Snow Bird

One who travels to warm climes during the winter.”

Mmhmm.  Would you believe that all these years I have never tried it?  Yet one so quintessentially Maine pastime actually doesn’t involve being in the state at all.  Diehards with silver hair will go for the full three to six months you could argue qualify winter in our cold locale.  We tried a taste at two weeks in the San Juan equivalent of South Portland (the bits by Mill Creek, not the other side, of course) where we had city, sun, sand and sea at the ready.  While we still consider ourselves hardy stock, it’s hard to disregard our voracious searches for “where to bird next year” the day we flew back to single digit temperatures.

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carry-on essentials for light travelers

Some tips for beginner birds, from a beginner:

Don’t put too much in your luggage, travel lightly so that you will have room to cram all these wonderful, colorful things you see in other parts of the world.  What do you really want to accomplish with the head space gained from being a thousand miles away from your home and work?  For me, it was observation and reflection.  Camera and journal.  The checked bag was nearly empty when we sent it through the chute and would you believe we were able to stuff an entire hammock from Naguabo in to it for the trip back?

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Do definitely take public transportation if it is available where you are going.  I found this rather helpful map of the sporadic bus system to be indispensable for our first seven days.  By not relying on rental cars you will become much more familiar with the neighborhoods that are hosting you, are more likely to find great spots to eat and will see much more of the city by gazing out the window of a bus than if you were trying to navigate the streets yourself.  You must be patient, though, the buses don’t run as frequently as they do here, and why wouldn’t you be patient?  You’re on vacation, you have nothing to do by definition.  But once you board you are treated with a veritable limousine full of air conditioning and friendly (or at least interesting) people.  A caveat:  taxi cabs are kind of ridiculously expensive in San Juan.  They are regulated, but no one really shares with you ahead of time each piece of luggage you put in the boot will cost you – I think five dollars per is standard.  So for the price of a rental for the last two days (appx. $75-$125 depending on your personal insurance policy) we were able to day trip around the island for 48 hours and save ourselves a thirty dollar (or more) cab fare on the way to the airport, with a convenient drop off right by the terminal.

Do walk until it hurts.  When you go out there go with gusto – the art, animals, colors, sights and sounds we saw in ten days rivaled the number of times we might see such bright and wonderful colors before the crocuses pop their heads out of an early April dusting here in Maine.  So we soaked it all up, the vibrance, and the first gray morning commute on our return really actually wasn’t that bad.

Do eat like the locals.  Every place that you might find affordable airfare to is likely to have beachfront areas littered with hotels and chain restaurants designed for the comfort that familiarity brings for travelers who may be a little out of their element.  Being out of our element was almost entirely the point.  From left to right, top to bottom, I have about a thousand things to say about the food in Puerto Rico.  1)  We sampled (about 24 ounces of) frappe con mango y coco on our last day in Naguabo, on the eastern coast of the island.  This smoothie is boss, and puts the more local blizzards and cyclones of North East fame to shame.  Fresh fruit blended and topped with whipped cream, rainbow sugar crystals, shredded coconut, more fresh fruit and a vanilla wafer.  2)  Bacardí costs about half as much in PR as it does stateside, and we made our own mojitos at home but also found it tasted really lovely with the Goya fruit juices we could pick up at the supermercado for 2/$1.  You can get them here, too, but they are $.87 at Hannaford’s.  A premium!  Happily, our rental was a city block from 3) a pretty excellent grocery store which should be on everyone’s list to do when they’re traveling anywhere, international grocery stores are just so cool.  Mofongo is a ubiquitous dish of mashed plaintains, sauce, and protein (for the most part).  That picture of perfection is a seafood mofongo we got at Cafe Berlin in Old San Juan and could have easily fed three hungry walkers.  On the beach there will usually be vendors selling piraguas which is kind of like shaved ice, the sweetest (no, seriously, incredibly sweet) thing to enjoy after a swim.  The piragüero at Ocean Park sold parcha (passionfruit) or coco (coconut) and of course I had to somewhat clumsily ask him in Spanish if I could have both in my cup instead of just one.  Last but not least, bacalaitos, codfish fritters, are everywhere – and although they sound rich they are actually pretty sparse on the fish and pretty heavy on the fried dough.  So of course, delicious.

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Lastly, Don’t be afraid of the money bit.  There are ways to travel economically, in our case some red eye flights (not too horrible, trust me), splitting a (perfect) two bedroom rental with another couple we wanted to travel with, going to a place that didn’t require ponying up for a passport, and eating meals at ‘home’ about half the time we were there.  Traveling by bus and not by taxi or rental car.  All told, if we had kept our hands to ourselves at souvenir shops and made a few more meals at home the trip would have cost less than $900 per person.  Which sounds like a lot if you weren’t planning on going away anyways, but listen to this:

Our experiences in this world can be as broad or as narrow as we make them.  The choices we make in our daily lives compound every month, every year, every decade to contribute to the bigger picture, your whole story.  To afford this broad exposure I’ve needed to say No to a pair of nice, but unnecessary shoes, about a dozen trips to Hi Bombay! that were more out of laziness than actual starvation.  Yes to buying a tub of yogurt at the beginning of the week rather than stop for a coffee and a croissant every day (ok, still I do this some days, how could I not?!) and other minor changes that eventually led to me seeing through a new lens, being a guest in another peoples’ world, and walking my tail off until every beautifully painted house was safely stowed away in my camera.  When we are old and silver, proper snowbirds, I will not give a second thought to all the malai koftas missed, but would be so, so sad to have never seen the world.

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It’s no surprise, but a first foray at snowbirding has proven completely incurable.  During the gray days, you know, the ones where the beautiful snow globe snow isn’t falling, I find my mind slowly wandering off hoping I won’t notice that it’s hatching schemes to one day be a travel writer, a documentary photographer… or the feasibility of how little I might live on if I was a drifter… just for a couple of years.  An island of light, color and warmth in a sea of cold, snow and monochrome certainly does not hurt us one bit.

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