"What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Oct 14, 2012

Volantines...my kite shop in Puerto Rico

October 12, was Columbus Day; not the Monday holiday but the real thing.  It’s also 15 years since I stepped on board Ruff Life for the first time. The drawing below of Cap’n Stan (not his real name) and me by a friend’s son is a dead-on depiction of how our lives in Puerto Rico began. I can’t keep Stan out of it because I must give credit where credit is due, and regarding the kite shop, it was Stan’s baby. I was more of a silent partner, as if I could be.

This story is an example of living a dream adventure, without an investment banker, lottery winnings, or even a real plan.  Of course, if you need all the frills keep on slaving and saving, but how much do you really need; and do you have a guarantee of how much time you’ve got left? Time marches on, no matter how expensive the timepiece on your wrist.

Shortly after Ruff Life landed in Parguera (early 1998), shell-shocked, I declared that while I would continue to live on the boat, I’d quit actually cruising in it, so the wheels started turning in Stan’s brain.  Kite festivals abound on the island during the February and March winds, and Lajas, the nearest town, held one of the largest on the island.

Stan couldn’t believe there wasn’t a kite shop around, and vowed to fill the niche.  I remember one “Sundowner,” sitting on the flybridge of Ruff Life, surveying the beautiful view and discussing how we could afford to stay, when Stan first broached the idea to me.  I knew little about kites myself, but helped him get started.  Most kids had been making their own or buying cheap five-dollar disposables, so Stan planned on introducing, amongst others, stunt kites in a big way. 

The name Volantines (pronounced Vō-lan-tee-nez), an old Spanish term for chiringa, or kite, was suggested by friend and local benefactor, Carl Benavent.  He lived in Parguera as a kid; used to talk about how he and his friends could practically hop from outer coral island to island on the tops of all the Queen Conch.  No more.

Carl became a physician, retired and returned to Parguera, building the El Muelle shopping center which I’ve written about previously, including the supermarket where I worked for a spell.  For a long time El Muelle was the life of the community and the reason I declared I wasn’t moving another nautical mile.

Everything was there, including a Post Office, pharmacy, laundromat, video store, Chinese Restaurant, nice Bar & Grill called The Blues, and a popular surf shop.  Carl’s son, David, was my boss, and when Stan voiced his idea for the kite shop a few months after we dropped anchor, Carl and David enthusiastically agreed he could build a little shop in front of the market.  We never let the fact that we could barely speak a lick of Spanish stop us either, no sirree.

The first Volantines was a 5’ x 10’ wooden kiosk, but Stan made the most of every inch of space.   Seven days a week one of us would swing open the windows, displaying a riotous selection of colorful kites, flags and windsocks we’d order from the States.  I was allowed to select most of the decorative stuff, and while he scratched his head when I opened this horse windsock, Stan was sorry I didn’t order more after it sold right away.

Volantines carried every conceivable kite manufactured; box, novelty, soft and hard stunt kites.  We had the super-large stunt kites before that particular sport took off a few years after we’d closed the shop.  Some boating friends used a giant one to carry them, in their inflatable, back to the anchorage after an afternoon at Caracoles, a weekend party-hangout in the shallows.  Ruff Life was always decked out, since we never moved.

In anticipation of that first festival, we optimistically ordered 400 Rage beginners stunt kites.  As the years passed, I used to joke that perhaps, once the Rages were all gone, we’d leave, too.  We sold them at every subsequent festival, I’d hawk them  in the Plaza on busy weekends when we were dead broke, we gave away dozens, tossed away long faded, and I kept one unopened package.  You never know.

I never actually got a chance to attend the festivals myself. I’d remain at the shop, hawking kites, strings, and tails to the masses, assembling Rages before they walked away because the instructions were a bit confusing, and who wants a kite you can't put together?  I can do it with my eyes closed.  Stan, usually with visiting boaters acting as free assistants, would set up one or two tents at the festival. She-Tracey (my name, to distinguish her from, of course, He-Tracy) was particularly talented with balloons.

La Parguera is a little-known jewel on the island, and many people own second and third homes in town. Our stuff flew everywhere; from holiday flags on fairy-tale casetas to pirate flags on weekend power boats.  It was a hard sell in the beginning because it was new, but eventually people came from across the island to buy our goods.  

That’s where I got my first real taste at salesmanship. I remember one tough customer who finally asked a frequent question:

"Will it fade in the sun?" but I was tired.

“Sir,  everything fades down here eventually.  Look at me; I used to be black.”

Stan cringed when I told him, but I got a laugh and made the sale. 

As boaters ourselves, we helped many cruisers who passed through the anchorage with the use of our Post Office box to receive mail parcels; took them along on shopping trips to replenish supplies (avoiding outrageous marine store prices); and introduction to life in Puerto Rico. 

I must now include something about Annette Gonzalez, minus her second last-name which I never could remember.  Our Postmaster, she was my first friend in Parguera; sheltered us when Hurricane Georges hit in ’98; included us in all kinds of family fun; and scolded me as only an older sister can.

Annette handed me the letter from Mary’s husband in Germany, regrettably informing me of my close friend’s passing while I was playing Horatio Hornblower, and let me cry on her shoulder.  Mary was so looking forward to John’s retirement so they could travel extensively throughout Europe.  He is now; with his new wife.  I wish them well of course, but I’m sorry Mary couldn’t enjoy the fruits of their years of sacrifice.

I wasn’t alarmed at Annette’s complaint of a cold, years later, when I left for a week-long artesan show in Old San Juan.  She was the most delightful PM; often taking the time to fill out money orders and bills for customers whose reading and writing skills were poor.

Annette was only a few years older than me, but within two months she was gone.  She, too, worked very hard and was looking forward to spending more time with Grand-babies.  I still don’t understand why the good ones are taken so young, and I’ve developed an irrational fear of all my friends being dead if I don’t hear from them, which is probably why I seem desperate at times to reach out and touch.  Sorry, I digress.

Stan patiently taught all the local kids to fly their free Rages.  We watched them grow up and were glad to see some stay in school, join the military or head stateside for better opportunities.  But too often they just became young men and women with no hope, no futures, and little to look forward to besides another baby.  We heard of more than one untimely, chilling death.

Stan’s love of reading, and my cries of “get them off the boat,” begat a wonderful, FREE, community book exchange, and eventually a permanent space was built for it. The drawing at the top was done by this young fellow, who continued his art studies at the local university. He’d follow Stan around like a puppy, often keeping watch on the flying kite Stan would tie to the roof of the kiosk, using a garden hose holder/spinner to hold the kite string.  He’d load the thing with as many tails and spinners as he could get away with.

It was terrific publicity.  From miles away people could, and would, follow the kite to get to the shopping center, which benefited everyone.  When the wind died,  people would holler at Stan, usually with his nose in a book, and he’d go racing after the kite, jumping the fence across the road.  Traffic would halt while Stan gathered up yards and yards of kite string spaghetti.

Oh my, I’d forgotten about that.  He’d plead with me to put up a kite when I was working, with little success.  I just wasn’t as enthusiastic to play Kite Runner. I was content to paint, if I wasn’t sweating. I know, women perspire, but spend much time in the tropics…you SWEAT.

Tourism was great; money was coming into the island, and the Benavents expanded the shopping center.  We built and moved into a new space; things were looking positive all-round.

And then two airplanes hit the Twin Towers.  Everyone on the island took a hit as tourism basically evaporated, and eventually the shopping mall dried up completely.  We closed Volantines and opened, with 5 other artesans, an artist’s cooperative Cayo Caribe.  We were talented, but the economy just kept getting worse.  The Benavents sold the shopping center; the shops closed one by one; and finally, as pal Lizette said,
“When the U.S. has a cold, Puerto Rico gets pneumonia.”
People were fleeing the island in droves, and we eventually left, too.  Before I left I took this snapshot of El Muelle, including, but not shown, the demolished book exchange.  Stan was crushed and Carl must be so disappointed with the decay of his own dream, but we all seem to pick up new challenges, which gives us new life.

Wow, I always meant to write about Volantines, but I didn’t expect all this.  Now that I’m editing I see that whenever I’ve offhandedly said, “I owned a kite shop in Puerto Rico,” I was undervaluing the experience terribly.

We lived in Parguera for over a decade, met interesting people and appeared in magazines, newspapers, books and even on TV.  Purebred collie Czar was a favorite subject. Steve Pavlidis, an author working on his next cruising guide,  joined a party on board Ruff Life, and Carl showed him around a bit, too.  Steve devoted several pages to Parguera and the life I've just explained, and thanked us all in his introduction.

Over the years Steve encouraged me to write. He'd originally wanted to write science fiction, but just like artists, writers need to earn a living, too. The Cruising Guide to Puerto Rico, and more of his excellent guides, can be found on Amazon and other places online. 

Too many of my friends haven't gotten a chance to do the things they dreamed of for years.  I can't help encouraging people to be a bit reckless, because you can't take it with you.  

Happy Columbus Day.

For more stories of life at sea and in Puerto Rico, please enjoy:
Ruff Life at Sea, thank you.

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