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The Orange County Register

Fire-Eater Rekindles A Lost Love Of San Juan

By Marla Jo Fisher

August 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Orange County Register. All rights reserved. 

For 30 years, I had dreamed of going back to Puerto Rico, the island where I lived while in high school. But sometimes it's scary to revisit your past, because you don't know what you will find.

After all, reality can never compete with misty, watercolor memories.

Or can it? I was soon to change my mind.

After the plane touched down, my friend Rose Marie Lux and I collected our bags and took a $16 taxi ride to the old part of San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital city.

We checked into the small, shabby Guesthouse Old San Juan, at 205 Calle Tanca, groaning as we lugged our bags up three steep, narrow flights of marble stairs. At $40 for a none-too-clean room with the bathroom down the hall, the prices weren't cheap, but they were a bargain for this expensive section of town. And we decided we'd rather have a balcony out onto the street in the historic district than a modest hotel on the outskirts.

It was noon, the hottest part of the day. We collapsed on the beds for siestas, wishing the ceiling fan would magically change into air conditioning. About 4 p.m. the shops and restaurants began reopening, and we went out walking around the cobblestone streets of this 500-year-old town, with its ancient Spanish forts, churches and colonial houses, all surrounded by the sparkling sea.

By early evening, we noticed motorcycle cops beginning to mass around the old city. Finally I asked one cop why they were there. "Gallery Night," he cryptically explained.

I had seen the notices about the once-a-month event, in which all the art galleries stay open late on the first Tuesday of the month.

We were hungry and found ourselves in front of Cafe Guarionex, a hole in the wall across the street from our guesthouse, where we had seen a sign advertising paella for two for $16.

We sat at the bar and asked for paella, but the handsome young bartender, Kassim, told us apologetically in English that they were sold out of the specialty.

Disappointed, and still hungry, we turned to leave. But the cheerful Kassim persuaded us to stay. He promised both of us, ravenous as we were, that we would like the red snapper criollo-style, so we ordered it.

He did not lie.

We devoured the snapper, which was deep-fried, whole, in a few bites, along with red beans and rice, and began to feel better.

Then, Kassim asked me something that no one ever had.

"Would you like to come and see me eat fire?"

It seemed that Kassim, whose real name is Luis Manuel Ortiz Rivera, had learned how to eat fire while traveling with a circus.

And now, a swanky local tapas bar had hired him to entertain as a "fire artist" for a Gallery Night party.

That is how I ended up at an elegant tapas bar in Old San Juan, dipping Kassim's fire-eating equipment -- metal barbecue skewers wrapped in absorbent fabric -- into a brass vase filled with lighter fluid.

My face burned when we entered the packed party, filled with elegantly dressed muckety-mucks, thinking of my rumpled, tacky clothes.

The floors and walls were lined with abstract sculptures made of brushed aluminum. Fabric lamps and wall hangings made me worried that Kassim's fire could burn the whole place down.

But he expertly twirled his burning skewers, taking off his white, button-down shirt, rubbing fire on himself and then eating the fire.

He drew haughty, curious stares from the elegant crowd, who stood around holding cocktails, but not nearly as much applause as I thought he deserved. Rose Marie and I stood well out of the way, hoping no one would notice us.

For his finale, to my horror, Kassim took the brass vase full of lighter fluid out of my hand, rinsed his mouth out with it, and stuck the torch into his mouth, spitting out a giant fireball.

To great applause, Kassim retired with all his body parts intact.

After the performance, we went back to the bar, had another drink and wearily climbed the stairs to bed in our room across the street, still listening to the tropical music blaring from Kassim's boom box.

I still had another week to go in my reunion visit to Puerto Rico, but, somehow, my very first day made me realize that, this trip, I would not be disappointed.

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