I’d seen SUVs bigger than the plane we took from San Juan to Vieques. To be honest, I’m never at my best in small aircraft. The pilots always strike me as far too young and relaxed. I prefer my pilots middle-aged and tense.
Luckily I was seated next to a woman who talked non-stop about her son the whole flight. It seemed he’d recently been named general manager of the new resort on the island and was destined to become a superstar of the hospitality industry (we heard later that he was canned for incompetence). The barrage of information she supplied about her son the paragon in a loud, braying voice had a delightfully stupefying effect on me. In fact, after about ten minutes I was so anesthetized with boredom I actually hazarded a look out the window, and for a couple of carefree moments I managed to forget the fact that we were hurtling through space in a rickety box borne aloft by a spinning blade.
Unfortunately my new-found courage deserted me as we began our descent. Let’s face it, you don’t actually “land” in a plane that size so much as just plop down out of the sky. For a proper landing you need to be on a DC-10 or a 727, something with jet engines and real brakes, something that doesn’t realign your vertebrae when you make contact with terra firma.
The approach to Vieques is particularly alarming (Culebra, the next-door island, is even worse, but more about that later). For one thing, the plane makes a loud beeping sound as you near the ground and a recorded voice says, in what always strikes me as a decidedly pessimistic tone, “500 feet.” Then the pilot, smacking his gum, essentially begins shutting down the plane—flipping off switches, pushing levers, etc.—until an eerie silence descends on the whole enterprise.
The tiny runway, squeezed in between hills to the right and the sea to the left, appears to wobble unsteadily as the plane plunges toward it. This is always my worst moment, the time when I imagine my mother going through my closet after the memorial service and gasping at the sad state of my underpants and socks.
But relief comes fast, and by the time we wrestle our way through the munchkin-sized door of the plane and stand on the tarmac in the fragrant heat, I’m ready for anything.
A harried-looking matron named Felicity met us outside the terminal. She was cordial enough in an off-hand fashion. What I remember most is the acrid smell of the Turkish cigarettes she chain smoked and how fast she drove along the island’s curving roads. Even so, we were able to catch fleeting glimpses of verdant, overgrown fields on one side and pristine beaches on the other as we whizzed along. So far so good.
“You’re going to love this house,” Felicity volunteered as we shot past the gates of what I assumed to be the Dream Son’s resort, lighting her third cigarette from the dying embers of her second. “The goats are adorable.”
Michael, in the front seat, stared straight ahead.
We passed a deserted-looking hospital and turned left at a house with matching life-sized statues of cows, painted black and white, standing in the front yard. Then we drove up a series of dusty, pock-holed lanes until we reached an iron gate, secured with an enormous, rusty padlock that clearly hadn’t been unlocked in years. We squeezed our way around the gate and stumbled along the driveway past the neighbor’s yard (technically a corral), dragging our dented suitcases behind us.
Although the house didn’t bear more than a passing resemblance to the idyllic website photos Michael had excitedly emailed to me three weeks earlier, it looked presentable enough from the outside. And the view from the terrace was stupendous—a hundred and eighty degree panorama encompassing both the big island of Puerto Rico and the tiny island of Culebra with a broad swath of aquamarine sea flung in between.
The less said about the interior of the house the better. Think jailhouse block meets suburban tract house, circa 1975, minus the glamour. It was grim but serviceable—the toilet flushed; the fridge worked; the sheets, though no doubt already threadbare when they escaped from their discount outlet a decade earlier, appeared to be clean. Nothing fancy, as Felicity cheerfully exclaimed, but it would get us through the week.
And there was always the view.
Once we’d settled in, Felicity drove us to the rental car company where we were given custody of a scratched up clunker with a permanently-illuminated “check engine” light. Tired and hungry though we were, it was thrilling to be cruising around in February with the windows down (the very concept of cold weather suddenly seemed profane). We decided to take a quick spin around the island.
Michael, always good with maps, had already figured out the basic layout of the island, and soon we were on the road to Esperanza, the tiny fishing village nestled on the south (or Caribbean) side of the island where most of the restaurants seemed to be located.
Then two things happened in rapid succession.
I’ll tell you all about them next time.