Nobody Warned Me.

30091914Halfway through this book, I tweeted about the nightmares it was causing me.  And I’m not talking about Stephen King ghosts or monsters, but live human cruelty.  They weren’t dreams like others I have had, revolving staircases, or sudden drops into homes I knew, but had been subtly changed by my dream space.  These dreams were as visceral as the words on the page.  I felt the steel copper bullet – plunge –  slow motion into my rib cage.  Each bone flex forth and open like a cracked fence post.  When I woke up each morning, I had stones in my belly, and gnarls in my gut.  This story uprooted me.

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Photo from The Japan Times

And I wasn’t warned, so I’m warning all of you.  This story conveyed the human capacity for cruelty so well and so often that I almost couldn’t finish it.  While I believe it’s a story that needs to be told and a history that should not remain hidden, I want to scrape at the pieces of it that stayed in my mind for days afterwards.  For a full three pages, Han Kang describes some of the Gwangju boys’ torture, the crisp sizzle of a cigarette to an eye.  If you winced at that sentence, then I can’t recommend this book for you.  It caused me physical pain to read.

(And I know some of you will roll your eyes and say that this is nothing to the physical pain that the people of Gwangju felt resisting and standing up to their traitorous government, but feelings are allowed to be felt).

Today, Amnesty International reported hangings of over 13,000 in Damascus.  These hangings have been done secretly after victims are tried for under three minutes in a basement after being told they are being transported elsehwhere.  We sit around arguing on Twitter over what’s fake news, or how many alternative facts will be spun in the administration currently in office, and in Damascus, Syrians are being targeted and wiped out by the thousands in Civil War.  Until this moment, no news of these hangings had been released.  This is probably not the fault of our news media, but the fact that this is happening in our modern world – after the Holocaust, after Cambodia, after Tinneman Square and now after the Gwangju uprising, maybe we need to be a little more “woke.”

I listened to this story on NPR having just finished Human Acts.  I had been contemplating the number of stars I could give a book that I was hesitant to recommend, that I was angry no one had warned me about (most reviewers just said, “it has beautiful writing”) and disgusted with the bottom dark of human capacity put into elegant words on the pages of Human Acts by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith).

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Screenshot from Amnesty International Report

No where in my life have I had to contemplate the snap of a rope bruising and twisting my pale neck. Never the butt of a gun.  Never a protest that could end in the spray of shrapnel.  Comparing one’s life to another never makes anything easier, but I have been both lucky to be who I am, where I am, and lucky to read a book that makes me understand that luck is a physical phenomenon and not just a mental/emotional privilege.  I can only speak for myself, but all I really wanted to do in hearing that report was spit it out so it couldn’t become a part of me, of my existence.

“Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke.  Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there” (202).

In the last chapter of this novel, the author becomes a character.  She describes her journey seeking out information on the massacre itself, but also on the family written throughout.  She is indirectly related to this family.  They lived in the house she moved out of at a young age, and they lost a brother to the Gwangju uprising while living there.  The narrator talks about her nightmares while researching the novel.  I know why.  I experienced nightmares as well.  I texted my best friend, and Korean scholar, Seth and asked him about what was told to him about this while he was in South Korea.  His first response when I began describing the book was “they don’t tell tourists those stories.”

I wonder how many stories are left dark in the world.  How many shoved into corners, buried against one another, corked.  This is no longer one of those cave stories, this mosaic novel of different voices interwoven.  It is really a connection of short stories, some more difficult than others to get through.  I believe Han Kang did exactly what she set out to do, make it so no one can desecrate these memories again.

“Please, write your book so that no one will ever be able to desecrate my brother’s memory again” (214).

In the beginning, I found hope in the short anecdote about the chalk erasers and board spray from middle school between the loving sister and brother in the novel.  I hung onto that for the rest of the novel because there isn’t much redeeming about the human spirit here.  This is a novel that very much lacks the bud of hope.  It doesn’t make it less true, it just, for me, makes it more sad.  If we believed the world ended like this, I don’t think any of us would continue letting it fester.

“Isn’t he your friend, aren’t you a human being” (43).

“The Sun Will Blow Up in Five Billion Years”

Maira Kalman from her New York Times blog and The Principles of Uncertainty

Between now and five billion years from now someone will turn the page with a whisper too quiet for most people on the subway, the train will stop short, the electric will go out and a girl will pretend she’s reading with her eyes closed.  Someone will smell a gas leak in their garage, someone will hula hoop, someone will cut the grass and leave the sawed blades in a muck over the living green.   Someone will hit an animal with their car, watch a bug splatter on their windshield, bury their aunt, and kiss a geranium with their nose like the eskimos used to when I was seven and believed all that.

Someone will read and The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman and ponder, “what is heaven for me?” What is it that I collect?

I collect quotes that don’t fit between the lines of my purse book, things that alight: night lights, antique lanterns, kittens with eyeballs that glow green after dark, candles with and without smell, burned wicks, sugar specks that glisten even in an orange plastic tupperware tub, one fire place, gold nail polish, a ring from my father, a lost locket.  These are the things I count when I wonder “what is the point?”  We will all die and yet Kalman wants to own a fancy hat, wants to photograph couches and people in heavy wool coats walking with a slight stammer like those of us born with a stutter.

This book is incredible.  I waited patiently for it in the mail.  I waited to blog about something that moved me.  I waited to once again get in my bed and sit up like Carrie in Sex in the City, (not in my underwear though) and blog about a book that made my hair curl even tighter, messy wisps around the round edge of my forehead.

The Principles of Uncertainty was originally an essay, illustrational journal, chapbook, travel log that Kalman did for the New York Times.  Later, Penguin decided to publish it as a book.  You can find the original blog here.  And yes, I have already ordered And the Pursuit of Happiness.

How I feel about my life from Maira Kalman. We do share the same hair – made of pretty weeds and leaves.

I feel like if I ever write a book (fingers crossed, toes crossed, eyes crossed) that it will at first be a jumbled mess of my random thoughts.  It won’t have any thoughtful illustrations unless you count the doodles of my character’s large noses and stuffy expressions, in the margins.  It won’t have funky handwriting – my handwriting is at a second grade level, less space between the letters.  And it certainly won’t have glossy art pages like Kalman’s. It will have a bit of my random, a bit of my mess, a bit of my left-overs, and my pass-overs, and my just got over it life moments.  I love this book most because of the transitions.

New York Times – Maira Kalman Blog

One second we’re bored and blue and the next we are watching old people walk along the sidewalk.  I always wonder if old people watch where they step to make sure they are not on the cracks.  I wonder if they think about their grandmother’s back even after she’s floated away and they no longer hear her whistling by their bed at night.  Both of my grandmothers were small and frail; one looks like an Irish settler and the other a Native American.  These are just pictures, with lines marked into their faces, and edges buffered by technology.  I will remember Dolly, my dad’s mother, as poetic, as whispery, as a smoker’s cough in a white bed, as a fancy velvet chair that sits at the top of my aunt’s stairwell.  I will remember Gladys, as a doll on my shelf, nuzzling my brother, a crochet baby blanket in a drawer waiting for the day I bring something naked and quiet into the world. Sometimes, I think of her counting her salt & pepper collection, moving them together to fit on the shelf.

Illustration by Maira Kalman. First appeared in New York Times

Who doesn’t love a book without logic, or a story without any real conclusion? This is what it was.  This is what it is.  This. is. life. here. now. tomorrow. and sometimes it just happens and other times it has a point, or so we tell ourselves when we look at the sky so baked in stars that it’s charred.

Illustration by Maira Kalman. First featured in New York Times.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I love the narrative surprise of Kalman.  I love how she handles a side story in a sentence.  “This is a picture taken by Tolstoy’s wife.  About a minute later he ran away.  He hated her guts.”  It’s like a six word memoir.  It makes me want to go through the house and look at all the pictures for everything I was feeling in the minute they were taken.  I’m at a wedding.  I’m smiling and the sun is setting and the bride is going to be pregnant within a week, announcing it through a facebook message.  I will get it four days later through an almost-friend who gossips and raps her nails on the glass table in the outdoor seating area of a bar.  You can’t know in that second what’s going to happen.  If you step off the street; gum could stick to the bottom of your shoe, a bus could fly by leaving you wet like a cat in the sink, a taxi could honk, you could see someone you know across the way and wave but they miss you and you think that they’re angry, that you offended them last week.  So many moments, so many pointless and so many meaningful, and then we die.  I think the hope is in the people.  It isn’t even the moments, but the people, the one taking the photo, the one wearing the heavy coat, the one walking with the limp or putting on lipstick.  There are the points, there are the meanings, the moments, and the signs.  When you ask yourself tomorrow why do I keep waking up and drinking this not-good coffee because I’m too poor to shop the Starbucks isle and the good smelling roasted beans, it’s the people that you’ll move through the kitchen for.  It’s the shaking of hands with a man at work and the small girl with a headband, reading on the subway, moving her lips cautious as a wing in flutter.

Photo by Work Repository. Illustration by Maira Kalman. Book called The Principles of Uncertainty

Watch Maira Kalman talk about writing, books, happiness, and where she’s going here:

My Story of Hope in Philadelphia

To get the full effect of this blog you have to listen to some Sleepy John Estes -“The Girl I Love has Long Curly Hair.”  Once you have that in the background, commence reading.  I heard this song last night on the way home from Philly, driving the back roads of Henderson on US 1.

For the past week, I lived and worked on Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia.  I can’t put into words (which is unusual for me) how much this experience helped me grow as a person.  It made me realize how much more simply I could live and how simply others are forced to live by factors that are sometimes beyond their control.  At night, the L sweeped by on its metal tracks, never grinding, but swiftly moving through the night carrying passengers to and from the Frankford neighborhood.  I’m sure some of the guests of the Inn would have been happy just to have the change to take a ride through the sky metal.  I wasn’t in the neighborhood where Ben Franklin wore his coat jacket tails and carried quills in his pockets, but a neighborhood filled with abandoned row houses and amazing people.

I live in suburbia full-time.  I’ve grown up here with the white picket fences running down the main neighborhood row, the cave of trees overhead that are perfectly pruned and paid through home owner’s fees.  No one has ever said to me, don’t go out at night – in fact I run at night when I get off work sometimes and no one stops me.  People are walking their dogs, talking on their cell phones, enjoying the Southern breeze.   Neighbors sit in their driveway’s and have beers, men get up at the whip of dawn and mow their lawns.

In Kensington, women were reminding me not to go anywhere by myself and gaffed when I went off exploring with my camera.  I took photos of the barbed wire fences, circled in knives hung atop school yard enclosures, trash collected on stoops and I watched a prostitute get picked up by a man with a ring on his wedding finger.  She smiled and a gold tooth flared in the sun, it was always sunny in Philadelphia (like the show).  When you drive in from Frankford Avenue, these are the first images you see:

The L

The L

The sky through the windows, anywhere but up.

This is a metaphor for life in Kensington.  When you close off the sky to a city of people, you get people who have no where up to look.  Where can hope ride if you can’t look up and see stars, see sky, imagine a presence or another world out there.  Hope has to hide in the pockets of abandoned factories, prayers, row houses, streets filled with poverty and people without coats.  I think the L is a physical symbol of crushing people down to the street; stay grounded, stay poor.  It was the first thing I saw when I entered Frankford.  At first I thought, “how awesome” and I snapped a million photographs while the streets became more and more unfamiliar.  And by the end of the week, I saw The L as this silent predator that you don’t even hear moving in the night.  It’s almost stirred quiet while it rides empty in the dark hours.  It reminds you that there’s no way out.

You force yourself to find hope in the wrinkles at the corners of smiles and below the plump of cheeks.  You see a guest with a large coat and you know that they’ll be warm through the night wherever they go.  You watch them eat hard bread because they still have teeth.  These are the things you find to hope at.  Hope, a verb.

People in Kensington hang hope on the wall.

Street Mural at St. Francis Inn

Backyard Fence Decoration

And give the birds feed.

There are pockets of hope in the streets as well.  They are beautiful in their ugliness, in their reminders.  I didn’t realize Philly was a pretty religious city until I was immersed into the murals of Bible Verses and reminders of John 3:16.  I was living my faith throughout the week by attending Mass everyday, prayer service every evening, and spending my days sorting bagels, cleaning dirty plates, cooking ham and deer stew, or peeling carrots.  I was living hope and faith through works and not through my own selfish desires (which is how it normally goes).  I often find myself praying when I think there is no hope, when I’m teared up in bed and I need someone to answer to what is happening in my life.  I hardly say thank you, but am always saying, “I need you…I need you to fix this.”  I lose sight of hope because there’s so much of it in my life.  I hope my dad walks me down the isle, I hope my nephew grows up healthy, I hope I get into graduate school.  My hope has options, my hope has fall back plans.  What do you do when your hope is life-sustaining, when you need that hope to live?

St. Francis Inn Mural

School Yard Mural

Station of Green. Yes, that is a tub with Jesus.

Wall Quote

And yet, I’ve never seen a city come together in the face of tragedy the way I did this past week.  The night before I arrived in Philadelphia, a local abandoned factory was set aflame by unknown causes.  It was the staying place of a few homeless who were guests of the food shelter, and the fire took the lives of two firemen.  A volunteer I worked with called it “White Lightening” because she suspected the owner set the building on fire to earn the insurance money (this is heresy).  Apparently this happens all the time.  In a frenzy, the volunteers left the food shelter and rushed to the Nun’s house down the street.  They lost bits and pieces of Clare House where the Nuns were to move in two weeks from today.

After the flames were put out

Factory Fire

News Reports of the Factory Fire | NBC Philadelphia

On Thursday night, coming home from dinner I was able to see the City’s response to these deaths and to the fire.  In an act of remembrance, hundreds of motorcyclists gathered to celebrate the life of the passed fire fighters.  There was a police led parade through Kensington Avenue just under The L.

Fire Fighter Remembrance

Even through all of this, and because of it, I was taken with Philly.  I was in this love-hate relationship with the street trash, the people who remembered my name after one day, but had no kitchen to cook in, used public bathrooms for their own privacy.  I love Philadelphia (Kensington Ave) because it lives everyday like the light coming out of the darkness.  And the St. Francis Inn is one of the bright spots of the narrow streets.  Feeding between 200 and 500 people a day, the Inn serves restaurant style to the homeless, or down-trodden in Philadelphia.  The guests are more than memorable.

Carlos who taught me how to pet a street cat.  Chocolate Moose who’s wife wore rolled-up sleeves in forty degree weather and told me jokes about “egg bombs” creating a mess in their kitchen.  Rambo who told me I “shock him” and who protects the neighborhood from crime while wearing tights like a superhero, the old man with blue eyes who had the kindest smile, the lumberjack who said I had “pretty eyes,” Dreads who’s life went haywire from meeting a bad woman and who calls me “Baby PhD.”  He also told me men were merciful and women were severe and backed it up with examples.  All of them were unique, all of them had something to share.

Thank you, for letting me be completely sarcastic with you and for laughing at my corny jokes, and for being bright when there’s nothing in your world to be bright about, but the meals that you eat inside the walls of an Inn.  I now know that hope is a gaunt figure, lonely, cracked like the sidewalk with a few clover sprouts poking through.  Hope smells like ham on your fingers and is in the slow peel of a carrot or a potato.  Hope is in setting tables and perfectly folding napkins.  Hope is in dish washing, which I used to loath, but I see the romance in it.

Carlos introduced me to Nubs, the street cat without a tail who everyone calls Marisa or Stumpy.  We became friends rather quickly after that.

His brothers and sisters weren’t really fans of my human smell.

Paisley, who only ever let me as close as ten inches.

Jazzy Hazzard ate my tuna, but never let me near.

At this point, my mind still won’t let me fathom homelessness.  How do you live never knowing where your next meal is coming from.  I don’t know what it is to own one skirt that I wear everyday, or have my child wear the same pants for a week only to find ten cents and a laundromat that will let me wash just one pair of black cargos, too small.  How does your hair feel when it’s only been washed once this week.  How do you ask someone else for diapers for your child.  How to, how to, how to.  Where is the manual.

In Philly, one street separates poor and poorer.  I was walking down Jasper and then turned onto Cumberland, passing Kensington High School and heading towards Genericville (where Applebee’s and CVS hold still).  Genericville is goodville, and the journey-through slowly rises to the occasion.

It goes from this:

Backyard Fence and Wires

and this,

Row Houses, Cumberland

Inn Yard

to here…

House Capsule

Green Pocket

Knobby Tree

It’s just strange to me how close we are to nothing and we still feel that we have everything.

I wish, for this, that I had words to move a whole country to social justice.  To make people see that their whole world needs help, not just third world countries.  There is education to be had in your own backyard, difference to make in your own city, mouths to feed at your own table.

I’ve always thought that literature reached passed these boundaries between people.  We’ve all read Catcher in the Rye and heard Holden Caulfield’s homeless shenanigans.  Flannery O’Connor has given us a window into the poverty of the South.  Salvage the Bones tells us of happiness in the eye of tension and uncontrolled circumstances.  The literature has forced into us places that are uncomfortable, trash-ridden, unavoidable and yet, here in America we rush to the suburbs.  We place our feet up on our white picket fences and breathe a sigh of relief that we’re out of our suit coats and into our Saturday pajama pants.  And I’m to blame as much as anyone because I forget to live like I know there are people who have less, but are not less.

This is for all of you who say, “if they would only get jobs, then they could feed their family,” or “Even if you work at McDonald’s, you at least have a job.”  We’ll news flash, McDonald’s doesn’t give average workers a living wage, and most times people who work at minimum wage jobs work two jobs just to survive in their small crack of a home on the “bad side” of town.  We forget that these people may work harder than us, may have hands dry and cracked, may make their children write extra book reports to make sure they go onto college and push past the stereotypes of poverty.  It isn’t THAT easy to just “pick yourself up by your boot straps,” put on a tie and get a job.  The wife of “Chocolate Moose” (a guest at the Inn) owns two t-shirts, sleeves cut at the shoulder bones, a pair of gym shorts and a flower print skirt.  She has tennis shoes, speaks with an accent.  If she walked into your business tomorrow would you offer her a job?

I want to talk about it.  I want authors to write about it.  I want people who have “beach reads” to experience poverty while sand is between their toes.  I just want people to think about it.  We live in a world where my family owns three cupboards of towels for showering and I have twenty-some pairs of jeans in sizes I don’t even fit into anymore, but people are out there with a t-shirt, missing sleeves.  Our class system, it’s broken.

Here’s to hoping:

“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
— Neil Gaiman

Baseball in a sidewalk, my feet.

Three Kings and Some Hope

Woo, it’s been an intense past two days.  I am sitting here sipping on my to-go cup of strawberry lemonade in the Atlanta airport.  People are huddled amongst rows of dirty blue, metal chairs with t-shirts and towels covering them.  They are abusing their unlimited cell phone plans and luggage handles stick up like grass.  It’s pretty intense.  Unfortunately, to get home we’re traveling through the blizzards on the East Coast.  I think this is universal karma for me being able to enjoy two hot, tropical climates in a row while everyone in the US is frozen in time.

Tropical climate numero dos (see how good my spanish has gotten) was the lovely little destination of Puerto Rico.  I arrived a week ago and for lack of internet I haven’t been able to blog so I’ll blog my day-by-day trip, slowly but surely.  Day 1: Three Kings Festival, and Ponce.

Before I even start this blog, I need everyone to know something really important about my family, so that you know what kind of unsavory characters I have been raised and/or surrounded by for my complete twenty-three years.  My family…had a total….of 23 poop conversations (and all other variations of poop; shit, crap, doo-doo, poopy, etc…come up with your own for some real fun).  Twenty-three in a record number 5 days.

It’s a wonder I’ve survived this long with so many bowel movement egos. And the biggest of all wasn’t even in attendance, but instead stayed in Raleigh, where he progressed to most likely discuss his bathroom tactics with the cat.

Just wanted to share that…so when I write about each one of them, you’ve already had warning and aren’t shocked by our behavior.  This isn’t the Jersey Shore, but it’s close.

When we arrived, we realized that Puerto Ricans either don’t have to go through the vast weeks of driver’s-ed like Americans, or they are all drunk driving, twenty-four hours a day.  I’ve never seen so many people cut-off in my life.  And not only that, but I’m pretty sure Mac Trucks there give less of a shit than they do anywhere else, which is pretty profound if you ask me.  This might just be because we packed four women and one man into a Taurus (lucky me, in the middle) and drove two hours to the house we were staying in.   I almost wish I could show you a video of just one driving experience in Puerto Rico, but then you might not go…and that would be a shame.

After my near death car experience, we got to the community gate and settled in the house.  From what my friend Seth tells me, Puerto Rico is very much like South Africa, everything is gated and the house we stayed in had so many locks and so many keys my Aunt had to carry around a huge key ring like Kramer in Seinfeld.  How we ever got in and out of that house (plus the scary wildlife that wanted to wait for us outside our door), I’ll never know.  We actually had to lock ourselves in the house, so in case of fire…..climb down your terrace railings like all the lizards…just follow the lizards.  (I really wanted to write spider monkeys, but I thought lizards was more appropriate for Puerto Rico, just know that I will be writing spider monkeys somewhere in a blog eventually…)

That first day we didn’t get in until really late because Puerto Rico is one big road/highway mess (seriously America, send some money to Puerto Rico for new roads).  But the second day, we drove two hours over these beautiful mountain winding roads (beautiful and death defying) to get to Juana Diaz for the community Three Kings Festival.  Being Catholic, this really was something I needed to see, and I’m sure any other religion as well.  Three Kings is the second Christmas celebration in Puerto Rico.  It’s the celebration of the epiphany when the Three Kings return to Jesus’ side.  I really wanted to attend the Juana Diaz festival most importantly because they actually send three men from the town to travel around the island and return to the town for the epiphany.  It’s like a manly voyage.  Juana Diaz also has a parade where everyone dresses as we imagine people dressed in Jesus’ day and hands out candy (and apparently one group handed out air fresheners because I have one).  The Christmas decorations are absolutely gorgeous, they look like they were designed by little elf hands all throughout the year, and since the festival is one of the biggest things in their year, there are Three Kings markets and decorations everywhere.  Even large, Styrofoam cut outs on sticks outside of a bar.

It was definitely an experience to see a community coming together for a celebration that really didn’t benefit them in a material way.  Everyone loves Christmas and Hanukkah and Festivus for the Rest-of-us because we receive presents.  On Halloween, we all get candy.  On New Years, we have the hopes of receiving one drunken, sloppy kiss at a bar with sparkles from hats and and blouses floating around.  On Valentines day, we get flowers, cards and boxes of chocolate.  But Three Kings, you get a mass, a parade and for three dollars your first sip of coconut milk.  It’s a holiday with no benefits, it’s the benefit inside of the people.  They get to parade their joy that Jesus has been born and that the Three Kings are returning to their homes.  And that meant a lot to me because in the New Year, we need to be reminded it isn’t always about the material, it might just be about the joy, the feeling, or the experience.

Here are some of my more exciting photos to make it come alive:

Three Kings decorations....quite literal.

I may have been the only person in the group who enjoyed this. Coconut milk is a go!

I feel like these are gypsy outfits, but my lack of espanol really didn't get me an answer.

One of my favorite set of decorations. The cities everywhere had them.

Styrofoam king, he looks frightened, but he was totally excited.

It got unbearably hot in Juana Diaz during this festival (even though I had practically no clothes on and I was blasting my pale skin onto people’s eyes) and so we left there in order to feed ourselves before we sweat everything out.  (There’s a man sitting next to me pronouncing loudly his next few church activities and saying “God Bless” everytime he gets off the phone, and I’m trying to decide if he’s a. trying to convert those around him or b. just really pumped to get to Church when he gets out of the airport.  I’m putting five bucks on his ball cap saying “________ _______ ________ Church).”

ANYWAY.  It was hot. So, what did we do, but search out more ridiculously fried food, of course.  When it’s hot the first thing you want is fried dough, at least that’s the case for me.  We ended up in this really ritzy restaurant, and we were the only ones in there and so we tried every single one of their appetizers and took photos of the little path on the side of the place.  I’ll put up photos.  No one spoke English, and the menu didn’t either so we we’re flying free ordering those corn fritters, and lots of foods that ended in -as (as in enchiladas, even though they weren’t anywhere in Puerto Rico.  Now to people who want to go to Puerto Rico…the food is not Mexican.  And we all know how much I obsess over some good Mexican food.  Next stop, Mexico).

I’m getting a bit schizo, let me manage myself.

The lucky part about going into the ritzy restaurant was that right down the road we found another Three Kings Festival in Ponce.  But more importantly we found the Ponce Fire Station which is something that you would immediately recognize if you ever went to Puerto Rico.  It’s a huge building, with black and red stripes.  I thought it looked Asian inspired, but you make your own opinions about it.  I liked it because a few old men with graying beards and unsculpted whiskers were sitting around inside playing cards, obviously not about to fight a fire.  Under one of the roof rivets, one of Puerto Rico’s MANY stray dogs was sleeping soundly behind a rope and on the side of the building, there was a homeless man, sleeping on a pillow and some plastic bags.  I’m not sure what hope I gave from this image, but it wasn’t unsettling.  It was … somehow complete.  Here is this festival, with all kinds of children’s carnival rides, and little girls holding puppies and wearing pink barrettes in their hair and then on the opposite side of the street a historic fire house is both a bed, safe haven and a place where men can escape their wives (or lives) for a few games of cards.  It was like the full human picture in one little stylish building.  The town of Ponce didn’t just have a fire station, it was breathtaking.  All the buildings looked familiar somehow, like Savannah, Georgia or Charleston, South Carolina.  They all had big porches and terraces.  The churches had angels flying statuesque at the rafters.  There was a large fountain (with very little change, and my cousin said if he were homeless he’d live near a fountain so he could get all the change out at night…he’s probably smarter than me).  And then a little gift shop that most of my family spent about an hour in, because they are dawdlers.  Even though I love them, these people can stare at things for a while.

Here are a few photos of the beautiful city of Ponce, one of my favorite places in Puerto Rico….well one of the like…twelve.

Just a glimpse of the path outside the ritzy restaurant.

My mom always takes pictures of my father on a bench and has an album titled "man on a bench" so this is her newest collection, "girl on a fence."

Ponce Historic Fire House

Sleeping dog, sleeping man. If only they could cuddle...

People everywhere carried their puppies with them. This little girl is shaking her booty on the tram with her puppy in hand. I loved it. Little life.

Maybe my favorite Ponce photo. My obsession with self-timer is showing, but these are my super intense mountain hiking sandals and the Ponce firehouse and my mother's flowy skirt. Everything I loved about my life in this moment, is captured in this photo.

I have to admit, when we were driving from the airport to the house I really wasn’t sold on Puerto Rico, at all.  There were shanty towns on the side of the road, people were begging on the street and dogs with ribs showing were trotting along the highways.  My mother (and anyone) kept pointing them all out and I started to think people loved their puppies and then when they got too big just set them free and told them to fend for themselves.  I tried to pet as many stray dogs as I can, I feel like that’s like petting a leper in olden’ times.  Dogs are a (wo)man’s best friend right?  Anyway, on the drive I really noticed how many guarded gates there were, how many people had wire fences surrounding their homes, or even barbed wire.  How no houses could trust that they wouldn’t be broken into.  It was kind of scary sitting in a house that you knew you were locked into, in a nice, gated community.  Here I was thinking, why again do I have to be locked in here and who exactly am I hiding from?

But, I don’t think anyone was ever rude or mean to us in Puerto Rico.  People actually went out of their way to be kind to us.  Once, a man got off the tram so our entire family could fit and he just walked to his destination.  Servers at restaurants tried really hard to understand our Buffalo or Carolina English.  People gave us directions (although usually wrong) and made silly conversation over our stay.  I mean, I was never scared in Puerto Rico of anyone.

I think this sums up how my mom felt about Puerto Rico:

This morning a woman at the airport was standing in the line we were in and muttering to herself.  Her teeth were haggard with spaces and flecked with yellow.  Her lips were chipped.  Sweatshirt and t-shirt covered in holes and hair-a-mess.  She stood with one arm holding the other as if she had been injured for a long time.  She was talking to herself in Spanish.  My mother turned to her and said “I’m sorry, no espanol” and she turned to her and said in perfect English, “I’m sorry ma’am, I don’t mean to bother you, may I just have two dollars for some food” and with a “good heart” as my mother says, she turned and gave it to her.  This woman had learned two languages, she would be sought out in America and given a job to help with almost anything.  Craigslist is exploding in Raleigh for bilingual people like her.  And yet she was alone and begging.  I know that’s a sad image, but it’s a hopeful image also.  It’s an image of people who are learned, and friendly, and hopeful and cheerful even in the neediest of times.  Puerto Ricans are a friendly bunch, and a bunch that gives hope to people who are lost, or are foreign.

I still have four days to recount for you and some of them may not be as positive.  But if you never get to Puerto Rico (and therefore never experience a bio-luminescent bay) then you haven’t seen enough.  Experience this land and experience these people.  Don’t let a few barb-wired fences keep you out.