Travel Adventures in Puerto Rico

San Juan         Travel is always an adventure, a mixture of blessings and curses, and our visit to Puerto Rico at year’s end as been all of that.

We found Ponce interesting, as Puerto Rico’s second city.  We stayed in an AirBnb near the water where the views were industrial, but we could hear the sounds of the water from the patio, so were happy.  Driving along the neighborhoods along the water’s edge on the western side of the island, we could see signs of the struggle to come back from Hurricane Irma, but most seemed to be making it.  Thirty miles up the road near Guanica, past the chemical plants and refineries, we found a state forest that was a jewel with walkways built in several spots down to the water in a gorgeous setting of water and crab-pocked sandstone before the waves hit and scooped up the huge conch shells as the deepened sharply.

Culebra is not as famous as its neighbor Vieques, though both were bombing practice sites for the US military.  On a beautiful beach we walked along the water’s edge on a windy day where red flags warned people out of the water. The beach featured abandoned tanks painted with graffiti.  One in the water, read “PEACE.”  We snorkeled at a local’s beach called Mehones, which was a new treat for me that took some leaps of faith to embrace.  The reef seemed to be dying, though the yellows and blues on the fish were amazing, bringing me back to my many years as a boy and young man when I had an aquarium.  It was a bit of a trial for my daughter, the more experienced snorkeler, since everywhere on the sea bed were black urchins and the potential danger of their stings, and her felt responsibility to constantly warn me away.

Puerto Rico is pricey when it comes to gas, food, and anything that has to be shipped over from the mainland.  The ferry from the main island to Culebra is one of the great bargains though at two dollars for a 50-minute ride.  Flamingo Beach was similar.  The industry understands that they need to get you there, and then caveat emptor.

Flamingo Beach

With a couple of days left in old San Juan, we dumped the rental car with great relief.  Sixt, a 100-year old rental car company that is primarily European with German roots and a minimal US footprint, was an experience.  Its off-airport location seemed sketchy and picking up the car was a commitment with waits that ran multiple hours.  We got the car in a bit over two hours, others in line reported three- and four-hour waits.  We had braced ourselves for the worst, but fortunately were in an out in minutes, somewhat offsetting the earlier horror.

Situated finally, we ventured out and stumbled on a great local restaurant, Deaverdura.  In Spanish that means roughly Vegetable Goddess, though it wasn’t a vegetarian restaurant.  We walked in at a lucky moment around 630 pm missing the line that formed out into the street immediately after we were seated.  We wondered if we were in for a Sixt-style waiting experience, but couldn’t have been more surprised to find the food was excellent and the price was the most reasonable we had found on the island.

We wondered how they would manage the crowd with only two waiters, but these were among the best we’d ever seen.  They ably placed different couples together where it seemed impossible.  Creating familiarity, our waiter had a seat at the table to take the order next to us.  Another bent down below the table to look up to take his orders.  We watched our waiter handle the crowd, giving a true estimate of wait times and alternatives.  It was masterful. I tipped at the top, having seen about the best ever.

Getting ready to leave though I walked over to another nearby table.  Two younger couples had separately come up to the door not long after we were seated.  Both had accepted the wait time and stood on either side of the doors, looking at their phones, and patiently hoping.  When a table opened, the man in the first couple walked over to stand next to it with a nod to the waiter.  His partner followed him over and then in a moment of pure grace, he motioned to the strangers whether they would like to stop waiting and take the other two chairs.  They jumped at the chance, and we could see them smiling and chatting amiably.  Leaving I walked over and thanked him for letting us witness this moment that was such a pure traveler’s blessing.

Puerto Rico still opens its door to these kinds of riches.


More and More on Pernicious Voter Suppression

Culebra      This is a warning on the eve of a new year:  I’m obsessed with stopping voter suppression as we countdown the months and days to the election in November.  Besides my general obsession, I’m especially focused on the efforts “behind closed doors,” so to speak in the warrens and cubbyholes of secretaries of state where voter files are managed and maintained.  One of my recurring nightmares after five decades of work registering voters, particularly among low-and-moderate income families, is that many of our efforts to bring new voters through the front door are being lost as nameless data crunchers eliminate voters through the backdoor through purges and other mechanisms.

Reading Andrew Cockburn’s piece in the recent Atlantic called “Election Bias:  The New Playbook for Voter Suppression,” added more logs to my fire.  Much of his “letter from Washington” repeated the litany of recent examples of voter purges in Georgia, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.  He started his piece though with a story about the Tennessee Black Voter Project.  They claimed to have registered 90,000, largely African-American new voters in the spring of 2018.  They had to endure the usual obstacles of rejections, but past that the Secretary of State became the leader of the Republican band in the legislature to make it harder to register new voters in Tennessee by putting “mass registration drives under state control and to criminalize mistakes made on applications.  The bill imposed heavy fines for any group that turned in multiple incomplete applications, mandated severe penalties for failing to submit registration forms to election officials within ten days of being signed by the applicant, and require any person registering voters to receive official certification and government-administered training.”  In short, the usual menu of obstacles to successful registration drives.  Fortunately, a Tennessee district judge threw it out.

What caught my eye especially though was not all of this harassment, but one of the key organizers being quoted as not knowing which of their registrants successfully got through the process and which didn’t.  This is exactly one of the aims of our Voter Purge Project, a partnership of ACORN International, the American Voter Project, and Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center.  Using our database processing this would be an easy query and match that we could do for them, except for one thing that gets less attention and that Cockburn didn’t cover.  To get the voter file and check on success versus failure and who might have been purged, correctly or falsely, would take $2500, and to monitor it throughout a year, would mean $2500 times twelve months or $30,000.  Tennessee doesn’t want anyone without deep, deep pockets to be able to see how they are handling the voter lists or their database!

The general theme of Cockburn’s piece, the critique of the Tennessee Black Voter Project, and scores of other efforts throughout the south and the rest of the country is not just voter suppression, but a concerted effort to deny voters on par with the systemic policies that the Civil Rights Movement sought to address.  Might as well tell it like it is, and it is pure grade evil and crosses the line of what should be permissible in a democracy.  Period.