By Devasmita Chakraverty
This is a travelogue in multiple parts. The first part is mostly about getting familiar with Puerto Rico, exploring around, learning about the food and plants and animals, and learning Spanish. The subsequent parts are about traveling Old San Juan, and the beaches and forests of Puerto Rico, with more thoughts and more experiences.
When I think of Puerto Rico, I think of aquamarine green waters and beaches. I think of the sun, sea, and the sand. I think of history. And I think of Ricky Martin. I think of one of the awesome places in Caribbean where I would need no visa to visit. According to Wikipedia, “Originally populated for centuries by indigenous aboriginal peoples known as Taínos, the island was claimed by Christopher Columbus for Spain during his second voyage to the Americas on November 19, 1493. Under Spanish rule, the island was colonized and the indigenous population was forced into slavery and wiped out due to, among other things, European infectious diseases. Spain possessed Puerto Rico for over 400 years. … In 1898, Spain ceded the archipelago, as well as the Philippines, to the United States as a result of its defeat in the Spanish-American War under the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1898. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship.”
I was there for a conference earlier this April, and although most places in the US were still experiencing cold weather, if now snow blizzards at that time, I came back with serious sun burns. The proposal call for the conference went out earlier in 2012, and when I saw the venue, I knew that I had to be there. Thankfully, things worked out.
The conference resort at the Wyndham Rio Mar, Rio Grande was a vacation destination in itself, with aquamarine blue pools, private beach, awesome views by the water, and an opulence that would get you saying wow. However, I wanted to experience Puerto Rico the backpacker way, living in hostels in the heart of the city instead of being tucked away in opulence 45 minutes away. I wanted to meet the local people and others who traveled like me. From my experience of hostels in Paris, Portugal, and even Hawaii, I knew that the hostels attract the international crowd, who set out to unknown countries to explore. Those were the kind of people I wanted to meet.
So Debbie and I decided to stay at the San Juan International Hostel. Debbie is my travel enthusiast friend from Georgia who accompanied me in this trip, and even sat through my conference talks, God bless her. We met up at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, and when we stepped outside, the first thing that hit us was how tropical the breeze smelled. Once the shuttle dropped us to the car rental agency and we were ready to set off, I realized that the road signs were all in Spanish. As Wikipedia would tell you, Puerto Rico is “an unincorporated territory of the United States, located in the northeastern Caribbean, east of the Dominican Republic and west of both the United States Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.” This was going to be interesting.
Driving in Puerto Rico is not for the faint-hearted. You get used to it of course. As I started to drive somewhat nervously, I realized that not only were the signs in Spanish, but the driving somewhat resembled the aggressive driving in India. Some of the bylanes were filled with potholes and without lane demarcations. Pedestrians just flagged you down trying to cross busy streets, something you never get used to unless you have driven in India. The roads close to the hostel were tiny compared to mainland US standards, often the car from the opposite would have to stop to let you pass, and I would have to find parallel parking on the street, something I am not very good at. When I parallel parked my car, half my car was hoisted up the pavement, just like every other car before and after mine. I said a silent prayer as I prepped myself for five days of driving around the island and parking. The next day, I was kicking ass, innocuously breaking a few driving rules, cruising through the potholes, and navigating my way with a confidence as if I have always driven here. It is amazing how fast your brain gets used to doing things. Some of the Spanish words I learned while driving were “Pare” (to stop) and “Salida” (an exit).
The hostel was great. Francisco was very friendly and familiarized us with the bathrooms, kitchen, and the common areas. He gave us tips on what to see, what buses to take, and what to eat. He told us certain key words in Spanish to help us navigate around. “Calle” (enunciated as kaa-ye) meant street, and “parada” was a bus stop. “Este” meant to go east. “Oeste” meant to go west. Most of my Spanish vocabulary was initially confined to driving terminology. I came across a really cool term “Velocidad Maxima” (speed limit), cool because it seemed like a scientific term right out of a Physics textbook. I got attracted to another word, whose meaning it took me a while to figure out.“Estacionamiento publico” means public parking. I tried saying that word again and again, but it was a tongue twister. If you thought parallel parking is hard, try saying the word “parking” in Spanish.
The first two guests we met at the hostel were two German women, in their early twenties, who were touring a few countries on their own. I knew we had come to the right place. Our room was very interesting, because it had a bunk bed that one of us would have to climb up. Having not done that in years, I eagerly asked Debbie and she readily agreed. The air conditioner worked only from 8:30 pm to 8:30 am, although there was a fan. We were not there to stay in our rooms anyway. Our room was really tiny, and interestingly did not have a power cord, which was good because it forced us to sit in the common area every evening, which is how we met many interesting world travelers the next few days. I made a friend from Spain, who accompanied us to Old San Juan the next day. We met a guy who claimed that he was in the army, and took every opportunity to want to go dinner with us. There was another creepy guy, who barely spoke the entire time, and the only time he did, he wanted our email ids. Debbie was convinced that he did drugs. Then we also met a very nice lady from New York who liked spending a great deal of time in Puerto Rico. We met so many people in those few days. There is so much to learn beyond classroom and our workplaces, and it is amazing, the moment we step out and travel, every experience becomes a learning experience. In fact one of our conference friends who was visiting from China was also living there.
On the first evening, we decided to take it easy and walk to the nearby Condado Beach. We did that, had some ice cream by the beach, and as we were walking back to the hostel in the evening (a good 20-25 minute walk), we were lost. It was dark, but not unsafe at all, given how touristy it is. We walked around for a long time trying to figure our way, with no luck. Finally we went to a nearby gas station, and instead of showing us the way, the lady dropped us at the hostel. People in Puerto Rico are genuinely nice and friendly, and there is warmth emanating that you cannot miss.
I was thrilled to see how much Puerto Rico resembled India, not just because of the weather or crazy driving. Within minutes of walking from our hostel, we found mango trees with raw mangoes hanging from them, something I have never seen anywhere in the US. There were bougainvillea trees, lucky nut flowers (known as Kolke phool in Bangla), and china rose. The houses looked so familiar, with balconies and porticos. In the evening, we saw women congregating outside and chatting up, something I fail to see in this country. There is an undeniable laidback charm about the place that makes you long to become a part of it. A few hours here, and I had already made up my mind about two things, one, that I would go back and learn Spanish, and two, I would look for job opportunities in Puerto Rico so that I could come back, even if for a short while. And this was not just a crazy touristy fantasy talk. I genuinely felt like I was a part of that place, and could see myself living and retiring there.
I have told you about the driving and parking in Puerto Rico. I have told you about the weather, the people, and plants and trees. I have told you about the Spanish language. Then for the first time in America, I saw movie posters being pasted on the walls. Also, one time when we were driving early morning by the neighborhood, around dawn, we saw a rooster cross the road, making the typical Cockadoodledoo noise. Now that, I haven’t seen even in India for years. But I haven’t told you about the food, which pleasantly surprised us.
Local Puerto Rican food very closely resembles Indian food. Francisco (the guy from the hostel) recommended us to this place called Martin’s BBQ for some wonderful local food. There we found things like batatas (potato dish), fried plantains (not kidding), and something that is exactly what my ma makes at home and calls it “kaanchkolar boda” or raw banana kofta. Beans cooked the rajma style is a staple local food, and so is this dessert made from fried bananas. There is another dessert we loved, called tres leches, a three layered milk cake (tres is three and leche is milk). We even had green coconut water or daab the next day, with malai. And I saw a banana blossom hanging from our hostel window. We call it mocha in Bangla (mo-cha and not mo-ka), not to be confused with mocha coffee. One can see why I felt an instant connection to this place. A lot of the things we like or do or identify with are all about memories or associations, especially from the times when we were growing up. This is the same reason why thinking of a beef steak does not make my mouth water, but every Sunday when I am reminded of the goat meat curry ma cooked, I feel a rumble inside my stomach.
The first night, as we were walking back to the hostel, we heard a strange coqui sound. We did not know what it was, but the sound continued through the night. Apparently the sound is made by the male Coqui frogs, endemic to Puerto Rico. It was like nothing we had heard before, and I fell in love with this sound too. I got so used to it for the next few days that I would sleep to it and wake up to it. Every night as I climbed atop the bunk bed and read myself to sleep (because there was no power cord and hence no laptop, I read myself to sleep every night), this is what I would remember hearing last. I took it to the next level when I got back from Puerto Rico. I downloaded a coqui frog app on my iPad so that I could listen to it whenever I wanted to.
You might wonder why I have not told you about any places I visited in Puerto Rico. I will, in the next posts. In this, I wanted to write about my overall experience, the place, the people, and why I fell in love with everything here. So this is like a preamble post. But soon, I will take you to the beaches and the rainforest of Puerto Rico. I will take you with me to the historical Old San Juan. So stay tuned.