Welcome to carbonstories.org. On this site you can learn about Michael Johnson-Chase and follow my blogs. With some exceptions, this site follows "theme based" cycling tours focusing on social and climate related issues. Slowed down observations of the world over days, weeks and months at 10 to 15 miles an hour can reveal a depth and quality of understanding about our environment often missed by faster modes of travel.

Puerto Rico Se Levanta, PR post Maria, Post 2

A MacDonald's sign on Roosevelt Ave in San Juan. 

A MacDonald's sign on Roosevelt Ave in San Juan. 

Martin Luther King Day is widely celebrated in Puerto Rico. King came to the island twice to deliver speeches, and The King Center contains several written exchanges between Puerto Ricans and King, including a letter from PR's Secretary of Education about race issues in Puerto Rico. This letter explains to King that racism in Puerto Rico is the product of an imposed colonial system with a quote that says it all, “In the United States, a man’s color determines what class he belongs to; in Puerto Rico a man’s class determines what color he is.” (from Latinorebels.com)

Interestingly, slavery was not abolished in Puerto Rico until 1873, and with a significant caveat. Slaves were not emancipated; they had to buy their own freedom, at whatever price was set by their last masters. Former slaves earned money in a variety of ways: some by trades, for instance as shoemakers, or laundering clothes, or by selling the produce they were allowed to grow, in the small patches of land allotted to them by their former masters. (from Wikipedia)

A wall in Viejo San Juan. There are three political groups here, two are mainstream. One wants statehood, the other is fine with the status quo of being an American Territory. The third more marginalized group wants independence. This sign is representative of the third. 

A wall in Viejo San Juan. There are three political groups here, two are mainstream. One wants statehood, the other is fine with the status quo of being an American Territory. The third more marginalized group wants independence. This sign is representative of the third. 

I had Monday free from Spanish class because of the MLK holiday, so I decided to take an overnight trip on Sunday to Fajardo, a beach town on the northeast coast of the island about 50 miles east of San Juan. I got there by renting a car because I didn't feel secure about cycling that far along the coast while struggling with of hurricane debris and electric utility trucks. On Saturday I had ventured east about 15 miles on my bike, and although the coast is beautiful, cycling in PR right now is quite challenging. Of course, it is also very fascinating. How could it not be?

Typical view on the Océano Atlántico.  

Typical view on the Océano Atlántico.  

Remains of a house near the beach at Punto Vacea Valega. 

Remains of a house near the beach at Punto Vacea Valega. 

Sand covers an asphalt bike path.  

Sand covers an asphalt bike path.  

The coastal area east of the San Juan airport is known for a 12 kilometer designated bike path that follows along the beach and into an adjoining rain forest on asphalt, sand and extended sections of a timber bridge.


The coastal area east of the San Juan airport is known for a 12 kilometer designated bike path that follows along the beach and into an adjoining rain forest on asphalt, sand and extended sections of a timber bridge.

The bike path near Loiza.  

The bike path near Loiza.  

Electric utility trucks are everywhere. 

Electric utility trucks are everywhere. 

Fajardo is a boaters town, with the largest marina in PR, great beaches, a bioluminescent bay and ferries to Vieques and Culebra. You may have read about Vieques. Along with Utuabo in the central mountains of PR, this highly prized tourist island still has no electricity. As for Fajardo, I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, to learn that there were no tours yet on the bay, and that I could not gain access to the two extraordinary peninsulas of protected land surrounding large lagoons, remote beaches and a lighthouse; they are all closed as a result of the hurricane. 

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I was quite surprised to see several communities of small trailer houses across the street from the beach. It would seem likely that such structures would not do well in an extreme hurricane, yet they seemed to fare as well, if not better, than many larger buildings. 

These homes are right on the beach and are currently occupied.  

These homes are right on the beach and are currently occupied.  

This neighborhood is across the street from the beach, and looked unscathed. I asked a resident if he had been there during the storm. He said no, but added that he was pleased when he came home to find things ok. Apparently his neighbors in an adjoining park didn't do so well. 

This neighborhood is across the street from the beach, and looked unscathed. I asked a resident if he had been there during the storm. He said no, but added that he was pleased when he came home to find things ok. Apparently his neighbors in an adjoining park didn't do so well. 

  

  

It was Saturday night in Fajardo, and the locals wanted to enjoy themselves, so they were out, especially at the beach in the center of town.

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Nearby I found the Hotel Conquistodor. I rode into the parking lot in the back, and in spite of some "No trespassing" signs I decided to take a closer look at a boat in a small lagoon that looked beat up. A security guard flagged and down and admonished me for being on private property while making it clear that the Hotel would not appreciate negative publicity. His exact words were, "Be a good boy."

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I have some sympathy for what I think he was getting at. The truth is that not only can Puerto Rico support tourists right now, the country needs tourists to help its economy recover. (Maybe that's a new business model for our changing climate - "Post Disaster Tourism?") At the same time, the island is still recovering, and while amenities are plentiful in the San Juan área, many tourist sites remain closed to the public. It's a bit of a Catch 22 for everyone involved, although it will only get better as time goes on - at least until the next extreme weather event.  

After a while of people and rainbow watching I biked back toward my room, stopping at an interesting looking outdoor seafood restaurant I had noticed earlier. The grilled salmon was fantastic, and the tostones (fried plantains) were superlative. I washed them down with several Medallas, a local beer. After my second beer a gentleman at an adjoining table started asking me questions about my folding bike. Maybe it was the beer, but I had a moment of abandon and began talking in Spanish, not really caring if I was sloppy as long as he could get my gist. In time, I learned about him - he was a retired nuclear engineer. He had attended Columbia and his entire career had been in the states. He told me this in Spanish as I realized he spoke perfect English, yet was making me speak in Spanish. Frankly, this is exceedingly rare in Puerto Rico. Although one cannot be of the culture, one can certainly function in PR using only English. I realized he was simply helping me to speak Spanish. He encouraged me to visit the Dominican Republic and Cuba. When I told him I was trying to keep up a blog about how climate change is affecting different regions of the Americas, he asked, "Why"? "What good will that do"? He was on his third beer by that time. After a moment he said, "What does hope mean to you? You know we won't make it. No one in power cares about poor people. Climate change won't be solved. So where do you get hope?" ...A moment passed. I told him what I really believe, "Because no matter how bad it gets, life will never be extinguished. That is the ultimate form of resistance. And that is what we can celebrate. Our connection to life. Our very lives. The act of living, no matter how it comes". He put his arm around me and said, "I like that answer". Then, abruptly he stood up. I could see he was about to leave. And he said, "Promise me you'll visit Utuado". I knew what he intended. Utuado is to Puerto Rico what the 9th Ward is to Katrina. A very poor section of Puerto Rico near the center of the country, it still does not have reliable electricity or water. Anyone who really wants to understand how future hurricanes will impact those who haven't created climate change should visit Utuado. I told him I fully intended to, but it won't be until I return.

He nodded, and then said one last thing: "Your country is dying." 

Tal vez.  

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On Monday, after returning to San Juan, I biked through Viejo San Juan for another look. This time I was able to look a bit deeper. While the old town was incredibly resilient, I found one visually stunning exception. I am sure there are more. 

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And then I discovered La Perla. Made famous by the extraordinarily popular YouTube video "Despacito", and the slightly older song by Calle 13 called "La Perla" featuring Reuben Blades, La Perla is a highly picturesque and very accessible barrio just under the north wall of old San Juan right on the Atlantic Ocean, making it incredibly exposed to hurricanes and storm surges. At one time it was a squatters community and was considered dangerous because of drug dealing and prostitution. It is still a rough place, but also now has a strong tourist appeal, especially among millennials. Many homes, bars, clubs, restaurants and cars there where were badly damaged by the hurricane. Electricity was not restored quickly, so the area is still in significant distress. It is also a visual paradise. In some ways it's a symbol of a significant side of Puerto Rico: gritty, vulnerable, resourceful, minimalististic, ingenious and highly attractive. Certainly this is part of the Puerto Rico One can get to know by being open and attentive. And as a symbol of popular boriquén (Puerto Rican) culture it is one I appreciate more each day. It's a rugged, sexy and resilient place. And it's very much still here, in spite of Maria. That gives me hope. Life endures. 

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Here is a translation of the lyrics for La Perla (from the internet): 

 The Pearl

Hey, this is dedicated to all of the neighborhoods of Puerto Rico.

Trujillo! Dedicated to the neighborhood of La Perla.

Pocho! Tell Johana to make me some really good rice and beans.

A shout out to Jose; we'll catch you on your way down.

And you - what are you looking at?

I've had an attitude since I was five years old

My mama raised me with scolding and slaps on the mouth

Had gray hair mixed with brown since childhood

I'm the black sheep of the whole flock

And I grew little by little

Jumping from rooftop to rooftop knocking off coconuts

And even though I almost killed myself and beheaded myself

No one ever saw me crying or dripping snot

Always smelled good and had my hair combed

To look for a girlfriend with a pretty last name

Larita, my first kiss of love

The witch got married, rain with sun

Down there in the hole in the gap

Bouquets of flowers are blossoming

Colorful little houses with the windows open

Next door neighboors of the beach

I have everything; I don't lack anything

I have the night which I can use as a blanket

I have the best landscapes of the sky

I have a little refrigerator stocked with ice beer

A rainbow flavored snow cone

Pretty people surrounded by water

The deceased depicted on the wall with spray paint

And those who stay playing basketball

A couple of gringos who ruin my landscape

Been taking pictures since they landed

The police that shoot and go unpunished

Breaking into my house to get their paycheck

My mother was born here and so was even my great-grandmother

This is my neighborhood and I'm free like Mandela

Beware of the old school that it not catch you

Because it'll get you with a sandal or a broomstick

So don't give me that clown act

Because I come with the appetite of a laborer

To eat anyone who comes to take what's mine

I'm the Napoleon of the countryhouse

Hey! I dedicate this to those who work for low wages

To feed their little chicks

I love my neighborhood like Tito loves Jaimito

I don't fight for paved roads

Or for square footage or for a golden dream

I fight for a perfumed landscape

And for a good steak and onions dish

For my mother's smile which is worth a million

I fight for my grandmother rocking in her chair

I fight for some barbecued kebabs

And for how beautiful La Perla looks from a plane

Hey tell 'em!

Hey! This is for the innocence of Jonatán Román

The “Chilinga” from Argentina

We're firing up engines. Do it.

That laughter in La Perla I can hear in the stream

And from Pito to Callao and where there are little ones

I believe in neighborhoods with mothers who lived with similar purposes

And in the end they died without having taken any vacation

As my grandmother used to say: those were the cards dealt to the poor

Even the unborn work for this eternal as well as universal neighborhood

And the one who messes with my neighborhood won’t get along with me

I can use the night as a blanket!

I can see the lights in La Perla from Panama

I can use the night as a blanket!

Shining in Morse code and they beckon me

I can use the night as a blanket!

A road made of stars, our traffic light is the moon

I can use the night as a blanket!

I went out at seven thirty and am getting back at one

I can use the night as a blanket!

Girl, put some Vicks vapor rub on me like my mother used to

I can use the night as a blanket!

I will remember where I came from even in my sleep

I can use the night as a blanket!

The good man isn't afraid, isn't afraid of the dark

I can use the night as a blanket!

Ea! And I don't lack for anything

That neighborhood wall and this'll amaze you

Fifty years later, my name is still on it

There's no forgiving the idiot clown here

Your last name, your money is worthless here

The character of the person we hang out with is respected

We were born of many mothers but we're only brothers here

And that ocean in front of my house, I swear it's true,

Like the one in La Perla, even if I'm in Panama

And on the horizon I see a moving cloud drawing the face of the great Maelo Ribera

Celebrate this get-together man.

What do you make of this collaboration between Rubencito and Calle 13?

I can use the night as a blanket!

But that doesn't take care of the suspicious white man

I can use the night as a blanket!

The night doesn't absolve the lying verb

I can use the night as a blanket!

If you lost yourself, brother, find your self

I can use the night as a blanket!

Come to Panama and contribute to tourism

I can use the night as a blanket!

A thousand thanks Resident, a thousand thanks Visitor

I can use the night as a blanket!

Catch yourself a platform in Argentina; keep moving forward

I can use the night as a blanket!

With Lilia the lyrics are going up; let's see if they filter through

I can use the night as a blanket!

Mission accomplished; the minister retires.

Fear and Hope from NYC to San Juan, PR post Maria, Post 1