Monday, May 28, 2012

And how do we spend a birthday while in Puerto Rico?

Well... by celebrating with rum, of course!

Some friends from the hostel had a rental car so on the morning of my birthday a few of us piled into the car and armed with a map and directions we took off for a tour of the Bacardi factory!  Wow, what a pain in the ass!  Here are a few things to know about San Juan (and Puerto Rico in general I later discovered)...

1) Road signs are not to be trusted.

2) Names of streets are not to be trusted.

3) Other drivers?  Not to be trusted!

4) Police?  Yeah, don't expect them to care whether drivers are obeying the traffic laws or not.

A simple short drive to the Bacardi factory turned into an adventure in driving through the clusterfuck that is San Juan.  First I (as navigator) got fired.  Then Thomas.  Funsize didn't even try, so I got rehired and refired.  Then Thomas.  Then back to me.  We kept missing exits, finding new exits, getting turned around, going the wrong way, getting back on a road we recognized, taking off in a new direction, then eventually making it to the road we wanted to be on to begin with!  And we did eventually made it, all in once piece, laughing and already having a good morning.

The Bacardi factory offers free tours, and it only takes an hour or so.  And afterwards you're given two tickets for a couple of free drinks at the bar, so I found the experience to be fun and totally worth it!  You get a bit of a history lesson, finding out that this company is the largest privately held, family-owned spirits company in the world... founded in the 1860s and run by the past 7 generations of Bacardis.  You learn that the San Juan factory produces 85% of the world's Bacardi rum.  The other 15% is produced in Mexico City.  You're given lessons on how to make the two major drinks made with Bacardi rum... the mojito, and the the mint julep.

Afterward they take you on down to the floor where you learn about the stages of making the rum.  Fermentation.  Distillation.  Aging.  And finally... Blending.  We trooped up to a viewing area where we got to see one of the giant Distillation warehouses.

Once the lessons and tour were over it's back onto the trolley and back to the gift shop and bar.  I ended up buying a bottle of the Torched Cherry rum, and as I checked out I made sure to tell the guy at the cash register that it was my birthday!  So to celebrate he pulls out a shot glass and pours me a generous shot of the Bacardi Limited... their top of the line, $90 a bottle rum.  O.M.G!  Best rum I've ever had!  Smooth and dark, it poured over my tongue and down my throat like nothing I've ever tasted before.  I've been lucky enough to taste some very spectacular scotches over the years, and now I can say that this rum is just as good.  I understand the concept of a "sipping" rum.  No way would I want to ruin this rum by mixing it with something else.

The guys and I grabbed a table and enjoyed our two free drinks.  Then my new favorite rum enabler comes out of the gift shop and presents me with a ticket for another free drink.  And pretty soon he comes over the intercom and announces it is my birthday and I get a round of applause from the various tourists sitting around enjoying their own drinks.

This time I decided to ask the bartender what he'd mix with the cherry rum, since I now had a bottle and had no idea what a good mixer would be for it!  He made me up something with lemonade and cranberry juice... an odd combination to my mind, but holy crap a delicious one to my taste buds!  As we were up and getting ready to leave, the guy at the ticket counter called me over and he gave me yet ANOTHER free drink ticket (gave one to the guys too).  So we all went back and got a final drink (in my case a 4th) to enjoy on the drive back to the hostel.

We stopped at a food cart right outside the factory gates and all four of us ordered (not knowing what it was at first but thinking what the hell) a "Tripletta" for lunch.  It ended up being chicken/bacon/ham chopped up and fried and put into a sandwich with lettuce and tomato and a sauce I didn't recognize.  And ho boy was it tasty!  I was already past the tipping point of getting drunk on rum so having solid food in me was definitely a good thing.

I spent the rest of the day hanging out with people at the hostel.  Drinking rum, sharing rum, and generally being relaxed and happy to celebrate my birthday in such an inebriated way.  *laughs*  I met a guy from New Jersey who had just checked in and found out that it was his birthday too, and we ended up spending a lot of time hanging out for the rest of the weekend.

We were going to get a group together to go out on the town that night, but by the time everyone else was ready to go it was already past my bedtime (damn me being a morning person and not a night person!) so I decided to get some sleep.  Eric (birthday twin) and I had made plans for the next day that involved a very early start.  And we both wanted to ensure we were well rested.

All in all, it was a great birthday.  And considering I'd come close to dying the day before... just amazing that I was alive to enjoy it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

A scary thing happened down at the beach

This is why I didn't post yesterday. What happened just shook me so much I didn't have the brain capacity (due in part to the sheer terror of what could have happened and the happy brain numbing effects of my anti-anxiety medication) afterward to put words together to describe it.

When I got back from my morning adventures yesterday a group was just planning an excursion down to Condado Beach. Even though I was still exhausted from my morning's adventure I decided to say "why not!" and so I threw on my suit, grabbed my towel, and joined the fun.

This particular beach was about a 20 minute walk from the hostel, and again I forgot my sunblock and hat.

So here I am. Already weak and tired from walking around for four hours already, dehydrated, and quite possibly the stupidest person ever for looking at the big waves, the strong surf, and running right in rather than waiting for a day when I'm feeling better.

I can tell you though that playing in the water like that was one of the most fun things I've ever done! What happened though is that I got separated from the others, and then the pull of the current and the giant waves yanked me further and further away. I'd try to swim back to shore when another wave came along and pulled me back even more. I shouted for help over and over again, but the people I'd come with weren't paying attention and neither saw nor heard me. Luckily another guy did hear and he was able to swim out to me and grabbed my hand to tow me back to the shore.

I'd never been so scared in my entire life. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before and I didn't know what to do except wait til I was safe to panic. The guy who saved me told me that if it ever happens again, to swim to the side. Like at an angle. He said you won't get caught that way.

I did go right back into the water after my post-terror panic attack. I told my group what had happened and they were aghast. From then on every one of us made sure we stayed in pairs just in case something similar were to happen again. Happily, it didn't.

I'm not afraid of the ocean. I still can't wait to go back to the beach. But I still feel a pit of terror deep in my stomach when I think about what could have happened. It has certainly made me more cautious. And I know not to go alone when I go back. But if I do, I know I won't venture out quite as far from the shore.

Old San Juan

Got my hoped for early start today. Woke up around 7 and since nobody else appeared to be nearing consciousness I decided to head out to explore on my own. Threw journal, sketchbook, and umbrella in my bag and took off to the bus stop. Old San Juan ahoy!

One of the forts already had a line of people waiting for it to open when I passed by. But it would have been half an hour of sitting around doing nothing so I decided I'd come back another day and go on a deeper explore. Today was just to check out the architecture and the pretty pretty colors of the buildings. And ho boy were there some bright colors! I don't know why it is that buildings those colors don't work in the slightest back home, yet I can't imagine buildings here painted in neutral (boring) tones. The bright colors are just exquisite.

The rain started just as I sat down to sketch in front of a beautiful sculpture garden bracketed by two banyon trees. So rather than quit I simply used my umbrella to protect my sketchbook and just kept at it! The storm passed quickly and as soon as I was done I put away both items and kept walking.

One thing I forgot yesterday before heading out was my sunblock. And I could tell I was beginning to get a sunburn. Whoops!!! So I figured I'd head back to the hostel, but took a roundabout route back to the bus stop and saw a lot more before saying adios.

I am definitely going back to that area. Preferably armed with sunblock next time!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Greetings from San Juan!

First day through traveling and settling in has been remarkably perfect for my first time to a new place. Everything survived the flight from Tampa (though TSA were bitches to me after I asked to opt out of the screening in favor of the pat-down) and I didn't even have a long wait for the bag I had to check (thanks to TSA not liking Swiss army knives to show up in carry-ons).

Easy to find the exit and taxi stand. Very nice driver knew exactly where he was going when I told him the name of my hostel, and he really liked my pink hair! Said it was the exact color of the sunset. And sure enough... when I glanced out the window damned if he wasn't spot on!

The Hostel isn't in the greatest of neighborhoods, and it turns out you have a 15 minute walk before you get anywhere. But the place itself is comfortable. There are a lot of spots indoor and out for socializing. And so far the people have been super friendly! I've met three others from the Boston area. And have already made tentative plans to head out with a group to the Bacardi rum factory tomorrow morning.

Had a cheap dinner with a very nice guy from Boston. And joined in the reindeer games of going out for drinks with a big group put together by one of the girls who works here. Only had the capacity for a few drinks to start out with before calling it a night. Walked back with a couple of guys. Love my inner compass. Got back without a map and in the dark.

I'm a bit damp from getting caught in the rain earlier. But oh well! Even the rain here is perfect. *smiles*. My clothes will dry, and so will I.

Definitely time to sleep now. Alarm is set for 7:30. I usually don't need it when traveling. We'll see.

Good night!