New Zealand: No Worries

We arrived in New Zealand 10 days ago. My husband hands the airport-shuttle driver a tip. Drivers are always happy to get a tip, especially after carrying our heavy backpacks in and out of the van, but this driver said: “no, that’s okay”

Husband: no, it’s for you

Driver: no man, you need a beer

H: well you need a beer too

Driver: nah, go enjoy your self

H: okay man (and smiles, because after all that travel from Bangkok to Auckland, he does need a beer).

Just like that, we felt like we knew this was bound to be good.

These 10 days have been busy, we found a place to live for the next 6 months and a used car to purchase. We opened a bank account, sorted out car insurance, obtained a local phone number and got a library card.  And throughout it all, we’ve received one message: “no worries”.

Some people have asked me why 6 months in New Zealand? The short answer is that we were here in 2009 and fell in love with it. The longer answer: It’s hard to describe, it just felt right. Yes, it’s breathtakingly beautiful, but what makes it perfect for us right now is that New Zealand has a functional yet relaxing vibe that transcends anything we’ve experienced. People are nice and welcoming, they really want to make sure that we get things sorted out. That, and smoked fish, great jam, tons of playgrounds, and an abundance of local yarns and eco-beauty products just to mention a few things. I should also add that their milk froths to beautiful heights; during our 4 and a half months of traveling, it’s been difficult to find milk with the right fat content to make my favorite frothy milked coffee. As I’ve said before, it’s the little things that make you feel at home.

Vanessa

P.S. Both of us have been regularly posting photos in Instagram, if you want to see our photos, head on over to https://www.instagram.com/papayadreaming/ and https://www.instagram.com/hlebakos/ we love to read comments and answer questions!

 

 

Help Puerto Rico – salimos de aquí

[Salimos de Aquí is the title of a song by Puerto Rican rock band Fiel a la Vega. Translated loosely as “we came from here”. The featured image is the town of Corozal, pre-hurricane María. I took the picture last summer, I can’t imagine how this area looks now.]

[Update 10/31- I’ve included an easy to share jpg of the list of places that are helping Puerto Rico at the end of this Blog Post]

Here I find myself, exactly a week after my previous blog post. A lot has happened in this week. Frustration is mounting both in and out of Puerto Rico. Those of us that are following the news from the outside are waiting to see when and how our people will receive the help that they need.  I am heartbroken because, even though I have heard that my immediate family is well, there is a large portion of the population of Puerto Rico that is suffering. Many people have asked me how they can help. I decided to make a list of places that are currently helping. This is by no means a complete list, but it’s a start.

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El jíbaro- Nació para luchar: esa es su gloria. (The country man- Was born to fight/struggle: that is his glory)

At the end of this list, I included the song and lyrics to Salimos de Aquí. The colonial situation in Puerto Rico is complex. There is too much emotional baggage to unpack at this time. The only important truth in this situation is that the people of Puerto Rico are loving people that care for others, and right now they need your help. The lines of this song: “vivir pa’ sobrevivir” (live to survive) have never rung truer. It has been 10 days since hurricane Maria and people are running out of food and water.

And, to my Puerto Rican friends and family, remember: “Salimos de aquí… eso no es de donde quiera”  (We came out of here… and that is not from anywhere).

Love,

Vanessa

Update 10/13 – I’ve talked with my family. Hardly anyone has electricity and supermarkets don’t have much selection of food. Read the news today and there are concerns over Maria-related suicides.

 

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Exploring Playa Puerto Hermina in Quebradilla this last summer. All the green is gone.

 

(note these are in no particular order)

Feeding America partners with Bancos de Alimentos Puerto Rico 

For information go here: http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-blog/hurricane-maria-what-we-know.html

To donate to Bancos de Alimentos Puerto Rico go here (pay pal): http://www.bancodealimentopr.org/ (once you are there, click on the yellow button that says “Dona Ahora” and it will take you to PayPal

If you need to be convinced: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/09/25/us/daddy-yankee-despacito-puerto-rico-cnntv/index.html

Defend Puerto Rico

Focusing on the relief efforts of Loiza and other various low-income communities.

For information, and to donate go here: http://www.defendpr.com/relief/

World Central Kitchen

I have been seeing many videos about the efforts of Chef José Andrés organizing, cooking and distributing food. There is no doubt in my mind that they are making things happen.

For information and to donate go here: https://www.worldcentralkitchen.org/donate

If you need to be convinced: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/food/wp/2017/09/29/jose-andres-a-naturalized-u-s-citizen-has-become-the-face-of-american-disaster-relief

 

 

 

ConPRmetidos.org

http://www.conprmetidos.org/

They are independent, non-partisan and non-profit. This group is vowing to use the funds received on long-term recovery and reconstruction which will definitely be needed. They will not charge OVERHEAD.

You can find more details on this page:  https://www.generosity.com/emergencies-fundraising/maria-puerto-rico-real-time-recovery-fund

You Caring- People of Puerto Rico Fund

For information, and to donate go here: https://www.youcaring.com/peopleofpuertorico-957793

If you need to be convinced, here’s Ricky Martin:  http://toofab.com/2017/09/28/ricky-martin-puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-fundraiser-ellen-degeneres-show-leonardo-dicaprio/

 

Voices for Puerto Rico

The funds will then be distributed to local non-profit organizations located in rural and/or disconnected local communities affected in Puerto Rico by hurricane María.

For information and to donate go here:   http://www.voicesforpuertorico.com/

 

The NYC Mayor’s Fund

What made me donate to this fund, before any other fund, is that I saw that the work that Governer Andrew Cuomo of New York was doing for Puerto Rico. As soon as anyone could fly to Puerto Rico, he was there, with generators, food, water and medicine.  For more information, go here: https://www.ny.gov/programs/empire-state-relief-and-recovery-effort-puerto-rico

To donate go here: http://www1.nyc.gov/site/fund/donate/donate.page

Remember to select “Support critical aid and relief efforts for those impacted by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the surrounding areas.” or “Please join the NYC Department of Education community in supporting critical aid and relief efforts for schools and students impacted by Hurricane Maria.”

Governor Cuomo has also spearheading the Empire State Relief and Recovery Effort for Puerto Rico. He has a great list of suggestions on where to donate here: https://www.ny.gov/empire-state-relief-and-recovery-effort-puerto-rico/empire-state-relief-and-recovery-effort-puerto#donate

Unicef, American Red Cross & Save the Children

If you feel more comfortable donating to long-running organizations, Unicef, the American Red Cross and Save the Children are taking donations, according to the USAid site devoted to the hurricanes (https://www.usaid.gov/irma)

 

Easy to share jpg here:

Donations

 

 

Salimos de una grieta 
de una calle cercana 
desde entonces dormimos 
dando vueltas en la cama 
Salimos del pedazo de cielo 
que pudre las manzanas… 

Salimos del baile, la botella 
y la baraja… 
Salimos de un sueño, 
un sueño de agua salada… 

Salimos del Yunque y de los ríos 
y del Combate y del picadillo 
y del fanatismo a los partidos 
y a la iglesia y al bolsillo… 

Salimos de un pozo 
donde ya no queda agua… 
Salimos de un pueblo 
que en silencio se le ama… 
Salimos de donde se reunen 
todas las caravanas… 

Salimos de un monte 
con cadillos en los pies… 
Salimos de un bosque de azucar y café… 
Salimos de centro y del calor y del machismo 
y del amor al conformismo 
y del culantro y del sartén 
y de una ola que se corre alrevéz… 

Salimos de aquí 
de la orilla del cámino… 
Salimos de aquí 
de un paraiso pérdido… 
Salimos de aquí 
de la perla privilegiada 
de la sombra asociada 
de la envidia caribeña 
y de la estupidez isleña 
de sentirse en menosprecio 
por ser de aquí… 

Y así salimos descalzos 
y así aprendimos sin querer 
a comernos las “s” cuando hablamos 
y eso es to’ lo que hay que saber 
Somos los que cantan con la lengua amarrada 
Somos los que alternan Coca-Cola con Maví 
Somos de la tribu que se pierde en su pais 

Mirando la vida por el retrovisor 
de cantazo en cantazo 
aprendiendo con sabor 
Y no creemos en diccionarios 
ni en panfletos de la fé 
ni en los dichosos patriotismos 
de las copas elevados y los 
brindis de chalet… 

Salimos de aquí… 
eso no es de donde quiera 
Salimos de aquí… 
te lo digo sin problemas 
Salimos de aquí… 
de la playa enamorada 
de los campos de batalla 
y de las casas de cemento 
y que se caigan los lamentos 
que se escucha por aquí… 

…vivir pa’ sobrevivir… 
…vivir pa’ sobrevivir… 
…vivir pa’ sobrevivir… 
…vivir pa’ sobrevivir… 

Salimos del beso 
de una diosa olvidada 
Salimos de un volcán 
al que no le queda lava 
Salimos de pensar 
de que ya aquí no queda nada… 

Salimos de madrugada 
de una cuna reciclada 
recitando oraciones 
que aprendimos sin opciones 
y hoy regresan en canciones 
en saludos y discuciones 
en las miradas de tu cara 
y en la forma en que te paras 
y hoy toda la brisa 
sabe a Puerto Rico…

 

 

 

 

A message of love and hope for Puerto Rico, hijos del cañaveral

[cañaveral is a sugar plantation, the translation of the title of this song would be “sons of the sugar plantation”]

It has been an agonizing week for us, the Puerto Ricans in the diaspora. Many of us haven’t heard from our loved ones since hurricane Maria arrived in Puerto Rico.  I cannot imagine what kind of week my family had on the ground, with the agony of experiencing 2 days of hauling wind, rain, and flooding AND not knowing from their loved ones.

I won’t post images of the destruction here because I can’t. I have been overwhelmed. I am mourning my patria, the place I most love in this world… because it is gone. There is no way I can explain how I feel at this time. I am in limbo, waiting to hear from my loved ones, while images of destruction pour in through social media. This limbo is very similar to when I’ve lost loved ones. I am grieving. There is no truer saying right now than: patria es madre. Puerto Rico was already struggling, with a recession, with debt, with corruption, with the aftermath of hurricane Irma.. and now the beautiful island we knew is destroyed.

This article summarizes, Why Hurricane Maria is such a nightmare for Puerto Rico. 

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My girls having conversations at one of our favorite beach shacks: Arrecife on road 681 in Islote, Arecibo. Arrecife got trashed with hurricane Irma. Hurricane Maria put the whole town of Islote under water.

 

In the midst of this ordeal, news came from Mexico, the magnitude of the earthquake in itself left us silent with fear. Children trapped under the rubble of a school, family members waiting to hear from their loved ones. The desperation. My husband spent many months in Mexico, working on his dissertation project. I joined him many times and during the years it became a place to feel at home, when I wasn’t in Puerto Rico. Mexico became my second home. My Mexican friends have always made me feel like I am part of them, even though I talk a very strange version of Spanish. Mexicans are amazing people, their resilience and sense of humor is something that I have always admired. This week they stepped up and showed the world what they are made of. I am so proud of my Mexican brothers and sisters.

 

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This is what Mexico is made of. If you know who took this photo, please let me know so I can credit them.

 

At the time that my husband was pouring over twitter receiving news from Mexico, I was on my computer trying desperately to get any information on my family. Phone lines are down, so twitter hashtags with the names of the barrios where they live became our biggest hope. Someone, somewhere in the world must know something.

Some people have told me to stay calm, there have been no casualties reported in their specific towns, so they must be alive, right? And of course, there are people that are doing so much worse… and everything will turn out okay. But still, I agonize thinking of my aunts, who are 80 and 83, spending the hurricane alone, in a town that flooded so badly the bridge to connect it to the metro area broke. Yes, they can be accessed by a coastal road, but we have to wait for that to be cleared out. Titi Adel and Titi Ana in Quintas de Dorado, 1 km from the beach and 1/2 km from a river that overflowed.

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Playing dominos with my Aunts in the beach in Dorado. I love how serious they are about the game.

In another part of the island, in the carstic mogotes, I have a group of family members that will most likely be isolated for weeks. The roads getting there are bad on a good day. On a good week, they are without water for days when it rains, and without electricity whenever it decides to not work. There were 4 family houses occupied up there, and I haven’t been able to communicate with any of them. The Observatory of Arecibo is a stone’s throw away, and they don’t expect to be accessible any time soon. The Observatory just posted a message saying that the researchers that fared the hurricane on site are doing well.

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Neighborhood where my family lives in barrio Aibonito of the pueblo Hatillo.

 

These are just 2 groups of people I haven’t been able to access. I have family in other parts of the island and many many friends that I still haven’t heard from. Yes, casualties have been low, but some people lost everything. There was also massive flooding, landslides and yesterday’s news that 2 whole towns had to be evacuated because a dam was about to burst. 70,000 people that do not have access to electricity, cell phones or landlines needed somehow to be informed that they needed to evacuate immediately.

Whenever I manage to get through to a friend in Puerto Rico I sense the hope that is on the ground. Still, from here, the feeling of impotence creeps up. From here, I’ve talked with my closest friends and family in the diaspora. I am in Croatia right now, my closest prima is in Virginia, my other two closest diaspora friends are in Sweden and Florida respectively. We want to get on the next plane there, but in reality that is not wise and that is not what we will do. Going there now, as many have advocated, will not help the relief efforts because we are not doctors or construction workers and there is no electricity or running water and there are limited amounts of food and fuel. We would only be going there to take up what little resources they have available to them. Sending money and provisions is all we can do. Donating money to relief funds is the easiest, though you can also send provisions via postal mail if you know who to send them to. Some cities are collecting goods to send to Puerto Rico as well.

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Puerto Rican’s in DC collecting provisions for Puerto Rico. Photo by Diana M. Cruz Abad.

I did some research yesterday and I really like this group: conPRmetidos

http://www.conprmetidos.org/

They are independent, non-partisan and non-profit. This is very important for a population that has persistently been robbed by politicians. The first lady immediately opened a fund to collect money for the cause. I don’t doubt her good intentions, but as a Puerto Rican that has seen corruption for so many years on the island, I can’t trust that they won’t use the management-overhead of these funds for their political gain.

This group is vowing to use 100% of the funds received. NO OVERHEAD. This is also essential to me.

You can find more details on this page:  https://www.generosity.com/emergencies-fundraising/maria-puerto-rico-real-time-recovery-fund

If I find other options for Puerto Rico, I will update this post.

For Mexico, we donated to Topos México, there are also these other organizations that can use your help. Here is a great NY Times article that lists the options. 

We had an amazing time in Puerto Rico this last summer. As soon as we are not a burden on the people of Puerto Rico, we will be back there, spending our American-tourist money. We will go to whatever establishments are open and support the local economy. That is the single most important thing we can do in the Caribbean, not give up on it. A great article from AFAR magaine explains why. 

I know that Puerto Ricans are going to build a better Puerto Rico. I’ve already seen the desire to help, in the strangers that have sent me information on my Aunt’s neighborhood, on the people that have offered to go see them as soon as the roads are open, on the people that are on the streets right now, cleaning and helping their neighbors. I have seen videos of people giving coffee to the people that are cleaning the streets, supermarkets that are giving away food packets, people giving hot-dogs to those waiting in the long gas lines. These are my people, we have big hearts and we are resilient ante el temporal.

I leave you with this song, about who we are as people, and how resilient we are.  The lyrics, in Spanish, are below.  I will try to translate, at a later time, I have to get ready to fly out to Bangkok.

With a heavy heart, but still full of hope,

Vanessa

CLICK HERE FOR UPDATE ON ORGANIZATIONS THAT ARE HELPING PUERTO RICO.

 

 

[Verso 1: Residente]

Desde que nacimos

Nuestra mancha de plátano salió del mismo racimo

Somos hermanos del mismo horizonte

Todos nos criamos en la falda del monte

Crecimos, pero pa’ que otro se aproveche

Somos un pueblo con dientes de leche

Los hijos del trabajo sin merienda

La limonada para el capataz de la hacienda

Todo lo que sobrevive

Somos la caña fermentada del Caribe

Pero aunque la historia nos azota

Somos como una botella de vidrio que flota

La central Aguirre la pusimo’ a producir

Sin saber leer ni escribir

Y la depresión la curamos sin jarabe

Porque caminamos al compás de la clave

Nuestra raza por naturaleza es brava

Salimos de la tapa de un volcán con lava

No hay identidad dicen algunos

Pero aquí todos llevamos en la espalda el número 21

Aprendimos a caminar hace rato

Con un pie descalzo y el otro con zapato

Con la medalla del cacique en la casa de empeño

Somos los dueños de un país sin dueño

[Coro: Francisco “Cholo” Rosario]

Hijos del cañaveral

Nunca se nos cae la pava

Esta raza siempre es brava

Aunque sople el temporal

Pa’ que sientas el calibre

De un caballo sin jinete

Mira como corre libre

Se refleja en el machete

[Verso 2: Residente]

Somos el rocío cuando se desayuna

Somos la marea cuando baila con la luna

Nos secamos el sudor con el viento sin toalla

Y nos perfumamos con la sal de la playa

Cuando el sol cuelga las nubes en el tendedero

De agua de coco son los aguacero’

Y soñamos desde la misma orilla

Sin perder el camino porque aquí los cucubanos brillan

Viene el huracán y le rezamos a la cruz

Y jugamos brisca cuando se va la luz

El calor nos calienta la cerveza

Y nos bañamos en el lago hasta que abran la represa

Aquí los viernes santo se come yautía

Aquí los reyes magos vienen de Juana Díaz

Velamos parao’ a los difuntos

Y en las patronales en la Caja e’ Muerto nos mareamos juntos

Lo nuestro no hay nadie que nos los quite

Por más nieve que tiren aquí la nieve se derrite

Aunque siembren las raíces como les de la gana

Los palos de guanábana no dan manzanas

[Coro: Francisco “Cholo” Rosario]

Hijos del cañaveral

Nunca se nos cae la pava

Esta raza siempre es brava

Aunque sople el temporal

Pa’ que sientas el calibre

De un caballo sin jinete

Mira como corre libre

Se refleja en el machete

[Coro 2: Francisco “Cholo” Rosario]

Hijos del cañaveral

Nunca se nos cae la pava

Esta raza siempre es brava

Aunque sople el temporal

Pa’ aprender a defendernos

Nunca fuimos a la escuela

Aunque el toro tenga cuerno

Nuestro gallo tiene espuela

[Verso 3: Residente]

A latigazo limpio desde el descubrimiento

No pudieron, seguimos con el mismo acento

Nuestro aguante ha sido digno

Somos los versos que no cantan en nuestro himno

Hay que soltar los barcos del muelle

Esta carreta ya se mueve sin bueyes

Al Colón lo bajaremos del trono

Pa’ que nuestra bandera cante en un solo tono

 

 

Escaping Irma

It’s a stormy morning in Zadar, Croatia. Everyone is sleeping in, most likely exhausted from a week of stress and recuperating from the jet lag. We managed to fly out of the Dominican Republic from the Punta Cana airport on Wednesday at 6:50pm, with the earliest Hurricane Irma winds expected to arrive at 8pm that night.

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This is the map we were looking at on Tuesday, when making our plans for Hurricane Irma. 

What follows is an account of our personal experience.

On Tuesday, the day before we were scheduled to leave, we came to realize that there was no evacuation plan for Americans in the Dominican Republic. Canada sent 10 planes to evacuate  Canadian nationals from the island. Luckily, we had purchased tickets to Croatia months ago and they happened to be for Wednesday September 6th, 6:35pm. It was a stressful night, making sure everything was packed and also making sure that we were ready to stay, with enough food and water to make it through; we didn’t know if our flight would be cancelled. The airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico had already been shut  down, so it seemed it was just a matter of time until they cancelled all flights leaving the Dominican Republic. With a storm that big, the effects could be felt long before the eye of the storm approached the island. It was certain, at that point, that if the storm continued its expected path, Punta Cana could be wiped off the map.

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Punta Cana is in the east coast of the Dominican Republic, in this map it fell in the pink Hurricane Watch Zone. 

When we arrived to the neighborhood of El Cortecito in Punta Cana over a month ago, I admired the tidy apartment on the first floor with a view of  the pool, but I also worried. One of the first things I told my husband was that I felt like I was in a condo in Florida. The apartment had all glass windows and 2 large sliding doors. I knew the hurricane season had started, and thought about the unsuitability of this type of construction in the Caribbean. We had conversations about it. Now I was feeling particularly concerned, because in the month we were there it only rained a handful of times, and  never for very long, but the streets flooded EVERY TIME it rained.

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Grainy photo of our apartment complex

 

Knowing that El Cortecito flooded added to the eerie feeling that no one around us was truly preparing for hurricane Irma. I come from Puerto Rico, an island that has vast experience with hurricanes. As soon as our expert meteorologists* tell us to prepare for a hurricane, we PREPARE. Supermarkets are swarmed, people start hauling large pieces of plywood to protect their doors and windows, and everyone begins planning how they will spend the hurricane. There is a sense of anticipation that allows us Puerto Ricans to prioritize: we need food, water, batteries, but we also need alcohol, dominoes and a radio. We must have some fun after all.

I understand that this level of preparedness is only possible because of privilege. Puerto Ricans, with a median household income of about 19,500 dollars a year, are still much better off than their neighboring islands. You can’t go buy a bunch of stuff at the supermarket if you don’t really have the money to do so. However, the level of indifference that we experienced in Punta Cana was pervasive at different socio-economical levels, from the people in the markets, all the way up to the people managing the airport. There was a sense that there was no reason to prepare, and that is what scared us the most.

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Markets in El Cortecito neighborhood

In the end, the hurricane did not hit Punta Cana as it was expected and there wasn’t much damage to the region, but we didn’t know that on Tuesday. I had called the airport early on the day before our flight and they said that they had no plans on closing, that the airlines would be the ones to decide if they were cancelling their flights or not. Our international friends in the area were starting to worry. They were feeling the locals calm disinterest in the storm as well. They were talking of fleeing to the capital if things on Wednesday looked bad; that was our plan B as well. If we couldn’t leave the airport on Wednesday, we would do everything we could to make it to the capital, which wouldn’t get hit as bad, and would have the resources (food, water, safety) to house us until we could leave the island. Our plan C was to return to our apartment. We had already made arrangements to stay through the storm in case we were stuck. We were lucky that the apartment manager was very flexible and allowed us to make an open agreement to stay, if needed. On Wednesday, as we were ready to leave for the airport he told us that if we had decided to stay he was ready to give us an apartment on a higher floor, because he expected the first floor of the apartment complex we were staying in to completely flood. We asked him if he was going to do anything to prepare the apartment and he explained that there wasn’t really a point to it. It would all be under water regardless.  

On Wednesday morning, I called the airport and no one was answering. Life in the town of Cortecito was pretty chill. Some people were buying water and provisions, but no one seemed particularly stressed. Gardeners were still beautifying the properties, restaurants were still open and food delivery motorcycles were still running.  

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Map on Wednesday. El Cortecito upgraded to Hurricane Warning

The woman who was to clean our apartment upon our departure arrived before we left for the airport, and was surprised to see that I had already done most of the laundry. My intention was to wash all towels and bedding, because that’s what some AirBnB hosts expect, and also because I didn’t want to leave much of a mess; but she got to our apartment well before our check-out time. My husband was almost done cleaning the kitchen, which made her teary eyed with gratitude. She explained that she had 3 properties to clean that day, and her daughter and granddaughter were alone in their metal-roofed house. She said most people in these apartments leave a huge mess so she was thinking she would be cleaning it for hours. She also said she was anxious because she needed to find someone to help her tie her roof down.  She was happy to see that I had some extra food in the cupboards that she could take home. After her workday, she wouldn’t have time to shop for food before the hurricane; I wondered if she had money to shop. I was overwhelmed with emotions. She was cleaning an apartment that might just flood the next day. She should have been going home to prepare, but I wasn’t her boss. The precariousness of the whole situation sunk in with a rawness I couldn’t explain.  How many people were in her situation, stuck working on the day that they should be preparing?

Our transportation to the airport was late. My husband and I left the kids in the apartment, watching a movie, and went to see if we could find the drivers in the parking lot. We went together because we both needed some fresh air. As most of you know, it is really hard to deal with a crisis in front of your kids. I was worried sick about my family in Puerto Rico. I was concerned we would be stuck in the Dominican Republic and at the same time I was sad to leave people behind. With all of this going on,  I had to stay calm and seem like I was in control. I needed to vent. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t.  Then we heard a loud boom and saw a flash. A palm tree frond had fallen on an electrical cable in front of our building. My husband ran back to the apartment to be with the kids. The hurricane hadn’t arrived and our apartment complex was already without power. A small fire sizzled, the palm tree frond burned, and I stood in the parking lot realizing that nothing could prepare anyone in this area for Irma. Preparing was just an illusion. Leaving was the only option.

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And just like that… we didn’t have electricity.

Our drivers came, they said the airport was not crowded with people. We were still nervous. When we got to the airport it was business as usual. I was a little shaky. I felt bad for the cleaning lady, bad for our drivers, bad for the people in the neighborhood we had left, bad for the owner of the apartment we stayed in. I felt like I was running off, fleeing, getting out because I had the option to leave; they were staying behind because they didn’t have that option. I thought of my international friends, stuck in the confusion of spending a hurricane -something they hadn’t experienced ever before in their lives- surrounded by people that were eerily calm. Not that I am saying it would be better to be surrounded by people who are freaking out, but at least it would be nice to feel like people are concerned.

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Punta Cana International Airport, Wednesday September 6.

As I sat waiting for our flight I thought of my earlier interaction at the local market. I went for 2 large bottles of water and some beer early Wednesday morning. The guys hanging out there started joking about how I was preparing for the hurricane. It was lighthearted banter, and I went along with it without much thought. As I walked home I wondered why weren’t they at home, securing their belongings, gathering provisions, making plans with their family members, figuring out where to go if they had to evacuate?

We checked into our flight and went through security. The airport was preparing for the hurricane in ways that baffled us. The airport in Punta Cana is very open. Strong winds could tear it apart easily. The employees were putting plastic bags over monitors and removing some advertisements. The wind was picking up, and in our opinion they should’ve been working on evacuating the airport. There were no signs of the airport closing anytime soon. I heard employees talk about working straight until Saturday. We were glad so many flights were able to leave, and happy our plane was allowed to take us to Europe, but at the same time we were worried about how strong the winds were. Turbulence on the flight was nerve-wrecking.  I worried not only about our safety, but about the safety of those working the tarmac. I later read that the safest place for an airplane during a hurricane is in the air flying. Pilots can navigate hurricanes, like that one that flew between the bands of hurricane Irma to evacuate people from Puerto Rico .  The dangerous thing is to be on the ground. How much were the employees in the Punta Cana airport risking to get us out? The guilt laid in. These people had families to take care of, they had children at home.

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Sandbags, preparations at the Punta Cana airport.

We landed in Brussels and everyone started clapping. This is something Puerto Ricans do when landing, so it took me off guard on a plane mostly full of Europeans. I clapped too… and that’s when I started crying. We were safe.

Falling in love

Sometimes it’s gradual (poquito a poquito), sometimes it’s instantaneous, but falling in love with a city is one of the things I enjoy most about traveling. Cities are so unique and full of potential that we should take our time, give them chances, explore them patiently… with that said, we only had a weekend in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic.

We took a bus from Punta Cana, arriving Friday mid-day to what the bus attendant told us was the terminal closest to the Colonial Zone. Yes, we had maps, and we planned, but sometimes you just have to get out of the bus when the bus attendant tells you to.

The Colonial Zone is the historic central neighborhood of Santo Domingo, and the oldest permanent European settlement of the New World. It’s been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, so our expectations were high.  A bit disoriented, and very hungry, we started walking towards Chinatown. Wait: Chinatown? Yes, I was also surprised. The thing is my husband is always thinking of food, and planning accordingly. He had a list of potential Chinese restaurant options and we were determined to make it happen. It’s been months since we’ve had real Asian food, so we were energized with anticipation. The walk wasn’t long (only about 8 minutes), but we were tired. The kids managed to keep up even though there were challenges. The amount of garbage in the streets was discouraging, everything seemed dirty and dilapidated, but the people we encountered were nice which gave us hope. We came to a main road (the road where we should’ve been on to begin with) and then things looked a bit better. We popped into a good-looking restaurant (Asadero Chino) and it was airy and clean. The employees were ready to serve us cold beers and there was a fish tank with happy looking fish. We had found our place. The food was amazing. We could’ve been eating in Chinatown in San Francisco or New York, only that here, we were drinking cold Presidentes.

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Asadero Chino, Chinatown, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

After that, we got our bearings. The guys at the restaurant told us the best way to do our trek to the Colonial Zone. On our way there, we stopped at a Walmart-type store called Sirena. They had EVERYTHING at great prices. We’ve been a bit limited in our school supply options in Punta Cana, so I stocked up on pencils, markers, play dough, sharpies, workbooks… If you are in the capital and need to stock up on anything from Tupperware to nail polishes, this is your spot.

From there we walked about 10 minutes to the Colonial Zone. When we arrived, I had a pang of recognition; I’ve felt this way before.  It was a mix of busy Mexican plaza life, with vendors and music, and Puerto Rican Old San Juan vibes, with the beautiful colonial buildings. We sat at the outdoor café in front of our hotel (Hotel Conde de Peñalba) and ordered lemonades, ice tea and beers to take it all in. There we felt some European influences and started reminiscing past plaza experiences… we knew this would be a good weekend.

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Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

We went out walking in the late afternoon, after some much needed relaxation time in the room. With every turn, we discovered galleries, restaurants with courtyards, amazing colonial architecture, historical sites and beautiful plazas. It was only Friday night and I felt like I didn’t want to leave. The weekend went on with more of the same. Walking, eating, taking pictures, looking at galleries, watching the kids run around in plazas; I had missed this life so much. It brought me so many memories of my youth in Old San Juan and it also made us remember so many wonderful cities we’ve fell in love with.

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Conde de Peñalba, Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

The Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo might not be a love at first-site city Like Antigua Guatemala, where you are so impressed when you arrive that you have to catch your breath (is that, a volcano?). But it is worth taking the time to explore.  We only scratched the surface, but we loved what we experienced. I left inspired, feeling blissful and airy, most definitely: in love.

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Convento de los Dominicos, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

 

 

 

On mailing suspicious packages and being in a book desert

We have this box that we’ve used to mail things back and forth to my mother in law. The size of the box is kind of perfect, and we like to reuse things until they fall apart and can’t be used anymore.

We left the box in California, full of books for us and the kids, and had my MIL send it to us is Puerto Rico. Before leaving Puerto Rico, we packed up the box with the books we had read, and wanted to keep, and took it to the post office to Media Mail it back to my MIL.

We only had duct-tape with us.

I started making jokes about suspicious packages in the car, and everyone found it hilarious. The box was so banged up, and had been used so many times, I even took a couple of pictures of it.

The post office I went to had one of those security doors that they have in many of the banks in Puerto Rico; the ones where you go into a first door (alone) and have to wait in a space for a second door to unlock. I found that odd, given that I am used to just walking into post offices both in Puerto Rico and in the US without going through security. Puerto Rico’s post offices are USPS, so everything else inside the post office looks very similar to the US and they have the exact same mailing options, etc.

I get to the front of the line and the USPS lady looks at the box, pauses for a couple of blinks, and calmly tells me: “You cannot mail that box looking like that”

I replied: “I’m sorry, I know, it’s old… and we really didn’t have another…”

USPS lady: “The tape, you can’t use that tape for mailing boxes”

The lady next to me on the counter had already started ignoring her transaction and inching closer to me to be in the conversation. Welcome to Puerto Rico.

Counter lady: “And why not? I mean, I want to know, what is the reason… you know… that she can’t mail the box with that tape”  (I found it hilarious that she found the need to explain her initial question in detail, as if she needed to assert that she had been listening to EVERY WORD SAID).

USPS lady: because that’s the tape bombers use

Me: ah, okay. It’s really just books, but I can repack it and bring it back.

USPS lady: No, no, no, no, no. We’ll just put brown tape over it.

Counter lady: (with a satisfied smile) Ah, very good idea. You would think bombers would know not to be so obvious using the suspicious looking tape to PACK their boxes.

I smiled because I was thinking exactly the same thing, but I also smiled because I had already waited in a 20 minute line to send this box. My 3 kids were waiting in the car with a hungry dad and I had no idea where I would find another box… If I had to repack this box I would have had to (GASP!) BUY A BOX!

Yesterday my MIL reported receiving the box. A full 3 weeks after we mailed it Media Mail. We usually donate books when we are done with them, but given that we are travelling, we wanted the kids to know that they would be able to re-read the books when we got home. The other books were technical books for our work, and photography books, so we’ll still need those when we get back.

Now we’re here in Punta Cana, relying on our Kindle for books, Zinio for magazines and Overdrive for audiobooks. We are lucky to have great libraries at home* with extensive ebook selections. The little one has a small stash of books we read to her, and she also packed her National Audubon Society Reptiles and Amphibians guide (her favorite book in the whole world). My husband did an extensive google search finding that there is not one bookstore with English books or magazines in all of Punta Cana, well actually, there seems like there is NO bookstore in Punta Cana at all.  We visited Jumbo last week (it’s like their Walmart Supercenter) and we’ll go to the mall later this week. If I find books in English I’ll write about it here in a follow-up blog post for those looking for books in the area. Next weekend we plan on going to the capital Santo Domingo. We know there are several bookstores there, so we’ll check a couple of them out and I’ll write about it.

Have a great Monday!

Vanessa

Library tip: Depending on where you live, you can join your City Library and also your County Library. Each library has a slightly different selection of books available online. Once you have a library card, you can go online to your library website and see what ebooks and audiobooks they have available. You can download apps for Kindle (if you don’t have a Kindle), Zinio (for magazines) and Overdrive (for both ebooks and audiobooks) for any of your devices. Then you can pair those apps with your library card information to obtain books and magazines directly to your device. 

 

Day 40: Our stuff

Our time in Puerto Rico is coming to an end. It’s time to gather our things and move on to a new place.  40 days ago we turned in the keys to our apartment after what seemed like an eternal time packing.  It turns out I grossly underestimated how much stuff we had. We survived packing, even though I still have to mentally (and emotionally) process my relationship with “stuff”.

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In my opinion, champagne is the best way to pack, though not the most productive.

We don’t usually travel with much, and this trip is no different. Each one of us has a day-pack that we carry on the plane, and we have 3 large backpacks that we check-in to the plane. We are lucky that the 10 year old is strong enough to carry a large pack with all of the girls clothes. In addition to that, we have a large duffel-bag in which we store the car-seat and booster for the two little ones.

And then we had a piano delivered to Puerto Rico… My 2 biggest girls have been learning how to play the piano, and my man had an idea: “you know, they make these travel pianos, with weighted keys, we can take one with us on our trip!” So now we have a Yamaha E353 with us. I played with it yesterday and the  keys feel so good, so I thought- if we are carrying around A PIANO I’m going to definitely need to dust off the cob-webs of my brain and get back into it. So we’ll see…

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Add to this a duffel bag and a piano and I still want to say that we are packing lightly…

After being in Puerto Rico for some weeks, I asked myself if there was anything I missed so badly that I would want to have it with me. Out of all of the things in the world I could get (Puerto Rico has Walmart, Kmart and outlets with all of the name-brand clothes and shoes you can imagine), I ended up getting a milk-frother. Turns out, I can live without my favorite purses, but not without foamy milk in my coffee.

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I left this beautiful cup back at home, in storage, but now I can have that beautiful foam no matter where I go!

I’m very proud of myself for bringing so little (or at least what I THINK is so little), when we intend to be traveling for 12-14 months. I was feeling disheartened at the shear amount of boxes we packed, when we moved out of our apartment, most of which were my things. I started feeling like my relationship with things was unhealthy. And it might be. I don’t know.

The blogosphere is full of downsizing fairy tales and minimizing stories in which people magically make their things vanish in a unrealistic time frame (it’s magic after all). And then, with the help of the fairy god-mother Marie Kondo they streamline their lives and live happily ever after. This is not my story. My downsizing story starts 5 years ago, and will need to be told in installments.  It was not pretty, so I’m gonna need a bottle of wine to recap the mess that took us to the point of leaving everything we owned in storage. Given that it’s 7:30 in the morning, the story will have to be told another time.

For now, I’m off to enjoy my last Saturday here.

Honesty

I was talking with a friend about some photos on my Instagram feed and she asked me: How do you do it?

My short answer was: I don’t.

This is one of the reasons I wanted to blog. Facebook and Instagram often show us snippets of people’s lives. Single shots into the realities of traveling and parenting.

We see beautiful sunsets, amazing food and smiling children and we think it must all be perfect for someone else, or EVERYONE else except us.

I’ve been guilty of omitting the hardships in the past. In a forum like Instagram it’s hard to offer context and give long winded explanations of how hard it was to make it to that one perfect point to get that awesome shot. In Facebook I feel guilty of complaining too much, I tell myself my friends don’t want to hear me whine about our airport troubles, traffic woes or days without running water; I imagine them saying: “oh, boo-hoo, at least you get to GO on a trip!”. I am very selective of what I share in both forums, because I’m always afraid of being misinterpreted and judged.

The bottom line is that: I want people to like me.

For some reason, at this particular point in life I’ve stopped caring. I specify “at this particular point in life” because I’m not sure if I will wake up in a year, feel all paranoid and take this site down. But for now, I’m okay sharing, and it’s quite liberating.

We’ve been on the road since June 18. That’s 39 days. 39 days without our pillows and our beds. 39 days that our kids have spent without their toys. 39 days without the food that we are used to. Has it been amazing, inspiring and fun? of course it has! But there are also days that I want to lock myself in the bathroom just to be alone. There are days when I feel that I most definitely can’t do it all. I can’t meet a deadline, keep the kids from fighting and have a clean kitchen in the same 24 hours. The truth is that some days I couldn’t manage that at home, so I am not sure what I was to expect during this year. I left hoping that things would work out, hoping we would get something out of this experience, learn to be more flexible, be better as a family. After a rough week with not much sleep (more on that later) all I can hope is to not lose my mind.

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A blurry photo of me literally trying to relax while traveling in 2015. Nothing has changed.