In past travel articles, you may have joined my Seeing Eye
and me on our trips to Brazil, Chile and Mexico or when Seemore lead the
way in Ireland while Josh stayed home in California. The essence of
those travels, along with this new one, is the people more than the
places which make the trip interesting and the people who make the trip
challenging. In this excursion, join me for a combination trip with
Josh and Seemore to San Juan Puerto Rico a place full of personality and
The occasion for this trip was the Blind Veterans Association
convention held at the San Juan Grand Beach Resort and Casino. Leave it
to those men and women who fought hard to know just where to party
hard, right on the beach, a swim-up bar in one of the several pools
complete with cement bar stools, live music everywhere, 5 restaurants in
the hotel and all the amenities you can imagine in such a place. I
made sure to arrive a couple days early to give myself ample time to
"learn my way around."
Within the hotel complex, it didn't matter too much whether I was
using a dog or cane. The main consideration was my dog's well being; no
sense having him sit next to the pool roasting in the sun while I
cooled off. It was a little tricky however negotiating lounge chairs
and pools in a noisy environment when using a cane. The staff jumped to
help at the slightest provocation, like when I inadvertently walked
through a wedding party taking pictures and paused to figure out where I
I decided the first night to have dinner in one of the hotel
restaurants, Gesseppi's. When the matri dee hustled me into a side
room, I was sure it was because of the dog but decided not to make a
fuss. I was happy on a Friday night to get a table quickly. I opted
for a pretty light meal when it turned out a non-alcoholic fruit drink
was $15.00. When I paid the tab, the waiter lowered his voice and said,
"Mr. May, we have a dress code which requires long pants. I thought I
would let you know for next time." I didn't want to say there probably
wouldn't be a next time but I now understood that it was me, not the
dog, which got us relegated to the side room.
On a day trip to old San Juan, I decided to cane it. First we went
to El Morro, a 300 year-old fort with 30 foot thick walls. There were
lots of interesting structures and cannons to touch. I got a good feel
for the enormous size of the place by walking up and down hundreds of
steps on multiple terraces.
The old city of San Juan was as you might picture with sidewalks from
2 to 4 feet wide and bumpy cobble stone streets wide enough for one
car. When I swung my cane too wide, I would tap a passing car,
definitely enough of a surprise to make the heart skip a beat. As I
experienced in Dublin, the standard cane catches constantly on the
cobblestones. The crowds are so thick that I choked up on the cane and
stayed on my toes.
The smells are extreme, stinky sewer odors, leather shops, perfume
shops and cooking foods. No sensory "underload" in this perfuse
environment. I found myself occasionally feeling the walls I was
passing just to check them out. Everything moved slowly enough that it
didn't feel intimidating. Nothing like I experienced in the old city of
Toledo Spain where I thought I would be run over for sure.
One of the great smells I investigated turned out to be a fantastic
local restaurant called El Bombonero. The service was brusque but the
food was great. It was a local rice, beans and chicken joint with a
price tag of $6.95. They called the beans abichuelas instead of frijoles
as I was accustomed to hearing. The local ambiance also made me feel
like I found something special.
The next day, I took Josh on an outing to the Caribbean National
Forest about 45 minutes East and South of the hotel, which is on the
North coast of the island. The elevation rises to nearly 3000 feet and
the temperature drops, probably into the high 70's. Like most of Puerto
Rico, Hurricane George hammered El Yunque rain forest in September
1998. Some sites were closed for renovation but it was incredible
walking along a path cut in the dense foliage where a rabbit could
hardly penetrate. According to our guide, there are no poisonous snakes
in Puerto Rico, something I found comforting in such tight quarters.
There are only 48 Puerto Rican parrots still in existence, few if any in
the wild. The coqui frog, only found in Puerto Rico, makes a two-note
chirp more like a bird than your typical croaking frog. It was a
wonderful feeling to be winding my way through this forest, guided
expertly by Josh, feeling as smelling this incredible habitat for plants
and animals I had never met.
After 3 hours in the El Yunque
rain forest, we returned to sea level
and found a surprisingly good lunch at a fast food chicken, rice and
bean place called Pollo Tropical. I think I went to one once in Coconut
Beach Florida. It has the kids play area just like McDonalds but the
food is much healthier.
Returning the 20 miles to the hotel, it felt great to jump in the pool
and to languish in the gentle ocean waves. The pool is a bit too noisy
and disorienting for my tastes. So I walked the 100 yards to the beach
and floated around chatting with a business colleague just beyond the
breakers in one of the less orthodox business meetings I have
experienced. Funny how dragging your toes through the sand and bouncing
with the swell of each wave brings inspiration to a meeting.
Definitely an idea I will put in the anonymous suggestion box at work.
After 4 days of working our booth exhibit and business meetings, I
was ready for a little adventure. I strolled down the beach a couple
hundred yards to the water sports concession. When I inquired about
parasailing, the proprietor didn't hesitate a minute before taking my
$45. I am accustomed to having to cajole or even battle when trying a
new sport like the last time I was attached to a parachute, 16 years
ago, when I went sky diving. That took me a couple years and dozen jump
schools before finding one, which would except me.
Parasailing turned out to be pretty tame although there was quite a
thrill not knowing just how it all worked. The explanation I got was
all of 2 minutes so it wasn't until I did it that I understood the
equipment and the experience.
We first took a small motor boat out to a 31-foot larger boat
anchored offshore. This larger boat had a platform about 8 feet square
at the stern. There was a large parasail attached to a rope which was
connected to a winch on this platform. I dawned a harness around my
waste, which had two nylon straps that connected to the chute once I was
squatting in position on the platform.
Once I was situated, they let go of me and started reeling the rope
out while the boat moved forward at only about 12 nods. I was dangling
in a sitting position slowly rising into the air as they let the rope
out. I could hear the wake from the boat below me and the engine of the
boat getting fainter as I rose higher and higher. At the final height
of 300 feet I was pleased not to be able to hear the engine any longer.
They honked the horn twice to let me know the rope was at its full
length of 600 feet. I found that by turning my head to the side, it got
I also thought about how spooky this must look to a sighted person. I
pictured the distant mountains to the East and the ocean bending over
the horizon to the North that they might be seeing, not to mention the
tops of the hotels nearby.
It was very peaceful especially as I relaxed, swinging gently in the
harness, just an occasional hissing of the air through the chute. I
couldn't hear the boat wake or engine at all. Only feeling the taught
straps connected it to the chute that I was certain I was still
connected. Since we were only a few miles from the San Juan airport, I
wondered as I heard a jet taking off just how far I was out of their
flight path. Only the jets and me up there and probably a few sea
gulls, it was pretty cool.
Most of my apprehension was about landing on the platform when they
reeled me in. They assured me it was no big deal and it wasn't. They
had obviously done this a million times with a variety of people; they
tolled me even with paraplegics so I touched down quite easily. Amazing
to not even get a toe wet.
For some odd reason, I thought I should have brought my cell phone with
me and called someone when I was up there. This is the way your mind
works when you don't get away from work enough.
The one big challenge of my trip was on the flights home when I
attempted to relieve Josh at the Chicago airport. My customary routine
is to have the gate agent take him to the foot of the jetway stairs and
he does his business on the Tarmac in about 30 seconds. Not so easy
this time. The request went all the way up to the airport shift boss
and he insisted that I must go all the way across the airport to the
grass outside baggage claim. This is literally a mile and several
escalators away. I was very ticked at this unreasonable request as I
had been through Chicago scores of times before without running into
this ridiculous regulation.
Since Josh had been on the flight from Puerto Rico for 5 hours, I had
no choice but to run for it. This is when being a blind athlete comes
in handy. I made it outside and back 5 minutes before the airplane
doors closed. I was tempted to be late in returning and see if they
would hold the airplane for me. I could have easily not made it in time
and many blind travelers wouldn't be prepared to run 2 miles to relieve
their dog. You can bet the United management is going to hear about
So, who are the people I will think of when I picture Puerto Rico?
Certainly not the United jerks in Chicago.
The parasailing guys who so respectfully took me on my first flight,
The taxi driver Gladys who took me everywhere I needed to go and
conversed patiently with me in Spanish,
Alpidio Roland, a very active blind guy, (blinded in Viet Nam, who
rounded up 30 to 40 other blind folks for an informational technology
presentation at the regional library,
Mike Neigelberg an 81 year-old vet from L.A. who gave me a piece of his
mind about how there should be longer pauses between words without
slowing down synthetic speech,
Don Garner, blinded in Korea, one of the most senior people at the V.A.
We got soaked in the rain together,
Eric and Lynn Damery whose kids hung out with mine at the beach while we
Jose Ocasio, a blind guy who heads the disabled students program at the
University of Puerto
"Rico and owns a rehabilitation technology business along with his
charming wife Janet. Jose is also involved in goal ball and other
sports. After we had a fantastic meal together with our families, Jose
said to me, "Mike, I feel like I have known you for a long time and will
know you for a long time to come."
I felt the same way and very fortunate for the opportunity to make
this personal connection. I look forward to the day Jose, Alpidio or
one of these folks visits me and I can reciprocate the hospitality and
the experience. I will certainly have fond memories of Puerto Rico
because of them.