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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Sojourn in Old San Juan

We are now at the incredible Gallery Inn in Old San Juan, where we have spent the last few days.  It is an old 18th century house, renovated from a dilapidated state in the 1960’s by a young artist,   She is now in her 80’s and lives here still.  The place is a labyrinth of spaces, on seven levels, gardens and sculptures at every turn.  Virtually all of the work is her own. Heads predominate, peering at you from everywhere. A few are recognizable to me, but I am guessing others would be recongizable to Puerto Ricans.  The ones I recognized  are Abraham Lincoln, and the Obamas!  They actually stayed here (not Lincoln, as far as I know.) But Barack and Michelle did, in 2011, before he was president.  They stayed in the first floor suite, which an employee told me is like our room, but bigger. We have a little balcony, overlooking two patios below, and the pool. Yes, there’s a pool, too, although it seems to be mostly ornamental. I have put my feet in, and would love to just float around a bit, but doubt I will have the chance. We have to leave in a couple of hours.
It is a good thing that we have an inner room, rather than one overlooking the street. The last three days have been the annual San Sebastian festival, fondly referred to as SanSe.
We were forewarned that it would be crazy, and I guess it has been. But not quite the way we expected. It has been crowded, and noisy with bands blasting from four different stages in the old city. But it hasn’t been at all rowdy, as I’d anticipated, despite the fact that people start drinking early in the day, and continue all evening. But there are people of all ages, elderly folks sitting on chairs outside their homes, lots of people with infants in strollers, as well as the usual young adult party crowd.
The best part is the music on the streets, and the parades.  We arrived just in time for the Thursday opening parade.  There were folks dancing on stilts in bright costumes, and bunches of people with huge papier mache heads. And other folks just marching along, some with musical instruments, shakers, drums, guiros, the gourds with grooves played with a wire comb. And at least half the people carrying drinks, or wearing SanSe t shirts or headbands or both.  And most impressive of all, at least three different papier mache Saints Sebastian, replete with arrows, each being carried by a half dozen or so men. It was quite wonderful, a great beginning to our San Juan sojourn.
The plan was to stay here two nights at the Gallery Inn, followed by a last half night at the airport before our 5 am flight home, which would have been this morning. Fate, or saints? Intervened, in the form of a predicted snowstorm up north. Jetblue cancelled all its flights, two days ago, and by the time we got thru, hours later, the earliest flights home were for Wednesday.
Myself, I am happy to stay here a  few more days, all I am missing is the first day of classes and perhaps my mushroom crop!  But not so easy for Loring to take three more days than planned away from work. So, while I feel bad for him, how can I complain? Especially when I, only half jokingly, said a few days ago that I hoped we’d be stranded here.
The irony is that the storm seems not to have materialized, so the airlines needlessly cancelled three days in advance.
We are checking out of the Gallery this morning.  Have currently found a couple of airbnb possibilities close to one of the San Juan beaches in the hopping tourist area, so will experience a different aspect of the city.
The two best parts of our stay here were both quite remarkable. Walking around a couple of nights ago, we stumbled on a storefront with some of the large papier mache heads in the window, and inside, and a bunch of young folks lounging around. Turns out that they are a well known puppet theatre, and had just finished their parading for the day. It was many more than we’d seen the first day. They told us to come at five the next day, yesterday, when they’d be doing it again. We had a long talk with one of the women, about the group and about Puerto Rican politics. She was a marshall for this parade, although she wears one of the heads in other pageants. Her job was to keep a path in the crowd clear for the heads to march.  They can see only on a very limited basis, thru a slit in the mouth of the pupper. She showed us pictures of the theatre director, who created the group 25 years ago.  When we were heading out, I saw him outside and started to talk to him. Incredibly, it turns out he knows the Bread and Puppet Theatre folks, out of Vermont, and spent three years there with them. They were the inspiration for his group.  He thought he remembered our friends Judy and Karl, who with their kids, now grown with kids of their own, used to perform with the Bread and Puppet. Pedro then said, as a matter of fact, there are a few Bread and Pupppet people here now, they come every winter. (for this festival, I think.) And just then, one of them came by, withought having heard our conversation. His name was Howie Cantor, and he knows Judy and Karl well. What a coincidence!
The next day we watched them prepare, don their costumes, mount their stilts, and march, and we marched in front of them, backwards, for several blocks.  At one point Pedro, up on his stilts, and quite the showman, spotted me and waved. I felt special!  We also saw the young woman, whose name we never got, walking along clearing the crowds. I waved and she blew me a kiss.
The other incredible experience was a music and dance performance we happened upon in the street, just after we’d met the puppet group the previous night.
I can usually never see when there are street performers, because of the crowd, and   because I am not very tall. But here, I was lucky to be one of the first people  as they begun, and was right in the front. There were a number of drummers, and two singers. But the most incredible part was the dancers. A first woman just entered the small space in front of the drummers. But then she was followed by dancer after dancer. Some of them were part of the group, but most were not, were just bystanders who ventured in, one and sometimes two at a time. It was not unlike a street hip hop performance, with each person showing his or her moves. But the dancing was different. It was basically African moves, with a lot of shimmying and hip shaking. There were roughly the same numbers of men and women. And they were all incredible good. Some were young, others not so, some were quite heavy. But they were all graceful and amazing dancers. The singers and some of the drummers also took a turn. It was impossible to predict who was going to dance next, many times it seemed like just another bystander who then entered the middle, someone you wouldn’t have expected to dance.
I was incredibly close, at times they were literally inches from me.  It was one of the most special, and participatory performances I have ever seen. Truly.
The other things we’ve done here, aside from just walking the streets, around and around with the crowds, were to visit El Morro, the fort at the edge of the ocean, and the Art of the Americas museum. Both were impressive in their own ways. The museum is small by US standards, six different rooms, but very interting. There were costumes and crafts from all over the  Americas. I was able to spot the Peruvian ones pretty much every time. Some were similar to things in my own collection.  They had an incredibly carved gourd that was probably a couple of feet tall. I have some that are as intricately carved, but, of course, no where as large. The fort is extremely picturesque, and we and everyone else there took lots of pictures.
There was an exhibit of carnival masks and costumes, including some quite similar to the ones we would later see on the street. As well as some from other countries, in the Americas and from Africa.
We also walked down into La Perla, the very poor, and reportedly dangerous, section of the old city. It seems to have been badly damaged by the hurricane. There were many abandoned and destoyed homes. But it was also very picturesque, with most of the houses brightly painted. I am wondering if the painted houses of Aguadilla were inspired by these.  It does add some brightness to pretty dire living conditions.  To my surprise, we came across a little free library, with laundry hanging in front of it!  Amidstq what had been a little park, with now destroyed play structures and benches.
Well, I will stop here. Time to pack up and move on to our next adventure.  I will report later on whatever next awaits us.

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