Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I haven't forgotten about you!

I concluded my last post by saying a tropical storm was approaching… then nothing from me for weeks. Thanks for all your concerned e-mails and texts making sure I was alright! (Okay… I didn’t actually get any, but I’m sure you were all very concerned. :) ) As it turned out, that storm veered away from the island at the last moment.

But around the same time, my workload exploded… long hours, looming timelines, and mental fatigue pushed the blog aside. But we’ve made good progress and this week I feel like we’ve reached a half-way point in the project. So I apologize for the lack of posts because I do want to stay connected with you guys back home. But kicking ass is more than a full time job, and when you don’t hear from me… that’s what I’m doing. :)

The big news is that I’ve moved out of the hotels and into an apartment! Finally. The place is in a brand-new building 2 blocks from the beach in Condado (a very happening, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of San Juan). I feel so blessed – I really could not have asked for more. All I need now is for you to come and visit. Seriously… why not? Those airline miles are just burning a hole in your pocket. Here are a few photos of the place for your review:

Kitchen: Boo electric stove. Hooray counter space!
The fridge has a touch screen... and a help button. Hopefully things won't get to the point where I need help from my fridge.

Living Room: Floor-to-ceiling windows, just like home.

Dining Room: Yes, that is a six-pack of Samual Adams on the counter. Octoberfest is here!

In case anyone was concerned that I've forgotten how to cook after living in hotels for a month, I give you penne with homemade vodka cream sauce (thanks to Waldo for giving me the recipe those years ago). There was also garlic bread, but it did not pose for a photo.

The view from those 15th story windows.

This got me thinking... after living in SoCal (where there are no clouds) for two years, I'd forgotten how beautiful clouds can be. Of course, photos don't do them justice, but here's a few of my humble efforts to capture their splendor.

A view of Marimar and Condado Lagoon. But doesn't it sort of look like Cambridge from the Boston side of the Charles? And that's Memorial Drive? C'mon, just humor me.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Island driving school

It’s funny how errands that would be simple at home become more complicated when you’re living abroad. For example: getting a haircut. I had two main concerns about getting my hair cut in Puerto Rico: (1) I barely know what to tell the barber when the conversation is in English, so I definitely don’t want to have that conversation in Spanish, and (2) I had a nagging fear of ending up with a Cristian Ronaldo no matter what I said. Anyway, Yelp located a salon near San Juan that cuts men’s hair and I was off. (On a side note, this was my first time in a “salon” as opposed to a “barber shop”, and the atmosphere and scenery is much different… and much easier on the eyes.) In the end, my Ronaldo fears were unfounded… in fact, I think I look rather dashing (if I do say so myself), but I snapped a photo when I got back from the salon for your review.

Clearly I need to attend the Jason Walker School of Posing for Photographs.

As it turned out, the most dramatic part of the experience was getting there in a torrential rain storm. Even in good weather, the people here seem to think we’re all in bumper cars, and flooded streets did not help. I thought (correctly) that LA drivers are bad; but drivers here seem especially dedicated to negligence on the road. So just in case you're planning a trip to PR, here are a few things I've learned that you'll find helpful:

  1. At times it will appear that another car is trying to hit you. Do not be alarmed; this is just their way of merging.
  2. Right-of-way rules (as you know them) do not exist here. The rules here are similar to when someone fumbles the football: whoever wants it more gets possession.
  3. I have conducted an investigation and found that cars in PR are in fact equipped with turn-signal indicators. I can only conclude that there has been an island-wide agreement never to use them.
  4. While on the freeway, you will notice that many drivers take up two lanes (maybe it's more like a lane and a half). You can experiment with this if you’d like, but I have found that the one-lane technique works just as well as it does at home.
  5. If you want to blend in with the locals, you should be on the phone as much as possible while driving and under no circumstances use a hands-free device. Maybe this is where the two-lane technique comes in handy.
  6. This last tip isn’t specific to driving: If you’re going to need an ambulance, make sure it’s when traffic is light. Traffic here does not move out of the way of EMS vehicles.

But those rain storms make for dramatic sunsets...

Well, we're getting ready for the arrival of Tropical Storm Erika here tomorrow. Apparently it's a weak storm, but will bring tons of rain, which means flooding. I'll let you know how things turn out next week.

El Yunque Rainforest

Hey kiddies! I know I’ve been neglecting you for a week, but let’s put that behind us. In the words of Mark McGuire, “I’m not here to talk about the past.”

Starting work in Puerto Rico has been a lot like starting a new job: New boss, new projects, new surroundings... new everything. But I’ve come up to speed pretty quickly and have already made real contribution to the project. My younger colleagues are quite adamant that I have a good time while I’m here and expect a full report every Monday about my weekend. A conversation on this topic led to this exchange:

Ángel: You know, there’s a club in your hotel that is well-known throughout the island. You should definitely check it out.
Maritza: (A bit incensed) Don’t send him there! That place is a meat market; they’ll try to eat him alive!
Ángel: (Completely calm) Of course… that’s the whole idea.

This weekend I got out of San Juan and visited El Yunque, the rainforest of Puerto Rico. Hiking is not typically my forte, but I was curious to see a rainforest (I don’t count those childhood visits to the rainforest at Baltimore Aquarium), and the challenge of hiking to the peak was too good to pass up. So here is my hike in pictures…

This picture is from a vista point near the start of the trail. It's about 5mi. (as the crow flies) to the nearest coast in the photo. Those more distant parts of the coastline to the right are 10 - 15mi.

11:20am: It's 2.4mi. to the top (and a 1378ft. increase in elevation), and this sign says it will take me 2hrs. We'll see about that... clock starts now, and GO!

11:30am: Several small streams work their way down the mountain.

11:45am: Doesn't it look like a shot straight out of Treausure Island?

12:00pm: Very steamy.

12:12pm: The view from this vista point took my breath away... it seemed like I could see from one end of the island to the other.

12:15pm: Uh oh, these dark clouds don't look so good. Better keep moving...

12:24pm: We've done it! Made it to the top with a time of 1hr. 4min.!

12:25pm: Wow, I bet the view from 3,496ft. will be amazing. Let's just take a look from this little fortress-like building at the peak, and...

12:26pm: ...WTF? Fog?!? Well, it's rather breezy, I'm sure it'll clear in a few minutes...

12:47pm: ... or not. Well you can kind of see, right? :(

Since I wasn't able to give you a panoramic view from the top, here's a parting shot of El Yunque from La Coca Falls.

Well, some thick fog completely shrouded my view from the peak, but I still made good time getting there, so I'm putting this one in the "win" column.

More to come this week. I promise. :)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Operación de ingeniería en Puerto Rico

A week ago Amgen sent me to our manufacturing plant in Puerto Rico to be an extra pair of hands on a technical project going on down here. My orders are simple: (1) do whatever is needed to complete the project successfully, and (2) don’t come back until it’s done. Since 2+ months is a long time to be away, I thought I’d fire up the old Madrid blog to keep in touch with everyone back home. But not to worry – I won’t be blogging about using Henry’s Law to solve a gas dissolution problem or how I measured the UV blocking characteristics of a product vessel to demonstrate process robustness (although both stories are true). This will be the story of a guiri living in Puerto Rico.

Well I think we all saw this coming... I have found the only microbrewery on the island. On Friday I went out in Old San Juan with a work colleague, his wife, and her friends. After dinner they asked if I like beer. Umm… yes. After a short walk, there it was: gleaming copper mash tuns, huge stainless steel brewing vessels, and a beautifully long row of draft taps. Given the heat and humidity of the island, lighter beers are of course more popular here. This did not stop me from ordering a black stout straight away. And then another. If you're scolding me for not embracing the local flavor, have no fear. We ended the (very late) night at several dive bars in Old San Juan, where I had my share of Medalla Light (Puerto Rico’s beer, which has slightly more flavor than Coors Light, but is similar in texture). Maybe this is why Roman is so obsessed with Coors Light… a reminder of the island?

A beautiful island sunset from my hotel room balcony.

As I was sitting by the pool (which resembles a Las Vegas commercial during the day), the hotel staff started setting up for a wedding ceremony.

Literally minutes later, guests started filing in. This seemed like my cue to leave as I was wearing a sleeveless tee and surf shorts.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The final post

Before my trip I had a nagging worry that since my last visit to Madrid (in 2006) I’d built the place up too much in my mind; I worried that once I arrived, the reality wouldn’t live up to my memories. But the opposite thing happened – the city took a hold of me. It would be an exaggeration to say that it now feels like home, but I will say that being there just feels right. Like when you meet someone and your personalities just click. I love the culture, the people, and – of course – the food; I can get around in most neighborhoods of the city without a map. It’s weird to think that if Wyeth (my former company) didn’t have a manufacturing plant there, I probably would never have gone to Madrid.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the U.S. and it will always be my home. But the experience of living in Madrid is one that I will cherish (and I’m already thinking about when I can go back). Fortunately, Ernest Hemingway has already expressed similar sentiments in writing better than I ever could. So I’m going to give him the last word. Thanks to everyone for following along on my humble adventures. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading as much as I’ve enjoyed sharing my stories with you.

Madrid is a strange place anyway. I do not believe anyone likes it much when he first goes there. It has none of the look that you expect of Spain... Yet when you get to know it, it is the most Spanish of all cities, the best to live in, the finest people, and month in and month out the finest climate. While other big cities are all very representative of the province they are in, they are either Andalucian, Catalan, Basque, Aragonese, or otherwise provincial. It is in Madrid only that you get the essence... It makes you feel very badly, all question of immortality aside, to know that you will have to die and never see it again.

- Ernest Hemingway, quoted from The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming

Thursday, February 19, 2009

La Gastronomía

Today we're doing a culinary tour of Madrid in photos. The Spainsh have never heard of vegan diets, low-carb diets, or the makers diet; in other words, they're my kind of people. Venga...

I think this is my favorite picture from the entire trip, an action shot of a tapas night out. Look at how perfectly formed the rings of beer are on my glass. Also on the table (moving clock-wise from my beer) are croquetas de jámon (savory fried dough with ham), huevos estrallados (fried egg and chorizo over french fries), tortilla española (basically a potato omlet), and jámon.

Speaking of jámon, I would be completely negligent if I didn't describe the national obsession that Spain has for all pig products. There's a saying that the only part of the pig that the Spanish don't eat is the sound. The store in the picture sells the highest grade of jámon, Jámon Iberico de Bellota. This ham comes from free-range black pigs that are fed a diet of at least 40% acorns (bellotas). If you look closely at the picture, it's selling for €41/kg. It has recently become legal to import it to the U.S.

Most bars cure their own ham legs, like you see here at Cervecería La Alemana (left hand side of the photo). When you order jámon, they hand-slice your ration and bring it to your table.

Calamares en su tinta (squid stewed in its own black ink) is a dish that I found surprisingly good. I've heard Mario Batali say that the ink tastes like the bottom of the ocean, and I can't describe it better than that. It was especially delicious to dip a piece of bread into the ink. The restaurant I was eating in was so unpretencious that they served my white wine in a juice glass.

This restaurant is on the Plaza Mayor (see yesterday's post), and uses this window to lure customers inside. I like their marketing campaign.

My favorite bar in Madrid, El Urogallo. They have the best tapas in the city... and for this reason, I stop by here for a drink 3 or 4 days a week. (I apologize that this photo is fuzzy.)

Spain claims to have the best olives and olive oil in the world. These marinated olives at El Urogallo are some of the best I've ever had.

The view from my regular table at Café Comercial. It's worth coming here just for the beauty of the cafe itself. It's unlike anything I've ever seen in the U.S.

The waiters at Café Comercial are no-nonsense, so I had to take this picture of my waiter pouring my café con leche on the sly. There's something about they fact that they pour the steamed milk at your table that makes it taste better.

My typical breakfast: tortilla española with café con leche.

Paella is native to Valencia, but you can get excellent paella at St. James in Madrid. This was easily the best meal of the trip... in fact, it's in the top 5 best meals of my life. These guys are the champions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fotos, ¡por fin!

After getting our technical issues worked out, we're back with photos. So today I'm gonna give you a whirl-wind picture tour of Madrid. There's a saying that Madrid is best experienced at night, and I took several night shots in an attempt to capture the essense. In some cases I've show both day and night photos to give the contrast. Enjoy...

I'm gonna kick things off by showing you around the apartment a little bit. This is the living room (this was my last day and I was packing; I don't normally keep my luggage sprawled out on the sofa).

Here's the dining room...

And my bedroom... which randomly had kermin the frog on the bed-side table.

I thought he deserved his own close-up.

This is a small plaza in my neighborhood... just to give you a feel for the area.

The main entrance of the Palacio Real.

The royal gardens on the opposite end of the palace.

A shot of the back end of the Palacio Real looking from across the gardens during the day...

... and at night.

Plaza de Oriente, which is directly in front of the Palacio Real. By day...

... and by night.

Quite possibly the strangest site in Madrid is the Temple Debod. This Egyptian temple was built in the 2nd century B.C. on the Nile River, but given to Spain in 1968 as a gift from the Egyptian government.

The Puerta de Alcalá, this was once part of the wall around the city of Madrid. As the city has expanded, this area is considered central Madrid. This puerta is right next to the Parque del Buen Retiro.

Artificial lake in Parque Retiro (analogous to Boston Common or Central Park). This park was once reserved for the exclusive use of the royal family. Now it's open for everyone.

Paseo de la Argentina, also in the Parque Retiro. Here's a photo of it in the summer.

Gardens in the Parque Retiro.

The Palacio de Cristal in the Parque Retiro. It often hosts art exhibits.

Atocha Station, the site of the 2004 Madrid bombings.

Inside the train station, there's an extensive tropical garden...

... which is home to a huge number of turtles (this is only a small fraction).

The Plaza de Neptune, which is in between the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museums (two of the most famous art museums in Europe). When Atlético Madrid wins championships, its fans congregate here to celebrate.

The Plaza de Cibeles, with the Palacio de Comunicaciones in the background.

Plaza de Cibeles por la noche.

A close-up of Cibeles.

The Plaza Mayor, considered by many Madrileños to be the center of Madrid.

The Puerta de Europa, an interesting set of leaning towers in northern Madrid.

Top-level view of Estadio Bernabeu, the home of Real Madrid.

Field-level view.

The player benches (which were super-comfy, by the way).

And the trophy room.
So tomorrow we'll have a picture culinary tour, and Friday will be the last post: I'll wrap things up with some final thoughts.