A Day in the Life of This Transplanted Utuadaño

What do:

  • Los rotos (giant potholes)
  • Road closure of the main road from my house to the town of Utuado
  • A detour down an alternate road
  • Me unable to back up the hill to allow a car to pass because I have zero depth perception
  • The starter in my car dying
  • Three men—one a client and friend, the other two dear friends visiting from New York City
  • The Puma gas station in Utuado
  • My mechanic
  • The gate leading to our property
  • A flash flood
  • The lights going out all over Utuado
  • With the traffic lights out, a three-car collision, in the rain
  • Mudslides that spewed an approximate metric ton of construction rocks onto the main road in Utuado
  • Good Times Restaurant
  • A shirtless man
  • Two cops
  • And Mayor Ernesto Irizarry Salvá of Utuado

All have to do with each other?

Each played a role in what became the most eventful day since Paul and I moved to Utuado, Puerto Rico seven years ago.

Every year during the second week of October dear friends of my husband (Paul)’s and mine come to visit Puerto Rico. George and Steve live in New York City and they have a time-share in San Juan.

The last three years they have rented a car and spent the day with Paul and me in our little town of Utuado.

The day is Tuesday, October 20, 2015 and I am eagerly awaiting their arrival into Utuado so I can spend the day with them. Unfortunately Paul had to wait for a delivery of building materials so Louie, the guy who works with Paul to build things in the farm and around the house, could work on Wednesday.

I headed out around 9:45 and made my way down the hill. Our farm sits at about 1600 feet up and the drive down to town takes about twenty minutes. My goal was to arrive into town early so I could accomplish two things before I met George and Steve:

  1. Find out why a payment to Paul’s cell phone didn’t credit (he couldn’t make or receive calls)
  2. Mail something from the post office

I figured I’d give myself 20 minutes to do these things before George and Steve arrived.

I got three-quarters of the way down the hill and I see a cop’s motorcycle blocking the road. I turn to my right and see a cop sitting in front of a bodega / mini market. “Buena días! Que paso?” I ask him.

“Los trabajadores están arreglando los rotos en el camino. Es necesario utilizar la otra 611.”

“The workers are fixing the potholes on the road. You need to take the alternate 611.”

No biggie. I make an illegal U-turn in front of a cop (whom I knew wouldn’t leave his motorcycle to chase me to give me a ticket) and I drive back up the hill, over to the next neighborhood and down the alternate road number 611.

So you should know that the first road number 611 is a barely big enough for two cars to pass. Sometimes it’s necessary to pull over as far as you can to the right, stop fully or even put your car into reverse to let the other car pass. Most of the road can fit two cars, but there are points where it’s too narrow.

Large as the potholes are on the main 611, they ain’t got nothin’ on the alternate 611.

And the alternate 611 isn’t wide enough to allow two cars to pass at the same time. 99.9% of the time it’s necessary to put your car in reverse and either back up or down the hill to a point where it’s wide enough to allow two cars to pass. This could mean driving several hundred feet, which is no fun for someone with zero depth perception and who has no idea how close she is to either the guardrail on one side or the several-hundred foot drop on the other.

I got about halfway down the alternate 611 when I came upon four cars trying to drive up the hill. In this situation because I am the lone driver going down, it’s up to me to reverse back up the hill to allow the four cars to pass and then I can continue on my way.

I start backing up and my depth perception tells me I am inches from the guardrail. I panicked. I have to do something because there are four, oh shoot, now there are five cars waiting for me to back up and I can’t properly judge how close I am to the guardrail. I don’t like these kind of pressured situations.

I start sweating.

I go into a full blown panic attack.

The passenger in the first car sees me struggling and getting more and more nervous. He gets out of the car and asks, “¿Me permitiría conducir su carro a un lugar seguro?”

“Will you permit me to drive your car to a safe place on the road?”

“Sí! Por favor!” I think you don’t need me to translate that. I smile and get out of my car.

It doesn’t take him long to drive forward and back up much closer than I was to the guardrail. I look and realize that my attempts only got me several feet from the guardrail.

He puts the handbrake on and I shake his hand and thank him. I get back in my car.

I count, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 cars pass me. Everyone is kind to me. Nobody scowls as they drive by and many even thank me. That was very gracious of them.

I proceeded back down the hill. “Please don’t let there be another car coming up the hill.” I say to myself.

I made it all the way down the hill. Whew!!!!

I get to the Puma gas station and go inside to enquire about Paul’s phone. I realize I forgot something in my car. As I am looking for it, it’s hot and so I start the car to roll down the windows.

The car doesn’t start. I try again … click is the only thing I hear.

Starter? I think to myself.

My phone rings. It’s George and Steve … they’re at the Walgreen’s waiting for me. I tell them what’s happened and how to get to the gas station, which is less than two blocks away.

I walk inside and find an employee and tell him, “Mi carro murió en el estacionamiento. Creo que es el, el … ¿Cómo se dice the ‘starter’? ¿Es posible dejar mi carro aquí hasta que pueda conseguir mi mecánico para echar un vistazo?”

“My car died in the parking lot. I think it’s the, the … How do you say ‘starter’? Is it possible for me to leave my car here until my mechanic can look at it?”

“You speak English?”

I smile. “Was my accent that bad?”

“No, actually no, but when you asked me ‘how do you say starter?’ I figured Spanish wasn’t your first language. But you did great.” He pauses, “It’s starter.” He smiles.

He goes outside with me and motions for the boss to come over. He tells the boss about my car. “Who is your mechanic?” He asks.

“Santiago, next to the Farmacia Vivi.” I tell him.

“Okay, let’s first see if we can get your car started, and if not, we can call Santiago and have him come over. You can leave your car here, if you need to.” Wow, so nice! I think to myself.

I get in and try turning over the engine. He comes over to the door and says to try it again, but this time keep trying, don’t stop.

It hesitates, clicks, clicks a second and a third time, but eventually I hear the engine start up.

“You were right. It’s the starter.”

Steve and George arrive. I hug them and tell them what’s going on and how close my mechanic is.

“What did you come to the store for anyway?” The employee asks me. Well, shoot, I can’t now tell them they made a mistake by taking Paul’s money yesterday without crediting our account.

“I came to recharge my husband’s phone.”

“Okay, give me the phone number, I’ll charge it and you pay me later.”

Wow! So I did.

I get the car to my mechanic and tell the guy who works there—who just saw me there a week ago to get an oil change, check my brakes and change out the air filters—that I think my starter died.

He gets in and confirms that it’s my starter. I tell him I’m going to have lunch with some family members (I almost say friends, but he sees two men sitting in the car, no husband of mine in sight and the last thing I need is him thinking one of them is my boyfriend—forget the fact that George and Steve are married, that’s not obvious to someone who doesn’t know them) and ask if I can come back after 3:00 to see what’s going on.

Yes. Thank you! We leave. As we do, my client Alex calls me. “Is this a good time?” He asks.

I laugh! “The starter in my car just died. I am at the mechanic. May I call you back in a few minutes?”

I do and we have a great chat.

We have a wonderful lunch. We drive back to my mechanic and I am expecting them to tell I can pick my car up tomorrow or Thursday and that it’ll cost between $300 and $500.

It’s ready?? Really? It’s only $165 and this includes labor? Thank you!!!!

Okay, now the main 611 is open and we drive up the hill so Paul can say hi to Steve and George.

We have a nice visit and it’s now two hours later and it’s time to drive back down the hill so they can get on the road before it’s too late.

It starts raining like crazy! Hearing thunder off in the distance, our power goes out.

Steve and George hug Paul and we start down the driveway. My car doesn’t hesitate at all. Woohoo!

We get to the gate and it hesitates (not my car, the gate), which has been happening lately. It got off its track and it’s a heavy thing, so Paul and I kept saying we’d take care of it … one day. But this time instead of stopping, it flies off the track and into the farm!

It was so quick, too! No hesitation, either … just flies like superman!

And mind you this isn’t a wimpy gate. This is wrought iron and it’s got to weigh at least 500 pounds.

I call Paul—hey, the employee did really charge Paul’s phone! Paul answers. I tell him what’s happened. He’d been collecting leaves for goats. He comes up to the front of the property.

“Ooh, that’s going to be fun getting it back up on track. Louie can help me in the morning.”

Steve and George offer to help. Paul says, “No, go. We can do it in the morning.”

More hugs and George jumps in my car so we can talk politics. 🙂

Down the hill we go. No street lights to guide our way—remember power is out.

We finally make it down to town and we turn onto the main road.

I suddenly realize that there are stones in the road. I slowed way down and look to my right.

There is construction going about 500 or so meters from the courthouse. There is a nursing home being built and the cooperative bank is constructing an office building adjacent it.

Stones? Where are the stones coming from? Were they being used to hold in water to prevent a mudslide or are they the stones being used to help reinforce the concrete and cement in the nursing home? I see Louie mixing in rocks and stones when he builds stuff on our farm with concrete and cement.

OMG! My eyes are really large by this moment. I don’t like what I am thinking.

As if that weren’t sigh-inducing enough, we come upon a grizzly scene two blocks later.

To our left we see several cop cars and a three-car collision in the intersection. Cars must have been coming home and didn’t slow down. It’s still raining very, very hard and there are large puddles all around us. I am imagining someone was driving too closely behind the car in front that was probably speeding to make it through the light—which if he didn’t make it, is the longest light in history.

One car is facing the same direction we are and it’s off to the side of the other two cars.

You might have believed that as I drove the two blocks between the stones-coming-loose-from-the-poorly-constructed-nursing-home and this car accident that I am no longer surrounded by stones.

You would be wrong about that.

The force of the rain and flooding, we’ve got what I’d call pretty strong currents, carrying stones from the soon-to-be-collapsed nursing home in front, to my side and behind me. I am obviously driving very slowly.

I have been driving in Utuado long enough to know when we get these flash floods that one can come upon a dip and misjudge its depth. I have learned to drive extra cautiously when it rains around here.

At some point I find I have to swerve to my right to avoid a rather large rock. I come to a complete stop because I know there’s a divot just in front of me.

I step on the accelerator. I can’t move.

I step on the accelerator. I still can’t move.

I turn my wheels to my left as far as they’ll go and try to force my way out of there.

Like Robin Williams playing the genie unable to make his way out of the lantern in the movie Aladdin, “Stuck!”

I turn to George, “So this is what it must be like to be stuck in Mississippi mud.”

“¿Necesitas ayuda?”

“Do you need help?”

I turn to George, “that’s my town’s mayor asking if we need help.” Hot damn! How crazy is that?

“Sí, por favor!” Do I call him your honor? What do you call your mayor? Do I acknowledge that he’s my mayor (acalde in Spanish) or is he a regular Joe—uh José—when he’s helping me get my car unstuck?

Donned in a full length raincoat and police officer’s hat, next thing I know the mayor is telling me to turn my wheels to the right and try to reverse.


He motions for three other guys to come over and help.

One is bald and shirtless. Two others are cops—I recognize one of them.

Okay, did I mention that it’s pouring down rain? To give you a sense of how strong the rain is, I had had my windshield wipers on the fastest speed.

Okay, so did I mention that the guy with no hair is wearing no shirt and it’s raining so hard my windshield wipers are on the fastest setting?

Together the four guys push left, right and from behind and direct me to turn my wheels, get the car in reverse or in drive and about five minutes later I am free like I was never stuck to begin with.

During the pushing, steering, tires spinning, the two cops, the shirtless man and my town's mayor are covered in mud. When I see them covered, I make a sad face and say,"Lo siento!" to all of them. ("I am so sorry!") The mayor says, "No se preocupes por eso, mi corazón!" This means, "Don't worry, my heart!" And don't think he's coming on to me! This is how Puerto Ricans talk to each other. He used the formal usted when he said 'se' so he was clearly showing me respect.

Did I mention that the mayor of my town wasn’t out just being the one giving orders, but that he was the first one on the scene to help me and he did his fair share of pushing to get my car unstuck?  And no, there were no cameras around. He was just helping.

“Hot damn, George! That’s my town’s mayor, down in the trenches with his police officers and fire fighters when his town is experiencing a chaotic situation! I love my town!”

And I do love my town! I love Utuado! I was truly humbled that my town’s mayor helped me out of serious jam. It's possible this would happen in a small town in the US, but I lived in one in California and never met my former mayor. And I know for certain he didn't come out during the 100-year flood when we were all being evacuated from our homes. I sent him a friend request and a message through Facebook to thank him. We have many friends in common—hoping he’ll accept my friend request.

I was really humbled when the employee of the gas station was ready to let me keep my car there until I could get my mechanic to fix my car and that he'd charged Paul's phone and allowed me to pay him another time—which Paul did on Thursday morning when he drove into town for a few things.

I was really, really humbled when my mechanic promised to have the estimate for me when I got back but instead had it fixed and ready to drive my car back home. And that it was half the price I had been expecting.

I was really, really, really humbled when the man got out of his car and offered to drive my car back up the hill and when he and the drivers of the seven cars behind him passed me, they didn’t give me dirty looks but instead they thanked me because they knew I was out of my element on that narrow road and that I couldn’t judge the distance well.

Seven years ago we made a decision to move to a town we’d spent all of two weeks visiting before we boarded a plan to move here. I have ghostwritten five books on relocating to a new country and in each one I tell people never move to a new country without having spent several months there visiting and living as you would when you move.

I caution never to move to a country without being fluent in the language.

I tell people these two are recipes for ex-pat depression.

We moved here after two weeks of visiting. Between Paul and me we spoke all of five words when we moved here.

We absolutely love where we live. We love the town, the people and although I continually say that no place is perfect … Utuado is perfect for us!

Photo is of Utuado Mayor/Alcade Ernesto Irizarry Salvá