"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Island Time: Return to Puerto Rico, Part IV

Continued from here. This is the second-to-last installment in this series, and this was the toughest one to write so far, which is why it has taken me so long to publish.

Thursday August 2nd was our second and last full day on the island, and our goal was to spend the day in Arroyo, the same Arroyo that I talk about just about every time I mention the island on this blog. :)

My photo this time!
We were up again at 5:00 am, again with the goal of heading to CrossFit PR for the 6:00 am class. The morning routine was the same: Mom got up with us so she could make us breakfast, and then off we went to the gym 10 minutes away.

Lu was not interested in the food on my plate. She was interested in me. I waited to see how long it would take her to actually do something to get me to pet her.
She didn't. She waited patiently and simply slowly inched her pretty pointy face closer to mine and by then I just couldn't stand it anymore...
She got her pets. And kisses. Ugh I fell in love with her so hard. I had forgotten how much I could love a dog.
I had been secretly hoping that we would get to do squats in today's session, and like everything else that I had silently asked for during this trip, I got my wish. I pretty much squeed silently when I saw that the WOD included front squats. Again it was cool to listen to Esteban go over technique: our box's coaches are excellent at what they do and are able to explain the correct mechanics of any movement they teach as well as why that movement should be done in that specific way. Esteban had a simpler way of explaining it while still being 100% clear about how the movements should be done and still matching up perfectly with the way we had been taught. It was fun listening to it all in the island's city Spanglish, and I was hoping that maybe hearing the same thing explained in a different way would help Carlos, who struggles with body awareness and what different parts of him are supposed to be doing during certain movements, especially when it comes to squatting.

We were to go heavy for our front squats, and it was 5 sets of 10 reps each, with a couple of warm-up sets to reach the weight we wanted to work at. I slapped weight on my barbell until I got to the point where the last 3 reps out of 10 felt challenging, and then we started the workout.

I still have the tendency from bodybuilding to go slow with reps when we're lifting for reps/sets and not time. It means I end up working a lot harder than I need to be working, but it also means that my form and technique stay on point. Those five sets were hard, but I grinned each time Esteban walked by and gave me a thumbs-up on my form.

Part B of the WOD included wall ball shots, which were interesting as we were aiming at a beam in the ceiling, not at a wall like we are used to back home. It took extra precision and I failed epically. I still had a blast though.

You know it was a good workout when afterwards I look like I got sprayed down with a hose and don't even know what to do when the camera is pointed at me other than laugh. :)

After the gym, we headed back to my mom's to shower, eat a snack, and grab our stuff for Arroyo. Mom and the aunts had pulled out some of the old family photos while we were at CrossFit. My family is both cool and unusual in that there really are no embarrassing childhood photos of my brother and me. We love looking through those pictures and remembering the good and the bad.

Part of the pile of photos we were looking through.
The snack was more coffee and another giant island mango, which you can catch a glimpse of in the upper left hand corner of this photo. Lol
With one of my Aunt Lucy's dogs, a German Shorthaired Pointer mix named Ñañigo. Ñañigos were the street dancers of the Abakua African secret society in Cuba. They were also called diablitos, aka "little devils." :) Ñañi was one of the many strays that showed up at our doorstep, in her case as a young adult. She was with us for 14 years, so God knows how old she really was when she died. In my memories of her, her face was already gray, not this dark charcoal color. She was an ageless, sweet, spunky girl throughout her entire life.
Our dogs were my siblings until my brother came along. 
My first series of riding lessons: on a Paso Fino. Bareback. And yep, without a helmet. It is rare to see people riding Pasos with helmets on the island and in the 1990's, that's how riding them was taught. 
On the stairs of the old house, which you have now seen. :) The built-in bookshelves used to be painted black; my uncle painted them white, as you saw in the current photos.
I always had stuffed animals: you can see me holding one here. Hated dolls, but I had the most enormous collection of stuffed animals.
The patio area in front of the pool. We had two hammocks: this one and another on the pack patio by the kitchen door. This was the more uncomfortable one because the rope mesh would dig into your skin, but it was also the cooler one because of that same mesh.
At the Liga de Arte art school where my mom worked, with my paternal grandmother and one of the ladies that used to run La Liga. This was back when I used to have too-long hair that I always tied back in a ponytail and wore baggy T-shirts and jeans because I was so self-conscious about my body. That's my brother in the camo pants. :)
This is the era that I'm referencing when I tell you that if you had told me at that time that one day some 24 years later I'd strut across a stage mostly naked to flaunt as much bare skin as possible in front of an audience, I would have told you you were insane. 
The first time I went to Disney World. I got on this carousel and would. not. get. off. Mom was hot and tired and wanted to move on and she could not convince me to just stop.
Carlos is all too familiar with the girl obsessed with horses. ;) And I've done the "I don't wanna get off the carousel" bit as an adult as well...#nevergrowup lol
I loved this rocking horse. My maternal grandmother got it for me when we still lived in Texas.
(Also note the original Care Bear. This was sometime in the early 1980s. And I already showed you the print in the back of this photo. :D)
The same rocking horse from the photo above, alive and well at my mother's house in PR. :) He is close to 35 years old now.
My last summer living on the island. I was 24 years old. My bestie at the time, Breda, and I spent every weekend that summer visiting all the bucket list areas on the island that I had not gotten to explore yet and taking photos of everything with our SLRs. This was at Pinones Beach near Isla Verde (about 15 minutes outside of Old San Juan.)
You know what's funny? When this photo was taken, I used to think I was fat. *snort* I was strength training a couple of times a week, running around 30 miles/week on the treadmill and riding two horses for 2-3 hours 4-5 days/week.
We finished our snack and tried to leave. "We should head out," I would say, and Mom or one of the aunts would say, "Ooooh look at this one! Do you remember that?" And I'd get roped back in and 10 photos later, I would try again. "Check this out!" Mom would say, and produce another photo. "You guys should really head out," the aunts would say. And I'd just laugh and shake my head as Carlos and I ended up looking at another 10 photos before trying to leave again.

This process repeated itself at least 5 times before we finally made it out the door with all of our belongings.

The Jeep needed gas, so Carlos asked Mom and the aunts where the nearest gas station was. I will just copy-paste what I posted about this on Facebook at the time, because it's just so very Puerto Rico.

Aunt Mari: “You’ll pass 3 lights and then you’ll get to the corner where the *Oriental used to be.”
Blank looks from Carlos and me.
Aunt Mari: “Do you know where the Oriental was?”
Carlos & me: “No...”
“It’s next to the road that intersects with the one towards Las Cumbres.”
“Ok...what’s the name of the gas station?”
“I think the name of the cross street is Emiliano Pol,” Aunt Mari said.
(Fyi: streets here aren’t always labeled with their names/numbers, especially now post-storm, which is why it is completely normal for Puerto Ricans to not know street names.)
Me: “But what’s the name of the gas station?”
Aunt Mari: “Hmmm...maybe a **Shell? It’s not a Puma.”
“And it’s off the main road?”
“Not really. After the 3 lights, you’ll see the spot where the Oriental used to be on your right, and there you’ll turn and the gas station is right behind it.”
3 lights and one U-turn later, we’re still not quite sure where the Oriental used to be, but we found the Shell gas station! 🤣
And this would be why it took me 10 years to be able to wrap my head around, “Drive north for 3 miles and take Exit B West towards I-270.”

*Oriental Bank is one of the largest bank chains in PR. Aunt Mari was referring to the branch that used to be in Guaynabo.
**At the time of this writing, Shell and Puma gas stations had the least expensive gas in Guaynabo at $0.81/liter. We bought 10 gallons of gas for the Jeep. How much did we pay? I'll let you guys do the math. ;)

Still laughing over this whole mini adventure, we pulled out of the gas station and headed onto the highway, this time southeast bound towards Arroyo.

Here's the map for you again. We were driving from Guaynabo to Arroyo (in red), which in reality involves driving through Guayama (in green), which I'll also show you a couple of pictures of. We were planning on having lunch in Patillas, also in green, of which I also took a TON of pictures because it is so freaking gorgeous. Not many tourists head out in this direction unless they know locals or are curious to explore the less-traveled areas and do their research, so you're going to get to see parts of the island that the average outsider doesn't get to experience.

Here is a topographical map for you because we would be crossing the mountains of la Cordillera Central and I'll be showing you photos of them as well. This way you know what you're looking at as we were driving through. :D You can see what I mean about La Cordillera running lengthwise from east to west, dividing the island into north and south. The north and south sides of PR have different ecosystems: the mountains trap the rain that moves in from the north and northeast, which often means the south is much more arid than the typically tropical north, especially during the dryer early summer months (May through July by island standards). There will be temperature and humidity differences between north and south, though sometimes they are subtle. And the vegetation is different. The south always reminded me of the African savannah.  You'll see what I mean. :) 
(Can you tell I'm excited about showing this to you guys?) 

To get from Guaynabo to Arroyo, you get on the Expreso Luis A. Ferre (Freeway Luis A Ferre) and drive in a fairly straight line over the mountains to the southern side of the island. It's about an hour drive without traffic, covering 69 km or 43 miles. I again had a ball taking photos and videos for you guys while documenting more of the things that are ordinary when you live on the island.

As explained in my second post in this series, Caguas is the farthest northwest suburb of what is considered the San Juan metropolitan area. It is beautiful and green, nestled right up against the mountains, and densely populated: it is considered upper middle class to upper class in general. Caguas traffic jams are a nightmare, which makes it an enormous PITA to commute from there to the areas closer to San Juan itself.
Bamboo trees along the highway. Bamboo is not native to PR: it was brought to the island by the Spaniards in the 1800s.  But it loves the tropics: there are currently 20 different species of bamboo growing on the island. You see it wild like this with enough frequency that Carlos used to legit think bamboo didn't grow at all on the mainland's East coast. (I've corrected that belief since then, but it's true: you don't see anywhere near as much wild bamboo in our part of the US as you do in PR. If you've never done it, walking through mature bamboo groves is an experience btw. They are STUNNING.)
Driving towards the green northern side of La Cordillera.
Driving through the center of La Cordillera. I filmed the peaks of Las Tetas de Cayey (literally, "Cayey's Titties") for you guys. I've mentioned them before on the blog. They should be easy to recognize even if you missed the post where I talked about them. Lol :D
If you watch these with sound on, you'll hear music: we were playing PR's local radio. They have Top 40 pop stations just like on the mainland, both English and Spanish rock stations, reggaeton stations, classical music and jazz, and lots of salsa, merengue and bachata stations. You will not find a single country  music station because Puerto Ricans don't listen to that. Salsa, merengue and bachata are our versions of country music on the island. ;)
Our green volcanic mountains.
The island slowly erupted out of the sea some 190 million years ago, and while it was born from a volcanic island-arc terrane, its fire was extinguished thousands and thousands of years. So unlike Hawaii, PR does not have, nor will have, active volcanoes. Out at sea is another matter though: because PR is so close to active tectonic plates, there are underwater volcanoes. Fun fact: PR is right next to the Puerto Rico Trench, which is the deepest trench in the Atlantic Ocean and also happens to be  one of the points of the infamous Bermuda Triangle where so many planes used to mysteriously disappear.
You can read more about the island's geography and tectonic history here. I personally think it's fascinating.
These are yet more facts that most Americans on the mainland don't know about unless they've bothered to do independent research, are familiar with the island, or personally know Puerto Ricans. Though not all Puerto Ricans seem to care as much as I do about educating Americans about the island, so there's also that.

I love these mountains more than any others. I needed to see them again and remember.
This is one of my favorite views in the world and I snagged it on video so you could see it too because it's not the same in photo. It can be easy to miss even if you're a local. But it is this moment when you are sweeping down the south side of la Cordillera and you make this bend in the road, and see the ocean in front of you way out beyond the hills and flatlands, and then you're turning towards the arid soft yellow-green southern mountains, and it's like this surprise after all the dense violent green of the north. 18 years seeing this view every time we drove to Ponce or Arroyo, and I never tired of it. It always took my breath away. I drew and painted those mountains so many times. 

Once you're out of the mountains, the south side of the island is fairly flat: it's easy to understand why sugar cane was such a popular crop in the south. We drove through the Guayama toll (if you rent a car on the island, do accept the included toll sticker. It'll save you a lot of headaches) and I leaned forward in my seat: this was the part where I was going to give directions.

I called my mom so she could refresh the landmarks for me because I couldn't remember some of the basics, and a section of the route that had been under construction before I moved away was now officially open. Other than that, everything looked the same. It was like the storm and time had never passed.

Do you see the dark brick mill in this photo? That's a vestige of the sugar cane industry, around which Guayama's economy revolved in the late 1800's-early 1900's. You can read more about the town's history here
More traces of the sugar cane industry: this is the chimney of a mill.

The section of road that didn't exist yet when I moved from PR 14 years ago.
In Arroyo now. More ordinary. La Cordillera is on our left, and beyond the housing on the right is flat land that eventually ends at the beach.
The view on our right: those flatlands lead to the sea.
Almost at the house.
Again, I realized that I had been visiting. I had never stopped visiting during my absence: I had been coming to the island in my dreams, especially after the storm. The new sights were familiar, not from photos (I already explained that problem) but because I was remembering them in my dreams. It was the memory of my dreams that got us to the house.
#MagicRealismIsReal, and I am not going to stop talking about it.
I didn't remember the house number, but I got us there.

The house looked the same. The front door was more weathered and the back door of the living room leading out onto the patio was being repaired. But the bones of the house were the same, as was most of the furniture and the art my uncle has on the walls.

I drew this.
We got our stuff out of the Jeep and ate some of the ground beef turnovers that my mom had packed for us (no pictures because I scarfed before I could even think about it. They were incredible.) I looked around the house while munching on my turnover, remembering, matching up the reality before me to what I had been seeing in dreams, with what I remembered from before.

My aunt Lucy at the front door of the beach house, some 18 years ago. The kitchen looked the same.
My brother and our friends hanging out in the living room in the morning. I was in my second year of college when I took this photo. Those doors with the windows are the ones that are currently being repaired, though you wouldn't know to look at them now.

I went upstairs, to what used to be "my" bedroom when we stayed at the beach house. As the eldest, I got my own room. It is still a bedroom but it now doubles as another library for my uncle: he has decades' worth of National Geographic magazines and history books on more of the book shelves my grandfather built back in the day. The windows were boarded up still: the boards had not been removed after Maria and since we were now going into hurricane season again, they remained.

My bedroom and its windows 18 years ago, the windows which are now boarded up.
The bedroom closet has a mirror...it was the only floor-length mirror I had access to between the two houses and when we stayed at the beach house, I was always curious to see myself in it because it was when I could best see changes in my body. There was always this let-down about it though...because I never looked the way I thought I did, and I would spend the rest of my stress-relief vacation avoiding that mirror entirely because what I saw always somehow upset me.

So now, after looking around the room, I finally defiantly turned around to look in the mirror this time and legit smirked.

Because for the first time in 21 years of visiting this house, I didn't look the way I thought I did...I looked better. And for the first time looking in that mirror, it wasn't just about the reflection looking back at me. It was about the fire in the eyes of the person I've become.

And the fact that I'm fucking proud of that.

Selfies were not a thing the last time we visited. My cell phone at the time didn't even have a camera yet.
You bet I took a selfie now. ;)

I returned downstairs.

"Let's go to the beach!" I said to Carlos. I was bursting with the same sense of urgent impatience and excitement at meeting with my beach that I always had when we arrived in Arroyo. I never could get settled in fast enough before I was walking down to the path that led to the shore, butterflies fluttering in my stomach as if I was about to re-encounter a long-lost lover. I have no other way of explaining it.

The palm trees in the parking lot behind the house.
I took this video so you guys could hear them. It is the best sound.
The tennis court in the center lawn area of the villas.
There's a beach volleyball court there too. 
The door that leads to the beach.
I have a greatly enlarged photo of this open door that has hung in our bedroom since I left the island.
I stepped out onto the beach and my heart wanted to burst because it looked exactly the same. It was like I had never left. It had always been there, waiting. And something about that made me cry.

Not many things wait for you in life. Animals, people, things, they age, they die, they leave, they wither away and rot. But places...sometimes places wait for you for years, for decades, and despite the sun and the wind and the rain, they never change. They're just...there. Waiting.

Just like Abuelito's house, this beach had been my shelter, my refuge, whenever my world fell to pieces. It was the place that I went to when I needed to find myself again, when I needed to heal my soul, when I needed to forget the outside world, when I needed to just disconnect. It was a place where anything was possible, because when you are standing chest-deep in a living body of water that is moved by the wind and the gravitational force of the moon some 239,000 miles away, all of your human problems and worries seem very, very small and insignificant. And so it is easy to let them go. Just let the tide wash them away into nothingness. This was my world, my universe, and only very special people that meant a lot to me ever got to see it in person with me.

I walked alongside the shore for a bit, Carlos trailing behind because he knew this was between me and my beach.

I felt both like I was walking in a dream and like I had never left. It was so surreal.
I suddenly handed Carlos my phone, turned around and walked right into the sea without stopping. The farther out I went, the bigger the waves became, until they loomed taller than me and I had to leap up over their crests so they wouldn't sweep over me.

We last visited the island 10 years ago, but it had been even longer since we'd been to Arroyo. I stood now for the first time in 13 years in that same chest-deep water, and felt the power of the rising tide around me, the tug and pull as each individual wave rose in a perfect wall of glassy water, inviting, "Welcome back. It's good to see you again! You should surf us!"

I've always treated the sea like a living being, like I would a horse or a dog or a cat. I don't think it is strange that I talk to it. My first memories of the island involve being surrounded by the ocean in Dorado, at only two years of age, looking down over the edge of my inflated swim ring into the crystal-clear water of an enormous tide pool, my toes carefully stepping on the ripples in the sand created by underwater currents.

"But I don't have my board," I said now. My Manta bodyboard was long gone.

"Your cousin Michelle has a board. She has surfed us."

And I remembered then, recent photos of Michelle on Facebook where she was bodyboarding on a blue board. I made a mental note to look for it once we were back at the house.

Another wave swept towards me, fast and joyous, almost seeming to laugh at my realization that I just might be able to surf after all as it rose taller than my head above the water. I grinned from ear to ear and, remembering my own self-training when it came to surfing, instead of leaping up towards the crest of the wave, I dove underneath it. Because that is what surfers do when swimming out past the breakers so they can catch the waves as they form: they duck underneath the waves as they make their way out, using their boards to pierce their way into the water under the crests of the breaking surf.

I turned around to face the shore, jumped up with the next wave and rode it all the way back to shore.

We walked along the shore more, heading towards the mountains, and just quietly living in the present, in the fact that we were now a part of this scenery, of this living painting.

A river that ends at the sea.

River stones washed on the shore.
They roll and chink together in the most lovely sound when the waves sweep over them. You won't experience these on every beach in PR; in Arroyo there just happen to be three rivers that meet the ocean within a 2-mile strip of beach.
So many coconut trees that you couldn't count them. I used to think they were the most cliche thing ever and now that I never see them, I love them so much. 
The part of Arroyo that is wild and untamed. 
Waves washing over a driftwood log.
Sea grapes! Yes you can eat them. These were not ripe though.
A sand dollar. July and August are sand dollar season in Arroyo.
And then we were hungry, and we turned around and headed back to the house. We knew where we were going to get lunch!

My mom had sent me photos of this beachside restaurant in Patillas a couple of months ago. My jaw had dropped so low with the pics that I actually posted them on Facebook because the VIEW from this place was STUNNING.

The restaurant is run from the downstairs of a family's house, just like a lot of local gems on the island (yes, this is a legit restaurant. It's an island thing, just like you'll find in so many small towns in the US.) You get to sit outside on their deck about 100 feet from the shore, with the waves crashing right there next to you.

The restaurant is called Lordemar (Facebook page and Tripadvisor page), and that's where we were headed.

The southeast side of the island is just as gorgeous as anywhere else. I took tons of media just for you guys.

A flamboyan tree in full bloom on the left here.
More ordinary. Driving through Patillas.
When I pan to the right you can see the ocean way off in the distance for an instance.  These videos have no filter btw. The greens really are that bright.
More ordinary. More Patillas. Still no filter.

Green mountains. <3
Downtown Patillas.
No filter guys. The road takes you right next to the ocean.
More ordinary. More ocean. No filter.
This beach is called Inches and is one of the big surf destinations of the southeast. Summer is the off season for surfing, hence no big breakers.

Arrived at Lordemar.
The sitting area of the restaurant.
Looking back towards the restaurant entrance. You can see our Jeep parked outside.
People think that you can only find this green mountain + beach combo in Hawaii.
Wrong. You can find it in Puerto Rico. (And in so many of the Caribbean islands.)
The wave were breaking right. there.

My grin says it all.

A photo of me taking the previous pic.
Our appetizer: sorullos de maiz, aka fried cornmeal sticks or Latin corn fritters, next to Carlos's empty pina colada.  I hadn't had sorullos since I was a kid. They are made of cornmeal mixed with cheese and deep fried. (Here is a recipe in English using in case you want to try making them. They are super easy!) They are traditionally served with what we call "mayo-ketchup" on the island, which is just that: a mix of mayonnaise and ketchup. On the mainland it is known as "the magic sauce" by the African American community.
Mofongo relleno, aka stuffed mofongo.
Mofongo is made with fried plantain mixed with garlic, olive oil and salt in a wooden pilon (mortar and pestle), where the mixture is mashed together. It is then stuffed with whatever you want: pork, beef, chicken, shrimp, lobster, a variety of seafood. I chose the shrimp variety. I had not eaten real island mofongo in 10 years.
Are you sick of that view yet? We weren't! Have another photo. :D
The family dog came out to hang with us. It was late for lunch and early for dinner (2:00 pm) and the only other group of customers had just left, so this large sato decided to just chill next to us in exchange for pets.

Mountains and ocean on video as we drove back to the beach house.

This iguana was waiting for us at the front door of the house when we returned. There are tons of these guys in PR (just like in South FL) and they are not local. They are Central American green iguanas that were brought in by pet stores in the '90s. They are popular as pets because they are herbivorous so no need to worry about feeding them rodents or insects...the problem is that they grow to be 4'-5' in length with long whiplike tails that will slice your skin open when they use them in self-defense. So people would release them into the wild when the iguanas become too much or too big for them to handle...and with no natural predators to eat them, they have taken over and become pests. We saw dozens of them around the beach house. This one was a juvenile.

Canal behind the villas that also leads

We found the bodyboard!!!

And of course I had to surf.

The waves are brown, not because the water is dirty, but because these waves break over a shallow sandy bottom. This water is waist-high and the size of the waves means that their force churns up the sand. So the brown that you see near the shore in all of these pics is just churned-up sand. On days when the water is still, you can see your feet in the bottom while standing chest-deep in it. It is that clear.

Carlos took the board for a spin as well. He was an avid bodyboarder for a good 10 years while living in PR and at one point was the kind of guy that would spend his weekends hunting for the perfect wave. He rode 20' waves back in the day and I had the privilege of seeing him in action.

Carlos chilling in the shade after. He might be Puerto Rican but his skin is white and he burns.

I went for a one-mile jog along the shore. 

Arroyo is not the prettiest beach in PR and you can't access it unless you walk a few miles from the Guayama public beach or visit someone in the villas. But it is my beach, the beach where I find peace, and that is what makes it the most special. 

I didn't want to leave and neither did Carlos. We had planned to just hang out for the day, even though the house had been offered to us to spend the night, but Carlos had arranged to meet up with his cousins in the evening on this day so changing our plans now was not in the cards. Plus we had to leave in the morning for the airport and it would have meant having to wake up that much earlier.

So it was with much reluctance that we packed up our stuff, showered, and headed back to the San Juan metro area to meet with Carlos's cousins, Esteban (Esteban is the Spanish version of "Steven" and it is a common name; this was obviously not the same Esteban from CrossFit PR) and his mom Enith.

Getting on the highway north towards La Cordillera.
Some hurricane scarring in the trees on the right.
Traffic on the highway as we neared San Juan, this time because of closed lanes for construction. The emergency lane in PR is just another lane; just don't get caught by cops using it. ;) That truck wasn't stopped there: it was moving.

We made it back into the San Juan metro area in about an hour despite the patches of 5:00 pm traffic that we encountered. Enith bailed due to a last-minute friend's emergency but Esteban came out to meet with us.

He suggested El SuperBar on Avenida Piñero. Here is their Yelp, Facebook and Twitter because if any of you go to the island, you should totally check it out.

Ave Piñero is a main street in the San Juan metro area that connects Guaynabo and Rio Piedras. It used to be full of businesses but has been on the down and out trend over the course of the last decade. Some areas used to be much dicier than others even in its good days but in general it was not a street that you wanted to be walking alone at night on.

So of course, seeing the current post-Maria shut-down state of so many more businesses on this street did not inspire confidence in me but the bar was full at 6:00 pm and we parked in the closest available parking spot we could find, which was less than a block away.

I had been leery of the location and was balking about the whole idea...until we walked in. Because that's when I understood why it was called "El SuperBar": EVERYTHING is superhero themed! I wanted to take photos so badly, but the place was packed considering how early it was (we figured out why; I'll explain shortly).

I used the restroom...which had a black light...and lots of Wonder Woman...and yes, it was impeccably clean, as noted by the glowing black light!

I had walked into the bar going, "I'm not so sure about this place," and I walked back out of the restroom with this enormous grin on my face to meet Carlos at the bar. "I LOVE THIS PLACE," I exclaimed.

"What the hell happened in the bathroom??" he asked, laughing. "Because you literally did a 180 in less than 5 minutes!"

"The black light happened!" And I explained.

The place's cool factor went up even more (if that was even possible) when Carlos ordered a Blue Moon and was given the Mango Wheat option. WHAT??? Blue Moon with mango?? Sold!

We sat outside with our drinks.

We were right next to the street.
Esteban met up with us shortly after we had sat down.

Esteban is Carlos's godson and he just turned 20 this year. He had been a shoo-in for the Puerto Rican Baseball team in his teens as a pitcher until a shoulder injury terminated his athletic career. We had not seen him in 8 years...he's all grown up and is about to take a government job. He's A Good Kid.

Contrary to what is supposed to happen with alcohol, the conversation got more and more serious as the hours ticked by. (The legal drinking age in PR is 18, so yes: Esteban was drinking with us.) My biggest takeaway from this conversation that I want to share with you, that has haunted me since that moment, was the mental picture of this very young man with his entire life in front of him, sitting outside on a bar stool with his face in his hands and talking about despair, about dead-ends, about not knowing what to do with his life, about the changes in the island and the economy and the people and how much more dangerous everything is. How no one hangs out after dark, first because everyone got used to hiding at nightfall during the longest blackout in US history (and the 2nd longest in the world), but now because there are so many more homeless people, so many more drug addicts as desperate people try to escape reality with substance abuse, so much more anger and violence on the streets, that it is just stupid to stay out late for something as menial as drinks when you could get knifed for accidentally stepping on someone's shoe. My people have survived, yes. But just because electricity is back doesn't mean that they get to stop surviving. My people are exhausted by the sheer act of surviving and so many have just stopped caring about anything as a result.

I share this with you because my one source of rage over this visit was that prior to our return to the island, every time I relayed the information I was getting on PR's current status, I was continually told by a fellow islander that I was exaggerating. That my vision was "unilateral." That things are "not that bad." I had wanted to believe her so badly. So badly. But like everything in life, just because something doesn't affect you doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Privilege is not just a racial thing. It's also a social class thing, and social privilege is alive and well in PR, especially after the storm.  But just because you have everything and don't need to "survive" anymore doesn't mean others aren't still in survival mode. You don't get to tell the starving children of Nigeria that if they'd only imagine a sandwich, food would materialize in front of them. You also don't get to tell the old crippled woman living in her roofless house in the mountains of PR still waiting for her FEMA check because otherwise she can't afford to repair her house, that if she'd work a little harder or think a little more positive, she'd find the solution to her problem. That's just cruel.
This isn't a mental state issue: it's an economics issue. 
So how could what I was relaying be anything but true when it was being told to me by friends and family that were actually living it, with news reports to back it up??? I was told by this singular person that there was nothing to worry about, that the island had recovered, that my family was too negative.

Are you fucking kidding me???? 

Well, now that I have seen it with my own eyes in person, that is bullshit my friends. Yes, there is now electricity throughout most of the island but it has most certainly not recovered and its economy continues to sink thanks to the lovely combination of both Puerto Rico's monumentally corrupt government and the current US administration. Everything that my family and close friends were telling me: it is all true. Getting power restored throughout the island 11 months after the hurricane is not the automatic equivalent of normalcy.

You have to be current on the things happening in PR right now to understand this one, but it is a very, very accurate representation of the situation. And yes, that is a flying gargoyle.
Is the island still beautiful? By golly it is. No one can deny that, and I have shown you through photo after photo after photo after video. A tourist can still have an amazing time there if they are careful, just like they should be careful in any foreign country, with the added benefit that Puerto Ricans speak English, use the same currency as the mainland, are assimilated to US culture, and are especially welcoming of tourists because you make a difference by visiting. If you want to help, just go visit.

It is a very different story though for the majority of middle and lower class locals that are stuck on the island with no other choices. It is a troubled paradise. And listening to Esteban, I choked up with the helplessness of it all. Because we can't save it: the entire system is broken. It was broken before but it is beyond repair now, thanks to the storm and a country currently run by a racist administration. I am just so tired of it all and of our people, of US citizens, being allowed to silently rot with no hope while everyone on the mainland takes up every other cause imaginable to defend. Sometimes I feel like the only voice in this corner screaming for help in an abyss where no one can hear me.

I finally looked around. It was 8:30 pm and the bar was almost entirely cleared out. Carlos and Esteban noticed the same thing: it was late. Not late by hanging out standards, but late by island standards. Like I said before: you don't stay out after dark, not even now with all the electricity in the world, because dark things might still get you.

Esteban walked us to the Jeep and we drove him back to his car, where we said our good-byes.

Carlos and I then drove home to mom and the aunts, where we had dinner and hit the bed. I don't remember much from that evening anymore: I was too emotionally drained.

Last part to follow.

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