Folks were friendly. Native Viequense or bleary-eyed ex-pates, both seemed to welcome anyone weird, or adventurous enough, to have bothered to find, and get to the place. Just having landed on the island made you sort of an insider. We’d past the first of many, oh so many, initiations to come.
Vieques is roughly 3 miles north to south, and 20 miles from its western coast that faced the sunset over Puerto Rico, to its eastern tip that point to the US Virgin Islands. More than half of it belonged to the Navy back then, and yet there was no noticeable military presence anywhere. Instead, it felt wild. Small herds of horses, cows, even full-on bulls, wandered freely down the narrow roads. The roads themselves meandered over and around the island. They weren’t like roads back home, intent on getting from point A to point B in the most practical, efficient way. Here a road, often more like a trail with a width of ten or twelve feet, could jut sharply to the left to avoid a large mango tree, and swing immediately to the right to connect an old farm’s driveway. You had to drive slowly, and with windows down you could smell it all. Tropical heat causes plant life to thrive and decay in equal measure. The intense vegetative aroma of life coming and going in all phases was new to us. Equally new was the force of the almost constant breezes; we learned they were “the trade winds.” How many pirate and old sailing novels had we read, describing their strength and importance? It felt like meeting a celebrity.
The roads were sometimes shady and tree-lined; sometimes just bordered by stick and barbwire fences. It took us a while to connect the dots; that these scrawny little stick fences can sprout, and become living things – like trees themselves. In fact, huge gnarly, shiny red and peeling Turpentine trees, the very trees that line the road. Looking closer, you see their gnarly trunks are wrapping around barbwire. Turns out any other fence can be prey to hurricane force, but when your fence grows into the ground – it holds. All new to us, all pretty darn weird. Certainly Vieques met our off-beat requirement.
Second day on the island, we were hanging out in our fancy vacation house, looking north over the Atlantic. The kids were on the balcony when Ty launched one of Gus’ “GI Joes” into the sea with one of his homemade rubber band catapults. Poor Gus. After scouring the tide pools with the kids, we gave up, came inside and picked up the local paper. The most traditional newspapery thing about this double-sided super politically left, anti-Navy one-page rag, was its name, The Vieques Times. It sounded like a paper, even if it didn’t read like one, not the kind we had up north. But luckily, it had a classified “section.”
There it was: “FOR SALE: New Dawn; women’s retreat center.” The ad went on with something about alternative or handmade…but Tyler didn’t let me get that far.
“C’mon Mom! Its perfect! We gotta go check it out! C’mon you guys!!” Guess he was worried it might be sold before we got there. We were trying to figure out if the drive there, somewhat out of our planned route to the beach, would be do-able that day when Staci, the caretaker came in. Staci looked like a small wizened witch doctor, and acted the part. She knew Vieques, and encouraged us to explore the quiet hilly part of the island, where it turned out she lived, just across the way, up a hill, and into the woods, from this New Dawn.
Staci explained how we could pick recao – the great local herb there, that she lived with her son in a handmade open-air house, preferred to live without cash, but traded and hunted wild doves, with slingshots, to make stew. All this confirmed what we’d guessed about her, and that we were going. Not sure if it was the property, the recao, or the idea of meeting a boy who lived in the woods with a slingshot, but we were on our way to Pilon. Although its only seven miles out of town as the crow, or dove, flies, Pilon was considered way out in the boonies. Town folk rarely headed out that far. Conversely, the ones who lived out there tried to avoid going all the way to town. Why was everything around here reminding me of weird Latin novels? The part where the aunt turns into a parrot and flies out the window?
The road to New Dawn was narrow and twisty, but basically paved. The long driveway off of it, wasn’t. David bounced our beat up rented Jeep Cherokee over small ravine-like ruts, through a small banana grove until we got to the gate. The gate. The gate that changed my life. A classic long, wide wooden ranch gate, with old iron hardware; worn and welcoming. Years of history; of people, weather, stories, coming in, going out. As much of a metaphor as its always felt since, it was in fact, an actual gate. Something you go through. And I did. We all did.
All around the gate were palms, agaves, and century plants. Deep ruts cut through its packed dirt driveway. My kind of welcome. A gate to my funky-ness, my ranch, my life fantasy, my identity, my childhood, my future. It was all there in an instant, like a portal to who I wanted to be, and to who I’d always had been.
Frighteningly so. Was I the aunt? Was I turning into a parrot? Was I flying out the window? Certainly I had just found myself in the wild Latin novel. Who was writing my part? Don’t know if I swore in front of the kids back then, but “Oh shit” was all I thought. I knew it was a done deal, or that I wanted it to be.