“Sorry, we’re closed,” says the guy at the Ruby Tuesday in the Orlando airport to my lady and I.
It’s 9:30pm and our flight doesn’t leave for Aguadilla, Puerto Rico for three more hours. So, it’s no surprise that the first thing I notice about Puerto Rico is that–even at 4am–the bars in the airport are still bustling. I can appreciate this, not only because I would really have enjoyed an alcoholic beverage or two during the three hour delay that was waiting for our flight, but because it’s now after 4am and my body is playing a game of tug aware between hunger and sleep.
The scenario on the ground here tells me immediately that this isn’t like the United States’ mainland, where if a business closes at 9pm, they’ll boot people out in an effort to get out and go home. If there’s still business to be had in certain countries, though–Puerto Rico apparently one of them–then why not hang around and serve some customers?
A rental car and a short drive along the Caribbean later, we’re in a little corner store, breakfast joint combo ordering food. The menu is written in both English and Spanish, but the preferred language is clear. Several young men in work clothes chat over their breakfast, taking plenty of time to do so before whatever job they’re bound for this morning. An older man asks for something behind the desk and buys a newspaper. A delivery guy trucks a dolly’s worth of soda in and hands the manager some paperwork. By the time I get to the front of the line, I’ve drummed up all of the Spanish I can muster and order our breakfast. Two eggs, a slice of ham and toast each, with potatoes on the side. He can tell I’m not a native-speaker, but doesn’t say a word back in English so either he doesn’t speak it, or he’s satisfied with my multilinguicity. I assume it’s the former when our order arrives sans potatoes, but don’t bother trying to amend the situation. The breakfast is absolutely excellent, I get to speak more Spanish than I have in the past two years, and all told for two breakfasts it cost us $6.
This sets a stage that won’t necessarily be repeated again in the country. We wander in and out of a variety of restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores and various attractions, in a handful of towns, and in nearly every situation not only does everyone speak at least enough English to have a conversation, but they typically lead with it before I even have a chance to pretend like I know what I’m doing. The same goes for the price of food, despite our efforts to have our meals in places that seem like they’re tucked far off of the tourist trail, the prices are never quite as affordable as that first breakfast joint. “Have a seat, someone will be right with you,” they say, in English, before handing us menus with prices comparable to what you’d pay back home.
Not that I was expecting anything different, but our first encounter put me in a mood reminiscent of our life in Mexico, where Spanish was a must and a few pesos paid for everything.
After that initial breakfast, exhausted and now the proud owners of full stomachs, we head to a beachfront studio apartment–which only set us back $50 / night–for some much needed rest. Afternoon rolls round and as we’re now driving the streets of Aguadilla, I come to a stop sign. I know it’s a stop sign not because it says stop–it actually reads “para”, as all street signs in Puerto Rico are in Spanish–but because it’s a big red octagon with white letters. Visual commonalities are lovely that way.
Our car comes to a halt and I wait for another car–appearing out of a two way street not much wider than a bicycle lane–to pass. Except, that car stops, too, but has no stop sign. I’m confused, but my better half indicates that she’s pretty sure the other car wants us to go first. And so it does, and so I do.
As we continue to drive around, I notice people stopping all the time, but why?
Turns out, to let other people go. Need to get over two lanes to make a right? People will let you do that. Are you turning out of a gas station and need to cross left into the other lane? Some guy who is going somewhere else altogether will slow way down so you have plenty of time to make it. It’s like the people of Puerto Rico have not been introduced the notion much of the rest of the world has come to realize–that when you’re in your car, surrounded by thousands of pounds of metal and a glass windshield, you are invincible, and should therefore act like a complete jerk even though normally you are the sweetest person your grandmother has ever met. It’s a refreshing change and I find driving around, looking for chances to return the favor an entirely calming and enjoyable situation, even if we end up in a city in rush hour.
One day we decide to cross the island to visit San Juan and Yunque National Forest–a part of the United States Forest Service, making it the only tropical jungle in the national forest system–when I start to notice that not only are the signs in Spanish, but distances are measured in kilometers. I quickly then become aware of the fact that I must be hauling ass, looking at our rental car’s speedometer and comparing it to the speed limit signs along the highway. “If I’m speeding, though,” I look to my girlfriend, “then everyone else is too, some people really fast.” It dawns on me, and the facts check out later, that the speed limits are, for whatever reason, posted in miles per hour even though distances are in kilometers. I noticed this one other time in life, riding a bus in Brighton, England, and it perplexed me for years, the type of question you know you want to ask someone but–back then, pre-iPhones–would always slip your mind before you found someone who could help.
“Maybe it’s for older cars that don’t have kilometers on their dash,” she suggest, which is possible, but most people have relatively new cars, and for the most part they’re the same slew of vehicles you’d find in the US. The question will, it seems, remain forever unsolved.
The highway stretches through hours of mountains, small towns and farmland, all with a jungle tinge and on a beautifully sunny day. There’s been a drought and many places are considering, if not already, rationing water. The selfish tourist in me can’t help but remain happy with the weather though, and I forego showering but once a week and let the yellow mellow to make up for it. “It’s beautiful to be on a mountain island,” I tell my girlfriend. Smiling out the window, she seems to agree.
San Juan’s traffic extends out onto the highway by the time we arrive, still early afternoon, looking for lunch and a stroll around Old San Juan, the cities historical old town and the location of the first settlement in Puerto Rico. Parking proves a challenge as tourists from around the island and world alike probably never really stop descending on the area. We find a parking garage and, though I’m backed in only two feet from the wall, a man in a little golf cart drives up and yells something at me in Spanish, motioning to go back even further. I can’t fathom why, but comply.
It’s hot, the sun high enough to barely leave a shadow on either side of the street, and we give into our desire to comfortably sit, have a drink and order some food after a few blocks. I’m more impressed by the art hanging on the walls of a large, but empty, outdoor café than the food we order, but the beverages seem to do the trick and people watching a small square across the street is the best TV I’ll see all year. German couples go in and out of all three applicable languages in their current world. Latino families wearing soccer jerseys from around the hemisphere have picnics while their young ones run after on another. Americans galore discuss how long they’ve been coming here and what it used to be like before disappearing into an Irish pub down the street. It’s a happening city, both much more “happening” and “city” than the one we’re staying in, and I wonder what it might be like to live here, to get to know all of the local haunts, the first names of corner store owners and how it would feel to watch endless streams of tourists from around the world checking in and out like the tide.
Our true destination this day, however, was El Yunque National Forest. Damage to trees from the hurricanes of 2018 has left much of the forest closed, but never one to turn down a walk in the woods, I’m excited to see this jungle-covered mountain. “You know what you want to do!” a ranger tells us as we roll up to a little kiosk that would traditionally be the entrance to a visitors center, if it weren’t closed at the moment, “You want to do this!” He’s excited, clearly very fulfilled with his line of work, as he hands us a simple photocopied map on a piece of yellow paper marking which roads are closed, and which attractions can be found along the sole road into the park. It’s mostly waterfalls, all with small parking lots asking you to spend no more than a few minutes at a time at any given one. The recent drought leaves most of them little more than wet rocks.
We pass a restaurant clinging to the side of the road and what seems to be a private gift shop, odd for what one typically thinks of as a national forest, before coming to a cliffside tower with ample parking. The stone tower contains little more than a spiral staircase leading you to the top, where two young girls discuss in Spanish how to get the coin-operated binoculars to take their quarters. With broken English they ask my girlfriend if she can help, and as I watch all three of them struggle with what appears to be ancient, broken equipment I laugh and watch exotic birds circle through a panoramic view that includes the city in the distance, Atlantic Ocean and mountain peaks galore.
“You should get the patch,” she tells me as we return to the bottom of the tower where a woman is now sitting behind a previously empty desk, some books, stickers and a patch reading “El Yunque National Forest” on top and “Bosque Nacional El Yunque” on the bottom. We collect patches from the places we go, a way to minimize clutter in our typical vanlife, while still having a curtain’s worth of reminders of the life we’ve been so fortunate to live. I begin the transaction in Spanish, and the woman doesn’t waiver, allowing me to once again practice my language skills. She gives no indication that I might not know what I’m doing until I confuse the amount of change I should should give her for a perfect sale, when she laughs but never switches to English. It’s funny how something as simple as buying a souvenir can be such an enjoyable experience when you’re exploring somewhere new.
Aside from driving through a majestic forest, constantly on the lookout for parrots, yet never seeing one, the experience is rather uneventful. We hike a short trail to a swimming hole where a Canadian woman is speaking terribly slow Spanish to her guide, who constantly replies in English despite her attempts, and I laugh at the thought of how silly we all must sound trying so hard at a second language when the person on the other end can get right down to business in either. The crowd well down the trail now, we stop at the sound of a bird, again hoping to see a parrot. Instead, as I’m looking in the other direction, the sound of Paul Bunyan cracking a branch over his knee fills my ears. I’m confused by what machinery could be rustling so many feathers this far into the forest, but then realize what’s happening as I see a massive tree fall not twenty feet from us.
If a tree falls in the woods and doesn’t land on you, do you make a sound? Apparently not as we just take one another’s hands, smile through our eyes and then head back to our car.
“If there’s only one road,” she asks me as we wind down the mountains toward the forest’s entrance, “then where does that go?” I make a right, and a whole stretch of El Yunque, not on the map, opens up to us, following and crossing a river before coming to a T. Cell service was left behind hours ago and so I point the car in the general direction of where I believe we should be going. Hours go by winding through what seems to be an endless village, just one never-ending stretch of more-rural-than-suburb collection of houses. It would be mundane, I think, if it were in Ohio. Here, it’s a site to behold, an endless curiosity about what these people’s daily lives are like, where they work, what they do afterward.
Soon enough, 5pm and the highway outside of San Juan show up at the same time and suddenly we’re sucked back into reality, one where sitting in a car with only Spanish pop radio available will remind us that even in paradise, even if the people are as friendly as can be, rush hour still sucks.
Most of our days spent in Aguadilla are done so wandering around an incredibly colorful, but nearly always empty, town square near the water. A few boats float through the Caribbean and a lone vendor sells beer and Coke from what I suppose you might call a permanently-located food cart, to mostly the same several old men every day. Teenage skateboarders wearing some sort of futuristic punk rock wander the streets. A mom or two brings her kids to the beach. Otherwise, it’s a complete juxtaposition to busy San Juan, which is perfectly fine by me. Secret beaches, ruins and endless places to try and figure out what exactly is Puerto Rican food fill our time, until we finally discover Rincón.
Rincón is the hipster haven of this side of the island. It’s where locals and mainlanders alike have come to sell craft beer and fancy lattes. Cool people go there to ensure other cool people who’ve come to vacation in Puerto Rico that they are, in fact, cool. Board shorts and IPAs, cold brew and jewelry made from reclaimed beach litter are all made and sold beneath the sounds of Buju Banton or electronic remixes of Bob Marley tunes. And it’s absolutely wonderful.
“I’ll take two of those IPAs,” I tell a bartender after a short discussion about the many craft breweries on the island. My girlfriend takes hers to the sidewalk to enjoy as I give him my credit card and begin to follow her.
“Hey man,” a guy, red-eyed thirty-something wearing no shoes and only half in his barstool whispers to me, “just so you know, that’s a $5000 fine if you get caught with that glass out there.”
“Yeah, $5000 for having glass outdoors. And the police will bust you. It’s a stupid law, I know, but it keeps the beaches and the streets clean.” It’s the law he’s calling stupid, but I can’t help but get the feeling I’m the one he’s referring to.
“So, what, I should switch it for a plastic cup?” I ask him. I don’t really want to do that, though, what with me being a fully grown adult.
“Nah,” he pats me on the arm, “but if you see the cops coming, run back in here.”
The bartender, though I’m not positive he’s listening, doesn’t say anything. Not sure what to do, I join my lady at a table on the sidewalk and thoroughly don’t enjoy my beer as I look around for the cops. We empty the glasses, and she wants another.
As I walk in, the bartenders are changing shifts and the guy with no shoes is gone. “Two IPAs,” and again there’s some chit chat. “So, should I get these in plastic or something?” I ask her.
“No, not unless you want it like that,” she replies, looking confused.
“Oh okay, it’s just that someone told me it was a $5000 fine to have a glass outside–”
Her eyes light up, more fire than joy, “What? Who was it?”
I shrug, dodging, not really wanting to name names in a place I’ve only just walked into twenty minutes before.
“Was he wearing shoes?” she asks. I smile, she laughs, shaking her head.
“Don’t listen to him, he’s just jealous because he used to work here.”
The guy ends up sitting down with us halfway through the next beer and telling us some stories so fantastical you absolutely have to believe them, even if you know he’s a bullshitter.
That night, on that same block, we enjoy delicious Greek food and more craft beers, and the next morning, same block, iced coffee in a place full of Andy Warhol-inspired photos of more funky looking skaters.
It’s wonderful, I must admit, to have a place like this, in a foreign country (and until the US government and/or the people of Puerto Rico decide to make this a state, it is a foreign country) to visit even if it feels a bit too much like home. While the goal was to experience Puerto Rico for what it is, to find traditional food and try and talk to people about life here and explore its countryside and city streets alike, a little trendy feels like a guilty pleasure I’m happy to indulge in. I voice this to my lady, who responds, “Well, this is Puerto Rico too. Maybe it’s influenced by breweries and coffee shops back in the US, but this is what it is now, and this is what that’s like here.”
I like it.