Friday, September 30, 2011

Exploring the Unknown

Some human beings have a strong drive to explore the unknown. Without this drive our civilization would progress very slowly if at all. This is one important characteristic that will need to be programmed into our imminent creation of silicon based Sentient Intelligence. Although not all humans share this drive and unfortunately for me my fear limits my drive to push ahead too far into the unknown. I’ll only go 180’ deep in cold dark water, I didn’t like being more than 1000’ from the entrance cave diving, I don’t like to swim more than a few hundred yards off shore without a boat, and I don’t like to rappel more than 60 feet. Saturday's adventure was a small push into the unknown. It all begins with a phone call from Tom of course. He is one of those hold outs who doesn’t have a DVR so our conversation had to be short because The Office was on TV. He basically said "let's go look for some new vertical passages Saturday." I usually like more info than that but since the passages were unknown that was impossible. Katrina, Diana, Tom, and I started off by exploring a well -known cave for a couple of hours. After that we got off trail and started searching the jungle for caves! The first pit was found. I tied the rope onto a tree and Tom was the first one down. No luck, the pit was choked with rock and mud only 20 feet in. We continued looking around and found this. I tied a rope to a small tree and went in to check it out.  I squeezed my big head through a little opening and saw that the cave kept on going down. I was still on rope and I called Tom over. He climbed down to where I was and I continued down. I tried to shimmy over to a horizontal ledge but it was too steep and if I slipped I would have pendulumed over and slammed into the other side. I climbed back up and we re-rigged the ropes for the next drops.

Here Tom is descending the first rope. In the next picture he is rigging the 100' rope for the next drop.

Katrina changing over to the next rope and in the picture below she is on the last rope.  We used all the rope we had.  We are going back this weekend to map it and the results will be published in December's Espeleorevista. We also have to collect our ropes!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

House Hunter Version

A while back, shortly after we had begun thinking about moving we were contacted by House Hunters International (the TV program) about doing a segment about Puerto Rico. We had been in the house for 3 years at that point but were thinking of moving because of Jeff's commute. As it turned out we declined doing the show because of logistical hassles about back stories (had to go back to Seattle - no interest), short time table and general life disruption. It would have been about how we found our current house. We are fans of the show, at least some of the segments, because you can get a feel for properties in other places you've never been to and get to see the thinking of other like minded people (or not). We finally saw the Puerto Rican segment a few nights ago on TV and were disappointed because the hunters they found were all too typical of what we DON'T like about the show - people who have way too much money to spend on a "vacation" home they really are gonna just visit and not live in. It didn't really show the realistic Puerto Rico that we live in. So today's post is about our current House Hunter segment - the non-televised, real life house hunting in Puerto Rico for regular folks without a million to blow on a 2 month vacation spot (which by the way would equate to 80 plus years of super expensive resort vacations rather than a single neighborhood house in a city).

So here we go..."Jeff and Katrina moved to San German Puerto Rico 4 years ago to look for a life style centered around water sports. They wanted a place warm, tropical, with great gardening and sports opportunities. After trying to purchase a place on St. Croix they realized Puerto Rico might be a better option. Puerto Rico has the climate, the sports (kayaking diving, caving, hiking, biking), the gardening things they enjoy without the price tag. Too young to retire, Jeff would be able to find a job in engineering and housing prices would give them a year or more to find jobs without worrying too much."

Blah blah. We found our house on the internet (believe it or not) and when we visited looked at it and a few others. Since we were buying down (not shooting the whole wad we got from the Washington house) it seemed worth the risk. At that time there were engineering jobs IN San German and Mayaguez and Cabo Rojo. All these jobs have since moved up to Aquadilla.

Fast forward to now. Jobs in our area have evaporated and moved up north to Aquadilla. After 3 years of driving over an hour each way to work Jeff is sick of it. We have also started caving which is something we had never done before and that of course is in the central north primarily. We'd like to do baby surfing in Isabela, which of course is in the north and all shore diving we now know is in the north/northwest. We are STILL selling our house and are on buyer 3. Puerto Rico (and in the States as well) is pretty messed up in the banking department and we have encountered problems that are wearing us down. Buyer number 1 qualified for incentives to the tune of thousands of dollars of closing costs but they wouldn't give her Private Mortgage Insurance. Buyer 2's bank had the house appraised and it came in 25,000 or so low other houses as comprables had solar energy so they decided to pretend it didn't exist. The buyer doesn't have that kind of money sitting around and can't get a loan for the full amount and we aren't giving the system to them! Buyer 3...who knows, we are waiting for the appraiser to call this week and come out. I am honestly not too hopeful given the other problems that in no way could be anticipated! What is the problem this time? We are pretending that it will happen though and I have boxed things up and we have been looking at houses. We found 4 that would work for us, but one was really too far so it isn't in the top three.

House Number 1 is a 3 bedroom, 2 bath newish home in Quebradillas, PR selling for $142,000. The location is 40 minutes or so from Jeff's work and close to caves. Good things - the neighborhood leading up to it is clean without a bunch of stray dogs and garbage. The house is on a dead end with no neighbors on 3 sides and a nice pasture and magote kind of behind. It is on a acre of land and the floor plan is pretty open. The house probably gets decent breezes. It is an area totally safe for the cats. Bad things - the house is boring, the yard is a blank slate without any trees or landscaping and there is not storage for scuba compressors, kayaks, tanks, surf boards, caving gear, yard equipment etc. It is overpriced definitely and the people won't come down (they have a loan to pay off). There isn't much of an outdoor area (no deck or porch or balcony). It is an alien house plopped on a hill.

The nice thing is that there is really only one neighbor with one other above and the rest outside the gate. The house is on a dead end.
The floor plan is open and the house is big enough for us (less to clean = good for me).
There is potential to enclose a porch and build a nice wrap around patio.

House Number 2 is a 2 bedroom 3 bath house in Moca, PR. The listing price is $165,000. The location is 28 minutes from Jeff's work, diving, less to surfing and close to caving. It is close to 3 better-than-highway 2-to drive roads. It is on a ridge with views of San Sebastian, Moca and on a clear day Desecheo in the far distance. Good things - it is on 1 1/2 acres with all the mature fruit trees we would want to have, there are currently no neighbors on 3 sides, the house is clean and maintained fairly well, there is tons of storage inside and out an a nice deck off the back of the house looking at the bulk of the property. Bad things - kind of a trashy area (like most of PR) with some animals roaming, some garbage, some uncared for houses. It is close to the road (but has a cement wall) but the road isn't traveled a bunch (few houses on it). The property next to it is for sale (1,000 sloped sq meters) and a house could potentially go there or in front also. There are much better properties to build on but hey, this is PR which defies all logic! We think it would work for the cats but there is always potential for them to scale the wall and play in the road and get squashed. This view looks to the property for sale on the other side of the fence about 50 meters away (place for a nice hedge of mirto).
The floor plan is open which is nice. I like the breakfast bar and view out the window. The kitchen is better than any I have had before - not "upscale" but I'm not really an upscale type of gal.
The front balcony looks at the wall. I could make a neat, tropical/lush entry garden from the gate to here. The side balconies are great but the deck out back is best although it is wood which is not the best thing.

This view is of the bulk of the property looking down from the roof. The basics (mature fruit trees) are there but it is in need of the design aspect - understory flowers and shrubs!

House 3 is a house in Aquadilla listed at $250,000. It is a 3 bedroom, 2 bath house on about 1/2 an acre in a neighborhood called San Antonio within Aguadilla. The house is 5 minutes to Jeff's work and 2 minutes to Shacks beach where we dive and snorkel a lot and a couple minutes to Isabela for surfing. Did I say it was 5 minutes to Jeff's work? Good things - the house is on a clean, good road that is a dead end with clean, nice, well-maintained homes (about 15) on it. The neighborhood is mainly professional people. There are a lot of dogs but they appear to be in their yards and appear healthy and clean. No garbage to be seen. The house is a decent size and seems to have ok storage for our sports/yard stuff. The property is enough and flat which is nice and not nice. Resale would be decent here since it is so close to all the jobs and the beach. 5 minutes to Jeff's work.
Nice, well-paved, safe (house is at dead end) road with nicer cars and homes on it.
Looking from in the yard there are homes across, one a long way away to the left and a fair distance away on the right and nothing behind (rock quarry at the bottom of a steep slope - no noise).
The house itself is ok. The ceilings are higher than the other 2, there are windows all around and good appears fairly well-maintained.
The yard is a blank slate - not "jungle" which is what we moved here for but still could be made into a park. Bad things - price, it is a neighborhood, it is flat and not jungle like, it is a neighborhood.
So which one did we choose? House number 2. House number 3 has some great features to it but at almost $100,000 more doesn't get the bid. House 2 has some of the tropical "style" I like, mature fruit trees are part of what we enjoy most here, the drive is much shorter and different for Jeff and it is central to everything we do here. It is only 8 minutes off 111, a few minutes from 112 and 110. It currently has 3 sides without neighbors which is rare in PR and a good amount of land. The cats will be safe, we will have lots of storage and will still be in jungle! Now we have to hope it will all work out selling our house. It seems like forever even though it has barely been 4 months. I am pretty tired of waiting. Jeff is tired of driving. We are tired of doing yard stuff in a yard that isn't going to be ours. We ARE enjoying avocados right now though. Wish us luck and pretend you saw us on TV! Puerto Rico has a lot of reasonable houses at reasonable prices if you are willing to make some compromises. Mostly people here want to live next to one another, with a big house sitting right on the road with an incredibly small amount of land preferably cemented over. If you DON'T want that you have to really look and either pay a lot more to have it reasonably close to things or you have to live an hour or more off the roads. If you don't have to work or go anywhere life here can be great! Cross your fingers for us ...3rd time's a charm?????

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Visit to Cueva Monte Grande and Cueva Tuna

With the pending Tropical Storm/Hurricane due to breeze by on early Sunday am we opted to do a gentle and close-by pair of caves rather than go where we may get stuck in landslides, downed trees, sinkholes or the like hours from home. We took some infrequent cavers to Cueva Monte Grande and Cueva Tuna which are both kind of in San German/Cabo Rojo. They are small caves but hey, they are 1/2 hour away! With my sore elbow I wasn't about to do any climbing or rope work or anything anyway. Jeff had scouted these out with coordinates from Tom a while back and it was my first time in Tuna. Like I said, nothing super exciting but a good little excursion that wasn't very taxing. We parked and did a quick 15 minute walk in around 30 minutes as we blabbed our way to the top. We passed by avocado trees,  cool King Palms (?) and other homestead-type trees.
At the top we got to this little outcrop which gives me all kinds of cool garden inspiration. I love all the roots and rock and ferns. We scrambled down into the cave entrance which is really big walked toward the steamy bat room. On the way we saw many guava. This one appears to be munching on a Maria Tree nut.
We encountered many many cockroaches as we plowed through deep guano. They sounded like the hiss of running water or a steamy pipe or something - faint and weird and interesting all at the same time. They were carpeting the floor, but by the time the others arrived they had dispersed and covered the walls instead. There were a couple bats, half alive, on the ground. One appeared to have a broken arm and another seemed to be part of a conjoined twin or something. This one was twitching a little but it could have been the cockroaches moving it as they nibbled it. The stuff of nightmares.
There were a few nice formations but this was probably the best. A nice, clean sparkly flowstone cubby hole. Inside was a little room with the beginnings of sorbetos (straws) and possibly helictites.
Another nice spot must have been a spectacular sight when the dams were full of water and everything was clean. All in all a pleasant and short day with friends. There was even time to go home, clean up, and then meet back up for dinner (at Faccio's Pizza) a few hours later.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Transitional Time of Year

Here in the tropics there are seasons. They aren't like the ones you get in colder parts of the country but they are none-the-less noticeable seasons. Right now we are transitioning into moist, thunderstorm, tropical depressionish more humid and hot kind of times. This makes a difference when it comes to gardening and the general routine. Most days still start with sun but usually get the cloud buildup with huge thunder in the later afternoon. Sometimes we'll get a refreshing rain shower around 5pm and sometimes it may be a little earlier and disrupt the hang-the-clothes-out routine. The cats are in sleep-only mode due to the heat and tend to ramble more at night once it cools down. When it is raining they know they have a good thing and settle in inside. Blanco and Pollo are having a moment during one of these hotter afternoons.
This is kind of a transitional time for fruit as well. All year we wait for mangoes and aguacate. First the lower elevations get the "teaser" mangoes - the wild ones with lots of fibers in them. These are good for chicken mango curry, preserves, etc. but the big fiber less mangoes are the ones you wait for! About the time the local small ones start dropping and rotting (there is no way to eat 5 million mangoes) the good ones start to color up and the harvest begins. About now they too are finished - down to the last handful of ones we can reach on the ladder with the long picker. Gone is the smell of smashed mango on the driveway from all that have fallen and we are savoring the final few. The freezer is packed with mango slices for smoothies, purees for on cheesecake etc. Although this time is kind of sad, it means the avocados are in full swing and it is avocados every day at least a couple times a day. These are not your little black Hass avocados either - these puppies weigh in at 2 to 2 1/2 pounds each! The last harvest was 21 pounds!
So what can a person do with all these avocados? Guacamole of course - with culantro (from the yard), onions, vinegar, cumin, salt, pepper, and tomato. Avocado sandwiches. Sliced on salads...and my favorite way to use a bunch at once - chocolate pudding! Sounds disgusting but it isn't green and it tastes great. It is a raw food thing that is packed with nutrients not demolished by heat (cooking). So you chuck a few things into the food processor and whir away- an avocado, sweetener (agave, honey, or dissolved white if you have to), unsweetened cocoa powder (or carob if you like that - I'm not a fan), and that is it! Sometimes I will add a decadent 40% less fat coconut milk or unsweetened soy milk (I like West Soy). You could add dairy if you wanted. You could add vanilla or almond extract or a touch of salt as well. The "good" fat from the avocado whirs up into a creamy pudding that is delicious! Here are a few of our remaining good mangoes - they, like most stuff here, are huge!
So as we transition out of mangoes and into avocados the days get these wonderful thunderstorms that most of the time just stop right behind our house. We get the huge booms for hours but generally don't get the rain from them - that stays in Mayaguez!

This is a cool flower that is a succulent/desert thing. Here in San German we are dry enough to be able to grow about everything. This flower starts out like a little package and then kind of "pops" to open into this big, flat kind of flower that is only open for a day or so. It attracts flys (I rarely see flys except around this thing).

I am kind of hoping the new place doesn't have chickens. We end up with everything on our property here because we don't have dogs. We have had up to 40 chickens roaming around (I wasn't feeding them),a turkey, guinea fowl, the big green iguana that whipped me, ducks and of course cats. I have been picking up all fallen avocados since they seem to be kitten attractors and we can not have any more cats! If I drive up the driveway and see little faces munching on avocados I have to step in, so hopefully with no avocados there will be no more cats. Our last arrival was a year ago (Rip) and despite having 3 cats who want to join in we have stabilized at 11. We suspect some will take off once we try to move them but that is how it'll go and we can only do what we can do. I don't want chickens around because their crap pretty much dissolves paint, they circle the house and are quite demanding (I have been known to give the babies food), and they scratch around all the plants. On the flip side they are like dogs and follow me around the yard, Tuca loves Big Red, the chicks are really cute and I am sure they are eating a bazillion bugs. It might be nice for them not to be around though, although in Puerto Rico you are never free of roosters! Big Red's "bitches" like to peer into the porch when I am there. They sit on the doorstep, and if I leave the screen door open they will come in. Even I am not that much of a crazy animal lover. I have seen them eying the pulled out screen the cats us as a cat door. I have limits.
So being in the tropics you would think vegetable gardening would be easy. It isn't. What ever you can't grow, no one else can either so it is always the same things you can find (unless you go to Sams Club - hurray for Sams). Guineos (bananas), platanos, mangoes, avocados, quenepas and calabaza (a kind of pumpkin) are the things you find now.

I haven't seen parcha (passion fruit) in the stores before and I don't understand why not. It is awesome as juice and it makes a nice tangy glaze, curd,salad dressing or marinade. You can freeze the juice and the vines are prolific! We are actually out of parcha right now. In an effort to make moving easier (if it ever happens) I have been using things up and not replacing them. The last of the frozen parcha is gone and it'll be a few weeks for green fruit to ripen on the vine. The vines are a couple years old and need replacing (we won't be here) so we are out of parcha until I get my parcha starts started at the new place. Even quenepas are just about over. So what fruit it next? The carambola is blooming again so those are a few months away. Oranges (chinas), chinojas (orange/grapefruit mix), lemons, coffee. It'll be slim pickins for awhile. Fortunately it'll be time to plant vegetables in another month or so. If  you plant cucumbers or tomatoes right now if they fruit and you get a big rainstorm you end up with balloon animals - cucumbers that are skinny, then fat, then skinny again....and tomatoes that crack. I've got plans for vegetables but we have to move first and at this rate it will never happen. So here is the latest harvest in this transitional time. The final parcha, some of the last quenepas, mid-season avocados and a few not-quite-ready but ready-enough lemons. Where else can you live where you can live like this?