Sunday, December 28, 2008

Puerto Ricans on Bikes?

Just a few days ago, I rented a bike here in Rotterdam for only one day and it was so much fun! I'm ashamed to say this, but I haven't biked in over two years and I was just enjoying every second of it. Biking, unfortunately, is not something most ordinary Puerto Ricans do. Like most Americans, Puerto Ricans rely on cars to get around. There's at least one car per household in Puerto Rico. On the other hand, in the Netherlands, everyone here owns at least one bicycle. There are in fact over 18 million bikes in this country of over 16 million people. This means there are more bikes than people! Incredible, isn't?

You can basically travel throughout the Netherlands by bike. How I wish I can do this in Puerto Rico. I suppose this is like comparing apples and oranges. For starters, cycling is not part of the Puerto Rican culture. The landscape and terrain between the two countries are quite different as well. However, like the Netherlands, the population density in Puerto Rico is heavily concentrated around one predominant area, which is San Juan. Therefore, cycling does make sense, if only city planners did a better job of mapping out routes. Of course, there are cycling events in Puerto Rico. However, they're more for the serious cyclists.

During my one day of biking, we biked through villages, several different parks and Rotterdam. Since the bike lanes are clearly marked, it was quite easy to navigate. In general, motorists are quite respective of cyclists as well. I can now understand why the Dutch are in so much better shape than the average Puerto Rican and American. Biking is a terrific workout! There is hope though, as several cities in the U.S, such as New York City, are trying to encourage and promote cycling as a way of transportation. Perhaps, one day, we'll see more ordinary Puerto Ricans on bikes one day.... although I don't see it happening anytime in the near future.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Felicidades... Happy Holidays... Prettige Feestdagen!

Wishing everyone a happy holiday season! The holidays are always a very special time of the year. May each and everyone of us be blessed with the joy of sharing and being in the good company of others during the holiday festivities. I am far away from my family and closest friends at the moment, but I do feel this undescribeable connection with them. I am celebrating with you guys in spirit! As they say in Dutch... prettige feestdagen (happy holidays)!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Destination: Berlin, Germany

One of the best things about being in Europe is the ability to easily travel across the continent and experience different cultures, explore foreign countries, and hear different languages. This is perhaps one of the biggest disadvantages of living in Puerto Rico. It's an island, and so you're pretty much limited as to how far you can go. Of course, as with most things in life, there are pros and cons to everything. A few days ago, we came back from one of the most fascinating cities in Europe... Berlin! We were there for only 3 days and 2 nights and it was definitely not enough time.

Berlin is a city which I would absolutely love to re-visit. It's a place full of history, culture and action. If you plan on visiting, I highly suggest you get a Berlin Card, which allows you to use the public transportation system (S & U Bahns) for an unlimited time, depending on which type of card you purchase. The card also gives you discounts at certain musuems, such as the Deutsches Historisches Museum, which was fascinating. If you're interested in learning about the history of Germany, you should consider it. There was quite a lot of information about the rise of Hitler, World War II and the Holocaust, of course.

The Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, and the Jewish Memorial were also great places to visit... and the list goes on. Berlin is a city that's great for walking. Since it is the Christmas season, the city was filled with Christmas markets. I am a great fan of markets, and needless to say, I was having the time of my life! The Germans certainly know how to celebrate the holidays. The atmosphere was so wonderful at the markets. Everyone was sipping glühwein (a red wine), eating bratwurst (they are so good!), and enjoying the company of their family or friends. Germany is definitely a great place to visit during the Christmas season.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Celebrating Cultural Differences

During my continued observations from a far far away land, it simply amazes me how different some cultures can be. We all occupy the same world but yet we've all got our quirks and I embrace them all. This world would be so boring if we were all the same. One of the things which struck me most about the Dutch culture is how nearly all households leave their window curtains open, even if they lived on the first floor. In Puerto Rico, most houses (mine included) have rejas (it literally means "bars" in spanish) for security concerns. However, in the Netherlands, the windows are usually huge, spotless and available for all to look into. From what I've seen, and based on my experiences with the Dutch, houses are usually kept very clean. It really is quite impressive.

Yesterday, as I was standing in line at a store, I was reminded of yet another interesting Dutch custom. In the U.S and Puerto Rico, when you greet a family member or a close friend, you usually kiss each other on the cheek once. On the other hand, most Europeans kiss each other twice, once on each cheek. Well, get a hold of this. The Dutch actually kiss each other three times! No, the last kiss is not on the chin or forehead. The third kiss ends up being on the same cheek which you started off with. One thing which the Dutch and the Spanish language do have in common is having a word for "enjoy your meal." In Spanish, that would be "buen provecho." In Dutch, it's "eet smakelijk." Wish we had the same word in English, instead of saying it in French, "buon appetit."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Greetings from Rotterdam!

At this moment, I am actually not observing from the Island of Enchantment. Instead, for the next few weeks, I will be thousands of miles away from the sunny and warm Caribbean. I am in Rotterdam, the Netherlands! To say the very least, I do miss the warm weather. After living in Puerto Rico for over two years, I am just not used to the cold anymore. When the weather dips down to the high 70'sF, most Boricuas consider it to be cold and put on a jacket. Yeah, unbelievable, right?

As much as I love Puerto Rico's warm climate, I am enjoying the change of scenery. Rotterdam is the second largest city in the Netherlands. I have been here before on several occassions, and I've written about this country before and will continue to do so during my stay here. Traveling has always given me interesting experiences, which I love to share as long as it helps others. Besides, the Dutch culture is different and it makes for some interesting comparisons. This is especially true as compared with life in Puerto Rico.

One of the starkest contrasts between the Netherlands and Puerto Rico, for example, is the timeliness and efficiency of public transportation. Well, let me back up just a bit, the Dutch have one of the best public transportation systems in the world. Perhaps it's not fair for me to compare between the one here and the nonexistent one in Puerto Rico. Generally speaking, the Dutch tend to be very punctual, although probably less so than the Germans. On the other hand, punctuality is something entirely foreign to most Puerto Ricans.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Difficult Holiday Season

Every time I watch the news, I hear about a massive round of layoffs and the Dow plummeting yet again. Thousands of people have lost their jobs, or are on the verge of losing them, and seeing their 401k account practically get wiped out. Christmas and New Years is right around the corner and I can only imagine how difficult this holiday season will be for many families. Here in Puerto Rico, I've begun to see an increasing number of homeless people. Crime is also on the rise. For those of you who have never visited the island, you probably never thought of Puerto Rico as an island besotted with a large number of social ills. Think again.

Over 40% of the population of Puerto Rico lives in poverty. In addition, the public education system is crumbling. Domestic violence is also a very serious problem here. The news is grim but yet I try my best to keep a positive mentality. I would be living in a fantasy world if I didn't acknowledge and pay attention to what is happening around me though. Lately, I've been questioning myself about why this world is the way it is. Hope is what drives us forward as human beings and I sure do hope things will be better in 2009.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

After Scary Friday

Instead of "Black Friday," I've decided to call the day after Thanksgiving "Scary Friday." The death of a Wal Mart employee , as a result of being trampled by a mob of savages, has really made me question the decency of mankind. What has this world come to? Here in Puerto Rico, Scary Friday wasn't as scary but there were still people who stood outside shopping malls and Wal Marts before the crack of dawn. In general, Puerto Ricans like to shop. The local culture is heavily influenced by that of the mainland, where materialism and the hunger for consumption seems to be out of control. Hence, the credit card debt of an average American seems to be going nowhere but up. This is also true for the average Puerto Rican.

I am not crazy about shopping and I have never understood why people would want to spend the night outside a Wal Mart. On Scary Friday, I stayed far away from the mall. Thinking it would be safe today, we decided to go to the Prime Outlets mall in Barceloneta, about 45 minutes west of San Juan, this afternoon. There was a bit of a crowd but no huge mobs. Most retailers are indeed offering huge discounts and I saw quite a few stores with lines of customers waiting to pay. The economy is in recession but Puerto Ricans are definitely spending. By the way, the sales tax here is 7% and prices really aren't as cheap as you would expect.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Puerto Rico does in fact celebrate Thankgsiving ("Día de Acción de Gracias"). This is usually done with family gatherings and making turkey and the whole nine yards but.... with a twist. You'll find the bird seasoned with adobo or stuffed with cassava or plantains and meat. In spanish, it's called pavo relleno de yuca y carne. I've never tried it before but it sounds good to me. I usually make my turkey with cornbread stuffing or with regular white bread. Shopping for pumpkin puree was quite a challenge this year though. I couldn't find it anywhere and was about to give up until I went to Walgreens. Yeah, can you believe it? Of all places, Walgreens was where I found a can of Libby's pumpkin puree! As pathethic as this may sound, it really made my day!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for many reasons. In general, I think we don't say "thank you" enough to those who make our lives possible and wonderful. I've been guilty for taking many things and people for granted in my life. However, as I've gotten older, I think I've gotten better at recognizing this fact and appreciating all the little things in life. I've been very fortunate to have the most wonderful circle of family and friends and I am truly grateful for their love and support. They're also the ones who keep me sane and grounded!

(Graphic obtained from www.tarjetas.com)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Headlines from Puerto Rico

If you can read Spanish, you're guaranteed to find some of the most amusing, as well as horrifying headlines, while flipping through any of the newspapers in Puerto Rico. Just last week, there were a series of bank roberries around the island. In one of the tabloids, the headline read... "Padre e Hija en un Robo Bancario" ("Father and Daughter in a Bank Robbery"). Unfortunately, bank robberies are quite common here, although there has been a significant decrease compared to 2007, according to the local papers. Fortunately, in this case, this father and daughter team got caught.

Moving on to another topic... school violence. "Él Tiró el Puño y lo Cogí Yo," ("He threw the punch and I got hit"). In this case, the victim was a woman who works at a public school as a lunch lady who was playing the role of a mediator. As is usually the case, the who's in the middle of a fight is always the one who gets hurt. Fortunately, school shootings are not common occurences here. However, you will occasionally read about cases of teacher assault and vice versa.

This past weekend, to my utter disbelief, the most ridiculous news of all appeared on the front cover of the Sunday paper. "Recaudan $316,000" ("Raised $316K), talks about the soon-to-be-former Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá (pictured above, with his wife), who is reportedly having trouble paying his legal fees. He is currently facing 24 counts of corruption charges and is in debt up to his neck. To be precise, he owes an estimated $1.6 million. So, he and his party (Partido Popular Democrático-PPD) decided to start a fundraising campaign. The amount raised to date falls short of what they expected, but the Populares remain hopeful. Why? Well, apparently, the $316K does not include online donations and those made at Banco Popular (the largest bank on the island) branches. So, for an island of just under 4 million people, I think there's just too much craziness going on here.

(Photo credits: 1st photo- Patricia Díaz Ortiz, Primera Hora and Ramón Tonito Zayas/El Nuevo Día, 2nd photo)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Destination: Chichicastenango, Guatemala

During our trip to Guatemala, we visited many different markets. Every city and town has its very own. Chichicastenango's market is by far the most impressive though. After all, it is Central America's largest. We arrived on a Saturday evening, as we wanted to get there before the action began on Sunday. From Quetzaltenango, it only took us about two hours to get to there on a shuttle bus.

My first impression of Chichi was how mysterious it seemed, given its location in the highlands, it is surrounded by mountains. Although it's quite touristy, I do recommend it. I found the town charming and enchanting. We walked around town, where most of the streets where quiet. There were a couple of vendors still open for business. It was really chilly and I desperately needed something warm to wear. So, I decided to buy myself a shawl. I visited a couple of stalls and every vendor offered me a "discount." Haggling is definitely a must in all markets! On the other hand, I thought about how much the seller was making and I would have felt a bit embarrassed if I pushed too hard.

On market day, the town was filled with energy and people. You'll see the Mayan women scurrying around in their brightly colored dresses, usually with their belongings on the top of their heads. The market at Chichi is so huge, you'll find everything from flowers, fruit and vegetables to shoes, belts and souvenirs. My favorite part about the market was simply the people watching. Please note: if you suffer from claustrophobia, the market might not be your cup of tea. Be aware of pickpocketters as well! We were also warned not to visit the town's well-known cemetery, since there have been attacks on tourists.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Americana in Puerto Rico?

Everytime I have out-of-town guests, I am asked the same question. Do most people in Puerto Rico speak English? Is it okay if I don't speak any Spanish at all? The answer is.... it really depends. If you just stick to the tourist areas, yes, you don't have to mutter a single word of Spanish. Although knowing how to say "thank you," gracias, would surely be nice. For non-Spanish speakers, I think you can definitely survive here. However, you might have a bit more trouble once you leave the metropolitan area of San Juan.

Outside of the resorts and hotels, I would say you'll find more people who might have a limited knowledge of English. However, practically everyone speaks a little. Remember, we do speak Spanglish here and the Island of Enchantment is officially part of the U.S. In reality, Puerto Rico is heavily influenced by the U.S. Just walk through the island's largest mall, Plaza Las Américas, and you'll understand what I mean. You'll find Macy's, Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, etc. If you're from the States, you'll actually feel quite at home. Best Buy, Wal-Mart, K-Mart (Big K too!), and Home Depot, just to name a few, are also in Puerto Rico. At the supermarkets, you'll find your favorite brands such as Heinz Ketchup, Oscar Meyer, Pepperidge Farm products, amongst many others. This is no surprise, as Puerto Rico manufactures and grows very little of its own food products. Practically everything here is imported from the mainland. My only beef is that we don't have Target here. If they do ever decide to come to Puerto Rico, I am all set!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Destinations: Antigua & Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Just a few weeks ago, I was sitting at the main plaza in Antigua watching couples cuddling, locals mingling and tourists exploring. Antigua is a very pretty colonial city, and we decided to make it our first stop of our Guatemalan adventure. It is completely different from Viejo San Juan. For starters, it doesn't have a Payless Shoe Store. However, and what a tragedy it is, Antigua does have a Subway, as well as McDonalds. The similarities stop right there though.

In Antigua, you'll find a Spanish language school on practically every street corner. There are so many foreigners, I began to wonder if they outnumber Guatemalans. We also found lots of quaint cafés and restaurants. My favorite breakfast joint was Doña Luisa Xicotencatl, which has really good food and has a cozy ambiance. Thank goodness, Starbucks was nowhere to be found! When you're in Antigua, you must visit the city's beautiful churches and the famous Santa Catalina Arch. It's a wonderful place for walks.

I do understand why so many foreigners, particularly students, love Antigua. It's a place straight out of a fairytale. The second city we visited, Quetzaltenango ("Xela"), which is Guatemala's second largest, has a completely different vibe. It is a city deeply penetrated by the Mayans and is not overrun by gringos. The city also has quite a few language schools, but definitely not as many as Antigua. According to my Lonely Planet guidebook, the more "serious" type of student goes to Xela. The city is surrounded by small Mayan towns, such as Zunil, and quite a few hot springs and natural baths. Las Fuentes Georginas was recommended to me by a fellower traveler. Unfortunately, we just didn't have the time. C'est la vie...

Stay tuned for my take on Chichicastenango and Guatemala City....

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Counting Down Bush's Last Days

Like many others, I am extremely happy and exhilirated with the election of Obama. Listening to his victory speech, and seeing the electrifying crowd in Times Square, made me miss living in New York just a tiny bit. I wish I could have joined the euphoric celebration! Naturally, everyone is emphasizing how Obama will become the first black U.S president. We are indeed living in exciting times, this is history in the making. However, I think people should get over the fact that he's black and focus on the facts and issues. The country faces a very difficult and grim economic and geopolitical situation. Increasing unemployment, slumping housing prices, the situation in Iraq and the political tension with Russia, just to name a few. Obama has inherited quite a headache but I think the country chose the better candidate. In the meantime, I just can't wait until the Bush presidency is over.

Here in the Island of Enchantment, Luis Fortuño of the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), which is the blue party, will become the next Governor. Historically, there's an opposing trend between the U.S and Puerto Rico. Whenever there's a Democrat in the White House, there's a PNP Governor in La Fortaleza. The PNP favors statehood, while the Partido Popular Democratico (PPD) favors the status quo. One of the things I dislike about living here is how the local news seems to ignore the outside world. For example, the day after the elections, El Nuevo Día, the most widely-read local newspaper, had a tiny photo of Obama while the image of Luis Fortuño dominated the front page. Thank goodness for the Internet and cable tv, my gateway to the outside world!

(Image obtained from http://www.bushlastday.com/ and www.endi.com)

Monday, November 3, 2008

An Election Frenzy

It's hard to believe how it's all coming to an end. After a dramatic campaign year, tomorrow is the day when voters finally decide who should become the next President of the United States. Puerto Ricans, those who live in the island, cannot participate in choosing the next Commander in Chief. However, tomorrow is also Election Day here, and they will be heading to the voting booths to help elect the next governor. It is quite obvious how Puerto Ricans are so passionate about politics. I've blogged about how Puerto Ricans wear their political colors on their sleeve, and it was truly the case this past weekend. We saw a countless number of people hanging their respective political party's flag, as well as the American one, from their cars. The Puerto Rican elections are also quite interesting this year, as the current governor has quite a large number of corruption charges leveled against him. It's hard to imagine why voters will elect him again, but one never knows. Anything is possible. People here are so loyal to their political party.

As for me, I have already sent my absentee ballot for the U.S elections, and I will also be voting tomorrow for the local elections. Thus far, I have not really talked about my political preferences because I don't want to make this a political blog. However, I must say I'm an Obama supporter. This is certainly one of the most important elections in the history of the U.S and I really hope everyone who is elegible to vote will do so tomorrow.
(Images obtained from www.endi.com and www.barackobama.com, respectively)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Back from Guatemala!

Just came back from a 10 day adventure in the beautiful and fascinating country of Guatemala! If you have never been, or had reservations about visiting Central America, I urge you to just go. You'll have many wonderful experiences and have a fantastic time! I will post pictures and share my thoughts shortly.

Our itinerary included the following places: Antigua, Quetzaltenango ("Xela"), Chichicastenango, Guatemala City, Tikal and Lake Atitlan. From chicken buses to microbuses, we were able to get ourselves all over the country without any trouble. The country is so rich in culture, history and nature, it just left me speechless. There is so much to see and do in Guatemala, I was sad to leave. I do hope to go back again one day.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Omar, Where Art Thou?

For the past two days, people have been extremely nervous about Hurricane Omar. It certainly doesn't help when the local papers play on people's fears and blow things out of porportion. The headlines make things look a lot scarier than they actually turn out to be, and that's typical of the local media. For the past few days, the headlines just made it seem like Omar was destined for Puerto Rico. Everyone began to stock up on food and all sorts of necessities. Fear sells, I suppose.

As with most people who live here, I was waiting for Omar. I just wanted this to come and be over with! Unfortunately, my line of work does benefit from emergencies such as hurricanes. However, when people become desperate and can't get what they want in the manner in which they want it, things can get ugly. I was actually quite afraid of the consequences of Omar. Thankfully, all turned out well but the past two days were quite tiring, to say the least. I am also glad that Omar decided to change its trajectory towards the East. Phew! What a relief!

Last night, in San Juan, we just got a tiny bit of rain and practically zero wind. Ironically, people received little warning over last month's storm, which caused major flooding and landslides. Whereas with Omar, the press couldn't talk enough about it. Like many other things in Puerto Rico, everything works backwards here.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Tips on Learning Foreign Languages

As with many things in life, children seem to learn things much quicker, especially when learning how to speak a different language. However, all hope is not lost for those of us who are determined to be multilingual. The most important ingredients are perserverence, determination and discipline! Oh, and do not ever be afraid of making mistakes. After all, who has ever learned to walk without ever falling?

I'd say what helped me most with my Spanish is just reading the papers, books, watching TV, and actually speaking with others! My case is a bit different, because I spoke fluent Spanish when I was a young child, but almost lost it completely when I moved to New York as an adolescent. These days, I speak a lot of Spanish at home and at work. I force myself and those around me to speak to me in Spanish most of time, and this has certainly helped me a lot.

If you're interested in learning how to speak Español, just go for it! Pick up a language book, if you don't have time to attend a class, and surround yourself with all things Spanish! If possible, I highly recommend you to consider the option of studying abroad as well. Spanish Language Source is a good place to start your research. I studied abroad when I was a college student and it was one of the best experiences I ever had.

I must admit I didn't discover my passion for languages until I moved back to Puerto Rico. It's funny how certain things in life just make you realize how we're capable of doing so much more. For the past seven months or so, I've also been learning how to speak Dutch and I'm absolutely loving it!

So, if you'd like to learn a foreign language, here are some of my tips for you:

1) Dedication & Discipline: try to spend at least 30 minutes to an hour everyday studying. Pick up a good language book and just do the exercises!

2) Read, Listen & Talk: personally, I like watching the news in foreign languages. Here are some of my favorites: CNN en Español, El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rican Newspaper), RTL Nieuws (Dutch), Hart Van Nederland (Dutch).

Podcasts are also a wonderful learning tool. Laura Speaks Dutch is simply fantastic!

3) Help from Native Speakers: soliciting the help of a native speaker does wonders! I am fortunate enough to have both native Spanish and Dutch-speaking people help me with both languages respectively. I have never tried this, but I've noticed that language exchange communities, such as Live Mocha, are quite popular these days. So, why not give it a try?

4) Last but not least, practice, repeat, practice, repeat!

Oh, and don't forget to just have fun!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Tough Economic Times

Puerto Rico's economy has officially been in recession for the past two years. According to the government figures in 2007, unemployment was estimated to be around 10.7% (note: this number should be a lot higher today) and inflation is also in the double digits. In addition, the government is continuously running a budget deficit. Everywhere you go, people are shaking their heads with a worried look on their face, and say "la economía está bien mala." Translation: the economy is really bad. None of the local banks have gone bankrupt, or in desperate need of federal assistance just yet, as they weren't neck-deep in the subprime mortgage mess, but they are certainly not susceptible to what goes on in the mainland U.S.

The global credit crisis means it will also be tougher for Puerto Ricans to borrow money. It's safe to say that most consumers here rely heavily on their credit cards. For the longest time, there was zero sales tax here in Puerto Rico. This changed two years ago, when the government slapped on a 7% sales tax. Certain essential items are exempt, like bread, milk and other staples. The cost of living in the island is certainly not cheap. Here are some examples:

1) Low-fat milk (1 gallon): $5.60
2) Gala apples (1 pound): $1.89
3) Brocoli (1 bunch): $3.50
4) Holsum white bread (1 loaf): $2.67
5) Farm-raised salmon (1 pound): $7.99

Please keep in mind the average income in Puerto Rico is only $18,400. Also, the agricultural sector here makes up a very small percentage of the economy. As a result, practically everything here is imported. Generally speaking, wages are also much higher in the mainland. I suppose this explains why so many Puerto Ricans have migrated to the States in search for better economic opportunities. With such a high cost of living, which just seems to be going nowhere but up, everybody's wallet is definitely feeling the pinch. This also helps to explain why the economy is of utmost concern for the majority of Puerto Ricans in the upcoming elections.


(Cartoon by KAL, The Economist)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Know Your Emergency Numbers

I learned a really hard lesson last weekend, and I urge you to consider the advice I am about to give you. Please, please and please program the phone number of your local police station or keep it somewhere that's easy for you to reach. Unfortunately, I became a victim of a crime and I wrongly assumed that calling 911 would help.

After calling several times, where the phone would just keep ringing and ringing, I gave up. I even dialed the area code 787 prior to 911 just to see if I can get through to someone. By the way, for those who do not live in PR, you do have to dial 787 (if you're trying to reach someone in the San Juan area) and then the phone number. It was definitely frustrating when you're desperately trying to get help and you just can't seem to reach anyone. I felt so helpless.

To put it lightly, I was also in panic when 911 wasn't answering my call. Luckily, someone helped me flag down a police officer who was on patrol, something which is a common sight throughout the streets of San Juan these days. Nevertheless, I do have the phone number of the local police station programmed into my cell phone now. This was something which the police officer himself suggested I do. If you live in Puerto Rico, I urge you to look up the number to your local police station as well. For those traveling abroad, it'll probably be a good idea to find out what the local emergency numbers are as well, and hope that someone picks up.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

After the Record Rainfall...

... comes the massive clean-up. Most of Puerto Rico woke up to sunshine today, after several days of cloudy skies and heavy downpours. I have never seen so much rain here, and I don't think many people were expecting to see so much of it either. There was no warning of massive rainfall and there were no evacuations prior to the arrival of this tropical storm. According to the local papers, Puerto Rico got hit with 26 inches of rain in 24 hours this past Sunday. This is the worst rainfall in 100 years in Puerto Rican history. Sadly, four people died and there are thousands of flooded homes. The hardest hit areas were the Southern areas, such as Patillas, Guayama and Yabucoa. The image on the left was taken in Cabo Rojo, in the Southwestern part of Puerto Rico.

San Juan was largely spared of the awful wreckage which can be seen throughout many parts of the island. As I flipped through the papers, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the terrible images. The governor is asking for help from the Federal government, and has allotted $50 million in emergency funds for the affected zones. He has also declared today a tax-free (IVU) day in order to "help those affected." Isn't this just the strangest way to help the victims of a flood? Well, it is an election year. Perhaps, a more effective way to help the general public is for the government to implement a better system of informing and evacuating the areas which will most likely be affected, as well as the flaws in the infraestructure and structural system in the island. In general, flooding in Puerto Rico is actually quite common whenever there's a heavy downpour. There is obviously a serious problem in the planification in which some residential areas, roads and highways were constructed. I am no expert in these matters but, evidently, the sewage system throughout many parts of Puerto Rico also needs to be examined.


(Photo Credits: Tony Zayas/El Nuevo Día, Heriberto Castro/Primera Hora, respectively)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Puerto Rico's Housing Market

The U.S is not the only country in the world to be experiencing major problems in the housing market. Puerto Rico also has its fair share of challenges, albeit on a smaller scale than those found on the mainland. Compared to the U.S, in general, housing prices in Puerto Rico didn't go through the roof. However, the past 10 years or so, there were certainly quite a bit of construction throughout the island. The good is, real estate prices haven't fallen drastically. For those who are interested in buying a property a Puerto Rico, especially for first time homebuyers, now may actually be a good time.

On Saturdays, El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora, both have huge housing classified sections. Just flipping through you'll find the many attractive offers available. One of the most frequently advertised includes the joint Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Puerto Rican government's $25,000 cash advance for first time homebuyers. This offers only applies towards the purchase of a newly built house or condominium. This offer, as of right now, is available until the end of this year. If the purchaser qualifies, and accepts this government incentive, he or she is legally bound to hold onto the property for at least three years. So, don't think about doing a quick flip around.

Housing prices in Puerto Rico vary widely, depending on where you're interested in buying. The general rule is, the further away from San Juan, the more affordable. If looking for a home near the beach, Fajardo, Dorado, and Cabo Rojo are some of the most popular areas where you can find some reasonably priced homes. Currently, housing developers face a huge challenge selling homes above $300K. As in the U.S, you'll find developers offering a variety of amenities, from credits on closing costs, kitchen appliances, etc. Obviously, desperate times calls for desperate measures.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Living in Puerto Rico: Likes and Dislikes

This afternoon, after nearly waiting for two hours at one of the CEE's offices, I finally got my voter registration card! Unfortunately, practically anything dealing with the local government must be done in person. This includes paying any applicable property taxes, license renewal, etc. If you ever find yourself having to visit a local Puerto Rican government agency, be sure to bring something to read.

Patience is indeed a virtue, especially if you live in the Island of Enchantment. Today, while I was waiting for my number to be called, in order to get registered to vote, I couldn't help but think about all the things I disliked about Puerto Rico. However, before I go off, let me start with the positive:

Things I like about PR:

1) The weather: I can go running all year long!
2) The people: I have been rescued by complete strangers.
3) The beaches: PR is surrounded by some of the most gorgeous beaches!
4) Spanish (or Spanglish): my Spanish has improved a lot (I think) since I returned.
5) Last, but not least, my family!

Things I dislike about PR:

1) Lack of diversity: as I am of Chinese descent, people often stare at me, and are shocked when I tell them that I was born here! Yes, I know, they're just curious.
2) Government: inefficiency seems to be the rule of thumb, hence the yearly deficit.
3) Customer Service: something left to be desired for.
4) Driving: the only thing that is super fast and quick in the Island of Enchantment.
5) Flooding: often happens in many of the major streets and roads after a heavy downpour.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

2008 Elections in Puerto Rico

For those who can vote in Puerto Rico, and have not yet registered, September 15th marks the last day for you to do so. Note to self: must go register! This will be the first time in which I get the chance to vote in the Island of Enchantment, and it should be interesting. On November 4th, just like in the U.S, Puerto Rico will be holding its general elections. The governor of Puerto Rico, and the mayor of San Juan, amongst many others, are up for re-election.

These elections will also be historical, because for the first time in Puerto Rican history, the ballots will also be in English. This was quite a controversy, since many Puerto Ricans thought it was a waste of money and unneccesary, since the large majority of the population speaks Spanish. However, an estimated 14% of the people living in Puerto Rico speak English, or another language. I don't see why something as important as a voting ballot shouldn't be translated into English, especially since Puerto Rico is officially part of the U.S.

Comparing the elections both in the U.S and Puerto Rico, there are obviously many differences and similarties. Many of the issues which concerns Americans, such as the economy, health care and education, are also shared by Puerto Ricans. On the other hand, I see Puerto Rican politics as having more mud slinging. This year has been especially grim. First of all, the current governor, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, has been charged by federal authorities with over 20 counts of fraud, conspiracy and other campaign finance-related crimes. His opponent, Luis Fortuño, was enjoying a comfortable lead in the polls. However, he may be hurt by the recent corruption scandal of a local senator from his own party. Puerto Ricans are very loyal to their political parties, which are dominated by the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) and the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD). Looks like we'll have quite an interesting election this year, both in the U.S and in Puerto Rico.

(Images obtained from www.ceepur.org and www.endi.com, respectively)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

At the Peak of the Hurricane Season

Those who live in the Caribbean tend to get a bit nervous this time of the year, because September is the peak of the hurricane season. For the North Atlantic, which pertains to Puerto Rico, the hurricane season officially begins in June and ends in November. Historically speaking, the months of August and September have been the most active. Here's a list of some of the major hurricanes and storms which have hit the Island of Enchantment:

1) Hugo, September 17th &18th, 1989, Category 4
2) Marilyn, September 15th & 16th, 1995, Category 3
3) Hortense, September 9th & 10th, 1996 , Category 1
4) Georges, September 21st & 22nd, 1998, Category 3
5) Jeanne, September 15th, 2004, Tropical Storm

Just like millions of others, I was nervous about Hurricane Gustav. After all, the scars and bad memories left over from Katrina are still deeply etched in the minds of so many. Thankfully, Gustav did not wreak as much havoc in New Orleans. However, we are just now entering the month of September and it looks like quite an active hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have a lot of up-to-date information, as well as tips and advice on how to deal with a tropical storm or hurricane. For the moment, I have my fingers crossed hoping nothing comes directly our way.

(Images obtained from the National Hurricane Center, http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/index.shtml)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

John McCain & Daddy Yankee

video

I hope you're sitting down for this, because this might potentially give your system a bit of a jolt... Yes, Daddy Yankee officially endorses John McCain for the presidency. Why? Well, he certainly didn't say much but did mention how he agrees with McCain's stance on immigration. By the way, in case you don't know who Daddy Yankee is, he's a huge reggaeton star who hails from... you guessed it, Puerto Rico! He's is also the singer who has taught many non-Spanish speakers how to say the word. gasolina (gasoline, in English), which is from one of his earliest hits.

Just simply take a look at this video and you'll notice how awkward McCain looks when he began to introduce his special guest. I couldn't help but chuckle when he mentioned that Daddy Yankee has been married for 15 years and that he embodies a great American success story. Can you just smell the sense of desperation which McCain is living with? Of course, reaching out to the Latino community is extremely crucial, as it is a rapidly growing segment of the U.S population. So, Daddy Yankee's endorsement might influence some young Latino voters. Anyhow, who would have thought that Daddy Yankee was such a huge fan of McCain? I'd say McCain needs to start listening to a bit more of reggaeton though. Hearing him say "gasolina" made me cringe just a bit.

(Video Source: www.necn.com)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Congrats to Keeth Smart!

"This guy looks so familiar," I thought to myself as I was staring into the TV screen. Then, I heard the reporter say: "you graduated from Brooklyn Tech." Aha! Bingo! I went to high school with this guy! So, who is Keeth Smart? He's isn't just an Olympic athlete who recently won a silver medal in fencing, he's actually a very impressive world class fencer.
Keeth probably doesn't remember me at all, but I am so happy for him. It was just so random how I found a high school classmate of mine, not on Facebook, but during a TV interview for his participation in the Olympics! How amazing is that? Whether or not you get to win a medal, going to the Olympics is something every athlete should be proud of. Of course, medaling is icing on the cake. Congrats Keeth! Your perserverence, hard work and dedication has paid off!

(Photo Credit: NBC4 Beijing Olympics)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Puerto Rico's Top 5 Must See and Do

We had some visitors in town for the past few days, and it was fun showing them around the island. So, I just came up with the idea of compiling a list of my top 5 things to see and do in Puerto Rico. I'll start from the bottom and work my way up...

Fifth Place: El Yunque Rainforest. It's located about 45 minutes or so from San Juan and is definitely worth a visit, especially if you've never been to a rainforest before. There are quite a few hiking trails, some which lead you to pretty waterfalls. Just a word of caution, most people either join tour groups (for those who choose not to rent a car) or explore on their own. The latter is probably the best option. Although there are, supposedly, park rangers who can provide guided tours, I don't believe they're reliable. Oh, if you drive, admission to the park is absolutely free!

Fourth Place: Museo Castillo Serrallés, and Ponce. This beautiful attraction is located in the southern city of Ponce, which is about an hour drive from San Juan. It was home to the Serrallés family, founders of the distillery which brought us the Don Q rum. You must join a tour in order to see the interior of the museum. If you have the time, I would highly suggest you to just go ahead and join the tour! The tour guide will explain to you the history of the house, which is both interesting and fascinating. Afterwards, be sure to go visit Ponce's town center, where you'll find Parque de Las Bombas. One last thing, you must try the ice cream at King's Cream!

Third Place: Viejo San Juan. It's safe to say that you've never been to Puerto Rico if you've never been to Viejo San Juan. Despite the presence of Payless Shoes and McDonald's, it's still a great place to enjoy Spanish colonial architecture in all its glory. There are many art galleries, museums and historic places to see. The most famous include El Morro and the San Cristóbal Fort. On certain days, when the cruiseships come to shore, you'll find Viejo San Juan filled with tourists. Unfortunately, some buildings are in desperate need of repair, but it's still a really charming place to explore. I love the narrow, cobblestone streets because it just transports you back into a completely different era... of the horse and buggy!

Second Place: Playa Flamingo, Culebra Island. This is absolutely my favorite beach in Puerto Rico. White-sandy beaches and clear blue water, it's heaven on earth! Culebra is a tiny island which lies to the East, and takes about an hour and a half by ferry from Fajardo. Culebra is such a wonderful little gem. Rustic, uncommercialized and laid-back, it is the perfect place to get away from it all. Just a word of advice, if possible, do avoid going on weekends. This is when it gets really crowded on the ferries, and it's also quite difficult to get tickets. Do try to plan ahead if you can. If you have the time, try to spend at least a night here.

First Place: Sun Bay Beach, Vieques. Before I go any further about this fantastic beach, I must say I'm completely biased on this one. I won't go into details, but this is a really special place for me. This is a great beach to swim, as there aren't normally too many waves. Like Culebra, I would recommend coming here during the week. There are more ferries going to Vieques, but it's still quite difficult to get tickets during the weekend. This is especially true during the summer. The ferries going to Vieques also leave from Fajardo. Kayaking in the bioluminescent bay, I've been told, is a lot of fun. However, if you're looking for an active nightlife scene, neither Vieques nor Culebra would probably be for you. What I love most about the beaches in both islands is the tranquility.

(Photo credits: Culebra, www.gotopuertorico.org, Vieques, wikipedia.org)