The first thing I do is find out where I’m going.
My boyfriend is watching the in-flight movie but I’ve got the airline magazine in my hands, scanning and re-scanning the maps at the back. For some reason, the location of Puerto Rico does not want to stick in my mind. Near Cuba? South of Florida? Geography and globes and maps lure me—I want to know the world—so the fact that Puerto Rico is still an unknown feels itchy. All I know is that Hunter S. Thompson wrote Rum Diary after living in San Juan for a time. And anything for which my only reference point is Hunter S. Thompson surely needs more studying.
As we cruise at 37,000 feet, I try to guess the flight pattern from Dallas to San Juan. We must be flying along the coastlines of Louisiana and Mississippi, then down across the Gulf and over the tip of Florida, and finally out over open ocean (the Atlantic, the Atlantic, the Atlantic…not the Caribbean, in fact), until there it is: a rectangular piece of land anchored between the Virgin Islands to the east and the Dominican Republic to the west, with the Caribbean Sea (ah, there it is) sloshing warmly against its west, south, and east coasts, and the Atlantic crashing with a 16th century land ho! against the north coast—all of it glowing like a coconut-drizzled gem I haven’t yet held in my hand.
While we are there, we learn things. Because Puerto Rico is a territory, the people don’t vote in national presidential elections but they do vote in the primaries. They’re protected by the U.S. federal government and have been ever since Spain handed them over after they fell on hard times (the Spanish, not the Puerto Ricans). P.R. has a governor of sorts, and every city has a mayor with an entourage of cronies. But perhaps most important of all is that the citizens of P.R. are also citizens of the U.S., and if you ask (which we did), many of them wish P.R. had actual statehood because it would give them a real and valid foothold in a mother country to which they technically, if rather fuzzily, belong. These are, of course, overly simple statements, and not having been born and raised in Puerto Rico nor taken any courses on the history of the Caribbean nor ever been colonized ourselves, I acknowledge that my boyfriend and I are missing many nuances.
But all of that comes later.
We land after dark and a cab drives us from the airport down a highway that could be any interstate on the mainland U.S. It’s well-maintained with large signs in Spanish, twisting through forested hillsides we can see in the headlights. We are heading for a city called Fajardo and our resort, which clings to the top of rolling green hills at the edge of the sea. The air is heavy and down-comforter soft when we arrive, and right away we notice a steady, rhythmic, loud music in the air. “They’re frogs,” the bellman tells us with an apology in his voice, but they sound just like beautiful singing birds and I want to stand and listen to them forever. The next morning we wake to tropical sunlight glinting off our sea view, lush flowers and bushes and palm trees, and brown lizards skittering out of our way. We have breakfast under an orange flowering tree, and our waitress says in a warm, sexy voice “Mi placer” as she takes our order. My pleasure.
Up here we can see everything: the Caribbean and the many outlying islands in front of us, the mountains and the El Yunque rainforest behind us. Somewhere out there is St. Thomas, the nearest of the Virgin Islands, and Vieques, and later we find out about Culebra, where every single person who mentions it says, “It has the third best beach in the world.” Or sometimes second, or sometimes first, depending on who you ask.
After breakfast we take the high-speed catamaran to the resort’s private island, and ten minutes later our vacation truly begins. A white beach stretches around three sides of the island, surrounded by the clear, bathtub-warm water of the Caribbean. Palm trees ripple overhead. The interior of the island is hilly and densely jungled. There are paths for horse riding, and around the back side of the island, reachable by foot, is a chapel. But most mesmerizing to me is that a little over 100 yards off the southern edge of the beach is a dollop of sand with a speck of foliage on it. We watch people rent kayaks and paddle out to it; leisure boats dock there in the afternoon and people have picnics on the sand. We could swim there if we wanted, in less than four feet of water, over sea grass where tropical fish make their homes.
The sun. It’s the most powerful tropical heat I’ve felt, and I’ve been to Mexico in August. Sweat doesn’t just bead on us; it pours off of us like a shower. We take refuge under a thatched umbrella for much of the day. Me, the sun worshipper who was born a lizard in another lifetime, and I can only handle an hour or so in full daylight. Either I am losing my edge or the tropics are testing me.
I walk through the open-air restaurant and see a big daddy iguana hanging out by a shrub, with a friend close by. They seem sluggish in the heat, but their eyes are alert and their meaty legs are poised in the sand. I know from Mexico that they can scurry fast so I make a wide circle around them. We learn that iguanas are not indigenous to this area, but were brought here as pets. Now they are taking over. Once vegetarians, they are starting to eat the eggs of birds and chickens and other lizards and have become pests in the truest sense of the word. A cab driver we befriend—I’ll call him Pablo—talks about it with sad annoyance. “I am an animal lover,” he says, “but when I see one in the middle of the road, I drive over it.” The iguanas on the private island seem fat and happy and safe, however, and I watch them go on their haughty way.
A reverse story is true of the indigenous singing tree frogs, the coqui, named for the two noises they make in their song: co-, to establish territory, and -qui, to attract females. According to Pablo the Cab Driver, a couple of Puerto Ricans wanted to introduce the coqui to Hawaii and they did, but it was a failed experiment and they’re now considered an invasive species there. Humans and their bright ideas. We never actually see the coqui as they are tiny, only a few centimeters in length, but their song is primal and insistent and adds musical accompaniment to our dreams at night. Puerto Ricans learn to tune it out, but they ask how we like it. “I love it,” I say, used to the grating noise of crickets back home.
Pablo takes us to Old San Juan one afternoon so that we can see the famous fort and walk around the colonial part of the city. There are actually two forts, connected by a long sturdy sea wall. We decide on El Morro, which juts out into the Atlantic on a triangular piece of land and is accessed from a huge open field where families fly kites in the bracing wind. A sign points out that on one side of the field there was a famous skirmish between the Spanish Colonialists and their Dutch attackers (the Spanish eventually won). It’s only $5 to see the fort (so cheap; in the U.S., it would be $30 and you’d be handed a list of rules and funneled through a gift shop first). Inside, two men dressed in Spanish soldier garb who must be dying in the heat are demonstrating how cannons were shot from the fort’s walls. We wait a minute or two while one guy tries to get the fuse lit in the wind, and then he yells, “Hands over your ears!” A second later, boom! A massive noise, a flash of gunpowder, and a cannonball makes an invisible trajectory before splashing into the ocean somewhere. We take the slippery walkways down to the bottom levels to see where the soldiers lived and cooked and where the sentries stood in cylindrical look-outs watching for enemy ships from England and Holland and Portugal. Back then everyone was trying to lay claim to the most important harbor in the New World. Which, by the way, was discovered by Christopher Columbus for Spain in 1493, a year after his first and most famous trip.
Pablo says: “I once had a customer from Spain. He actually had the nerve to tell me that Puerto Ricans are ungrateful.” We think about this. Puerto Ricans speak Spanish because the Spanish were here; some things are absorbed whether you ask for them or not, and no doubt every colony throughout history has had an element of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” But despite what they absorbed, Puerto Ricans do not forget that their ancestors, the native Taino Indians, were oppressed and enslaved by the Spanish in the name of a queen and king they found neither righteous nor divine and to which they owed no loyalty nor needed no help for survival. And that’s why, when I hear this from Pablo, it’s hard to understand the gall of others, especially now after all this time.
But Pablo himself is a mixed bag of politics and opinions.
Some of his ideas tend toward personal grievances. “Obama doesn’t like us because we voted for Hillary in the primary and that’s why he hasn’t made us a state yet.” He loves Hillary Clinton (apparently the rest of the island does, too) and especially Bill.
Some of his opinions seem contradictory. He is a big supporter of unions and workers’ rights, but damns what he considers the laziness of the younger population and the expectation of federal handouts. “Puerto Rico produces some of the best coffee in the world, as good as Colombia,” he tells us. “But half of the coffee harvest is left to rot every year because no one wants the job.” He works hard; why doesn’t everyone else? To me, he sounds like every middle-aged person who has forgotten what it feels like to be young and to hunger for something you can’t name.
Some of what he says blows our minds, like when he tells us that 85% of the world’s pharmaceuticals and 90% of the world’s rum is produced in Puerto Rico (his numbers, not mine, and I have not verified them), and yet P.R. is bankrupt because corporations do not pay taxes here (or pay miniscule amounts, at best), and so none of the money goes back into the island. He says that something like 3.8 million people live in Puerto Rico, but 4.1 million (again, his numbers) choose to live on the mainland in cities like New York City and Miami because they can make a better living. “Doctors can make more money working as nurses on the mainland than they can as actual doctors in Puerto Rico.” On an island where medical tourism is growing rapidly, this seems hard to fathom, but maybe it’s true.
I ask him why, if things are so dire, more Puerto Ricans don’t band together to demand change and to seek political and economic agency. He says, “Well…just wait. I predict that it will happen very soon, like in three weeks.” What will happen? “Just wait,” he says, mysteriously.
In a weird way it’s comforting to know that Puerto Rico has many of the same issues the U.S. does; we can at least relate to each other on that. But it belies the serious undertones of centuries of colonization and exploitation that have resulted in cultural sentiments—some subtle, some not so subtle—that the rest of the U.S. can’t begin to understand because we are too far from our own history and struggles against tyranny, and because we wouldn’t want to remember at this point anyway.
Pablo laughs at the concept of a territory. “They say we don’t have colonies anymore? They are wrong. What do you think Puerto Rico is?” We don’t have an answer for him. My education is slim-to-none in this area, but I can feel the emotion behind his words.
And yet, outside of politics and the economy, Pablo is full of pride. He deliberately moved back to Puerto Rico from New York City, where he spent an unhappy and misguided childhood. “I wanted to change my life,” he explains, and in the next breath sings euphoric praises of Fajardo, the most beautiful part of the island, he thinks. He also gives credit to the value placed on family in Puerto Rico which was always missing in every-man-for-himself New York and to which he blames his struggles early in life. He shows us a picture of his two youngest children, and tells us about reconnecting with his oldest son after many years apart. Salsa music blares from his phone every time it rings, and his girlfriend (we assume), who is sitting next to him in the passenger seat, looks at him lovingly when he talks.
The rest of Old San Juan is a grid of cobblestone streets and pastel-colored buildings with wrought-iron balconies and carved wooden doors. Cats lounge around in the doorways. There are bars and restaurants everywhere, and when we stop for dinner, we listen to an impromptu salsa performance just outside. People stop, hang out, drink cocktails, and dance with each other.
When Pablo drops us off at the resort later in the evening, we thank him and he says “Mi placer, mi placer” with fatherly warmth.
The truth is that I can’t find enough maps. The maps at our resort don’t show Culebra—isle of the much-lauded third best beach in the world—in relation to where we are, or St. Thomas either. I look out over the sea to the humps and mountains on the next islands over and struggle to orient myself. I’m here, finally, in Puerto Rico, but where is over there? When I’m home, I’ll Google it, I decide, and then I’ll know.
In the mean time, to our breakfast waitress and to Pablo and to every Puerto Rican who smiled at us with genuine friendliness during our vacation, eager to share the glory of their island, to the seafood and pork piled high on every plate, to the Puerto Rican coffee we drank morning and night, to the tree frogs and the flowers and the tropical air, to the kayaks and the beach and the bioluminescence (another story for another day), and to the education I sorely needed (please excuse any inaccuracies)…I say, no, actually, the pleasure was all mine.