I once went to Puerto Rico with my cousin. We would take the bridge from the hotel to the old man with his cart and umbrella on the other side. He sold fruit flavored icy treats in paper cups.
I would always ask the man what flavors he had today. He would point to coconut, and mango and passion fruit and lemon. I would say each day, “hmmm, let me see which one shall I have? Which one…?” My cousin would always roll her eyes and say, “He’ll have the passion fruit.”
I loved the passion fruit. There was no other alternative.
Next we would head to the beach and lay down our towels. We would lie on the beach all day beneath the sun getting tan and feeling young. I would sleep from the previous night’s excursion which had always ended late with several games of Puerto Rican pool at some pool hall or bar.
The nights were especially fun. Old San Juan was always alive and teaming with enthusiasm. There were night clubs filled with young girls who had slipped out for the evening to dance and party. They all wore spaghetti string dresses and looked dazzling and thin. Their dark skin made them look exotic.
Sharp young men, with tight fighting T-shirts, gold chain-link necklaces and layers of cologne would pursue them to the dance floors as Spanish-Carribbean music would fill all ears, making everyone move. Even those who weren’t dancing, were somehow dancing in their movements.
Everywhere there were night lights and the magic feeling of youth. I was still young since I was in my mid-twenties. I wasn’t out to pick up girls. I was there to live life and soak up my surroundings. I love travel, watching people and interacting with them on a human-experience level.
It’s like trading cards to see what one another’s soul reads when you meet someone you will likely never see again in a place you might never visit again. When you hit it off with a stranger and share a moment in a time when you are not in a hurry to run errands or be somewhere, you can just be. They can just be. You can share views and histories that are new to both of you and perhaps meaningful. I met many people and had conversations that were like this in all my journeys, Puerto Rico included.
There was a square, where all the old people would sit and sing music. Old people and some younger people, would sit close to each other on the benches, talking and laughing. Balconies were full of people drinking and serenading one another. It was magical and full of lights. My cousin and I would walk and talk as we passed the old crooked homes, painted in mauves and pinks and yellows. Puerto Rican nights were romantic.
One day we went to the fort that had protected Puerto Rico from invaders like pirates or other wealthy nations. It looked so formidable even though it served no purpose other than to tell stories of the past.
Another day, I wanted to go to the other side of the island to Ponce. I only had a debit card at the time, so my cousin had to rent the car. She drove which allowed me to drink and kick back and watch the island people go about their day. There were a lot of very poor people there, I remember.
At one point, we took a wrong turn near the west side of the island and ended up in a neighborhood that I knew was not safe. Young, angry looking men took notice us stopped in our car, surveying the the poverty. Many of them started walking in a semi-crescent shape towards our car. There eyes were fixated on us and their were no expressions of kindness. It looked like a hassle at the very least so I told her to put the car in reverse and turn around quickly. She was a good driver and got us back onto the highway where we were safe again and we continued heading towards Ponce.
We got to Ponce, but I barely remember it. I remember seeing the sea and a statue that I think was Ponce de Leon. Among other things, Ponce de Leon was known for his quest for the fountain of youth.
We headed back to San Juan and the night skies fell upon us as we traveled the highways back to our hotel.
Each night in San Juan, we would go out. But one night my cousin decided to stay in and read. I left for the night to go and find adventure and ended up in one part of San Juan. I am not sure where it was anymore.
I happened upon a night club that had a huge line that spanned around the corner. I went up and started talking with the bouncer about what was inside. We struck it off, as I often do with people I just meet and after a time, he unlatched the chain and let me through. That was a great night. I don’t remember it though. I think I hit off with some Europeans or Americans or someone, and seem to remember playing pool eventually, but the nights all kind of merged into one, making it difficult to separate and order the details.
A couple days later, the rest of my family arrived including my other cousin. We spent Christmas in Puerto Rico. It was the year after my grandfather passed away and none of us wanted to spend Christmas at home. Also, my cousins’ father had died, so the two men of the family left a hole in our family gatherings. Somehow, Puerto Rico made it easier to spend this holiday together. It was a wonderful time for us all. We had all been grieving and this was a departure.
I took my cousins back to the night club I had found a few nights earlier. I didn’t tell them where we were going. Once there, I met my friend at the gate, introduced him to my cousins and he let us cut the long line again which made everyone in the line think we were more important than we were. Maybe we were important…? Perhaps that was the point of letting us through. I don’t know.
Eventually, we were on a plane heading back to the States from America’s tiny possession or protectorate in the Caribbean. My cousin and I were exhausted and sat next to each other dreaming of Puerto Rico which was soon to become just another story of the past.