When you're on the Council there's traditionally two times during the year you can safely take a vacation. One is during the School's Spring Break and the second is during August. During my time on Council, and specifically the past 2-3 years, the window on both has shrunk. At some point it'll end up being a problem if we want those with younger famalies involved in government but in any event, my family planned out a vacation to Puerto Rico this year during Spring Break (during which the council met twice). We didnt take a vacation last year and we've been hoarding points on the old AMEX card (I mean really. I'd buy an ice cube with that thing if it gave me points).
We wanted a vacation in paradise and we got it. We stayed on an island called Vieques that is about 10 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. I have no particular talent in photography and the picture at right is something I took with my phone on a whim. It's such a beautiful place you can take casual pictures that might end up in travel magazines. This was the beach right next to our hotel room.
Vieque is a place with an odd history. It had a huge sugar industry until the Navy bought about half the island in the 1930's and proceeded to build a mile-long breakwater that points right at the main island of Puerto Rico. The idea was that they would have a very large harbor for both the British and our own Navy. This seemed like a good idea until the end of 1941. At that point the armed forces converted it to a gunnery training range. Large-bore naval fire, artillery, forward observers, etc, etc, etc.
Ten years ago the Navy bowed to public pressure after a stray bomb killed a civilian and closed up shop. They began a cleanup of stray ordinance and donated the land to the US fish and wildlife service as a wildlife sanctuary. The Navys half of the island is littered with these enormous concrete bunkers. Even now some of them are stuffed with junk.
So, half the island is a wildlife preserve with some remaining cleanup issues and there are about 8,000 people on the entire island. The unemployment rate is quite high. Our tour guide estimated 30% unemployment. No idea if that is right but it seems possible. It is, however, paradise if you want a beach resort. If you really want a golf resort next to the beach, this ain't it.
We did take the time to visit the two main towns on vieques: Isabella and Esperanza. Many folks rented jeeps to drive around the island but we took a taxi to both towns. Shortly after leaving the resort the first thing you notice is that most of the roads are about a car and a half wide. It's like driving down Lee avenue when court is in session – you're always playing chicken. Esperanza is the smaller of the two towns and has very little infrastructure. This isn't a town like your hometown. There are no sidewalks or parking lots or much of anything other than the narrow street. There is, however, a relatively new "boardwalk" (it's concrete really, there's nothing built of wood on the island as the termites would eat it whole) that's right on the ocean, next to the main drag. Accross from that lone spec of infrastructure there's a row of restaurants. The only such row in the town. As a local elected guy this seemed both out of place and oddly deterministic at the same time.
The other town, Isabella, is somewhat larger than Esperanza. It has a bit more in the way of infrastructure and a bit of a commercial core. The main drag is about 2 blocks long and looks like a scene from small town America in the 50's. Angle parking, plate glass store windows. There are some sidewalks here but they vary from a standard width to about a foot. Nevertheless, there's a proper grocery store (not like you'd see here tho), a coffee place (talk about jitter: coffee is coffee with 2 shots of espresso on it) and a handful of restaurants, some general commercial places and about half a dozen places that cater to tourists: an art gallery that sold $150 jeans and a store that sold bee products.
It's a strange thing to be in elected office because when you travel to places like this you never really stop comparing what's in your home town to where you are. You look at things and wonder "why the hell did anyone think this was a good idea"? However, the thing that sticks with me the most is how deterministic infrastructure is. Where there is infrastructure, there's regular commerce. Where there isn't, ain't. Sure, you might get a food truck or a guy sets up a tent to sell bracelets but that's it and there's definately an "infrastructure scale" in the wide world. I might feel like things are pretty good in Manassas – we have sidewalks in a lot of our town – but when you take the boy off the farm to Tysons, it a whole 'nuther world. I was invited to a meeting at the Ritz in Tysons Corner last year by an out of town client. He wanted to meet later in the evening and I told him I'd come at that hour but only if he put me up in the same hotel he was in: the Ritz. We both knew it was the kind of half-dare he had to bite on. He agreed.
I hadn't been to that part of Tysons in a good long while: used to go there plenty in the CompUSA days but not any more. I was getting my bag out of the car and I asked the bellman about the construction right next door and he indicated that there was going to be a moving walkway built from the new Metro station to the Ritz. That's infrastructure baby and the kind of commerce in that area is head and shoulders above here. Of course, that isn't for everyone either. I was chatting with our bike tour guide and he wondered aloud if a real 2-lane road would be a benefit for the island….we all face that challenge in one form or another. However, if you're on an island, the competition with your peers is a shade less intense.