Coquis, Mofongo and The Magical Rainforest

On a crystal-clear day, from a vantage point 35,000 feet up in the air, the island of Puerto Rico resembles a rectangle measuring approximately one hundred miles long from east to west by thirty-five miles wide from north to south. That’s three times the size of Rhode Island and half as big as New Jersey. The island itself is the smallest and most eastern island in the Greater Antilles chain. The Greater Antilles chain is comprised of the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico. So much for your Monday morning geography lesson. Pop quiz Friday.

Three and a half million people live in Puerto Rico. Another three and a half million Puerto Ricans live on the Mainland, a third of them in the State of New York. Puerto Rico is a United States Commonwealth and Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Well, kinda sorta citizens. Puerto Ricans also hold Puerto Rican citizenship and are recognized by Spain as Puerto Rican (not American!) citizens with rights and privileges not granted to their Greater Antilles neighbors. In fact, any person of Puerto Rican descent who can boast at least one parent born in Puerto Rico is granted Puerto Rican citizenship. Like many of their fellow Americans, Puerto Ricans speak Spanish. Get over it.

Puerto Rico is home to the coqui, a small, frog-like amphibian who dwells happily on the island, snoozing during the day and chirping all night. Thirteen species of coqui dwell in El Yunque, the Puerto Rican rainforest, more of which later. The chirps are used by the male coqui to attract the female of the species. Coquis hatch fully formed, bypassing the tadpole stage present in most amphibians. Everybody in Puerto Rico loves the coqui with the possible exception of one old curmudgeon from Hato Rey whose conjugal bliss was periodically interrupted by the incessant chirping of a tumescent coqui who dwelt outside his bedroom window. To exact a measure of revenge the competitive curmudgeon taught himself to chirp merrily through his nasal passages during slumber. He was wildly successful to the extent that he was discovered one morning, up to his armpits in a thousand mate-seeking coqui females who’d dropped by to engage in a frenzy of the old Eleutherodactylus version of slap and tickle and accidentally suffocated the poor geezer in his sleep. Coquis up his nose, coquis in his ears, coquis in his pajama bottoms, coquis everywhere! Talk about looking for love in all the wrong places. But I digress.

Mofongo is a Puerto Rican delicacy. The designation “delicacy” is determined in large part by the palate of the taster. For example, in Singapore monkey brains are said to be a delicacy. Mofongo con Caldo consists of boiled then mashed plantain seasoned with garlic and served in chicken broth. A bit heavy for breakfast but certainly a filling lunch. Delicate? Not so much.

And finally, there is the arboreal jewel in the Puerto Rican crown. El Yunque. The rainforest. One of only four rainforests in the entire United States plus its attendant Commonwealths and Territories. And the only “tropical” rainforest. The other three are “temperate” rainforests. By definition, a rainforest receives over seventy-five inches of rain per year. That’s a lot of water.

El Yunque is filled with all manner of tropical flora. Great leafy tree ferns, majestic tabonuco trees, palm trees swaying in the breeze. There’s even an evergreen tree that grows up to sixty feet in height with a trunk diameter of 3.5 inches, Ternstroemia luquillensis, of which there are only six known specimens on the entire planet, all of which are in El Yunque. The ground beneath the canopy of foliage is dense with moss and shrubs.

The idyllic hush of El Yunque may be unsettling, especially to the visiting city-dweller who has grown accustomed to the roar of automobiles and the brazen mendacity of uber-aggressive commercials on television, not to mention the pervasive pinging of smart phones in theaters and restaurants everywhere. Relax. After a while you may find it rather pleasant.

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