Barbara and Richard took the overnight red-eye flight from Seattle to San Juan, Puerto Rico, arriving early Wednesday afternoon. We checked into the Caribe Hilton Hotel, a giant compound where our travel conference was being held. The hotel is right on the Atlantic Ocean at the eastern end of Puerto De Tierra which is a narrow strip of land joining Old Sun Juan to the main part of the island. Hotel check in time is 3pm, so we relaxed in the open air lobby, drinking complimentary Pina Coladas (tasty but almost alcohol free), talking to two parrots who refused to make any noise, and watching a pair of beautiful black swans with red beaks (photo, Black Swans). There was also a lonely, startled looking white peacock (photo, Peahen). Later on we found her much more colorful mate, Mr. Peacock (photo, Peacock).
After checking in, we teamed up with three other Seattle area agents to go exploring in Old San Juan. We alit from our taxi on the waterfront, where a couple of big cruise ships were resting at the docks. We went along the side of the old customs house with its pretty mosaic entry, then up to the base of the ancient city wall (photo, Paseo) and down the Paseo De La Princessa. The Paseo is a pleasant boulevard with palm and balete trees on either side, and little sculptures set back in quiet spots along the way. At the end, the boulevard meets the bay, where the city wall with its lookout towers comes down almost right into the water (photo, City Wall). The beach seems a little hostile with jagged rocks and waves crashing in. The weather was warm and humid. We saw many skinny wild cats padding around or snoozing in the heat. One was nursing a scrawny kitten (photo, Cats). We walked through a great gate (Puerta de San Juan) that leads to the Old City, past the Casa Rosa which is now a day care center. We continued up the grassy hill to the Fort, Fuerte San Felipe Del Morro (photo, El Morro). The fort commands an impressive view of the inlet to the bay and the ghetto called La Perla on the other side. Sitting on the Fort wall, we looked left, with ocean crashing violently on the old city wall, and on the right, waves gently dancing toward the old city (photo, La Perla). They look like a mirage, things you only see in your dreams.
We headed back into Old San Juan past Casa Blanca, the ancestral home of the family of Ponce De Leon. It was late and the grounds were closed up. We wandered though the narrow streets of Old San Juan, where an amazing fountain (photo, Leaky Boat) captured our eyes - it features a goddess holding a ship in her hand, but the fountain pours though the boat. We hope Puerto Rican seamen are not superstitious.
All of the next day we spent at seminars learning about the Caribbean region and destinations. Coming from the west coast of the U.S., we knew very little about the Caribbean. For example, we thought there is just one hurricane season for the whole area. It turns out every island has its own hurricane season. Most of the islands were at different times colonies of European countries, and each reflects a different cultural heritage. Puerto Rico is very Spanish, though its current status promotes more American influence. Barbados, where we are heading, is more an English/Bajan island. We are impressed by the diversity of the culture even within the Caribbean.
After a whole day of seminaring, we took the walk across the bridge that connects Puerta De Tierra with the northern corner of Condado and strolled down Condado's main shopping district (photo, Condado), along with restaurants, fancy hotels. Puerto Ricans seem to have a very good appetite for dinner. In Zabo's, a restaurant converted from an old mansion, we saw locals ordering appetizers, soup and salad, and main course, during which 3 or 4 rounds of cocktail were served. We enjoyed some conch/palatine fritters, some soup and salad and we were full, therefore did not last long enough to see what desserts the locals would order.
Friday, we conspired with two of our friends to skip the trade show. Instead, we took the bus (getting smarter now) to Old San Juan and caught the ferry across the Bahia, where a shuttle took us to the Bacardi Distillery (photo, Party Bacardi). We took a tour of the biggest rum maker in the world, enjoyed free rum drinks offered to visitors and bought some bottles of rum to take home. In the afternoon we reunited with other agents to inspect hotels in San Juan and did not get back to our hotel til 7pm. This was a big night for Puerto Ricans, because it was the evening of the Miss Universe Pageant and Miss Puerto Rico was running in front. Our hotel was scheduled to be the site of the cocktail party after the final winner was announced. We escaped the madness by taking the bus back to Old San Juan, hoping to catch some Caribbean live music. We were disappointed. Bars were either closed so the owner can go back home to watch the Miss Universe, or open with the TV on and people glued to the screen for the scores. Finally we found a tiny bar upstairs from a restaurant in the center of Old San Juan. An older Argentinean gentleman was playing an electronic keyboard, for a couple of his students or younger friends. We enjoyed listening to him playing some tango, bossa nova and Cole Porter, even some Beatles songs. We were the only customers in the room, with windows open to the square and the broad shoulders of the Columbus statue visible outside.
When we got back to the hotel, we found that indeed Miss Puerto Rico was the winner of the night. People were chanting on the street and beeping their horns with joy.
Saturday morning, we took a two hour flight to Barbados, fetched a taxi to get to our hotel, the Colony Club. The island of Barbados is only 14 miles wide and 24 miles long. It did not take us long to figure out how to take the bus to anywhere on the island for $1.50 BBD (75 cents US). We took the bus to Speightstown, walked through the market, watched boys fishing on the jetty and enjoyed a lunch of fried flying fish in the Fisherman's Pub (photo, Speightstown.) After taking the bus back down the coast to Holetown, we walked around. The coast between Speightstown and Holetown is home to the most fancy hotels, mostly patronized by affluent middle age folks, many from UK. It only takes eight hours to fly from London to Barbados, while it took us more than ten hours Seattle to San Juan.
Sunday morning, we took the bus to the southern beach area where visitors tend to be younger, poorer, and more active. We saw more local residents in restaurants and cafes. We stopped at Bridgetown, strolled on the Chamberlain Bridge (photo, Bridge). Bridgetown is a quiet empty place on Sunday morning (photo, Swan Street), everybody seems to be in church. We sat in the center square and chatted with a local street artist named Jaffa. He sketched and painted while we talked, and dedicated a picture of a nice little beach house to Barbara (photo, Jaffa House). We had a great Bajan Mother's Day brunch at the Ship Inn, a local hangout in St. Lawrence Gap. In the afternoon, we napped under the palm trees on the south beach. Towards dusk, we spent some time in the bird sanctuary (photo, Egret). The sanctuary is small and nicely kept up, though there's not much to accommodate visitors. We were the only people in the place, watching as hundreds of egrets (photo, Birds) flew in and settled down for the evening.
Monday morning before checking out of the Colony Club, we finally had a chance to dip ourselves in the Caribbean Sea (photo, Beach) and enjoy the warm water and nice sun. After all, this is what the Caribbean is famous for and really what we hoped to escape from Seattle for. Unfortunately it was way too short, so we did not even manage to get a tan before flying home.