You Tarzan, Me Julie: Vieques, Puerto Rico.

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View from El Malecón boardwalk in Esperanza (Vieques)

For many, many months now, I have been avoiding writing about my trip to Vieques.  It was such a disappointing and prescient journey that I have almost become superstitious about it, as if just writing about the trip might bring on another stroke of bad luck (or at the very least, a torrential downpour).

I’ve realized that this post just doesn’t want to be about the tropical getaway I was trying to plan. It wants to be about plane crashes and the desolate, disturbing things you realize when your life flashes before your eyes. Now trending: near-death experiences and natural disasters! Tag this one with #bad #timing and #black #clouds.

Last spring was grey, inside and out. On the outside, winter had left a trail of bleak, skeletal trees and, sort of like my sister’s cancer, the snow and rain felt like they were just never going to go away. On the inside, I was nervously orbiting around a number of difficult decisions, jumping from A to Z and back to B without being able to connect a single dot. Everything was so heavy, and the snow that fell on Montreal in April was the last straw. I needed to go stare at the ocean. More than that, I needed some sunshine.

Given my mind frame, I was immediately (and perhaps overly) receptive when one of those ‘world’s greatest vacation spots’ emails hit my inbox. Had you asked me prior to receiving said email where the island of Vieques was, I wouldn’t have had a clue. But this is one of those stories about how life takes you somewhere that you never expected to go. It’s the story of how a moment presents itself, and you decide to dive in to that deep, sinking feeling, because for some reason, you have to see it through.

The five words that sold me on Vieques were: “the world’s largest bioluminescent bay.” Who doesn’t want to see magical, glowing creatures underwater?  I Googled further. When I came across Hix Island House, I thought I had found the perfect place to start my Puerto Rico journey. Built by Canadian architect John Hix, the open-air eco lodge prides itself on blending seamlessly with nature, but after reading multiple reviews, I deduced that the lack of window screens was going to be a bit too open-concept for my taste. As you can see, I had no choice: it was either sleep with horrifying, tropical bugs, or splurge on a wildly extravagant beach spa retreat at The W Vieques. The W it was.

There are only two ways to get to the island of Vieques: by ferry or by six-seater plane. Always a fan of efficiency, I opted for the latter, not realizing until the propellers were literally blowing wisps of hair across my face just how intimate the plane ride would be. Prior to takeoff, passengers and luggage were carefully weighed and strategically placed to balance out the rickety, car-sized aircraft.

The pilot revved the engine, fiddled with a handful of knobs, and without announcement, pomp or circumstance, suddenly we were seven people in the belly of a metal bird barreling at breakneck speed down the runway. Wind whipped through the cabin’s open windows and as we gained speed I realized that I was actually going to be flying. As in, there was nothing between me and the sky except for a weathered seatbelt.

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Twenty long, white-knuckled minutes later, the turquoise shores of Vieques rolled into sight and soon after that, we had landed at the smallest airport I’ve ever seen. The airport consisted of three areas: a small outdoor bar, an indoor waiting area which contained no more than twenty folding chairs, and the W Hotel’s conspicuously glossy, new welcome lounge.

The island of Vieques is still very much a work in progress, and as locals often explain (unapologetically), progress moves slowly here. One of a group of islands known as the Spanish Virgins, Vieques (pronounced vee-ay-kiss) lies 8 miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico, and it served primarily as a bombing test site for the US Navy from 1940-2003. The island has since been triumphantly reclaimed by its citizens and has been designated as a national wildlife refuge. Despite its growing tourism business, the island’s lush, jungle terrain remains largely untouched and is therefore impossible to navigate without a four-wheeler. The island struggles to keep up with the demand from tourists for rental cars, and wild horses still rule, with the equestrian population of 10,000 slightly surpassing the number of humans who live there.

Unspoiled, private beaches are the main tourist attraction, but as one local tour operator, Kiani Tours, openly admitted, the island is still lacking in many basic amenities, all of which are difficult or costly to transport from the mainland. The two towns on the island, Esperanza and Isabel Segunda (commonly known as Isabel II), are relatively undeveloped with a limited selection of food and entertainment (unless watching roosters fight to the death is your idea of fun?).

The W hotel, I’m repeatedly told by locals, is a warmly welcomed newcomer on the scene, and the boutique chain has nicely capitalized on the sleepy, tropical atmosphere along the coastline. The W’s lush, bohemian décor was perfectly designed for doing nothing but lounging from morning until night with cocktail(s) in hand(s). Dare I say that this is the kind of place where someone who normally hates sweet, fruity drinks and hard liquor might find herself in a wicker cabana blissfully sipping a pineapple Malibu, and momentarily forgiving the fact that the male hotel staff appear to be wearing lavender-coloured contact lenses.

This is the kind of place where an otherwise semi-conservative woman might shower outdoors, be kissed by a wild horse while napping on a hammock, or even find herself lying shamelessly topless on the “adults only” beach just for a little excitement.

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Easy breezy does it at the W Vieques.

My “Fabulous Ocean Front Escape” deserved its name: the hotel room was truly spectacular. I especially enjoyed the sexy bathtub nestled behind a driftwood screen at the foot of the bed with a red, shaggy lampshade swinging above it. The sound of waves outside my window drowned out the television set, and better yet, the incoming text messages and calls from my work colleagues. Sometimes Mother Nature beautifully dictates what you should and should not be doing.

Unfortunately, Puerto Rico really does know how to put the rain in rainforest.  From the soggy outdoor yoga classes each morning, to the complimentary cocktails by the fizzling, rain-drenched fire at sunset; the hotel was constantly battling the elements in their attempt to provide guests with a slice of paradise.

Visiting in March, I had apparently avoided hurricane season (which runs from June to November), but the bouts of extreme heat interspersed with heavy storms did not make for easy sightseeing or swimming. I was heartbroken to miss out on the W pool’s underwater sound system, but swimming and lightning bolts just don’t mix, even when there aren’t wires running along the deck.

I waited out the inclement weather at the hotel’s ‘Away Spa’ where I was treated to an enjoyable massage, and a rigorous pedicure. The treatments themselves were definitely not amongst the best I’ve had, but the sheets were so soft I could barely wait for the masseuse to get his hands off me so I could check under the massage table to see what brand they were. Comphy Co., you are doing something very, very right.

The hotel food, on the other hand, was very wrong, and with no other restaurants or shops nearby, there was no choice but to eat the paltry yet pricy fare. You don’t expect to get sick in a hotel like this, but man did I ever, with the kind of illness that has you deliriously praying to Gods you didn’t even think you believed in while draped over the toilet bowl. Thankfully that storm also passed, as storms do eventually pass.

On the second day of my trip, I tried to venture out for groceries, which turned out to be one in a long list of fool’s errands that I was seemingly on. I rented a bike and planned to do some shopping in the nearby town of Isabel Segunda, but instead ended up panting by the side of the road under the blistering sun before I was even halfway there. Where’s the rain now?

I cursed, pushing the bike pedals harder, until I was so far ahead of myself I couldn’t quite tell what I was trying to prove. After tackling a couple of short hills, my lungs burned and my chest began to cramp. I got off the bike and started to walk, my shins baking against the hot ground. Nobody was in sight in either direction save for an iguana creeping slowly across the road, and even he looked hot.

I walked for a few minutes, considering crying, until my oasis came into sight: “Isla Nena Cash & Carry”. I locked my bike to a scorching, chain metal fence outside, and staggered in an overheated stupor towards the door.

“Not easy being on vacation, huh?” said a brown, wrinkly man sitting on a bench outside, his face dripping sweat. “I’m from Canada,” I huffed, by way of explanation, my cheeks searing.

Inside, I moved unsteadily towards the fridge, scooped up two bottles of water and pressed their coolness against my wrists, forehead, and neck. At the cash register, I swooned, everything becoming a sweaty, hot fuzz behind my steamed glasses. “Do you mind if I stay here for a few minutes?” I asked the owner, already worrying about how I would get back to the hotel. “I need to cool down before I get back on my bike.”

“Stay as long as you like,” he said. “My name is Baby.” And then Baby, a gigantic, bald man, escorted me to his immaculate, air-conditioned wine cellar where I sat with his wife, Anita, until I cooled off. Anita explained that locals don’t normally venture out under the noontime sun because it’s much too hot at that time of day. She told me about how just the day before, a cyclist had thrown himself down on their cement floor, face first, dehydrated, and how they had dumped gallons of water on his body to “bring him back to life”.

When she offered me a lift back to the hotel, I graciously accepted, and felt a little less embarrassed when she told me I was the third tourist that day she had chauffeured the very short distance. She was kind enough to drop me a few meters from the bike rental stand so I would be spared the mortifying task of explaining to the young, sporty guys at the bike rental counter why I was getting dropped off in an SUV less than an hour after leaving for my self-guided “bike adventure tour”.

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Red Beach

When I returned to the hotel, the café staff packed me a picnic (W service at its finest) and I decided to try another outing, this time by car, to Red Beach. I had been told that this was by far the best beach on the island and I’d say that was an accurate assessment because this beach was absolutely perfect in every way. It was quiet, with soft sand, and warm, clear water. If only it hadn’t started to rain five minutes after I arrived…

Thankfully, there were some straw beach huts along the boardwalk so I ran to a nearby shelter and decided to read for a while until the rain cleared up. I had just opened my book when a couple of friendly girls approached to ask if they could share my dry spot. I said yes, and the next thing I knew, my little tiki hut was bursting at the seams with twelve rowdy tourists from Argentina, including one particularly hairy, jovial guy named “Captain” who seemed to be leading the entire pack.

They shared their sandwiches, beer, and stories with me until the sun came back out, and as soon as it did, we made our way back into the water to play some Frisbee. To be more specific, they threw a Frisbee towards me and I failed to catch it because, a) my feet could barely touch the ocean’s bottom, and b) I was genuinely distracted by the line of firm, tanned bodies and sparkling green eyes spread out before me. People in Quebec don’t look like that. Blame the poutine?

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400-year-old ceiba tree.

On the way back to the hotel, I visited the island’s famous Ceiba tree. Its 400-year-old roots stood twice as tall as me, and as my local guide explained, its massive branches would spontaneously sprout large, brown pods every few years that felt exactly like “the backs of fuzzy puppies”. Tragically, those were not in season during my visit.

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The world’s smallest aquarium (Esperanza).

I also made my way to the town of Esperanza in search of the world’s smallest aquarium. I had read online that it hosted a collection of baby sea creatures, and I sure do like small things! Much to my disappointment, there were no baby fish, no baby octopuses, and in fact, there was no baby anything. The “Museo de Esperanza”, which is part of the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust, contained precisely one pile of broken seashells and two fish tanks. One tank had a starfish in it, and the other one was empty.

No fuzzy puppy pods, and no baby sea creatures. I consciously lowered my expectations about the bioluminescent bay tour I had been looking forward to all week.

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Clouds roll in, El Malecón boardwalk in Esperanza (Vieques)

While I was exploring the Esperanza boardwalk it started to pour, so I ducked into a restaurant called Bili for shelter. I was very pleasantly surprised when they created a special vegetarian wrap for me containing fresh vegetables and homemade hummus. It was by far the best thing I’d eaten all week, and the sensory experience was further heightened by a couple of guys dragging a net full of live lobsters through the restaurant as I ate. Fresh.

With my hunger finally satiated, I set off happily for the bioluminescent bay tour. It started in a deserted parking lot, where I stood marinating in a haze of citronella oil and drizzle along with twenty other tourists as we waited for the arrival of a rusty, old van. When it pulled up, we wedged ourselves in, like slimy sardines in a tin, and made our way slowly over the bumpy back roads towards the shore of the bay.

The bay, aptly named “Puerto Mosquito” won a Guinness World record in 2008 for being the brightest bio bay in the world (at this writing, there are only 12 known.) Although there has been only one shark attack in over 80 years, that single incident was enough to inspire a permanent ban on swimming in the bay. Sharks can’t bite you while you’re in a kayak though, right?

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I was assured by the tour operator that the outing would be very safe, and suitable for even the very unfit. I was greatly comforted to see that a small French boy, not more than five years old, was coming along for the ride with his parents. If he could do it, so could I.

As we waited on the shore for our kayaks to arrive, we were swarmed by flocks of giant, hungry mosquitoes. I decided to distract myself by speaking in French to the five-year-old boy, Émile, and letting him play with my Star Walk astronomy app. Did somebody say roaming charges?

Together we marvelled at the tiny screen, its glow out of place in this deep wilderness, and watched real-time constellations and planets shifting above our heads. This exercise formed a lasting bond, and later, when our boats drifted apart in the dark, his tender voice called out for me as if he could sense my fear, “Mon amie! Mon amie!”

Our tour guide Jeffrey also seemed to notice my apprehension, and offered for me to join him in his boat rather than heading out onto the bay on my own. I accepted his invitation, gladly, and his plastic kayak rocked unsteadily as I stepped in. My shoes filled with water, and my ass immediately began soaking up dampness from the passenger’s seat. Unbothered by this display of ineptitude, Jeffrey pushed off the shore, his strong arms carrying us out, far and fast, into the middle of the blackness. With each stroke, his oars painted shimmering blue lines behind us that faded quickly like shooting stars.

I’m afraid to be in a big, black lake at night, I realize. But I keep on breathing.

As he paddles us out, Jeffrey explains that there are hundreds of thousands of tiny dinoflagellates or “dinos” in the water which produce bursts of bright white light when they come into contact with other organisms. His storytelling calms me, and I allow my fingers to trail along the edge of the boat in the water’s warm ripples, creating glowing blue wakes in their paths. No sharks. No sharks.

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Bioluminescent bay. Image: Doug Perrine.

It begins to rain, gently, and as the large drops break the water’s surface they create splashes of electric blue light around us. It’s profoundly beautiful, and Jeffrey is humming and paddling rhythmically, as we go farther out, until my fear of getting lost out here – in the middle of nowhere – almost disappears. I feel so grateful for this precious moment; floating inside a small, wet pocket of outer space on earth.

“When will we get to see the glowing stuff?” A drunk tourist breaks the silence.

“It’s all around you, man,” Jeffrey replies, and the two of us laugh. The subtlety of it all is lost on some.

Is that sparkle beneath the surface science? Magic? Or just the glowing remnants of the bombs they’ve been setting off here for sixty-five years? I don’t know, exactly, but there is definitely something about life and death you can learn in the middle of that lake.

That feeling stayed with me the next morning as I boarded another six-seater plane to return to San Juan. As it turns out, there’s a reason why Puerto Ricans start clapping whenever a plane lands.

Even in good weather, it feels pretty wild and vulnerable to sit so close to the cockpit, with the wind in your hair and a thin veneer of plastic between you and the clouds. So it’s not too surprising that six, tanned tourists went silent and clammy with fear when the front window of our minuscule plane smashed into a sheet of water and dipped violently as we attempted to navigate blindly through a white, wet wall.

It hadn’t even been minutes since we’d taken off when we heard that gut-wrenching crack – lightning – followed by the fizzling, eerie din of what were previously glowing lights on the plane’s control panel as they turned to black.  The plane tipped sideways, and the horizon became a diagonal line. Engine failure,” I heard a voice say.

I’m going to be sick, I thought; and a terror I have never before known swept over me, followed by a weird, floating calm. My ears rang, sounds softened, time slowed, and then I thought the same thing everyone else on the plane was probably thinking: Are we going to die?

I ran my fingertip along the beige, plastic windowsill as I thought of my dog’s wagging tail, and how I wanted to see it again. I thought of the people who loved and needed me. What they would say at my funeral.

I felt a strong urge to hold someone’s hand, and just as that thought crossed my mind, the woman in the front seat reached back and clasped her husband’s hand tightly, her eyes rimming with tears. They hadn’t been seated together in order to balance out the weight.

I swallowed, my mouth dry with fear, looking out the window into a grey waterfall of blindness. The plane lurched, rain pelting against my window hard.  I can’t die right now, I thought. And all of the things left unsaid created a deep well of sadness inside me. It was sadness, though, and not regret. That difference felt important to me.

The plane rattled, turning further on its side. “I’m going to need your other hand,” I said to the stranger sitting next to me. He immediately obliged, letting go of his wife’s hand and taking mine. “No, your other hand,” I said, annoyed that he had put all three of us in such an awkward position.

And then suddenly, in that bumbling, desperate moment, while we were all thinking those deep, morose thoughts, we blasted out of the stormy abyss into blue, piercing sunlight and landed safely in San Juan.

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Anam Spa, San Juan.

By the time my feet reached the ground, I was ready for home. Ready for death, and ready for bed. All of the above.

I didn’t feel like sightseeing so all I have to say about San Juan is that they invented the piña colada. Also, across from Parc Palomas, you will find a Vietnamese spa called Anam where they serve free sangria, 2 for $5 beers, and offer massages for $1 per minute. While it may not be heaven on earth, I would say it’s as good a place as any to sit and look for the silver lining after a long, hard fall.

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