November 14, 2011

The way to Bayamón

Saturday was one of those rare days when the skies were clear enough over the mountains so you could see the peaks and the radio towers and houses, and could be reminded that people actually live up there in the clouds. I drove up to San Juan, and the highway there keeps the mountains on your left and the Caribbean on your right until it veers left and juts right up into the hills.

I know the way up to San Juan by now, but I was headed to Bayamón, another metro area just to the west of San Juan. Never been there. As I left, I wondered - should I have brought someone along? I don't really know where I'm going. 

I replayed little sound bytes in my head of Julio and others talking about places you're not supposed to go. "What if I accidentally go there?"
"You won't."
"Well. Okay..."
They left it at that.

Also, the radio wasn't working* and the drivers side door of the pickup no longer closes. So I drove with my left arm out the window holding it shut, up to the crest of the mountains and then descended into Cayey, then Caguas, and into San Juan metro area.  

There, 52 becomes 18. You take 52 to 18 to 22 West to 2 West to 176 south. Not far down, on the right, there's a little purple building where they'll fix my projector. I know the numbers in my head, but I don't know the exits and I've never seen anything past 18. I had seen the map, and could actually visualize it in my mind. Years of pizza delivery helped me develop this skill.

52 to 18: check. Done this before a hundred times.
18 to 22: check. Now into new territory.
22 to 2: Oops.

There was a sign for 2 north, but nothing for 2 west. Well, crap. I know how the freeways here go. Like most places, it's easier to take the earlier exit and get back on if you're wrong, rather than pass the correct exit and have to double back a long way down. I dropped off early, directly into new territory with unrecognizable streets.

A note about streets in Puerto Rico: All the urban roads have numbers and names. Most maps have the numbers, but the signs have the names instead of numbers. Locals know the names. Also, this is not a flat island. There are no straight roads here. So while I can usually navigate pretty well, it becomes really tough when the road you're on winds all over the place and very soon, you might be heading the wrong way.

Here, I found myself on just such a road. Fortunately, even windy roads go somewhere. So if you stay on them long enough, you'll find your way to another busy road, which will probably take you somewhere recognizable. 

I like to say that I'm never lost, I'm just in a new place. And you really aren't lost as long as you know how to backtrack. Which is possible, but not easy, on windy roads.

I took the road to another major road and worked my way toward what I knew to be the general direction I wanted to go. But I didn't trust my instinct. I stopped at a gas station and went in to ask the clerk for directions. I wanted to be on highway 2. I didn't think I was. I asked the clerk if he spoke English and he said no. "No problema," I said and plopped down my map. "Yo quiero ir pa alla," ("I want to go there") and pointed on my map. "Donde esta carreterra 2?" (Where's highway 2?) He pointed outside to the road I'd just gotten off. That didn't seem right. I'd been on the right road all along? "Este calle aqui es carreterra 2?" (This street here is highway two?) I pointed out to the road. "Si!" he said. "a la derecha" (to the right.) 

Well. Okay. I got into the truck, held that door tight and wheeled out into traffic. Now, highway 2 goes all the way out of the city, to Arecibo and beyond to the northwest corner of the island. So when after one stop light this street, which the clerk had told me was highway 2, ended at a T, I knew there had been some communication breakdown somewhere. I took the T to the right (because why not? I had a 50-50 chance) and soon found a strip mall with a starbucks and a few cafes and a convenience store.

Two boys at the intersection out front were selling muffins and pastries. I asked if they knew where carreterra 2 was. They said no. Of course not.

I pulled into the parking lot and immediately found myself in one of the more nightmarish parking lots traffic jams I've experienced in Puerto Rico. After about 15 minutes, I parked. My transition from naive explorer into frustrated traveler was now complete. I went in and to get directions from a patron there. He spoke English. I handed him my map. He said, "Go out, take a right, take a left at the second light, go over the hill, and you'll be there at highway two.

"Great!" Sounded easy enough. "Thank you!"

I pulled out, took the right, saw no stoplights, and quickly found myself on a freeway on-ramp. 


I recognized this freeway. I was going the wrong way, but I recognized it. I turned around at an exit, backtracked, found highway 2, and followed it to highway 167. After about 15 minutes, I landed at the small purple building. 

Now, I know where I went wrong in all of it. But the odds were in my favor. Had I driven around long enough, I would have found my way. I'm sure there's a lesson on stubbornness in here somewhere. But I can't find it yet. So for now, I leave you with:

This is why men never stop and ask for directions, and why we don't need to.

*The radio works. The rear speakers don't. Someone had the faders turned to those non-working rear speakers. I only discovered this today. I spent all day on Saturday driving without a radio, with only my thoughts to listen to. Sometimes that's not so bad.

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