Sunday, July 29, 2012

A New Country - Whether You Think So Or Not...


Broken Life, Broken Lens

After having suffered through what could easily be described as one of the most difficult and painful weeks of my life not only was it time to turn yet another year older and officially enter the 30s, but it was time to set sail for San Juan, Puerto Rico where I would be meeting one of my very best friends to celebrate her turning 30 just the month prior with a few days in sunny PR, where the people like to claim the US of A, despite the fact that they function far more like the lackadaisical Caribbean countries I have become so accustomed on the streets of NYC.

As if an ill prepared trip and the move another year closer to menopause were not enough to maintain my suicidal tendencies, I wanted to really solidify the tragedy of my existence by accidentally dropping my camera- the reason for my travel and, in turn my life, on the bathroom floor at the airport mere minutes before hangoverdly boarding my flight.

A mad dash around the airport proved fruitless and I was forced to face the fractured reality head on. I'd be shooting this trip through a shattered lens- literally. Sweet poetry or the ramblings of a poor, melancholy white girl from the suburbs- you be the judge. All I can say was this trip was off to a great start!

$21 dollars poorer and infinitely more knowledgeable about excellent American cuisine of fast food chains easily located in PR, thanks to our lady cab driver and Simone and I finally arrived at our destination- Posada San Francisco, located just off of the Plaza Colon in old San Juan, a large hostel with lots of light, a veranda and water pressure equivalent to the dripping from a well long ago defunct. We were shown to room C62 which housed a fridge, a trash can and a lone full size bed. Deciding to throw my latent lesbian fears out the window we settled in and made a quick costume change to fake a freshening and hit the streets looking for sustenance and sights.

Virginia, the proprietor, suggested we dine at a spot called El Mallorca which caters to locals and maintains decent price points in a town that rivals any metropolis in which I have eaten in the continental United States. This brings me to my next point- Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the US, claims to be a part of the United States but bares passing resemblance at best to the pillars of our consumer based existence. I spent the majority of my days here pointing out in a super arrogant American manner, just how differently things were done here - but I digress.

Food was had. Spanish was spoken. We moved on.


Meandering the ghost town known as San Juan Viejo on a Sunday in July was less than productive to say the least.

Back to the hostel to shower and change into official birthday gear (today being the 10th anniversary of my 21st birthday) and we were out again. Wandering. And wandering. Making our second stop of the day at the local CVS, we chose an eatery, Moreno's, based on atmosphere more than cuisine- yet we were not disappointed! The dim waitress and uneven patio which created pools of condensation that intermittently dripped down my bare thigh were trying, but the delicious mofongo Simone and I mowed down- chicken and vegetable respectively - made such annoyances a distant memory rather quickly. Not feeling ready for a cocktail, we paid our bill and went in search of one of my very favorite things in the world- salsa!

Stocking up on some birthday candy at the local bodega (where they keep Now and Laters in the fridge) first, Simone and I were treated to a serenade from a group of young students who apparently identify themselves as 'tuna' and corner poor unsuspecting ladies in crowded bodega while strumming their guitars dressed as, as Simone put it, don Juan Quixote. Sufficiently embarrassed, we made a speedy exit...

After a couple failed attempts at empty watering holes and foreclosed establishments we landed at Newyourican Cafe, a tiny salsa spot that doesn't get hopping till well after eleven, but is worth the delayed bedtime...

Needing to rally, Simone ordered us both shots of Sauza (gross) and some fruity guava concoction that tasted more like a lollipops than liquor. It did the trick- as we were tricking ourselves out mere moments later.

Angolan Cee-Lo took a liking to Simone and tossed her around the dance floor arrhythmical, leaving me with his much gentler compadre Babmi who was not only an excellent dance partner, but a generous acquaintance, popping a bottle of champagne to celebrate my born day!

They were fun and all, but I was itching to get my claws in some authentic Puertorriquenos, which took shape in the form of Ivan, a vertically challenged partner, but smooth and patient,  followed by two d-bags in espanol who tried to tag team me and my bestie but who left us feeling uninspired and bored.

Having a nagging cold/cough I surprised myself when Simone finally convinced me to leave the club just after two, my ears still ringing from the trumpet solos!

Outside we were greeted by federal agent Joshua who thought I was a local due to my fancy footwork- yeah, I said it- and asked if we could make plans the following day. We obliged and then shuffled off to San Francisco where our full bed
and Arctic air conditioning awaited us .

Roja Caliente
Expecting an early rise, we woke today around 9:30, am in the same bed from which I am writing this, having succumb to the all mighty sun with yet another burn.

I seem to get a slight burn the one time a year my ivory ass sets foot on a beach and despite my best efforts today to avoid wrinkles and cancer, I am red, chilly and nauseous. It just keeps getting better. Let me back track a bit...

While Simone went for a solo run today I made my way over to Elite camera shop in Condado where I was promised my camera could be repaired when I had phoned the day prior. In an attempt to be economical I sat at the bus station to which I had been directed until I caught the eye of an amiable driver by the name of Sammy and used my well earned $15 to learn far more than I ever needed to know about Puerto Rico, going so far as to discuss the topic of PR being a part of the US of A, and I gotta say- the short time I've been here- all signs point to no. Sammy semi-agreed, explaining he believed it to be a generational thing that will eventually turn Puerto Rico into one big strip mall, just like the rest of the country that is leasing to own. Don't you just love globalization?

Once at Elite camera my baby was rushed into the other room for emergency surgery - meaning banged on with crude tools, which I could only hear in the distance. Feeling like a protective mother, I let out a couple of "Sirs," but before i knew it - the filter was off and I was back in a cab with Sammy - who had waited for me (free of charge) - not very America of him! I was brought back to Plaza Colon so Simone and I could grab a quick bite at a local cafe and make our way to Ocean Park beach.

Feeling secure in set fairs we boarded another cab with a local man who has eyes such a beautiful blue-grey. I was in awe, that is until realized he was a culero and didn't try to negotiate a price with me but instead yelled at me and when I let it go, not wanting to argue with a strange man in a strange land - he exclaimed- I won- without an ounce of irony in his thickly accented English- I won. It was surreal. You hear about machismo, and I would like to think I have had a fair amount of first hand experience with it -but this was a whole other level of ego. Needless to say I hate him.

Once we made it to Ocean Park, the beach was beautiful. We took turns submerging ourselves in the crystal blue waters as the other watched our collective belongings. Not wanting to get too much sun, we ducked into a beach-side bar who had delicious piƱa coladas- made even more so by the seemingly total lack of alcohol content, which is really the point of a fruity cocktail. Still sans pants with wet drawers we wandered over to Loiza Street per the suggestion of the incredibly nice staff at Tres Palms Skate Shop to wait for the A5 bus back to our current abode. Wait being the operative word.

As exciting as waiting on a street corner in the slowly setting, yet fiercely hot sun for a bus you've seen no evidence of is, we grew weary. So weary in fact we thought we would give federal agent Josh a call, just in case he was in the neighborhood, for a possible lift. He and I chatted and although he was busy we made plans to meet up later that night. Simone and I waited some more- and then he called again. I thought it was strange, but figured if there was some sort of transportation on the other end of the line, I should pick up. Therein was my mistake. He took 20 minutes to awkwardly discuss that he had seen part of me, not specifying what, the night prior and didn't want me to feel weird- as he was a really shy really 'good guy.' Having word a short dress while being spun around the dance floor the night prior, I can only imagine he saw my ass, as has half of New York City in some of the ensembles I choose to parade myself around in. I was not embarrassed by my indiscretion, but totally creeped out by his need to chat me up about it. I could not get off the phone fast enough and when he said he would wait for our call to rendezvous later all I could think was he better not be holding his breath. So much for federal agent Joshua and his icky tendencies. As much as I prefer a local to help show me around- I prefer my head atop by body and not in a box along the roadside, so the decision seemed simple enough.

Finally, an oasis of a bodega appeared and I popped in for sustenance and inquired about this bus that seemed to never to be coming, to which the owner replied, with a chuckle, 'welcome to Puerto Rico.' Yet another check in the 'my really PR is not a part of the US box...

A cab was called an we were dropped at Castillo de San Cristobal just 30 minutes before closing to check it out quickly and walk along the fortress over to El Morro, where the setting sun, crashing waves and kite flying phenomenon offered a reprieve from the oppressive heat and a postcard perfect setting for a Caribbean sunset.

Walking back to the hostel there were lots of production vehicles an lookey-loos. Assuming it was an independent film or local endeavor I paid little mind till I hear those two magic words: Justin Timberlake. Turns out he and Ben Afflwck had just been filming scenes in the barrios of OSJ not only to see how the have nots are holding down fort, but also for their new movie 'Runner Runner' for which I know I will be running to the theatre to see upon release!

Dinner at the local favorite Cafe San Juan, a meal of which my favorite part was the after dinner mint and it was back to the hostel to prepare for another night of mild debauchery. Only trouble was I was mildly dying from a case of the sunburns mixed with a cold that had been hanging on and general getting old and boringness so it was back to CVS for aloe and a stroll back to our humble abode where I could shiver under the blankets till morning when I had face facts yet again that I am in fact Caucasian and, not only that- but a New York city resident- so the suns magical powers can in fact fry my pasty ass into oblivion. Simone acted like she didn't mind- and I can only hope that was the case.

Greener Pastures

The early bird catches the worm, or in our case, the economy vehicle. First off,  we called Charlie Car Rental with whom we had procured a vehicle the day prior to pick us up and bring us to Candando yet again to get in our dove grey hatchback and head out to the world famous El Yunque National Forest.

The dive was quick and painless and although we missed our stop initially we were at the park before crowds of overweight fanny-packed foreigners in athletic gear congested the passageways too badly.

Deciding to hike the highest and longest trail, we headed straight up yo Mt. Britton Tower. The trail was narrow, but paved and the thick vegetation allowed the thick layer of sweat all over my body to function like an oil slick. Feeling lie a deep fried Orca at the top left me feeling sexy and refreshed when finally reaching the vista.

The quiet of the rainforest is incomparable, even when your fellow tourists don't realize you'd really prefer them to leave so you can have a moment all to yourself. The jaunt back down was easy breezy, and awaiting us at the bottom of the mountain was a small pool created by a series of waterfalls that I felt so compelled to immerse myself in that I disrobed right along the main thoroughfare and rocked the ever flattering running shoe and bikini with a side of cellulite look. It will be all the rage this fall- trust me. The ice cold water was incredible and then we were off again. This time in search of food.

Simone has spotted a yoga vegetarian haven just off the 191 so she and I returned to witness the most amazing hippie family, replete with a visiting friend who left New York's Wall Street for the potholed roads of PR after the economy crashed a couple of years back. The juice was fresh and the children were unbelievably adorable. This town was like a small Ex-Pat hippie commune at the base of the rainforest and I couldn't help but pause for a moment to think just how different life's path can be...

Luquillo was just down the the road and known for their food kiosks. Although full, we decided to check it out. This, my friend was the epicenter of Puerto Fry-o. Beige food as far as the eye could see in a variety of phallic shapes lined one main strip that backed into the sea. Thus far most local delicacies seem to be fried and and much as I like my tostones, at some point you've just got to say enough is enough. Our stay was short lived and we jumped back on the PR- 3 to make our way to Naguabo on the eastern coast of the island, where our lodging for the evening awaited us. After a slight detour through some local towns, all seeming to consist of a strip establishments, half of which have succumb to foreclosure or pest infestation, variety of feral K-9s and a waterfront view, we found our home for the evening. And a home it was- literally. I have now decided that I too will paint hostel in red dripping paint along the side of my apartment and take in boarders to make ends meet. This 3 bedroom home seems to house a lovely family, their vagabond cousin and a couple of guests on any given evening. Simone was clearly uncomfortable, so we made our appearance brief and went out in search of the goings on in the sleepy port town. After said search, I feel confident in saying nothing. At 7:30 pm, we were turned away from a restaurant who boasted about their parking of all things, and went to Makito- the only establishment open after sunset that serves a wide variety of seafood- perfect for 2 people who don't eat seafood- and undrinkable cocktails. The staff was friendly, the portions were generous and the outdoor seating over the water was welcomed. Making our meal leisurely in order to avoid heading back to the make shift hostel, there always comes a point when the wait staff politely says get the hell out- and when that time came we had no choice. Early to bed and early to rise makes these girls, healthy - but the jury is still out on wealthy or wise.

We're Not In Kansas Anymore. And By Kansas, I Mean The United States Of America

The hostel proprietor, Dawn, had told is the line in Farjardo to catch the ferry to Vieques can get lengthy and told us to arrive at 7 for the 9:30 boat. Stopping for breakfast, we thought there was no way 7:30 (2 full hours) wouldn't be sufficient. We have perhaps never been more wrong in our lives. The lines of sheer swimwear, overflowing coolers and over processes hair snaked around the parking lot, all leading to a sole ticket window per island- 1 for Vieques known for it's unpopulated beaches, and 1 for Culebra which evidently is the new hot spot and therefore the island we avoided. That, however, didn't seem to help out wait time.

Standing in the by sun for 2 hours to take a boat ride to a beautiful island seemed a bit intense, but doable. Getting up at 6 am, waiting in line for 7 hours to take a boat to a beautiful island seems like a suicide mission- and the trust me, the thought crossed my mind.

Never have I seen such a flawed system and never have I been more confident that I was absolutely not in the United States, but in a Latin American Country where time tables and efficiency give way to relaxation and convenience- man do I sound like a tight ass!

After the 9:30 boat sold out we waited another hour to see of there was room on the still docked vessel. There wasn't. My patience was thinner than a well worn baby blanket but Simone had the stroke of genius to buy tickets for the 1 pm trip and see what else Fajardo may have to offer in the interim. We paid our 4 bucks and hopped back in the rental to try out some kayaking or snorkel excursions for which the region is famous. So famous in fact that according to every business we rang here there was an unpresendented amount of reservations this week and we were, for lack of a better term, shit out of luck. We drove around in circles for another hour, just for good measure before accepting defeat and heading back to the dock to catch the boat- which left much closer to two.

Did I mention that this was also some made up Puerto Rican holiday? Oh yeah- my passion for haphazard travel bites me in the ass from time to time- an this was one of those times.

2 more hours in line with our new friends from London and we were not only able to get on board (after some arbitrary drug sniffing dog inspection) but we got seats, meaning I could not tell you about any of the beautiful scenery because I was lulled to sleep smacking of waves and blaring of bachatta.

45 minutes later we met by Fernando at the dock. He proved to be our trusty Vieques cab driver with thick brown leather skin and sea glass green eyes who directed us to Sun Bay Beach. Simone and I will be eternally grateful as, to say this was paradise would be an understatement. Crystal blue waters, diamond fine sand and barely another soul on the palm lined shore made us quickly forget that we had just spent half the day in lines and cars and anxiety ridden states of delusion.

With the last boat out of Vieques at 6pm and the need to line up like sun kissed cattle necessary, Fernando returned to retrieve us just 90 minutes later on what soon became the party bus back to the dock.

I'm cynical and hardened but occasionally I have a moment of such pure joy- just for a moment- that I want to cry. If you know me hearing of my water works is like mentioning Obama gave a speech or Rihanna wore something slutty- but tears of joy- those are rare.

We picked up a couple of families who had spent the day at various beaches sunning and boozing and who were in good spirits once they joined us. They clearly didn't know one another- but shared a culture and shared some beer and for some reason, with the sun low in the sky, making the water sparkle like a 10 carat diamond and the car filled with familial love- I was happy.

The boat back was peaceful and once retrieving our car from the parking lot, who had live musicians playing right next to the oil slick and abandoned bald tires, it was time to grab yet anoter snack void of any nutrition and head back to good ole San Juan. The drive should have been about 45 minutes on main throughoufares, but instead was gridlocked, making it closer to a 3 hour tour, like I said- longest day ever. Junk food was had, Romeo Santos and the jam of the summer, 'Call Me Maybe' were tuned into the AM/FM and we made our way back to Posada our hostel exhausted, but as survivors!

Simone had reserved a room at Posada San Francisco yet again, luring me into a full size bed with her yet again, but before we hit the cobble stoned streets one last time, we showered - one of Simone's favorite activities, although I am not sure why.


After digging sand out of places I didn't know I had, we threw on some clean (ish) clothes- Simone has plenty as she and Imelda Marcos share wardrobes and the need for options, and went in search of dinner. Although the city was livelier than it had been before- most things were still closed by 11 pm an we chose The Dragonfly restaurant not only for it's subtle nod to my ultimate guilty pleasure, 'Gilmore Girls,'  but for it's overpriced fusion cuisine. Edamame and birthday noodles were feasted upon and one last lap around the town landed us back at our hostel as I bid adieu to old San Juan, at least for a couple of hours...

Rising at 3 am to return the car to Charlie Car Rental, a local business who is open 24 hours a day and offers pick up service. Simple enough - or so it seemed. Attempting to use my iPhone GPS and feeling the clock ticking at supersonic speed I made a couple of wrong turns and worked myself into such a frenzy that I called Simone demanding she put on some pants, grab her wallet and meet me downstairs immediately - she was going to the airport with me. She obliged.  I am not sure if it was the fragile state I had been prior to the arrival of Out of Town Briana  or the lack of sleep seeping into my physche, but I was lost. Lost and frustrated in a way I never am. Simone was gratious and patient with me, as she always is, and gave me a hug at the United terminal before i headed back to NYC...

Adios Puerto Rico

july 2012