Monday, April 26, 2004

(A Long Walk Around San Juan)

Yesterday I decided to take a long walk around Old San Juan. I mentioned the wall in another entry, so I decided to walk around it. It is an amazing undertaking, considering that it was all done without power tools or earth-moving equipment. Of course, it took an amazing amount of time also. There were sections of the wall that took a century to make. I can't even imagine a long-term planning session like that. To sit back and say, "You know, our defensive system is barely withstanding attacks right now, I think that in the next hundred years we will have to be more fortified, let's start expanding the wall. I'll be long-dead by then, but at least Spain won't lose their fortress."

My walk started at the base of the wall. It is a 1.5-mile hike round-trip (it is a dead-end, so you hike down and then back). The walkway is right along the water, and not far above it. There are warning signs that it is a hot walk, with no refreshment stops, no bathrooms, and the waves can crash against you if they are high. If you are still willing to take the risk, then you venture forth along the walk. One of my favorite things about the wall are the small turrets, which are sentry stations where people would watch for incoming ships. The wall has held up very well over the years (the first sections were built in the 1500's). There are some places where the cliff itself was eroding, so the U.S. came in and sprayed concrete on the cliff side to stop it from eroding. I have seen this in mountain areas in the mainland also. The vast majority of it is still like it was when it was made, though. As I was looking straight up the wall, I could see dozens and dozens of kites. Some guy at the top was making a fortune, he had a kite stand set up with all sorts of different levels of kites. They were so small and so far away it was tough to get pictures of them, though. He kept making money on the fact that when the kites would get to the edge of the wall, the air would change and the kites would often decide it was time to end it, tragically leaping down the wall to their tragic deaths below. The side of the cliff and the rocks below the walk were criss-crossed with an amazing spider web of kite string. Occasionally you would see a kite floating in the water, and of course the cliff ate many of them.

The walkway dead-ends at the entrance to the harbor. Of course, the land continues around, but for some reason they stopped the walkway there. At the end there is a low wall under the main one (then another one above it, and another one above that). They would haul cannons down to it, heat up the cannon balls until they glowed, and then fire them at a height just above water so that they would skip along the water and hit the ship right at the waterline. If they lodged in the ship, it would set it on fire, if it went all the way through, it would usually be low enough to sink the ship. They had a small strip of land on the other side of the harbor where they would fire cannons the other way, making it really tough to get a boat into the harbor. I walked around the tip and shot a picture (of course) of the continuing wall. If you look, you can see a tiny opening around the middle of the wall and under the flags. Here is a close-up of that opening, to give you an idea of scale.

I walked back to the entrance in the wall (most of the way back) that led up to the city. I was amazed at the thickness of the wall. It is around 15 feet thick, just an amazing amount of rock and mortar. The turret in that picture is big enough to easily hold three or four people, and is tall enough inside to be twice my height. I continued around the wall on top, and came upon the field of people with kites. There was even a bus-shaped kite. I could see the lighthouse in the distance, and looking back you can see all of the cutouts along the top of the wall (they were v-shaped, so that you could fire a cannon through them at a number of angles, but it was hard to fire a cannon the other way through them).

I finally got to El Morrow, which is the fort on the tip of the harbor that I was below before. As I mentioned, there are many levels of walls, designed so that if someone were to breach one, there would be another one and they would have to start all over again. I was getting much closer to the lighthouse, and if you look in this picture you can see the dry moat between one wall and the next. This not only made it difficult to get equipment up and over the wall, but it also made it impossible to fire a cannon at the base of the wall from any distance. Of course, with people shooting at you from the top, you couldn't get close either. Then you'd have to go down the wall while being shot at, and cross the small field as a sitting duck, before starting to work on the next wall. I imagine that it would be very discouraging. Of course, the stone bridge wasn't there originally, it was a drawbridge.

Once I crossed the bridge, I was inside. There is a small fee to go in, and unfortunately I was there late enough that they were closing parts of it as I walked through. So I didn't get to go down the stairways, as the lower section was closing. These were in a lot of places, leading down to the lower areas. They were VERY tiny, I had to stick my hand through the gate and shoot down on this one (since it was closed already), so you don't get a great idea of how small it is. However, the bricks that make up the stairs are normal-sized red bricks, so each stair is shorter than my foot. It made them very easy to defend if they lost a lower section of the wall. There is one stairway set where three walls intersect, so it makes a perfect triangle. Again, a bit hard to tell since I was sticking my hand through a window and shooting straight down. A lot of the cutouts in the wall had circular sections (some with rails on them) so that you could roll a cannon back and forth. A few of them in key locations even had guides set up at certain angles for pre-set firing positions. Here is a small cannon (not of the original type) set up for looks, it looks like we are about to fire on an incoming ship.

I was now right next to the lighthouse, which was (of course) now closed. You can see the courtyard is just below me, which is where the staircases were. There was also a chapel, a number of other various rooms, a room to hold ammo, and a cistern big enough to hold water for everyone in the city for a year. There was also a very large ramp that led to the walls below, so that they could move a gigantic cannon to fire the shells along the water. They were literally closing it as I walked up. They would lower it with a block and tackle, and had a four-man winch for the power. Here is a top view of one of the turrets, the entrance is very narrow but as tall as I am.

I finally left El Morrow, and continued along the wall. The other forts were closed by this time, as I am sure you are relieved. I walked across the kite field, looking back was an incredible view (you can even see a kite string in the picture) of where I had been. Just past El Morrow, right on the outer wall with a great view over the cliff of the ocean, was the cemetery. It is amazing, to see a beachfront property on a cliff overlooking the ocean, and having a cemetery on it. On one hand, I am sure it was a bit of a deterrent to attackers. On the other, it had to be a bit of a morale hit on those working in the fort. It is a really beautiful cemetery, though.

Outside the wall on the cliff are a large number of houses. You would think that beachfront property with such a view on an American-owned tourist area would have nice houses on it, but you'd be wrong. They were really crummy, looked to be barely standing, and some were burned out husks. Occasionally among all of the crummy houses you would see one nice house. This one was three stories, with a beautiful rooftop garden area. Just in front of it is a burned-out house that I am amazed is still standing. If you ARE going to live on a cliff overlooking the beach on a tropical island, you might as well have a pool on the roof, right? I suspect as hot as it is on the roof, it is probably a hot tub a lot of the time.

Past this I came upon an interesting statue across from the courthouse. Being an older religious city, there are statues everywhere. This one was interesting, though, as it was not only across the street from the courthouse, but it seemed to be of an old man flipping it off. I can't really read Spanish, so I decided that's what it is. He is on a large courtyard overlooking the beach, but unfortunately for him they made him face the courthouse, which I think ticked him off. The stairway to the beach is right next to him though, so I took it. Now, anyone who knows me at this point is thinking, I wonder if he is getting far enough away to get lost? Actually, the island is small enough that you can see the obnoxious tail of my ship from pretty much anywhere, so it is tough to get lost.

The beach was gorgeous, with a line of water-beaten rocks about 50 feet or so away. The waves would crash against them, sometimes sending spray quite a ways into the air, and then there were little waterfalls everywhere as the waves receded. If you look closely, you can see some kids out on the rocks playing. The water was amazingly clear, and looked to be a few inches deep. I started to wade out to the rocks, when I saw the girl in the picture suddenly DIVE in. I decided that it was probably deeper than I had thought (and was up to the bottom of my shorts within a few feet), so I decided to retreat.

I walked around the end and out onto the rocks. My plan was to walk along for the length of them. They were a lot more treacherous than they had looked, though. The waves have worn them, but not smooth. Instead, it wormed out the softer rock and made thousands of pockets everywhere, making them quite rough. There were holes that didn't look deep, but were over knee-deep but full of very clear water. I walked about a third of the way to the kids when a particularly big wave crashed against the rocks. Now, I had (prudently, I think) already put the camera back into the leather case to protect it from spray. When this happened, I turned my back to it and curled around the camera case. The camera is the only thing that DIDN'T get wet. I decided at this time that I was tempting fate, and hastily retreated back to the shore.

I figured that there would probably be another way back up the cliff later. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate to have to backtrack, and had already done it earlier (but knew at that time that I would have to). It was also getting later, and I had a lot of ground I still wanted to cover. So, I took off my sandals and made my way along the beach. I walked and walked and walked, there were pretty much no people anywhere. I got a bit worried that I would have to backtrack the whole way back, but was determined to go forward. I finally decided that I was going to end up walking around the whole country of Puerto Rico rather than backtrack, but it can't be that big right? I was thinking maybe 2 hours or so. Boy was I wrong, it took over 5 hours to walk around the whole country.

No wait, that was just around the old part of the city. I did have to scale a small wall at one point and walk along a rather treacherous embankment. I had picked up a bottle that was in the water, afraid that it would break on the rocks and one of the kids on the beach would hurt themselves, so I had been carrying it. It isn't easy to scale a wall carrying a camera case and a glass bottle, let me tell you. I finally made it to another point of the island a while later, and I figured by the large number of people on that beach in the distance that I would be able to walk up there. The cliff had been getting smaller for a while, and at this point it had pretty much reached the ground. I climbed up a small embankment and walked the last bit to another beach area. There was a low cliff above it, with extremely soft, mossy grass. I sat down for a bit and waited for the sunset. As it was setting, the water and cliffs got kind of hazy, and the look back on where I had been was really pretty. It finally set, and then you could see the light in the lighthouse. It took me a number of shots to get the timing right to capture the light, though. Between the delay of the shutter and the long exposure, it was about 4 shots. That's the great thing about digital pictures, you just keep taking and deleting them.

I decided to put the camera away and just hike, as it was getting darker. At this point the wall had ended, so I started walking across the city. It absolutely amazes me how much open land there in an area that has to be extremely expensive. There were really large parks, and gigantic spanning walkways to the beach. I walked out into a city street that had a sidewalk that was decorated, kind of like permanent chalk drawings. The walkway turned into yet another park that was absolutely amazing. There were little buildings with stairs to the roofs everywhere, statues, fountains, benches, gorgeous trees (with all of the air roots), climbing equipment for kids, etc. It was gigantic, and incredible at night. I didn't take any pictures, as I really didn't think that I could capture it at all.

About this point you are probably thinking, "I wonder if he can still see the ship?" Well, actually I couldn't see it anymore, but I COULD see the ship next to it. I decided to cut across a more direct route to it, and keep a lookout for food along the way. I was thinking that I wanted to eat someplace non-touristy and perhaps sample really local food. I almost stopped into a small place I was passing by when I decided to look around me. I realized several things. They probably wouldn't speak any English. It was a pretty rough-looking area of town. A lot of the buildings were burned-out, and the ones that weren't had heavy bars on the doors and windows. The apartments had high walls around them, and even had iron bars surrounding the entire balconies. So, I decided that it would be prudent to just continue on toward the ship. I did pass a McDonald's and a KFC, each a block away on the nice street that I had been on before. Like the houses along the wall, the nice area of town and bad area of town were literally feet from each other, and made quite a contrast.

I got a pretty decent picture of the Destiny at night here as I was passing the other ships on the piers. As I mentioned in another entry, there are an AMAZING number of cruse ships in San Juan. I finally made it back to the ship, where I decided to just grab food wherever I could. I stopped in a chain restaurant across from the ship. It was pretty good, and they had spent an incredible amount of money on the video system. Instead of TV's everywhere, there was a combination of flat-screen and projection TV's. I would say that there were 30 projection TV's and 25 flat-screen TV's. There was a 50in or so flat-screen TV in the entry to the bathrooms, and a small flat-screen above each urinal. Each window in the restaurant had a projection on the window shade.

All in all, I ended up walking for 5.5 hours.