Puerto Rico

Day 1:  The Journey

I walk from the bus stop to the light rail stop and I read the signs.

On a bikini ad: “Screw these women you’re beautiful.”

On a condemned building: “Make this day counting.”

Eric texts me to say he’s going to be a little late.  The bus has just come and he’s been waiting for half an hour.  This is uncharacteristic of the 71,72,73 line.  You usually don’t even need to check the schedule.

We meet in the International District to catch the light rail.  We stop at the stadium.   Hoards of Mariners fans pile on the train.  Eric nervously checks his watch.

An older woman sits down beside me.  She’s probably 60.  Her granddaughter comes to sit on her lap, then wanders off again (the whole family appears to be present: mother, father, grandmother, and a few kids, including this granddaughter who looks to be around 7 or 8, and another one who appears to be 16 or 17).

The granddaughter comes back.  “Grandma, are you a cougar?”  The family starts cackling.

Somehow Eric and I get into the conversation and are promptly accused of travelling for Spring Break.  The 16 or 17 year old daughter looks offended.  “I’m almost in college,” she says.  Read: “There’s no way these old farts are in college.”

The light rail is a convenient way to get to the airport, but as my dad says, it wasn’t intended to get to the airport, and that becomes apparent once we do get to the airport because it’s a long-ish walk to the terminal, especially to the Delta check-in, which is conveniently about as far as you can get from where we left the train and still be in the airport.

Hey gang, for future reference, Delta has a rule that you can’t check into flights that are leaving in 30 minutes or less.

This is all a long way of saying that we missed our flight, but the fact that we missed our flight was mitigated by circumstances outside of our control.

As I get off the light rail and trek upward to the bus stop heading home, I realize I’m in Pioneer Square alone at midnight with $300 in cash in my pocket, carrying heavy bags that scream “tourist” and checking my email on my iPhone.

A girl offers to “trade me something” for a cigarette.  Her boyfriend lurks in a gutter.  We all three stand at the bus stop.  It’s starts to rain.

Day 1 (b):  This Time It’s Personal

For this iteration of going to the airport, I enlist my dad, who gets me there in plenty of time, and we check in in plenty of time, and we get through security in plenty of time; time enough to sit at the gate for an hour and a half before the plane leaves.  Thanks modern air travel.

This trip goes off without a hitch.  A couple of notes:

  • Eric Reasoner does not like the Southern Accent.
  • The moving walkways at the Atlanta airport are lined with pictures of outer space.
  • More people in Puerto Rico speak Spanish and no English than I had initially anticipated.

Everyone seems capable of speaking the English that they are required to speak.  For example, Car Rental guy knows how to tell us to sign receipts and what our deposit is going to be but not how to give us directions across town.  He brings in his friend who does speak English pretty well who tells us “You want us to be like ‘go turn right on 4th street,’ but there is no 4th street.”

Lesson #1 about Puerto Rico:  There is no 4th street.

Day 2:  Stray Cats, Dogs, and Pigs

This is a day that was marked by several instances of delicious food.

Breakfast:  Yogurt that I bought at Wal-Mart.

Okay, this is a fairly mundane start to a day that allegedly includes a multitude of deliciousness, but I had to start somewhere.  This was also my first opportunity to see Puerto Rico in the daylight.  I glanced out our window and saw palm trees encircling a tiny pool, and  behind it an endless, effervescent blue outlining the curvature of the earth.

Lesson #2 about Puerto Rico:  Any time you’re on an elevated platform you feel like you either have, or are about to, step off the edge of the world.

Lunch: We decide that today is the day we explore San Juan, and the right place to start is at a food cart with Tripleta, a three-meat sandwich.  I’m pretty sure it’s Chicken, Ham, Steak, and Swiss Cheese.   The first cart we go to is closed (at 2:00 pm? for shame – but later I gather that perhaps San Juanians adhere to the European Siesta tradition).  The second one is about to close but cooks up some Tripleta for us in a pinch.  As we’re leaving, the chef shouts behind us,

“Sorry for the rush, we’re closing and that’s why I didn’t give you the kind of service I’d like.”

“Oh, that’s fine,” we say.

“Hey, did I tell you I was on the Food Network?”

He wasn’t, in fact on the food network, but he was on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.  I’m not sure what’s so Bizarre about a meat sandwich but we were excited to hear it nonetheless.

Eric and I walked off our food by trekking up the blue brick streets to the wall encompassing Old San Juan.  It’s an ancient stone structure that really underlines the feeling you’ve gotten already, that you’re in an old European city.  The narrow streets, the old-school architecture (feeling to me more early-Renaissance Italian than truly Spanish), brightly painted buildings and hole-in-the wall cafes popping up in almost every back alley really make the city feel unique.

Along the turreted wall we hop, looking downward into the waterfront slums and eventually reaching the fort at the top of the hill, with it’s vast courtyard of perfectly manicured grass.  Kites dip and dive and a tiny toddler whines as he gives chase to a soccer ball being kept away from him by his dad.  Below, an ornate, cluttered cemetery sprawls along the wall in between the walled inner city and the ramshackle homes below.

The city is full of cats.  I’m guessing they’re strays because of how thin they are.  No one pays them any mind.

We stop for drinks at a bar whose windows are like doors, or maybe whose doors are like windows.  As I sip my Puerto Rican beer a man next to us extolls the virtue of Don Q Rum, much better than the Bacardi sold by this establishment.

Dinner: We sit down under the sidewalk umbrellas of a touristy cafe where the host has promised us delicious mofongo.  Mofongo is mashed plantains served with meat or vegetables – we get ours with steak.  It’s served in a kind of wooden goblet.  This was better than I’d expected.

Dinner #2:  We pick up Ben, Jamie, and Yoni and head back, inadvertently taking a new route.  Luckily, this road is lined with food vendors serving mostly fried delicacies.  Ben, Jamie and Yoni haven’t eaten yet so we stop.  I buy a fried calzone-shaped pocket of some sort with ground beef inside and also a skewer of chicken wings and plantains that the chef grills and smothers with barbecue sauce.  This was the most delicious meal of the day.

The dirt parking lot where cars pull to visit this roadside cafe is full of dogs of all different sizes and types.  They don’t pay us any mind.  In fact, they stand in front of the car so we have to maneuver around them to get out.

On our way home, a police car approaches with lights flashing.  I pull over.  It’s a narrow road and expect the car behind me to pull over as well and the police car to go around us.  Instead, the car behind me stops but doesn’t pull over and the police car stops behind it.

“Did you just get pulled over?” Eric asks.

“No.”

“You just got pulled over.”

The car behind us goes around.  The police car pulls up beside us.  I roll down my window.  The office says something in Spanish.

“Uh…No Habla?”

He convenes with his partner.

“Where you staying?”

“Uh, Aquatika?”

“Follow us.”

Lesson #3 about Puerto Rico:  Police cars drive around with their lights flashing all the time.

  • They thought we were lost and decided to be nice and show us the way home, or
  • They pulled us over to harass us and then realized we couldn’t speak English so they pretended to be nice and show us the way home

Incidentally, Aquatika is a gated housing complex right next to a police station.  On the way home, we saw 3 or 4 other police cars driving around with their lights flashing.  No one paid them any mind.

When one car going the opposite direction pulled to the side of the road as we and our police escort passed, we said “look, that must be a tourist.”

Day 3: Mistakes we knew we were making

Eric and I plan to visit the beach on the island of Culebra, off the east coast of Puerto Rico, but when we get to the ferry the terminal is packed with families going to the beach for the holiday weekend.  An American woman compliments my “You Have Died of Dysentery” t-shirt.

We head back to the house but on the way spot a row of 60 food kiosks along the side of the freeway.  It’s only 10 am so none of them are open yet, but we decide to walk by and see what’s there.  Along the backroads behind the kiosks we notice an expansive beach and decide to walk along the coastline.  No one is there except more stray dogs.

As we walk a bit further, we come across a group of workers tending the lawn of a baseball field.  Which reminds me, Puerto Rico has amplified the stereotype that Hispanic people are good at yard work.  Every patch of grass we walked on was impeccably mowed.

We vow to visit the food kiosks at night for dinner and then drive home and promptly fall asleep.  Something about Puerto Rico has made us quite lazy.  Maybe it’s the heat.  Maybe it’s the heavy, fried food.

Lesson #4 about Puerto Rico:  All stereotypes are true.

After the nap I walk down to the beach near our house.  The air is cooler because it’s just rained, and I wade into the warm water and then swim out into the depths.  Under the overcast sky I can see all the way to the bottom of the ocean even when I’m far out in the deep because the water is so clear.

Jamie joins me at the beach and the two of us stand for a long time looking out to sea, letting the water erode the sand around our toes as our feet sink deeper and deeper into the mud sand.

A crab pinches my foot.

Day 4:  Burn, Burn, Burn

I wake up and plan on going to the beach again, and enlist Jamie to go with me.  Actually, she enlists me.  She is the only person in the house besides me who seems interested in just going to the beach and relaxing.

Just as we’re about to leave, she flushes a toilet and it backs up and starts spewing all over her bathroom and bedroom.  After the water is an inch deep in her room she remembers to shut off the water.  We call the owner.  Eric waits in the house while we go to the beach.

Lying under a tree at the beach, an odd substance falls from the tree onto Jamie.  I think it’s some sort of sap.  She thinks it’s lizard urine.  We decide it’s “Jamie-gets-awkward-foreign-substances-on-her” day.  I decide not to remark on the logical conclusion of that statement.

Lesson #5 about Puerto Rico:  Everyone is either on vacation or doesn’t speak English.

Today the ocean is a little cloudier, or probably just more reflective of the sun.  As a result I didn’t see the large rock I was about to swim into.  We also debate what the off-color patches of ocean were.  We lay in the sun for far too long.

Lesson #6 about Puerto Rico:  It’s dark and hell is hot.

We sit in the hot tub for a bit but it starts pouring.  It’s kind of nice because the rain is cool but not cold and our legs are hot from the tub.  Eventually someone who works at the complex comes to tell us that we can’t sit in the hot tub during a thunderstorm.

Eric and I go on a tour of the Bacardi Rum Factory.  It’s not all that interesting, but we do get two free drinks from the bar, and the bar is very impressive, a huge concave/convex pavilion meant to abstractly mimic the form of a bat, with (again) well manicured fields surrounding tall windmills to the side.

The food just keeps getting better.  Today was a kind of roast pork stew with plantains and cheese, and a lemon-rosemary creme brulee topped with cinnamon ice cream.  Also a blueberry wheat beer.   I did not lose the credit card game.

I go to the bathroom at the restaurant, staring at my pink face and arms in the mirror.  I’m burning up and burning out.  The unmarked roads, the lack of English, Eric pausing every conversation to remark on a marginally attractive woman.

Matt Marr: “It’s a beautiful country and a horrible city.”

Lesson #7 about Puerto Rico:  Matt Marr is right sometimes.

Day 5:  Seeking an authentic interaction

My days have begun later and later as the trip has gone on.  Eric has some sort of coughing disease that causes him to spend the first two hours after he goes to bed hacking his lungs up.  After he gives it a rest and goes to sleep, I can as well.  He blames it on the air conditioning.

The day begins again with a beach trip.  This time Jamie and I don’t last very long before the rain starts,  and while it’s disappointing not to get to have some tranquility, I’ve started to enjoy the walks back to the room in the pouring rain.  It’s not Seattle rain, it’s warm, thick, and heavy.

The evening is a little American for my taste.  Morton’s steakhouse (there was some debate about this, but in the end I gave in, a steak did sound good)  followed by a hotel bar populated with mostly English speakers.  The steak was excellent.  This time, I avoided the credit card game.  Numbers were not favorable.

I decide to solve the problem of being in a slightly-too-American bar by drinking heavily.  Peter Beckfield is with us, and in typical Peter Beckfield fashion he has ordered two 60-ounce “rum punch” drinks to share with the table, which laughably make me look like a tiny person holding a normal-sized cocktail glass, or a regular-sized person holding a cocktail glass as large as his head.  I end up drinking most of both of them.

The drinks are actually an excellent pickup line.  As most of the people in the bar are tourists here for a holiday weekend, multiple girls stop and sit down while asking what exactly we’re drinking.  Unfortunately for Eric Reasoner, he’s in a different part of the room at this point.  Before we know it, the entire bar is populated with people sipping from equally massive glasses.

Lesson #8 about Puerto Rico:  Nobody wants to share their rum punch.

But wait, my drinking the majority of these rum punches is justifiable.  Peter Beckfield’s girlfriend is very, very drunk.  I don’t think I’ve ever encountered her not blacked out, but this is a whole new level for me.  She keeps grabbing the huge drinks and sloshing them precariously one way or another, spilling on Peter’s leg, on the table, or just making the group gasp as she dodges another pink splotch catastrophe.

I end up holding the drink to keep her from a) spilling and b) dying from alcohol poisoning.  How noble of me.

During this time, she asks me 3-5 times what I majored in at the UW, and after I tell her “Business…” and before I can say “and English” she says “Did you go to the pub crawl?” which I have never heard of, or maybe need some distinction on because there are many pub crawls, but nonetheless probably didn’t go to the one of which she speaks, and eventually I get exhausted with explaining this and just answer “yes.”

Not that I’m counting, but of the three times I’ve gotten attention from women on this vacation, one of them has been with her mother and the other two have been with their boyfriends.  Morgan commands me to text her, and dictates “Say, ‘Hey Morgan I’m interested in you.'”  I politely decline.  Soon after that she and Peter disappear.

Lesson #9 about Puerto Rico:  No cockfighting on Sundays or Mondays.

I drunk email Meghan, but I’m not drunk enough to pass out into a sleep deep enough to ignore Eric’s coughs.

This, sitting in an extravagant bar populated by tourists, sipping colorful drinks and watching tropically flavored women pass by, is what I had imagined Puerto Rico to be all about.  And it probably would have been if I had taken the reins in planning lodging – we’d be in a resort by a beach and never would have left.  Nonetheless, I’m thankful I was mistaken.


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About

My life is about words.

word (n.) – a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.

My existence is based on the assumption that words are meaningful, distinct, and unique. Language is the same thing as culture. Memory is the same thing as conciousness.

rodomontade (n.) – boastful or inflated talk or behavior.

The entire artistic and other manifestations of human achievement can not only be summarized, not only defined, but encompassed by the idea of language.

“Hello? Yes, I forgot my mantra.” – Jeff Goldblum as “Lacey Party Guest” in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

I’m a sap who abhors the cliché. I’m a movie elitist. I’m a nerd. I want to be famous.


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