Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ye old fort...thine protectorate!

Old San Juan holds many architectural and cultural delights. By far the most stunning and popular are the two forts that surround this city of Caribbean antiquity. We opted for the smaller of the two, San Cristobal on the northeast side of the city. The fort, with its towering walls and gunnery posts, is a sight to behold from afar and up close. We pulled into this UNESCO historic site for a day of exploration.

Built in the 1600's to protect the then burgeoning Spanish port, the fort is an architectural masterpiece for its time period. There are numerous features that blew my mind, including the water collection system that led all rain water to a holding tank in the depths of the fort that had a capacity to store 870,000 gallons of fresh water. They even had the foresight to line the tank with limestone as a filtering agent, and rodent and animal control measures were used to keep the grounds in pristine condition so the inhabitants of the fort would be healthy as possible. Even then, the military spent a great deal of money and had the best technology and resources available. Some things never change!

San Cristobal and her sister fort, the formidable El Morro were part of the Spaniard's intricate network of defense and transport dedicated to mostly one cause... acquiring as much gold as possible. Spain was in love with gold and glory and they used God as the excuse to travel the world in search of the precious metal. Silver and other metals were in demand as well, but gold was the premium exemplar of wealth and prosperity. I believe they would have eaten it if they could! The network extended through the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and Florida and was quite extensive. Other maritime countries of imperial Europe were interested in much of the same and the battles and constant turmoil over ports and passages were constant in those days. Pirates were everywhere, some independent, others working as vigilantes and buccaneers for opposing nations. Everyone was trying to get a piece of the action, and the biggest losers were the Taino and Caribe natives who lost their homelands and health to the European's diseases and treachery.

We spent the rest of the day at the laundromat chatting with the lovely attendant named Vanessa, who used to live in Buffalo! How ironic. I spoke in broken Spanish, she in broken English, and we chuckled at each other as we tried to find out about each other's lives. Turns out she lived only two blocks from my old office on the West Side. Now we are neighbors in Rio Grande. She spoke about her children and her husband, who love Puerto Rico, but miss the states because of the opportunity. She enjoys the simpler life here on the island. She was amazed that I had no children (as I sometimes am.. ha ha) and said I should get started as soon as possible. I tried to explain to her that I was surrounded by wonderful children at the orphanage, but she would have none of it. Most Puerto Ricans and Latinos in general are very family oriented and productive when it comes to having children. They seem like little baby factories at times and most of them are married with children before their 18th birthdays. They are raised this way though, and far more mature about it than most of the teenagers in the states. I'm an old bachelor by their standards, but I wouldn't be able to travel and do the things that I do if it weren't so!

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