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Escaping To The Mountains

By J.A. del Rosario

September 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Life in San Juan is what happens to you while you are between air conditioned spaces, to paraphrase John Lennon. Which means that in September -- when the combination of humidity and the heat is lethal enough to asphyxiate innocent bystanders -- life is shorter than usual.

Forget T.S. Eliot, when it comes to agonizing summer heat in the city, September is definitely the cruelest month. The ninth month is characterized by little wind, plenty of humidity and constant hurricane watches. Every week, the name of the latest storm spinning into existence in the west coast of Africa starts making the rounds in the local weather reports. Each one has the potential to travel across the Atlantic, grow into a hurricane and slam straight into Puerto Rico, sending hordes of shoppers to storm their local Wal-Marts for supplies, and making the local weathermen the most trusted voice in the 6 o'clock news.

Of course, every Puerto Rican knows that the many conditions have to be met for one of these storms to become a threatening hurricane. The probability is about the same as Meat Loaf having another mega-selling record. An unlikely, but potentially catastrophic, event.

But September is also the time that the good people of the mountain town of Jayuya celebrate their patron saint Our Lady of Montserrate, and I am a fan of patron saint festivals. Patron saint bashes are every town's God-given right to use public funds for a colossal party. Think of it as a government-sponsored keg party that showcases a smorgasbord of Puerto Rican icons, from traditional gambling games, to the latest music stars performing free of charge for the audience.

Jayuya is in the highest part of the Cordillera Central, a mountain range that separates the north and south coasts. Jayuya is the only place on the island where you can see the north and south coasts by simply turning around. Talk about getting perspective.

This is why I escaped the city hurricane-watch madness for 48 hours, and went fleeing to the mountains for a breath of fresh air and a blast of sanity.

I am not the first person to escape to Jayuya, in fact, Jayuya has a history of escapism and exile. In the 1500s, Indians fleeing from the Spanish colonizers fled to the mountains around Jayuya and Utuado, far from the Spanish stronghold along the coasts of the island.

The town is named after the Taino Cacique Hayuya, who ruled the town area in the late 1400s. The ceremonial grounds, and petroglyphs left behind by the Indians are now the center pieces of several parks and Indian museums.

The town now calls itself the "Indian capital of Puerto Rico."

By the 1600s and 1700s, Spanish colonizers had quelled the Taino resistance in the mountains, but the area still offered shelter to the African slaves who escaped their plantations.

Nowadays Jayuya offers a different type of shelter for beleaguered city folks fatigued by 500 channels of TV, 50 radio stations, constant access to the Web and cell phones that don't stop ringing. It offers silence.

The silence starts as you approach the mountains and the radio station signals start to fade and cut off. As you drive deeper into the narrow, winding roads your cell phone will lose its signal and the air outside will be cool enough to turn off the air conditioner, put your window down and take a deep breath of cool mountain air while the paranoid urbanite in you keeps a close eye on opposite traffic.

Even as technology spreads through the town, satellite dishes are a rooftop staple, nature still offers some hope. A rainy day can still render DirecTV satellites useless, and force couch potatoes to appreciate the sound of rain falling in the countryside around them.

Non-locals like myself get their fix of nature at Hacienda Gripiñas (787-828-1717), and old coffee plantation turned into a small inn deep in the mountains.

Gripiñas was built in 1853 by Don Eusebio Pérez del Castillo, a coffee baron who ruled the wide region from Jayuya to Utuado. But don't worry, the prices are not as elitist as the place's feudal history. You can spend the night for $60 -- the hotel rate equivalent of a $12 bottle of wine.

Arriving at Gripiñas I am tempted to start relaxing immediately. Behind the Hacienda, the green hills look like and endless carpet of grass. "Drop the bag, take a dip in the pool and go for a walk in the hills," I tell myself. And I would, except I have a patron saint festival to go to.

You have to appreciate irony. Patron saint festivals have become a celebration of everything that the church frowns upon: Lots of drinking, pelvic-thrusting merengueros and rappers tantalizing impressionable youngsters, some gambling and some rides with cotton candy for the kids.

Jayuya's patron saint festival lasts 10 days. And just a review of the music line-up can give a visitor a sample of the local popular music scene.

This year the Jayuya party featured Latin Grammy winners Grupomanía, salsero Gilbertito Santarosa, the alternative rock band Al Garete, and rap duo Hector y Tito.

But my weakness is the "picas," the poor man's answer to a day at the races. The picas is a game of roulette with horses. A round table serves as a track where 24 wooden horses spin until they come to a complete stop. The winning horse is the one that comes closest to the finish line, without crossing it.

As I settle in my spot on the picas table (and start my traditional money-losing technique of taking three swigs of beer before randomly putting my money down on a number) I immediately adopt my picas face. This is nothing like a poker face, a poker face says "I dare you to challenge my mysterious hand." A picas face says, "There is no technique to this game, I am only here putting my money down on the table because it beats standing around drinking while the kids go on the carousel."

I was indifferently watching my money disappear when an announcer introduced Grupomanía to the crowd and the teenage girls went spastic. Grupomanía is like an older Menudo with a merengue beat. Being a little beyond the 14-year-old female demographic, I manage to keep my excitement in check when the group starts lip-syncing for their fans.

One hour later, the end of Grupomania's set serves as a cue for me to finally leave the picas table. I am $25 in the hole, and the seven beers in my system are turning the spinning little horses into groovy swirls. But I am happy.

Tomorrow I will wake up surrounded by the countryside, away from the TV sets and the radios and my cell phone. And I will commute with nature, as I take in the silence and nurse my hangover.

J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: :

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