Building A Fish Pond in the Rainforest

Our friends Greg & Linda at the neighboring horse farm Hacienda Siesta Alegre gave us these used carpets to help pad the ground when we put in the pond liner. They bring the carpets in from Florida to use as padding on the floor of the airplanes which they ship thoroughbred race horses in to local horse farms and for the race track here in Puerto Rico. So these carpets will have been recycled twice.

It took me a while to figure out how to plumb this. The majority of the water is going to pump directly to the waterfall but some of it has to go through the bio-filter (not too much as you don't want to upset the balance of organisms living there which do your filtration). So there are two gate valves to regulate those flows. Then there is an over-flow basin for when the pond gets to high and a big ball valve to open the pump directly to the overflow for when you want to drain the pond. Then another basin drain in the bio-filter tank so you can clean it out.

Our Fish Pond Project

Our fish pond crew is composed of all Rainforest inn volunteers who come here to work for three months in exchange for living in the rainforest. The deadline for the pond completion is the 25th of February. I'm going to blog all the details about how to convert an old destroyed swimming pool (basically a hole in the ground) into a fish pond

Our volunteers came here for a three month stay in the rain forest. Lou and Laurie are Horticulturist and Landscaper. Nate and Caden are on a break from work (starting a new job in Nevada) and school (studying Ecology).

Who’s Who at the Rainforest Inn

Hi. My name is Pedro. I’m writing Bill’s Bed and Breakfast blog this week because Bill is busy entertaining visiting relatives in addition to running the inn during peak season and opening up a new five bedroom villa. I’ve been living here at the El Yunque Rainforest Inn for about eight months now.

This is the first time I’ve had the chance to hang out “behind the scenes” at a B&B guest house and it has been very interesting. Small places like this get their personality from the owners and Bill & Laurie certainly have some personalities. Bill is from the west coast and Laurie is from the east coast. Bill grew up in a large family which raised their children absolutely laissez-faire. He basically did whatever he wished with no adult supervision. He has stories about inventions he made as a child (one of which blew up his bed). Laurie, on the other hand, grew up in a strict organized environment working as a very young girl in her parent’s business. So you can imagine that they don’t always agree about how to run the bed and breakfast. Bill is busy running his ship’s agency which leaves Laurie in charge at the inn. But Bill still has time to interject free-style inconsistencies which keep things interesting.

I want to tell you about the girls, my favorite subject. Lizzy is a platinum blonde beauty. She has been with Bill & Laurie the longest. Although she is popular with the guests she proved her unreliability last year in a spectacular fashion. She took a hiatus (without either Bill or Laurie’s approval) for nine months. I worried about her whereabouts all that time but remembered also that the workers are often not on time and have been known to take off from a job sometimes for weeks without notice. In Puerto Rico it is more important to stop and help someone who is in need then to be on time for a job. Lizzy came back very nonchalantly one day after her vacation with some excuse about how she was kidnapped. Laurie was relieved to see her again but by that time she had transfered much of her affection to Bella, one of the younger girls (but not the youngest). Bella is always a real angel around here, a little prissy and whinny and not as popular with everyone like Lizzy (the blond) but admired for her extreme (and completely self aware) cuteness. Sometimes Bella will show up in the kitchen wearing some boutique get-up that only her and Laurie can appreciate.

The newest girl is Maya. She has only been here a short while but acts like she owns the place. She leaves her belongings out in the public areas for the rest of us to pick up. She doesn’t know how to behave around guests. She is usually being disciplined by Laurie and always forgiven by Bill. She thinks she is the one in charge and often pretends to supervise. She is into everyone’s business. She tries to make sure that everyone is where their supposed to be and lets us know if someone shows up unexpectedly. Sometimes she reminds me of an SS officer on patrol of the rainforest perimeter.

I hang out in the kitchen which is the center of the bed and breakfast. I am probably the one who spends the most time with Laurie as she not only prepares the incredible gourmet meals here but also all the rest of the meals for the volunteers. One of the guests took pictures of me because I’m a real Puerto Rican. I felt like the native Americans must feel when tourists photograph them as if they were part of the scenery. I was reluctant but Bill assured me that it would do no harm and that my photo would end up on an interesting web site and anyway it would only take a few minutes. Well, a few minutes turned into hours. I was never quit sure what was expected of me because the photographer and I didn’t speak the same language. After that everyone was “where’s Pedro”? I had disappeared for a couple of days to let them know what I thought of that whole deal. This island is full of Pedros like me and please guys choose someone else next time. After I returned Laurie assured me that I would never have to do that again. So now I’m back with my favorite girls and in my place of honor in the kitchen.

rainforestinn coqui

You may have guessed by now that Lizzy is an eleven-year-old silky terrier mix, Bella is a four-year-old mini Yorkshire terrier and Maya is a one-year-old Belgian Malanois. But did you figure out that I’m not who I seem to be? I am the resident coqui who lives in a crystal vase in Laurie’s kitchen. You can read about me in an earlier post and see pictures of me in my vase.

Oh! Don’t let me forget to mention Heather my newest favorite volunteer who sports a drawn on Luigi mustache sometimes to liven up the kitchen work place. And she’s a "Real" girl.

Thank you Bill for letting me do the blog -- Pedro, aka Laurie.

Mañana – The Fifth Time Zone

Sometimes I think we live in the fifth time zone. At The Rainforest Inn the housekeepers have us on a schedule. We wish we had them scheduled around our guest’s breakfasts, check-ins and check-outs. On our schedule today is today, on their schedule, today is sometimes mañana. The guests want their breakfast today not mañana. Their rooms need to be ready for check in today before they arrive not mañana.

I hired a mom and her daughter. Both of them part time. I figured between the two of them somebody would show up when I needed them, today. Not mañana, after I have completed their work. You’ve heard the old saying "all the good men are already taken". Well, all the good housekeepers are taken too. Maybe they are living somewhere with all the good men. Anyway, it is fifteen minutes to nine today and I have 8 hungry people waiting for my gourmet breakfast (which should be served at nine today not 9:00 Mañana) and I am all alone.  Normally, Bill helps me when I need it but he had to go to San Juan early this morning and is not here to help me. If I was into strangling the help, today would be their unlucky day.

Puerto Rico has a very laid back culture. That is one of the great draws of the Caribbean islands. But, I have to admit that when I depend on my help and they don't show it doesn’t seem such a great feature. The other day neither housekeeper showed because the grandmother had a dental appointment.  What?!  And before that neither came on time because they had to go and buy some school supplies for one of their kids. "Oh". I told them,  "My guests didn't want to wait until 11:00 for breakfast so I went ahead and prepared it without you".  Tardiness is right up there with the no shows. Showing up at 8:00 a.m. to help with breakfast does not mean that is the time you set your alarm to wake up. Hence, mañana – the fifth time zone.  Regaton is one of Puerto Rico’s latest cultural innovations and has become very popular stateside. Puerto Rico’s long-standing fifth time zone concept has taken a little longer to catch on.

Bella with her maid outfit on ready to help

We have tried everything here at the Inn to get the housekeepers to meet our  schedule. We have scolded them and we have tried rewarding them.  Wouldn’t you like $50.00 extra at the end of the month just for showing up on time? When that didn't work it really surprised us! Holidays and the weekends are their free time, period. I will schedule them and even beg them to please come once in awhile on a Saturday. But they will not show and come mañana instead. I needed them Saturday of course, not mañana. Here in the islands (not just in Puerto Rico) the workers train their employers well. We don't schedule them during these times anymore.   Bill and I wish we could have grown up in a fifth time zone. Can you imagine never having to worry about being late for work or even showing up on the right day?

Fortunately, for us there are young people who have the mind frame and the freedom to take time from their regular life and graciously volunteer for a few months at a time, with only room and board as payment. And I do mean graciously volunteering. They work hard and do a great job too. They always show up and are on time because they live here with us. Can't beat that. For the past year, Peter, one of our volunteers from the states who is now moving on with his life, was my best assistant cook (and always showed up on time and on the right day). He often did the whole breakfast himself to give me a break. It will be hard to replace him.  He was always pleasant and my best worker and trust me I am not the easiest person to work for.  Sometimes I can be a little brash and I have some perfectionism stuff going on, so I have been told.

Maya_feather_duster

As of today, I have given up. I’ll never ask either housekeeper to work on a weekend, holiday, today or even mañana, again. They are now free to live in the fifth time zone. ( I may regret this mañana) Now I no longer have my housekeepers or my assistant cook but I do have one of “the last good men out there”.  Many thanks go to Bill, for all the times he let me drag him into my kitchen to help me with the breakfasts (which is my job not his) and didn’t complain, well maybe he did a little. Now if I could only get him to show up on time, could it be he may be slowly slipping into the fifth time zone too?

All and All I think I will survive. Every day I have the sunshine, warm, mountain breezes and the serenading song of the coquis here in El Yunque to remind me that this is just one of life's minor annoyances. I’m afraid though, *-I sometimes feel the calling of the fifth time zone too. Mañana.

To Be or Not To Be... Chlorinated

We have a huge ugly hole in our courtyard that’s big enough to bury a dinosaur,  thanks to an old visit from hurricane Georges. Like Bill said in the previous blog, sometimes even a much needed project to make the place beautiful for the guests has to wait it’s turn. We have looked at this hole for so long we hardly notice it anymore, kind of like the mother who ceases to hear her child screaming every day while the rest of the world wants to pull their hair out. I’m sure the guests notice it though.

For over a year now we have been telling our guests,”Please excuse the huge hole in the back that used to be a pool, as we are waiting for the perfect weather and to schedule the workers to repair it”. Ha! How long can we really get away with that one, before one of our returnining guests calls us on it? Finally we have agreed on my idea, which is one we had discussed during our first year of work here, of making a natural  pond with fish and beautiful aquatic plants in and around the water.

We will continue sending all of the bathing beauties to our natural swimming hole at the end of our hike for a swim and spa pedicure (by the shrimp), which is a  whole lot more private and romantic than any ordinary pool could ever be. I know our dogs will love the natural pond on a hot summer day. It will be a lot easier maintaining it if the frogs, bugs and leaves that might possibly fall in don’t have to be removed every day and are just part of the new aquatic ecosystem. Also at this high elevation in El Yunque the pool would have to be heated in the winter and we do not have our massive solar panel project going yet either and the pumps and filters would still burn lots of electricity belaying our eco-lodge green foot print.

We do plan on putting in a solar heated  hot tub outside beside the pond on the deck for the guests to soak after long hikes. It will have a view of the Caribbean on one side and the rainforest on the other. For our guests who enjoy swimming in a traditional swimming pool they have the option of renting Margarita’s 5 acre secluded estate home that we manage next door.

We plan to landscape our pond to achieve a serene and zen like effect. We will  be building a thatched gazebo beside it which will house the hot tub. One side of the pond will be used for a waterfall that is the outflow from the bio-natural filtration system. The  tranquil trickle of the waterfall with the solar outdoor lighting will give it a nice romantic feel and night blooming Jasmine will fill the air with a lovely scent. Outdoor lounge chairs will be scattered about for our guests to hang out there.

Most Inns and guests houses on the island have traditional swimming pools. We will be taking a risk by not having a pristine turquoise blue swimming pool on our web page as an advertisement like everyone else. Our Inn is a true eco-resort which shouldn’t have a pool with pumps, energy wasting heater and  chemicals. We would prefer to spend that money on really nice linens and other amenities for our guests’ comfort.

Not to be.... chlorinated, no! To be a new home for fish, frogs and beautiful aquatic plants.

Fixing the porch railing

The chalet had a porch railing all around it still even after the main house it was connected to was destroyed in hurricane Georges. That railing ended behind the chalet where the big porch over the old pool used to be. We have replaced the old scary rotten wood deck that was around the pool with a big new concrete sun deck. Later I'll have to tell you about what we decided to do where the big old pool is. Laurie hated that old porch railing from the day (four years ago) we started working on our rainforest bed and breakfast. She thought it looked like a horse corral (appropriate since there were horses on the property when we moved in that we had to find homes for). We're a team but I convinced Laurie to give priority to jobs that didn't involve tearing something down that was at least useable until some pretty major things were done first like hooking up the electricity, installing pumps in the cisterns, fixing the plumbing, and putting on a couple of roofs (it is the rainforest so roofs are important).

We have made the central part of our complex (where the chalet and the villa are) the priority -- making it as nice as possible.  Laurie found a picture in one of our many design books and she told to make the railing just like that picture. I took a few liberties and came up with a design which looked, somewhat, like the picture and was fairly easy to do. We have a nail gun that shoots galvanized ring-shank nails that have a coating of hot melt glue on them so that is my weapon of choice. The new "balustrades" are treated pitch pine 2X2's with the lower end cut at a 45 degree angle as a water "run-off" and an interesting detail.

The whole project came together very quickly. Laurie tore off the old 2X4's and we fitted a top and a bottom 2X4 for attaching the new balustrades to. Then we marked out a good spacing (we chose 6.5 inches) which varied according to the space between the existing railing posts which like everything in this old house seems to be from a measurement system that didn't depend on any crude instruments like levels or tape measures.

Then I cut all the 2X2's on the cut-off saw, adding the 45 degree detail on each end. We nailed them in place with the gun and had most of the front railing finished in one day. The next day I put the rest in place with the help of a visiting friend (Julio - now a skilled carpenter) and Laurie painted everything a dark gray to match the cedar.

Making an Iced Coffee - Puerto Rico Style

Laurie’s daughter Cher has been visiting us from Maine. She stayed in our new suite which overlooks the stream and is just below the jungle suite. Her back porch is right on top of the jungle where our trail goes out to the waterfall swimming hole. She said that sometimes the jungle sounds were so loud (in the evening) that when she called her friends and family back in Maine they would ask her what the sound was, and later could always tell immediately where she was calling from. It isn’t just the coqui’s, of which we have eleven varieties all with distinctive notes to their calls, but also the katydids which harmonize the cacophony. We also enjoy the calls of the night. My favorite is the Puerto Rican screech owl (a pair lives in the tree a short distance away). The screech owl call sounds like a raucous chattering monkey.

Cher said that besides lounging in the new suite and going to the beach with her mom her other favorite activity was going shopping with her and stopping at Starbucks for a frappuccino. Cher decided that she wanted to make one here so she could combine her two favorite things, enjoying a frappuccino and lounging on the back porch with the jungle view. So the first thing she tried is brewing some fine Puerto Rican coffee, adding ice, and mixing it in the blender. It turned out nasty tasting so Cher asked Laurie to help come up with something that tasted like Starbuck's secret formula. The first thing Laurie tried was some internet searches. She had no luck with that as the recipes didn't achieve the flavor she was looking for.

Laurie said, "So then I got thinking that those small kioskos in the malls must use ingredients which keep and are easy to deliver and are simple to make. So I knew it couldn't be fresh milk."  Laurie knew she had to start with strong coffee flavor as the coffee shops had that in abudance. It didn't take her long to come up with the most delicious frappuccinos.

Her recipe:

Brew fresh coffee or use instant. If you use instant be sure it is an instant made for the Puerto Rican market (most cities have Nestle Puerto Rican style or get someone in Puerto Rico to mail you a couple jars). The Puerto Rican instant coffee is so much better that it makes all the difference. It can even be decaf with very little difference in the flavor. Use 3 3/4 cups cold water and about six slightly heaping teaspoons of Puerto Rico freeze dried instant coffee (or the same amount of chilled fresh-brewed espresso, double strength). Then add one can of sweetened condensed milk. This is the secret ingredient. Put plenty of ice in the blender, pour in some of your liquid and frappe away.

This summer we have been enjoying a tall glass almost every afternoon.

Cheese Cake in Paradise

I knew what Laurie was going to write about for this week's blog. I was home working. And when I'm home programming or web designing I know I'm also supposed to answer the phone but it does interrupt the whole process. Well Laurie called lots of times that day when she was out getting all the stuff we need for the day-to-day operations of our rainforest bed and breakfast. I look forward to her calls as a welcome break, usually, but when she calls incessantly it quickly becomes something less then a welcome distraction. So I knew what she was going to write. She didn't know that it would be "Worth every damn bit of sacrifice to get a Cheesecake in Paradise". Did you ever want something so bad that you were willing to stop at almost nothing to get it? Well, that was me on Monday the day after Mother's Day. I had a bunch of errands to do and in the process I got this idea in my head around noontime that I just could not and would not survive without a piece of cheese cake.

My last stop for the day was going to be Costco. They have great cheesecakes in all sorts of flavors ranging from amaretto to guava. The only catch was that I would have to buy the whole damn thing knowing that Bill only eats chocolate, Hu... So you can imagine my dilemma. I thought where else can I get a piece of cheesecake before I go to Costco? I remembered that the other day Bill and I had dinner at Chili's and I ordered cheesecake and they did not have any.

This craving must have been banging around in my head since then, and no, I am not pregnant. Off to Chili's I went and had a nice lunch and then I ordered cheesecake. I waited for what seemed an eternity to get that piece of cheesecake and the waitress returned empty handed.

"I am sorry," she told me "we are out of cheesecake." She tried to sell me another dessert but I kindly asked for the check and decided I would just have to go without again.

My next stop was Plaza Carolina to buy gardening supplies at Sears. Ah-ah they have a Chili's there I thought. It was pretty far from Sears but I didn't mind the walk as I kept my mind on my goal of a delectable piece of cheesecake. I ordered a piece as soon as I sat down at the counter and waited again for what seemed an eternity. The waiter in that restaurant also returned to my table empty handed. We are out of cheesecake today he told me. Or any day for that matter I wanted to say to him, I did not want to be polite any more, I just wanted to scream. I kindly declined his offer of another dessert and left. As I was leaving I was thinking to myself, most intelligent people would not return to the same franchise three times just to be disappointed would they? I was beginning to believe the Chili's has no cheesecake and will never have it again. I thought next time I go there I will ask just to see what happens, but I will tell them I don't really want it I just want to know if you have it. I figure that way I won't be disappointed or feel like a fool for a fourth time.

On my way to Sears I remembered Starbucks was just around the corner and they have this lemon tart that I really like. I would get that instead I decided and maybe fool my cheesecake craving. When I get there they did not have the lemon tart but they did have cheesecake. Things were looking up. I was so happy I wanted to reach over the counter and hug the girll waiting on me but decided against it for fear they would have taken me away and locked me up in wherever they put crazed cheesecake cravers.

I savored every bite of that dessert and left Starbucks satisfied.

Later that day while I was in Costco, one of the was giving out samples at the end of an aisle as they often do. IT WAS CHEESE CAKE. Was I in the twilight zone? Do you think they knew I was coming? They couldn't have. I never go there on Mondays. Anyway I tried a piece of their sample cheese cake and it was really yummy and I thought if I had had a little more patience I could have had my piece of cheesecake in paradise for free!

Technorati Tags: food and drink

Making a mosaic

My sister Indigo has painted most of the oil paintings which we have hung in the rooms. Some of the watercolors were painted by Laurie. Oil paintings are more durable than watercolors because the constant rainforest humidity doesn't affect them as much with mold and the colors don't fade as much. But mosaics are the most durable art form of all. Mosaics in Pompeii were dug up thousands of years later and still just as bright.

We decided to make a mosaic in our kitchen/living room/lounge. It wraps around the central post. We made it on plycem (brand name for a cement board product) so that Indigo could work on each panel, horizontal, on a comfortable table. She designed the panels so that when I installed them around the post it would look like the vines, sunset, waterfall, and other images wrap around the post. We glued the panels onto the concrete post using 3m 5200 and finished the corners with rows of carefully chosen glass mosaic piece.

It's really a feature now in the room.

Technorati Tags: b&b, rainforest

Building a Green Bed & Breakfast

Check out another green bed and breakfast

During our day to day operations and new construction we have done our best to harm the environment as little as possible. We aren't the only bed and breakfast to incorporate or try to incorporate green methods. It is very popular now to be green. But sometimes being green is not very practical. I'm going to list some of our efforts and explain why we have chosen them over some of the less practical green construction options there out there.

There is a TV show about an Inn in Africa called "Life is Wild". The show is about a Brady-Bunch type of family which moved to Africa to get in touch with each other while starting over as inn-keepers. If you watch the first couple of episodes you will see that there is some "bed and breakfast" stuff thrown in that is actually more true to life than often depicted in other television shows. Another example is the Tori Spelling show. It is a reality show about running a bed and breakfast a but it is completely off base because the guests of the Tori Spelling place are only there in the hopes of being on TV and the operations are a dead loss as the profit center of that place is the TV show. Both of these new TV shows throw in lots of references to "green" construction, "green" paint and other environmentally friendly devices sometimes as a source of humor.

Also there are blogs like mine that discus the popular "greening" of bed and breakfasts. Wendy's Bed and Breakfast Blog is an example. If you want to learn about some of the work that needs to be done to make a house into an Inn you can read about it in her excellent blog. Wendy is also trying to make her new place "green" in an honest effort to try to save the environment as best as one person can do while still surviving. Green Hotels and Inns are trendy.

Five years ago when we started renovating the hurricane ravaged estate that was to be the rainforestinn we weren't thinking about green construction. We were mainly thinking about how we would ever be able to accomplish such a huge task with the limited resources that we could scramble together (mainly just our wits and a little brawn). We ended up recycling building materials because it was cheaper to use all the piles of lumber, fancy antique bathroom fixtures, twisted used copper pipe and other materials that were left over from the destroyed main house. We learned as we went along what was practical to recycle and what we were better off purchasing new. The old cedar was begging to be re-cycled. The ubiquitous rainforest termites had done us the favor of cleaning the sapwood off which left just the prime quarter-sawn heart wood boards for us to sand to bare wood and varnish again before I used them to make the new high vaulted ceiling-roof for the villa. The antique bathroom fixtures, like the claw foot bath tub, were worth all the effort making weird old fittings fit to modern plumbing. We learned something about toilets though. The bowl of a modern toilet is molded so that the gallon of water (less when trying to be green and water saving) actually flushes all the stuff down in one swoosh. So we used the antique backs (which matched the sinks) and put them on modern toilet bowls. For our newest bathrooms we bought toilets which can be flushed "a little" or "a lot" depending on what you're flushing down.

The most important thing we learned about being green is that you have to know quit a bit about construction to do it in a practical manner. We collect rainwater for all our water needs. We learned that the best way to pressurize the water is to use a well pump in the cistern and fool it into thinking it's in a well by using a ten inch diameter PVC pipe to install it in. In any case always use a submersible pump as they are the most efficient (you use less electricity -- also being green) and they are quiet. We are even building our pool system with the pump house below the pool level so that we can use a quiet submersible pump. But is it really being green to collect rainwater, store it in cisterns and pump it using electricity for the necessary pressure? Perhaps if we build a windmill for the electricity it will then really be green.

Separating grey water is a good idea too especially if you have some gardens to water with it. It is a very bad idea to mix your gray water into the rainwater collecting cisterns as it is hard enough already to keep those sterile (we use a little chlorine once in a while which even in very small amounts kills the deadliest amoebas instantly). If you use the right detergents in your laundry (lots of phosphates) the gardens will bloom magnificently from the gray water irrigation. Using a detergent with lots of phosphates will also make your bed sheets much cleaner. Stay away from "green" detergents as they are expensive and don't clean as well. If you aren't connected to a sewage line where the phosphates would wash into the sea and cause algae bloom then you don't need to worry about phosphates.

Using solar heat is a very practical green method especially with the new vacuum tube solar heaters. They are very efficient and used in conjunction with a demand heater (for the times when every guest is showering at once) they will actually pay for themselves too.

Outdoor lighting is best done with LED lamps powered with small batteries charged by solar cells. They are cheap. They work well and you don't have to run wires all over the place. Also replace all your incandescent bulbs with the new energy saving ones even if they are expensive and sometimes buzz loudly.

By all means put compost buckets in all the guest's rooms. It will cut your garbage generation in half as well as help you build lots of new rich soil for your garden. They also make it easier to keep animals out of your garbage as there won't be anything interesting for them to root out. Separate cans for paper, plastics, and aluminum are also a good idea.

Those are pretty much all the practical green methods that we have proven out here. I have heard of some other things to try but most of them are very "gimmicky". Don't waste any money on "green" paints as they are just latex based paint that can be purchased at better quality and lower price without the "green" label. It is also very difficult to make a light colored paint without using titanium dioxide and it is impossible to make a long-lasting paint without adding a little fungicide. Of course the low-cost recycled paints are fine.

Please if anybody has any other suggestions for cost-effective green strategies please let me know.

____

Since I posted this we found out about http://www.chezsven.blogspot.com/ . This is Chezsven Bed & Breakfast in Wellfleet, Massachusetts and they are even more green than we are! Their also much better about updating their blog. Very interesting reading.

Raising a Dog to be a Proper Bed & Breakfast Assistant

We were spoiled by our old German Shephard "Addie". The guests all loved her. She was friendly to everyone but still knew how to be a guard dog and would protect Laurie when she went on her long walks on deserted beaches. It's difficult for a naturally protective shepherd to learn that the strangers who come into our home so quickly and for such short times are honored guests that she should welcome into her "pack" but she made the distinction and would still bark when someone was at the gate who wasn't supposed to be there. She was very "in tune" to our feelings. She was highly trained (having won obedience trials) and the dog that I had taken everywhere with me including on board the trading vessels I worked with before we opened our bed and breakfast. So she knew what work was all about and how to greet people respectfully and when a guest was a dog lover and she could bask in their attention happily; or when a guest that wasn't so much a dog person she knew how to be admired from a distance. Being a good bed and breakfast dog is a fairly hard job for a naturally protective pack animal.

Our new dog is also a shephard but this time we decided on a Belgian Malinois because they are just as smart and trainable as German Shepards but the breed is also known to have fewer hip problems and be longer lived. I had decided on a Malanois a couple of years ago but the recommended breeders that I could find were charging over a $1000 for the dogs and with shipping that would have been quit an investment so I was waiting for exactly the right puppy.

Laurie (my wife and the boss lady of our bed and breakfast) also knew how much I wanted a Belgian and she was looking around too and luckily found the perfect dog. The big Navy base here in Puerto Rico (the one that had the practice range on the island of Vieques) closed about four years ago under pressure from local activists and the K9 outfit on the base was breeding some Belgian Malinois for war dog training. These dogs had no AKC registration and were not part of an "official" military program so the relocating base personal had to find new homes for them. The bitch, which was the mother of our new puppy, ended up being given to a local base contractor and he raised her welp of puppies for sale. My wife found out about the puppies being for sale and suggested I go check them out. I was amazed to find out what incredible dogs they were. The bitch was a tremendous alpha dog that wouldn't let a stranger within ten feet of her. She, and the puppies, had perfect confirmation and I picked out the best female puppy in the litter feeling very lucky to get such an incredible dog on the island. Local breeders tend to specialize in smaller dogs.

We raised our puppy using the methods outlined by the Monks of New Skete. She stayed in a crate right by my bed and I took her everywhere I went on a leash (including to the docks of San Juan where I work as a ship's agent). She was always a big hit with the ship Captains and the stevedores. Gradually we taught Maya basic obedience training. Laurie went on long walks down our driveway (about a mile each way) and taught her to heel. Maya proved to be easy to train and had very good behavior. Even in her puppy phase she didn't wreck too many things and picked-up right away what was "her toys" and never to chew on U.S. Customs papers (except once). But Maya is an "alpha" dog so we have to keep after her behavior.

When new guests arrive, after check-in and complementary pina colada, I usually lead Maya out to great the guests. I tell Maya to sit while she is being petted and discipline her if she paws them or jumps up. Occasionally we get guests who don't like animals (or dogs anyway) and then it is harder. I have to train Maya to lie down and not molest those guests. Maya hasn't figured that out yet and keeps a very wary eye on the guests that don't want anything to do with her. My biggest worry is that she will growl or act menacing towards a guest that surprises her walking down a driveway or by coming in the property from our jungle paths. The training is coming along though and as she gets older she is learning to keep her territorial instincts in check.

I wanted to include a you tube video of what Maya does when someone gets near her food bowl but I decided that it was a little too scary. We are also working with her on that. I put a food bowl down and then tell her to sit and not touch it while I pick it up again. If she growls then she is told "no" and not given her food back until she sits quietly. This is fairly advanced training as most people know better than to touch a dog that is eating but just in case we want her to have perfect "nice" behavior in all situations. A good bed and breakfast dog is a special animal.

Bird Watching in El Yunque rainforest of Puerto Rico

I was just looking through the guest registry for the villa. Our guests write wonderful comments about their stay. Some even put drawings in the guest book. One drawing I'm including in this blog is of one of Laurie's flower arrangements. This flower arrangement was on the breakfast table on the villa porch and one of our guests presented us with a watercolor of it.

We have many guests who come here for the bird watching. A recent guest made the following list of birds she confirmed siting while staying in our El Yunque hideaway. If you go out on the island, of course, you may see many more but these were birds that visited our bed and breakfast:

Red Tailed Hawk (Guaraguao) Mangrove Cuckoo Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo (Coccyzus vieilloti) Puerto Rican Woodpecker Scaly-naped Pigeon (Patagioenas squamosa) White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica) Green Mango: [Anthracothorax viridis] hummingbird Puerto Rican Emerald Puerto Rican Tody (San Pedrito) Gray Kingbird Pearly-Eyed Thrasher Red legged Thrush Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola) Cape May Warbler Black Throated blue warbler Black-Cowled Oriole Shiny Cowbird Striped Headed Tanager Antillean Euphonea Indigo Bunting Black-faced Grassquit (Tiaris bicolor) Black Whiskered Vireo

My favorite is the Lizard Cuckoo both for it's long elegant striped tail and for the cool sound it makes. I also love listening to the Puerto Rican screech owls at night as their call added to the night sounds makes it seem like a Tarzan movie sound track.

This photo is of a green heron that one of guests saw hiking off of our property. We have a path that leads to an isolated pool at the top (right at the top with an incredible view) of the Espiritu Santo waterfall. We have this photo because none of us could identify it at the time so our guests emailed it to us for identification. I always thought of herons as sea coast birds.

Promoting your Bed & Breakfast on Google maps

I think google maps is a great idea so I submitted my bed and breakfast to their directory. In order to prove to Google that our business is legitimate you put your mailing address in the application and google mails out a confirmation post card. This is where the reality of Puerto Rico comes in. Nearly everyone who lives out in the country in Puerto Rico has a mailing address that is no where near their physical address, either because they have a post office box in town like us or because they use rural route directions which were invented by someone who was confused by maps and maybe dyslexic too. If google could offer the option of sending out the confirmation cards by UPS or FedEx that would have worked or Google could allow the incorrect address to be edited (which they don't even when you put in your confirmation number from the mailed-out card).To make this even more interesting we had some of the google map employees themselves stay with us as guests a couple of months ago (the rainforestinn tends to attract guests that are scientists and professionals and even Google geniuses).

I explained the problem to them but so far they haven't implemented a solution. This means that the correct location for the rainforest inn -- see this URL http://tinyurl.com/2bwd3y does not match the directions that come up when you search businesses for lodging in the rainforest. I'm not even going to go into all the large hotels which come up in that search and the fact that none of them are in the rainforest. The El Yunque rainforest is a popular tourist attraction now and everyone is claiming to be there. But I wouldn't be writing this blog if I hadn't found a solution to share with you. First off if you look at your google maps business listing (or someone else's) you will notice that there is an option to write a review about the place but no one seems to have any reviews written about their place. This is an indication that maybe google maps business directory has a way to go yet before it is that important for your business. Maybe more people are using google earth. The nice thing about google earth is that it works with http://www.panoramio.com/ to let you place a photograph of a location. Go there and sign-up for an account. After you add the photo you are then given the option to place it on the map. Be sure you find the exact location (easiest done by typing in the name of a nearby city and zooming in to move the marker). I ended up with: http://www.panoramio.com/map/?user=898653#lt=18.336103&ln=-65.813384&z=0 Now the next step is to just wait until google earth is updated and your photo is placed. Too bad google business isn't that easy.

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Since I wrote the above blog Google maps improved their business listings. Now you can edit posts and show the real location of your business when it is placed according to your mailing address instead of your physical address.

Secrets of Renovating a Bed & Breakfast

Lots of other bed and breakfast operators have been reading my blog. Some have asked me how we manage to complete all the construction work we've done here so I thought I'd let everyone in on our secret. When Laurie and I first bought the property we were looking at an estate home that had been ravaged by two hurricanes and left abandoned for six years. Just so we could walk around the property safely we filled six thirty-yard garbage dumpsters of unusable material. The beautiful cedar from the main house we recycled to build the vaulted ceiling on the new villa. Some of the antique furniture we repaired and re-finished. But how did two people, one who is still running his Caribbean shipping agency (probably the smallest in the world but still the down island trading ships arrive at 3 am or Sunday or whenever their schedule demands and they are demanding) cope? The scope of the tasks we have accomplished and some of the pending projects would be considered insurmountable by many. We certainly couldn't have accomplished so much in the usual manner. And we know about the usual manner because many of our guests ask how come we have been working on this place for nearly five years now and it isn't finished.

old_house.jpg

But, the usual manner would have required truck loads of money to pay the teams of contractors that come in and get it all done in a professional and seemingly effortless stream of busy workers and material deliveries. If we had the cash flow to do it like that we would probably elect to stay in someone else's beautiful romantic hideaway. But we are doing it on the cheap so we can live in our own paradise hide-away. Still, there is (and was) far too much work here for one busy couple to do even without sleeping and certainly cutting into the average American's six hours of television viewing time (luckily we don't have TV).

I think it was Laurie who came up with the solution to our problem. It was certainly her that had to do most of the extra work involved so she was motivated. Our solution was to advertise for volunteers to come and stay with us for two or three months. We would feed them and house them and even teach them a trade in return for the work they perform on one of our projects.

For the past two months we have been closed and lots of working is getting done with the volunteer's help. Pictures tell a thousand words so the subsequent posts will show pictures of our volunteers working. We have also added some new short videos to our youtube site. Go to rainforestinn's youtube videos -- we will keep adding new ones, mainly showing our volunteers in action.

Hurricane Season at the Rainforest Inn

Thanks everybody for thinking of us and sending emails about how we were doing. Hurricane Dean passed well south of us. We got some rain and a little gusty wind but that was it. One of our neighbors lost a roof but that couldn't have been a very strong roof.We spent about a week doing preparations so now we have our generator installed (great thing that is as many of our guests haven't lived in Puerto Rico for thirty years like us and don't ignore as easily little inconveniences like no water and no electricity that happens so often here). Having the new genset installed is one more step towards making our small bed & breakfast more serving of our customer's needs (don't worry we aren't going to ever become a big resort). We are also taking advantage of the slow season to build a pool and jacuzzi as well as completely re-build the bathroom in the chalet. When we moved the lumber pile down below the new pool deck we found a cute little pair of boas living there.

I think the may have eggs somewhere but so far we haven't seen any. The new pool deck is truly giant. I used twenty yards of concrete (two big, very noisy, cement trucks) to pour the new deck. I'm glad we were closed as I had no idea how noisy a cement truck is. We are looking forward to season when we can stop doing all this construction and enjoy the rainforest sounds and having guests again.

Posting reviews about the Rainforest Inn on TripAdvisor

Lately, TripAdvisor can be the single most important internet presence for getting new customers to your guest house. As I reported in my first post about TripAdvisor, many hotel owners are promoting their bed and breakfasts by making up their own wildly positive posts or having friends do it. The only way that the TripAdvisor mavens can tell that this is happening (if you use different email addresses) would be by the IP address always being the same. Sometimes guests log on while staying at your place and post from your IP address (we have WIFI access everywhere using our microwave connection directly from the El Yunque peak towers). If we know, we usually ask them to wait until they get home before posting a review and most times this takes away the spontaneity and a review never gets written. Our guests here at the Rainforest Inn in Rio Grande tend to be internet-savvy people who are familiar with web 2.0 and some of the drawbacks of the new social networking. So when they see a bed and breakfast listing that has a hundred or so perfect glowing reviews they suspect something is awry and check further. One way that TripAdvisor offers is a simple click on who is posting the review and then look at their other postings. From this you can see right away that it is a real vacationer and you also might learn about other cool places to stay (or places to stay away from) when you're visiting Puerto Rico. Another of the drawbacks with web 2.0 is the omni-present spam bots. It is the reason why I'm blogging to you on Typepad right now (my Wordpress blog died under a bot inundation). To run a successful social web app you have to put traps in place to stop the bots. This means blocking certain IP address and having mult-step login processes with a "captcha" picture that can't be read by the spam bots. The drawback to complex login processes are that sometimes it becomes just too hard for someone to post a comment or a review and they give up. For example, the following review was sent to me by one of our guests that had given up but emailed it to us because they still wanted their review seen. Here is what our last guests at the Rainforest Inn had to say:

"We visited the Rainforest Inn for our spring break in March 2007. We arrived very late at night, our plane being delayed, and to our surprise we were graciously met by Bill. He showed us to our room, really the Chalet. As you can imagine we were quite tired and ready to hit the bed. The Chalet is charming; nice large living room/kitchen, our bedroom overlooked the rainforest with windows on 2 sides which made for great breezes and great sounds of tree frogs (coquis). We had a lovely porch overlooking the premises on the front of the Chalet. The next morning we had a super breakfast prepared by Laurie. She told us about all the various things we could do and if we wanted to simply relax that was just fine, too. What we liked about the Rainforest Inn--wonderful, quiet location, great breakfast, very nice folks to spend a week with and get to know. I would recommend it to anyone."

-- Marcia, Winnetka, IL

Laurie and I always love to read the comments are guests make after staying with us. It makes every effort we put in to make their vacations special worth it.

Our Resident Coqui

We have a coqui named Pedro who lives in a glass jar in our "farm house" kitchen near the sink. There are also coquis everywhere, under leaves in the garden, in the trees, hanging out in the heliconias but even with our over-abundance of coquis sometimes one of our guests wants to see a coqui and can't seem to find one for a photo or a quick look. Following the sound of the coquis outside is deceptively difficult because their call is loud and echos so that you're never really sure what leaf to look under or even what tree the coqui may be coming in.Our Three King's day present was the return of Pedro the coqui. We saw him right back in his jar on the kitchen counter just to the right of my Pavoni. We thought we had lost him just before Christmas when a guest staying with us who is a professional photographer needed a subject in the short hours before he had to return home to catch his flight. We set up a banana leaf and a yagrumo leaf on the big mahogany table in the kitchen and Steve took many pictures, using a flash, and from all angles. Pedro didn't seem to mind but when I put him back near his jar he hid out for several weeks and we didn't see him again until three king's day. You can go to Scott Kilgore's web site to see some of his excellent nature photographs and perhaps soon one of the pictures he took of Pedro -- our kitchen coqui.

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This post was recently moved from our typepad blog. I'm sorry to report that Pedro turned out to be a girl! We should have known because she was so quiet (only mail coquis call). And later that year she had babies and moved on. We have a sign out announcing a vacancy in our big cast iron kitchen sink hoping a new coqui will come visit.

Coqui Eggs

Coqui Eggs

A baby!

A baby!

The best website about El Yunque

The best Web site about El Yunque I would like to take this moment to recommend a web site that is "chock full" of information about the El Yunque rainforest of Puerto Rico. This web site is more important for planing your Puerto Rico vacation than eating dark chocolate is for your health. It is constantly updated and has sections on the bio-bay (both the one in Fajardo and the one in Vieques) as well as snorkling, hang-gliding, out on the island driving tours and many other activities.

It is elyunque.com and go ahead, leave my blog and go directly there. You will find the web site and the links to the information are laid out exactly the way a tourist visitor would want it. And it doesn't stop at just El Yunque (what are you doing still here? -- go check it out) there is extensive information about travel in Puerto Rico. Places to stay (like that cool Rainforest Inn place) things to do, restaurants, travel advice, etc.

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The bed and breakfast owners go on vacation

Tomorrow Laurie and I will be celebrating the first day in three months that we have no guests. It has been a busy season with nearly 100% bookings. I also have no ships until Thursday so we will be relaxing. Our last vacation was a disappointment. I decided to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary by taking Laurie to a bed and breakfast I'd heard about that is right on the beach in the Condado (San Juan). We scheduled it for the 17th and the 18th, which was the only two nights that we could get someone to watch our inn. Because this blog will contain some negative comments about the place we stayed in I'm not going to mention the name as many people have stayed there and had a much better experience than we did. Perhaps our experience was a fluke or just resulted from our own twisted high expectations. The first thing that went wrong happened on the 17th. A ship in Fajardo decided, last minute, to take a charter voyage to St. Thomas that we had to enter late that night. To avoid checking in after they were closed we made a special trip to San Juan to check in early before driving all the way back to Fajardo for the ship arrival that night at 9 pm. So that also spoiled our first evening's romantic dinner (I think we had subway sandwiches). The boat was also late so we didn't actually arrive at our room until 1 in the morning or so. When we arrived there for our special early check-in (earlier that day at 4 pm) we discovered the second thing to go awry. The place was on the beach all right and it was a popular beach. There was no parking anywhere near the hotel and the hotel did not have a parking lot for guests (or for anyone). Laurie dropped me off to check in and she drove around the block looking for parking. It wasn't an auspicious sign. The clerk who checked me in was cordial but the rates turned out to be much higher than only a light reading of the web site would reveal.

On the Condado Beach Inn's web site--if you read the fine print--you will see that rates are based on single occupancy and that there is a $20 extra charge for the second person (I didn't notice that). I also didn't notice that on top of the room tax they are charging a city tax and they also charge a 15% service charge! We know about the 9% room tax in Puerto Rico because we have to charge it to our guests and that many resort hotels in Puerto Rico also charge other fees, parking fees (which this place wished it could charge) and resort fees (which this place couldn't charge as there was no resort). I ended up paying much more than I thought it would be. I think this practice of adding fees to the advertised price is kind of sneaky. It could also destroy someone's travel plans that had a carefully worked out budget.

The room was small. It had air conditioning and a TV. We don't have any TVs at the The Rainforest Inn so it was interesting to re-affirm that not having hundreds of channels of 24 hour entertainment but having fast internet instead really gives you more choice (with podcasts and I was surprised to learn that they didn't have WIFI. The room did have one nice feature that we liked; it is difficult for us to go to other bed and breakfast inns without noticing improvements for our place and we are always looking. There was an electronic safe in the bathroom closet (and I won't even go into the concept of a bathroom closet except to say that there wasn't also a normal closet in the room). The safe was large enough to put my laptop computer in--which I always have to take with me but not necessarily at the dinner table or to the movies. We have already ordered similar safes for our bed and breakfast. They were only $120 each on eBay. The furniture in the room was modern, made of compressed bamboo. There was also a small fridge loaded with some things like bottled water and soda with price list that was high enough to let us know to replace anything we might consume before checking out.

The next morning we got up to enjoy the breakfast. It was served continental style on a table in the restaurant. The hotel was wrapped around a small restaurant that served dinners on beach side tables. The restaurant is well known and gets good reviews and was one of the reasons we picked this hotel to stay at. The breakfast was coffee, pastries and fruit. One of the pastries was ok and they did have decaf coffee. The fruit wasn't ripe but it looked decorative.

After breakfast we relaxed in the lounge chairs on the beach. I had my laptop computer out to get some work done (finishing NOAD reports for U.S. Customs). Laurie got me a towel to roll-up and use as a pillow after I finished. There were no beach towels in the room. This is when the third thing happened that spoiled the vacation for Laurie and made it so we could never recommend this place to any of our guests. The hotel had about ten beach chairs with umbrellas put out for guests to enjoy. There was also tables and chairs set-up for the restaurant. There were also six or seven other guests lounging like us or sitting at the tables eating their breakfast. Just after I laid down the hotel manager called out to us from the pool area (in the next paragraph I will describe the pool because it needs describing). He yelled loud enough for all the other guests to hear, saying "are you two guests here?" asking us what we were doing on his lounge chairs. I don't know what made him think we weren't guests. Then he went on to berate us for taking one of the towels out of the room. When we explained that there were no beach towels he got us a couple of ratty beach towels from somewhere. This unnecessary public disturbance upset Laurie and put a large spoiler into our anniversary vacation.

We have a swimming pool at The Rainforest Inn. It is badly damaged and we have been trying to decide what to do with it. Some of our options are:

1. Repair it as is (small kidney shaped pool) 2. Make it smaller and more interesting looking. 3. Put landscaping, rocks etc and use black concrete and add a waterfall to make it a natural swimming pool and then have a very large Jacuzzi above it which is what everyone will end up using (because it will be heated) and it is usually a little cold here for swimming.

4. Make it much smaller and just a decorative garden pool not for swimming.

5. Fill it in and make a Zen garden there and also install a Jacuzzi.

We are probably going to go with option three. We are in the rainforest and even if a natural pool would not look as fancy in our advertising photos as a torques blue typical pool we still like the idea. It fits with our recycling, collecting rainwater, and composting garbage low impact environmental methods.

The pool at the Condado hotel was just a bit bigger than a plastic kiddie pool. It was set in the hotel's tiny courtyard so that walking to and from the beach or the main gate involved carefully skirting the edge of the pool so as not to fall in. No one swam in the pool while we were there and its very public location in front of the sliding door to the restaurant and its tiny size made it very unappealing. I think the pool was just built so that they could say in advertisements (like the web site description) that they had a pool. The dead crab that was lounging on one end the entire time we were there may have also discouraged bathers. We learned something else from this short vacation. When your day-to-day life is in the most incredible vacation spot on earth (at least that is how we feel about being lucky enough to live at the Rainforest Inn) then staying anywhere else, no matter how nice, will always be a disappointment.

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