Illustrator. Photographer. Random thinker. Um rato de praia.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Puerto Rico boasts tasty waves, filling food

I wrote this story for the Travel section of Florida Today newspaper in 2005.

Puerto Rico boasts tasty waves, filling food

Long considered the Hawaii of the Atlantic, Puerto Rico provides warm, crystal-clear waters, bigger, more powerful waves and reef breaks.

Surfing in Puerto Rico increased dramatically after the 1968 World Contest. Since, it has been the first trip and favorite reef-break training ground for Atlantic surfers, offering good surf in a beautiful U.S. territory with a mix of Latin culture and American convenience.

Peak months for surf are November through March, although Puerto Rico can get sizeable surf during hurricane season.

The majority of the surfing breaks are on the northwest tip of the island between Isabela and Rincon. This area offers a variety of breaks situated within a short drive time, depending on the direction of the swell.

Although March usually is a good month for waves on the East Coast, I figured the chances of catching some waves on my birthday would be greater by visiting Puerto Rico then.

An 8 a.m departure from Orlando International Airport and a noon arrival in San Juan, plus the two-hour drive to the northwest tip of the island, guaranteed that I could be in the water the same day. Now, JetBlue flies directly from Orlando into Aguadilla, saving the drive from and back to San Juan.

Surf, eat, surf

Most days start out with a dawn surf check, surfing until about 9:30 a.m., then a run to one of the many panaderias (bakeries) for quesitos (cheese-filled pastries), warm bread and coffee. Then back for another surf session until lunchtime.

For the less adventurous, there's always the McDonald's or Pizza Hut route for meals, but I chose to sample some of the local cuisine.

Brisas del Atlantico restaurant, with its $5 all-you-can-eat buffet, was outstanding. The food was fresh and abundant, which included arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans), carne asada (beef stew), chuletas (pork chops), serrucho (swordfish) and bacalao (cod) and tostones. Tostones (right) are twice-fried green plantains that make a great appetizer or side dish. They usually are served in restaurants to accompany seafood dishes, but they go well with any Puerto Rican dish.

After lunch and a rest to avoid the midday sun, it's time to check the surf again for a late afternoon session.

For dinner, there are plenty of choices to accommodate the budget.

One day, I went back to Brisas del Atlantico restaurant for dinner to try mofongo, the national dish. Mofongo is not for those who are watching their cholesterol. Traditionally prepared in a mortar and pestle, monfongo is made by mashing tostones with garlic, olive oil and chicarrones (fried pork rinds) or bacon. Then the mix is hollowed out to form a bowl and is stuffed with a variety of fillers in a sauce. Some popular fillers are shrimp, lobster and stewed chicken.

Another evening, I found Happy Belly's Bar & Restaurant on the beach road in Playa Jobos. It has a great oceanfront view by day. While eating your lunch, you can watch the surfing action from the restaurant's open-air deck. At night, the sound of the waves and the salty smell of the surf enhance the dining experience. There's live and/or DJ music and dancing on most nights and it stays open until 4 a.m.

I found Happy Belly's to be convenient and priced fairly, with steak and seafood dishes at $15 to $20, fresh mah-mahi sandwiches for $7 and a nightly special of chicken or steak fajitas for $5. Add a side order of tostones and you have a very satisfying meal.

One of my visits there coincided with the Cuba vs. Puerto Rico baseball game of the World Baseball Classic.

Although I'm not a baseball fan, I got caught up in the excitement of the crowd watching the game on TV at the bar and found myself out of place rooting for the team of my home country of Cuba. As one of the Cuban players hit a home run, I hollered loudly and got some menacing stares. No beer bottles were thrown, though.

Catching waves

Near the town of Isabela are the surf spots Jobos and Middles. The take-off zone at Playa Jobos is right next to the huge lava rock formation, and after a steep drop, it offers a speedy, long ride.

Coincidentally, after the wave has spent most of its energy, the wave rolls into a semiprotected cove with a sand bottom, which is the ideal training spot for the many young local kids who are just starting to surf.

Further west are Surfer's Beach and Wilderness, spots that can hold size and provide long rides. When the swell gets too big for these spots, a drive to Wishing Well, Crashboat or Gas Chamber is in order. Further west, the town of Rincon has the reef breaks of Domes, Maria's and Dogman's.

An added bonus to surfing the Rincon area is the chance of seeing endangered humpback whales. The winter months are the prime time to watch the largest mammals. They travel thousands of miles from the cold waters off the U.S., Canada, Greenland and Norway to the warmer waters of the Caribbean to mate and give birth.

The area of Isabela, Aguadilla and Rincon on the northwest corner of the island is so jam-packed with things to do on land and sea, you could exhaust yourself before you exhaust the possibilities.

It's a good thing it also is a relaxing, off-the-beaten-path destination, because after a long day of playing and sightseeing, you'll need a restorative meal and a cozy place to lay your head.

For the days when the waves are too small (it happens), there's snorkeling at Playa Jobos in Isabela and at Blue Hole in Shacks Beach or a short drive to the caves at Camuy.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Leaving Cuba

I wrote this op-ed piece for Florida Today newspaper in 1994, when another major exodus from Cuba was taking place. Rafts used by balseros, who had been rescued offshore by U.S. Coast Guard, were washing up as far north as Brevard County beaches. I figured this would be a good time to post it on my blog, on the 50th anniversary of the revolution.


“Pack up some of your clothes, we’re leaving the country tomorrow morning.”

That's all the warning I had when my parents decided to leave Cuba in July 1961, when I was 10 years old. This was two years after Fidel Castro took control of the government from the previous dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

There was some discontent with the revolution among the middle class after Castro came to power, but no one really talked about these things because everyone was afraid. You didn't know who you could trust. People with anti-Castro sentiments were being reported and arrested.

My first experience with this fear happened when a classmate’s mother asked me how my parents felt about the revolution. I said that my parents were not as happy as when Castro first took power on Jan. 1, 1959. The next time this woman saw my mother, she said, "I hear you’re becoming anti-Castro and that you're not happy with the revolution.” Quickly, my mother changed the subject, and as soon as we were alone she said to me sternly, “If anyone asks you about the government, you should always respond 'I don't know.' ”

Frustration had been growing among the population. People were arrested at random for suspicion of anti-government activity. The socialist government confiscated private businesses, sugar mills and cattle ranches. Many Cubans who opposed Castro were leaving the country, and in 1961, travel restrictions were imposed.

Children were being taken into indoctrination camps, where they were given uniforms and taught to run through the neighborhoods shouting slogans praising the communist government and demanding the death of the imperialistic Yankees. Six- to 10-year-olds demanding death!

I attended Colegio de Belen, a Catholic school in Havana run by Jesuit priests. This was the same school Castro attended as a young man and I remember seeing his picture among the graduating class photos of earlier years.

I could sense there was discontent among the teachers and priests in regard to the government. One day, I arrived at school to find the chapel had been closed and the school was occupied by the militia, who had set up machine gun nests throughout.

It was April 1961, and I later learned that Castro was expecting the Bay of Pigs invasion.

One day during this occupation of the school, I saw from my classroom window (1) a confrontation taking place between an elderly priest and a soldier at the small bridge (2) leading to the entrance of the school. I could not hear what was going on, but I could see there was a heated exchange and the soldier cocked his rifle and pointed it at the priest's chest. A younger priest jumped between the soldier and the priest and I thought we were going to witness a death. Fortunately, the situation was calmed and no one was hurt, but when I got home and told my parents, they took me out of school the very next day under the pretense that the teachers had gone on strike.

Although we were just a middle-class family and had no real property or business that the government could confiscate, for fear that I might be sent to an indoctrination camp, my parents had begun their plan to leave the country. At the time, one could still leave for short trips, such as vacations, but it had to appear as if you were coming back.

My father was employed by the Cuban airline and he often traveled to Mexico and Miami to buy parts for the airplanes. But because of the nature of his travels and because my family was known by most people who worked at the airport, it was not safe for us to leave as a family from the airport. My parents feared they would be arrested.

An uncle who worked for a shipping agency arranged for my mother, my younger brother and I to book a trip on a cargo ship, which had been set up with bunk beds to accommodate people leaving the island. We were lucky enough to embark on the last ship that was allowed to legally leave the island. However, all we were allowed to take was one suitcase each.

So, in the early morning hours of July 28, 1961, we walked out of our house and left everything behind. My father drove us to the port, said goodbye and told us we soon would see each other again. Then he drove himself to the airport, parked the car, left the keys in the ignition for whoever happened to come upon it, and got on a flight for a business trip to Mexico. After he went through a month of immigration hassles, our family was reunited in Miami.

{In 1983, when my father passed away, I was going through his photos and personal papers and found his letter of resignation from his job in Cuba: "Dear Sir, I regret to inform you that I will not be returning to my job, as I have left the country and will not be coming back."}

Thinking back on our flight, it was relatively easy on me, harder on my parents. But it's nothing compared to the present-day emigrants who set sail on rickety crafts, with few supplies, over dangerous seas, leaving families behind for a chance to escape an oppressive government that denies its people the basic human necessities of freedom and opportunity.

Because I have lived most of my life in the United States, I hold no attachment or feelings of nostalgia for Cuba, mostly a sense of curiosity.

I find it interesting that Castro's dream of a utopian, socialist society may just crumble, not from some outside invasion, but from a rotting within.

I found this video of the first days of the Cuban revolution on youtube.
Video contains graphic images.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Orlando’s Magic Year

Toy recalls around the holidays

Surf Sacrifice

Finance-managing for single women

Sick at work

Rooms for rent

Power lunches

Holidays Private Eyes

The holidays are busy time for private eyes as people tend to drink and fool around more.

Dueling poker leagues

Internet business

Job interviews

Things not to do during a job interview.

Cell phones for the poor

About a program where Uncle Sam gives cellphones to the poor.

Computer savvy

Goes with a Business story about the need to be computer-savvy to succeed in business.

Uncle Sam bails out Wall Street

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