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The Des Moines Register
It's All About Extremes In This Part Of The World
By Borsellino Rob
28 March 2005
I got back from a spring-break trip the other night and I can't shake this one incident.
It was last Wednesday and I was sitting with my wife and son in a restaurant on Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico.
We got there around 7, ordered dinner and waited.
A half-hour went by. We looked around. The place wasn't particularly crowded, but this was the Caribbean. In this part of the world you've got to slow down, relax.
Then an hour went by. We noticed we weren't the only ones waiting for food. One family got up and walked out.
When it hit the 90-minute mark, I waved to the waitress, called her over and asked how much longer we'd have to wait to be fed.
The woman smiled politely and said she'd check with the cook.
She walked into the kitchen, and within seconds, the cook -a short, heavy-set woman in her mid-50s -came hustling out and got in my face. Her English wasn't too good, but it didn't matter. She made her point.
"YOU DON'T KNOW HOW HARD I WORK. DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT IS TO COOK?"
She said a few other things, turned around and stormed back into the kitchen.
We sat there for a moment and tried to get our minds around what just happened. Then the waitress came by, smiled politely and gave us our paella, loaded with shrimp, conch, crab and mussels. We ate and agreed this was some of the best food we'd ever tasted. We couldn't stop talking about how good it was.
I thought about going into the kitchen and giving the nasty witch a hug and saying it was worth the wait, but I was afraid she might take it the wrong way. Instead we decided to order dessert -fresh-baked flan. It took a while, but it was worth it. Some of the best flan I've ever tasted.
And that was the trip -madness, aggravation and frustration followed by good times and good food, a lot of laughs.
Vieques is a 21-by-4-mile island off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. It was home to a U.S. Navy training base and bombing range from 1947 until a few years ago when the locals -with the aid of protesters like Al Sharpton -decided they'd had enough.
Since the pullout was so recent -and since the bombings were not particularly tourist-friendly -the island is still unspoiled. That's good and bad.
A friend let us use her house, a little place near the center of town. Nice. But most days we had no water. To turn on the ceiling fan in the bedroom you had to turn on the switch in the bathroom, which turned on the light in the hallway. Then you could get the fan going.
There were roosters roaming the neighborhood, cute little things that added a sense of charm to the place. But they'd start squawking at 2 in the morning and wouldn't stop until you got out of bed.
It was worth getting up, however. You'd get to walk around in this little village that was all about breakfast cafes, bakeries and one-of-a kind shops.
The friend also left us a car -a `95 Jeep with a cracked windshield, a driver's-side door that was falling off, a dashboard that jiggled up and down, no shocks, and seats that slid back and forth. You had to use a wrench to open and close the windows. We were driving on roads that were all torn up. It felt like you were constantly driving on speed bumps.
But that Jeep and those roads took us to some of the most stunning beaches on the planet. No T-shirt shops, no hot dog stands, no kitsch. Nothing but white sand, blue water and palm trees. So it went around like that for about a week -bad service and great food, ugly roads and beautiful beaches, adorable little roosters that you'd like to strangle.
It was all about contrast, extremes. I was wondering how crazy it could get. Then I was out walking one morning, I'm on a back street and I pass this little house where two old guys are sitting on the front porch and talking in Spanish. I thought I heard one of the guys say "Iowa."
Then the other guy said "Donde?" And again the first guy said "Iowa."
I stopped, turned around and started firing questions and -as best I could understand -they said they were talking about a nephew who just moved to Iowa.
I kept asking: Where? What does he do? Why Iowa? The guy looked at me and said: "Not Dess Moy-nes. A half-hour away from Dess Moy-nes. Not Dess Moy-nes."
That's all the guy knew.
So I'm on this little side street on a small island and these folks who don't speak English just happen to mention Iowa at the moment I walk by.
It was even stranger than that woman getting in my face about the paella.