Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve (Nochevieja)

Happy new year! Feliz año nuevo! Gelukkig nieuwjaar! This year went by so fast, it's incredible. As 2009 winds down, I can't help but reflect on what happened this past year. From the miracle on the Hudson River in New York to the recent attempt to blow-up a plane over Detroit, this year was filled with highs and lows. In Puerto Rico, this was most certainly a turbulent year. Massive layoffs in the public sector, a devastating explosion at an oil refinery, and increasing violence on the streets are just the tip of the iceberg.

On a personal note, this year was also bittersweet for me. It was a year of heartache and tough lessons, but also of happiness and new beginnings. As I get older, I've learned to let go of things and people and simply cherish and accept reality. Most importantly, to live in the present and to appreciate the power of now. I am also very grateful for all the comments and e-mails which I've received. One of the reasons why I blog, besides my love for writing, is because I find Puerto Rico to be an interesting place. So paradoxical, like many things and places in this world. Another reason for my blogging is to provide people with an idea of what life is like on the island.

Again, thank you for reading. I wish you the very best for 2010. Todo lo mejor para el año nuevo!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Taxis in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Taxis in Puerto Rico are not ubiquitous and are notorious for being expensive. I've come across most of them at the airport and tourist-frequented areas such as Old San Juan, as well as Plaza Las Américas. I had never taken a taxi in Puerto Rico, until the other night. We normally have friends who come pick us up, but this time we took a late night flight. Therefore, taking a cab was the best option. While waiting for our luggage at the baggage claim area, we were looking at a chart posted by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. It indicates the taxi fare rates between the airport and the different areas around metro-San Juan.

According to this chart, our fare should have been a total of $10. I thought it sounded too good to be true. A friend of mine once paid $30 to go from the airport to the Caribe Hilton hotel. This is a trip which just takes 10-15 minutes or so, without traffic. Needless to say, I was a bit skeptical about the $10 fare. Once we got outside, we headed towards the taxi stand and we told them the area where we needed to go. We asked the guy how much and there was a pause. He said $25. When I asked about the fare chart, which said zone 1 would be $10, he just made a face and said "ahh, ese letrero no incluye maletas y ahora es muy tarde" (translation: that sign doesn't include luggage and it's really late now).

Word of advice for those of you who've never taken a cab in Puerto Rico, please haggle! You must negotiate a price before jumping in because taxis are not metered. I just tried Googling for information on taxis in Puerto Rico and I was amused at what I found. The Puerto Rico Tourism Company's Website provides information which is completely obsolete. Perhaps there's an updated version, but taxi riders beware! Another taxi driver ended up taking us home for a couple of bucks less, enough to buy a cup of Starbucks coffee. Next time, I'll definitely ask a taxi driver acquaintance for his phone number.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Christmas Bonus

Earlier this week, I came across an article in the local paper titled "Hoy vence el pago del bono de Navidad." Translation: "The Christmas bonus payment expires today." In case you weren't aware of this, in Puerto Rico, all employers must pay their employees a Christmas bonus. This law also applies to part-time employees, and businesses operating with a net income loss. No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you! As long as someone has worked for you for more than 700 hours during the year, you must pay them a bonus. Should employers come under severe hardship, and are unable to meet this obligation, they must inform Department of Labor of Puerto Rico. By the way, this law (#148) was enacted on June 30th of 1969, and it's known as the "Christmas bonus law" ("ley de bono de navidad"). Low and behold, this bonus also applies to local government employees.

In an attempt to cut costs, as the government deficit just keeps going nowhere but up, Gov. Luis Fortuño did cut many of his cabinet members' bonuses. This year, 608 businesses reportedly asked to be exempted from this obligation. Compared to last year, the increase is said to be 29%. Numbers vary, ranging from just under 33,800 to 66,000, the amount of workers affected. In my opinion, this Christmas bonus law is archaic and it hurts many small to medium-sized business owners, especially during this economic recession. Besides, isn't a Christmas bonus supposed to be something extra? Shouldn't it also depend on your work and company's performance, or am I just going out on a limb here? This mandatory Christmas bonus creates a huge burden on many businesses. Moreover, it often rewards workers who do less than mediocre work, and it also fails to incentivize and motivate better job performance.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Felicidades!

Just 12 days to go until Christmas, and many people have been enthusiastically greeting me with "felicidades!" This is the most common expression used by Puerto Ricans when greeting and wishing each other a happy holiday season. Being on the island during this time of the year involves eating lechón (roast pig), pastel, arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) drinking coquitos (which is made of coconut and rum), and having arroz con leche (rice pudding) or tembleque (coconut pudding) for dessert. As with most parties, there will also be dancing and singing of some traditional holiday songs. Puerto Ricans definitely know how to party!

There's just something special with the way this island's music, people and its food all come together. These three elements were present at a party which I attended last night.
I find spending the holiday season a lot more intimate and joyous in Puerto Rico. I enjoyed watching people singing and doing the bomba and plena. The music and the atmosphere kicked me into holiday spirit gear. Today, I went to a nursery to pick up poinsettias! Hopefully, I'll get around to putting up lights and decorating the house tomorrow. Felicidades a todos! (Happy holidays to all!)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"When Crime Comes to Paradise"

When I clicked on the link "When Crime Comes to Paradise," an article from the New York Times Travel section, the first thing I noticed was a photo which mentions the murder of a tourist who was killed back in February of this year in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. This article delivers a very strong and important message: do not let your guard down, even while on vacation. According to today's paper, as of last night, there have been 839 murders committed on the island this year alone. This is 89 more murders registered during the same time last year. As a point of reference, in 2008, there were 516 murders in New York City, a city with over 8 million inhabitants.

Puerto Rico, which has just less than 4 million inhabitants, has experienced a steady increase in thefts, robberies, and murders. Give the double-digit unemployment level, and the economic crisis, the island is experiencing a signifcant increase in crime. This is especially true during the holiday season. Something which is frequently published in the local paper is the murder rate. Having lived in New York City most of my life, I don't recall ever having been so conscious of the number of crimes committed during the year in the Big Apple. While I do not intend to raise fear, I do strongly suggest anyone visiting the island to be aware of their surroundings. Use common sense and follow your instincts. Be sure to lock your room, car doors and trunk. About.com actually provides some safety tips for travelers visiting Puerto Rico. Just remember, do not throw caution to the wind.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Shopping on Sundays

After much brouhaha in the Puerto Rican Senate and House of Representatives, la Ley de Cierre (lit. "the closing law") has officially been abolished by the legislative assembly. This means shops can now remain open on Sundays from 11AM until midnight. Previously, nearly all commercial establishments were required by law to close at 5PM, except for those located in tourist areas. Critics of the now defunct Ley de Cierre have long called for its demise, as tough economic times calls for even tougher economic measures. Longer shopping hours means having the opportunity to do more business, especially during the holiday season. On the other hand, workers' unions, which are extremely powerful in Puerto Rico, were strongly against extending the Sunday workday because it would result in workers having less time to spend with their families.

One of the major obstacles in this debate was over wages. Unions demanded double pay, while the retail and consumer industry groups called for time and a half. The latter prevailed. This past Sunday, we took advantage of the new shopping hours for the first time. I found it wonderful not having to rush around. Plaza Las Américas, the island's largest shopping mall, now closes at 7PM. Some supermarkets close at 9PM, it all depends on the retailer. So, did I end up doing more shopping this past Sunday? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding "yes!" It felt strange being able to shop past 5 PM, but it's something which I will certainly get used to.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On the Eve of Thanksgiving

This morning, as I walked into the supermarket, I couldn't help but get into the holiday spirit. The Christmas decorations, the crowds and a happy state of mind just did it for me. I have much to be grateful for, and I don't take any of it for granted. Be it bad or good, I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for all the lessons learned. I realize this year has been especially hard for many people, with so much economic angst and uncertainty. Ever the optimist, I try to look at the positive side of things. I also appreciate the smallest things in life. In the end, it's all about being able to share all the ups and downs with those who care and love you the most.

This year, we'll be spending Thanksgiving with some family friends. For the first time in many years, I actually don't have to make a meal. Come to think of it, I'll actually miss doing that. I will be making a pumpkin cheesecake though. Yes, I love to bake and I can't imagine living without an oven. Besides spending quality time with those whom you love, the next best thing about the holidays is eating! Hands down! Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Going Beyond Rice & Beans

Rice and beans (arroz y habichuela) is a staple of Puerto Rican cuisine. Most people eat it at least once a day, some even eat it for breakfast. As much as I like eating comida criolla (local Puerto Rican food), I don't eat it everyday. I'm not a health nut, and I don't follow a specific diet, but I do try to avoid eating a lot of red meat. Unfortunately, comida criolla is meat-heavy. One of the things which I do miss about living in New York is the food! Chinatown, Koreantown, Curry Hill, the East Village, and the list goes on, were some of the neighborhoods which I often ate at. Of course, when speaking of New York's restaurant scene to that of Puerto Rico's is like comparing apples and oranges.

For those looking for something besides your traditional rice and beans in Puerto Rico, all is not lost. Here's a list of my favorite non-Puerto Rican eating establishments on the island (most are in the San Juan-metro area):

Peruvian: Lima, Perurrican
Chinese: Great Taste Restaurant
German: Casa Bavaria in Morovis (they also serve comida criolla)
Mexican: Frida's
Pizza: Juan Pan
Argentinian: Chimichurri
Seafood: Pez Dorado, José Enrique
Steak: BLT Steak
Sushi: Jinya

For a more detailed listing of restaurants located throughout the island, check out Sal PR. Unfortunately, the Website is only in Spanish. Some of the search functions don't work very well but it's perhaps the most comprehensive guide we have in Puerto Rico.

(Please note: I am not in any way affiliated with Sal PR or any of the restaurants listed above).
(Photo above is of Casa Bavaria's schnitzel)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hacienda San Pedro

Two weekends ago, a group of us went to Jayuya, a mountain town known for its numerous coffee plantations. From San Juan, the trip took nearly two hours, since it was full of hairpin turns. For those who suffer from car sickness, please take a motion-sickness pill. Although it wasn't an easy journey, it was absolutely worth the effort. The countryside was very lush and green, and the air was very crisp. We even came across several horses in the middle of the road when we reached the center of Jayuya. It felt great to get out of San Juan.

The purpose of our trip was to visit Hacienda San Pedro, which offers tours on Sundays at 10AM and 3PM. Unfortunately, we missed the morning tour but we were able to enjoy our cappuccinos, which were excellent! The cafe, which has a great menu, had a very cozy and inviting ambiance. You can purchase their coffee at the shop. There's also a small exhibition on the second-level providing visitors information about the plantation's history. To our pleasant surprise, we were given a brief tour of the facilities by a gentleman named Roberto, who turned out to be the proprietor of Hacienda San Pedro.

For coffee-lovers and those who are interested in learning more about Puerto Rican coffee, I would definitely recommend visiting this lovely plantation. If going from San Juan, I suggest going through Ponce, since the roads are much easier to navigate. Do call in advance if you're planning on visiting. We also came across several other coffee plantations, such as Hacienda Patricia and Hacienda Ana, along the way. Since my camera's batteries died, I couldn't take any pictures. I'm definitely planning on going back to Hacienda San Pedro though! In the meantime, I did find a photostream on Flickr with some great shots.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Salsa in Puerto Rico

Last week, I went salsa dancing with some friends and great times were had. I'm not the best salsa dancer but after some alcoholic beverages, it certainly helped me ease into it. Earlier this year, I took a salsa class with a friend and what I learned slowly came back to me. Unfortunately, like a friend of mine was lamenting, salsa is no longer very popular on the island. Nowadays, most clubs play reggaetón music, which I'm not a fan of. Unfortunately, I've only come across a few places in which you can dance to salsa, like The Marriot Courtyard Hotel in Isla Verde (on Saturday nights), Punto Fijo (in the basement of El Centro de Bellas Artes in Santurce) and Nuyorican Cafe (in Old San Juan).

One of the things I enjoy about salsa is the music. Of the places I mentioned above, Nuyorican Cafe had the best band playing. If you've never tried dancing to salsa, do give it a try. It's a lot of fun and it can be a great way to get some exercise! Believe me, after a while, you'll start sweating. Every summer, Puerto Rico plays host to the International Salsa Congress. For more information on salsa-related event, someone recommended me Salsa Crazy as a resource. I never thought salsa was such a huge international phenomenon until I recently danced with a Danish gentleman. To my surprise, he learned how to dance salsa in Denmark!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Las Cabezas de San Juan

Surrounded by mangroves, flora and fauna, and gorgeous scenery, Las Cabezas de San Juan ("the headlands of San Juan") is a beautiful nature reserve located in the eastern tip of the island. Maintained by the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico (El Fideicomiso de Conservación de Puerto Rico), despite its name, it is actually located in Fajardo. This nature reserve has a bioluminescent bay, and seven distinct coastal eco-systems. Las Cabezas is now officially one of my favorite places on the island. Visiting this nature reserve has made me appreciate the island's natural beauty so much more.

Tours of Las Cabezas officially last two hours, although ours lasted a little longer. We hopped on a trolley and were taken to see the reserve's mangrove forest, rocky beach and lighthouse, where we enjoyed panoramic views of the Fajardo area. We were able to see Vieques, Culebra and the Caya Icacos islands from the top of the lighthouse. At the end of our visit, the tour guide also gave us demonstrations of a sea cucumber, and other aquatic creatures. The tour was excellent and the nature reserve is very well maintained. In order to visit Las Cabezas, visitors must call the Conservation of PR and make reservations ahead of time. I would also suggest bringing a hat, sunscreen and wear comfortable clothing and shoes if going to the reserve. One last thing, bring plenty of water!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What a Week!

Two unprecedented events took place here on the island this past week. The first took place last Saturday, when a drug-related shooting incident in which seven people (including one unborn child) were killed. The second incident was yesterday's explosion of an oil refinery in which an estimated 17 of the 40 tanks went up in flames. It felt really strange to see Puerto Rico make it on CNN en Español twice in one week. News of both events even attracted the attention of the international media, such as the BBC and even NOS Journaal (a Dutch news broadcaster). The island is currently going through very trying times, and both occurrences do not bode well for Puerto Rico.

Yesterday, when I woke up, I heard the distant sounds of helicopters flying. I though to myself, well, maybe something's going on in the housing projects (caserios). A short while later, I found out about the explosion. Although it had occurred in Cataño, which is just outside of San Juan, I saw the black clouds from my house. The magnitude of the explosion registered a 2.8 on the richter scale. Thousands of people had to be evacuated. Law enforcement officials are currently investigating the causes of the explosion. I can't imagine what the environmental, health and economic consequences will amount to. Luckily, no deaths have been reported.

Latest update (10/26/09): the flames were finally extinguished as of yesterday afternoon. A total of 21 out of the 40 tanks were burned.

Note: the first photo was taken yesterday at around 10:30AM and the second was taken this morning at around 6:40AM.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Taking it to the Streets

This past Thursday, Oct. 15th, one of the largest demonstrations in the history of Puerto Rico took place in several different parts of San Juan, in response to Gov. Luis Fortuño's decision to lay-off nearly 20,000 government employees. An estimated 200,000-300,000 demonstrators took to the streets. Plaza Las Americas, the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean, decided to close for a day because of the decision of union leaders to hold demonstrations directly in front of their premises. Many businesses and schools were also closed, and hundreds (if not thousands) of commuters were also affected.

BBC Mundo (the Spanish version of BBC News) published an article, "Puertoriqueños contra despidos masivos" ("Puerto Ricans against massive lay-offs") about the demonstrations. Being a small island, Puerto Rico seldom receives attention from the international media. However, the events from this past Thursday proved to be an exception. For the past few years, Puerto Rico has seen its economy declining and its deficit increasing. Despite the resounding public outcry over the lay-offs, Gov. Fortuño stands firmly behind his decision. Perhaps he had no other choice but to do so, especially when he's trying to improve the island's credit rating. However, laying-off nearly 17,000 people in one shot was probably too much for most Puerto Ricans to take. According to a recent poll, the governor's approval rating is at a mere 30%.

FYI: The image above was the front-page cover of the island's major newspaper. It shows the thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of Plaza Las Amercias. "Consumado" means "consumed." (Image obtained from www.endi.com)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Electronic Failures & Inefficiencies

Several days ago, I came across an interesting statistic in the local paper. According to the article "Reintegros Más Rápidos," (translation: "Faster Tax Refunds) only 3% of the tax returns in Puerto Rico from 2008 were filed online. In comparison to the U.S, where nearly 60% of the tax returns from 2008 were filed electronically. Perhaps it's not fair to compare these two figures, due to the difference in economic development,cultural factors, internet connectivity, etc. There are many other reasons why the majority of Puerto Ricans do not use the Internet to do financial transactions, whether it be tax filing or payments.

The lack of trust in the local government is a serious problem here in Puerto Rico, especially now more than ever. From personal experience, when making payments to the local tax and revenue department (Dept. de Hacienda), or property tax (CRIM), it's much safer and efficient making them in person. When it's impossible for me to physically deliver it, I would send it via certified mail. One of my tasks at work requires me to make monthly tax payments, which I actually still do online. However, I've learned (the very hard and expensive way) how inefficient the electronic payment system at el departamento de hacienda is. Despite receiving confirmation numbers for the payments I had made, months later, I received a notice indicating that the transactions never took place. To make a long story short, the information technology systems used by the local government are not the most advanced.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Destination: La Placita de Santurce

A few weeks back, I stumbled upon La Placita de Santurce, a farmer's market known more for its bars than its produce. La Placita is not a place where most tourists go, as it's not located near the beach or any of the tourist areas. Surprisingly, the Puerto Rican Toursim Bureau hasn't really promoted this extremely popular local hangout spot. This is a great place for those who are looking for cheap drinks and interested in mingling with the locals. There are also live salsa bands! During happy hour on Thursday and Friday nights, from what I've been told, La Placita is packed to the gills.

On Sundays, as in most parts of Puerto Rico, nothing much happens in La Placita. We got there at around 1PM and it was already closed. There were a few bars and one restaurant open though. Unfortunately, I don't know what the exact opening hours are for the marketplace. Like most farmers' markets though, it's best to go early. From Mondays through Fridays, they are open during lunchtime. If you'd like to eat some authentic, and affordable, comida criolla (Puerto Rican food), La Placita is your perfect destination.

Check out this great New York Times article on La Placita de Santurce.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Half-Empty or Half Full?

Gov. Luis Fortuño made an unprecedented move this past Friday by laying off 16,970 government workers. Never in the history of Puerto Rico has something of this magnitude ever occurred. Almost 43% of the job losses came from the Department of Education. This is actually the second round of layoffs, the first took place back in May of this year. A massive protest is scheduled to take place on Thursday, October 15th, most likely in the Old San Juan area. Needless to say, Puerto Rico's economy is in really bad shape. In the past, people would emmigrate to the mainland U.S in search for better opportunities. However, as most of us know, finding a job in the U.S nowadays is no piece of cake either.

The government has offered laid-off government workers credits to get the necessary educational or vocational training to help get them back on their feet. Ironically, they've also set-up a Website called "Puerto Rico Trabaja," (Puerto Rico Works) to help those who recently lost their job. Just like any American who becomes unemployed, Puerto Ricans do also get benefits here. Every Monday, El Nuevo Día features a section called "Puerto Rico se reinventa" (PR reinvents itself) which encourages people to start their own businesses. The point is to show how these entrepreneurs were able to overcome major set-backs (like a job loss) and succeed at being their own boss.

Times are tough, but we can each choose to either see the glass half-empty or half-full. There are always opportunities out there, we just have to go out and seek them. My parents were both immigrants and I know how hard work and perseverance can make a huge difference. Like many others, I have friends and relatives that have lost their jobs. Choose to think positively and see this as an opportunity to re-tool your skills and recharge your batteries! P'alante!

Friday, September 18, 2009

English, please...

Earlier this year, the mayor of Guaynabo decided to start putting up traffic signs in English. According to the mayor, this is to help people familiarize themselves with the English, which also happens to be the island's other official language (in addition to Spanish, of course). Such a move caused quite a stir, as practically all the island's traffic signs are in Spanish. There are also political and socio-cultural aspects to this debate though. The mayor of Guaynabo is from the blue party (PNP) which is pro-statehood. By the same token, we've also seen other mayors from this party implement this measure. For example, Guayama has also decided to switch to English traffic signs.

Ironically, the Websites of both the municipality of Guaynabo and the Puerto Rican government are available in Spanish only. The local tax department (el departamento de hacienda), does have an English option though. Although English is also the official language of the island, Spanish is what people speak in Puerto Rico. Most schools on the island, especially not those in the public education system, do not introduce English into its curriculums until much later. However, those who attend some of the elite private schools on the island have a much higher chance of being introduced to the English language at a younger age. There are several of them which teach in English only.

Traveling throughout the island, the majority of traffic signs will not be in English. Oddly enough, in areas like Condado and Isla Verde, where tourists abound, I believe most traffic signs are still in Spanish. This makes no sense at all, consistent with so many other things on this island. In the meantime, for English-only speakers, here's a list which you might want to be learn:

"Solo"=only
"Pare"=stop
"No entre"=do not enter
"Velocidad Maxima=Max. Speed
"Salida"=exit
"Proxima Salida"=next exit
"Carril"=traffic lane
"Zona Escolar"=school zone
"Parada"=bus stop
"Cambio"=change (you'll usually you'll see a "C" above certain pay tolls on the highways, this is the lane for those who do not have exact change)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Eating Local & Organic Food

With all the talk about the healthcare system, and the urgent need to reform it, the New York Times published a very interesting Op-Ed article, "Big Food vs. Big Insurance." Several weeks ago, Time Magazine also talked about the "The Real Cost of Cheap Food." During tough economic times, cheap food seems to be a more attractive choice for most people, despite the unhealthy consequences. Healthcare reform is important, but so are the choices we make as consumers when we head to the supermarket. Americans are seeing their waistlines gradually expand, which increases the likelihood of a growing number of diabetics, and other health problems. The fact in which a bag of potato chips is a lot cheaper than a pound of apples, doesn't help motivate people to eat healthier though. Let's not even go into the price of conventional vs. organic foods, especially here on the island.

In Puerto Rico, the healthcare system (which I will talk about in another blog entry) is also in tatters, and the obesity rate is higher than that on the mainland U.S. Eating healthy is often pushed to the backburner, especially since vegetables and fruits are so expensive on the island, which imports over 80% of its food, the majority coming from the U.S. In the supermarkets, I've seen more "del país" stickers (meaning it's from the island) on meat than on fruit and vegetables. Personally, I find Costco to be the best and most economical place to buy organic products here in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, Whole Foods doesn't exist here yet (and I don't know if it ever will). However, in San Juan, Fresh Mart is the closest alternative. There are perhaps a handful of smaller health food stores.

The best place to buy locally grown food in Puerto Rico would be your local plaza del mercado, like the one in Rio Piedras. Being that it's a tropical island, many would assume Puerto Rico produces most of the fruit and vegetables it consumes. Sadly, that's just not the case. I'm looking through a couple of flyers from some of the local supermarkets here and I see iceberg lettuce (from California), cassava (from Costa Rica), grapes (also from California) and watermelon (from either the U.S or Puerto Rico, finally!). Out of all the produce which we eat at home, I'd say bananas and papayas are the only fruit which are locally grown. Although I've bought lettuce "del país," I have to admit it didn't look too appetizing and it didn't taste great either. Needless to say, I haven't repeated my purchase but I haven't seen it in the supermarkets again either.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dengue Fever on the Island

It is now pouring outside, and it's cloudy and overcast. There is no sign of sun, which is something rare when you live in Puerto Rico. Fortunately, tropical storm Erika passed without wreaking havoc. We are currently in the peak of the hurricane season though, and this is also a period in which more cases of dengue fever are reported. However, now with all the attention on the swine flu, it seems as though the dangers of dengue fever have been pushed to the backburner. When visiting Puerto Rico's Department of Health Website, the first thing you'll see are the statistics on the swine flu, which (as of now) has claimed the lives of 34 people.

Every year though, thousands of people on the island become infected with dengue fever and hundreds have died from it throughout the world. As one of the local newspapers interestingly pointed out, dengue fever is more likely to be a greater threat in Puerto Rico than the swine flu. The chances of getting dengue fever becomes higher when there's rain, as it is spread through infected aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Some of the symptoms include fever, rash, dizziness, and vomiting, amongst others. Unfortunately, there are no vaccines which can prevent dengue fever, and it is contagious. One of the best ways to prevent dengue fever is to use insect repellent, and of course, to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes! For more information on dengue fever, please visit the Center for Disease Control (CDC)'s Website.

Note: as of Sept. 4th, 2009, there have been 137 cases of dengue fever in Puerto Rico.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Crime in Puerto Rico

Last Sunday, El Nuevo Día (the local paper) published a very interesting article in its La Revista ("The Magazine") section titled "El miedo en la calle," (translation: the fear on the street). Beneath the title read: "La inseguridad en las capitales de América Latina" (translation: insecurity in the capital cities of Latin America). The article dealt with the rising crime levels facing many countries in Latin America, such as Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, and of course, Puerto Rico, amongst others.

Based on the statistics provided, there were 491 murders were committed in the first quarter of this year in San Juan. When compared with the major U.S cities, this would make the capital city of Puerto Rico the second most dangerous, after Washington, D.C. Ironically, according to this article, Mexico City had 375 murders and Caracas had just 130 murders in that same period. Both cities, I assumed, would have murder rates far worse than San Juan. As for reported robberies, the total for the first quarter of this year is said to be at 3,381 in San Juan, while figures for Mexico City and Caracas were not available.

Unfortunately, crime in Puerto Rico is a reality. Almost a year ago, I became a victim of a robbery myself. Luckily, nobody was hurt but I couldn't stop thinking about it for months. In fact, I still sometimes think about that awful afternoon. It was the first time I had a gun pointed at me, and I kept re-playing the whole scenario and thought of things which I could have done differently. When I tell my friends in the mainland U.S or abroad about the crime rates here on the island, many are surprised. My intention in writing this blog entry is not to alarm people, but to bring to the attention to those who were not aware of the situation. Like you would anywhere else, please be careful wherever you go.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Visit to Perú

Just came back from a 10-day trip to Perú , a fascinating country which I would like to go back to one day. I enjoyed the culture, history, diversity, and last but not least... the food! Our journey started out quite difficult, since we had to get up before the crack of dawn to either catch a plane or bus, but it was well worth it. Machu Picchu was absolutely amazing, it's just a magical and beautiful place. Words can't fully describe it.

Lake Titicaca was also an incredibly special highlight of our trip. We visited the islands of Uros and Taquile. Personally, I found the latter to be the nicer of the two, because it was less touristic. However, it was really interesting to see Uros, since it was my first time on a floating island! The islands are inhabited by indigenous people, some of whom speak Quechua or Aymara. While visiting Cusco and Puno, I experienced a bit of trouble with the elevation. Luckily, I did bring some Tylenol with me, which helped me get rid of my headache.

During the last leg of our trip, we visited Arequipa, which is the second largest city in Peru. The city has a beautiful palm tree-lined plaza. We visited several beautiful churches, museums, as well as the famous Santa Catalina Monastery, which I highly recommend. The last day of our journey was spent in Lima, where we ate lots of ceviche and seafood. We also had a delicious dessert called suspiro de Limeña. Besides its exquisite cuisine, the main reason why I find Perú so fascinating is because it's a country with many different faces, and stark contrasts.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hiking El Yunque Rainforest

One of the most strenuous hikes I've ever completed was in Mt. Baker, Washington, where a friend of mine got married several years ago. The trail which we hiked was quite steep and some stretches involved some rock climbing. I am by no means an experienced hiker, but I do enjoy hiking. For those who are seriously looking for a challenging climb, El Yunque Rainforest will most likely bore you. Nevertheless, it's a great place to enjoy nature in Puerto Rico. Over a year has passed since I last hiked around El Yunque, which has several different trails available for people to explore.

Hearing the coquis, seeing and hearing the waterfalls and just feeling that mountain breeze felt wonderful. We did a little over 3 miles of hiking today, starting off with the Baño de Oro, then the El Yunque Trail and we ended with the Mt. Britton trail. The last time I was at El Yunque, I hiked the La Mina trail, which brings you to a very pretty waterfall, where many people just hang out and soak their feet or take a dip. The most challenging of the three trails we did today was the El Yunque Trail. The wet and slippery rocks definitely made the hike a lot more difficult.

After climbing up the Mt. Britton Tower, where it was very foggy and windy, we headed back. Once we reached the main road, where there were many cars parked on the side, we had to walk another 10-15 minutes to our car. I would suggest people to put on a good pair of hiking shoes, bring a map, an insect and bug repellant spray, and sunblock when visiting the rainforest. Do also bring plenty of water, a snack and a camera would be absolutely essential too, of course! Most importantly, do not venture off the marked trails. Unfortunately, there have been incidents where people have gone missing.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Questioning the Status Quo

El Estado Libre Asociado (ELA) de Puerto Rico, aka the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, was officially established on July 25th, 1952. On this date, with the consent of the U.S Congress, the Puerto Rican Constitution was born and the island formally obtained its status as a self-governing territory of the United States. In essence, Puerto Ricans elect its own governor and local representatives. The island's legislative structure is similar to that of the U.S' where it has a Senate (el Senado) and a House of Representatives (La Cámara de Representates). However, the Head of State of Puerto Rico is the President of the United States. In the end, the island is subject to U.S jurisdiction.

Puerto Rico's political status has always been subject of much debate. Yesterday was the 57th anniversary of ELA, and there were celebrations on the island, especially for members of the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), which favor the status quo. Recently, the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierlusi, proposed a plan dealing with the political status of Puerto Rico, known as HR 2499, which proposes a two-tiered plebiscite. Pierlusi is in favor of statehood, who is from the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), he believes Puerto Ricans should have the right to participate in the U.S presidential elections. His plan, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009, would first ask Puerto Ricans if they wish to change the island's political status. If the majority votes in the affirmative, then the second referendum would ask the people whether they want the island to become the 51st state of the U.S, or "become a sovereign nation, either fully independent or in free association with the U.S."

The island has had four referendums dealing with its status, the last one was in 1998, and it has always been a dead heat between those ELA supporters and those who are pro-statehood ("estadistas"). Personally, I think the majority of Puerto Ricans are satisfied with the status quo. It would be wonderful to have the issue resolved once and for all, but I'm afraid there will never be a consensus reached.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The 48th Artisans Festival of Barranquitas

Unlike many other Latin American countries, Puerto Rico is not known to have large open-air markets, like those you would see in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Nowadays, Puerto Ricans prefer the large American-style malls, like Plaza Las Americas. Yesterday was certainly an exception. We headed to Barranquitas for the 48th Artisans Festival, or the 48va Feria Nacional de Artesanía de Barranquitas. There were many people browsing through the different kiosks, drinking beer, and eating. There was also a salsa band playing. The atmosphere was great! The festival began last Friday and ends today, Monday. During my previous trip to Barranquitas, the plaza was desolate.

The only other event which I've attended in Puerto Rico, where I found even more artisan work, was the San Sebastian Festival, which is held every January. Artisans in Puerto Rico actually have to register themselves with the Instituto de Cultura Puertoriqueña (the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture), and they'll usually display their registration at their kiosk. Unfortunately, visitors to the island will not normally find a lot of local hand-made artifacts in the most popular tourist areas, such as Old San Juan. The island's biggest shopping mall, Plaza Las Americas, is often the gathering place for most artisans to display their work.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Puerto Rican Tourism

The Yunque Rainforest, which is one Puerto Rico's most popular tourist attractions, is being nominated as one of the New 7 Wonders of nature. The Puerto Rican Tourist Company (PRTC)has been enthusiastically promoting El Yunque by launching a marketing campaign to garner more votes. As with most Caribbean islands, the tourism industry is extremely important to Puerto Rico's economy. A few months ago, when Pres. Obama decided to loosen travel restrictions for those wishing to travel to Cuba, many in Puerto Rico saw it as a threat to the island's tourism sector.

Over 80% of tourists who travel to the island, according to one of the local papers, come from the U.S. Unlike Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico has failed miserably to attract visitors from Europe. I suppose many Americans come here because a U.S passport is not required when visiting. Ironically, many Puerto Ricans themselves travel to the Dominican Republic because it's simply a lot cheaper. In recent years, this neighbor island has actually received more visitors than Puerto Rico itself. There are actually many areas in which this island needs to work on if it wishes to remain competitive in the tourism industry.

Service is one of the issues which Puerto Rico needs to address. For example, ferry service to Vieques and Culebra is atrocious, to say the very least. One of the areas which I believe the PRTC has also neglected are the smaller villages and towns. I am a huge fan of Spanish colonial cities and it saddens me to see the slow decay of so many of Puerto Rico's plazas. Last Sunday, we visited San Germán, an incredibly quaint, cozy and pretty town on the Southwestern part of the island. Unsurprisingly, the local tourism office was closed and there weren't many people walking around at all. Puerto Rico has so much potential to develop itself as a major international tourist destination, but it will certainly require much initiative and effort.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Feliz 4 de Julio

Happy 4th to everyone! One of the things which I miss about living in the mainland U.S is the 4th of July celebration. When I lived in the Big Apple, I was able to see the Macy's fireworks from my window. As a kid, and even as an adult, I was always in awe when I saw and heard the huge displays of colors exploding into the air. Although the 4th is officially a holiday here on the island, it's just not celebrated with the same fervor as you'd see on the mainland. This, of course, is no surprise. Just ask any Puerto Rican on the island if they're American and they'll most likely say: "Yo soy Boricua, papa!" (translation: "I'm Puerto Rican."). On a side note, "papa" is an affectionate way to refer to another male.

Anyway, it is a long wikén for many people here and most will be heading to the beaches. There are some festivities planned at the Hiram Bithorn stadium, where some local politicians are scheduled to appear. American flags, which one would usually see in any Federal building or infrastructure constructed with Federal funds, are not normally seen around the island. To most Puerto Ricans, the 4th of July is also observed along party lines. Most from the blue party (aka Partido Nuevo Progresista) who are pro-U.S will most likely attend tonight's festivities. Unfortunately, like most every issue on the island, the celebration of the 4th is a politicized one as well.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Farewell, Michael

"Michael Jackson se ha muerto esta tarde en un hospital en Los Angeles," (translation: Michael Jackson died this afternoon at a hospital in Los Angeles) was the first thing I heard as I turned on the radio late Thursday afternoon, while leaving work. I was shocked, it was something which took me by complete surprise, especially since Farrah Fawcett had died on the same day. It was one of those moments where you'll always remember where you were when you first heard the news. Although I'm not the biggest Michael Jackson fan, I truly admire his talent. Despite all the controversies he was involved in, he was and always will be an icon.

Sadly, Michael never made it to the island for a performance but he sure has plenty of fans here. People have been talking about his passing, some radio stations dedicated the entire evening to his career and he has also been the main subject (as in most parts of the world) of the news media. Right now, I'm listening to some of his most famous hits, from "Billy Jean" to "Don't Stop 'till You Get Enough," and I've sure got a long list of songs to go through. There surely is no other Michael Jackson in this world.

(Image obtained from www.endi.com, front cover from 6/26/09)

Monday, June 22, 2009

La Noche de San Juan

Huge masses of people will be heading to the beaches tomorrow night in celebration of "La Noche de San Juan," which literallly means "The Night of San Juan." At the stroke of midnight, people will throw their backs into the water for good luck, and to chase away bad omens and spirits. Some people take three, seven and up to twelve plunges. This annual ritual is observed on June 23rd, and is held in honor of the patron saint John the Baptist, who was born on June 24th. Spain, Portugal, and Venezuela, amongst other countries, also celebrate it with their own traditions and customs.

Here on the island, La Noche de San Juan is an immensely popular event, especially since the capital city is named after its namesake patron saint. Tomorrow night, there will be fireworks, concerts and cultural events held not just in San Juan, but also throughout the island. It also marks the arrival of the summer solstice, the start of the Summer season. Unfortunately, tomorrow night will also be a busy night for the police though. During La Noche de San Juan, people tend to get just a bit carried away with alcohol consumption.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Made in Puerto Rico

A few weeks ago, I was browsing through the duty free shop in the Luis Muñoz Marin Airport and came out empty handed. We were looking to purchase something unique from the island, but besides Bacardi rum, I couldn't find anything worth buying. Then, I started thinking to myself... Well, what does Puerto Rico manufacture? After some Googling, I came across the Website of the Puerto Rican Industrial Development Company (PRIDCO), which contains some interesting information. For instance, it turns out 16 out of the 20 best-selling pharmaceutical drugs (Viagra is made in Barceloneta) in the mainland U.S are manufactured here on the island.

Low and behold, Puerto Rico is actually the world's fifth largest pharmaceutical manufacturing location. Microsoft (an optical media plant) and Hewlett Packard (manufactures printing and computing equipment), amongst other major companies, also have manufacturing facilities on the island. The local government is also trying to lure biotech companies to the island. One of the reasons why Puerto Rico is such an attractive place for many foreign companies is due to its low tax rates and easy access to the U.S market. In fact, many enjoy the benefit of not having to pay any federal taxes. Although Puerto Rico is officially part of the U.S, it is considered to be a separate jurisdiction. The island has its own tax structure. Case in point, the corporate tax rate in Puerto Rico is around 7% while the top corporate tax rate in the U.S is around 35%. Recently, Pres. Obama has called for the curbing of tax havens. If his proposal is enacted, it'll be sure to have a devastating effect on the Puerto Rican economy, which has been in a recession even before the financial crisis took place.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Puerto Rican Coffee

Can you guess which are the top three coffee exporting countries in the world? Well, according to the U.S National Coffee Association, it's Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia. Unsurprisingly, Puerto Rico doesn't even make it to the top 10. The island's coffee growing region is located in the mountainous central region, the Cordillera Central, in the towns of Adjuntas, Ciales, Yauco, just to name a few. Coffee was introduced to the island back in the 18th Century and it was once a major coffee exporter, the sixth largest, during the late 19th Century. Nowadays, Puerto Rico actually has to import coffee since demand exceeds supply.

Shortage of labor and the general lack of interest in the agricultural sector are two of the main reasons why the island does not produce enough coffee. If you've never tried Puerto Rican coffee, you should. It's quite mild and smooth, and many coffee connoisseurs consider it to be of really good quality. Yaucono, Café Rico and Café Crema are the major brands, but there are also many smaller roasters, such as Finca Cialitos and Café Real. When visiting the island, unless you're at a Starbucks, don't expect to find flavored coffee. Puerto Ricans drink cortaditos and café con leche. FYI: the photo above was taken at Hacienda Buena Vista in Ponce, a former coffee plantation. Look closely and you'll actually see unripe coffee beans, which are green.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Puerto Ricans in the U.S Military

Back in April, during a quick trip to Washington DC, we came across a monument in the World War II Memorial honoring the Puerto Rican soldiers who served in this war. I've met quite a few veterans on the island who have fought in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In fact, Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S military since 1898. The 65th Infantry Regiment, aka "The Borinqueneers," was an all-volunteer regiment of the U.S Army which participated in both WWI and WWII. They actually made the first shot in WWI, and they will be celebrating their first commemoration at the end of this month.

Currently, there are thousands of Boricuas serving in the U.S military stationed all over the world. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused much uproar here on the island, since nearly 100 Puerto Rican soldiers have died while on duty. I've come across Madres Contra La Guerra (translation: "Mothers Against War") on many occasions while driving by the National Guard station on Roosevelt Avenue. They're anti-war activists on the island that have been spoken out against the war in Iraq from the very beginning. Some are simply against the war, and some say Puerto Rico should not be involved in this so-called "war against terror."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Locos por Sonia!

"Del barrio al Tribunal Supremo." (Translation: "From the 'hood to the Supreme Court") "¡Bravo, Sonia!" These were today's headlines from two of the major local papers here on the island. In case you haven't heard, President Obama has nominated Sonia Sotomayor, an appeals court judge in New York, to the U.S Supreme Court. Puerto Ricans are ecstatic! El Nuevo Día, the island's main paper, over five articles about Judge Sotomayor can be found in today's paper alone. Relatives on the island have been interviewed, Sotomayor's bank account balances have been published, and of course, her Horatio Alger life story.

I find it refreshing to finally have a Puertoriqueña with intellect to gain so much media attention here. Normally, beauty queens and swimsuit models are the subject of interest on the island, to my chagrin. Puerto Ricans are definitely proud of Sotomayor, whom many consider to be just a liberal replacing a liberal (Judge David Souter). However, she has ruled against an abortion-rights organization in the past, and so I wouldn't be too quick to put her in the liberal category.

“A wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life," Judge Sotomayor once said. Obviously, one's life experiences, ideologies, and beliefs do naturally affect the decisions one makes, and I do hope Judge Sotomayor will provide the court with another point of view to reflect the growing diversity of the U.S.

(FYI: "Loca por Sonia!" translates to "Crazy About Sonia!")
(Images above were obtained from www.primerahora.com and www.endi.com).

Monday, May 18, 2009

Stolen Identities

About a week ago, I received a letter from El Departamento de Hacienda (the local Puerto Rican tax department) informing me of the amount of my tax refund. On the letter, they included my entire social security number, bank account, and routing numbers. Needless to say, I was in utter disbelief. Puerto Rico has had many cases of stolen identities, but yet the local government doesn't seem to take this issue very seriously. I can just imagine the hundreds of thousands of letters which were sent out by Hacienda with everyone's personal information on it. If just one of these letters fell into the wrong hands, which obviously happens, someone can easily commit identity fraud.

One of the most common ways in which someone can steal your identity is by stealing your mail. Just a few weeks ago, several people on the island were arrested for committing identity fraud. This group went around the Guaynabo and Bayamon areas and stole people's correspondence from their mailboxes. Approximately 150 people became victims of identity fraud. It is suggested for people to get a free annual credit report, just as a precaution method to make sure all your loans and credit card accounts are in good order. For more information on identity fraud, please visit the Federal Trade Commission's Website.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Schnitzel and Bratwurst in Morovis

In the most unlikely places in Puerto Rico, you'll find some of the most delicious German and comida criolla! Morovis, a town practically right in the middle of the island, is home to Casa Bavaria. I had read about this restaurant in the paper a long time ago, and was always curious to try their food. For passionate foodies, or those who simply want to try authentic, foreign cuisines, Puerto Rico can be quite disappointing. However, Casa Bavaria has proven to be the exception.

Besides the traditional German delicacies, like schnitzel and bratwurst, you'll also find mofongo, tostones, and other typical comida criolla. Affordable prices and top-notch food is hard to find in San Juan, where most of the best restaurants charge exorbitant prices. Although it's nothing fancy, it's a dining-hall type of establishment, Casa Bavaria is truly a culinary paradise on the island. Just about an hour Southwest of San Juan, Morovis is easy to get to, although the road can get quite narrow and curvy once you approach Casa Bavaria. Gorgeous mountain views can be enjoyed from most of the tables in the restaurant, and I'm so glad I brought my camera!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day! Feliz Día de Las Madres!

As I've gotten older, I've learned to appreciate my Mother even more. Although I'm not a mother yet, many of my friends have become mothers over the past few years. I hear about their stories of juggling both having a career and being a Mom, and I have nothing but admiration and respect for them. Throughout my life, I've been blessed with having some of the most fantastic role models, many of whom are females.

I am not an ultra-feminist, but I find strong, intelligent and ambitious women truly remarkable. Make no mistake, I do also admire stay-at-home Moms. Staying home to look after a child is no easing task, and I don't need to have kids to know that. Women are indeed a stronger species!

Here's a wonderful poem by Maya Angelou:

"Phenomenal Women"
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet,
I'm a woman,
Phenomenally.

Happy Mother's Day!