RTW2007: Charlotte in transit, wherein our rowdy redneck escapes from the rain and cracks open a barrel of turnip greens.

This was the second stop in the US where I cursed my limited time — I earlier passed through San Francisco for the first time in 25 years without seeing much more than tarmac and a terminal, and now my return to Charlotte after the better part of 15 would be equally stunted.

It was pissing rain from dark clouds as we landed an hour and a half behind schedule, black US Airways planes lurking ominously in the drizzle like birds of bad weather (to quote a Finnish expression). But while others cursed and moaned about their missed connections, I was not in a hurry tonight, and the miserable weather just meant that I wasn’t kicking myself for missing this sightseeing chance. After waiting another hour for first my bag and then the shuttle bus to show up, it was closer to nine by the time I was checked into my hotel and could head out to grab a long-delayed dinner. I wanted something Southern, something filling, and something cheap, and the Cracker Barrel a block away — the only restaurant within walking distance from the otherwise fine Fairfield Inn Charlotte Airport — filled all three counts perfectly. They were out of turkey, alas, but I substituted meatloaf (badly microwaved), battered fried okra (which proved that everything tastes good deep-fried, except okra), turnip greens (an interesting new acquaintance), mashed potatoes with gravy (yum) and cornbread with butter (sweet enough to be my dessert). I paid my $8.57 at the cashier as directed (was I supposed to tip the waitress? Probably, but when and how?) — and, sated, rolled downhill to sleep.

 

US968 SJU-CLT B767 seat 8F

SJU looks slick from the outside (well, at least those parts that aren’t under construction), but there’s a fair dose of island/US airline lackadaisicalness about it. After I’d queued for 15 min in the First/Star Gold line, I was asked why my check-in bag didn’t have an agricultural inspection tag. What inspection? That inspection, she said, pointing over to a room behind me and off to the side, with a gaggle of people swarming around it. How was I supposed to know? Well, if you came regularly you’d know, she pouted. So why can’t you put a sign to tell people to go there before checking in? It’s a USDA inspection and not our problem. No, I told her, it’s your problem because it’s your line. I was advised to go complain to the USDA, and was duly punished for my effrontery by being assigned an aisle seat next to a blocked window, with a strategic sprinkling of crying babies around me.

As if this initial impression of US Airways weren’t unpleasant enough, the flight was also delayed by an hour. Once past the security circus filled with vacationing clowns (“Hey Bozo! Is Diet Coke a liquid?”), I settled down to munch on my mallorca con jamon y queso and mooch somebody’s free wifi.

On board, the plane smelled of old as soon as I stepped and was still in the old USAir livery. My knees were firmly jammed against the seat in front, just the way I like to spend 4-hour flights, but at least I was assigned a harmless (and non-bulky) crossword-filling granny as a seatmate. The deepest impression, though, was the sheer incompetence displayed by the staff when trying to run through the in-flight safety demo: not only did two different steward(esse)s try to talk simultaneously, but they did so on top of the video, with both their mike and the video flaking out at random intervals. Just how hard can it be?

US Airways’s in-flight magazine consists of thinly disguised advertorials and you have to pay $5 for headphones if you want to listen to Yanni on Channel 1. Not for the first time, I said a prayer of thanks to the elves at Panasonic’s battery factory and set to work computing. But I’ll say one good thing about US: at least they give you a full can of drink, even juice, instead of fiddling about with United-style urine sample cups.

 

RTW2007: Puerto Rico, wherein our pedestrian polymath battles with mofongo, hunts for porky goodness and understands why nobody else uses the island’s pimped-out public transportation system.

I spent a week in Puerto Rico for the First Annual Wikitravel Get-Together, and here’s a pointer to the one extended story I wrote myself, on the delights of public transportation on the island: Poco loco publico. (Don’t worry, it’s a little more exciting than it sounds. I promise.)

Watchtower at El Morro Colonial house in Old San Juan

San Jacinto restaurant Highway in Puerto Rico

Giving a pithy summary of Puerto Rico is rather difficult, but saying what it’s not requires only two words: “not Caribbean”. On the face of it this seems like an odd assertion, and the climate is tropical all right (to a resident of Singapore, it felt almost like coming home), but it just doesn’t have that laid-back Caribbean vibe I was expecting (and found a little later on this trip). Puerto Rico’s not that big an island sizewise — you could drive around it in half a day if it weren’t for the traffic jams — but it manages to pack in a surprisingly varied amount of scenery, ranging from misty mountains and jungles in the center to near-desert with cacti on the arid south coast.

But the bigger difference is cultural: Puerto Rico also has only a small number of black people, resulting in a population that seems almost monolithically Latin. The older bits of Puerto Rico, such as the touristy but very pretty Old Town of San Juan and the colonial cores of places like Ponce and San German, are imported straight from Spain, with musty old fortresses and churches, pastel-colored colonial houses and stately plazas. But despite a few token attempts at resistance, like all official signage being exclusively in Spanish and distances in kilometers (while speed limits are in miles!), much of modern Puerto Rico is squarely American. At one end of the spectrum are the office buildings of central SJ and the plastic-y resort hotels of Condado; at the other are the dodgy strip malls and barrios around the city cores of both SJ and Ponce that look precisely like the worst bits of South Central LA. But outside the cities, you could occasionally find bits of the elusive “real Puerto Rico” like the seafood shacks of Pinones or the beaches of Guanica that, if you squint a little, wouldn’t look too much out of place in Thailand.

Pork chops (chuletas) in Puerto Rico Fish, plantains and salad at San Jacinto

As always, I spent some time digging into the local cuisine, and on Puerto Rico this can be summed up in two words: pork and plantains (looks like a banana, tastes like a potato). The Puerto Rico-est dish of them all is the infamous mofongo, which sounds like the punchline to a joke but is, in fact, a very real dish consisting of plantains repeatedly mashed and deepfried until you get a ball of solid grease and starch, occasionally leavened with bacon bits. It sounds terrible, and it can be, but if thoroughly soaked in seafoody sauce it’s actually pretty tasty. Alas, my explorations of the porkier dimensions of Borinquen cuisine were rather limited by traveling most of the time with four non-meatarians, so I missed out on sampling lechon asado and blood sausage — but at least the pork chops were pretty good.