Monday, April 16, 2018

Caribbean Cruise: San Juan PR

The sun was rising behind Castillo San Felipe del Morro as we entered San Juan Bay.
I made reservations for the cruise before Hurricanes Irma and Maria.  We saw some of the devastation caused by Irma on St. Maarten.  Now we were headed to Puerto Rico where Maria had caused massive problems including catastrophic power outages.  We knew that 25 percent of our fellow citizens in PR were still without power, six months after Maria hit.  Most of this outage was in the countryside.  We found very little evidence of the storm in Old San Juan where we spent only six hours before we had to leave.  As I was looking over shore excursions, I found one that featured community service to the La Perla community.  I never took the time to find out what that meant exactly or what La Perla was.  It turned out to an interesting and meaningful experience.

San Cristobal in the background from Plaza de Colon
While we waited for the excursion to get organized, we walked a couple of blocks to Plaza de Colon, close to Castillo de San Cristobal.  These two massive fortifications (San Cristobal and El Morro) along with a massive wall were built in the 16th century by the Spanish to protect San Juan from invasion and capture.

The day was mostly sunny with some high clouds which added some nice depth to photos.  We wandered around the plaza:  I was taking photos and Marilyn was chatting up several of the vendors.  When she mentioned that we were from a cruise ship and were going on a service excursion to La Perla, she got looks of surprise mixed with a bit of apprehension.  La Perla was variously described as dangerous, dogs running wild, filled with drug dealers, a world apart where police didn't go, and finally "They take care of their own and don't like outsiders."  One vendor did say that it wasn't that bad any more but clearly this was a place with a reputation.

The multi-colored buildings stacked on hillside is Le Perla. 
You can see the city wall in the middle of the photo
We walked back to the port and gathered with other 45 people who had signed up for this excursion.  It was interesting that Royal Caribbean had offered this excursion.  This was not the typical shopping and trip venture but something with a larger social purpose.  Click here to read what Royal Caribbean says about this excursion.  We learned that La Perla is a unique community that began in the late 19th century.  It exists in the space between the Atlantic Ocean and the Old San Juan city wall and is situation between the two forts:  Cristobol and El Morro.  It is literally outside the walls and that was intentional.  " Initially, the area was the site of a slaughterhouse because the law required them and homes of former slaves and homeless non-white servants – as well as cemeteries – to be established away from the main community center; in this case, outside the city walls. Sometime after, some of the farmers and workers started living around the slaughterhouse and shortly established their houses there."  This continues to be an area of outsiders and it is fiercely proud of its independence.

Unfortunately a typical sight in La Perla
This is also an area that badly hit by Maria.  We saw evidence of damaged homes and neighborhoods.  While there was some repair work underway, it was clear that much more needed to be done.  While some of the homes might be considered middle class, there was compelling evidence of poverty.  A Mercedes sedan stood out among the other, often damaged autos.  It is said that there are drugs and drug dealers living here and I honestly don't know the truth of that but it was manifest that this was a community on the margins of mainstream society.  La Perla has a tradition in performance, recording and broadcasting music.  Despacito, an international hit in 2017, was recorded at a publicly available studio in La Perla.  Click here to see the YouTube video.

One of the leading food and shopping excursion services led our venture.  Get Shopped was founded in 2008 by Michele Llamas and has developed excellent tours for people to experience this Island Paradise.  After the hurricane, Michele decided to begin offering voluntours, especially to assist with the recovery and community development in La Perla.  She has told me that it has become a major part of her business.  We boarded a large tour bus to travel the short distance to the middle entrance to La Perla.  We walked up a fairly steep street to see the sign and we begin our adventure.
Unfortunately the community center was destroyed by the storm and it will take considerable work and resources to put back in use.

Moira  Melendez right and Zayda Gorco right.
We met in a crowded room where we heard from Moira Melendez who leads many different tours for GetShopped and Zayda Gorco who is the coordinator for the tours and work in La Perla.  They explained much about the community.  The people are not used to groups of strangers coming into their neighborhoods but appreciate the work that we will be doing.  However it important to be quite and respectful since the houses are quite close together, really everyone is right on top of everyone else.

We walked through La Perla parallel to the beach and then onto the Cemetery, which is starkly beautiful.  From there we walked along the massive city wall to a spot where people are developing a garden and tree nursery.  A high
Marilyn working on cleaning up the little park.
percentage of the trees on the island was destroyed and a group is working to grow native trees for reforestation.  A group stayed to work there while the rest of us climbed higher to a neighborhood park where we worked weeding and cleaning up.  One of the residents brought out cool water for us as a sign of his gratitude.  We cleaned up the area and then met up with the group working on the garden for a short walk out of La Perla for lunch at Sen Se Mariqueria Bar de Tapas.

Marilyn did a little more shopping as we walked back to the port and re-boarded our home away from home.  As we headed out to sea, I able to capture some nice images.  One I am particularly proud of is an eight panel panorama that shows the shore line from El Morro to the cemetery, La Perla and finally Castillo San Cristobal.  It shown below at full size.

Click here to view the many more photos of this day in Old San Juan.

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