Every time I travel, I am struck by the ethnocentricity of American tourists (yeah, yeah, myself included). This is not only when I travel to an area where English is not the main language, but even when I’m traveling within the US. Michael and I just spent a week in Puerto Rico, which, though technically a US territory (or colony, depending on my mood), is a very Latin place. Spanish is the primary language, and I speak just the tiniest bit, having favored French in high school (dumb move, I see now).
But at least we tried.
When we walked into Puerto Rican restaurants, we didn’t assume that the waiters spoke English, or that the food would be anything we recognized. Isn’t that the point of traveling? We wanted to try new things, eat traditional PR food, drink local coffee, try local brews. Case in point: first night there, we asked the bellhop where to get good coffee. His reply was quick and finite: There’s a Starbucks just a few blocks down. We responded with: No, REAL coffee. We know it’s grown here and we want local coffee, not crap. He laughed, and pointed us to Pelayo, which, as it turns out, was FANTASTIC. Local flavors, local coffee, yummy frittatas and empanadas and cafe con leche. We went back a few times. And yes, we spoke extraordinarily broken Spanish to the nice girls at the counter. I can ask for coffee! Thankfully, seeing our attempts, they answered us in English. But, like I said, I try not to assume.
This was the restaurant recommended to me by my first class seat mate: Archbishop of San Juan Roberto Gonzalez. It was a little out of our price range. But nonetheless, I sat next to a regular celebrity. Me, a lapsed Jew who spent 4 years in Catholic school. Hhmm.
The other thing that struck us almost immediately was the pace. It’s so slow! Not that that’s a bad thing…we could stand to learn a thing or ten from puertorriquenos. At restaurants, they give you plenty of time to peruse the menus while you drink your cocktail or coffee, plenty of time to enjoy your appetizers before your meal comes, and the waitstaff leave you alone entirely to enjoy your meal, only stopping if it appears your drink is empty, and to enquire your reaction to the food. Eating a meal can easily take 2 hours, something unheard of in American restaurants, by and large. And every place is like this. No one hurries, except to cross the street (if you value your life and limbs, that is).
The first day, we wandered the streets near our hotel, the Condado neighborhood, and found it to be touristy and a little trashy. We got caught in a torrential downpour, as we both forgot that a little rain in that part of the world usually leads to a LOT of rain in short order. Whoops. We dashed across the street to a French bakery, and gratefully accepted the pile of napkins they offered us to dry off with.
Did I mention our room was on the 10th floor overlooking the ocean? Michael’s got the hookup, and man, were we hooked up! We slept the first few nights with our glass door open (heck, it’s the 10th floor, no one’s coming up) listening to the waves. Then we realized that the mosquitoes were going to eat Michael alive if we continued that, so we had to stop. Bummer.
The following day, we headed to Old San Juan, the site of the early history of the area. We walked several miles of Forts and streets, ending up exhausted. We spent a while wandering through forts of San Cristobal and El Morro, absorbing all of the history each had to offer. Michael in particular enjoyed the military history of the forts. I’d had no idea the streets of Old San Juan would be so amazing…I love cultural history, and this was a city that was not lacking. The old homes, with dark wood shutters and brightly painted exteriors were so Carribean, so coastal, I instantly fell in love. Just looking at the way these homes have been kept up, refurbished and refinished, one can see the passion of these people. The streets were alive with color and people. We found several old churches (SJ has a rich history with the Catholic Church), and though we didn’t go in, we were able to admire them from the outside. The white stucco (I think it was limestone of sorts) contrasted so beautifully with the blue skies. Combined with the religious iconography, I couldn’t help feeling like I was looking through my camera lens at a Dali painting. Too bad my camera isn’t awesome enough to capture what I could see through it. Someday soon, I’ll have a “real” camera.
We stumbled on a food fair as we walked through town, though we were too tired to take advantage of it that night. We were again struck at the passion of the Latin culture, and the marked contrast between American culture and Latin culture. Americans are SO reserved, except where it’s acceptable: in nightclubs, bars, late at night. Latin’s seem to let loose day and night. We went back to OSJ on Saturday, after spending all day laying on the beach. Silly me forgot to put sunscreen on my legs, and ended up super crispy, so I donned a loose skirt and tank top and out we headed. I was always amazing at how put together the women were, despite the humidity. When I walk out in to humidity like that, I’m instantly damp, makeup melts off my face, and my hair curls like nobody’s business. The locals must be used to it. They wore makeup that stayed put, hair that stayed straight, and more clothing than I could stand in that heat. I presume one gets used to it when one lives there, but being a West Coaster, and not at all used to humidity, I was amazed (and a weensy bit jealous).
The food was fantastic…we found an Italian restaurant called Fratellis that served yummy lamb, orchiette, and nutella raviolis for dessert. We wandered the streets for a while after that, just enjoying people watching, trying to guess who was American and who was local (it was pretty easy), and musing about whether we looking as much like tourists as some of the other tourists. As Michael and I always do when we travel, we imagine what it would be like to live in this place, to raise children in a new place. Could we do it? Could we defect out of the mainland US and live as expats in another country? Maybe if I could live in the green house…with the dark wood shutters and doors, and beyond the front living area, a courtyard. And maybe if it was at least on the west coast. After the grueling journey (14 hours and three flights), I couldn’t subject my family to this on a regular basis. Maybe, instead, I could bring the Carribean here…I’m plotting a dream home that includes a courtyard. The courtyard needs to make a comeback, and the PacNW is a good place to have one.
Sunday we hit the Museum of Art, which was, unfortunately, the only thing open in that neighborhood on a Sunday. We were both surprised at the depth and quality of the art. It was all Puerto Rican artists, and though much of it was religious, the more contemporary art was all social commentary, and it was fascinating. Thank God I married a man who enjoys art museums as much as I do! We’ll work on RE…for now, she’s too young to appreciate art like that, though I’ve tried, and will continue to try. For the admission price ($6 each), it was a great way to spend half the day. If we weren’t so hungry, we probably would have stayed longer. That night, we went for a walk near the hotel and found some live music at a local trattoria, so we ordered up some mojitos and enjoyed the jazz fused with beats from a DJ. Again, we commented on the life that seemed to flow from the community: kids dancing, old men dancing, people hanging out in the park at 11pm, talking, laughing, drinking (but not drunk). We tried to compare it to a late night in Seattle, and thought that if anyone was really out at that point, they would probably have been belligerent, rather than just enjoying what life had to offer without crazy drunkenness.
On Monday we headed back to OSJ…just to absorb the culture some more, and ogle the beautiful old homes. I’d read that Puerto Ricans were once famous for making lace, and I wanted to try to find some. A travel site told of a museum of arts and crafts that was in an old Dominican Convent, so we headed there.
It was closed. So was La Casa Blanca, the old governors’ mansion that was decorated with period furniture and artifacts. Bummer. No lace and no casa. But, we did find Michael a custom made panama hat, and me a beautiful silk scarf the colors of the Atlantic ocean.
And we noshed on coffee and empanadas in front of a café in a square, and watched as a young girl fed pigeons from her hand…she was so sweet to watch, and it all felt so very Mary Poppins (save the Marshalls that was behind us. Yes, a Marshalls).
Tuesday, we spent on the beach, and Michael swam in the waves. I huddled under the umbrella while a storm passed, and thought how fitting it was that it was grey, stormy and cool on my last day there. For dinner, we hit up the same trattoria we’d had drinks at the other night. The Italian food was amazing: smoked salmon crostini with raita, a sausage platter with pesto, and a crispy crust tomato pizza with gorgonzola. It was a perfect way to end the trip.
And now, here I am, 14 hours into my journey home, waiting to kiss and snuggle my girl when I land in Seattle. I’ve been on and off airplanes all day, and the only real fresh air I’ve inhaled was in LA (does that even count as “real”?). I cannot wait to be off this plane. Almost 2000 words in an hour…that’s what a boring flight, with no books left to read (I’ve started and finished 6 this week) will get you: prolific blathering about the vacation.
But what good is a vacation if you can’t take something back with you? What am I taking back? A nice tan (my NW friends may be jealous), a small jar of sand, seaglass and shells for RE, a few mosquito bites, and an appreciation for slowness. Not that I haven’t appreciated it before, I was just too busy rushing from A to B to really stop to slow down. That is the one thing I’d really like to take back with me. Oh, and I’m ordering this sign to put at the front door.
For the rest of the pics, click here!