. One cannot help but feel very small and insignificant when standing before the results of an eon of erosion.
After our swim, we ate some fruit and granola, took some photos of the waterfall, and made our way back up the steep hill. Once we reached the top, I say to Ena, "Well, at least that's the worst of it! We know the rest of the hike back is not nearly as tough as this!" Unfortunately, my cockiness would get the better of me. Little did we know at the time, the worst of our hike lay ahead.
On the return hike, we became tired and hungry. Although, I felt at ease and comfortable walking at a steady pace, we'd need to keep moving if we wanted to get out of the forest before sundown. I kept telling Ena, "We're almost there. Ganbatte! Once we get back, we can shower, change, and drive to Don Pepe's for some great Puerto Rican food and cold tropical drinks!"
Unfortunately, after passing the second stream, a strong pelting rain began falling onto the forest canopy (of course, as is to be expected in a rainforest). The thick rain began making it more and more difficult to navigate the terrain. It's difficult to pin-point exactly where I lost the trail, but I did. As we began pushing through the thick terrain, we tried our best to locate any trail markings, but this was to no avail. The rain continued and soon we were lost.
We remained calm; nevertheless, I started yelling "HELP! …HELLOOO?! …HELP!" very loudly, in hopes other hikers (of which I knew there were none, since we were on one of the more difficult and less-traveled trails) might hear us. Thankfully, the rain stopped, but there was still rumbling storm clouds and lightning in the distance, indicating another approaching storm. At this point, I really wished I'd brought a map and compass to at least try to navigate our way out of this situation. Of course, I was expecting this to be a simple afternoon hike along a clearly-marked trail; but, it had turned-out to be an endurance test of absolute survival. Subsequently, I tell myself that for any future hike, I will ensure to bring the appropriate tools and navigation equipment (and to learn how to use them). Of course, retrospect is of no use to anyone when caught in the dangerous situation at hand. We would need to find our way out of this wilderness on our own.
My first instinct was to move up hill (which I later learned to be incorrect) to get a better look at the terrain. As we climbed our way up the steep incline, I began hearing the sound of cascades on the other side of the hill. I decide we should move toward this sound, thinking it must be connected to one of the three streams we passed on our way into the forest; however, once we reach the top of the hill, it quickly became clear, this was not one of the streams we passed! A wide torrent of rushing thundering water raced by below. On the other side of this ominous water, lay another mountain and valley. We were nowhere near the road or trailhead.
Looking-out over the wild landscape while feeling the growl in my stomach and ache in my tired legs, I become consumed by a strong sense of utter defeat. I don't know what direction we came from, nor which way to go to escape this uncomfortable situation.
We made our way along the hill, yelling "HEELLLLP!" over and over, with the empty hope someone might hear us below. No one does.
The terrain was steep and precarious. Large holes under thick roots sparked my imagination to wonder what sort of ominous creatures might live in these burrows? Could any of these animals soon become a threat to us once the sun sets? Of course, more threatening than the wildlife (of which I later learn was a non-issue, since there are no dangerous animals in Puerto Rico) is the surprisingly steep drop-offs and cliffs we continue to discover at every turn.
The sky grew darker and darkest. I continue telling Ena, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." as if I had intentionally led us astray in this wilderness. Of course, I suppose, in some way, I had; after all, there are other tourists content to stay in their cars and view the rainforest from the side of the road. But I suppose, we're made of a different metal and because we are, we're also the one's lost in the thick of it while the more sedate travelers were likely now having drinks by a pool.
We stop for the night. I push back thick branches and palm leaves to make a small clearing on the side of the steep hill we were now trapped on. There was a thin stump ahead of us, which we used to both toss a brightly-colored towel over (in the lame hope a passing plane might spot it from the sky) and to use as support so that we would not fall down either of the steep chasms below both sides of us. There was no way to tell how far the ledge dropped below the thick tree canopy. Obviously, the threat of plunging through these tree tops to a steep cliff below did not make for a comfortable night's sleep.
Throughout the night, we leaned against the side of the hill, supported by the thin stump, and listened to the many sounds of the rainforest. We talked and rambled about the possibility of being found by helicopter. I tried to imagine what it'd be like to be pulled-up from out of the jungle and to look back down at the steep cliff ahead of us from a rescue basket. We wondered if Bill and Laurie had yet called the park rangers, or if any ranger had reported our abandoned rental car still waiting for us at the trail head? Ena hoped we'd be back in time for ginger pancakes the next morning.
Of course, even if we had been reported missing, no one would be looking for us until the next morning. So, we told stories, sang songs, loudly, and tried to stay positive. Eventually, we became quiet and just listened to the coquis throughout the brush and watched bats dive and circle over the tree-line ahead. Ena fell asleep for a little while, but the spot was very uncomfortable, so we constantly had to move and adjust ourselves to prevent our muscles from cramping-up. While Ena dozed-off, I watched the moon make its way across the changing sky. Occasionally, I'd feel myself slipping-off to sleep, but a coqui would inevitably hop onto me to startle me awake.
Futilely, I tried to make a call with my soaked cell phone. Of course, even if it wasn't drenched, it wouldn't have worked here anyway. However, I felt a strong need to do something, anything, to get us out of this situation. But I was helpless and being powerless was the most frustrating thing about this predicament. Whether we liked it or not, we'd have to just sit and wait patiently until the sun rose. So, I'd wait and then wait some more.
Occasionally, I'd check the watch in my bag (at least that was still working) to see how much time had past. Remarkably, the evening went by faster than I thought it would. I wondered what my friends and family were doing while Ena and I sat trapped on the side of this mountain? I tried to imagine some of them in this situation and wondered how would they handle this dilemma? I was definitely relieved that Ena kept her cool. She did not panic at any point of our adventure. She is definitely 'a keeper'.
Eventually, the sky became very dark, reminding me of that line from "the Dark Knight", when Harvey Dent says, "The night is darkest just before the dawn." How true this statement seems at 5am lost in the jungle far from home. Within the hour, the sky became lighter. Birds began singing their morning songs and, eventually, the sun came up. At this point, we were both tired and frustrated. Ena explained how she wanted to "Stay here and wait until a helicopter came to save us."
Understandably, she was concerned that moving around more along the side of this hill and thick jungle could result in one of us eventually becoming hurt. Nevertheless, I convinced her that "There'll be no helicopter for weeks. Our best bet and only hope of getting out of here alive is to backtrack the way we came and try to find the trail again. So, let's roll!"
With that, we were on the move. I looked back for a moment at the small matted spot of brush and jungle we'd spent the past ten hours perched, and felt no need to ever return to this place again. As we moved back alongside the mountain, I made sure we kept a slow, steady, and careful pace across the dangerous terrain. Eventually, we made it back down to the bottom; however, not without many bumps, scrapes, and lacerations from the forests' many thorny vines and spiny trees. At the bottom of the hill, we decided to follow a stream, again, in hopes it would at some point cross the trail we were hiking along yesterday.
The banks of the stream bed were steep, full of holes (that are the habitat of large fresh water crabs), and thick with thorny branches; so we decided to just walk up the stream instead of along the difficult banks. At this point of our journey, we were no longer concerned with getting our sweaty clothes "dirty" nor our sneakers "wet" - they were both far beyond that now. We pushed through the rapids and climbed over wet rocks. As I pressed forward, I swung a stick ahead of me so as to clear the large spiderwebs hanging over the stream.
Unfortunately, the stream soon became narrow and turned into mud. I sighed and again felt hopeless. But, we tried another route and pushed-on over another hill. Unfortunately, as we reached the top, the brush became too thick and impassable. We walked back down and came to another stream, which we also followed in hopes it would eventually lead us to the trail, or, to one of the many paved roads throughout el Yunque. Again, we decided to walk through the stream since we were too exhausted to fight our way through the thick brush along the sides.
Finally, while walking through the second stream, I found an old rusted can of Coca Cola in the water; then, I saw a tire. Yes! Never have I been more pleased to see trash or pollution in the rainforest. I look back and tell Ena "We need to follow this stream. Likely, it will eventually lead to a road." So we kept following the stream until we got to a fork in the waterway. I scanned our two options ahead, one side was flat, but there was no indication of garbage, and the other, was really steep. But, on the steep side, I saw another tire. The difficult way was the direction we must go.
I began scaling the steep wet rocks. As I made my way up each ledge, I look back to ensure Ena was progressing along okay. The incline was steep, if one of us fell, we'd be seriously injured; nevertheless, there was only one way to go - up! Unfortunately, the shrinking stream became steeper and steeper; however, I saw more tires and discarded cans, so I knew we were getting close.
Above, I saw a car race by. "HEH!!! ...HELP!!!" The last one-hundred feet was super steep, slippery and muddy; fortunately, there was also a lot of weeds that had managed to take root along the now trickling stream. I grabbed bunches of these weeds to use like a rope as well as buried my fingers deep into the dirt for more support. After pulling and struggling my way up the incline, I eventually pulled myself -with what little strength I had left in my trembling arms- to the road above. Once at the top, I screamed out "YES!!!" And began jumping up and down; however, Ena was still trying to make her way up the difficult pass. She was twenty feet from the top, this was the steepest section. I tried to point-out the best way for her to go from above; fortunately, along the side of the stream, there were piles of dead bamboo, which Ena used to push her way closer to the top.
Fortunately, before Ena reached the pavement, a Park Ranger's truck came racing around the corner. I waved the truck down and the ranger stepped-out after turning on his flashing lights. He spoke "very little English", but could see Ena still struggling her way up the side of the cliff below. He reached into his truck for a retractable hook. I held his hand to make a chain as he extended the hook down to where Ena was for her to grasp onto. We pulled her up to the pavement.
"We did it!" We're so happy to see another human being and to be standing back on concrete! I give Ena a big hug and almost feel like I could cry.
The park Ranger drives us back to our rental car, which was still up the road about a mile and a half. He showed me a piece of paper with both our names on it, indicating Bill and Laurie had reported us missing several hours ago. We waited at the rental car for the ranger's chief, who spoke English. While we waited, he gave us granola bars and water, which we greedily consumed. Beside our car, was an old truck, which belonged to Bill's nephew. Bill had also sent his nephew into the rainforest to look for us. Eventually, the Chief arrived and made me sign some paperwork (apparently, so that I'd not sue the National Park Service) and gave us a bag of mangos. We then took a photo with the ranger who saved us and finally drove out of the rainforest - alive and well.
Before reaching the Rainforest Inn, I stopped at a small variety store to get some orange juice and more water. I realized while standing in line, that I must have smelt really bad and looked terrible since I had mud and dirt caked all over my sweaty scratched-up body. After paying for the liquids, I rushed out to the car and drank it all in one gulp. We were so relieved to be back to civilization. What a humbling and empowering experience to have!
When we got back to the Rainforest Inn, Bill and Laurie greeted us with relief. "We're so glad to see you guys!" Laurie said while hugging Ena, "I'm going to make you a big breakfast for after you get washed up."
We hobbled our way up to the room, pealed-off our soiled clothes and both took long painful showers. After we changed, we limped downstairs, where Laurie had prepared a delicious breakfast of eggs, vegetarian sausage, and the ginger pancakes Ena was concerned she'd miss. We wolfed all of this down, while I explained to Bill what had happened. He then went back into his office to get some maps of the rainforest that he rolled-out onto the table for us to get a better idea of where we got lost. Although our bodies hurt and we needed rest, it was clear, this would be an experience that would ultimately make us both stronger.
As Bill would so eloquently later write, "Heh, life is what it is and so is adventure travel!"
After breakfast, we went upstairs, dressed our wounds and took a much-needed nap.
* * *
After waking from a long nap, we read and I wrote a lengthy email to my closest friends and family explaining what had happened. We changed, and then drove to Don Pepe's for the dinner we had planned to have after our hike yesterday. The waitress sat us by the window, where across the street, we could see the large foreboding mountains and dark wilderness of el Yunque Rainforest. This time last night, we'd be settling-in for a long night. But tonight, "Itadakimasu!"
Needless to say, my Medalla, pork chops, and rice and beans never tasted so good! After dinner, we returned to the Rainforest Inn, to read and sleep some more. Outside our window, the sounds of the rainforest went on and on through the night. It's comforting to know the forest was still there outside while we slept heavily, inside
Nature is a strong and formidable force that should not be taken lightly. No one should ever arrogantly assume nature is something we can or will ever conquer. Make no mistake, nature always wins, we can only hope she will graciously allow us weak humans to survive on this planet for another day.