Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from Corky Parker’s book “La Finca: Love, Loss, and Laundry on a Tiny Puerto Rican Island.”
About the book: For more information about the book, go to the Trinity University westie at tupress.org.
“CORCHO, WHAT YOU need is a finca,” said Rocio, our nanny. It was 1989 and I was in my early 30s, old enough to have traveled a bit and know a little Spanish, but not this.
“Gee, Rocio. Maybe I’ll get one … what’s a finca?”
“Finca just means a place you go to escape from the city. You’re not a city girl, Corcho.”
I wonder what Rocio saw in me at the time — a young wife, mother and harried small-business owner — that made her see so clearly. She was certainly right about the escape part. I had begun to wonder what I was doing in the suburbs north of Seattle.
It’s not like I wanted out. I was busy living the dream; raising three kids, Tyler, Gus and Xing Ji; and running a film-production company with my husband, David. It was pre-dot-com bust. We were rocking it, and I was riding the roller coaster. I had the distinguished honor of being the only mom around who’d brushed Bill Gates’ hair, or escorted him to the restroom. Other moms made grilled cheese sandwiches or baked cookies without burning them. Me, I had other attributes.
With those few fat years came a move to Vashon Island, thinking that might satisfy my search for a finca, an escape. It didn’t. Turning 40, I proposed a plan to act on my long-held fantasy — tropical innkeeping. For the next 10 years I planned to be the family’s designated vacation scout, looking for interesting, offbeat places we can get to on frequent flyer miles.
I found a little-known book called “Rum and Reggae: The Insider’s Guide to the Caribbean” claiming some of the very best beaches — anywhere — were on two virtually unknown islands: Vieques and Culebra. Huh? Never heard of them. They weren’t even on most maps. But how could there be Caribbean islands most people haven’t heard of? Just as they’re beginning to feel a bit like Never-Never Land, out of the blue, on a weekend trip to Port Townsend, I spot a bumper sticker: “I (heart) Culebra.” On a beat-up Volvo station wagon. It was raining, but I had to stop. “Kids. Hang on a minute. I’ll be right back.” I parked the car, dashed across the street, leaving my card under the wiperblade. “Please call if you really know and love Culebra.” The next day a complete stranger calls, “Yep. Both Culebra and Vieques are real. And they’re both amazing.”
Six months later, in early 1996, we are on Vieques. Everything here is oddly reminiscent of the weird and mysterious parts of a Latin American novel. Like the part where the aunt turns into a parrot and flies out the window. In the 8½-by-11 mimeographed local newspaper we find, noted small as a fortune cookie: “FOR SALE: New Dawn: Women’s Retreat Center.” With something about alternative or handmade cabins, but Tyler doesn’t let me get that far. “C’mon Mom! It’s perfect! We gotta go check it out! C’mon, you guys!” He must be worried it might sell before we get there.
The road to New Dawn is narrow and twisty. David bounces the beat-up rented Jeep Cherokee over small ravine-like ruts and through a small banana grove, until we get to the gate.
The gate. As much a metaphor as it’s always felt since, it is, in fact, an actual gate. It’s a long, wide classic wooden ranch gate, with old iron hardware, worn and welcoming. Around it is a shaggy mix of spiky yucca, palms and bougainvillea. Beyond it, deep ruts cut through a packed dirt road. Somehow I can sort of see its history — people, weather, stories that passed through it before us. This is my kind of welcome: A gate to my own funkiness: my childhood, my future, my past. It is all there in an instant, like a portal to who I want to be, who I am, and who I have always been. I just found myself in the wild Latin American novel. But who am I: the aunt or the parrot? … I know it’s a done deal, or that I want it to be.
OVER THE COURSE of the first week on Vieques, we kept plotting and figuring how we could manage to do this. Ty was old enough to babysit, so we would leave the kids with a Monopoly game and their GI Joes and go out for a date night — which meant business strategy at the Crow’s Nest, a nearby guesthouse, bar, and restaurant where we’d sort of gotten to know the bartender, Mark. We were adding up our own risk tolerance, as well as our savings. The bar’s owner, Liz — a contemporary and good friend of Gail, who owned New Dawn — sat at the bar with us, and the two of them encouraged us. “Go for it!” Liz said. “All that place needs is a good cleaning up, a pool, and smart folks running it.”
Hmm … Two out of three?
During the day we head to the beach for more strategizing. I dig my toes into the fine white powder. I’ve lived near the ocean most of my life: from northern California, land of crashing waves and undertow; to Alaska’s steely, cold Cook Inlet. I’m lucky enough to have lived on the Côte d’Azur for a while as a teenage nanny, and to have traveled to Hawaii, Mexico and Southeast Asia. I live on an island in the middle of gentle Puget Sound. I know beaches in their varying forms, but I’ve never seen beaches like this. Nothing like this clean white sand, impossibly turquoise blue water, and azure sky. Where the two blues meet at the horizon, the colors are sharp enough to almost clash.
The high salt content of the Caribbean makes you so buoyant you can lie down on the water and float. I am unused to its almost tideless calm. This beach, the official name is Media Luna, we call “Baby Beach.” The water slides in and out with barely a ripple. A day here is like playing in a tropical bathtub. Farther out in this protected bay, you can play in its mellow version of waves.
As we are all playing in the water, David shouts, “And we have to change the name!”
I know that. We are both in marketing, after all.
“The Finca!” he shouts in between waves. “We’ve been looking for our finca for how long now?”
“That’s perfect!” I yell from my side of the swelling surf. “Just La Finca! The farm. The getaway! I love it!”
But David is smarter still. “Nope,” he bounces back. “Too generic. You’re going to want a name that identifies the place. La Finca could be anywhere from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego.”
And so it is born, conceptually at least: La Finca Caribe, our Caribbean country getaway, retreat, farm — it is all those. It will be our escape, assuming that it can even happen, that we can pull it off. Heading back to our overly full lives — 4,000 miles away, where everything is gray and green and sort of wet, with the kids and the clients and the pets and the book groups, the Unitarian Sunday school, Mandarin lessons, and sports, I’m wondering how. How — now seriously, how on Earth — are we going to squeeze the purchase, not to mention the actual ongoing management of the place, into our lives?
I DON’T REMEMBER if anything actually went wrong, or if it was just the fear that something might, but I cry on the ferry as we leave in the morning sun. We have to leave the finca and the island. We will try to put together an offer for Gail in the weeks ahead, when we are back. I sit on the boat’s stern watching Vieques get smaller and smaller on the horizon. I am afraid it will disappear forever and the whole place, the whole idea, and the whole week will end up being one of those stories you share around the campfire.
We really know nothing of the climate, the culture, the history of the island, not to mention the local tourism or the hospitality industry. “Did I ever tell you about the time I seriously considered buying a place on a little island in the Caribbean? No, really! We almost did … ” Like flipping the raft in Horn Creek, or fainting in the Hmong Village in the Golden Triangle, this latest adventure might fade into the ho-hum of a coulda, shoulda, woulda or be at best an entertaining dinner party anecdote.
And so I cry, alone on the boat deck, heading back to our lives. Away from what I desperately want my life to be, the road I want to take. I realize it’s crazy to dream that big. It’s impossible, I think — let it go. I have three busy kids to get off of this boat, into a taxi van, and onto the long flight. Home. Say goodbye to brilliant and bright, warm and breezy. Say goodbye to what might have been. Wipe the tears away; don’t let the kids see you crying.
Over the rest of the winter and spring of 1996, amid school lunches and running to ferries, the silly escape notion won’t go away. David is afraid, of course. We both are. I know he feels responsible for making the numbers, bringing home the bacon, just as I feel responsible for our cooking it right and maintaining our happy home life. Something like this could be disastrous for the family.
The finca is on our minds all the time. I think about it as we commute together on the ferry, to the office in Seattle and back to Vashon. I think about it in client meetings. I think about it as I read to the kids. “I can’t tell if this would be the smartest, or the stupidest thing, we’ve ever done,” David worries aloud from time to time. “I just wish we could find one of our friends to go in on it with us. Like we did with the boat.”
Eyeing fellow commuters — friends and neighbors — we join their table and start our pitch. You would think in that cold, gray-scale color of winter ferry rides, folks would want in on a tropical escape fantasy. But they never do. No one quite believes we have really found an undiscovered island in the Caribbean, rimmed in long, white, empty beaches with herds of wild horses, few roads, and no resorts or traffic lights.
WE GET SERIOUS about the plotting and planning. If they won’t join us, we’ll have to do it on our own. The gods favor us with more and more work from Microsoft. David runs the numbers again. We can borrow against our house. Heck, Gail is financing the deal herself. We don’t even need a bank. Gulp. It becomes clear that we really can do it. From finding the place to financing it, it is happening about a decade earlier than we ever expected. When I cooked up that little plan for our working retirement, I thought it might take a handful of years, not months.
David and I know how to pull together projects, so we do. For the next 10 years, until the kids are out of high school, we will hire folks to stay on site and run the place. We are confident that we’ll find adventurous friends of friends who will line up to manage the place. As a family, we will get down there during all school holidays and summer vacations — at least for June, which is still rainy in the Northwest. When the kids are launched, we’ll run it ourselves. At least for half the year, the busy half — high season, from Christmas to April. That’s the plan.
On a deeper level, I have visions for the place. I see clearly what a value it will be for the community. I’m not sure how, but I can sense the importance, and joy, of sharing it with Puerto Rican kids. As I roll over in bed at night between dreams, I see feminist history workshops for local high school girls, and I start planning the curriculum for green living retreats for elementary kids from San Juan. This is going to be fun. And good.
Four months later, on June 16, 1996, all five of us arrive back on Vieques. Our new island. We stay in the main house, our new house. It sure is big. And a little different than I remembered, I think to myself, as I look around at all that needs doing.
“Let’s just sign!” David says. He is enthusiastically supportive. It’s our very first afternoon, and we are all together with Gail, the attorneys, and lots of wild bouquets: flowers from the property she has picked to welcome us. I am so impressed that Gail is generous enough to throw in the big glass vase that holds them, the old brass candleholders, and the Guatemalan tablecloths. She is even going to give us all the cool stuff in the shed, including the camping gear, if we want it. Smart woman, that Gail. I am too giddy to ask to look inside the shed before I agree. That is the least of our worries. We are signing the contract, and signing up for a life of unanticipated horizon-stretching, mind-bending craziness.