Sunday, January 29, 2023

On the Road to Victory

So the Eagles are going to the Super Bowl, for the second time in the last five years. They won it back in 2018, a hard fought victory over the soulless machine that was the New England Patriots back then. Nobody outside of New England wanted the Patriots to win so I got a lot of support as I wandered around southern Wisconsin in my Eagles gear in the days leading up to the game. It was nice. I can’t say I’m used to that as an Eagles fan.

The Eagles were underdogs then. This year, though, they’ve been the top team in the NFL since opening day and have never relinquished that rank. They finished tied for the best record in the league and have won two playoff games by a combined score of 69 to 14. They will sneak up on nobody.

Though I have to admit I got a bit annoyed at the media coverage of the game prior to kickoff, since it was entirely centered on the opposing quarterback – an interesting story to be sure, but after a while you start to wonder who he’s going to play against. That part got left out more than you’d think. I’m sure he didn’t forget – athletes get paid to remember such things – but if all you had was the pregame reporting you might be forgiven for thinking he was out there by himself.

Every year I pay less and less attention to the NFL and more and more attention to other sports – hockey, soccer, and so on – but what can I say? When my hometown team is doing well, I’ll cheer them on. I’ve been cheering for this team since the Nixon administration, back when they would routinely take two or three years to accumulate double-digit wins. I don’t think it counts as bandwagoning under these circumstances.

I didn’t get to see them win today. We don’t get that channel among the various streaming services that we’ve somehow ended up subscribing to these days, although it’s possible that I might be wrong about that. We’ll check before the Super Bowl. I did follow the game online, though.

Can I just take a moment to point out the utter futility of the City of Philadelphia greasing the light poles? What did they think that would accomplish? Seriously. All that happened is that the people at the top of the poles are greasy now. I hope they save themselves the trouble in February. Win, lose, or draw, there will be people at the top of those poles at the end of the game.

It’s an odd feeling not having my dad around to talk about this. He was a huge Eagles fan, and I get it from him. We'd talk about the Birds a lot in our weekly calls. He’s been gone since before the last time they won it all, though. My brother and I did share a few texts after the game, and that was nice. New traditions and all that.

So now there is the interminable two-week Hype Delay before they actually get to play. There will be all sorts of storylines manufactured – they’re playing the Chiefs, who are coached by their old coach and who have been the league’s elite team for most of the five years since the Eagles won it all, so there's a lot of storylines to choose from – and the Sports Knobs will have their usual field day. And then there will be the game, and somebody has to win so Why Can’t Us?

Why can’t us, indeed.

Fly, Eagles, Fly.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Bot Bot Goose

It’s been two days since the last time I had to block a bot account on Snapchat. That makes it the longest such stretch since Christmas.

For a while there, I was getting between twenty and thirty bots a day asking me to put them on my friend list. You can tell the bots from the people fairly easily – they’ve always got a vaguely exotic female name fronting an actual username that includes numbers and multiple uses of the letter X.

I’m closing in on retirement and have been married for over a quarter of a century. I think they’ve misjudged their target, to be honest.

I have no idea why I became such a target for these bots in the last month. It wasn’t that way before Christmas. I don’t even use the app very often – it’s something I installed specifically to communicate with my family since they like using it – so it’s not like I’ve been leaving little digital trails all over the web from posting Snaps or searching for things with the app. I understand that this is just one of those things that goes around on Snapchat, though, and perhaps it was just my turn.

I report them as spam and then block them. It's the digital version of Whack-a-Mole.

Eventually I got tired of that and looked up ways to get them to stop, most of which fell into the “Here’s a set of instructions that don’t actually apply to you because when you go into Settings you don’t actually have that setting and therefore can’t change it” category.

I’m not sure why apps do that.

For a long time I tried to get Instagram – an app I have mostly to find funny memes and vintage photographs, though I do have friends and family there and someday I promise I will actually post something, but for those of you waiting for that to happen my advice is not to hold your breath – to do something I wanted it to do and none of the various settings I was supposed to change actually existed on my account as far as I could tell. I’m not sure what I ended up doing, honestly – large parts of last fall are kind of a blur now – but eventually it went back to showing me funny memes so I’m happy again.

I’m just going to file my recent Snapchat experience under the general heading of “Can’t Have Nice Things Anymore” and leave it there.

I don’t answer my phone unless I recognize the number calling me, since 98% of unrecognized numbers are spam, scams, or telemarketers – three categories that overlap considerably. Phone calls used to be fun. I’m old enough to remember when it was vaguely exciting when the phone rang, because it could be a friend or at least someone actually looking for you specifically instead of a random mark to roll for nickels.

Half the email I receive I delete unread because it either falls into one of the above categories or it is from an actual person or organization I know but has nothing whatsoever to do with me or any of my concerns. At the moment I have six different email addresses – seven if you count the defunct work email that is still forwarding messages to my current main work email four years later – and a once-useful service is now mostly a way for time vampires to try to suck minutes from your life without giving you anything in return, not even eternal undead life.

Too many websites exist solely to put cookies on my browser and sell my contact information to other websites so they can put cookies on my browser and sell my contact information to still other websites. Surely I have accepted all the cookies by now? There can’t be more out there. Maybe?

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with Snapchat. It does serve the purpose I installed it to serve, though, so if the bots die down a bit I suppose I’ll keep it.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Our Trip to Puerto Rico - We Dine

My favorite things to do when we travel are wander about in cities and find good food to eat. What can I say? I am a simple man.

The first order of business when I woke up on our first morning there was to go to the nearest grocery store and stock up on breakfast and snacks. We knew we’d be eating lunches and dinners out, but first thing in the morning it’s good to be where you are and nibble. Fortunately the apartment came with a binder full of recommendations for all sorts of things, including the grocery store. I took a picture of the directions, walked out to the street, and confidently set off in exactly the wrong direction.

There was a time when I had a good sense of direction and mostly I still have it, but too many times recently I have found myself totally turned around in places where it should have been a lot clearer to me. Eventually I did get the hang of Old San Juan and could navigate comfortably around the neighborhood, but that first morning I ended up at the fort and that was just entirely the opposite way from where I wanted to go.

It was nice to see the fort, though.

After getting back on track I did find the grocery store. I love grocery stores. It’s endlessly fascinating to see the sorts of foods that people find normal, since they’re always different from the things I find in my own grocery store. I found cheese and sausages in new varieties, and crackers to put them on. There was milk and orange juice. Cereal. A few other things, all which I then had to schlep back to the apartment which was further away than I remembered it being and uphill.

After breakfast we decided to go to the fort and, well, I already knew the way there so I suppose the morning’s adventures weren’t totally wasted. We cut through the Plaza de San Jose, turned left, and found the water ice guy.

You can’t beat good water ice on a hot day and as far as I was concerned every day in San Juan was hot, so we got in line. It was far too sweet, but tasty.

For dinner that night Kim wanted to try mofongo, which is a Puerto Rican specialty involving plantains and pork. Fortunately in my travels that morning I had passed by a place next door to the grocery store that had the word Mofongo right there in its name so we went to try it.

The rest of us ended up getting other things, but Kim said the mofongo was good. At least that was what she ordered. Most of the rest of our food wasn’t quite what we asked for, but you had to admit it was good food nonetheless.

The best place we found in Old San Juan – the only place we went to twice – was a tiny little hole in the wall bar that was proudly local and served drinks and empanadas. It was, not surprisingly, called Birra & Empanadas, and I can highly recommend it to anyone heading down to San Juan. We stumbled across it by accident on our second night there – it was maybe half a block from another place that had gotten good reviews and had the line of customers outside to prove it, a line that was moving slowly enough that if we had hadn’t left we’d still be in it even now and we were hungry enough to move on. We were there for a very late lunch after not eating much at the beach, and we ended up going back there for dinner for our last night in San Juan as well. I liked this place better than the one out by Yunque, though Kim feels differently about that. They were both wonderful.

“Birra” means “beer” in Italian. It doesn’t usually mean that in Spanish – “cerveza” is the more standard word – but apparently it can.

The entire place was maybe the size of your living room. It had two entrances that were about eight feet apart, though there was no interior partition. The right entrance opened onto a crowded bar, while the left entrance led to three or four small tables tucked along the wall. There was a table on the wall between the entrances too. As noted, their entire menu (nowhere written down) consisted of drinks and empanadas, as well as a wide variety of squeeze bottles full of different hot sauces that people passed around from table to table. It was a friendly place and the empanadas were inexpensive, hot, stuffed full, and tasty, and really what else do you want from a place to eat? You order the empanadas by the kind of filling and they keep bringing them out as they were ready, and sometimes you get a plate and sometimes you just put them on a napkin, and it was glorious. I’d go back.

There was another place on a steep hill that where we had dinner a couple of hours after our first trip to Birra & Empanadas and I have to say that I grievously underestimated how much food they were going to give me and overestimated how much I would enjoy carnitas. They did a good job with the food – if carnitas are your thing these were in fact good carnitas – but circumstances conspired against them.

There was one night where we ate in our neighborhood at a place just across from the Plaza, a few doors down from the apartment. The food was good but you could tell that the place catered to the tourist crowd. Granted, we were tourists. But still. Perhaps the most obvious sign of this was the large table maybe fifteen feet away from us that was empty when we got there but was soon filled by an entire tour group of people significantly older than me plus a very hardworking local guide who loudly and patiently explained everything that was served to them, from the drinks to the food. I don’t think they had a full meal – they were in and out far more quickly than we were – but it was fascinating listening to her and I learned a few things in the bargain, so Win.

Somehow I also got ghosted by a coffee shop.

The morning I set out on my own to explore the neighborhood and take photos I distinctly recall walking by a coffee shop named Mistic Coffee – the lack of a “y” in the first word stuck in my head – and thinking that this would be a good place to remember for Kim, who likes her coffee in the morning. They even had a menu posted on the wall, a large black plastic square with many items on it, some of which I remember contained mushrooms because that’s just not what I would expect in coffee but I prefer tea so what do I know about coffee?

I never found it again. We looked for it. I even searched for it online. It vanished into the mist, leaving only the faint sound of laughter on the breeze, and Kim had to get her coffee elsewhere.

One place that wasn’t imaginary was El Batey, which Kim, Lauren and I wandered into while Sara was back at the apartment resting. This is another hole in the wall bar, but it’s much more famous – apparently this is where the Rolling Stones would hang out whenever they were in town. Alan Ginsberg read his poetry here, and Hunter S. Thompson wrote one of his books here as well. It was maybe a block or two from the apartment, so we had to stop by.

It's a bar.

It’s covered with graffiti that probably hasn’t been cleaned or painted over since the place opened shortly after the Spanish colonized the island, and you can get whiskey there, which is what I had. Kim got one of their specialty cocktails – something with rum in it – while Lauren stopped at the bubble tea place next door and brought that in. While we were there a group came in to look for some of the graffiti they had scrawled in that room a decade or so earlier. They didn’t find it, but it was interesting that they came by.

The other food adventure was something that Lauren and Sara shared on their own one night. They wandered down to a place near the grocery store called “Mr. Weenie Waffles,” which is exactly what it sounds like. For some reason penis-shaped things are popular items in Old San Juan – at least if you judge by the trinkets in the gift shops – and this was of a piece. They said they were good waffles.

They also had the female version, for those so inclined.

So we did not go hungry on our trip, and I will remember those empanadas fondly.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Our Trip to Puerto Rico - We Go Places and Do Things

I’ve never understood the reluctance of people to identify as tourists, especially when they are, by any objective measure, tourists. I like exploring the little off the beaten track nooks and crannies of the cities we visit and I’m happy to do the things the locals do and discover the small things that make a place interesting that aren’t well known, far away from the madding crowds – especially when it comes to restaurants and other food-related things – but at the end of the day I am what I am and I’m also going to do some of the tourist things because they’re usually fun. That’s how they become tourist things in the first place.

So we spent some time exploring a bit, both in Old San Juan and further afield.

One of the first things we did was go visit the local fort, which was perhaps a ten minute walk from where we were staying. In addition to getting us out into the sunshine and visiting a World Heritage Site, it also meant leaving the apartment vacant so it could be cleaned without us hovering over the person tasked with that mission. Win all around.

El Castillo San Felipe del Morro sits on the headland guarding San Juan’s harbor and as such was a priority for the Spanish when they first colonized the area. The oldest part dates to 1539, and they continued to add to it until 1790. It’s an impressive pile of stone, with outer walls that are about ten feet (three meters) thick in places, and you can see how this would be a rather intimidating sight for an invader. That is the goal of forts, after all.

The fort was a pretty easy walk from where we were staying. You go through the Plaza de San Jose, past the guy selling water ice, down the steps to another plaza (because everything is on a hill of some kind), and along a road that winds alongside the sea for a few minutes until you get to a vast grassy field.

The thing I loved most about the field is that it is a place where people just hang out. It’s part of the neighborhood as well as part of the historical site and on a breezy day like the one we had it’s full of people picnicking and flying kites and you have to love the fact that this place that the tourists go to see because of its historical significance is just another place to hang out for the people who actually live there. I’m glad it’s part of a living community that way.

You walk up the long path toward the main entry, pay your admission (which also gets you into the Castillo San Cristobal, which we will have to go back to see sometime) and in you go. There are a lot of levels that you can climb up or down to see – if you go up you can look out over the harbor, and if you go down you can, eventually, find your way to the sea, and if you stay where you are there’s a gift shop and a chapel as well as a few other miscellaneous spaces that are all neatly labeled and accessible. It took me a while to figure out how to get down to the sea – you can’t get there directly from the fort, but rather you have to go into the grassy moat and down a small set of stairs and then along a rambling path full of tourists like yourself only with about 10% of them carrying the small yappy dogs that appeared to be standard equipment in that place and time. The dogs seemed to be enjoying themselves too.

Occasionally you will find a resident of a different variety hanging out in the fort. They do not care to associate with the visitors, but neither do they cede the field.

My favorite parts of the fort were the little guard pods that line the outside walls. They’re iconic enough that Puerto Rico put them on their most recent quarter design, and you can just walk right up to them and stand inside for as long as you want. They’re actually all over the city walls, not just at the fort, and every time you see one they’re just as fascinating as they were the first time. At least they were to me.

There’s an old cemetery just off to the side, but when Lauren and Sara tried to go visit (they were ahead of me and Kim, being younger and faster) it was already closed for the day. It was pretty impressive, though.

The next day we decided to venture a bit further afield and go to the beach.

The main draw as far as Kim and Lauren were concerned was the chance to go snorkeling with the sea turtles, which is like swimming with the fishes except less threatening. When we got there we found an SUV parked in the lot by the little enclosed area of water and the guys there got everyone who signed up for this trip kitted out and ready to go.

They had a lovely time. There were in fact many sea turtles swimming by – all of them quite used to people so they weren’t skittish. None of the sea life was, which meant that Kim and Lauren also got to hang out with the sea urchins, which they report feel rather like wooly bear caterpillars. At one point Kim noticed a very long fish swimming by and asked the tour leaders what that was. “That’s Lois,” one of them told her. “She’s a barracuda.” So, yeah, they’re pretty much used to people.

Sara and I sat under some nearby trees and had a lovely conversation while all this was going on, though eventually we decided to gather up our bags and walk the quarter mile or so over what appeared to be a bridge of some kind (though entirely over land) to the actual beach on the other side of where we were.

It was a gorgeous little beach, with plenty of coconut trees for shade – it surprised me how many coconuts each tree actually had on them, since for some reason I always thought there were just one or two per tree – and a thumping soundtrack coming from the folks in front of us. Behind us was a large crowd of people playing dominoes and passing around a small tiara to whomever won a hand. There were also vast numbers of absolutely fearless pigeons who would careen at top speed and eyebrow-level through the assembled people, though I never did see them hit anyone. The guy with the paddle in the first picture is actually wearing a Phillies hat, which as a native Philadelphian pleased me inordinately much.

Kim and Lauren caught up to us not long after we got there, and we hung out for a while. Kim, Lauren and Sara enjoyed going into the water, which was apparently pretty warm. One flaw in this plan is that we hadn’t thought to pack any food, thinking that there would be a place to purchase some (don’t all beaches in cities have such places?). This turned out not to be true, but fortunately a guy came by selling small cakes that were enough to tide us over for a while, particularly when combined with ice cream from a different guy pulling a little cart.

We figured we’d hit the hot dog stand by the snorkeling area on the way out, but that turned out not to be a food place either, so once we got back to the apartment and dropped off our stuff we headed back out immediately and found lunch because no matter how gorgeous the scenery is you still have to eat.

We split up again the next day, but only because the rules said we had to.

One of the places that Kim wanted to see while we were down there was Casa Bacardí, the distillery where they make the Puerto Rico’s most famous rum. Unfortunately the drinking age in Puerto Rico is 18 and Sara was a few months short of that and they absolutely will not let anyone in unless they’re of age. Not even with a bracelet that says “Do Not Serve,” which struck me as a bit harsh. I’m not much for rum, to be honest, so Kim and Lauren went while Sara and I visited the Plaza Las Americas, the largest mall in the Caribbean.

It was a very, very large mall. Really, surprisingly large, with no directories of any sort that we ever found so you just kind of wander aimlessly from place to place, never quite knowing where you are or how to get out or even what time it is so it does start to feel like a casino after a while. All of the Christmas shows were still running so every so often we’d stumble into an open area where a feverishly cheerful performer would be trying to entertain a large crowd of children in a space that had the echoing acoustics of a train station. The kids seemed enraptured, though.

We eventually found a place to have lunch, and after some further wandering we came to a store that sold nothing but chocolates, which was kind of fun to see. I have no idea how such a store could make enough to justify the rent on the space, but perhaps people buy more chocolate in San Juan than I think they do.

Meanwhile Kim and Lauren were touring Casa Bacardí.

From all accounts they had a lovely time, and even got to sample some of the exceedingly old rum that they only serve to people who visit the distillery.

When they left they walked for an hour or so to get to the ferry that took them back to our neighborhood. They said that it was an interesting walk that involved more than a few chickens and you just have to love that sort of thing.

Meanwhile Sara and I returned from the mall and ended up wandering around Old San Juan for a bit looking for pastries, which we never did find though we did locate some chocolate gelato that was out of the rain. It was tasty and a good replacement for the pastries.

That night we decided to go to an escape room.

If you’ve never tried one of these, you’re missing out. You go into a small room or set of rooms where there are clues to a mystery of some kind, and you figure out the clues within a set period of time so you can unlock the door and get back out. Or you don’t and they come get you, one or the other. They’re a lot of fun.

We walked down to the place and on the way we found an entryway to something that had great neon signs.

I’m not sure what it means that the next sign over was this one:

Maybe we should be afraid of the drinks? Seems like mixed messaging here, though perhaps after the rum distillery I shouldn’t question it.

We found our escape room, waited for our appointment time, and eventually went in.

We had a good time, but we didn’t actually solve the mystery. In our defense a) the lighting was very low which meant that we were unable to tell the difference between the dark green banner and the dark blue banner – a difference that turned out to be important for getting from phase one of the mystery to phase two, and b) there was an important clue on top of something that very clearly said “Do Not Touch” so we figured we should ignore that something. Oh well. It was a fun way to spend time and we got to walk around Old San Juan for a bit as well so an evening well spent.

Our final excursion was perhaps our most ambitious, and the one that got us furthest afield. Not too far from San Juan is El Yunque National Forest, which is the only tropical rainforest in the United States and has been designated as preserved land since 1876 when the Spanish ruled the place. And since we’d already spent a fair amount of time in the city, it seemed appropriate to head out to see some nature.

We signed up for a tour group, and early one morning Isaac pulled up to Plaza de San Jose in a big white passenger van to pick us up. We gathered an older couple a few blocks away, and then drove out toward the forest, stopping at a resort not that far from the forest to pick up a younger couple as well. They were all from California, as I recall, though I never did get their names. They seemed nice enough.

It’s a pretty good ride from San Juan to El Yunque, and the first thing we did was stop at the observation tower to get a view of the place. It’s really very impressive.

We spent some time up at the top of the tower, where it was both windy and significantly cooler than it was at the bottom, and then we headed back down to see the place close up. The guy in the blue shirt is Isaac, for those of you keeping score at home.

Lauren’s Botany and Small Animal Biology classes came in handy during the trip and she spent a fair amount of time explaining things – the structures on the plants we were looking at, for example, and the symptoms and progression of rabies (a problem in Yunque due to the mongoose population there). Isaac was impressed.

From there Isaac took us to El Baño Grande, which is exactly what it sounds like: a large pool of water with a path you can walk around. It’s pretty.

Our next stop was Coco Falls. Kim and I stayed down at the bottom but Lauren and Sara climbed the rocky path to the side and got close to the actual falls.

You find a lot of flowers in the rainforest.

Our final stop in El Yunque was the Rio Mameyes at the bottom of the Angelito trail. Isaac somehow managed to park the van out of the flow of traffic on the road and we set off on a 20-minute hike down toward the river – down, down, down, past breadfruit trees and candlewood trees and bamboo, until you finally reach the water. There is a stretch there where the water is pretty calm and all the tour guides take their charges down to it so you can go swim in a rain forest. It’s a lovely spot.

We were also visited by a cat, who spent a fair amount of time just wandering around being admired as cats will. There really are cats just everywhere there.

I was the last one to head back up to the van and it was about two-thirds of the way to the top when the true meaning of “rainforest” became clear. It rains there, pretty much every day, at regular intervals. It does that in San Juan too, from my experience. And most of the time it’s just a shower that lasts a few minutes and then you move on. This was not that. It started to sprinkle as I climbed, and by the time I got to the two-thirds mark it was a deluge. Fortunately I had a plastic bag for my camera and the rest of me is not water soluble, but it was a very soggy me who emerged out of the trail – ironically so, given that I didn’t swim in the river. The weather gods are ironical beasts.

By this time we were all hungry, and Isaac took us to a wonderful little roadside stand – he clearly does this with everyone, as they not only knew him on sight but he also pitched in behind the counter – where we found empanadas and, according to Kim, the world’s best smoothies. We ate like kings and played with yet another cat out in the parking lot, and I bought a half gallon of lemonade and drank it all because it had been a thirsty sort of day.

It was quite possibly the best meal we had in Puerto Rico, though we did our best to test that while we were there. And that is another post entirely.