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Island of Enchantment: Puerto Rico

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Puerto Rico Wha?

Between mandatory quarantine not being lifted for over a year, a flaky friendship pool that couldn’t commit to going on holiday with me, and feeling stuck on where to go, I procrastinated until the end of 2021. With a destination still in question, I risked losing what remained of my scant vacation days. 

“Why don’t you go to Puerto Rico?” my sister suggests. I see a glimmering bulb light in the back of my head. Unusual option, I think, but not inconsiderable. I faintly remember my boss mentioning she had gone to PR a few weeks prior. 

I do a preliminary internet search and discover that Puerto Rico is not only beautiful but rarely makes it to popular vacation lists. Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, and The Dominican Republic are always on my social media feeds exploding with popular beach and food snaps, but Puerto Rico is under the radar. Underrated. 

I find a reasonably priced ticket and purchase it with my points. 

Bienvenidos a Puerto Rico

I land in Luis Munoz Marin airport in San Juan– Puerto Rico’s capital city– on a balmy Saturday on December 4, 2021, exiting the terminal to a temperate climate. The air is kind. It’s a sweet whiff you don’t normally experience in a tropical destination. Hawaii maybe, but the Caribbean? Not in my experience.

The weather is the closest to winter on the island– a pleasant reprieve from the harsh winter of Toronto, which, along with the pandemic, had been chipping away at my mental health for the last twenty-one months. 

Viejo (Old) San Juan

I catch an Uber to Old San Juan, allowing the air to blast in my face as I roll the window down. Puerto Rico is calm – a somewhat subdued version of any former Spanish colony. 

My Uber driver—Jorge–has lived in Puerto Rico all his life, yet still considers himself Dominican, having been born to Dominican parents. I recognize his familiar soliloquy about how one can hold on to their identity from a land they don’t live in. He is forward, seemingly well-meaning, yet the experienced, discerning side of me sensed a romantic interest. Subtle, not unmissed.

We exchange phone numbers, him out of interest, me out of obligation. I figured it may be useful to know someone—anyone– in the city considering a weak acquaintance of mine lived over two hours away, who probably couldn’t get to me if anything catastrophic happened. Jorge’s intentions were not pure, but he was more forward than aggressive, which I could manage. 

Calle Fortaleza—probably the most popular street in Old San Juan– is quiet and unassuming during the day, which I appreciate. Mobility and easy access to the sights are an important part of orienting myself when exploring a new destination. 

I ring the doorbell to my hostel and climb up a flight of deep blue steps. The walls are white, creating the illusion of a larger, non-clinical space.

The hostel’s floor has cooling, white tiles. As I stand at reception waiting for the clerk to check me in, I feel internally hot, with my body starting to feel the effects of the tropics. I slide one of my feet off my flip-flops and feel the cold tile. I instantly feel better. 

“That’ll be $37 USD per night,” he says with a bored, professional look. 

Cheap nightly rate. Why am I roughing it at my age? Choosing to share a space with three strange women in a room with two bunk beds and lockers? Because I want to save money I suppose. Because I am hoping that I meet other travellers who will want to explore the city with me. I grab my belongings and am led to a room, walking into an even cooler space with the air-condition in full blast. 

I encounter Helena, a woman in her forties from New York. She is too chatty and doesn’t pick up on my nonverbal cues, as I passive-aggressively look at my phone while she tells a story that clearly requires my undivided attention. I must be kind, I tell myself, so I occasionally look up and comment on whatever sentence she says at that moment. This seems to satisfy her, yet fails to signal my disinterest.

In past trips, I’ve come across compelling travellers and the conversations naturally progress to grabbing a meal. But as Helena and I chat more, we naturally make plans separately. Perhaps she’s more intuitive than I thought, realizing I don’t want to explore the area with her, or maybe I don’t read her as well, don’t read her desire to venture on her own. Did she make a passing comment about wanting to do things alone? I wish I’d listened more closely.

I walk to a supermarket to get a lock. You need one to store your belongings. Helena seemed kind but I didn’t know her, and I wasn’t sure about the other occupants of the room since I hadn’t met them yet. Caution is key when I’m travelling alone, being female. While completing the errand, I decide to call my telecom company in Canada, which keep me on hold for over an hour before I shrug and give up, ending the call. I want to forget Canada for now.

I munch on a moist cream cheesecake that re-introduces my taste buds to the Spanish-influenced affinity for butter, cream, sugar and eggs. It tastes like a moist flan. I internally rejoice as I bite into it some more, feeling the sun’s afternoon rays on my face while loitering in the square with pigeons.

I go back to my hotel to rest. The tiring demands of travel slowly sink in. I remember I’d been awake since 4.15 am. I’m tempted to sleep. No, I tell myself. I only have one week off, and I need to make the most of it.

I suddenly remember Jorge mentioning a Puerto Rican restaurant– Raices– which is supposed to have the best Mofongo in town. I don’t know what a Mofongo is, and resolved to try it. I check Google maps and discover it’s only a 7-minute walk away. Sold. 

I wear a loose dress, giving my body as much opportunity to feel the tropical air. There are mosquitos– lots of mosquitos– so I apply bug spray, on hand at reception. The tropics aren’t kind to my skin, having learned that lesson living in the Philippines for a year as a child.

Raices is touristy but carries specks of authenticity. It’s Saturday so there’s a wait. Para uno por favor, I tell the hostess in my broken, skeletal Spanish.

She replies in English. “Are you ok with eating at the bar?” Si, I reply, alluding to the one place where a solo diner can not only get seated right away, but usually witnesses the most fascinating conversations and events.

I’m seated. My bartender is young, impressionable and attentive, gay perhaps. We chat about the menu, and he convinces me to have a mojito. I watch him crush the mint, remembering it as a critical step to ensure freshness.

He doesn’t disappoint. As the refreshing liquid travels down my throat, my body adjusts to being on vacation. My stomach is empty and the alcohol instantly diffuses to my head. I’m enjoying the first few minutes of my buzz when my phone does the same; it’s Jorge. I want to see you, he asks. I look at my screen, feeling discernment. Tonight? he asks. I agree. We decide on 10pm.

A pair of men to my left order food to go. They start talking to me to kill time. One is local and provides excellent restaurant recommendations. The other is chatty and doesn’t stop talking about sports. An unlikely pair; one introverted (the local) and the other not so much, quintessentially mainland American. Balance. It wouldn’t make sense if both talked too much, or if both were quiet because then nothing would be said.

I order a Mofongo. The presentation is magnificent but is dry in taste. It’s my first one, so I don’t have a point of reference. I love plantains and seafood though, so I try to devour them even if my body has already started to shut down because hot weather forces it to work hard to regulate my body temperature thereby giving me zero appetite.

I order a second mojito, this time guava-flavoured. It tastes artificial albeit delicious. I love Guava; such an underrated fruit, the forgotten gal of the tropical gang. 

My drunkenness settles as I eat. I stare at the TV screens while texting a friend back home. I crave social contact when I consume alcohol, and even though the two men to my left seem engaging, I’m underwhelmed.

I leave the restaurant and walk a few blocks, loving the evening lights of Old San Juan. No one really sightsees at night, so it’s a perfect opportunity to have a place to yourself. I put my headphones on and revel in the district’s old beauty, taking photos and enjoying the beautiful lights.

Around thirty minutes in, alcohol, food and travel fatigue hit me all at once, and I decide to take a nap before meeting Jorge. 45-minutes. 

The hostel dorm is cool, with air conditioning. I plop into my bed and close my eyes.

I jolt wide awake. The nap felt longer than 45 mins. I panic and check my phone. 10.30pm. Nothing from Jorge. I’m relieved yet annoyed. Poor taste for someone to invite someone only to ghost them, especially since the date was made last minute. I turn off the light and return to sleep.

The next morning I’m rejuvenated, having slept for nine hours. I slip on a dress with a flower print, fix my hair and head out. I blast a new song on Spotify—Cut You Off by Little Mix– sealing it as a memory song of my trip to Puerto Rico (I listened to this song nonstop for the rest of my trip).

Old San Juan is sunny. I walk around and take more photos of the colourful buildings. The architecture is simple yet intricate. I feel like a local, walking around with a simple dress and frizzy hair, though I’m certain I look like a tourist even with just my stride. Local I wish.

I visit La Perla, a poorer part of San Juan. This was where Justin Bieber and Luis Fonsi shot their video Despacito. It’s unusual to find a shanty town on a beautiful oceanfront. The image it created for itself was commodifying ghettoeness. I walk around, fascinated at how such a poor area can be filled by so many tourists.  Is poverty and its residents an exhibit to us outsiders? I feel ignorant, foolish that I could be fascinated by this juxtaposition. So much for being a conscientious traveller. 

But La Perla is beautiful. The ocean in the afternoon sun with the cool wind calms my adrenal glands, which have been working in overdrive since I consumed one–ok maybe two–cups of coffee. I can literally feel the glands contract as my nervous system crashes, rendering me useless for an hour or two before recovering to normal, less caffeinated levels. As I stand, leaning on the wooden fences, the caffeine crash doesn’t feel bad; thank you oceanfront aquatic nature. 

Fajardo

I’m loving Old San Juan, but crave a quieter, local life. I want to see how Puerto Ricans live, not hear tourist stories from people whom I share the dorm with. I criticize myself for my lack of discipline to learn Spanish, something I’d been talking about for years. I feel a stronger resolve to download Duo Lingo when I return home.

I don’t want to completely exhaust myself like I did with my other trips so instead of blasting through the whole island, I rent a car and trek east to Fajardo, a hub for water sports on the island. 

I snorkel by Icacos Island close to sunset, barely catching the last tour. The waters aren’t as clear, but feeling the blast of cold, salty water on my face and body as I snorkel above the corals tells me I am truly on vacation. I love how the elements—air, water, earth and to a certain degree fire—make me feel present.

The next day I kayak the bioluminescent bay. For the record, Puerto Rico has three of the five these bays in the world. Sadly, the dinoflagellates aren’t too visible because of the moon and time of year; the compelling part of the experience was kayaking the lagoon—it was pitch black. Good thing we were in pairs. My panic-stricken brain kept picturing a large anaconda hovering under our kayak. Shudder.  

El Yunque —the only tropical rainforest in the United States– is next on my self-curated predictable tourist trail. I visit the small waterfalls, ones that don’t require much trekking to get there. I find one many people pass. There are two other waterfalls higher up which are bigger and better, but I delight in the smaller one. It’s a secret everyone knows about but doesn’t value. 

I take limitless selfies in my swimsuit, indulging my inner showgirl. Two guys wander into the waterfall pool; they’re young, impressionable. I offer to take their photos and they do the same. Their poses are guarded, an attempt to be stoic, yet I see the child energy behind their faces. The inner smiles they wish they could show the world to say, I don’t wanna be macho, it’s so much pressure. Whatever happened to just smiling for the shits of it? We say polite goodbyes.

I move to a quiet corner of the pool where I feel a strong cold current, relieving my injured ankle. The water rejuvenates me. It has been over two weeks since I sprained it; the fresh, rainforest tropical water psychosomatically makes it feel better.

I’m exasperated that my ankle is still sore yet feel relieved it’s given me an excuse to not have to hike the gruelling terrain to the top of the rainforest. I like active holidays, but my body and soul are encouraging a slower, steadier pace. 

I love travelling alone, but the loneliness catches me with its’ snagging net sometimes, starting the dreaded spiral of shoulds. I lament on my life issues, like dating. Driving on PR-3 in my rented KIA, I give myself a minute or two to dwell; how is it that I’m nowhere close to finding the right romantic partner? How is it that even though I love travelling alone, it’s difficult for me to find even one person to go with? It’s my choice, I remind myself. I just need to remember that you’re not always happy even when you make the right choices.

I stop at more tourist points at El Yunque, and then descend on the largely mountainous terrain with my vehicle. I arrive at the bottom of the mountain and find a local Puerto Rican bakery. They have a flan pie and some interesting apple-flavoured baked goods. I buy a few pieces to take back to my AirBnB. 

Carabali Adventure Park” reads a posted sign on one of the telephone poles. Huh. I wasn’t even aware there were adventure parks on the island. Makes sense, you know, nature and all. I make a mental note to check it out online when I get home.

My AirBnB is a wonderful, air-conditioned reprieve from the humidity of my rainforest expedition. I lie on my bed after a lovely shower, meditating and thinking of what I was going to do later that night. No plans. That’s ok. I needed to not only vacate Toronto but the mental demands of needing to fill every minute of my day on vacation (“to make the most of it”. Fuck that).

I remember the adventure park; Google search. I view their offerings: hayride? Too boring. Horseback? Nope. That was physically painful when I did it 10 years ago. Go-Kart? Been there done that, plus it feels juvenile. ATV-ing..huh. Ok.

ATV in the Rainforest

I sign up for a late afternoon tour the following day. Perfect. No midday blazingly hot sun which would burn my skin, and the afternoon light would be nice if it didn’t rain and create a clusterfuck downpour. 

The next day, I pick up food sold by vendors off the highway, which not only proved to be delicious (rice, beans and grilled chicken with a mango shake), but cheap. I love how affordable Puerto Rico is.

I head to the park; my ATV guide  is talkative. He complains about the working conditions of his job, which I find somewhat unprofessional. But we’re all human, and I excuse the behavioural faux pas. 

While driving the ATV, I notice it was ok to make the monstrously large machine go through deep, large puddles; that was the whole point and fun of it. If I were driving a car, these bumps needed to be avoided so as to not fuck your suspension, but ATVs are designed to withstand uneven terrain. It takes my brain some time to adjust. 

About 15 minutes into our tour guide signals us to stop at a picturesque viewpoint overlooking the rainforest. The late afternoon sun rays of yellows, oranges and reds spill onto the lush green tropical plants. He encourages us to take photos.

I feel a sense of nostalgia. What is it about the late sun that makes me feel I’m living my life? Is it the signal of a day ending and allowing me to reflect on what I’d done since waking up? Perhaps. Is the near-twilight effect a reminder to do one last hurrah before the sun sets for the day? Maybe. Or is it a signal to stop worrying and just be?

Final day in San Juan

I return to old San Juan the next evening, and one of the ATV guides I’d met whom I connected with followed me after his shift (that is another post!). We spend time walking the deep blue cobblestone streets, grabbing a large tripleta to share. A tripleta is a local, traditional food of Puerto Rico; it consists of three kinds of meat, sauces and french fries all stuffed into a foot-long sandwich. Sharing it made me feel closer to him.

I spend the next morning at Chocobar Cortes, a trendy brunch spot in Old San Juan, indulging in a traditional hot chocolate with a side of cubed cheddar cheese before leaving for the airport. I purchase local baking chocolate and the dark variety for my father. 

Arriving too early at San Juan Marin airport, I revel in the thought that I’d only been there exactly a week before, but felt like I’d lived a whole lifetime.

The counter to check my luggage is closed. I’m told that many airport employees go to lunch with no contingency plan to serve passengers; the woes of leisurely island inefficiency. I can’t go through security without checking my luggage, so I decide to go outside for a final breath of tropical air. There are benches at the front entrance.

I sit in silence, watching people get dropped off by Ubers and taxis. For a major airport, the traffic is steady, not bottlenecked. 

A deep feeling of sadness suddenly envelopes me. You can call it post-vacation blues, since a vacation is usually filled with activities, and a return to normal life makes us realize how monotonous our actual lives are. But this feeling I have is not new to me. And I remember that it will not go away until I do something about it.

This feeling. This feeling, reinforcing how I feel complacency in my North American life—its’ enmeshing of a materialistic lifestyle we use to distract ourselves. I remember how I haven’t built any sense of community not only due to the pandemic but because I’d decided to turn inwards and disconnect from everything in my life that no longer served me. I like Toronto, but it’s only been my home for under three years and I haven’t built roots there. Puerto Rico was a reminder of this longing I’d dismissed.

I recall everything from friends who I still loved but no longer felt enriched my life, bad habits that held me back, and a renewed motivation for incorporating more of the values I’d grown to hold internally. There was a mismatch, a disconnect. 

The pandemic gave me structure, but the structure which forced me inwards reminded me of the deep desire of wanting to live a life that is more aligned with my core values— to live wherever I want, with complete control of my time. 

Gracias Puerto Rico, for reminding me of these values I’d shelved for so long. For I get carried away with thinking I want things I’m supposed to want–not what I actually want. Guess the joke’s on me!

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