2 Conferences, 2 Cities, 1 Week in Puerto Rico

24 Nov

After packing for almost every conceivable contingency and getting a few hours of restless sleep, my alarm startled me awake at 3:00am Sunday morning. It was time to shower, throw in the last few toiletries, and head to the airport for a packed week in Puerto Rico.  Adrenaline really does a lot for a person; panicking about arriving late for my flight fueled my last minute packing and kept me awake through my first flight to Chicago. A couple of cups of coffee in Chicago, and I found energy enough to write my last blog post and read a bit for pleasure.

Once in San Juan, I gathered my checked luggage and went in search of my carpooling companions.  Elizabeth had just picked up the car and met me almost as soon as I went through baggage claim. A couple hours and one lost bag later, three other colleagues arrived, and we crammed our gear into the trunk and headed out in search of a good Puerto Rican meal.  My first taste of mofongo convinced me that I was going to enjoy the cuisine on this trip.  However, a few days later, I must admit to missing vegetables – a lot.

My first conference, or rather “un-conference” – THAT Camp Caribe – a series of technology workshops and sessions in the digital humanities, met at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez at the other end of the island.   An uneventful two and half-hour drive brought us to Mayagüez, but we had difficulty finding my hotel. After driving to the wrong location, but the correct address according to the hotel’s website and Google maps, Alex, in a very Jason Bourne sort of way, suggested we turn left then left again and about half-way down the block, we would find five or six guys playing dominoes. He had somehow seen them in the dark from the other side of the block. They misunderstood what we were asking for though and gave us directions to the Colonial apartments rather than Hotel Coloniale.  Thank goodness for electronic maps! Schuyler found the university and then searched for the Howard Johnson since the Colonial Hotel wasn’t far from it. We eventually found it, and after traveling for nearly 20 hours, I arrived at my destination, exhausted, hot, sticky, and ready for bed. The accommodations were very simple but sufficient.

THAT Camp workshops began the next day and the un-conference took place Tuesday and Wednesday.  For more details on THAT Camp, check out my twitter feed (@throughthe_veil) and my upcoming blog post on the Cultural Heritage Informatics site. Before I left home, I had printed out a map of how to get to the university (which turned out to be quite unhelpful), and I picked up a map from the front desk at the hotel, but I forgot how close all of the European-style streets are and walked several blocks too far in the afternoon sun and had to backtrack.  I finally reached UPR and discovered it was deserted! It was a university holiday. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I had also printed out a campus map or if my phone was working, but it decided to be contrary at precisely that moment. Fortunately, one lone student was studying nearby and patiently responded to my query in rusty high school Spanish with a funny French accent. I made it just in time for the start of the workshops, and a good thing too!  I didn’t want to miss anything.

Monday night, everyone convened in the HoJo parking lot and caravanned to Rincón.  Well, we mostly followed. I was fortunate enough to find myself in the car with a graduate student who is originally from Mayagüez, so we took a number of back roads through the hills down to the coast.  Our driver, German and Marta were two of the un-conference organizers and kept us laughing with crazy tales of life and biking in Puerto Rico. I laughed so much my cheeks hurt by the time we reached the restaurant, and the night had only begun.  Some of the conversation was serious – discussion of our research topics, how we used the digital humanities in our work, and what our current projects were – but a good portion of it was tongue-in-cheek and silliness.

Quotes of a night:

  • “Disney’s going to lock you in a teacup!” (in reference to “borrowing” Disney icons for a presentation)
  • “It’s like dry bobbing for apples upside down.” (Describing the process of coconut harvesting.)

Tuesday was a full day, beginning with a sunrise run through Mayagüez followed by a brainstorming meeting and sessions until about 5:30, after which everyone met up at Siglo XX for more excellent Puerto Rican food, conversation, and laughter.

Wednesday we finished our sessions around 12:30 and met for lunch – our last social gathering before everyone left for San Juan for the ASA conference or flew home. That afternoon, I wandered around Mayagüez, taking pictures, perusing local shops, and then settled in with a coffee and WiFi at the café in the Howard Johnson. Three hours of programming and experimenting with Mapbox later, Madelyn, one of the other THAT Camp participants asked if I’d like to grab dinner together. We had a wonderful conversation that also served as a debriefing since we hadn’t had the opportunity at the end of the sessions today.  It was the perfect way to end the camp and think about what else we would like to discuss next time.  And it was delightful to get to know her better.  She is a professional flautist and singer who has performed all over the world and is now in library and information sciences but considering further graduate work in ethnomusicology. We talked for three hours! By then, our brains had been on overdrive for three days, and we were exhausted, so we each returned to our rooms and prepared to head out to San Juan for the ASA conference the next day.

A quick lunch at a popular local café, German, Alex, and I set out on our long drive back to San Juan. Along the way German enlightened me on Puerto Rican politics, the countryside, and economy.  The three of us also had a chance to debrief on sessions we weren’t able to attend at the THAT Camp and discuss my current project with MapBox.

As soon as we arrived in San Juan, I decided to head to the beach to enjoy the last bit of sunshine.  I had been in Puerto Rico for four days at that point and had nothing to show for it since I had been inside almost the entire time.  Shortly after I settled into my lounge chair and began to relax, taking in the beautiful scenery, Ryan and Marcel (the other two presenters on my panel) arrived and suggested a swim. The water was just cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough that I didn’t freeze after ten minutes (which is saying something). As the sun set, we dried off and made plans to meet for drinks in the lobby and dinner at a nearby restaurant with some of their friends.

I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but the location was amazing – a patio, right next to the Caribbean, the waves splashing against the rocks just below us. It was a beautiful night – still warm, but not stifling – just right for an evening stroll and dinner.  Marcel and Ryan’s friends were amiable and interesting, which made conversation easy and enjoyable. Over dinner, a couple regaled us with stories of a recent trip to Malawi and Kenya for non-profit work. It was an early night since three of us had to present at 8am the next morning.

The sun rises early in San Juan, and so did we Friday morning. Since the conference was held at a convention center rather than the hotel, we had to catch the first shuttle to make it in time to set up for our panel.  Despite the hour, we had a decent turnout, and the presentations and subsequent conversation went well. If you’re interested, my paper and PowerPoint are available on my academic blog:  Before we knew it, the two hours had passed, and it was time to clear the room for the next panel.

Following a busy day at the convention center and some time enjoying the Caribbean sun, Denise, a friend I had met in the archives in Aix, picked us up for a tour of old San Juan, dinner, and salsa (music and dancing, not the dip).  After sampling the delectable but heavy Puerto Rican cuisine at Raice’s, we definitely needed to at least walk off dinner.  Our trek to a local celebration, complete with carnival rides and live music was the perfect solution. The salsa dancers were incredible, and the party atmosphere electric. I joined one of Denise’s friends on 1001 Nachts (Nights), a carnival ride that swings its occupants up in a wide arc and finally full circle. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and while Denise’s friend, who shall remain anonymous, turned a little green, he survived the ride and returned triumphantly to solid ground.  After visiting several local hangouts, we finally called it a night.

Saturday brought more conferencing and beach time before heading out for another dinner and more live music with Denise. This time, we headed out to local lunch favorite in the Santurce or workers’ district. It was like stepping into someone’s cozy dining room from the 1950s with ancient TV’s, old photographs, paintings, and knickknacks.  Dinner was excellent once again and much of it was complementary from drinks to appetizers.  A bit of coffee revived us after dinner, and we set off for a park in the Condado district and more live music – this time Bomba. This percussive, Afro-Caribbean fusion is actually Christmas music on the island, and the Puerto Rican version of “caroling” would be completely unrecognizable as such to many Americans.  In Puerto Rico caroling is called an “assault” and happens at about midnight after gathering at least 20 people and instruments to play the lively, dance-worthy music in front of someone’s house, who is then expected to provide a feast for the crew who interrupted their sleep. Being a night owl, it sounds like a great deal of fun to me, but I’m sure many would disagree. 🙂

Finally, Sunday arrived and so did our planes to fly us home. The guys headed back to Yale on an early flight, while I met Denise for brunch and flew back in the afternoon.

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Posted by on November 24, 2012 in Graduate School, Travels


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