Thursday, October 3, 2013

My Visit With Ponce De Leon

Historic Street View of San Juan
This is a big year for Florida, in fact the party has been going all year. Why you ask? This year marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon on Florida's east coast and his naming of our state.  On April 2, 1513, Juan Ponce de León landed on the east coast of Florida and became the first recorded European to set foot on the continental United States of America, predating European settlement in Jamestown, VA and Plymouth Rock, MA by 94 years and 107 years, respectively. Florida has the longest recorded history of any state in the nation. The Florida Department of State created the VIVA Florida 500 initiative to highlight the 500 years of historic people, places and events in present day Florida. The Viva Florida 500 commemoration is ongoing throughout 2013, and includes hundreds of events statewide, including many in Brevard County. One of these events is the creation and dedication of a time capsule that was given to the library system, and will be dedicated on October 22.

Me at Ponce's tomb in the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista

In the continuing spirit of cooperation and exploration, I embarked on my own voyage of discovery to Puerto Rico, originally called Boriken by the indigenous Tainos,  a few weeks ago. Fortunately for me I only had to drive to Orlando to catch a quick non-stop flight to San Juan on Jet Blue rather than to brave the dangerous Florida Straits during the peak of hurricane season. Actually I didn't even drive, thanks Chad!
And while poor old Ponce was met with hostile natives on his second visit to Florida in 1521 and was mortally wounded by a poisoned arrow, we were met by the one of the friendliest people you could ever meet, law student by day and Puerto Rican Don Juan by night, Saul Diaz. Saul is the brother of my amigo Dr. Emanuel "Manny" Diaz of Rockledge, who accompanied Alex and I on our trip. Saul drove us all over the island and gave us a good overview of its history. By the way, click on Dr. Manny's name above to view his interesting and helpful health/fitness related Facebook page!  
We met many friendly natives, unlike poor Ponce, and sampled way too much of the island's wonderful cuisine. The island itself is a wonderful mix of culture and nature as you can go from hiking in the beautiful rainforest of El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest that belongs to the U.S. Forest Service, to eating at a tapas restaurant in Old San Juan, all within the space of an hour. Old San Juan is a vibrant mix of locals, tourists, inns, restaurants, shops etc. all guarded by the ancient forts. While I had heard of the famous El Morro, the fort that guarded the entrance into the harbor at San Juan, I also came to learn that there is an even more impressive second fort, San Cristobal, that covers 27 acres and basically wraps around the old city. Having been to our own Spanish fort at St. Augustine many times, I was taken aback by the much grander scale of these two forts. You truly do feel like an ant while standing on their walls, and the builders deserve major props for accomplishing such an immense construction project with the limited technology available in their day. It is also clear why these forts were never taken by invaders. I wonder why upon seeing them they just didn't turn around and sail back home! I of course have to mention that my people, the Dutch, came the closest when in 1625 they captured the city but not the fort. Close but no cigar, guys!
El Morro In Old San Juan

I think old Ponce would be pretty proud if he could come back and take a look at how Florida and Puerto Rico have grown and developed over the years since his death and the interesting relationship the two places still have with each other. Happy 500th birthday Florida and muchas gracias la isla del encanto!