Sunday, November 18, 2012

Where to Eat Vegan: Mercado Agricola Natural - San Juan, Puerto Rico

Sometimes while exploring a new city you just get lucky. You've done your homework, you've looked up all the vegan hot-spots, and then you stumble upon this amazing gem that no one ever mentioned. That's how I came upon the Mercado Agricola Natural. Within the walls of the San Juan Museum, every Saturday there is an organic market. While this market is still new, starting only in 2010, this square has a long historical past as a marketplace.

As I stopped at each little booth I was more and more pleased. I walked up to a table laden with thick banana breads, yucca bread, brownies and cakes and the vendor, who happened to be a transplant to the island from New York greeted me by saying "all our breads and desserts on this table are vegan." Yay!! Jams, fresh fruit and herbs, bread from Peace n Loaf as well as veggie soup and cookies from the Hare Krishna run Veggie Garden.

Fifi was my favorite person I met in San Juan. Fifi Bernard, originally from Brazil, lives in San Juan and serves up tasty plates of quinoa and vegetables and this delicious stevia sweetened ginger juice. We took pictures of each other to remember this day :)

If you happen to see this pie during your visit do not pass it up. Vegan and Raw this Avocado based Key Lime Pie was delicious!


Museo de Arte e Historia de San Juan
150 Bulevar del Valle
San Juan, 00901


8am - 1 pm every Saturday

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Bioluminescent Lagoon of Fajardo - Journals of Puerto Rico

We went to bed at 9:30 every night. Every night except one. By the time we stumbled into bed at 12 am we were like transfixed zombies. Or maybe more like seasoned drug users just coming down from a trip, exhausted and still mumbling something about sparkles.

This night was Sunday night and we had just returned from a late night trip to Fajardo. There is a lagoon in Fajardo that is fed from a tiny stream bordered densely by mangrove trees.

Hector was our guide's name. Following him in our open kayaks we wound our way down the stream to the lagoon. Now a moonlit paddle through the mangroves is a fine way to spend the evening but we had come to Fajardo for more than just a paddle.

Just below the surface of the water live tiny microorganisms called Dinoflagellates. When the creatures are agitated they give off light and it was our desire to agitate them into a sparkling frenzy that brought us to Fajardo.

A van will drive you out to Fajardo past the suburbs and small towns on the coast. Rocky, our driver had that particular habit that I encounter so often in my Spanish speaking students of calling everyone "friend" and calling them "friend" often. "Ok friends," he would say at the beginning and end of every sentence - winning an amused chuckle from all the English speaking passengers.

After an hour or more of driving, we pulled up to a circular field of grass ringed by a dirt road and dotted with cars and motorbikes, all of which was hugged to the edge of the gently lapping waves of the ocean. Loud salsa music played from open air bars and the smell of greasy food beat out from the dozens of food carts and stands. Rocky told us this area is the neighborhood hangout for families. Indeed, along the shore many families were set up in the dark on blankets and chairs watching the faint glow of the Dinoflagellate as they tumbled on the tiny waves.

"Ok friends, the bathrooms are that way," Rocky said pointing to some squat buildings lit by harsh yellow bulbs in the middle of the grassy ring. Us girls scurried over to where he was pointing. As we approached a group of women were scurrying past us in the other direction, faces scrunched. "Bad?" we asked. "Terrible," they yelled over their shoulders.

Mom, ever brave and small of bladder, decided to be the judge but no sooner had she dissapeared around the corner, leaving Sydney and I standing outside, hips swayed to the side and arms folded, then she immediately swung back around the corner with the same pinched face as the ladies we had passed moments before. "That bad?" I said. Mom, already skirting her way back to the van nodded and said "Paint buckets. Overflowing paint buckets."

Luckily we had no more time to think about buckets and bladders because it was time to suit up and get into kayaks. The three of us were the only odd numbered group, all destined for two seater kayaks, standing around in the loose circle surrounding our guide. "You two ride together" Mom said, offering herself up to the unknown. After a quick paddling demo which looked very much like someone desperately trying to dance to a beat while crippled by cement laden hips, we all hopped into kayaks. Mom was partnered with Hector, our guide and was directed to the front of his kayak.

Tentatively we took our first tandem strokes and paddled over to Mom's kayak at the front of the line. Eyes wide and hands folded in her lap, Mom sat in Hector's kayak without a paddle. "Hey, why don't you have to paddle?" Sydney snapped. "Miss Pam is the princess tonight" Hector replied in what we would come to expect as his usual matter-of-fact zen responses.

"I'm the princess," Mom said, flashing a taunting full toothed grin at Sydney and I. With much grumbling from Sydney and much silent gloating from Mom we fell into the body of the snaking chain of boats starting off in the direction of the dark, wooded inlet.

The mangrove trees grow out of the water like hundred legged octopi, leaving their roots below to snatch feet and paddles alike while stretching their branches across the inlet to block out the moonlight. We entered the mangroves slowly, letting our eyes adjust to the dark and keeping one eye slightly above our heads to guard against rouge branches.

As Sydney and I struggled to weave the curving inlet and also watch for the glow below the surface of the water, Mom was getting her princess treatment at the head of the line.

"Miss Pam," Hector would say, "Do you see those fish over there? Watch." With that he would smack the side of the kayak with his paddle and the startled fish would shoot off in different directions agitating the Dinos in the process. "It was like a glowing star underwater," Mom told us later. "They would take off, zoom zoom zoom, and then leave glowing trails in different directions." Each zoom was punctuated by a crisp vertical slice in the air.

"Do it again!" Mom would say to Hector, playing the delighted but slightly impatient and sulky child character she has perfected and passed down to her daughters. "Be patient Miss Pam. We must wait for the fish," Hector would say in his practiced and perfected Buddha character. Every now and then we would hear Mom's ringing laughter from the front of the line and every now and then she would hear a curse or a "What the heck?" from her daughters a few boats back, twisted into the mangroves again. When Mom asked Hector how long he had been running this tour he smiled and said "It's my first day."

The closer the mangroves grew over the sky, the darker it got, the more the Dinos would glow. Each paddle was an explosion of light under the water. Sometimes they seemed green, sometimes blue or white. We dipped our hands in the water and wiggled our fingers. We splashed and smacked the water with our paddles and all the while the Dinos glowed.

Eventually the inlet opened to a wide lagoon and we all gathered our boats around Hector and Mom to listen to him explain the source of our glowing delight. "Look over there," he said "do you see that flashing red light atop the white light?" Our heads swiveled to the other end of the lagoon. Hector was revealing the source of the Dino's glow - we all waited silently. "That's a nuclear plant," he said.

Mom's laughter ran out and a few others joined in. Hector waited for the rest of the group to catch on and let out a delayed laugh before telling us about Dinoflagellates and their similarity to lightning bugs. The same chemical reaction occurs in their tiny bodies, but unlike fireflies they have no control of their glow.

He let us all paddle around and watch the glow. Sticking our hands into the water we picked up palmfuls of dark water and blew softly to watch it light up. As each Dino was agitated it would tumble in the cupped water revealing itself.

"Sparkles" Mom kept saying, running her fingers through the water and beaming into the dark.

"Girls, watch what I'm going to do," Hector said as he dipped the paddle deep into the water and then with one swift movement the paddle shot forward in an arc underwater - leaving a blue-green rainbow behind it. We all clapped and gasped."I could stay here all night," Mom confided in Hector, "I want to come back tomorrow!"

"Next time you come, Miss Pam, come during a rainstorm. You can't believe how beautiful it is when it rains." Floating in the lagoon, wide eyed and feet dipped over the edge to leave a trail of sparkles behind her, Mom really would have been happy to stay all night.

Hector, who paddled calmly, told Mom that the nine years of working this route, guiding tourists to this protected lagoon, had not changed or dulled his sense of awe and delight at seeing the Dinos glow. They chatted about their night jobs and their kids until we pulled back up on the shore, all tired and sore, save the princess.

"Hello friends," we heard from behind us signaling the end of our kayak adventure. As we shed our lifejackets and abandoned our kayaks, Mom, still glowing, went to thank Hector and surprised him with a hug before we piled into the van to drive back to San Juan. "Goodbye Miss Pam," Hector said to the princess.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Somewhere New: Puerto Rico - Part 1 - San Juan

For the month of October I went on a very special trip. From the age of 15 travel has been an indispensable part of my life. My grandmother, Nonny, took me on my first international trip to her birthplace in France. It is an understatement to say this trip changed my life. Unfortunately Nonny passed away while I was living in France, before she had the opportunity to take either of my little sisters on a trip somewhere. I credit her with my love of travel and the unknown and I wanted to give a little bit of that to my sisters in her memory.

The eldest of my younger siblings, Sydney, turned 18 this year and also graduated high school with a full year of college courses under her belt. It seemed that some celebration was in order - not only for her accomplishments but also for our newfound friendship. Until recently Sydney has always just been the little pipsqueak I remember babysitting years ago before I moved to West Virginia. Come to find out she's a smart (if sassy) motivated woman with a good sense of humor and a variety of interests. While we do one day plan to visit France together to see where her family is from we decided on something more tropical for our celebration. No sooner had we breathed the words Puerto Rico and Mom was packing every color of flip-flops she owns to come with us.

We started our trip in San Juan. Hotel Mirimar is a 10 minute bus ride from Old San Juan and sits right at the mouth of where the real San Juan begins. Away from the tourists and restaurants, if you walk the opposite direction from Old San Juan (which Sydney and I did one morning on a wild goose chase for some fresh juice which ended with much profanity on my part and some bloody blisters for Sydney and no juice for either) you find that the real San Juan isn't all pastel buildings and balconies dripping with flowers. The real San Juan is bustling and crowded and well...struggling.

We spent 3 days in the San Juan though, most of which was spent in Old San Juan. In Old San Juan, if you squint a little looking down the long alleyway sized roads, you can feel for a second that you might be in Barcelona. Every few blocks there's a plaza and every street is marked with a street sign painted onto a building or inlaid in terra cotta - very much like I remember in France. The pastel, though, and the beautiful balcony gardens is what sets San Juan apart from those familiar places.

On a morning alone (Sydney and Mom were at the Bacardi Rum Factory) I walked around and snapped pictures of the architecture, made friends with feral cats and ate treats at the Mercado Agricola Natural.

For the history buffs out there you can visit the fort that surrounds Old San Juan - some areas like where we went - was free.

If you walk the Paseo de la Princesa you'll come to this statue of Queen Isabella under a Banyan tree and the old gate to the city. Keep walking and you can go to El Morro - the fort all the way at the end of the island.

San Juan also has a good number of museums. I went to Casa Blanca, the house of Ponce de Leon, although technically he never lived there because he was too busy building empires and destroying indigenous cultures. Fun fact - chairs in this time were made for individuals. Meaning = a fatty would get a fat chair and a tall person would get a tall chair - which begs the question what if you get fat when you were skinny?

Next time I would really like to check out more museums like the Antique Book museum! While the city was fun and does hold some gems we came to Puerto Rico for the natural beauty, so we rented a car and headed to the other side of the island. Check back for the next post about that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Somewhere New: Susquehannock State Forest

I somehow forgot to post this back in September - oops! For my Somewhere New September I roped Rachel into another little adventure. This time - our first backpacking experience. We realized on this trip that we have been together for some of the most liberating experiences of our lives - like the time we took our pants off on the NYC subway or the time we jumped out of a plane.

I had read somewhere that Cherry Springs State Park in upstate PA - part of Susquehannock State Forest - is one of the best spots to stargaze on the East Coast. Not wanting to be part of the crowds though we decided to go out into the woods and find a more secluded place to stargaze.

Our first night we made camp at Cherry Springs vista. As soon as we set up the tent a fine rain started to fall so we scrambled in (carefully so as not to hit our heads trying to sit in a tent the size of a double wide coffin)and chatted until we fell asleep.

In the morning we crawled out and were excited to see the clouds and mist still blanketing the mountains below us. We set out to Hammersley Wild Area - the 2nd largest area of PA without roads and spent the next two days camping and hiking the mountains.

We never passed another person on the trail so not only was it our first time backpacking but we did so with no real backup support in the way of fellow hikers. The quiet of the forest and all the different trees and ferns were illuminated by the most gorgeous light and I was happy to have Rachel to share it with but not 100 other people.

While we didn't see any bears or dangerous wildlife the trip was not without incident. Mostly it was stupid first-timer incident to be frank. I lost our campstove before we even got to PA by leaving it by the car to be stolen in WV. On the full night we spent camping after hiking all day we both were in the mood for something warm but all we had was cold ramen...which by the way is awful and crunchy.

We both thought this natural table someone built was pretty cool. About an hour past where we set up camp we found this campsite and table.

Another incident was when we decided to go off the trail and climb up a steep incline convinced we would find a vista at the top. We trudged up the mountain only to find it infested with thorns. I rolled my ankle coming down and was grumpy for a good 10 minutes.

Thorns attacking you, sleeping on roots and crunchy ramen are part of the experience though and to be honest none of those things really dampened my awe and excitement to be out in the forest on such a beautiful weekend.

The most dangerous thing we encountered...a snail

As the sun went down and the fire eventually died we got our flashlights out and made our way to a clearing. As we walked we talked about the constellations we could identify and figured between the two of us we might be able to find close to 10. As we stepped out into the clearing we both got silent. There were so many stars that we couldn't even find the Big Dipper. The sky was so clear that we could see the gradation of the Milky Way. Especially now that I live in the city where you never see stars it was enough to dumbfound me into silence.

When it gets warm again I'd like to go back and explore more of the trails - this was a great start to an addiction to backpacking!