Thursday, May 24, 2018

about that house (and some news!)

Bit by bit, we are making the shift from settling into our new life here to actually beginning the work we came here to do: build a house.

Though, to be honest, it’s actually nearly impossible to distinguish between “living life” and “work.” Everything we’re doing to “just" live — making purchases, hosting people, attending church, studying Spanish, navigating (or “nagivating,” as my younger son says) around the island, going to parties, emailing and texting, making conference calls, cooking, going on runs, talking with the postmaster — it’s all part of the process of becoming a member of the community, which, in turn, enables us to better do the work we came here to do in the first place which is, like I already said, to build a house.

About that house! The homeowner, an elderly woman with three grown daughters (only the youngest is currently living at home), has been staying in her sister's home since Maria.

Hurricane Maria so badly damaged their home — only the cement block bathroom (shower, sink, toilet) was left relatively unharmed — that it had to be razed.

Over the past couple weeks — one day here, a half day there — we (sometimes with some help from locals) have cleared the property for building, poured the footer for the electrical pole, and laid out the house.

Last Friday, the trailer that the volunteers will stay in finally arrived.

This week is dedicated to getting it ready: getting it level, scrubbing it down and setting up bunk beds and other (minimal) furnishings, installing the plumbing, cleaning (and painting?) the outdoor bathroom so the volunteers can use that, setting up a temporary canopy shelter for shade, etc.

Then, finally, we’ll be ready for volunteers — except we won’t because we won’t have electricity for several weeks (the electrical company is terribly backlogged) and we can’t shove a team of sweaty-gross volunteers in a metal box without air conditioning. So that’s still in the works, but no worries — poco a poco we're moving forward.

So, now that you know a little more about what it is we're actually doing, how would you like to come volunteer? Because here's the thing: We really, really, really need volunteers.

See, MDS’s busy volunteer season is January through April since that’s when carpenters and farmers — their volunteer base — are most available. Summertime, on the other hand, is their slow season with almost no active projects. That they are trying to establish multiple worksites in Puerto Rico during the leanest volunteer months, and in the hottest time of the year, is a bit of a challenge. So — good news! — now, in an effort to recruit more volunteers, MDS has decided to pay the cost of plane tickets for all volunteers to Puerto Rico from May 1 through August 25. In other words, you give the time, they cover the costs.

As you lunge for your calendars, a few things to consider: Volunteer teams are limited to about five people per team, though you don't have to have a team to sign up. Masonry and block-laying skills are coveted but not required. Males, females, and mature teens welcome. Volunteers can request a particular worksite on the island (Aibonito, Utuado, Ponce), but final placement depends on which site needs what type of volunteers and is ultimately left up to the Puerto Rican coordinators and project leaders.

To register, go here. And if you know of people who might enjoy this sort of adventure, please, spread the word! Volunteers are the heart and soul of this whole operation. MDS needs you!

This same time, years previous: a few fun things, the quotidian (5.23.16), more on trash, rosa de jamaica tea, rhubarb streusel muffins, strawberry shortcake with milk on top, ranch dressing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

a problem

Good morning! How about a problem to start off your day, yes?

Since arriving here, finding something for the kids to do has been an honest-to-goodness struggle. The social outings, which they enjoy, are usually limited to the weekend, and during the week, while there are routine chores, shopping sprees, and a bit of work on the jobsite, there’s not much else going on.

A few other factors that intensify the situation:

*There are no other children around. Our (calm and pleasant) neighborhood mostly consists of elderly folk … and a bunch of empty houses, thanks to Maria and the declining economy.
*The heat makes outside play unappealing. Plus, we are surrounded by concrete. Our property boasts no grass, as in, zilch, zero, nada, none.
*Houses are shut up to keep out the heat and, except for early morning and evening, the streets are devoid of pedestrians...which is kind of boring.
*The parks and ball field at the edge of our neighborhood are overgrown and in disrepair. (They’re probably perfectly safe, but they feel a little creepy.)
*They have no way to get around — no bike, no scooter, no skates — and besides, we’re in the city, hemmed in with interstates. Plus, the older two children, licensed drivers both, have had to relinquish their independence (and a good portion of their usefulness) since MDS policy requires drivers to be at least 19 years old.
*We have an extremely limited supply of reading material, art supplies, and games.
*Thanks to the language barrier, the children often don’t understand what’s going on, which adds a layer of tedium to what would otherwise be an engaging social experience.

Because of the nothing-to-do situation, technology has become a real issue. The older two have unlimited access (as they do at home), but here, without their normal involvements of work, friends, chores, and studies, their usage has increased dramatically. Our younger daughter has an ipod that she uses for texting (at home, she doesn’t have internet access so this is an unwelcome, though permissible, breach of our no-tech communication-until-age-16 rule). Both girls have kindles, and all three of the older children use their devices to listen to music.

Quite honestly, I don’t much mind the collective spiral into the technological abiss. I know it’s a temporary situation — once we start the build, the children will be working mostly full-time, and there will be state-side volunteers to host and relate to — and it’s actually nice that the kids aren’t pestering us (and each other).

However, for our younger son this whole situation — the boredom coupled with the zoned-out sibs — has been a tremendous source of frustration. He’s an active, relational kid: he wants things to do and people to do them with and NOW. It drives him absolutely bonkers when the other kids hole up in their rooms. And it doesn’t help matters that so much of our job requires my husband and me to use technology. I’m juggling two computers, and we both now have smartphones, often spending long periods of time learning how to drop pins and deposit checks, staring at Google maps, and painstakingly crafting messages in Spanish. It’s all work (or mostly all work), but to our younger son it looks like play.

I've taken some measures to counteract the pull of technology. We bought gel pens and a basketball. I aggressively encourage the older kids to find actual activities to do with their younger brother. I sometimes collect all devices and remove them from the equation. I'm trying to consolidate my "office" hours. When we’re home in the evening, I read out loud to my younger son before bed.

Still, I find myself constantly racking my brain for things for my younger son to do. He cooks (right now he’s making French toast for breakfast, and my older son is teaching him how to make coffee), assembles furniture, washes dishes, studies Spanish, runs to the colmado for milk, bananas, and bread.

But it's not enough! We need more options, activities he can, when left to his own devices (ha!), easily and happily fall back on. Is there an engrossing game we should order from Amazon? A miracle toy? A new book series or a magazine subscription (that the other children would enjoy as well)? A yet-to-be-discovered project?

So, to summarize, WANTED: enjoyable pastime activities for a high-energy, twelve-year-old boy that:

1. Can be done in isolation and indoors.
2. Don't include books.
3. Cost (almost) nothing.
4. Do not include technology.
5. Require no fancy supplies.

Please, weigh in. The boy needs something to do, and fast.

This same time, years previous: snake charmer, moo, sauteed lambsquarters with lemon, ice cream supper, Shirley's sugar cookies, the basics, my favorite things, chocolate-kissed chili.

Monday, May 21, 2018

the quotidian (5.21.18)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace

Snack: freshly-picked, underripe pomegranate.

A supper delivery, from the pastor and his wife: mapen (breadfruit) and fish stew, so good.

From Olga's daughter: the best tres leche cake I have ever eaten. 

Playing hostess: our first real sit-down meal with Puerto Rican company.

Coffee and scones: with the Puerto Rican project engineer.

And with the state-side engineer.

Office work pile-up.


My younger daughter woke up with one of these nasty critters crawling on her head.

A stray cuddle.

Leryann's Mother's Day gift to me: her out-of-home business has quite the reputation.

Me and mine: El Dia de la Madre.

Birthday party brunch for a newly-minted ten-year-old.

Complete with an art class for everyone (such a good idea!).

I ruined our one shot at Polaroid fame.

An ordinary Saturday afternoon.

Touching base, constantly.
(Also, I have an office!) 
(And look at me wearing jeans I'm acclimating!)

From my (!!) instagram (puertoricomurches) post: 
"My front porch feels like we're in the Caribbean. Oh wait  WE ARE."

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (5.22.17), chocolate peanut butter sandwich cookies, campfire cooking, after one year: Costco reflections, the quotidian (5.19.14), the quotidian (5.20.13), the quotidian (5.21.12), baked brown rice, the boring blues.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

rocking the house

On Sunday after church, we went to Chiro and Lery’s for a Mother’s Day celebration. Both sides of their family were expected for the festivities, so I got Leryann, Chiro and Lery's young adult daughter, to helped me craft a family tree so I could keep everyone straight.

The day before Chiro had assembled a turkey, stuffed with plantains and ground sausage and lathered with all sorts of spices — cilantro, achiote, oil, sofrito — and it turned out fall-apart lucious. (He also made the ham steaks for the celebratory luncheon at the church that day: out-of-this-world good, they were. Clearly, the man knows how to cook meat.)

Mid-afternoon, Lery and Chiro's place started filling up. We heaped our paper plates with turkey and potato salad, rice and coleslaw. Someone brought a huge take-out container of fried goodness — chicken, plantains, etc — and there was never-ending punch bowl, sodas, and bags of chocolate. Oh, and my two cakes (chocolate and carrot) and nutella flan and coffee. And chips and dip and and and ... burp.

And then people started hauling instruments out to the terrace — a keyboard, guitars, a drum box, bongos, tambourines. Oh good, I thought. Music! Both Lery and Chiro, gifted musicians and singers, lead the worship at their church, and all three of their children are musical — one of their sons (who we have yet to meet) majored in music in college.

And then the singing started: one large, raucous jam session, really. Someone would start a song and then the rest would join in, clapping, giving the thumbs-up when people landed on the right harmonies, eyes sparkling. I recognized a few songs from the church service, but most were ones I'd never heard before.

But then they launched into “How Great Thou Art” and suddenly I was sobbing. At our family gatherings back home, we often sing together, and here we were, far from home and with people we barely knew, celebrating family in the same unique, intimate way. The song, simultaneously familiar and foreign, pierced me to my core.

Thankfully, I got a hold of myself in time to catch the last bit of the song. Just listen to that ending!
Everyone took turns leading songs. Children played piano pieces and sang solos. Lery, her sibs, and their mother sang an old classic that is often sung at weddings. Even my boys got in on the fun, belting out a couple camp songs.

Every single contribution was met with enthusiastic shouts, earth-shaking applause, and much laughter, and four hours — FOUR HOURS!!! — later they were still going strong.

Eventually, some people decided enough was enough but others wanted to keep going. And for even that there was a song, but of course:
note our younger son dancing in the background

Clearly, we have landed in a musical family. It is glorious.

This same time, years previous: pined, the quotidian (5.16.16), help, 'twas an honor, caramel cake.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


The night after our son arrived, we went downtown for ice cream. The ice cream here is lighter, more like a sorbet, and they serve up all different flavors: banana, strawberry, tamarind, orange julius, passion fruit, coconut, etc — so far, peanut is my favorite. There was a man playing saxophone on the square, and couples taking selfies by the fountain. We wandered around, people watching, chatting, and practicing The Smolder (reference: Jumanji).

Then we got a call from our friends Chiro: “Hey, we’re all at the church practicing music for next Sunday. Come on over!”

Within five minutes of walking in the door, our older son was up front, a guitar in his lap. For the next hour, they rehearsed, Chiro patiently pointing out the chords. When we left, they gave him the guitar to borrow, and now, once again, there’s live music in our house.

At Chiro and Lery's house a couple days later, rehearsing with Lery.

More and more, Puerto Rico is beginning to feel like home.

This same time, years previous: driving home the point, Captain Morgan's rhubarb sours, crock pot pulled venison, people watching and baby slinging, a burger, a play, and some bagels, lemony spinach and rice salad with fresh dill and feta, raspberry mint tea.

Monday, May 14, 2018

the quotidian (5.14.18)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace

Don't look here for fancy. 

Silly supper.

A Costco find: I've been looking for these for years!


Kitchen table desk: until the Ikea one comes in. 

Kindles are nice, but I miss real books.

Combating boredom: for certain children, the struggle is real.

Tool or toy?

Folding station.

A necessary installation.

Painfully loud.

My first San Juan-to-Ponce trip: We didn't get lost once!

The ever-expanding fleet, oo-la-lah.

Our corner.

This same time, years previous: surprise!, tomato coconut soup, on getting a teen out of bed, the quotidian (5.12.14), happy weekending, maseca cornbread, getting ready.