Piragua and maví – Handling the heat, Puerto Rican style

Extreme swings in temperature and climate don’t agree with me. Most people find any changes unpleasant – the chapped lips and dry skin of winter in the snowy north, the frizzy hair of the humid south – but fibromyalgia magnifies these changes. My joints ache and my muscles tense with the extreme cold. A sudden wave of heat swells my joints just as painfully, while the humidity saps my already limited energy. It’s like a roller coaster of pain and fatigue, strapping me in for the ride whether I want it or not.

So flying to Puerto Rico from Wisconsin in November was a gamble with my body. How would it respond to the almost instantaneous miracle of modern plane travel from the dry, frigid 30 degrees of Wisconsin to the muggy warmth of 80 degree tropical Puerto Rico?

This guinea pig was about to find out.

Rule #1 for sudden climate shifts with fibromyalgia – move slowly. I ditched any frenetic sightseeing inclinations for a breezy amble around Old San Juan. A leisurely walk along the old streets not only allowed my body to adjust to the temperature and avoid waterfalls of sweat, as a bonus it also forced me to really see, hear, smell, and touch San Juan. My eyes traced the sagging curves and beauty marks of gracefully aging Spanish colonial buildings. Ears caught the ragged meows of the local feral cat population, protected as the descendents of the old Spanish fort mousers and a genetically-unique heritage, as well as the spicy salsa beats that beckoned me into dim interiors. I followed my nose to a tempting display of mallorcas, the scrumptious pastries stuffed with oozing cheese and salty ham. My feet gripped the historic cobblestones, imprinting themselves into the story of each street to ghost walk long after I had departed back to the States.

Okay, so I’m waxing a bit too poetic. I took my first couple days slow. It helped.

I also followed my second rule religiously: take breaks in the shade, and often. Preferably with a gorgeous vista out to sea. (And there are many of these in Old San Juan, shaded by a rustling palm tree.)

Drink tons of water. Try a local treat that helps blunt the heat. Everywhere the jingle of the piragua cart beckoned me to numb my tongue on the fruity flavors of a Caribbean-style snow cone. I handed over my two dollars to watch a deeply tanned man scratch off shavings from a melting block of ice. He raised a quizzical brow, I selected my fruit syrup of choice, and he drenched my ice in deep oceans of tamarind.

There’s nothing more refreshing than nibbling sugary ice as the brutal sun beats down and your feet whisper across the huge expanse of wind-swept grass towards the grim Spanish fort of El Morro.

My final piece of advice? Follow the habits of the locals. There is a reason the siesta is so iconic in Caribbean cultures. When the sun becomes unbearably high overhead, people head indoors, to air conditioning wherever it may be found (cafes, restaurants, or if you must continue sightseeing, museums) and to indulgent naps as muggy heat droops the eyelids. Life buzzes again as the shadows grow long and streetlamps switch on. By joining the locals, I was a happier traveler. I discovered the party rages late into the night, when temperatures are comfortable for a passiegata after-dinner ramble in the soft glow of evening lamps.

It was on one of these night-time jaunts that I came across a street vendor selling maví from a cooler, tailgate-style. Made from fermented tree bark, it has a taste I can’t quite describe, more sour than sweet, yet strangely I couldn’t stop drinking it. You may like, you may not. But that’s the fun of travel – stretching your comfort zone. I just try to make sure it’s the experiences, and not the heat, that performs my stretching.

About chronictraveler

Chronic Traveler starts as a dream, one that I thought I had lost, but that has slowly changed into a mission to realize and live that dream every day. In December 2007 I became seriously ill and the doctors did not know what was causing my illness. I had to stop teaching as my life tumbled into a never-ending nightmare of doctors, hospitals and tests. Finally, in May 2008 I was diagnosed with a chronic condition - fibromyalgia. I was only 26 years old at the time. I have had to give up teaching, and now work part-time at a performing arts center as I learn how to manage my condition and improve my quality of life. What helped me through the months of uncertainty and sickness, and continues to inspire me, was a new focus on what truly mattered to me: family, friends, gardening, the arts, and especially travel. I have always fed my soul by traveling, ever since I first stepped off the plane at age 16 in Kathmandu, Nepal to help with an orphanage's building project. Meeting new people and experiencing how they live and how they view the world infuses my life with a richness I was so afraid I would lose when the doctor first said, "You have fibromyalgia". This blog is my story, as I begin to forge a new path. I am embracing my life as it is, with the fibromyalgia pain and fatigue, and learning to do what I love regardless. It may mean I have to go slower and take more naps or breaks! But I am determined to learn how to travel and experience the world, and hopefully what I learn will help others like me who believe their medical condition stands in the way of their travel dreams.
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