Thursday, February 7, 2013

Stories from Puerto Rico: That Time We Almost Died

It was with sadness that we closed up the breezy beach house that had been our home for three days and packed our suitcases into the back of our ground-hugging rental car. We would miss the roaming beach dogs and the morning treasure hunts and even the underwater crunches we maladroitly performed for the saintly goal of "better fitting jeans."

But another adventure awaited us and we turned away from the coast and headed into the mountains towards Las Marias. From the coast you can see the rolling, gentle mountains of the interior of Puerto Rico, lush and green and almost doughy looking. Half an hour from the coast we started to climb. The road snaked and curled like smoke pouring off boiling coffee and we dutifully performed each switchback, Mom gradually falling into a pattern of pulling the wheel back and forth to accommodate the turns.

As we climbed higher the road rose up, leaving the earth ever further below us. Each side of the road dropped off into sliding green cliffs. We passed a vista and I pointed to what looked like giant green fingers. A curious tree had sprouted out branches in colossal clumps and it looked like many fingered hands dripping down over the jungle. "That's bamboo," Mom said, "looks like it's taken over a lot of the island."

No sooner had she spoken then she let out a gasp and slammed on the breaks as a lumbering dump truck came barreling around the corner we had just approached, sliding by us without so much as a wave or beep. "Oh my god," she said finally, eyes wide. We gingerly swung around the turn and were relieved to see an open stretch before the next turn.

But several turns later, with us still nervous and hanging more to the right than before, another dump truck popped out from the corner of the blind mountain road and scared us half to death. And so the journey continued, back and forth and back and forth and then a strained, white knuckled turn squeezing by another truck. But the mind and body are adaptable and even deathly fear can become predictable and rhythmic. As we climbed more and more we began to relax again, tensing with every precarious passing of a truck but then falling back into conversation.

And then my heart stopped.

There was nowhere to go, no shoulder to inch onto and it was barreling right for us. In my mind, in the flash of the moment, it felt like we had gotten to the end of the level. King Koopa, 5 times bigger than the minion trucks we had faced before, was staring us down and he was angry, and then the inevitable charge. But like I said, there was nowhere to go. Mom, already in the self-preserving habit of hugging the edge of the road, had done all she could do to protect us from the flattening and so we sat there. In the span of seconds since we had first spotted our fast rolling fate it was over. The monster, mere inches away, swept past us, rocking our tiny car and leaving us gasping.

"What happened?" Sydney asked, looking up from her book.

Somehow we had beaten the boss and as we regained composure and set off again we rolled into Las Marias. Like all the other tiny towns in Puerto Rico we drove through, Las Marias had a bar or two, a corner store and a school - which was always ringed with cars and women standing around in loose groups. Eventually we came to a driveway marked with a wooden sign on which was painted a bright infinity swirl. Relieved was an understatement for our emotions.

Mom stopped the car. "I can't see the driveway," she wined. It was true. The road below us dropped off so steeply that from the top where we sat there was no road to see. As she inched forward the car tilted down and to our relief the road was there to receive us. We shifted into a low gear and slowly rolled down the mountain towards a tiny concrete bridge. "I hope our little car can make it back up this driveway in a few days," I laughed nervously.

On the other side of the bridge we could see the road climb steeply again and disappear around a bend. Moving equally as slowly down that road was a large white pickup truck. Inching down the road that was little bigger than the car, when Mom spotted the truck headed to the same concrete bridge as us she let out an exasperated "Oh no...there is no way I'm backing up this driveway. They have to backup! This is crazy!"

Luckily the truck got to the bridge before us and pulled into a tucked away spot of land at the bottom and waited. As we approached Mark got out of the truck. "You made it!" he beamed at us, waving as we rolled down the window. Mom launched into her story about the evil truck drivers and the crazy curves of the mountain road and Mark smiled, nodding his head patiently. "Well you have another half mile of adventure ahead of you but you've almost made it."

From the passenger side of the truck a young man stepped out. With one hand he waved and with the other he clutched an ice pack to the soft fleshy skin under his eye. "This is Levi, we just have to run into town and get his eye looked at. Little scrape, just better to be safe than sorry." He waved us on and they got back into their truck, headed out towards town as we crossed the bridge and started climbing the last leg of our trip. We rounded the bend to see the great expanse of a banana farm down in the valley that belonged to a neighbor of Margo and Mark's.

We were so close that I was fidgeting with anticipation of being able to stretch out and walk around. But Puerto Rico has a thing for surprises around the bend. The car stopped again. This time Mom collapsed onto the wheel in pretended sobs and hysterics and wined "I don't wana! I don't wana!"

Ahead of us was a drainage ditch. The road plummeted down a foot or two into a crease that channeled rainwater off the roads and into the jungle and then rose back up to meet the road again. For a truck like Mark's it was little more than a pothole. For a tiny car sitting less than a foot off the ground it was a giant chasm to be perilously crossed. When Mom was finished with her theatrics I got out of the car and with much skepticism and secret cursing of Margo and Mark for not warning us, we managed to ease the car, one wheel at a time, through the ditch and onto the other side of the road with minimal scraping.

At this point in the story it should be obvious that the surprises come in multiples. No sooner had we bested the ditch and rolled off patting ourselves on the backs then we rolled up to the next one. And then another. And then another. Drainage on a mountain prone to mudslides is important you see.

Wearily we rolled up to the gatehouse and were greeted by an assortment of happy dogs and another workshare intern. We had finally reached The Farm as Margo called it and I for one was ready to embrace whatever situation was presented as long as it wasn't a car ride.

Our breezy beach house had been replaced with a breezy cabin and very quickly we were to learn what it meant to be "unplugged."

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Edward said...
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