Sunday Morning~ Puerto Rican Lessons

Sunday Morning ~ Puerto Rican Lessons

Mtengo wopanda tsinde mudam’penya? ~ Did you ever see a tree without roots?

~Chewa proverb 

January 26, 2020

Hi Everyone,

I’m home and have been doing lots of thinking about Puerto Rico. It is part of the United States and has been since well before I was born, yet, I learned nothing about this island in my public education in my little town of Maynard, Massachusetts. Puerto Ricans lived in Maynard when I was growing up. They lived on Railroad Street, a tiny street making a triangular shortcut from Florida Court to Main Street. This was my walk to church and the library, a quick pace up Railroad Street. When we played Monopoly I always thought of Baltic and Mediterranean as Railroad Street, the poorest street in town. I remember being warned to avoid it, but it cut off going under the railroad bridge and around the corner to end up in the same place, so I always walked up Railroad Street and back down, seeing nothing nefarious during those passages. I don’t remember seeing loads of people hanging around there, maybe a few. Were there any kids? I don’t remember. Some old cars, run down row houses probably covered in asbestos shingles, dark windows, no grass, the gas station for a view out the front door, and litter. But litter was hardly confined to this street; litter was everywhere. Turning onto Florida Court, across from my elementary and junior high school, was a little stream that, I guess, flowed into the Assabet River. It was filled with trash. Other parts of the river I remember seeing shopping carts and old tires. It was before plastic bottles so none of those, but filled with trash of the day. I think that’s why I always think I grew up in a slum mill town. It was probably a low point in the area’s history, but that is my childhood memory. Railroad Street was part of it.

I’ve spent the last week in Puerto Rico and am saddened by my ignorance. I knew nothing of this island, not the geography, not the history, not the culture. I’ve always been drawn more to Europe and Africa. Many of the people I sat with, wrapping ham and cheese sandwiches, reminded me to tell everyone at home that it was mostly Puerto Ricans there, helping their own. It’s true. Most of the volunteers were local professionals, out of work due to the earthquakes, spending their days making food to feed their community. They talked about the corruption in their government and how frustrated they were. There were colorful and vocal protests going on downtown Ponce after the discovery of pilfered goods after the hurricane two years ago. Hundreds of people were on the street. They were able to remove a corrupt governor within a couple of weeks by their protests. They are proud and motivated people frustrated by corruption. I thought about this and I thought a lot about Railroad Street.

Like many of my generation, we went out to play all day with neighborhood kids, our parents never looking for us or even asking where we’d been. We were supposed to be home for supper. And after supper we had to come home when the street lights came on, whenever that was. My friend Beth’s house had a bell out the back door that her mother would ring when it was time to eat. I thought that was cool. In the winter, after a snow storm, we’d dig tunnels through huge snowbanks that I’m sure would have crushed us had they collapsed. No adult seemed concerned. We’d sled down Wilson’s Hill, a steep street actually named Howard Road, but the big house near there was owned by the Wilsons so we called it Wilson’s Hill. It became Howard Road when they paved it and built the new houses, six of them, with big yards and attractive siding. Summer Street, one of the busiest streets in town, was the main road that Wilson’s Hill turned off of, up to a cul de sac which would eventually become a much bigger development. But back in the early 60’s it was all ours. When it was snow covered, we’d drag our sleds up Howard Road, and go flying down on our stomachs, wedging the runners of the flexible flyer just before we got to Summer street, sending us flying into a snowbank inches before the main road. The snowbanks were massive and none of the cars traveling on Summer Street could have possibly seen dozens of kids inches from their deaths. Adults occasionally watched from the windows of those new houses apparently not worried about any danger. (It was a blast) Yet, I thought, we were warned to avoid Railroad Street. 

I thought and thought about Railroad Street. Where did those people work? Where did they go to school? I don’t remember ever seeing them around town. Don’t remember any Puerto Rican kids in my class. They must have had kids? I don’t even remember seeing any of them in church and they lived right down the road from St. Bridget’s. Were they there I just didn’t see them? This is very disturbing to me. I wonder if this is why I never thought about Puerto Rico until the hurricanes, never had a desire to travel there. I chalked it up to the fact that I’m not a beach person and tropical vacations weren’t a draw, but now I’m wondering if it was a bias I grew up internalizing. I never had a desire to learn Spanish. Until recently, I didn’t even know where in the Caribbean Puerto Rico was! Didn’t know the name meant “Rich Port”. Didn’t know it’s economic importance or it’s long colonial history. Shameful. But most shameful, is that the people who lived on Railroad Street were in no way integrated into our town, and it was a small town. And I am only just realizing this now. 

So when I wonder and wonder how can it be that we don’t treat people equally, don’t value their contributions, don’t even see them as people, I got a little more insight into that this week. It wasn’t blatant. There were no signs that said, AVOID THE DANGERS OF RAILROAD STREET BECAUSE PEOPLE THERE AREN’T LIKE US. It was much more subtle, but I see better now how that works. Blatant racism is easier to identify and condemn. 

I spent this morning reading through Maynard’s history: the Native American people inhabiting the land before Puritans arrived, the Revolutionary War, the separation from Stow and Sudbury, the woolen mill, the railroad, the start of Digital. There was lots written about immigrant populations: Italians, Polish, and Irish, but I couldn’t find a word about the Puerto Ricans. I found somewhere that Puerto Ricans were brought over to work in mills in Massachusetts but the woolen mill in Maynard closed in 1950. Were these families living there then? It was only ten years before, but where were they working after the mill closed, if that’s indeed where they worked? Did they just stop having kids or sending them to school? Did they not go to church? We had two big Catholic Churches in such a small town, maybe they went to the Polish church (I can’t even believe we had a separate church for the Polish!) but that was further away. Spanish wasn’t even offered as a second language in school until my second year of high school. It was either French or Latin until then. It’s like they were invisible, shadowy existences. I wonder what their names were, where they shopped, if there were other Puerto Rican communities in neighboring towns they could visit? Were they residents? Could they vote? 

There were plenty of biases in town. We were pretty mean to kids with disabilities I’m sorry to say. Even if it wasn’t outright abuse, they were at minimum excluded. Athletes, however, were revered. We had one black family that I knew of but I don’t remember any disparaging words or actions against them. I doubt, however, they had positions of prominence in town. We had a few Jewish families including my beloved neighbor who was kind and generous to the neighborhood kids having none of his own. I didn’t know anything about his judaism until I was much older; it was never discussed. The talk was more of the men’s clothing store they owned, I think called New Idea or something like that. One brother was a chemistry teacher at the high school, and one the superintendent of schools, so they seemed very important and I don’t remember any hint of antisemitism, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.   

I missed (literally and emotionally) this year’s weekend with my childhood friends. We’d planned this trip to Puerto Rico last year when we were discussing how terrible our president was treating them. We decided to go spend some tourist dollars there. Their economy is something like 82% based on tourism. Then the earthquake happened right before we were to go and anxiety levels rearranged plans. We would have talked about all this. We would have shared our experiences of Railroad Street. We’d have examined insights and would have talked about who we were then and who we are now. 

When I found my Air b&b in a run down neighborhood I was wishing I’d splurged on a more expensive place. But after being there for a week, it didn’t seem so run down. I didn’t like the windowless room, but each day the neighborhood seemed nicer to me. I finally found my way there and back without the GPS and as it became more familiar, the houses looked well kept and more inviting. Kids who stared at me smiled when I smiled and waved. Early one morning a van was blaring something on a loudspeaker driving through the tiny streets and I freaked out. I didn’t know if they were telling everyone to evacuate or what. It sounded like a warning. I peeked out the front door trying to take cues from the neighbors. It sounded scary. There’d been a couple of small quakes during the night but all seemed quiet then. The van stopped in front of my place and the neighbors across the street came out. The driver started handing out loaves of bread. I laughed. They were delivering food. Taking care of each other.

I have so much to learn.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ Ponce, Puerto Rico

January 19, 2020

Hi Everyone,

I decided to use my non-refundable ticket and come to Puerto Rico without my friends. I love and value this weekend with my forever girlfriends and have been looking forward to it so am bummed out about being here without them. I understood their concerns about travel here after the earthquake reports, but after reading about the damage and aftermath I wasn’t worried about safety. The flights were flying and people were still coming on vacation. But it seemed a lonely prospect to come on my own. I’m not even a beach person. We had decided on this location as a way to support the tourist economy after the hurricane. And I do believe in that rationale. I strongly feel the best way to support local economies is to go on vacation there. So, sticking by that, and having a ticket in my hand, I looked for a volunteer opportunity, one I could slide into easily and do for only five days. World Central Kitchen popped up.

World Central Kitchen is an NGO that feeds people. I can get behind that. They are functioning in many locations now: our southern border, Colombia, and other areas hit by natural disasters. It’s easy to sign up; they have a great website, and you can work as much or as little as you’d like.

So I booked a cheap airb&b in Ponce and boarded my flight. It was packed with people coming on vacation, bachelorette parties, and honeymooners, as well as people coming home to visit. No one seemed too worried. When I picked up my rental car the woman asked where I was staying. I told her Ponce and she said, “You know they had an earthquake there, right?” I said, “Yes, but the place I’m staying told me they had no damage.” I asked her if she’d felt it and she said, “Not really.” So off I went into San Juan rush hour traffic trying to find my way out of town.

GPS was working and the roads seemed fine. Some pot holes, but not bad. The biggest problem with the roads is the white lines are so faded you can’t see them. Lane changing was a bit iffy. It was dark by the time I got to Ponce and the neighborhood I was directed to was, how should I put it? Low rent, perhaps? I tried to be conscious of being judgmental but wasn’t sure I wanted to get out of the car. Actually, that’s not true. I did not want to get out of the car. I could NOT find the house. The numbers made no sense, the GPS said I’d arrived but when I got up the guts to ask some of the people hanging around outside they didn’t know where the house was either. Well, they didn’t say that. They sent for some teenager who could speak a little English since my Spanish is nonexistent, and he didn’t know. After an hour and a half of me driving in circles I turned into a Walmart (gag me) parking lot which was lit up like Las Vegas, googled hotels nearby, saw one called “Solace By The Sea” and, close to tears, thought that was a good name and went there.

Down dark roads I went not looking like anything was nearby and I came to a dead end with a faded sign with the letters SOL dimly lit. I was about to turn around when I looked more closely and saw “ACE by the SEA” unlit. This was the hotel! There were traffic cones blocking the entrance so I thought it wasn’t open but a security guard came out of a dingy shelter and moved one of the cones so I could pass. She asked if I was a guest. I told her I hoped to be and she waved me through. There were three cars in a parking lot for two hundred or so. This, as seedy as it was, was a million times better than the neighborhood I’d just been in. I went to the glass entrance, which was locked. When I pulled on the door, the reception person came around to open it. I asked, “Are you closed?” He said, “No, but we only have FEMA people staying here. The staff haven’t been coming to work since most of them had damage to their homes. The restaurant isn’t open.” This was a blow since I wanted a drink badly. And I was starving. But was more desperate for a room. I asked if I could stay there as I couldn’t find the place I’d reserved and he said yes. Thank God. He said the water was potable, and since I had no intention of driving again that night to find a place to eat, decided I’d just fast until the next day. The place was run down and deserted but pretty much like places we’d stayed in Malawi so I was fine. He said the internet was working but I couldn’t log on. And there was no water at the drinking fountain. So I was walking back to the front desk to ask about this and I saw a man walking toward me with an armload of water bottles. We greeted each other and I asked if he was with FEMA. He said no, he was a crisis counselor working for another organization. He’d been there for a day already and handed me one of the water bottles. Seriously, some kind of angel. The kindest, most comforting voice. We chatted, he asked why I was there, etc. etc. etc. He said he’d not eaten and asked if I wanted to go get supper with him. Yes!!! So we got organized, found a restaurant online that was nearby and off we went. He drove his car but we navigated with my phone since his GPS wasn’t working. AT&T is apparently the way to go here.

I swear this guy was Clarence the Angel. He is fluent in Spanish since studying philosophy in Spain for three years, intrepid, warm and friendly; the perfect companion for the evening. The place we found was a tiny local restaurant, one I wouldn’t have ventured into alone at night. It was great. Food was fabulous and he insisted on paying since I was volunteering and he was getting paid. And they had beer. Couldn’t have been better.

He works for an organization that sends counselors to crisis situations. Businesses contract with them to come and counsel their employees. He’d spent that day at AT&T so I guess they have their act together. Made me happy I use them. He said he’d been a bit scared with the aftershocks (a 4.3 that morning) so completely understands how traumatized people are. They all feel something bigger is coming. He left for home yesterday morning, but what a sweet little gift it was to meet him.

That night a tremor at 3 am woke me up. It didn’t last long but I could see how unsettling this is for people. Another came at 5 am. None of these have caused more damage and I’m not freaked by them but I also didn’t have my house collapse. It makes me think of the Greek (or was it Roman?) myth of the benevolent maternal underworld reminding us of her power and strength. We can’t control this so we need to learn to live in harmony with it. Embrace it.

After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, white toast, and strong coffee, (they did manage to get an employee to come in and make breakfast) I said goodbye to my new friend and went off to find my apartment in the daylight. I found it and rather wished I hadn’t. But it’s all paid for and I’ll only be here to sleep so I’ll see how it goes. Last night wasn’t too bad. The fact that it has no windows is a bit hard for me. The air con works, but it is like a prison cell. I found the World Kitchen headquarters and immediately went to work helping make a thousand ham and cheese sandwiches. I thought that was impressive but they said the day before they made six thousand. In the afternoon we chopped tomatoes and mushrooms, washed tons of locally grown lettuce, and assembled cob salads. It’s fun! I met great people from all over. A group who work at an insurance company in San Juan contacted a medical team and gave them my contact info so I might get to do some work with them. We’ll see. Anything not to stay in this apartment. I miss my friends though. A group of young women from Boston, just graduated from college, here on vacation, spent the afternoon yesterday helping make the salads. It’s been wonderful to see and satisfying to report.

Ok, off I go to see what’s cooking today.

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ Utrecht

January 12, 2020

Hi Everyone,

One of my favorite quotes of Erma Bombeck is, “When you start to look like your passport photo, it’s time to go home.”

My month of rambling is coming to an end and there’s been no epiphany, though my faith in humanity has gotten a booster shot. Travel is just so good for that. People mostly are so kind and helpful and that just does not get talked about enough. I want to write a day by day description of this trip with all my observations; I love reading stuff like that in travel magazines. I won’t do it on my phone though, so plan a winter’s day when I get back to Maine.

My flight from Porto to Brussels was late so I missed my train to Anthwerp. I sent a message to my host saying I wouldn’t arrive until nearly midnight and was worried about it being so late and getting into the building. It was just a room in someone’s apartment I was renting for the night. When I arrived at the nearly deserted train station ( gorgeous building) and crossed the street to the apartment building, there was my host, standing outside in the cold, waiting to make sure I could get in. Most people are truly, truly good.

I’ve got more of those stories I want to tell, but there are some other things I’ve been wondering about: 1. Who buys luggage at an airport? I found myself wandering through luggage displays, always looking for the perfect travel bag, and never, ever see anyone buying one at an airport. Why would you? They are not less expensive. Would you carry all your stuff in a garbage bag then pack it at your gate? Really. What is the marketing strategy here? 2. Who wears all the perfume they sell at duty free? Does anyone even wear perfume anymore? Shelves and shelves of this stuff that makes me sneeze as I’m forced to walk through the displays on my way to my gate. Again, I keep thinking someone must buy this stuff, but never see anyone actually doing so. Booze yes, perfume? Never seen it.

Today will be spent with friends and tomorrow my flight back to New York. My high school reunion in Puerto Rico has been relocated since the earthquake and I’ve got some sorting out to do there. That poor island. I feel like going anyway and seeing if I can help. TBC

Love to all,


Sunday Morning ~ Lisbon, Portugal

January 5, 2020

Hi Everyone,

In all the years I was single I traveled alone a lot and was used to it. For the past four years, however, I was with someone on all my adventures and got used to having a companion. There are many things that are much easier when you’ve got a traveling buddy. Going to the rest room, for instance. It’s a pain to have to drag all your stuff into the stall. And it’s definitely fun, when you’re both enjoying the experience, to have someone to share observations and musings. Since leaving Jordan in Sicily I’m on my own and it’s taking a bit to get my sea legs again. First of all, I’d gotten very used to following him around. I was lazy and didn’t even pay attention to directions, just let him lead me. And his data worked and mine doesn’t, despite the guy in Netherlands promising me it would work all over Europe. So I was a teeny bit anxious about landing in Madrid at 9 pm on New Years Eve and having to find the room I rented in the middle of the city. I got the metro figured out but my stop was closed because of celebrations and I had to go to the next stop. I emerged from the subway with absolutely no idea where to go. I had two hours to make sure the new year started out good and I didn’t end up sleeping (or not sleeping) on a park bench. I tried in vain to pull up the map I’d downloaded. I couldn’t read any of the road signs on the ten roads radiating out from the square I was in. But there were loads of police around so I unabashedly started asking where the address was I was looking for. I had it written on a piece of paper and just showed them. The first policeman actually got out his phone and found it on google maps. Then pointed me in the right direction and said, “Go straight.” So I walked up the road he told me to and came to another square with ten more roads heading in different directions and had no idea where “straight” was. I showed the paper to another policeman who pointed me up another road. I had to do this one more time and actually found the apartment! Then I stood outside and had no idea how to get in. Jordan always called the host but my cellular data would not work (and believe me, lots of people tried to fix it). So I was standing outside with my suitcase about to panic when three young women walked toward me. I lost all shame and said, “excuse me, do any of you have a cell phone that works?” A ridiculous question since I was probably the only one in the city with one that didn’t. I explained my situation and one of them used her phone to call the hostess and ask, in Spanish, how I was supposed to get in. I got buzzed in, thanked the woman profusely, and got welcomed into a cozy quiet space where I collapsed into dead sleep before midnight.

I’ve made a few improvements in my navigation tactics to compensate for the absence of GPS. I feel like Magellan. Madrid was very confusing to me. Seville was as well. But now I am in Lisbon and find this city very easy to explore. I haven’t gotten lost at all. I think I’m getting my mojo back! The layout is just as convoluted as the others but the city rises up from the river ( I always thought Lisbon was on the ocean not a river…learning so much) and my apartment is on a tiny alley near the river, so all I have to do is walk downhill and I come to the river and follow it. And it feels super safe here. I usually don’t stay out at night when I’m alone but here it’s not a problem at all. I just got back from the most beautiful evening mass at the cathedral and the walk through the winding tiled streets wasn’t the least bit daunting. People are all out walking, restaurateurs are standing in doorways, kids are playing in the squares; I see why so many people have raved about this city. Glad I finally made it here.

Tuesday I’ll take a bus north to Porto for a few days full of hope for 2020.

Love to all,