I had been to San Juan once before, for a two-hour layover. But sometimes that’s all you need; like falling for the cute guy in the truck next to you at the red light. Just a brief smile is enough, and you drive away certain its l-o-v-e. How will you ever find him again? Puerto Rico was like that for me.
That was before airport security stations, so out into the hot dark night we ran– trusting our publico driver to take us, quickly, to the best Puerto Rican food near by. The Metropol. A long-time classic; the sort of place Tito Puente would have gone to. More than the look of the place, or any one aroma, the air itself felt almost palpable to me. It seemed redolent of the island’s mix of cultures, layered with tropical overtones, and imbued with a cool, they say suave, Latin pride. Love or infatuation, who cares? I was totally smitten.
Puerto Rico, this oddly organized island nation/culture, has a unique ability to blend the totally classy with complete funk. It offers a mix of traditional and new-fangled, almost cheesy without missing a beat. Maybe it harkens back to the first, and no doubt very formal Spaniards stepping onto the casual sandy shores of this tropical paradise, which it must have been. Maybe that dichotomy helps explain why Puerto Ricans care a lot about important things — like the taste of the food and the grace with which they serve you, but not a hoot about pretensions. The music, the pescado criollo with black beans and rice, the waiters in Guayaberas, their classic white linen shirts; the tempo of their walk. The flowering hedges everywhere. Life here seemed based on taking it easy. Maybe that was why it called to me, and felt familiar. Its values just lined up with my own. Puerto Rico worked its magic on me without even trying; it’s brief Latin version of the red-light smile.
So here I was again, a handful of years later, with a whole family in tow. San Juan was our port of entry, the jumping off point for our quest . Our itinerary focused on two islands, “the Spanish Virgins” that lie off of Puerto Rico’s eastern shore, between it and the US and British Virgin Islands, as well as exploring the main island itself. Traveling and exploring came naturally to the kids and us. We were ready.
David and I, were both in our early 40’s, and married 12 years. Still happy. Tyler was 11, passionate about baseball, backpacking and Nirvana, Gus, seven, spent half of his time in a fantasy world with his GI Joes doing math in his head, and five-year old Xing Ji, missing both her front teeth, changed her American girl doll baby Matilda and she listened to her Little Mermaid soundtrack over and over again. Looking back, I think everyone was remarkably pretty darn happy no matter where we went.
We were united then, in those early fledgling family days as we are today– by a common love of adventure. It could have been in the very process of forming then. What an amazing time in our family’s life together; just plain fun. Curious, exuberant, optimistic fun. President’s Day 1997. I guess fun was our priority – and we were at ages where one sort of fun worked for all of us. God! how I love thinking back to those sweet days. Before any illness, economic collapse, 911, divorce or teenage angst. That trip may reign supreme in my family memories. I’ll have to check in with the kids when I see them next. I wonder how much they remember.
After a night wandering the alleys of Old San Juan and savoring what we all agreed was the best fried chicken that any of us had ever tasted, we took off in a small plane for Culebra, the first of our island exploration. Our red headed Texan pilot, Trixie, had large, bright, honest-to-God plastic flowers in her large, bright red hair. She laughed a lot and loudly. More importantly, almost surprisingly, she sneaked the plane through the hills and their notorious narrow approach, landing us in Dewey, known among the sailing crowd for its rather remarkable protected harbor and canal cutting through its center, and for its ungodly flight path by everyone else.
Culebra offered up its spectacular beaches, a surprisingly nice bagel place, even way back then, and a good Mexican restaurant. But we weren’t there for Western ways. In between our time at the beach and snorkeling with the sea turtles we looked at property. There was even a bed and breakfast for sale. It was all fun. No magic. I wondered how would I know it, if and when I did ever find it? How many travel vacations for how many years would it take? I wasn’t worried or impatient…This would be just the first of many such explorations.
After a few days staying in an old coffee plantation up in Puerto Rico’s Central Cordillera, my Puerto Rican romance started kicking in again. There was that feeling I couldn’t identify or explain. What is it about this country and its culture? Tropical flowers have little fragrance. This was an earthier allure. Maybe the café con leche or the smell of the roadside lechoneras, where whole pigs turn on spits. No time to waste wondering, we were off to our final stop, a week on…
Vieques. Isla Nena…
Instantly I’m feeling at home. There were no bagel places and no Mexican food. There was hardly an open restaurant. Stepping off the boat into Isabel Segunda, the island’s largest town, you are surrounded by, and oddly suspended in, a long term state of disrepair, ranging from maybe recent hurricane damage, to long term tropical decay and total collapse. Amazing plant life, grew up and over it all. Magenta and apricot-hued bougainvillea woven through ornate wrought iron balustrades, philodendron take over a wall.