Saturday, November 5, 2011

In Search of Angela

(Author's Note: This story is too long and drawn out. I could have shortened it and made it much more accessible and enjoyable to read. However, I wish to record this story not so much for other's enjoyment, but because I want to go back to this post in years and be suddenly transported back to these moments. Details count. Please excuse the overuse of them.)

Before I left for a recent vacation to Puerto Rico, my mother casually suggested that I "look for family" when I was there. Now, I have quite the convoluted family tree, and somewhere deep down in those roots one can find a little bit of Puerto Rican, and according to family lore I still have family out there in some tucked away corner of that enchanted isle. I consulted with my dear Aunt Nancy and discovered that I do indeed have some family still living there. Most notably, my great-grandfather's second wife, Angela. Aunt Nancy gave me her full name and an address. Well, not quite an address. A P.O. Box number, to be specific. With nothing more than that information, I set off for Puerto Rico.

Don't get me wrong, the purpose of my trip was not to bathe myself in glory by triumphantly rediscovering lost family members. The purpose of the trip was to drink pina coladas and kiosko cafe in a plaza, hit on cute Puerto Rican girls, and maybe get something approaching a tan. Given the mission objectives, I can proudly declare that after three days in San Juan, I could definitively declare Mission Accomplished.

But after three days, adventure beckoned. Lounging in the tropical sun is all good and fun, but I needed to do at least one thing that brought me close to incarceration. Naturally, I rented a car.

Driving down to Cabo Rojo (after a side trip to Isabela and Boqueron with a friend), in the southwest of the island, I began my adventure. Updated mission objectives: Find my lost step-great-grandmother.

How to even approach this puzzle? I've got a name and PO Box number-- that's it. Weighing my options, I figured that I guess I should start at the beginning (a phrase my grandfather liked to use). The first thing I did was drive into Cabo Rojo proper. A provincial town of no real interest to the adventure seeking tourist in skinny jeans, Cabo Rojo is a quiet series of streets mostly populated with elderly men gathering on street corners, playing cards or dominoes and smoking cigarettes. I parked my car on one of those quiet streets and walked into the local marketplace. A market seems like a good starting point for an adventure of this type; I can ask the locals for information, get a feel for the contours of the land, plan my escape routes, detect enemy surveillance, monitor-- fuck me, I'm hungry.

I hadn't eaten breakfast yet, and I get moody when I'm hungry. Therefore, I made my way over to a food stall. The workers at this particular stall quietly eyed me as I approached and did not greet me. I, however, greeted them and then pretended to read the menu, because I had already decided that I didn't like this place nor intended on eating there. However, being a mannered boy, I gave my mannered glance at the menu and after an appropriate amount of time elapsed, I muttered a thanks and moved on. Sheepishly wandering amongst the stalls, I settled on one of the quieter ones, run by an attractive older lady. I sit down, order some eggs and a coffee, and get to chatting with her. "Yo tengo una pregunta extrano. Yo estoy buscando para mi abuela (I don't know how to say "Step-great-grandmother" in spanish). Yo no conozco ella, pero yo se que ella vive en este barrio. Puedes ayudame?" Please don't correct my shitty grammar. I'm aware of it. But, I'm also aware that terrible grammar can be charming for those on the receiving end, so I was quite content to let my mistakes remain. Plus, after hearing me use terrible grammar, there is less of a chance that the other person will rattle off a complicated sentence in reply that I couldn't understand. I've thought about this too much.

The lady tells me that my best chance is to go to the post office and see if I can get any information from them. Realizing that my chances of getting an actual address from the post office are close to zero, I reluctantly agree, pay my bill, give my thanks, and set off.

The post office was surprisingly normal. I don't know-- I guess, given the heat and the sparsely populated streets and the relative tranquilidad, I was expecting the post office to be some kind of backwater station on the edge of the galactic rim with Greedo sitting in the corner booth writing a postcard to Jabba. It wasn't like that at all, though. Bummer. It was like my post office. Whatever.

I walked up to the desk and gave my pathetic "eres tu mi mama?" ( speech to the guy behind the counter. He looked at me with a puzzled look on his face. Is this guy for real? Naturally, and thankfully, he didn't just hand over this poor woman's address to this young man with carefully groomed facial hair. He got his boss.

Again, I gave my innocent "eres tu mi mama?" speech, this time to the boss. He looked at me and then started speaking way too fast for me to get anything. But, by the tone of his voice and the repeated use of "no", I gathered that he wasn't going to give me Angela's address. Shit. However, he ends his monologue by motioning me over to back door. Half expecting to see The Gimp beckoning me down in Zed's basement, I reluctantly open the door and step inside.
I was greeted by a friendly guy-- who spoke English! Looking at his title, as displayed on the plate on his desk, I see that this is the boss. The jefe. The General... Post Master General. Sweet.

Again, "eres tu mi mama?".


That was easy.

He tells me that giving the address is a breach of privacy and security and there's no way he can give me her address. I agree, saying that I understand and didn't really think there was a chance that I would get her address anyway. It was worth a shot! No big deal. Thanks for everything.
"But you seem like a nice guy."

I'm in.

The two men confer in a corner of the office. I sit there, trying to looks as non-intimidating as possible (not too difficult a task for me, given said skinny jeans and groomed facial hair. Thankfully, there aren't too many metrosexual murderers out there). They come back to me and offer their deal: they cannot give me her address, but they can give me the neighborhood she lives in. It's a small community, so if I go out to this neighborhood and start asking around, I will find her. Offhandedly, one of the guys asks me what her name is.
"Angela P----".
"Yeah, I know her."
"Wait-- WHAT? You know her?"
"Yeah," he says, in a kind of "I don't want to say too much" kind of way.
"You know my grandmother?" (Again, I sometimes just said that she was my grandmother. It makes the story a little more personal).
"Yes" he painfully replies. Then, he takes a sheet of paper out and starts drawing a map. This is awesome. I'm on a fucking treasure hunt. HE'S DRAWING A MAP. I'm really excited about this. I'm in Puerto Rico in search of relatives and this guy is drawing a map!! How cool is this?
Coming back to reality, my friend finishes his map. I ask how far away this is (he didn't note if this was drawn to scale. I was only slightly intellectually offended). "About 20 miles." I guess I'm driving. To orient yourself, cherished reader, we are on the left side of the map. There's that long road in the middle, and we're heading to the right side of the map. Sounds pretty simple, right? And what is the name of the street we are looking for? "Calle Tuna." Like the fish. Fantastic.
My buddy tells me to look for a store (he labelled it on the map, if you can make it out, dear reader) and ask for Angela there.

I give my profound thanks, tell them that if they are ever in New York I can hook them up with some tea and scones, and head out.

I find that big road in the middle of the map right quick. My amigo told me to take it all the way to the end. Sure thing! I start driving. At first, it's still obvious that I am in the city of Cabo Rojo. Ok. Then, it starts getting a little bit, oh, rougher? Rougher in terrain and rougher in ambiance. The road narrows. The houses become less frequent. Then, the road starts making some twists and turns. Soon, I'm beginning to realize that I am in the back woods. I'm in the country. This is not in your guide books. Furthermore, this map is bullshit!! That straight line of a road should look like a strand of knotted spaghetti! And then, all of a sudden, it stops. I literally drive to the end of the road, because I thought there would be more to it. But it stops. Right now. Throwing my free upgrade 2010 Ford Focus with GPS that I got for free because I flirted with the ladies behind the counter at the rental place in San Juan into reverse, I backed up to the last street.

Sure enough, it's Calle Tuna.

Calle Tuna isn't marked "Calle Tuna". In fact, there are no street signs here. Truly, I am where the streets have no name. The only reason I know it's Calle Tuna is because as I was driving along these twists and turns, I saw this:
A wall covered in friendly graffiti! Now, my Spanish is okay, but I still don't really know what this says. It's something like "Bienvenidos a las brisatunenas de Tona ambiente familiar y una moderna bellonera." Which translates to something like "Welcome to the brisatunenas (?) of Tona, familiar ambiance and a modern bellonera (?)." Whatever. As far as I'm concerned, I see the word "tuna", so I know I'm in the right place.

I drive down Calle Tuna in search of this store that my Post Office buddy told me about. I drive through all the twists and turns, keeping an eye out for anything unusual. There's a man on a horse in the middle of the road. Nothing too unusual about that. I'll ease the car around you, thankyouverymuch. There's a hawk in the sky. Carry on, carry on.

Finally, I find a store. It's not the right one, I'm sure of that, but it's something. Actually, it's more like a mechanic's garage and a bar wrapped in one little dilapidated building. Let's be an overenthusiastic and naive young American boy and jump out of my shiny new rental car (make sure the GPS is switched off!) and stroll up to this group of five Puerto Rican mechanics and strike up some jolly good conversation about my lost grandmother, shall we? Right-o! And I did.
The mechanics were a rough lot. One guy looked like Frank Zappa. Spitting image of him. The other was overweight with bad teeth and the most piercing blue eyes you could imagine. Another was wearing a cowboy hat and was sitting at the bar drinking a Medalla beer. He looked like one of the bad guys in a Clint Eastwood western. I chose the fat guy as the least likely to kill me, and cautiously approach him.

I give my by now well rehearsed speech. He thinks. "Does she have any brothers or sisters?" I have no idea! I don't even know what she looks like (or, truthfully, if she is even alive). He thinks. "Does she have any children?" Dude. I don't know the chick, can you help me or not? Frank Zappa comes over to weigh in his opinion. We three talk and scratch our respective chins (In Puerto Rico, it is considered bad form to scratch another man's chin). "What is her last name?" "P----". "Hmm, there are many P-----s over there." He points to the distance. Apparently, unlike in the US, families stay basically together here and congregate in one neighborhood, and all the P--- live in one neighborhood not too far away. After getting some basic directions from the fat guy, I give my thanks and head back to the car.

I take off again, this time with a supplement to my hand drawn map. The fat guy told me to take the second right once I get up the hill. The problem is that the hill is more of an idea, rather than a physical entity. The entire area is hilly, so I really don't know which hill he is designating as "the" hill. Whatever. I'll just turn right when it feels right.

I get lost. I pull over to the side of the road and take a picture-- because I'm lost and need a second to make some decisions.
There. I feel better. I take in the scenery and appreciate the fact that I am in Puerto Rico.
Ok. Time to find my step-great-grandmother.

I head in the direction that Frank Zappa and Fatty tell me. Still more hills and narrow roads. But, as I reach the crest of a hill, there is a young man and two elderly ladies just getting out of a car. I pull over, turn down the salsa music that I had blasting, and recite my speech. "Does she have any brothers or sisters?" Ok, this is getting old. They tell me to look for a cafe at the bottom of the hill, and to ask around over there. You're kidding me? What ever happened to looking for the little store that the post office guy told me to seek out? Fuck it, I'm in the moment. Look for a cafe? Done. I'm on it.

I drive down the hill and suddenly the landscape opens up. There's a large house in the middle of a wide open field here. Very modern looking. The area is open, and there are a bunch of horses behind a fence next to the house. And then, as if gifted unto me from the Gods of Adventure, a cowboy appeared.

Allow me to paint a picture. This was a real cowboy. He was an older guy, maybe 50 years old, about six feet tall, deeply tanned, and spoke only out of the right side of his mouth. I'm not kidding: he was carrying a large saddle (with a Puerto Rican flag patch on it) under one arm, and a hoe in the other. The farming implement, that is. He wasn't abducting a working girl and carrying her under one arm.

Now see here, this here cowboy moseys on up to my car when I pulled up alongside him. I give my speech, and he garbles out a few words which I can't understand due to the combination of his use of only half his mouth's surface area, and because he's a cowboy and probably has a cool accent even in Spanish. All I can sort out is that he knows of an Angela, and she lives up the hill (where I had just come from). He tells me to go back up there and ask for her.

So I do. I drive back up the hill. As I slowly drive my car down the road, cruising at a leisurely pedophile's pace, looking into the houses to see if my step great-grandmother is eagerly awaiting the arrival of some American kid she's never heard of. I see a woman watching TV.
Out of car. Speech. Awkward stare. "Go back down the hill." Fuck.

I go a little further up the hill, in flagrant violation of TV lady's instructions, and come back to the young guy and the two old women. One of the ladies come straight up to my car. "Did you find her?" I report the sad news. She sighs, and then goes into a monologue. An extended monlogue. I really don't get what the hell she is trying to tell me, but she looks very concerned and is speaking in a sad tone. I'm getting worried. All I can catch are the words "cama", "enferma", and then finally, predictably, "se murio". Bed, sick, dead. You've got to be joking. I've come all this way, ALL THIS WAY, and you, crazy woman, are telling me that Angela is dead?! I ask her if she knows which house Angela lives in. No, but then she keeps repeating something. Some phrase. I can't get it though. She tells me to write it down. What? She tells me to write it down. As I'm struggling to grasp what the fuck she is talking about, I record the following in my notebook: "Med sed ulti 30". That's me trying to follow her. I give her my notebook and pen and ask her to write it down. "No se escribir." Goddammit. She doesn't know how to write. I'm going back down the hill.

So I do. Another elderly couple is outside of their home. Having no filter anymore, I pull over. This old man is wearing one of those cowboy hats that you see young boys wear. Like the one that Woody's son wears in Toy Story 2 (or is it 3?). That kind of cowboy hat that is red, made out of straw, and has a chinstrap. Got it? Good, because this old man was wearing one-- and using the chinstrap. It's like they emptied all the crazies onto this one fucking hill! Anyway, they couldn't help me either.

Another old man on the road. By now, I know I'm onto something. Nobody has gone, "Nope never heard of her." All of them are kind of struggling and thinking really hard whenever I say the name, as if it rings a bell. This guy, however, was different. He said he knew Angela! AWESOME. He tells me to go to the bottom of the hill and go to the big house there, because Alfredo (my great-grandfather) used to work there! WHAT!? YES, this guy knows of my great-grandfather Alfredo. He didn't know him, but he knows the name. How cool is that?

I take off, with new found enthusiasm, for the house at the bottom of the hill. I pull my car over, and luckily spot a petite old woman watering some flowers outside. Walking up the driveway, trying my hardest not to look like a Bible salesman, I call out to her and give my speech. She approaches the fence to hear me better, so I repeat my story, still trying to look as unintimidating as possible. When she asks me for the woman's name, I tell her Angela P----, and that her husband's name was Alfredo P-----.

Then, from within the darkness of the house, a man's voice calls out,
"Alfredo? Alfredo es mi tio!"
Wait a second. Did he just say that Alfredo is his uncle?
I call out, asking him to confirm it. "Alfredo es tu tio?" (I should have used "usted". Whatever.)

And out comes Rene. Let me spoil the story: Rene is insane. He's not normal. He's cray-cray. Rene didn't stop speaking from the moment he walked outside. His wife, the petite woman, hushed him most of the time and spoke for him. Her spanish was very understandable, so I was gracious at having a conversation partner who actually pronounced all their consonants and vowels. Rene might be crazy, however, he did just say that Alfredo is his uncle. I press the issue. I ask him about Alfredo. When did he die? "Noventa". Yeah, that's right. Around 1990. Was he married to Angela? "Yes, he was. She was his second wife." That's right! We're talking about the same guy.

HOLY SHIT. Rene is my cousin!!! It hit me. I wasn't even thinking about it. Rene's uncle is my great-grandfather, which means that we're related by blood! I proudly declare "Tenemos el sangre lo mismo!" Rene seemed amused by my enthusiasm (and probably my improper grammar. However, both Rene and Hilda, his wife, complemented me on my Spanish, thank you).

I'd love to stay and chat with my newfound insane hillbilly cousin, but I did come here seeking out Angela. I ask if she lives around here. "Yeah, she lives on the hill." Really? Go figure, because I'm feeling a bit like Sisyphus right now. Hilda goes to the phone and returns a few seconds later and hands it to me. What do I do with it? "Angela!" What? Oh man, Angela is on the phone! Hilda called her!

My head starts spinning. Angela is on the phone. One, she's alive. That's a relief. Two, she lives in the neighborhood. Cool. Three, she's on the fucking phone Matt! Talk to her!
"Hola." I say, probably sounding like an idiot.
"Hola." This is going nowhere fast.
"Uh, yo tengo una pregunta extrana." My signature opening line.
"Usted es la esposa de Alfredo?" (Are you Alfredo's wife?)
"Alfredo P----"
"Okay. Alfredo tiene dos hijas, Helen y Emma, no?" (Alfredo had two kids, Helen and Emma, right?)
"Cool." I accidently let that slip. Not important. "Uh, Helen es mi abuela!" There's the punchline! Helen is my grandmother. The grand reveal! Hooray!!

A single cricket chirped. A tumbleweed blew past. Somebody coughed in the audience.

"Uhhh. Puedo encontrarte?" That's shitty spanish, but I was trying to say "can I meet you?"
I ask her the color of her house. "Peche". Um, we didn't learn "peche" in school. "Que es peche?" I ask. "Peche!" Oh lord, this isn't going well.
Hilda jumps in for the save. She points at the big house and declares "peche!" Indeed! The house is... wait for it... peach. I probably should have figured that one out. No matter.
I decide to set off in search of Angela and her peach house. But not before taking a group picture with Hilda, Rene, and myself.
Yup. Just me and my cuz, hanging out. Looking at this picture now, I can't get over the similarity of our group picture (which I shot by holding my camera out at arms length, self-portrait style) with a certain famous painting. Our very own Puerto Rican Gothic. For the sake of comparison:

Bidding farwell to Hilda and Rene, I hopped back into my Ford Focus with free GPS and headed back up that same damn hill. Passing maybe five or six houses, I see an older lady standing in her driveway looking down the hill. That, ladies and gentelman, was my step-great-grandmother. That was Angela.

Angela's place in my family is an interesting one. She is my step-great-grandmother. That's an interesting and slightly confusing designation, if I may say so. Here's what it really means: My great grandfather, Alfredo, had two wives. He had his children (one of whom was my grandmother, Helen) with his first wife. Alfredo and Angela didn't have any kids. Therefore, I'm not directly blood related to Angela, but she is still family!

I pulled up my car next to her house, and the first thing that she says to me as I exit the car is "Tu hablas espanol? (Do you speak Spanish?)" It made me laugh out loud. Imagine if I didn't! This would have been the shortest reunion imaginable, and perhaps the most anti-climactic as well. Luckily, I have some Spanish chops.

We walk inside of Angela's house. It's small and sparsely furnished, with religious symbols on the walls, wicker furniture, and photos of her family on the walls. It actually reminded me very much of my grandmother's house.

I took a seat at the kitchen counter and we got to chatting. One of the first things she said to me was that when Alfredo died (in 1990), that everybody forgot about her and didn't call her anymore. Awkward. However, she's absolutely right. The last communication that she received from the family was a postcard from 1994, announcing the birth of one of my cousins. Since then, nothing.

I changed the topic, as I was uncomfortable and truly didn't even know she existed until about a week earlier (further proving her point). We start talking about our families. She tells me about her sons, I tell her about my parents and sister. Then, Angela goes over into another room and pulls out a stack of pictures which look like they haven't been touched in 20 years. I thumb through them, finding many pictures of Alfredo, some pictures of my grandmother, some pictures of Aunt Nancy, and then, a baby picture. Angela tells me that she isn't sure who the baby is. I look a little bit more carefully... and realize it's my sister! It's a baby picture of Lauren, I announce with characteristic enthusiasm! What are the chances that there is a baby picture of my sister in some little village in a remote corner of Puerto Rico? Incredible.

We continued chatting for about an hour or two, and then Angela asks me if I'm hungry. I wasn't really hungry, but the thoughts of a sumptuous Puerto Rican meal, hand-made by a genuine Puerto Rican abuelita were too enticing. I said I was hungry.

Here it comes. Real PR food. I wonder if she makes her mofongo by scratch? Maybe she'll make me some rice and beans? My mouth is watering just writing this.

She comes back from the refrigerator. A plate of brown rice. That's cool, that's okay. Then, a tupperware container. I bet it's the mofongo!! It has to be. Luchresi cannot tell a mofongo from a sherry!

She pops the tupperware in the microwave. Ok, fine. But the mofongo, Mateo, the mofongo! It beckons!

It's done. The ding of the microwave, 'tis truly a clarion call for culinary celebration! A fanfare for festive feasting!

Angela unceremoniously plops the contents of the tupperware onto my plate of brown rice. A bit uncouth, but a student should never question the master so early in his education! Either way, it's... it's brown. I can see-- I guess those are onions? Either way, I'm here in Puerto Rico and here is some actual Puerto Rican cooking going on. Let's do this. Mofongo ahoy!

I dig in. I taste chicken. That's a good start, but I really can't tell what is in this. Finally, I can't take it anymore. What the hell am I eating? I ask Angela what is in it? "Chicken, onions, peppers. It's good right? Very fresh." I agree, and politely refrain from mentioning that she needed to nuke it longer because most of the contents on my plate are still frozen. I continue putting the chicken, onions, and ice shards into my mouth and wash it down with some instant coffee that Angela whips up for me.

[Side note: Instant coffee holds a special place in my heart. When living in London, I spent most of my time at a cafe that I lived on top of called Tiffins Cafe. Run by Roy and Jane (a lovely pair of Indian immigrants who grew up in Kenya and then moved to London and subsequently became my second parents when I lived in London), Tiffins is a simple kind of a joint, serving a mix of construction workers, locals, and the occasional hungover American grad student. Very simple meals are served with tea, hot chocolate, or, you guessed it, instant coffee. Ever since then, I don't mind the ashy, bitter taste of a fine cup of Nespresso. In fact, I love it. I'm instantly transported back to Tiffins, sitting at the table next to the window, eating fried eggs, baked beans, two rashers of bacon, and enjoying the welcoming company of Roy and Jane.]

I ask Angela how she makes it. She goes over to the freezer, and grabs a bag. "Here." Oh shit. It's a frozen dinner! So much for authentic Puerto Rican cooking!

After some more chatting, I felt like it was time to go. But before I left, I asked Angela if I could take her picture. She refused at first, saying that she was "fea". Not true! Bonita! Eventually, I got her to accept. And, here she is:

We exchanged phone numbers and addresses, and I bid Angela farewell. Getting back into my Ford Focus with free GPS, I waved goodbye, switched on the AC, and turned up the salsa. Climbing back up the hill, I stopped and pulled the car over. Reflecting on what an adventure this had been, I grab my pen and paper and start furiously taking notes.

And that's my story of how I found my step-great-grandmother in the hills of Puerto Rico.


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