Strolling Old San Juan’s Colorful Streets

March 2018: I’m re-posting my piece about glorious Old San Juan, which I visited in 2014. Yes, Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, but in San Juan, beaches have been cleaned up, and most hotels and restaurants are open. So if you’re craving sunshine and tropical color, Puerto Rico beckons, and your tourism dollars help our citizens in the Caribbean!

Some of the most pleasurable parts of visiting a new place are free—as I learned while rambling among the vibrantly painted apartments and churches in Puerto Rico’s historic downtown area of Old San Juan. My entertainment during my two-day solo stay there was soaking up the atmosphere in Old San Juan, founded by Spanish colonists in 1521.

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The architecture is a spicy mix of old-world Spanish and Caribbean tropical hues. When I got tired of walking, I stopped into some authentic local eateries to sample the flavors of the island too.

Yellow window, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan is probably Puerto Rico’s most-visited spot, and rightfully so, with its colonial, cobblestone streets lined by a rainbow of apartments with balconies and bougainvillea. Add in palm trees, fragrant food cooking at wonderful restaurants, and sweeping views of the Atlantic, and you’ll fall in love.

I did.

On my two days in Old San Juan, I wandered among the quieter boulevards and simply drank in the colors. Except for the cars parked all along the streets, it’s easy to imagine how the town looked in the 16th and 17th centuries, back when it was a Spanish colony.

Old San Juan has shops, of course. I dropped into a few local artisan shops during the quiet hours, early morning and late afternoon when the cruise ships weren’t in port.

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There are also satisfying restaurants, including modest spots where locals grab breakfast or lunch. At Café Manolin, an Old San Juan institution that serves creole-style food, I had fried eggs and beans with tortillas while I watched the old-style orange juice machine mash up oranges and spit out fresh juice. It tasted heavenly.

For high-end dining, there are many possibilities in the old town. One evening I enjoyed an early dinner at the snazzy Hotel El Convento tapas bar, where I sat on the patio overlooking the courtyard. Contentedly, I sipped a Bacardi Mojito and savored slices of Manchego cheese drizzled with truffle honey served with fresh-baked bread.

Mostly though, I wandered Old San Juan until my feet were sore or I got too hot in the Caribbean sun. That’s when I knew it was time to return to my “home” during my stay: the Casablanca Hotel. There I could nurse a margarita or cold Puerto Rican cerveza—the Old Harbor Taina brews are lovely—and watch one of my favorite movies of all time projected on the wall of the bar. Or, I walked up the stairs for a siesta in my room, which was small but comfy with a Moroccan flair.

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The concierge at the Casablanca steered me to the best restaurants, and he humored me by letting me practice my Spanish. (For the record, most puertorriqueños speak fluent English.) This U.S. territory uses the American dollar. And I did a double-take one day when I bumped into the mailman wearing the traditional U.S. mail uniform—with shorts of course!

In addition, the Castillo San Cristóbal fortress and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro  are part of the U.S. National Park Service, where interpreters in those Smoky Bear hats give you guided tours of the old fort walls overlooking the azure ocean.

Mostly I loved Old San Juan’s small details, like iron knockers, glimpses into courtyards of apartment buildings, and colorful shutters. Nearly every apartment number was painted on glazed tiles.

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

One morning, after breakfast, I was crossing a plaza and saw a skinny, feral cat dash out of nowhere and grab a pigeon from a flock pecking at the cobblestones. I was shocked; domesticated cats back home are rarely that fast, but clearly this cat was hunting for his breakfast!

A few hours later, I noticed a grumpy Persian perched inside the window of a posh apartment. He gazed out at the street with a pout that reminded me of a grounded teenager.

No, pampered puss, you have an easy life in your house, I thought. The streets of Old San Juan are lovely for us tourists, but they would be hard for a cat like you.

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

On and on I strolled the quiet streets of colonial San Juan, enjoying the arched entryways, elegant shuttered windows, and ornate iron grillwork—an art form brought to the New World by the Spanish.

Viva Viejo San Juan—viva Old San Juan!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Puerto Rico:

A Birthday among the Ancient Rocks of Stonehenge

On my fiftieth birthday, I become a pilgrim to Stonehenge. On the evening I arrive, Wiltshire’s wide landscape is swept by a downpour and epic winds. The gates are closed, and all the day-tourists have hurried to pubs or their B&Bs to escape the midsummer storm. It is the after-hours entry time, and I clasp my special, advanced reservation like a golden ticket.

Stonehenge after the rain. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Stonehenge after the rain. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Weatherworn and rain-soaked, I am one of a tribe of twenty-six people huddling silently in the dusky gloom as a guard unhooks the rope that separates the public from the stones. I am pulled into the circle, toward these broad-shouldered behemoths of Salisbury Plain. Miraculously, the rain has stopped, though the last drops continue to drain off my raincoat, streaking my rain-pants and darkening my brown hiking-boot leather with bloodlike splotches.

The evening sun is swaddled in clouds; the filtered light is heavy and otherworldly. I walk beside the stones—the lichen-covered stones—so mottled they look hairy. More shadow than surface. Every blade of the hallowed grass is a slim, green knife too vivid to be real.

After fifty years of seeing photos of Stonehenge, I now stand so close I can smell the musk of ancient rock and the ever-so-slight perfume of damp bluebells. But no touching the stones. No hugging them. No climbing. No eating, drinking, or smoking. No indecent activities—in other words, no copulation or pagan fertility rites. The wary guards insure compliance.

©Laurel Kallenbach.jpg

©Laurel Kallenbach

Yet I have an entire hour to stroke Stonehenge with my eyes: veins of minerals through the sarsen slabs, shards of broken rock, crust of lichen, etched signatures from bygone centuries.

Walking beneath a giant lintel stone, I feel that I have stepped through a portal into the second stage of my life—into a land of uncertainty. At fifty, I’m veiny and far less statuesque than I care to admit. Silver hairs sprout with abandon. My joints complain. Sleep eludes me.

I cross my fingers before each mammogram and every cholesterol test. I have no faith in my own crumbling edifice—certainly not the kind of faith that it takes to build in stone. Faith that’s bolstered by generation after generation who studied the stars and who marked the sun’s rising and setting year after year. Who, like me, witnessed purple-and-black thunderheads roil and move on.

Center of the stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

Center of the stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

Even for those ancient people, the patient watchers of time, there came a day when they split the plain with flint axes, cleaving the wormy soil on a wind-swept plateau. “This is where we buttress the forty-ton rock,” they announced. “Here we build. This is where we begin.”

For millennia, people have come to Stonehenge for reasons we can only guess. For solstices? For healing? For community? My own motives are surprisingly vague as well. I believe I was called to this mythic place—that somehow Stonehenge will be my cornerstone for the decades to come. This is where I begin again.

Inside the stone circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside the stone circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I sink onto the damp ground in the center of a horseshoe of six-foot-high bluestones: an inner ring of dolerite rocks transported hundreds of miles from western Wales. The trilithons in front of me are bone-white against the brooding clouds. Stillness.

What is there to discover here? Dirt, grass, stone, sky. Permanence, impermanence. I simply sit and breathe in my own half-century. Nothing I can do or make will be here in five thousand years. By then, I’ll be as mysterious and invisible as the builders of Stonehenge and all those who have come before me.

 ©Laurel Kallenbach

©Laurel Kallenbach

Rocks have been raised; rocks have fallen. Some face the east; some open to the west. Looking north across the A344 highway is the Avenue, the processional pathway that people once walked to reach Stonehenge from the River Avon.

Next year, the petrol-infused asphalt of the A344 will be torn out, and once again the stone circle will be reunited with the Avenue. Its passage stones, those proud sentries, have disappeared. Cracked and dissected, they were carted off to become chunks of farm fences. But the Avenue’s footprint on the land remains, and the memory of stones points to the horizon, through rippling fields of barley that beckon “this way.”

I sight through the linteled megaliths, over the toppled Slaughter Stone, and beyond the Heel Stone to that ghost of a walkway. My hour here has passed; the sun, shrouded in clouds, has set without fanfare. No farewell display of amber or vermillion streaks the sky. This one day—significant only to me as the anniversary of my birth—is nearly done. Tomorrow, the sun will illuminate a new road—a whisper of a way—for me to travel.

A guard calls. It is time for me to rise and depart this temple of the grasslands. It is time to feel my own legs beneath me, strong and solid—though not as hard as rock. I leave behind no monument, no marker—but if these stones are ancient dreams made solid, then perhaps my hopes for the future will join the circle. I touch my lips to my fingers and offer a kiss to the wet, joyful earth.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Note: Since 2013, when I wrote this, Stonehenge has undergone “renovation.” The highway has been removed, and a new museum has been created. For information about visiting Stonehenge, visit the English Heritage website.

Read more about my travels in England:

©Laurel Kallenbach

©Laurel Kallenbach

Travel Like an Artist

I rarely host guest bloggers, but creativity coach and world traveler Cynthia Morris offers inspiring advice about how to travel with all your senses. Treat yourself to a unique travel experience—whether it’s to the next town or across the globe—by following Cynthia’s joyful tips about Slow Travel. —Laurel

by Cynthia Morris, Original Impulse

I lead a workshop in Paris and elsewhere called Capture the Wow. Unlike tours or classes that teach you how to paint or draw, Capture the Wow is a playful invitation to become unabashedly receptive to the delights that surround us every single day, whether at home or away. Basically, I help people lure out their inner artist in a city devoted to art. What could be better?

I’ve been traveling this way for so long, it would be hard to imagine not setting out with a notebook (or two) in hand. I have shelves full of my sketchbooks, resplendent with stories, shapes, color and memories. It’s easy to whip one out to recall a special moment or share it with a friend. Sure, I could do that with a photo but it’s not the same.

Always have a sketchbook on hand to write or illustrate your adventure.

Always have a sketchbook on hand to write or illustrate your adventure.

But beyond the sketchbook, what does it mean, exactly, to travel as an artist? As I prepared to take my artist to Japan (I’m there now!), I set the intention that this was a trip for my artist. That I would come home with insights and inspiration for my art and my life.

In addition to the intention, I also practice the following approaches when I travel, and invite you to as well. I invite:

  • Openness to synchronicity and random surprises rather than being attached to an overly-full agenda.
    • Willingness to adopt a slower pace, perhaps even stopping to take things in more deeply.
    • Using the sketchbook more often than your camera to capture things that move you.
    • Veering off the well-worn path offered in popular guidebooks.
    • Bringing out the camera selectively, perhaps using a theme or photo prompts.
    • Reflecting on experiences and how they contribute to our art.
    • Seeking out local artists and artisans.

This ability to tap into the wonders of the world is what allows artists to make art, musicians to compose great symphonies, and photographers to see what the average person misses.

CynthiaMorris_WOWartsupplies-copy-1For the first time in 19 years, I took time off completely from work to go to Japan. No clients, no classes, no writing. I wrote this in advance of leaving so I could still keep my promise of sending a bi-weekly newsletter. I’ll be filling sketchbooks, writing daily haiku, and making watercolor postcards. I can’t wait to see what inspiration and actions come from this time of traveling with my artist.

What helps you travel like an artist? Leave a comment on Cynthia Morris’s Original Impulse blog.

Bring out your artist by traveling with Cynthia Morris in 2018! Spaces are filling up for Orvieto, Italy in May, and Paris, France in June. Treat your artist to a life-changing artful adventure!

Cynthia Morris, Certified Professional Coach, is an author and illustrator who has spent 16 years coaching writers and artists through the process of unlocking their creative genius. She created Original Impulse to help people organize their creative ideas and develop processes that help them put more work out into the world. Cynthia helps creative people finish projects that matter.

Copyright 2017 Cynthia Morris. Visit http://www.originalimpulse.com  and finally start enjoying your creative talents.

Washington’s Cherry Blossoms Symbolize International Friendship

America’s greatest springtime festival is without a doubt the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. There’s a parade, a kite festival, a humdinger of an opening ceremony (featuring musicians from around the globe), numerous arts performances, special exhibitions at the Smithsonian museums that line the National Mall, and even merchandise like posters, lapel pins, T-shirts, and more. Tourism surges as people visit from all over the world to greet the pink blossoms that herald the arrival of spring.

The Washington Monument framed by cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Washington Monument framed by cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

Behind all the hoopla are the cherry trees themselves, and they represent the enduring friendship between the people of the United States and Japan. Each year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,020 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington D.C. In March of that year, First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador, Viscountess Chinda, together planted the first two trees from Japan on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. (Mrs. Taft had lived in Japan and was familiar with the beauty of the flowering cherry trees, so she helped facilitate the gift from Japan.)

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC ©Laurel Kallenbach

The trees were just the first of the many gifts that have been exchanged between the two countries. In 1915, the United States reciprocated by shipping flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan.

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S.–Japanese friendship was strained, but after WWII, the nations again reached out in peace. A 17th-century granite pagoda statue arrived from the mayor of Yokohama, Japan, in 1957 to commemorate the original Treaty of Peace and Amity between Japan and America, which was signed in Yokohama in 1854. The Pagoda statue was also erected along the Tidal Basin (near the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial), and it’s appropriately surrounded by the cherry trees.

Say It with Flowers

The Tidal Basin is one of the best places to see the cherry blossoms, especially in the context of patriotic monuments. By strolling along the banks of the Tidal Basin, tens of thousands of people every year are rewarded with gorgeous views of national memorials, including the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the FDR Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

The Jefferson Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Jefferson Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

My husband and I walked about three-quarters of the entire loop trail to admire the blossoms and to listen to some of the small ensembles from the Boulder Philharmonic who were playing near several of the monuments. (The orchestra, which Ken plays in, was one of four invited to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the SHIFT Festival for American Orchestras.)

There were crowds of people out on sunny, but windy, day, including numerous visitors from Japan. It was delightful seeing people, whose country gave us these trees, snapping selfies in front of the monuments.

Taking selfies with the cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

Taking selfies with the cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

As Ken and I walked, we paused at the monuments to read the inspiring words of the great men of our nation who are commemorated along the Tidal Basin. At the beautiful FDR Memorial, which comprises bronze artwork and waterfalls, two quotes by our 32nd president stood out for me.

The first was “We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all our citizens, whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization” (January 9, 1940). The second Roosevelt quote that struck me was, “Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men” (January 24, 1935).

(You can read some of the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in my post about that monument).

Violinist Jennifer Carsillo and Michael Gutterman (the Boulder Phil conductor) perform beside the Jefferson Monument. ©Ken Aikin

Violinist Jennifer Carsillo and Michael Gutterman (the Boulder Phil conductor) perform beside the Jefferson Monument. ©Ken Aikin

And of course, at the Thomas Jefferson Monument, our third president’s words from the Declaration of Independence rang loud and true, although at the time he wrote them, the “created equal” part applied only to white men: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

All my life I’ve been hearing about the wonders of the Cherry Blossom Festival, but the beauty of the trees, their flowers, the water, the wide sky, and the patriotic monuments really must be seen to be believed. Not only is the festival a tribute to history and nature, it celebrates the very concept of international harmony. What could be more inspiring and uplifting?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Banks of blossoms in front of the Washington Monument ©Laurel Kallenbach

Banks of blossoms in front of the Washington Monument ©Laurel Kallenbach