Of Two Minds in Puerto Rico

On the mainland US, the standard rise of a step is about 7 inches. The run is eleven inches. My foot never fell upon a standard staircase in four days in Old San Juan or any other stops during a recent trip to Puerto Rico.

Granted we stayed away from resorts, corporatized eateries or anything polished with plastic.

None the less, the whole island is just a little off. The mile markers are actually kilometer markers while odometers measure miles. Gas is sold by the liter while bridge heights are measured in feet and inches and speed limits are in miles per hour. The roads, by New Jersey standards, are pristine and automated toll booths work flawlessly. Yet the economy is in the toilet thanks to suspect governance and dubious bankers.

Compared to New York, the beer and rum is cheap. The coffee is rich and often served in Styrofoam cups but there is little litter on the streets. And then there is the music, which is everywhere, whether hiking up a mountain, on rooftops, in bars or on the street.

Today, many sections of Old San Juan would be recognizable to residents 300 years ago. It strikes a balance between flaking and faded paint, overgrown vines, and rotting buildings with restored Spanish-style colonial homes leaning over cobblestone alleys and narrow streets.

img_20170113_133217Many of the streets are still cobbled with the original blue glassy bricks imported from Spain. They were brought to Puerto Rico as ballast in the hold of otherwise empty ships sailing from Europe. The bricks are actually molded slag, created from metal foundry waste. The sailors left the bricks behind in Puerto Rico and loaded their holds with gold, sugar, and ginger bound for Spain.

The ships entering the old port these days are often cruise ships, transporting ballast of a different sort. And near the docks, Americanized drugstores and bars pollute the eye and place. Recent African immigrants hawk kitschy mementos that will be tossed aside as quickly as it took to make them.

On our first evening in town, we looped around Old San Juan, away from the cruise ships, walking outside part of the city’s 500-year old wall and came back inside through the red San Juan Gate, little more than a 16-foot high hole in the wall.

A soprano singing in Italian lifted us from the gate, around a corner, and toward a white, three-story building. The mahogany door was ajar; a flowering potted ginger plant sat on a table. The Puccini aria came from the building’s flat roof, which was shaded with potted palm trees and wild vines.

We sat on a worn doorstep, across the street, the soles of our flip-flops resting on the blue cobblestones, and listened. When it was over, an unseen audience cheered the unseen singer.

The rest of the evening, we wandered down streets and along alleyways. Not lost but not found either. We passed noisy bars and drunken flirty young men. We passed local pubs with lonely old men on bar stools, sometimes waving in anger at the television.

Later, in bed, the cool sea breeze poured through an open window. At 2 am, I awoke and pulled the quilt around my neck. The wind blew in horns and drums with an African beat and a woman singing in Spanish. And, briefly, it held me awake. A slurring man joined in the chorus and the singer laughed louder in step with his enthusiasm, which grew with each chorus.


The next day we explored the city’s history and were reminded that the roots of today’s islands were fed with a sinister compost.

Castillo de San Felipe del Morro was originally a Spanish fortification meant to protect the entrance to Old San Juan’s harbor. When we visited, the winds had been howling from the north for at least a day. (Puerto Rico’s winds invariably blow from the east.) And as the tide rose that morning the surf crashed over the breakwater and at times lashed the city’s wall, parts of which date back to the 16th century.

img_20170113_104920The fort was built atop the city wall, which was originally constructed to protect Juan Ponce de León and his descents from the native Taínos, chafing at having invaders on their Island. Before long, however, enough Europeans with weapons arrived and subjugated the locals. The switch from rebel to chattel didn’t take long. Extinction as a distinct people soon followed.

By the mid-1500s, barely 50 years after de Leon arrived, the Taíno population dropped from tens of thousands to less than 100. A few hundred Taínos remained from perhaps millions in all of the Greater Antilles islands, which includes Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico. The sword and boot played its part, but it was smallpox, syphilis, and other invading diseases which decimated most of the native population.

Eventually, the wall encircled the entire city and the Spanish added forts along with artillery to protect the city from the French, British and Dutch navies, not to mention pirates.

It is easy to forget that this island’s flavor would not have happened if the Spanish hadn’t decimated the Taínos and imported West African slaves to replace them.

The Africans were first put to work in gold mines and later in sugar-cane and ginger plantations. By the mid-1500s Puerto Rico’s slave population was about 15,000, far outnumbering those of European descent. And over the hundreds of years, all of those cultures and peoples mixed and merged. Sometimes through love, sometimes through need, and often through rape.

Today, African, Spanish and Taíno practices, rituals and DNA are shaken, blended and muddled into a poignant cocktail. (The typical Puerto Rican’s generic material is 12 percent indigenous, 65 percent European, and 20 percent African.)

In a small beach village on the Southwest coast that cup overflowed. Boqueron Beach is a two- to three-hour drive starting in the lusher northern plains, through the Cordillera Central (Central Mountain Range) and along the sometimes arid coastal southern plains.

Google Maps directions got us there but we quickly realized the electronic voice leading us along never described what the actual sign said, even when accounting for Spanish to English translations. Not in San Juan or anywhere else. Fortunately, the road numbers were almost always accurate, but again, not perfect. Sometimes the voice would tell us to take a road south when the road sign said Oeste or North when the sign said este.

But we got there. Boqueron Beach is a holiday village on the edge of a protected bay. (According to the US census, the people in this area of the island are the most likely to identify as having native ancestry.)

We arrived eight days after the Festival of the Three Kings but Boqueron was still celebrating.

2017-01-15-11-39-32-5On our way to the beach, we ducked into a beach-front bar and the owner explained how there would be a street party that evening. We had planned to return to old San Juan but the idea of salsa on a street, a few feet from the lapping bay was plenty of reason to stay.

We sucked down local oysters on the street, harvested by a son and served by his mother. We drank Medalla Light off and on all day, punctuating the beer with rum drinks. Only a few people spoke any English but most were forgiving.

Street vendors sold kitschy trinkets here too but some made the bracelets and necklaces themselves. The saintly faces and colors on paintings and masks reflected all three heritages.

As the sun dipped low, a local drum group formed near the Doggie Gas station pumps. A hundred or so people, in clumps of extended families, gathered in a ring around the dozen or so drummers and a vocalist.

I have no idea what she was singing but her voice added the melody to the relentless rhythm. Dancing men and women stepped out in front of the drummers, sometimes bowing in thanks. Parents pushed their children into the ring. Some joined the dance, glancing around shyly. Others spun and turned and laughed.

Eventually, the three Magi kings showed up and dragged the remaining children into the dance circle. When the show ended the three kings sat down. Behind them, helpers pulled gifts from the back of cars and pickups. One at a time, smiling children received a gift.

A few yards down the road, outside the Seaside bar, a salsa band set up. Before long, another dance circle formed, blocking the entire street. Inside the circle, elderly couples joined athletic young adults as they twisted and tapped and shuffled through one salsa to another. Dancers pulled friends and strangers into the dance. Men danced with women and with men. Women with women, too. In time with their hips and feet, they shared seductive glances and flirtatious flourishes.

And everyone joined in the singing.

Outside the circle, children tested their steps. That is where we shuffled, One, two three. One, two, three. The bar owner who told us about the party walked past, leading her man toward home. Both were shiny with effort.

She gave us thumbs up. We headed back to our room.

It was about 11 pm and those who preferred karaoke continued screeching Spanish ballads and pop songs.

We climbed the irregular steps to our hotel room and slipped into bed. It was Sunday night and we had to leave for Old San Juan well before dawn. I lay in bed as the off-key singers and laughter continued for hours.

We drove back to Old San Juan to grab our luggage before heading to the airport. On our first night in town, I had lingered for a cigarette at the Plaza Salvador Brau near the loft where we stayed. Three homeless women sat on three park benches across from me. One woman sat erect, her two canvas shopping bags neatly packed, one placed on each side of her on the bench. She wore tights decorated with a clownish red, yellow, green and black colored floral pattern. She looked straight ahead, unsmiling, through her white-plastic framed sunglasses. I came back to that spot several times over the weekend and she was always there, night and day. Always neat, never in different clothes, always staring silently through her sunglasses.

When we returned from Boqueron, I took a last look at now familiar places and faces but she was gone.

Amo a la gente hermosa de Puerto Rico.


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