In other words, Puerto Rican signs are a puzzle

If New York is really the bilingual city it claims to be, then why is my Spanish so lacking? Laziness is the only answer. How else could I stare day after day at the airline ad for Puerto Rico in the subway and not quite grasp that "Puerto Rico te espera, Eastern te llevam " means "Puerto Rico awaits you, eastern takes you."

My Spanish skill have lately been upgraded, but only because for three or four days I turned myself loose on the highways and back roads of Puerto Rico, far from San Juan, a city where English will get you everywhere. I am not reading Garcia Lorca in his native tongue, but I do know that "Cruce de Ferrocarrilm " is a railroad crossing and that "Mantengase a la derecha excepto al pasarm " means "Keep to the right except to pass."

Another benefit ef exploring rural Puerto Rico -- and my wanderings were mostly confined to the south and western sectors -- is the discovery of a warm and accommodating people who will practically humble you in their effort to solve your problems. For me, the problem usually had something to do with being lost. From the start I found that if my highway Spanish didn't work with the first person I met in a country town, there was always someone nearby who was born on 155th Street in the Bronx or who visits her grandmother every summer in Brooklyn and knows colloquial English better than I do.

This axiom came to life on a warm February afternoon as I pulled into the town of Guayama. I was badly in need of a stretch and a cold drink. I had been on the road for several hours from Humacao, enjoying the alternating beauty of seascapes and green countryside one sees from highway 3 but growing tired of following a huge, lumbering cane-hauling truck. I was also puzzled by a road sign I hadn't seen before, "BADEN." I knew it wasn't half a spa, but what dit it mean?

All Puerto Rico towns have two things in common, a little shaded plaza and a banner strung over the main street announcing a coming event or some business promotion. "Pare aquim ," blared a banner in Guayama, commanding me, i could now recognize, to "Stope here." On the banner was a likeness of Mickey Mouse, and the message clearly told of package tours ("Grupos, individuales"m to Disney World. I entered a little deli on the corner, and though I hit a momentary snag with a girl behind the corner (evidently she didn't have a grandmother in Brooklyn) we finally settled on a grave-flavored soda.

When I tried to ask for a glas of aguam to back up the grape soda, she smiled helplessly. I was altering my pronunciation when from behind me a voice said, "Give the man a glass of water." We fell to talking, the man and I, under the revolving fan in Richard's Deli, and in almost unaccented English he tol me (1 )to stay far back of cane-hauling trucks, which can keel over on steep hills, (2 )Badenm means a depression in the road, and (3) Guayama, once a center for needlework and sugar production, is hurting economically. I asked him about the Mickey Mouse banner and he said, "It's mine. it's for my travel agency. Next door." he said that rising air fares are keeping the townsfolk and Puerto Ricans in general from traveling in the tireless manner to which they have become accustomed. We were joined beneath the fan by the moustached young deli owner, Richard Torregrosa.Richard, whose English is accented but clear (he had lived in the US when his father was with the military) told me that a North American is a strange but welcome sight in Guayama.

"It surprised me yesterday when I saw four or five Americans in the town plaza. Americans do not much visit the small towns. By the way, you should not miss our plaza. There is not another one like it in puerto Rico."

By now the older man had gone back to work at his travel agency next door. As I left, I told Richard Torregosa, "Say goodbye to your neighbor for me." He smiled and said, "He is my father."

But for Mr. Torregrosa's tip, I might have missed the plaza, for it is not on the main road leading out of town. This spotless village green has a dozen large shade trees clipped in the shape of giant green mushrooms or umbrellas. At the center is a fountain with stone cherubs. In the late afternoon calm, broken now and then by the blare of a loudspeaker atop a passing electioneering car, pigeons fluttered from the fountain fup to the bell tower in a white stucco church. On the opposite side of the square is a row of shops with colorful fronts -- aqua, yellow, orange. In Puerto Rico only churches and schools have sober coats of paint.

If I give the impression that every problem encountered in rural Puerto Rico has a ready solution, then I wouldn't be admitting to the long, frustrating afternoon I spent trying to find my way from the airport to Palmas del Mar, a resort on the southeast coast. It wasn't the language so much as the absence of clearly marked road signs. Even the splendid toll road, highway 52, which cuts through the central mountains takes you miles without signboard aids. Often too in the country you will pass a number of intersecting roads that seem to lead to the same town, and each if numbered disturbingly like the last: 186, then 185, then 187.

Patience pays. It took me a day to realize that distances between towns are marked in kilometers but speed limits are in miles. Common sense and a sensitive nose divined for me the meaning of the privately scrawled roadside signs, "Pollos al carbon."m Barbecued chickens are charcoaled and sold all along the country roads, especially on Sundays. I slowed down to savor the smell every time. There was one sign I didn't figure out until I was on the plane coming home. "What are those little guarapom stalls?" I asked the Puertorriqueno beside me. "They are selling sugar cane juice," he said.

I knew I should have stopped.

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