The drive south to Humacao along the eastern coast reminds us of Vermont with its rolling, green, cow-dotted hills. We walk along the beautiful shore at Punta Santiago, but as it is off-season, the beaches are filled with seaweed, so we don’t linger.
Our quest for shark — something Punta Santiago is known for — leads us to Bajo El Arbol de la Frescura (beneath the refreshing tree), a small kiosko on Route 3. There, Carlos and I sample the pastelillos de tiburón, shark turnovers. Served on white Styrofoam plates, the fish is lightly spiced and oiled, and served in delicious, piping hot crust. These we eagerly finish.
I ask the proprietor where we might buy some mavi - a sweet fermented drink made from the bark of the colubrina tree that people either love or hate. He gives us directions, and several exits north in Ceiba, we find our way to a dilapidated shack tucked into a side street.
There’s just one customer and apparently, no product. When I ask the ancient woman behind the counter if she carries mavi, she looks me up and down (I’m certain I’m the first tourist who’s ever asked for the quintessentially Puerto Rican home-brew).
Apparently I pass muster as she shuffles out back into the dirt yard and returns with a small plastic cup filled with a urine-colored liquid over ice. She scrutinizes me as I take a sip — there’s no turning back now — and a smile spreads across my face. Its taste is a combination of ginger ale, light beer, and maple syrup, a pleasant surprise in an unexpected setting.
The last day of our culinary experiment involves a dish called mondongo (it’s fun to say, try it with me: mon-don-go), that Tío Esteban brings us from Restaurante La Fama in my mother’s hometown, the San Juan suburb of Bayamón. Interestingly, mondongo (there, I said it again), is usually only made on weekends as a hangover cure.
Often served with white rice, it is a tomato-based stew with vegetables such as yucca, plantain, potatoes, carrots, as well as (Lord help me) pig’s intestines and feet. As I grimace down into my bowl of mondongo, I wonder whether my problem is that I only had two margaritas last night: perhaps I’m not hung over enough.
I take a deep breath and dig in. My first spoonful has only vegetables, rice, and broth. Not bad, perfectly cooked veggies and delicious stock - but there is no avoiding it; I have to taste the “meat.” I find the smallest piece of intestine and chew as little as possible. It’s slimy. As I make faces, Tío points out a piece of patita (the Spanish word sounds so much cuter than pig’s feet), so I shove that in my mouth next. Okay, even slimier. As I choke it down, I look heavenward and thank Dios that this is the last day of the experiment.