March 25, 2011

Authentic Puerto Rican wildlife

I'm no longer fighting the war on ants. They're the little sugar ants, "Crazy ants," the ones that will take anything but a straight path on a flat surface, that invaded my kitchen a long, long time ago. I've seen them on my dishes so many times that, not only do I no longer care about them being on my dishes, I'm no longer disturbed by the possibility that I am regularly eating many, many of them. They win, man.

They win.

There's an enormous dead cockroach sitting underneath my table in my kitchen. It's lying on its back with its legs up in the air, just like the "Dead Bug" we used to do at roller skating parties. I noticed it the other day. You're supposed to handle these sorts of things immediately, I think. But in my defense, it's kind of tucked back in a corner, out of the way, not harming anything. It's slowly getting buried by dust bunnies. I would need a broom to get at it.

It's still there.

I left a loaf of bread out on my counter. I prefer not to put it in the fridge because it quickly firms up and gets kinda stale. So today at lunch, I went home to make myself a sandwich. Got out the turkey. The mustard. A head of lettuce. Some peppers. Went for the bread: Found a gaping hole in the plastic bag, where some mouse-like creature with mouse-like teeth had chewed through. He also carved himself - ya know, I shouldn't assume he's male, females are generally just as capable of such atrocities - a cave in the bread. I hope he liked it. This wasn't no bottom-shelf bread. This was top-shelf whole-wheat 9-grain stuff.

It was good bread.

Today I saw Dani (a golden retriever/lots of other things I think mix) running in front of the comedor with a large iguana in her mouth. Right as a group of girl scouts arrived for the weekend, she ran in front of them and dropped it on the sidewalk, dead, missing most of its tail, lying on its belly with its big hind legs splayed back like a frog mid-swim. Julio took it and buried it.

It was big.

There's a pair of Puerto Rican parrots nesting in the trees between the staff housing and Dorm B. They're rare and endangered, so I hear. Critically endangered. So I better not make any parrot-eggs-for-breakfast jokes. What little research I did since starting to write this paragraph leads me to believe that these are, indeed, the same parrots, not boring less-endangered ones. Puerto Rico, it seems, doesn't have any other parrots. Just those. And those are parrots. And they look the same. They squawk a lot. But, as I have demonstrated in the preceding paragraphs, I typically leave wildlife alone.

So they're safe from me.

March 11, 2011


Driving in a foreign place is an impressive feat. As I've slowly started to figure it out, I've grown increasingly satisfied with myself. When I first got here, the streets and the culture of driving were a mystery to me. Rightfully so, I think, as San Juan is supposed to be one of the worst cities in the world to drive in. People down here on the southern side of the island have taken to calling it Tapon - Traffic.

Yeah. People who live here call San Juan traffic.

Traffic makes me a little nervous anywhere. I'd rather not have to make multiple lane changes at 70 miles per hour - or 80 if dictated by your fellow travelers - in order to narrowly avoid missing my exit and consequently flying who-knows-where too far down the freeway to find my way back. Doing it in a 15 passenger van should require a special license. Doing it a 15 passenger van in a foreign land should earn you a medal.

Luckily, in modern times we have the GPS unit.

And I sort of hate them. Hated them.

Sure, it's nice to know when your exit is coming up, and it's nice to know where you'll be able to find a Coldstone along the way, and the GPS is great when you're trying to find your way around a big or unfamiliar city. But it becomes troublesome when you become dependent on it, when you answer to it. "The machine knows where it's going" are famous last words. Ask Michael Scott. I would much rather just know my way around than have to futz with the GPS everytime.

But then, of course, I was driving back from the airport late last night - creeping right up on 1 am - when I knew caffeine would help perk me up a bit. I'd rather not ever have a "I fell asleep at the wheel" story. So I stopped where I thought I would be able to find some Dr Pepper - a rarity here in Puerto Rico, unless you know where to look. With a crisp, refreshing Dr P in hand, I hopped on a road that ran parallel to the freeway, thinking it would bring me back. It didn't. It went from nice, straight road right next to the freeway to windy, roller-coastery mountain thrill ride pretty quickly. Luckily, the GPS was suction-cupped right to the window and got me out of that mess. And it brought me through a presumably beautiful part of the island.

So I've learned to stop hating the GPS.

For the most part, driving around down here isn't nearly as complicated as you might think. Still, people seem impressed when I report that I get around on my own somehow.

Over the last week, I had multiple opportunities to drive some Grand Valley and Grace Bible College kids around. At one point, we met a traffic jam in the middle of the barrio, of all places. That's another thing - there aren't many alternate routes. So I had to backtrack, went way out of the way but probably avoided a pretty nasty traffic snarl. And of course, once we were nearly back on course, we found another even worse traffic jam. It was backed up farther than we could see, and had spilled over into another intersection. Of course, drivers from all directions staked their claim in the intersection trying to get through it, effectively turning it into a parking lot. Naturally, when a vein opened up, I crept through it with a full load of nervous, unacquainted college kids. I stepped right out there and made some maneuvers that would get you tickets or jail time in the states. I think I heard whimpering from someone in the seats behind me.

But we made it through okay. It wasn't an easy trek by any means, but I kept my cool. I'd seen this before.

And therein lies the key to successful driving in a new place: Familiarity.

Knowing the culture of driving, going places you've been before, that's how you figure it out. That takes time. That takes experience. A GPS is a nice temporary substitute, but I'll take the experience - even with the errors at 1 am - over one any day.

March 3, 2011

Satisfy us in the morning

A few weeks ago, I found myself not-so-strangely curious - and just a tinge excited - about what that night's dinner was going to be. There may or may not have been some curiosity about breakfast and lunch the following day, too. And as I wondered, there crept up this suspicion that, once again, I was thinking a little too much about food.

I think about food a lot. Too much, I admit. Grocery shopping has been exciting ever since I was charged with feeding myself. I feel empty without food. Okay, that's normal. But it satisfies. It delights. There are some people in the world who eat because they have to, and there are many who eat because they enjoy it. I am, without question, in the latter category. I'd venture to guess most people reading this are too.

As I realized that I was looking forward to dinner just a little bit too much (Except for Thanksgiving, a meal probably shouldn't be the culmination of your day) I was convicted that food was becoming an idol for me. Food is a good thing, but when something becomes a central source of comfort and satisfaction, it probably needs a closer look.

So I thought it was time for some good old fashioned fasting. I had only ever fasted one time, mostly just to see what it was like. I went sundown-to-sundown and nearly died of starvation. You're supposed to be able to last 40 days without food, I hear. I didn't make 40 hours. At sundown that night, I made a beeline for subway and got myself a spicy sandwich, devoured it on an empty stomach, and paid dearly the following day. Fasting, like most things, will take some practice.

One couple here fasts every Monday. They've been doing it for 40 years. They're warriors. Not me. I'm not about to give up a full day every week. One day is a good enough start for me.

I fasted. Sunday night through Tuesday morning, right through my day off. There's nothing specifically holy about a full day's fast, I don't think, but it's a tolerable time period that poses a challenge and shouldn't drive you insane. And it's called breakfast because you're breaking your fast. Instead of devouring calories at mealtimes, I went to the Bible to read a Psalm or two. David cries out to God, asks Him where He is in his time of trouble, when enemies are bearing down and have him cornered in a cave and want to kill him, when he's betrayed by friends and depressed and lost and infuriated. I was going to ask where God was when I wanted a sandwich.

At first, it wasn't so bad. Get up. Drink some water or Gatorade. Read a book. Try to feel busy. I tried to do some writing. Early in the day was the worst. 10 am, and you've got a rumbly in your tumbly and a whole day ahead of you. I began to plan a feast the following morning - bacon, toast, eggs, fruit, hash browns, apple juice, me drooling over the whole thing - not realizing that this pretty much defeated the whole purpose of fasting.

Lunch time came and went. More water, a little more Gatorade. Then there was a dog fight and I tried to break it up and A DOG BIT MY HAND. Yeah. So, hunger disappeared as there was blood streaming down my fingers and worries in my mind of rabies and who-knows-what-kinda tropical dog diseases there are down here. Pretty sure it was the camp dog that bit me, and I know she's up to date on her shots. Thus far, I have yet to foam at the mouth. Except when there's a toothbrush in it.

Maybe it was the extenuating dogbite circumstances, but I didn't have an issue with hunger the rest of the day.

It is no coincidence that I came across this Psalm that day:

Psalm 90:14 - Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, so we may sing for joy to the end of our lives.

How very strange and cool to come across such a verse on a day of fasting. Satisfy us in the morning, and we'll sing forever, for eternity. Only God's love provides true, lasting satisfaction. I knew this. But there's something powerful about reading it with an empty stomach.

There's a reason we fast over and over again. We need to learn and relearn the necessity of delighting one's self in the Lord. Let Him feed you, and it lasts forever. This is worth revisiting.

The following morning, I got up and immediately thought about that breakfast smorgasbord I'd planned the day before. But I didn't really want it anymore. I just wanted breakfast. Not some enormous feast that I'd earned from a day of righteous fasting. So I fried a couple eggs, made some toast and ate a normal breakfast. After all, it's the most important meal of the day.