Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tourist for the day: El Morro

Oasis feature: A Series of Local Views #2

Oasis meets El Morro as we continue being a tourist for the day in our own back yard...

Good morning and welcome to sunny El Morro. Did you know that Puerto Rico was under the Spanish flag for about 500 years until the United States came 100 years ago? Knowing that bit of information goes a long way in explaining the culture and attitudes of this beautiful island. El Morro was constructed on the protruding parts of the land surrounding the city to protect the island from invaders approaching by the sea, which explains why there is a wall going around much of the Old City (El Viejo San Juan).

There is an El Morro in nearby Cuba, too, and it is made in the same style and material.
El Morro in San Juan is actually called Fort San Felipe del Morro but not by anyone on the street. I have a little confession to make; this photo was taken a bit down the road from El Morro at another fort, Fort San Cristobal, though most tourist call all of these structures El Morro. I like this one because you can walk right into one of the garrettes and take a look at the framed sea.

Come inside with me and let's take a look

There is a mysterious story about one of these sentry boxes in San Cristobal, La Garita del Diablo (the Devil's Garrette). I must caution you: a legend circulates that says those who dare visit this most extremely situated and the first constructed lookout (1634) might mysteriously disappear. Though word on the street is that the only real disappearance was of a couple who escaped disapproval by way of the sea and left unimpeded to elope. (Oh, how dangerous and romantic!)

I'm feeling a bit hungry for lunch. Why don't we walk down the road and look for something to eat?

Or maybe, first, we could cool off with a piragua? These traditional iced syrups are quite refreshing. Look at the selection on the glass- Spanish and English are respectfully placed side by side. Agua Fria/Cold Water! I think I will have an anise flavored icy piragua.

Do you see the large solid block of ice inside the glass cart? The man is shaving it with a special tool, which he then scoops up the ice into a cone and pours flavored syrup all over the top.

I caution you to avoid the ajonjoli (sesame seed) except in your locally made candy.

If you're like me, you might find the grainy texture disturbing in your syrup. Of course, there are a lot of healthy and calming B vitamins in sesame seeds so it's your decision, entirely. The coco (coconut) flavored syrup is quite popular with the local residents.

For lunch, I would like to have a traditional pastelles with rice and beans. Pastelles are made from plantain and sometimes yucca root ground into a paste and filled with a spicy (but not hot) meat mixture. They are wrapped in banana leaf, tied with string and boiled for about an hour. It's a tasty meal all by itself but presents a problem for a real vegetarian. (Don't say it!) However, I have found several people who are willing to sell me a dozen garbanzo filled (chick peas), vegetable filled or sometimes soy filled pastilles. However, to be honest, I usually have to provide the textured vegetable protein meat substitute. (Okay, I will say it for you, I'm just a little bit weird.)

Making pastilles is a grassroots (and underground) business that thrives during the holiday season, yet those in the know can obtain them anytime of the year. Getting the best possible pastilles is all about maintaining your local connections.

What meal would be complete without a side of crunchy salty tostones? Tostones are large unripe plantain bananas, sliced thickly and fried of both sides until golden. They are served with salt, ketchup, and/or a bit of garlic.

Yum! Warning: these must be eaten fresh or not at all because they can get quite hard and dry. Tourist who eat dried out tostones are often perplexed and disappointed-what is all the fuss about?

[ Make your own! If you make these at home, cut thick slices diagonally, fry in oil for 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove from pan, flatten -I use the bottom of a plate- on a board, and firmly press down. Return the plantain disks to the hot oil. Lightly cook on each side again, remove and place on an absorbent towel. Cook just one large green plantain banana at a time, and serve immediately.

Note: If your plantain's are turning yellow, they do not make tasty tostones. Let them ripen, slice, and gently fry them - once on each side- in hot oil. These are called amarillos. Also, when looking for plantains in the States, go to Chinese grocery stores and/or look for "macho bananas" -a most curious name!]

For lunch or dinner, I can recommend an atmospheric restaurant in the Old City, Raices (Roots), which is know for its mofongo -mashed plantain filled with garlic spiced meat. The waitresses wear white traditional costumes with headdress, and serve on authentically folk dressed tables, complete with a wood and tin service. Two recommendations here: arrive before you are hungry and bring your credit card because service can be slow and the food pricey. That's okay-afterall, you are getting a taste of Puerto Rico from the past. Just drink a Pina Colada and enjoy the atmosphere. If you don't want to sit in an air conditioned space, you can eat outside, listen to old time Puerto Rican music and watch street life, which is always entertaining, if somewhat overwhelming.

I should clarify a point here, people still eat these traditional foods. Why just this morning, I had freshly made hot tostones with a sprinkle of sea salt crystals and a tiny bit of ketchup. I don't usually have tostones for breakfast, it's just that plantains are in season now. Yes, they are usually available all year, but locally grown freshly cut plantains are of the highest quality and flavor. So I can eat them for all three meals. (Soon avocados will be available, too! Puerto Rican sliced butter! Yum! ) Back on the subject-I'm just pointing out that those atmospheric costumes and, natural, but rough plate-ware are not commonly used anymore except as festive decoration at cultural activities.

Today, there is a blend of the old and new in food as with all things related to culture. For example, take the traditional El Noche San Juan festival, which is both formally and informally celebrated during the summer solstice, specifically on John the Baptists' birthday. (San Juan/St. John) This night is all things pagan and Catholic combined into a modern synergistic mix. If you can handle crowds and would love to throw yourself backward into the cleansing surf a few times-seven to be exact- come to San Juan on this night of its patron saint, and be blessed by Yemayá, the Ocean Mother or St. John (as you wish) with good fortune. The festivities continue for a week and I have participated three times over the years. Recently, the crowds, drinking and commercialization put me off but if you're up for too much excitement then I can only say, it's your party.

Another blend is in reggaetón music, touted as the real Puerto Rican music of today, I remain reserved. However, this group Calle 13, which means street 13, has an interesting sound when combined with the Puerto Rican favorite, the Panamanian (Harvard educated), Ruben Blades. You can see the barrio (community-er-'hood), La Perla (The Pearl) just below El Morro. As a matter of fact, it's right over the wall and next to the sea. I have been down as far as that atmospheric old graveyard (seen in the video), but probably tourists would not be welcomed inside the barrio.

Warning: these lyrics are not tourists friendly. Yes, it's true, we are said to be in the way. Listen carefully to these Spanish lyrics, which say tourists are blocking the view while they take pictures of the view. If like me, you don't particularly like reggaetón music, you should still take a look at this exceptional video. Ruben, you're worth it!

Just look at that sign: Oasis El Morro
Friends and bloggers, though we are finished with our Oasis at El Morro tour, I hesitate to overload your royal patience with more today. Next stop in our Tourist for the Day Oasis Feature-A Series of Local Views, absolutely must include some spectacular views of Puerto Rican nature. Don't you agree?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Tourist in El Viejo San Juan; First Stop El Convento Hotel

Oasis Feature: A Series of Local Views #1

Good morning, friends. Have you ever looked again, with appreciation, at the place you live? Recently, we met with some visitors from California and while we talked, I started to remember the early impressions I had of Puerto Rico, la isla enchanto-the island of enchantment. Won't you be a tourists with me as we take a look around this beautiful island? To start, we are taking a little tour of the beautiful Old City, El Viejo San Juan.

Please sit down and join me with a cafe con leche at El Convento Hotel before we get started on our little walk. Sipping locally grown strong coffee accompanied by hot steamed milk is a must for the beginning of an active day.

El Convento Hotel
is one of the oldest hotels in the city and used to be a convent. It is graced with lovely arches, thick cool walls, and remarkable works of art informally placed around. If you ask at the front desk, the bar, or the waiter about the pieces, it is likely you will get this response from the young attractive bilingual employees, "No, I don't know. I should because we get a lot of questions about it from our guests. But I don't really know much about it." After living here for fourteen years, I have a theory about these answers. Puerto Rico is an accessible unpretentious place where art and artistic talent are considered ordinary. Why make a big deal about these mystery musical monks? (Who is the painter???)


Creative expression is more of a lifestyle here rather than a career path. Of course, I love Puerto Rican people and like bloggers, they all are excessively talented.

Let's go up one level to the Cana restaurant and bar to look at this impressive sculpture created by Botero, a work that is just casually observed as you sip your pina colada on the outdoor patio. The name Cana, has a special significance to me because when moved to Puerto Rico fourteen years ago, we lived in Cana, a community outside of Bayamon. Also, if you have read Jan Karon's Mitford series of books, you probably have come across the the title, Out to Canaan? And have you heard "Camidano haica Cana" (accent on the letter a or else it means white hair)? It's a lively church song here, "Walking Towards Cana", which suggests a pilgrimage to the promised land-maybe a Puerto Rican paradise? This piece was sculpted by the Columbian artist, Fernando Botero Angulo (born April 19, 1932 in Medellín, Antioquia) He is a well known Colombian figurative artist whose work is often on exhibit in the Museo del Arte in Ponce as well as other places around San Juan.

This early piece reflects a gracefully slim young woman but his more popular work focuses on the large curves of voluptuous women-here is Botero's drawing/

The Love Letter (2003).

I cannot resist posting another one, Rosalba (1969):

Actually, the people at El Convento Hotel know who Botero is ...

This antique filled hotel also has some beautiful botanical prints and here is one of the Ceiba tree flower by Agustine Stahl ...

Interestingly, he had a leading role in the Independence movement in Puerto Rico. He was remarkably talented in the natural sciences and made important contributions in the fields of archaeology, botany, ethnology, medicine and zoology. Dr. Agustín Stahl (1842-1917) is one of the first celebrated and acknowledge Puerto Rican scientists.

I'm glad I did this bit of research. The next time I go to the El Convento Hotel, I will pay my respects to the series of three accurately rendered botanical watercolors on the external wall leading up to the Cana Resturant and bar...

Let us step out into the antique cobalt blue cobble stone street.

Oh, what a lovely park just out the door! I just want to sit there and do some light summer reading... maybe one from the Mitford series?

Or maybe I could draw this tree? I love the iron work detail, too.

When we walk out the front door and look down beautiful purple flowers grace the entrance.

Such a sunny day for a walk in El Viejo San Juan.

And just look at this view of the street! So romantic.

We walk to El Moro in the next post when we continue being a Tourist in El Viejo San Juan.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Playing Dress Up

Creating a "look" is all about the shoes, though some argue that it's the hair.

Frivolity Warning: Summer Play Ahead

Yesterday, we went to a family wedding; my husband's sister, Giselle, got married. I thought it would be fun to share with you our dress up "looks". Amber is the pretty bridesmaid on the left, then Wendell with a bit of distinguishing gray, and there I am in my oxymoronic Retro look. (I seem to be running from aging by running toward the past.) And there is our subtle son, Alex, looking a bit subdued after his mother patted down some of the hair spikes. (We don't want to freak out Grandma on this "Day of her Daughter's Wedding"- she's a bit like the Godmother-you get the movie reference?)

The wedding reception was held in a romantic Puerto Rican country setting under three large white tents. The tables were graced with tall crystal vases upon which, abundant hydrangeas, pink roses and white daisies were precariously perched. I attempted to take this floral arrangement home. "Alex, Grandma said you can take it." (It is not one of my finest moments but I must now confess that I rushed him to grab it off the table and take it to the car.)
What Grandma actually said was that no one will want them because they weighed so much. Somehow that bit of detail did not sink in. The first attempt to bring the arrangement to our car landed on the reception area's cement floor as the Rock Star-our progeny to the left- tossed it over his shoulder while adjusting to its surprisingly heavy weight. Sigh. It's all a matter of gravity... what goes up (and over your shoulder) must come down. Or cause and effect- a physics lesson involving momentum and all that..."Okay, son, it's not a sack of potatoes or a bale of hay! Be gentle." Through trial and error, we discovered that the arrangement was cautiously balanced on top of the narrow glass flute with florist tape. We were embarrassed. We survived, however, the flowers did not. The second flower arrangement made it all the way home- sans Calla lilies but pretty none the less.

Did I tell you that the cute and quirky French blogger, Marie Reed of Cpaphil Vintage Postcards, inspired my up-do hairdo? I watched the 40's hair tutorial she posted in March and kept it in the back of my mind. When I realized that I needed to "fancy myself up" for the wedding, I decided to modify the look a bit to suit my own skill level. I was supposed to lift the hair in the front to attain greater height but I lost my nerve. Still, I did boldly wear this vintage look, though upon reflection, I did need a tutorial on make up application. (Did you know that I rarely wear make up?) A friend, Daphne of Energize Your Life suggested that I make a French Twist in the back; while another, Mark of The Red Beech Tree, said I should apply false eyelashes and bright red lipstick. I did my best but got lost while pinning up my hair and forgot to pin down the period. What is it?- 40's 50's 60's 70's? What do you think?

My daughter loves me no matter what silliness I get into..although she did say, "Mom you're getting a little Madonna-ish."

Now she wants me to teach her how to make Eggplant Parmesan. She needs to learn to cook her favorites before she goes off to university next year. (Yes, I know, I have been remiss! I should have taught her how to cook much earlier. I just don't like to go through the anxiety of watching my daughter cut food with a knife. Get over it, Cynthia. Okay! I'm better. Back to the event.)

I got a compliment yesterday. My brothers-in -law, Eddie and Albert, agreed that I looked like a movie star. Okay, I blush to confess that they said I looked like Grace Kelly. (I did have on blue contact lenses.) What do you think? Okay! It was dark! What a beauty she was...(I don't think she would try to grab a free flower arrangement. I'm so ashamed.)

I think I look more like the B52s' Cindy Wilson in their "Love Shack" video. I did work at the Sugar Shack during high school... however, it was a diner and not a place to find "love"- though you never could be too sure-with the singles arriving and couples departing-but that's another story...
I had so much fun playing with my Retro look though today my hair is frizzy from the heavily applied hair spray...(I'm thinking my roots need a bit of a touch up. :-) BTW Amber's meal was Delicious. Her first Real dinner prepared at seventeen... :-) My little girl is growing up.
Thank you for playing with me
. I leave you with the B52s who are also celebrating summer with their quirky mixed period Retro looks...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Love Stories

Life is a surprise. It's full of forgetting and remembering but when you forget, you don't remember. Okay. Take that thought slowly. It is only when you remember that you realize that you forgot something. It's like that with most lost memories...they come rushing through your mind after some triggering moment. It is also possible to remember factual events, but still forget the accompanying feelings that those events entailed. So I ask myself: Do you remember if you don't feel the experience again? Lately, my memory is inundated with past experiences that come upon me, suddenly. And too, I'm aware of the feelings of another time. They sweep through my mind alive with the fragrant and bittersweet breeze...

Morning Memory

White lace flower curtain
Growing round and close.
Late morning heat, cooled,
Again the earth breathes sky.

Brushed by the damp and
Dead leaves, I walk.
Head-wind determined...
Old fears dry and peel off.

Oh memory wind, oh friend
I open the door to your
everything and all -in
this once-was breeze

Heavy stuck leaf-prints
Evaporate and crumble
Soil-rich with promise-
Newness yet to come.

(Cynthia Pittmann)

What causes this upsurge of memory? It could be a certain age, or having time to reflect? Perhaps it is a combination of turbulence and slow thought all in the context of a relationship? I am a mother who has a daughter- and "we get along" my daughter would say. Lately, when the breeze of her life blows through mine, I remember what it was like to live many years ago. I don't mean that I experience what she experiences (though that happens too) I mean that I remember myself as a teenager. I think back on my own high school years and I remember what it felt like to be devoted, absorbed and swept away by another-in the "teen way"- which is not usually accessible to my ordinary task-oriented adult self. Lately, I surprise myself with tears when I listen to the uncomplicated music of Taylor Swift. Suddenly, I remember/realize the pain of early unrequited love when I hear this song (Don't judge me!!! :-) :


Letter to Sweet Sixteen

Dearest young Miss C,
Going as you are into this life of love...
Anger, joy, loss, and hope all swirling around you
Kaleidoscope of poetry and dreams
Your mind a Ferris Wheel , a Carousel
"June is busting out all over..."

You discover Spring arrives early in Ohio...and
It's a trip -all night-to reach down to find spring...
Alive in the apple blossoms...
Alive in your favorite songs...

A wild and careful you-
an overfilled fragrant vase-
Set on the mantle,
likely to fall. Oh, would I catch you?

I would. And yet, wild horses will break that
"country roads take me home" innocence.
Should I tell you many dreams will fall away?
No, I can't.

You get to have your time...uncomplicated
Romeo and Juliet. Wasn't it Robert Kincaid who said,
"The old dreams were good dreams;
they didn't work out, but I'm glad I had them."

In love, welcome
and goodbye.

(Cynthia Pittmann)

I remember watching this music video many times with my daughter. From my adult me's perspective, it was "cute," even charming. But then one day, my concentration focused in and I left behind all of the story detail analysis of the anachronisms.(Romeo and Juliet were younger than that...they couldn't really be together...that period costume, it comes from a later date...) I didn't have to hear, "Oh, Mom, stop talking. You're ruining the video!" because I was there, too. My teen-self came forward and asserted herself, "Let me be. Let me live."



Hey there, Cynthia (on the far left), how are you doing? It's been a long time; and, it's so nice to see you, again!

Post Script:

Thank you, blogger friends, for taking this trip down memory lane with me. I know we stayed up all night talking but the sun is rising and I feel renewed! xxoo