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Beautiful Limbo: Traveller and Local in Puerto Rico

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It was a shopping cart full of food. She was likely feeding a whole family. Her scrubs were an indication she worked in healthcare. A doctor? Nurse? I watched her scoop two large loaves of bread. Her hair had silky black roots peeking out but her cascade of tresses was a deep red hue that suited her. She was with another woman who was in the bagging area surveying what they’d purchased. 

These were the women in front of me in line at a supermarket in Luquillo, a small beach town east of San Juan in Puerto Rico. It was late afternoon and they had likely just finished their shift, running the mountainous errand of getting the groceries done before going home to collapse. I admired these women. I had nothing on them when it came to running a household.

I was purchasing ingredients for a simple dinner and breakfast items for my partner and me to make at home. He was at work, just up the road. I didn’t want him to come home to an empty fridge. 

Despite the mundane chore I was completing, I was actually on vacation. I met my partner on a previous trip. Visiting for an extended Easter break, I went to the local supermarket because I wanted to feel like I belonged. And for the most part, because what I was doing was so ordinary, I did. My partner and I are not married, but I felt like his wife, buying boring food. It made me happy.

I felt like a local simply because of my connection to him. Four months of nightly video chats before I came for a second time entailed him talking about what it was like living in Puerto Rico; we discussed everything from the local politics, health care, economics, the sad state of the island’s infrastructure–and much more. 

The Mindset of a Glocal

I’ve lived in many places in my life, and though I move a lot, I always have a desire to go native wherever I am hosted. I attribute it to being comfortable when I find something I like, digging–not dipping– to truly understand my surroundings. It contributes to strengthening my role as a global citizen.

Going native was my way of acknowledging another way of life, a sign of curiosity. Or maybe I just want to put myself in someone else’s shoes to see how I would fare. Growing up bi-cultural and then adopting a third culture in my teens has put me in a constant state of experimenting with identities. While my personality is not infused with a cultural stereotype I suppose I have a passionate, emotional side that people could associate with being Middle-Eastern. But those traits aren’t derived from my culture–they’re from the dynamics of the domestic environment I was raised in.

Walk & Talk

I was learning Spanish on Duolingo and had been able to say a few phrases in Spanish. While listening to him talk to his best friend on the phone one night, I noticed I could tell the difference between his Puerto Rican accent and the Spanish accent I was learning on the app. I saw it as a sign of transitioning to localizing myself. Will I end up talking like a boricua like him? Or will I sound like every Duolingo Spanish language learner? Is Duolingo creating an army of Spanish speakers resembling the owl (its’ mascot)? Are we the owl’s army who will all sound like the colonials? Interesting how it’s still steeped in, even in a globalized world.

I surveyed the clothes I was wearing. I wanted them to be plain, unassuming. I tried and failed to find anything in my wardrobe that would make me look like a local. What would that entail anyway? Puerto Rican women–like any demographic– were diverse, but there is always something that makes a people distinct. I just hadn’t figured it out. I’m not Puerto Rican, but I didn’t want to be seen as a tourist, an outsider. Looks-wise I could pass for Spanish-speaking. Yet despite considering myself an adaptable global citizen, it was undeniably obvious I was North American from my mannerisms, to the blank look I wore walking around, and the cringey comfort I felt when I saw a hipster-friendly cafe selling overpriced espresso drinks. I draw the line at avocado toast though–give me a quesito any day.

Chocolate Quesitos and Local Chocolate Bar

Spaces

Speaking as a global citizen who has visited a decent number of countries, I can say most malls are pretty much the same, but there is a unique energy every culture brings to this homogenous space that alerts you to what country you’re in. The food establishments are the most obvious. In Puerto Rico, there were places offering dishes consisting of rice, beans, plantains and concoctions of seafood. 

But the fast-food chains are also versed in understanding local tastes. Puerto Ricans love Oreos. You could even get an Oreo cone at McDonald’s. I don’t think I saw that anywhere on the mainland. Wendy’s sold churro fries. I gawked when I saw it on the menu and instantly messaged my sister. “Why am I not there?” she replied.

We ventured to the El Morro area (a major tourist spot) in old San Juan, but went at night when it was deserted. I was exposed to the full moon against the castle and a mesmerizing view of a twinkly tropical skyline. These were travel moments anyone can only access when they know a local. I loved it.

We went to Puerto Rico Comic Con, where I saw a blend of comic and Puerto Rican culture. It was fascinating, to see many Spanish-speaking people in western or Japanese character costumes. Every culture has misfits, nerds, geeks and artists who are idiosyncratic in their own way. Creativity knows no borders and this global citizen saw that the entertainment arts have a quirky way of bringing people together. “Geek Ricans” the huge banner read at the convention center.

I started to see signs that the island still had the infrastructure of a developing territory: roads with unrepaired potholes, poorly maintained buildings, stories of corruption on unfinished construction projects, and sub-par healthcare. 

Final Thoughts

The realities of living in Puerto Rico are not new to me. I had lived in the Philippines for a brief period during my childhood, where the conditions were similar. Living in Canada was comfortable and access to basic services was easier. But it didn’t make me happy. Is this a trade-off I was willing to make?

For love, yes. I wanted to be where he was, and if it was at the expense of certain comforts and conveniences I was used to, then I was willing and able. After all, even if he wasn’t in the equation, wasn’t a nomadic life something I’d always wanted? Perhaps being a roaming local-global citizen is the mechanism by which I’m destined to evolve.

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