I and my brother Dupsi go on a backpacking trip to Puerto Rico for his 3Xth Birthday. He specifically points the X for the obvious generation he belongs to. I, on the other hand, say, we should do this again on my X5th birthday.
Dupont is a mountaineer but we haven’t traveled together since the nineties, so I expect him to want potable tap water, at the very least. With our backpacks and a sturdy little tent, we fly to San Juan and use it as our base in exploring the Spanish colonial and Taino culture of this Caribbean island.
About ten years ago, I did the same exact thing with my high school best friend from Cagayan de Oro, Minette, when ATA Airlines was still around and airports still allowed well-wishers at the very gates you board your plane. I remember clearly how we boarded a ferry to Vieques, excited to see Moqsuito Bay and the promise of psychedelic bioluminescence, and how surprised we were to find out we were on a boat with several students on their way to protest the US naval activities. We pitched a tent by the beach and got heavily rained on, so we decided to walk to town in search of a bed when this couple on their honeymoon noticed our predicament and whisked us to their nice little villa with a private pool. Minette and I were X3 years old then and we didn’t mind a little but of luxury, especially when it’s free.
San Juan has tidied up a little. The spiffy new terminal resembling a discus in mid-air surprises me. As do its new elevated trains making the commute relatively easy and worry-free. Even the good old University of Puerto Rico has a couple of new buildings. Until you get to Old San Juan and notice the cops in their full-battle gear–gun, butllet-proof vests and all. Perhaps not everything has changed. Outside Posada San Francisco, I ask one if it’s such a challenge wearing the whole get-up. He smiles and jokingly says it’s the reason he’s late everyday. He also thinks it has become quite unnecessary the last couple of years, but hey, you never know. I am always comforted by friendly banter between people of authority and normal folks like me. It dispels a lot of the cyborg, the I-must-protect-the-human-race-with-my-uzi quandary.
Old San Juan feels so much like Intramuros. The parallels in history and culture get me excited that every time someone innocently asks, I go on a Spanish colonial history tirade and bore my listeners to a stupor. Such is what happens to the unlucky folks asking where I’m from on the public bus, on a ferry boat, in the hostel, at a sunny tropical beach, in a dingy bar, and on a kayak. Yes, on a kayak.
Walking around Viejo San Juan is like walking around Manila before the place got pummeled by bombs during WWII. I ask a couple of people directions to a couple of places I pretty much know how to get to just because I want to practice my Spanish. Everyone answers me in straight English, reminding me that Puerto Rico is still a US Commonwealth. Dupont and I take photos of the famed Teatro Tapia, one of the oldest theaters in the western hemisphere. He asks me if they used candles to light their shows. I tell him I do not have the answer for him. And if they did, it was a pretty bad idea.
From San Cristobal, we can see El Morro, the 16th century Spanish fort standing on the lip of a cliff, walling the city in an almost suffocating embrace. The houses outside its grip, a district called La Perla, shows just the right amount of freedom, color and panache, probably because it is not walled and probably because its other border is the ocean. It is fascinating in the way a favela is chic. The ubiquitous basketball court is empty and Reggaeton plays in the distance.
Colonial buildings in their cruise ship pastels play hokey with the occasional homeless wahoo. We try to get into the museums but the American government shutdown prevails; We try to get a taste of Lechon, Boricua-style, but open spits are not allowed this far deep into the city. So we have our little brunch at a Che Guevarra of a restaurant, resisting technology with what it believes is utility–a mechanical cash register requiring brute strength, waiters in bow ties, checkerboard floors, a pastry shop with references to the motherland, and prices from the gilded fifties when Havana was the bomb, and San Juan its demure distant relative needing braces. Before sunset, we walk past the seat of government, the Palacio de Santa Catalina, aptly called La Fortaleza because of the protection of the fort or maybe the heavily guarded gates, and head inside La Catedral de San Juan Bautista to look for Juan Ponce de Leon’s tomb. At the edges of the city walls, as the sun starts to melt into yesterday, we longingly look at the Bacardi Rum Factory across the water from us. My brother and I agree we both like to be entombed in that cathedral.
We meet Jennifer, Max and Monique at a rooftop party at the posada. Our little gang is complete. We mark Vieques as our destination on the map. Yet another use of the letter X. We declare Jennifer the Godfather because she comes from Austin. Everybody else is from Orlando, Citrus Springs, Bukidnon and Hobart. Oh, and she has a car.
(All photos ©M. Sanchez)