“My name is Alfred.” Odd. The Puerto Rican gentleman introducing himself at baggage claim as we wearily stumbled up to the carousel after the four-hour flight. The driver. I expected Alberto, Alejandro or Augustus. I guess I was being a bigot. Shame on me. Waiting for our bags, The Redhead was clapping and whooping, happy to be free from the States for a while. The rest of us (The Brunette, The Dude, The Man and me) were unexcitedly hovering to snag the luggage. Locals ambled by, making eye contact and smiling. Weird. One lady cruised by carrying a lap-dog to the aww’s of The Redhead and The Brunette. The woman made a beeline to my friends, allowing the two to pet the pup. Downright strange. Never in Houston. I started loving Puerto Rico at that moment, even before I dived in.
Alfred led us to the van. We five climbed in. First stop, the local mainland-based grocery store to stock up on provisions. Along the way, we passed one-story plain square dwellings with peeling paint and cracking stucco walls, saw roadside carts overflowing with fresh local fruit, and became incorporated into snakes of traffic that attempted to, but never quite, held to lanes. At the shopping center, The Man, The Redhead, The Brunette, The Dude and I all filed into the store, to the apprehensive warning of The Dude. “At this moment, this man has all our stuff!”
I laughed. “C’mon, buddy.” Although Alfred was a bit above it all, I thought him trustworthy.
We grabbed the staples: cookies, cheese, chips, coffee, three bottles of wine, three bottles of rum. We were good to go.
When we arrived at the condo building, we elevatored to the sixth floor. Alfred saw us inside, was tipped and, faster than you could say “boo,” disappeared. Ok… We immediately made our way to the balcony. Perfect. Palms, pool, sand, beach, bay. We waited there for a few minutes as a storm quickly moved across the aqua vastness, dumped rain (dissipating before running ashore) and produced a welcome in the form of a bright rainbow. We dispersed to our respective rooms to unpack, change into swimwear and head for the beach.
The Redhead and the Man relaxed on lounges and read. The Brunette, The Dude and I swam in the warm clear water. All the while worked by the push and pull of the waves, the world back home kept a firm grip on me. After a couple of hours of sun, we headed up to the suite to plan next steps over our principal drink for the trip: piña coladas (That damn song from the 70s followed me the rest of the vacation).
We trekked over to the main building of the resort - a hotel - to grab a taxi, discarding Alfred in the hopes of hiring a more personable, less smug driver. We did. A handsome young native named José.
Demerit for José? Dropping up at a marginal restaurant that he suggested. We all laughed because Alfred had recommended the same restaurant. Kickback? Maybe.
Plusses for José? He had spent time in the States for service in the armed forces, so he got most of our stupid pop references, and he also laughed with us at our skewed senses of humor, especially when The Dude overshared about an interest back home, a woman possessing some abnormal physical features. In addition, José played salsa music for us on the stereo as we rode, painting pictures of weekend festivals in the small towns and people dancing in the streets.
Before saying good night, we asked José for advice on one thing to check out while we were on the island (two outings seemed an overwhelming proposition for the lazy lot of us). His suggestion? Old San Juan. The original historic district of the city. We made plans for him to pick us up the following afternoon.
Riding through the emerald hills, then the flat stretches clogged with vehicles, and finally along the freeways slipping through the heartbreak of decaying housing projects and the skyscrapers of the tourist district (and still work and worries from Texas keeping me distracted), we arrived at the original sector of the island capital. The quarter was unsurprisingly charming and loaded with tourists. We arrived a bit late, around 5 PM, and almost all of the shops were closing. We did a bit of souvenir shopping, then headed to another restaurant at José’s suggestion. Racies (translated from Spanish – “Roots”). Delicious. Though I experienced a bit of discomfort, due to my overly PC nature, at the displays of the various races of the island and their contributions to its culture: the Natives with arts and crafts; the Spaniards with religion and the Spanish language; and slightly prejudiced in my view, Africans with their spirit as “indefatigable workers,” At any rate, I ordered mofongo, a local dish served with a choice of various seafood or meat (beef, in my case, I am Texan) over a base of fried and mashed plantains. My serving was mouth-watering and completely satisfying.
After the unimaginative fare of the grill the night before and the delicious food from the restaurant in Old San Juan, we did gather that cooking most of our meals in the condo would be most time-practical for the remainder of the stay. On the way back to the resort, we asked José to stop by the grocery. We shopped a bit more sensibly this time: bacon, steaks, broccoli, potatoes, sweetrolls.
Arriving at the suite, The Brunette and I decided on an expedition up the coast. We walked past the hotel grounds with the teeming vacationers, continued up the beach passing jetskis and motorboats, and happily happened along a beautiful lagoon with a cloud-topped mountain framing the background. We crossed the chilly waist-deep water, coming upon a local woman out walking her dog. We smiled greetings and attempted (unsuccessfully) to pet the skittish pup. And without my noticing, my outside world fell away.
For the rest of our time there, I focused on Mad-Libs with my friends in the evening, pool and surf during the day, and waking in the morning to stunning views of the clouded peaks of the rainforest.
On our final day, The Man and I body-surfed together, alone. I said to him the things that I say when we are by ourselves. Those marshmallow words.
One of the best parts of the trip? José became a real person while running us around. He shared about his wife, his daughters, his family in Boston and New Jersey, his compromise to live near his wife’s family in a village near the resort instead of enjoying the more modern-day conveniences of San Juan, where he was raised. He also shared with us his decision as a young man to stay on the island, giving up the opportunity to study in Tennessee on a baseball scholarship. His sacrifice made for love. Less than a year following his choice to stay, the relationship fell apart: his sweetheart gone and the offer of a free education passed. Poor guy was still kicking himself.
We had a bit of extra time the morning of the flight back to Houston. José offered to take us along the coast, where the locals gather to enjoy the beach. As we weaved through the lush foliage skirting the road, the beach would suddenly appear, revealing the brown islanders adorning the turquoise waters. We went through small settlements dividing the way, where people gathered around food stands that radiated delectable aromas. We passed a large civic park where throngs of children romped and ran around colorful structures. José said that he would stop at any point where we would like to take pictures. None of us asked. Maybe we did not want to take this special part of the island away from the citizens. The trip along the seaside was José’s gift to us.
As we approached the airport, the world back home started encroaching again. But not in a bad way. I was looking forward to seeing our pets and home. I was ready to return to work with my batteries recharged. I would face Houston with fresh eyes and appreciate my hometown a bit more (at least until she frustrated me again with some minor infraction).
Standing at the curb of the airport sidewalk, our Puerto Rican friend gave each of us a solid handshake and a warm look in the eye. It had been a wonderful trip to an island where time attempts to stall, but the progress of the States speeds in. The most important thing I learned? The beauty of Puerto Rico is in its beaches, its rainforests, its architecture, and its music. But essentially, the splendor is in its everyday beautiful people.