By Devasmita Chakraverty
Once the conference was over, we had a few days to explore Puerto Rico. The first day, we decided to explore Old San Juan, which is the oldest settlement there and the historic colonial district of Puerto Rico. Filled with old world charm, of the views of forts and castles, the views of the water, of tourists and cobblestone streets, of cute little shops selling everything, and food joints, this is a must visit place. Although we spent an entire day there, I’d have liked to spend another day. By now, my Spanish vocabulary was growing, but wasn’t that strong either.
I learned to say ola (hi), saludos (greetings), gracias (thank you, and the s is silent), por favor (please), bienvenidos (welcome), and amigo (friend). I had picked up food vocabulary like papa (potato), mofongo, empanadas, and tres leches. I had learned that agua is water and jugo is juice. I learned some colors too, like Amarillo (yellow) and verde (green). Horas meant hours and farmacia was a pharmacy store. So that morning when I parked my car in Old San Juan, I wanted to make sure that I am not parked illegally. I asked a police if I was parked legally, and he told me “No Ingles” (no English). So I showed him eight of my fingers and said, “8 horas, car there, park?”. I don’t think he understood anything although he said si si (yes yes). I know the police didn’t understand me because later that day, I found out that I was parked the whole day in a lane meant only for officials to park. Thankfully I did not get a parking ticket.
Once parked, we walked by the cobbled streets for a while, looking for a breakfast café. This place had a European old world charm about it. We found a café that was open, and went inside. There, I had the most awesome sweet bread preparation. Although I do not remember the name, it was so good and so sweet that I did not feel hungry for a while. We also saw this strange notice outside the café.
Next, we simply followed the signs to visit some of the things we had in our list. The first stop was going to be the visitor center at Castillo San Cristobal. Although there was a nominal entry fee, out entry became free with my national park annual pass that I proudly carry with me. On a different note, it is so sad that the government had to shut down national parks in the US. The national parks are really close to my heart, everyone of them that I have visited.
The Castillo San Cristobal is a Spanish fort built to protect against attacks. Built on a hill, I stood at the same places where soldiers would stand hundreds of years ago, guarding the city. Thoughts like this never fail to thrill me. What we saw from there is an amazing view of the edge of the city by the water, and other structures like Castillo San Felipe del Morro and the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery at a distance. Although I have never been to Spain, I am not surprised that the cobbled alleys reminded me of my trip to Portugal. It amazes me, how far cultural influences go across continents, and how much history is always associated with the present.
From Castillo San Cristobal, we took a (free) trolley to the Castillo San Felipe del Morro (also known as the Morro Castle), although it is highly walkable. The sun was going higher up the sky, and with that, the heat was increasing. Although I did not care about it so much then, I was to discover in the next few days how painfully sun burnt I would be. This citadel had more history written all over it, and what I particularly remembered was seeing huge cannonballs that were stacked and made of stone, iron, and lead. A lot of World War II sights were to be seen here.
I was really interested to check out the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery that was right adjacent to the Morro Castle. I had seen beautiful pictures of this cemetery, some in the dark. The sight of thousands of graves is a sight to behold. It is one of the most famous landmarks of the island, and a final resting place for many of the important natives of this place. The graveyard overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, and the sharp contrast in colors between the pristine white marbles of the graves and the ink blue water only makes you think of the peace and the beauty that lies in a place filled with the dead. I do not know if the dead can see or feel, but to rest in a place like this forever might perhaps make the thought of death less morbid.
On a totally different and less morbid note, I had further learnt that mujeres is the word for women and cabarellos is the work for men. Now how do I remember that? Debbie had a fantastic idea. She asked me to remember that women dance mujras and men dance cabarets. By the way, women are also damas, and men are hombres. So now, I was starting to learn synonyms too. By now, I was hooked to Spanish and wanted to learn as many words as I could. I loved the Spanish music channels I listened to during those long drives to the beaches and mountains. I don’t know what it all meant, but it sounded so very romantic. Every male voice in those songs seemed to me like a handsome young man was playing the guitar, speaking words of love to his beloved. People swear by French as “the” language of romance, but I feel that Spanish sounds way more romantic. I fell in love with one particular song they played on radio again and again, and now I have no idea how to find it. The only words I remembered is “masima masima” (which makes no sense to me, it means mother’s sister in Bengali), and I did not have Shazam with me.
Back to Old San Juan, one of the prettiest historic landmarks I have seen. By now we had our fill of castles and forts and cemeteries. The sun was scorching hot, and we were hungry and thirsty. So Debbie and I went to a local eatery and once again had some amazing food. There, we met an oldish couple in their fifties, tourists from South Africa. The man seemed to be of Indian origin while the woman seemed to be from Philippines. They might have gone unnoticed, had they not flagged to us and started asking questions. We answered some politely, but Debbie and I really wanted to be left alone. However, the couple did not get the hint. Before we knew, they had asked us to join their table for lunch, and the waitress quickly obliged by taking our food there. Something did not feel right from the way they were being friendly. Things made more sense when they told us that they were staying at the Hilton, and invited us to come visit them. Now this is the kind of situation your parents warn you about when you are on your own. We politely declined, but they would hear none of it. They asked us to join them for a drink in the evening, to which we said that we do not drink. They asked us if we could come tomorrow, and we said that we were there on a conference. If they pursued us shamelessly, we shamelessly said no. After a point, they had noting to allure us with. And why am I writing all this? Because while traveling, and especially while traveling alone, most people are very nice and friendly. However, once in a while, you meet people who make you uncomfortable. Never let your guard down, and never be lured into visiting someone privately, no matter how friendly they are or even if they are from your country and speak the same language. I will stop now, since I sound like my mom.
After a heavy lunch, we were getting a little drowsy, and wanted to take it easy. So for the rest of the evening, we took a stroll by the alleys, did some window shopping and real shopping, fed the pigeons, watched the ships entering the port, watched the children frolic in the water from the fountain, ate gelato, walked by the waterfront, and watched the sunset. When we walked back to the car, we were relieved to see that it was still there and was not towed away, since it was illegally parked. I was falling more in love with Puerto Rico every single day. That night, we got back to the hostel tired and yet energized. A group of hostel residents were leaving to watch the bioluminescent bay at night and asked us if we would like to join them. We wanted to go, but were very tired. Which reminds me of something.
If you are in Puerto Rico, definitely do the bioluminescent bay tour at night, especially on a new moon night. Everyone I talked to highly recommended it. It seems silly to say that I went all the way to Puerto Rico and did not do the bioluminescent bay tour. The thing is, I have a fear of water, and I was six weeks away from defending my PhD. I did not want to take a chance. So that is something that is set aside for a future trip. Do read up a little bit about it before you go. I do not have much insight to add, but for the fact that it is a top thing on the to do list of everyone who visits Puerto Rico.
The other thing we did not do is visit the Bacardi Rum factory in Puerto Rico. For a person who does not drink and was short on time, it was really not on my list. However, it might be on yours.
That night, I went to sleep listening to the coqui frogs again. I had started to sleep better.