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Friday, November 7, 2014


Playing Tourist in Puerto Rico; Oasis goes to El Morro

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 photograph was taken a bit down the road from El Morro at another fort, Fort San Cristobal, though most tourists call all of these structures El Morro.

 I like this one near the entrance to the road leading up to the Old City because you can walk right into one of the sentries 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 Sentry). I must caution you that a legend has been circulating 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 romantically involved couple who escaped by way of the sea in order to elope (Oh, how dangerously 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 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 uses to scoop up the ice into a cone and then pours flavored syrup all over the top. It's a handmade snowcone! I caution you to avoid the ajonjoli (sesame seed) flavored syrup,  except when selecting locally-made candy.

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

For lunch, I would like to have a traditional pasteles with rice and beans. Pasteles are made from plantain and sometimes yucca root ground into a paste and filled with a spicy, but not spicy-hot, meat mixture. Unlike Mexican-style food, generally, Puerto Rican's do not enjoy hot peppers. The stuffed masa filling is 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 vegetarians. (Be nice!) However, I have found several women who are willing to sell me a dozen garbanzo filled (chick peas), vegetable filled or sometimes soy filled pasteles. To be honest, I usually have to provide the textured vegetable protein meat substitute. If you are in FRESHMART in Condado on Ashford Avenue, you can pick up a half dozen vegetarian pasteles for about ten dollars.

Making pasteles is a grassroots (and underground) business that thrives during the holiday season. Obtaining the best possible pasteles 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, flattened and fried again until golden (insert cholesterol warning here!). 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 dry and hard. Tourists who eat dried out tostones are often disappointed and left wondering 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,"  which is a most curious name! ~~

For lunch or dinner, I can recommend an atmospheric restaurant in the Old City, Raices (Roots), which is known for its mofongo, which is mashed plantain filled with garlic spiced meat. The servers wear white traditional costumes with headdress, and serve food on old fashioned looking 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 at an outside table while listening to Puerto Rican folk music. Street life in Puerto Rico is always entertaining but may be somewhat overwhelming. If you prefer a more authentic experience, you can try Cafe Manolin on 251 San Justo in the Old City. In fact, I prefer the diner feel of Manolin's and enjoy plain mofongo surrounded by a plate of salad. You will notice that many local residents enjoy this restaurant, which serves hearty portions at economical prices.

I should clarify a point here, traditional foods are not special occasion meals. These foods are eaten every day all around the island. Why just this morning, I had freshly made hot tostones with a sprinkle of sea salt crystals and a tiny bit of ketchup. (Plantains are available all year, but in season locally grown freshly cut plantains are of the highest quality and flavor.) Back to the subject of restaurants, Raices servers dressed in costume and rustic tables set with tin cups and wooden dishes are not commonly used anymore -  except for festive decorations at various cultural activities. Puerto Ricans have access to many of the same stores as those in the United States; consequently, most people ordinarily wear the same clothes as the US tourists and use "regular" cups and plates. One exception is that sometimes US tourists dress in safari clothes - complete with a hard wide-brimmed hat, a many pocketed vest and tough leather boots. I think these tourists thought that they were going to a jungle! What a surprise it must be to discover that Old San Juan feels like an old European city.

Today, there is a blend of both old and new in foods as well 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 the birthday of John the Baptists (San Juan/St. John). This wild night combines all things pagan and Catholic into a modern synergistic mix. If you can handle crowds and would love to throw yourself backward into the cleansing surf a few times after midnight, come to any of San Juan's beaches on the night of June 23, throw yourself backwards into the ocean three times, and be blessed with good fortune by Yemayá, the Ocean Mother, or St. John (as you wish).

Another cultural blend is found in reggaetón music, touted as the real Puerto Rican music of today, I remain reserved. (Follow the link to read about Puerto Rican culture and music.) Have you heard of the group Calle 13 (Street 13)?  I located a Calle 13 reggaetón video that has an interesting sound when combined with the well known salsa singer, Ruben Blades. You can see the barrio (neighborhood), 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 (read safe) inside this neighbor.

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 Blades, you're worth it!

It's time for farewell and goodbye.

Would you just look at that sign in the photograph which coincidentally reads, Oasis El Morro .

Visitors and potential tourist alike, though we are finished with our Oasis El Morro tour, I hesitate to overload your royal reading patience with anymore today. Stop by for future
Tourist for the Day posts and enjoy playing tourist with me.

© Cynthia Pittmann