Sunday, 19 August 2012

Puerto Rico 2012


Abdiel sat down on a rock. He drew up his knees, closed his eyes, took a deep breath. The cave opened to the view of the green valley below and tops of the mountains rising above it. A year ago this place was still a secret spot. This year we were climbing down with people whom Hunter S.Thompson called The beasts of obesity arriving on the cruise ships in search of bowling alleys[1]. They’re brining the noise with them, scaring the bats away, leaving the garbage behind. Abdiel was sitting at the edge of La Ventana cave, exactly the same way he did the day before, in the rain forest[2], while Monika and I were running around, taking pictures like Japanese tourists on ecstasy. The sadness on his face was clear. He could still climb the mountain barefoot, lead me to dive underneath the waterfall, look down on the green valley. But he couldn’t help worrying – was his country going MAC? 

I landed in San Juan at three in the morning. I took a cab to Calle Cruz and as we were heading to the old town, we passed – Burger King, Marshalls, KFC, Planet Fitness…Bloody hell, didn’t I just escape this?!

A week later I sat down in Mallorca Cafe, the local joint on Calle San Francisco. The waiter handed me the menu, and before I even got to open it I asked – In the meantime could I have some coffee please? Small, plain black, thank you! Surprised he glimpsed at me and answered – Can you wait a minute please? I was on New York mode, the - I want this and I want it NOW mode. He wasn’t. And I needed it. Coffee in Puerto Rico is really black - once you go black you never go back. It has a strong, fresh flavour, and it’s made of grains that are being picked up in the mountains not that far away from where you are. It makes New York coffee taste like a bucket of sludge. I ended up ordering  Mallorca with ham and cheese[3] and browsed through the pictures on my camera :  

The fortress of El Morro was built in the 16th century to guard the entrance to the Caribbean. Legends of pirates, Spanish gold, English fleet. It’s still here, and it made me feel like a little girl dreaming of the hidden treasures again. From El Morro I walked along the ocean shore, passed the crosses of Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery and sneaked to the shabby streets of La Perla. It's[4] is a tiny little district, squeezed between the massive walls of Old San Juan and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s kind of ironic that slums are the most colorful. You know you’re probably not supposed to enter the street, to whose entrance is guarded by a police station. Somebody gave me a look that could kill, somebody called somebody, somebody gotten in the car. I chickened out and was out of there before I could say plantain.  I saw the dungeons of Castillo de San Cristobal that day and tasted Mofongo for the first time. I remember thinking, how refreshing it was being in a place where not everyone has an I phone, and usually it’s the I phone they’re having dinner with. Puerto Rico is an interesting place. They have two flags, two governments, two languages. They measure distance in kilometers and speed in miles. They’re a separate country which hasn’t got their independence and doesn’t want it either. There are more Puerto Ricans in New York, than they are in Puerto Rico. The Streets of San Juan were empty on the 4th of July, since it’s a National Holiday and everyone was off. It was like seeing the East Harlem hanging out on a beach. Though it seems like Puerto Ricans care about the 4th of July the same way Scotts do about Queens Jubilee.

I knew I had to leave the Spanish architecture of the streets of Old San Juan, for the narrow paths of coffee plantations. See the country, eat well, do what locals do.

We rented a car and headed West towards Isabela city. We were driving up and down the hills, passing villages and haciendas. It was like a sigh of relief. The genuine Puerto Rico, was still there. With signs written in Spanish and home cooked meals, staying away of the monstrosity of chain restaurants, soulless hotels and tacky souvenir shops. High in the mountains we found Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Park. It is considered to be the most important Taino Culture archeological site in the Antilles today. At the beginning of the 16th century there were between 20,000-50,000 Taino on the island. They were happily living their lives until the Spanish arrived. Within 30 years as a result of decease and slavery the number lowered to -€“ 60. Spanish king ordered to save the lasting population, but the slavery continued - ships from Africa started arriving. Then came the English, and the Dutch…and…It hit me in the head while visiting museum of the Americas that out of thousands of tribes who lived in Central and South America only 22 survived European conquest. Some of them count 500 people.[5] Talking about dying cultures and disappearing languages. If there was ever the time to see it, it is now.

We took our shoes off, walked along the empty beach, the sun was setting down. Palm trees were rustling. The intense blue of the Caribbean water, the sky brightened with orange and pink. The taste of salt in my mouth after the stroke of waves had washed me back to the shore. The laughter of friends picking themselves up to jump into the ocean again and again.
The idea of owning your own time. The switch from - I want it now – to - I am, now.


[1] Hunter S. Thompson Rum Diary.
[2] El Yunque is the only National Forest in PR. Did you know that the clouds and the amount of rain over there is affected by Saharan Dust?
[3] Pictured above, Mallorca with ham and cheese is an equivalent of American grilled cheese, but it’s served with sweet bread and powdered sugar on top. So good!
[4] Quoting Wikipedia: La Perla was established in the late 19th century. Initially, the area was the site of a slaughterhouse because the law required them and homes of former slaves and homeless non-white servants – as well as cemeteries – to be established away from the main community center; in this case, outside the city walls. Sometime after, some of the farmers and workers started living around the slaughterhouse and shortly established their houses there.
[5] PS. Taino invented a game that is really similar to modern football. Look at that Britain.

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