Puerto Rico’s frogs sing out a welcome


Sharon Schlegel reports on travel to Puerto Rico for The Times of Trenton.

Up on my fridge now sits a half-inch wide magnet of a tiny brown-skinned frog. To Puerto Ricans, it’s a “coqui” (pronounced ko-KEY). We discovered the verbal charmers on our recent escape-from-winter week, while sitting in front of our San Juan hotel one night surrounded by palm trees and plants.

“Listen to those birds!” I commented knowingly.

“They’re not birds, they’re tiny frogs – coquis!” corrected one of the young valet parkers nearby. “You can hear them say ‘coQUI! coQUI!’ ”

It became a rhythmic sound we looked forward to. We never saw one, but every sundown they welcomed evening around the island with their sweet, whistle-like song.

Similar species have popped up in South and Central America, and were purposely wiped out in Hawaii as pests we were told. Puerto Rico has been their documented home since the native Taino Indians carved their like on stone engravings 600 years ago.

The coquis survived: The Indians, enslaved by Spanish conquerors, died off with little left of their world. One of the island’s proud phrases, “Soy de aqui como el coqui” means “I’m as Puerto Rican as a coqui.”

While employees at all major facilities are bilingual, just two blocks from our hotel the pharmacist had a hard time understanding me. I envied my daughter’s fluency in Spanish, which always brought a wide smile to local faces. (I tried to say thank you once, and it came out “Merci!”)

I’ll end my reminiscences of our trip with two unforgettable sites. First, the natural wonders of El Yunque, a 28,000-acre rain forest, the only tropical one in the U.S. National Forest System.

Driving through we were stunned by the endless diversity of flowers, ferns, winding vines, and trees, some 1,000 years old. Leaves were startlingly varied: from 2 feet wide to narrow and spiky. A dozen hues of green were brightened by deep red or rainbow-colored flower petals.

Breadfruit, looking like green coconuts, peered down from soaring palms, reminding me of Captains Cook and Bligh, who risked all to find it.

I wasn’t up to the hiking trails, many carved out by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. But I did see one of the bright native parrots, almost wiped out by loss of habitat, and now being protected. My hiker daughter saw waterfalls, volcanic rock slides, and El Yunque’s 3,533-foot highest peak. Modern technology seemed remote and unimportant there, where the whimsies of nature rule, rewriting the map over centuries.

I can’t omit an unexpected favorite: the massive stone El Morro Fort by the ocean, built in 1539, through which Spain protected its path to the New World’s wealth. A remarkable display of sentry boxes, cannons, bastion gates, a dry moat and interweaving fortification walls, it was brought to life with contagious verve by a typically knowledgeable and enthusiastic park ranger.

Try to get to Puerto Rico. You’ll love it.

For the original report go to http://www.nj.com/times-opinion/index.ssf/2013/03/schlegel_puerto_ricos_frogs_si.html

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