July 14-24, 2006 ∙ Jacky and Mom
My goals for this trip were four: 1) to spend quality time with my mom, who I normally see about once a quarter; 2) to rediscover the "real" Puerto Rico by staying in Adjuntas, the subtropical mountain town where mom is from. (I didn't appreciate the rustic mountain life during visits as a kid but I was now ready to embrace it.); 3) to see all of my dad's brothers in Ponce, plus an elusive sister of his in the rugged forest town of Jayuya; and 4) to dig into my roots and do some research on the history of the island (focusing on the Taínos). My goals were ambitious, but thankfully I was able to achieve most, if not all, of them.
In addition to Tío Tito (my mother's brother), our hosts were Amelia (his wife) and Yani and Pito (his kids)...and loosely my mother's other brother, Tío Israel, who lives just down the hill from Tío Tito. Our Delta flight was so delayed, that by the time we got to my uncle's place in Guilarte (a village in Adjuntas), it was after 4:00am on Saturday. So we took it easy the first morning, hanging out at the house for a bit before driving out to Ponce to get me a rental car. Late afternoon, we visited with my mom's Tía Chava to partake in her husband's (Tío Chano's) Novenas, a Catholic ritual where loved ones pray for the soul of the deceased over nine nights. Tío Chano (he was my grandfather's brother) had just passed away a few days before at the ripe old age of 98.
On Sunday, Yani, Pito, and I went to scope out el Bosque de Guilarte, a forest reserve less than 10 minutes from Tío Tito's with higher elevations than El Yunque. Our plan was to climb the featured ~4,000-foot Mt. Guilarte (the highest point in the area and one of the seven highest on the island) the next day. Here I discovered the beautiful míramelinda flower: you squeeze its bud between your fingers and it bursts into a curled five-fingered leaf, dropping tiny seeds down your fingers and into the palm of your hand. On our way back we got caught in a brief but bountiful downpour; it rains practically every afternoon in Adjuntas, really hard for 30 minutes or so, then the sun comes out and dries everything in no time.
We spent the afternoon enjoying pinchos (delicious Puerto Rican
shish kabobs) at the home of Neri (the cool neighbor down the hill from Tío
Tito's). Afterward, I took the first pictures of some of Tío Tito's flora. Then Amelia
decided she needed a new earring; the lizard was so comfortable latching onto
her earlobe, that it littered her shirt.
Every morning on this trip I got up before everyone else to take in the lush landscape. On Monday morning I decided to take more pictures.
Then it was off to the forest reserve. There, we followed the rocky, flower-fringed trail up to el pico de Guilarte. After 50 minutes (and reaching the second bohío a.k.a. gazebo), we knew we were getting close to the top. At the peak we were greeted by lovely butterflies and tremendous views of Lago Garzas, Ponce, and even San Juan way off in the distance. For two-thirds of the way down we got drenched, but getting poured on coupled with the somewhat treacherous terrain made for a true adventure. To treat ourselves, we bought three mangos the size of footballs for $5, discount courtesy of the vendor who happened to be Pito's former third-grade teacher. And for the drive home we continued down the mountain for a view of the lake.
On Tuesday we planned to visit the graves of my maternal grandfather and grandmother, who are buried in different cemeteries. In Adjuntas, the dead are buried in cement tombs above ground (due to the heavy rains). My grandfather's tomb (a.k.a. panteón) held his remains, his mother's, and three other relatives'. While at Abuelo Rafa's tomb, we got a call from Pito back at the house informing us that my Tío Ingi (my dad's brother) was there with his whole family, waiting for us. (I had called Tío Ingi the previous night to tell him we were on the island, and I made plans to visit with him in a couple of days.) We were pleasantly surprised.
Back at the house, we were welcomed by Ramona (his wife), Nedisha (daughter he adopted from my dad's other, even more-elusive sister), and Tío Ramo (my dad's other brother). It was a remarkable experience having two paternal uncles and two maternal uncles with me all together in one place. Before my dad passed away, he and mom had been divorced for over 20 years. Nonetheless, the families in Puerto Rico always kept in touch. On this occasion I was especially drawn to the moriviví plant. It shrivels into itself when you touch it, but perks up again after a few minutes. After spending time with my two dad's brothers, who each resemble him in different ways, it felt as though my dad had come back to us on this day. Moriviví literally means "I died, I lived."
On Wednesday we drove over an hour and a half to the hometown of my Tía Ñin in Jayuya, a town just northwest of Adjuntas. It is a beautiful mountain town and is the setting of the highest peak on the island, Cerro de Punta (which at ~4,400 feet isn't much taller than Mt. Guilarte). Once there we visited the Cemí Museum, featuring Taíno archaeological artifacts, as well as Casa Canales, a replica of the home of Don Rosario Canales Quintero, founder and the first Mayor of Jayuya in 1883.
Afterward it was off to the finca and colmado (farm and store) of my Tía Ñin. We had no idea how to get there...all we had were the names of her neighborhood and the notorious killer road up to her street. So when we stopped in Burger King for a quick bite and asked whether anyone knew how to get to La Loma in Mameye, we were thrilled to find a woman who not only lived in that area, but who also knew my aunt personally. Even better, she was coming off duty in half an hour and was looking for a ride back home. (This kind of thing has happened to me before, and only in Puerto Rico.) We drove up La Loma, perhaps the narrowest, bumpiest, steepest and consequently most treacherous two-way road in the world. Driving, my knuckles were white on the steering wheel, and I felt like the front of the car was going to flip over behind us and we would all go careening back down on our heads. But we made it, thankfully, and after 30+ years I saw my aunt and two of her three sons, who all live within a stone's throw from one another on the same street. One cousin, Elpidio, runs the Hogar Albergue la Caridad del Cobre (a center for the elderly and mentally disabled, housing 16 men).
Thursday was the day we planned to visit my Tío Ingi in Ponce and, once there, we walked through his garden and found fireball lilies ablaze in red (the ones in Adjuntas had yet to blossom).
After shopping we stopped at the home of my cousin Miguel (Tío Ingi's son). We all roared in laughter when Tío Ingi stood nonchalantly just beneath the sculpture of a horned deer. In Puerto Rico, having cuernos (horns) means you are a pathetic cuckold.
On Friday we went into town to visit the grave of my Abuela Lola (maternal grandmother). Back in Guilarte, I took a walk with Amelia and Neri's nine-year-old boy, Noel, around the neighborhood. Many of the vicinities in Puerto Rico have canchas (basketball courts) where kids hang out during the day.
On Saturday, the last full day of our trip, we had to return the rental car in Ponce. So we made arrangements to shop and meet with Tío Ingi at Plaza del Caribe. Along the way, we stopped at the cemetery where my paternal grandparents (Abuela Geña and Abuelo Cefo) are buried. Although I was unable to locate their markers among the jumble of overgrown graves, I was heartened by the visit to their resting grounds. We also stopped to admire blooming flamboyán trees (they had yet to flower in Adjuntas).
Back at the house, I was overjoyed to spot a genuine coquí in the kitchen. (These Puerto Rican tree frogs can be heard easily but are almost impossible to spot) . In the evening we partook in a culto (a Pentecostal mass) for Tío Chano back at Tía Chava's. The outdoor ceremony--which included testimony from the children and relatives of the deceased, as well as a long sermon from the Pentecostal pastor (whose microphoned voice boomed throughout the neighborhood)--lasted about three hours.
On Sunday morning we had just enough time to shower, eat, load the car, and snap a few departing pictures before Yani and her boyfriend Junito were to drive us to the airport. I was surprised at how teary I became when it was time to say goodbye to Tío Tito and Amelia. They were so open and generous with my mom and me. During my short time with them, I felt like they gave me all of their beautiful land to cherish, to love, and to become intimate with. I went home fulfilled and more connected than ever to the land of my ancestry.