Painting of a large man in a black robe-like shirt sitting in a big red chair with gold edges against a white background with trees

Mural from San Juan

It was fun.

Backstory: I've been taking February vacations in Puerto Rico 20 years now. Normally I'd leave 'round the beginning of the second week so upon return half of the most evil of months would be behind me. It'd bust up winter something wonderful, outflanking the blues and the winter blahs and often preserve my health. I usually don't get the flu when I do this. Usually.

But the urge came urgently on Thursday, February 1st. I was pedaling up the hill behind my house from the coffee shop when I snapped. Winter's teeth had me grinding mine. Inside it was Leon Russell's tightrope – one side hate, the other hope.

By the time I got to the top of the hill the decision was made: Puerto Rico or bust--now.

American Airlines had a $387 round-trip ticket in 2 hours and 5 minutes. My $422 travel voucher left over from Iraq took care of that. Yellow Cab got me John Glenn Space Monkey International airport with half-an-hour to spare.

I landed in San Juan 12:30 a.m. post-hurricane time. Ahhhhhh.....

Three futile hotel visits later I found one room for one night. Not what I thought the situation would be like. Turns out FEMA and all the army, National Guard, contractors and subcontractors had block-booked most of the hotels straight through to June. Damn.

So I went out the northwest side of the island two days later to what I think is the best-located funky hotel on the island – The Guajataca in Isabella. A two-story old-school place, just a hair seedy on a 40-yard grassy slope overlooking a rocky year-round wave-rollicking beach, it too was FEMA-booked ‘til June. What the hell?

I traveled down the coast. The resorts were booked. The Holiday Inns were booked. The casinos were booked. FEMA, FEMA, FEMA. In Mayaguez, the only large town I've never explored, I found an old Spanish-architecture built in 1912 for priests which Howard Johnson's had converted into a decent but expensive hotel so I got me a room. Gracias, el dio.

Vladimir the cook made the best Puerto Rican club sandwiches I've ever had. His PR pasta with shrimp and bread killed me. Plus he loved gringo compliments on cuisine. No problema, mi hermano. From the heart of my weary traveler's digestive tract.

The next day I made several attempts to drive up into the mountains with the intent of finding my all-time favorite place, Hacienda Gripina outside Jayuya in the very center of the island--and by coincidence the Hurricane Maria's ultimate destination where she did a viciously swirling flamenco dance for days, leaving few roofs intact, zero power and no passable roads.

But orange-coned barriers and or tough-looking Puerto Rican motorcycle cops with their Harley's parked sideways blocking passage were frequent. I had to go back.

As I was aimlessly crawling around in my rental on the elevated outskirts of Mayaguez I looked down a severely sloping street and saw a tightly packed flock of pigeons feasting on something curbside. So I inched my car down slowly but surely driven by curiosity. Two cats and two dogs were staring at them, too.

Then a very old Puerto Rican lady came out and threw a flat-pan of corn to the winged pigs. More came. Very Hitchcockian. As I snapped a pic of her colorful blouse and dress her smile turned to a stern finger pointed at me to not snap. So I stopped. As I slowly passed the crazy scene I looked up and saw my saving manger: The Colonial hotel, tucked between two empty buildings on this most obscure of side-streets. Sixtythree bucks a night with plenty of vacancies. Excellente!

So I explored funky Mayaguez for a couple of days by foot, getting more lost than I did in Erbil, Iraq. Ten bucks and a pizza delivery boy's car ride got me back to the town square with its Spanish saints’ statues, fountains, more pigeons and huge active Catholic church and municipal buildings. I could've been in Spain.

Eventually I made one more stab to get into the mountainous center of the island to find my beloved former all-wooden former coffee plantation built in 1857, this time from the direction of Ponce on the south coast. Again, roads well-cleared of storm debris but FEMA-blocked were the rule of the day. Unfortunately, you'd drive winding miles getting ever closer and then the non-negotiable cones and cops. But what did I care? I was in the glorious sub-tropical rain forest of our last colony, Puerto Rico.

For the record only the most crucial traffic lights worked. Of the visible coastal storm damage--which really wasn't much, all things considered--mostly you saw tragically huge tree stumps where once-magnificent banyon trees of a thousand trunks and roots had flourished, now gone or neatly cut up in log piles. Puerto Rican neatly, that is. I never did see the hardest hit areas in the central mountains, the Cordilleras.

At one point on the west coast highway, a 40-vehicle FEMA convoy of huge cherry pickers and pole-carriers roared by, flanked by phalanxes of Puerto Rican motorcycle cops. It was like an American armored division. And every truck carried North Carolina or Virginia plates. They didn't swim over, I'll tell you that much.

So I gave up and returned to San Juan. I found a favorite place in the Condado district good for a few nights though not all. Thus, I spent a night in my rental, cruising Old San Juan's 500-year-old cobblestone streets, then four-wheeling through the toughest, poorest looking neighborhoods I could find in east and south San Juan (never feeling endangered no matter what time), visiting the absolutely craziest all-night Burger King I've ever seen, their coffee our equivalent of latte's and great. Until I finally returned to a Condado street that dead-ended with a curb on the beach.

It was after 3 a.m. Now the fun really started.

As I reclined nearly flat in my driver's seat, eating raw hot dogs and Ruffles barbecue potato chips, laughing my head off feeling like I was back in Fort Lauderdale during my college years, I witnessed up close something I never saw before: San Juan's gay beach life who only come out at night.

Most of them didn't realize there was a tourist sleeping and eating with one eye open in his white compact with no hubcaps a few yards away. When they did, they went and found deeper, darker shadows to go play in. Trust me, I wasn't being voyeuristic – just not my bag, baby. But I do have to admit I giggled as two lover boys were having a tiff, the one taller one returning to their beach front apartment and then coming back out with his hammock, setting it up between two palms next to the Marriott. His boyfriend stood under the light later scanning for him. If he'd bothered asking me I would've directed him to the dude who picked a pitch-black patch around the corner.

And then it rained like hell. I loved it. I was having a ball. Homeless in San Juan? Hey, I was walking the beach at sunrise as the waves crashed obediently at my bare feet. A gigantic cruise ship and a container vessel were a mile out and return to port. A San Juan service vehicle got stuck in the sand next to my car as I slept the two hours of sleep I got all night (8-10 a.m.).

As I slowly drifted to consciousness to their rapid-fire excited Puerto Rican Spanish, I didn't even look up. Normally in rural Puerto Rico the wild roosters wake you up; here, it's the service workers struggling with a vehicle sinking in up to its axles. I cannot tell you how much I loved it. Yeah, I love Puerto Ricans that much and I'm not even in college anymore. I wish I'd only been here for the hurricane.

So I got my room back later in the day.

The morning before I left I went to the Starbucks (all the regular coffee shops were shuttered since the hurricane along with the 10,000 other businesses put out of business by Maria). A coupla clean-cut well-fed American men were having an expensive Starbucks breakfast. I approached 'em and asked if they were FEMA. They were and we chatted amicably. They really liked Puerto Rico, the recovery was coming along, the mountains were challenging and they needed more helicopters to stretch the power lines across the valleys in the center of the island.

I don't think the world understands how rugged the Cordilleras really are. Or how much we have committed there. But they are and we do. I left the next morning early, my 10-days having done what they always do: rejuvenate, recuperate, recover and rejoice in the endless good nature of the Puerto Rican people.

That night in San Juan a generator caught fire and went out, plunging the city into hours of powerless darkness.

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