Friday, February 18, 2005

A Tocqueville Refugee

Melina and I, visiting the Puerto Rican rain forest, walked up a steep driveway lined with every kind of pre-owned construction material and three vine-covered abandoned cars in search of our host, R. The main entrance to his establishment was unprepossessing (see picture).

We stayed in the house of his neighbor, who still lives in the U.S. but plans to move to Puerto Rico some day. Meanwhile this neighbor has accumulated 1,000s of empty plastic tubes (they are Navy sonar buoy cylinders) which he intends to install in a steep hillside which he will terrace and then cover with luxury cabins for Japanese tourists. I don't think this will be happening soon. He owns this nonfunctional tow truck.

R, his wife, and their two sons (this pic is of son Jim at the neighbor's house) live in an ancient pre-fab which has been tossed down the hill, twice, by hurricanes and pushed back up, twice, by hand.

These days R is building another house completely enveloping the pre-fab. He took us to the second level via rickety ladders and scaffolding and happily showed us a bucket on a rope. He and his 12-year-old son pull marble dust, cement and water up to the second level; they then pour the concrete -- and stucco it -- bucketful by bucketful. The water comes from a dam he built on the hill, incidentally providing water for 100 other families.

R had a first life as an electrician in Somerville, Massachusetts. Everybody in his family suffered from seasonal depression; his grandfather even had shock treatments for it. When the Navy stationed R in the tropics, he noticed he was never sad. He tried Florida but it wasn't tropical enough, so he came to the rain forest.

He grows breadfruit, papayas, avocados, Tahitian apples, roots and other exotic things and wants his family to be entirely self-sufficient. He would like to feed them entirely from his garden, but they balk. His little son carries an empty pizza box around like a pet. R is indignant that his kids don't like the cookies he makes out of breadfruit and flour. There is no sugar in his cookies; he feels if you cut the breadfruits when they're ripe, they are naturally sufficiently sweet.

R met his wife, a Filipina, as a pen pal (aka a mail-order bride). He warned her in his letters that he led an eccentric life and was an inveterate packrat, but she didn't believe it. After all, he was an American. Everybody in her family told her she had hit the big time.

These pictures were taken a short walk from where R and his family live on $5,000 a year (if it weren't for the occasional pizza, it would be less). As a fruit farmer, he pays property taxes of $25 per year. He is enthusiastic and energetic and happy and constantly tinkering with something. In parting, he offered us a huge ugly spiny fruit which looked like a sea monster. A corner was broken off and we saw its white, glistening, spongy insides. We declined politely.

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At 11:47 AM, Blogger Fidget said...

you painted a vivid and lovely picture. I enjoyed the details about the people- well written

At 12:27 PM, Blogger indigo said...

I enjoyed that post tremendously. Thanks for sharing. And thanks for stopping by my blog too!

I think that large spiny fruit you mentioned is called a 'durian' here in Asia. It's the 'King of Fruits'. Has an awful smell (but I love it) yet tastes like heaven.

At 9:43 AM, Anonymous R A Z W E L L said...





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