I had been planning this trip for a couple of weeks. My friend Cristina and I drove 40 min to the eastern part of the island, where we were going to find a plein air spot in which I could paint. Cristina thought the small town of Naguabo “might be the ticket,” because it transitions from the mountain range housing El Yunque to miles of beach facing the Caribbean Sea. It was not hard to get there, and we quickly made our way to the town’s plaza, where we parked so Cristina could take photos.
It was very quiet. The town seemed entirely populated by old men and women, and only one business out of every five was open on a Saturday morning. The church’s facade was being restored, and we noticed the open masonic lodge. All around the plaza someone had placed handmade, two-dimensional christmas decorations and in the middle, a country-themed display featured a stuffed man on a hammock in front of a shack.
We did not find a place in which to eat so we drove out of town to barrio Maizales, where I thought we might get a closer look at the foothills. Half-way up the narrow straight road we found the most beautiful spot under a tree, with emerald green pastures and cebú cows. Cristina liked it because it was also a crossroads and “there will be
witnesses if something happens to us.” But we were hungry so we stopped an old man on a bicycle and asked him for a restaurant recommendation. “The closest thing to a restaurant around here is Almacenes Maizales , a general store with a fonda in the back,” he offered, and instructed us to “ask for Chuito.”
As it turned out, Almacenes Maizales was the happening place in this barrio. We walked straight to the back and found Chuito, a spry seventy-year old man with a mustache. “It’s not Chuito, it’s Changuito,” he corrected. Cristina could not believe it and had to ask, “As in Chango, the bird?” By then we had reached the fonda. No alcoholic beverages were served there, I noted. A sixty-something woman came out of the kitchen wearing a hair net and introduced herself as Petra. We must have looked famished, because she skipped the niceties and
immediately told us the menu for Saturday: Rice with pigeon peas, codfish, and boiled green bananas. We ate everything and found it so delicious, I think we told her several times. Then Cristina asked her about the town’s economy.
She had used up her savings on diesel for the electric generators that kept her store alive after the storm. Hers was the only place with electricity in the barrio. Petra’s husband was alive but was ill with “bad nerves,” and that meant she was the one running the store. “Everybody young is gone,” she confirmed. “The economy is dead around here.” “I hope to retire soon and will leave this to my daughter to run, if she wants to come back.” We asked how much it was for the meal and paid $12 for both of us. The sky was already dark and sheets of rain came down, drenching everything and preventing us from walking to our car. We killed time looking around the store and chatting with other customers. Mr. Chango showed us the little sealed plastic cups with flan, tembleque and bread pudding inside a glass enclosure. We chose a tembleque to share. Cristina picked up a milk container, we paid and quickly got in the car, trying to avoid the deluge.
Reception was bad but we were able to see that the weather forecast was completely different for this part of the island. It would rain until 5 PM. I started the car and drove carefully down the narrow road until we reached the highway, passing the plein air spot I had discovered and the old man on a bicycle, bidding goodbye to the town that treated us so well.