San Juan, 2008

The yearly meeting of one of my working groups was held in Puerto Rico this year, and it turned out that I just got back from a trip to North Conway a day and a half before having to head south. Still sporting bruises from hiking on snow and ice covered trails, I got on the plane to the Caribbean.

Wed Mar 19/08

I reset my alarm from 5:15 to 5:45am last night, after realising that pre-printing my boarding pass, and only bringing carry-on baggage, would mean being able to skip the check in line. It still went off way too early, but the threat of missing my plane got me up and moving. It was late enough that I could take the bus to the subway and not have to worry about a taxi, so I hauled my suitcase up the hill to wait for the 73. It was more crowded than I expected, there was a group of construction workers that got off before the subway, but mostly it looked like white collar workers getting an early start. No problems on the way to the airport, and in fact, I only arrived a few minutes later than my earlier wake up time would have resulted in. There was a short line at security, I was able to get through and pick up water, juice and a bagel and get to my gate with plenty of time to spare before boarding. I was still half asleep, having skipped my morning tea, but I drew out my book and buried myself in that until it was time to board. I was going to have a spare seat beside me, but a very sweet couple took it over so that they could sit together. In retrospect they were cuter when they were sleepy and affectionate, after they woke up, they were a bit chatty and annoying. :) I finally finished the book I'd been reading since the start of the month, and dove into the one that came in at the library the night before, just in time for me to pick it up before the trip (the new Kim Harrison one, "The outlaw demon wails"). I glanced up every now and then to see bits of "Million Dollar Baby" on the movie screens, but mostly disappeared into my book, for some reason unable to nap (there were kids around, but beyond one's loud personal entertainment device, they were unnoticeable, but it might have been the two snorers..).

I stayed in my seat the whole time, the seatbelt sign was mostly on though it was only briefly turbulent. By the time we landed, I was on a determined search for a free bathroom though, and the second one I came across didn't have a line out the door. I kept being thwarted by doors that wouldn't open, but eventually found my way outside to the taxi stand. The woman there took my destination and filled out the receipt for me, giving one copy to the driver and saying that that's what I'd pay. Her assistant copied down the taxi information as well, I felt my safety was well looked after, which conversely made me a bit nervous. The taxi driver used to live in JP, just south of where I work. I was able to spot Friday night's hotel on the drive from the airport to the Caribe Hilton, it was close to the former. Traffic didn't seem out of control, I might rent a car on Saturday after all. A large pelican lifted off from a perch near the beach as we went by. My room wasn't ready when I tried to check in, just after 1 (it had been cleaned but not inspected). I sat in the lobby for a bit, at a table above the bar area, trying for a while to get a steady internet connection via wifi, but only grabbed it long enough in total to send one email to Cris letting him know I'd arrived. My cell phone is without signal. I checked my suitcase and kept my purse and a book and wandered out into the pool/beach area. It was very windy, the waves were kicking up high and the clouds were scudding across the sky. The lobby was very noise, with construction behind a boarded off area and what turned out to be birds screeching in a large cage by the bell stand. Then the fire alarm went off as I tried to go back in to find a place to read, and I decided to go outside to the pool bar and get a bit of lunch. And it started to rain before I was halfway through my sandwich. I paid and retreated back inside, the fire alarm thankfully done now. I tried to do the auto check in but it kept cycling back to asking me for my confirmation number so I went back into the line, just as Randy and Ron were arriving. My room was ready and I got my stuff from the bell stand and retreated upstairs for some longed for quiet. I cleaned up from the flight, took a bath, changed into something a bit lighter, and then hung out reading and typing until the evening social started at 5pm.

I ran into Dan walking out to the patio, and we headed to the place where I'd eaten earlier, but it was closing up. They directed us to the pool bar, and he bought me a mojito along with his beer. Bruce came up from the hot tub and grabbed his towel near where we were sitting and sipping our drinks and directed us to the tables where everyone else was, near the building. They had plates of appetisers going and more appeared in front of us as we filled in the last table. Some told about golfing and surfing here, and some shared travel woes (the winner was the guy from CA who's one stop trip turned into a 36 hour 3 stop trip, and his luggage is probably in Vegas). The wind was still picking up, the waves crashing along the shore line. I stuck with the one drink, and then when the tables dispersed at 6:30, chatted with Anthony for a while about books and movies then went up to my room to put away my sun glasses before dinner. I went on into the dinner room to find a couple of people hanging out, went back to get my sweater since the room was cold, and started digging into the buffet when it seemed like everyone was stuck at the bar waiting for their drinks. Lots of seafood and plantains, and the after dinner tea was in a perforated foil stick. Talked about drinks with Stacy and Katie, and hiking with Katie (mmm, Mt. Washington horror stories). After dinner I popped out onto the patio, and the waves, as rumoured, were coming over the retaining wall every so often, and a water slide was caught in the sea in the protected bay (which had white caps as well). Stopped by the front desk to report my missing net connector power adaptor, and got an expensive bottle of water from Starbucks, before waiting for the promised delivery. We start tomorrow morning at 7:30 for breakfast, 8:30 for the meeting, so an early night tonight.

Thur Mar 20/08

Alarm woke me up at 7:30 and I took a quick shower, since the comforter was warm enough to make me sweat while sleeping. Used the room safe to lock up my electronics, then tried again to get to the second floor via the stairs, other end of the hall this time. No luck, couldn't get through the first floor door even - some fire exit... Breakfast was muffins and pastries, and fruit slices again, with the tea sticks with a small pitcher of hot water. Tomorrow I might have to get a real breakfast first, we'll see how well dinner fills me up. Running late as usual, I took my break (none scheduled) when I needed, and then they called one - cookies and breakfast leftovers.

More presentations, running late as usual, we broke for lunch before all the site ones were done. I ate with the group (fish and capers are popular), then took off to get a bit of fresh air. The beach was cordoned off with yellow caution tape, the waves still high. I went up to my room, kicked off my shoes, and read until it was time to start again (not quite meaning to, but sucked into my book). More presentations, group discussions, and we broke at around 5:30. I was getting a bit impatient at all the meandering talks (I kept thinking about one guy: do you want maple syrup with all your waffling? he *never* made a concrete yes or no answer). I went to my room to read again, then came down and took a taxi by myself to Old San Juan. Traffic was heavy along the coast road, lots of people were stopped to watch the waves crashing on the shore. Went past the San Cristobel fort, and he pulled up at a corner and said the Parrot Club was down a street to the right. I spotted Anthony and Ramil on the corner, and joined them - they weren't letting us upstairs to the function room until most of us arrived. Ron and co. turned the corner soon so we tagged along after them and walked right upstairs. They had a long set of tables on the outdoor patio, making me home sick for Toronto and Montreal, along one brick wall rising high up above us. We got a choice of a mojito or a parrot passion and I decided to try the latter, Bacardi limon and juices, frozen. It was fruity but a bit too sweet. Took a while for everyone to show up, drinks to be ordered and served, choices from the prix fixe menu to be sorted, but at around 8 the pumpkin cream soup showed up. It was yummy and the cesear salad showed up quickly after we were done with the soup. They had a custom salad, with black beans and corn and some fried things, it wasn't as different from a classic version as I was expecting. I went with the chicken skewers for my main course, the skewers were sugar cane sticks, awesome. I only finished one, which was good because the creme brulee for dessert was *huge*. Talked with Karl and Anthony and Steve and Carol mostly, listening in on Katie and Dave and Ramil and Geoff's conversation occasionally (the massive trip to the sushi place in Salt Lake City has entered the legend lists, I still twitch when I hear people banging on the table). I'd glance up every so often to see what the sky was doing, I'd see clear sky with a star and then fast moving clouds. It stayed mostly warm, but the breeze would get me putting my sweater on for a while as it freshened. I was getting sleepy by the time we were done near 10, and shared a cab with Ron and Karl back to the hotel instead of walking back along the ocean. Gave Cris a quick and expensive call to say goodnight and curled up in bed to finish my book. I was asleep by 11.

Fri Mar 21/08

Woke up a bit earlier than the alarm, feeling well rested. Had time to take a quick shower and pack before heading down at 8. Breakfast was more substantial this morning, but it was appearing as I was eating, so I ended up grabbing extra things (yoghurt, bagel). I ate at one of the lunch tables so I wasn't perched so much, then went in and talked about walkable neighbourhoods with Anthony. Plan to check out in the break, bring my suitcase down, as apparently they charged me to leave it with the bell service when my room wasn't ready ($4.50).

At 11, I went up to my room and did a final sweep, then took my suitcase down to the conference rooms. I took the key and went down to the lobby and used the auto check out kiosk, dropping the key in the express checkout box and then going back up to the meeting. At 12:30, we broke for lunch, I went with the pasta, rice and put the chicken dish's gravy over some of the awesome mashed potatoes. Had flan for dessert, reminded of Carlos's reputation as a flan maker. Talked with Dingying and Katie for most of lunch, popped my head outside to take pictures of the waves, and back at two. Finalised some stuff for the XCEDE discussion, and checked in two bug fixes for fiducials. I was one of the last out of there when they adjourned at about 3. Rolled my suitcase out of the hotel and to the taxi stand and was off to HoJo's near the airport. $20 to get back there, and forgot to get a receipt. Room was ready, and free wireless had me holed up for a while, then I popped downstairs to the AAA car rental desk and reserved a car for tomorrow at 9 when they open. Free breakfast tomorrow too. Then I crossed Isla ... Verde with the lights and walked down a walkway to the beach. A group was playing volleyball to the left, sunbathers and swimmers were scattered, but I was still in my conference clothes so I turned back and went to my room to get changed for dinner (meeting them in the Caribe Hilton bar at 6pm). Took a bath first and put on jeans and a tshirt and grabbed my sweater before coming down and having the bell man flag me a cab. $20 back to the hotel and I burned through the savings of moving here, but ah well. I was the first to the bar, the drive was really quick, so I popped outside to take some pictures with the sunlight. Saw Stacey by the bunny and chicks enclosure and chatted a bit until Dave came down. He ordered a drink (pina colada), then I did (mojito), and then Geoff showed up and ordered the same as Dave, and then Ramil did the same. Katie showed up after her spa treatment and joined us for a drink as well and Stacey came over to say hi. Katie went up to her room to get her stuff and then we all (minus Stacey) hopped in a cab to go down to old San Juan.

The cabbie dropped us off further in than the Parrot Club, near the big church. There were three large wooden crosses up on the steps, and Katie and I ducked in, trying to find the tomb of Ponce de Leon. The bishop was having pictures taken on the steps between the crosses as well. Then the group of us looked inside the Convent Hotel, trying to find the tapas restaurant that they'd spotted last night. We ended up going back out and around, and finding the wrong restaurant (realising it after the bishop and his entourage almost ran me over on the sidewalk, and we'd been seated). The tapas place, El Picoteo, had a long wait, we sat at the bar and got drinks (I had a mango tango frozen drink, which was good, though we were a bit confused by the plastic cups). The waitress took our drink orders before the table was ready and when we sat down the food started arriving. We each ordered two dishes, I put in for the olive oil and rosemary marinated sardines, and the lobster pastry pockets, and both were very yummy. Others ordered clams, marinated veggies, a tortilla, it was all very good. We were seated in the inner courtyard of the convent turned hotel, open to the sky, lit with candles and dim white lights, it was gorgeous. Glad I went out. We wandered a little, heading back to the cab stand by the Parrot Club and I left them there to head back to my hotel, thankfully it was still the flat $20. Back at around 11pm (we didn't start eating until near 8:30). I'm pretty sure that I'm going to drive with James to Arecibo tomorrow rather than to the rain forest by myself, but we'll see.

Sat Mat 22/08

Woke up at 7:45, collected most everything, put jeans and a tshirt on, and went up to the 10th floor for my free breakfast. The view was quite nice from there, first time I've had a good look at the mountains around the city. I could see two patches of beach as well. My coupon only got me a small orange juice, a small croissant, and tea (I just used the hot water with my own tea, avoiding the Lipton's bag they gave me). I was still a bit hungry afterward, but declined to spend money on the other food they offered. Back down to the room, and I had some time before 9 to spare, so I changed to shorts and went down to the beach and walked along it for a little while, taking off my shoes and socks to let the surf pull at my feet. It got a bit enthusiastic a couple of times, and the bottom of my shorts got wet enough to prompt me to move stuff out of the cargo pockets. Temp was high twenties, but the sun was bright and hot, so I didn't go far. The car rental desk person wasn't there when I went by, but it was a bit before 9 still. I went up to my room, collected my stuff, and tried to call James. No dice, because it was pre-paid I had to give them a deposit to use the phone for long distance. I went down to check out and they said that I couldn't make a call from there, so I had to give them my credit card, go back up, wait a while, then try to call, only to find that James's flight was earlier than he thought and he couldn't come. Back downstairs, 9:20 at this point, checked out (no charge for the call, I was probably too quick for it), and found the AAA person back at her post finally. Only to find that I had to wait for my car to arrive anyway. I sat for a moment, then felt my stomach grumbling, and left my suitcase with her to dash over to the BK to get fries, water, and a salad. I just had time to eat the fries back in the hotel lobby before the guy with my car arrived. Quick inspection, and I was on my way, sans navigator. Found my way from 26 to 22 with no problems, and was a bit surprised to find that it was a toll highway. Three toll booths, one hour, and an odd mix of fast and slow drivers, later, and it was time to bail off the highway for local roads to Arecibo. The first road was like any strip mall lined road, but the next two got smaller, and windier, and steeper as I got closer to the radio telescope. I got a tantalising glimpse of it from the approach, and soon pulled into the visitor's parking area, only to find that it was a bit of a hike further up the mountain to the visitor center and viewing platform.

They had a display along the walk showing the relative positions of the planets of our solar system (no update of Pluto's status though). I bought my ticket before seeing the gas giants, though, and the last one visible was on the viewing platform, with a note that the next one was a 12mm (probably should have been cm) ball on one of the support towers. It was awesome, I got dizzy looking down into the dish, and up at the towers supporting the receiver. They had close up displays of elements of the telescope just beyond the guard rail. The steel cables are *dense*, and the metal shoes they wear to walk on the dish are reminiscent of snow shoes, with a similar purpose. I waited around to see the 20 minute video, to get a glimpse behind the scenes - the scientists and staff were so coached, it wasn't funny, but it was great to see inside the dome.

Then it was time to head back, more confident on the steep, narrow, winding roads. I think that I passed the same teenaged boy riding a horse bare back on the way down that I saw on the way up. The drive back didn't seem as long, as I passed recognised landmarks. I was able to find my way back to the HoJo's without any mis-turns (but a quick stop for a quarter tank of gas), and pulled the car up into the lobby turn around. I left the key with the clerk, and she called their shuttle to give me a free ride to the airport, which sort of nixed my plan to get a taxi receipt for one of my $20 rides. Ah well. Had to get my bags inspected by the USDA first, and decided not to check the suitcase, not having stopped to pick up any rum. Should have taken the time, security was stupid quick (despite the best efforts of the families with young kids - one of whom made a grab for my stuff as other kids delayed me getting through the scanner). Found my gate, no real lounge area, so ate at the bar (with loud hip hop), and then wandered around trying to find a book store. Finally popped into one of the multiple duty-free ones and found I could get a book there w/o hassle. Found a quiet spot to repack my stuff from my backpack into my suitcase, and to finish typing up my notes. Quick transfer in Charlotte, grabbed a smoothie and they let us board early. Got home about 1am, after a San Juan worthy cab ride home.

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