Even if it still feels a bit surreal, I have set-up a—if permanent is not the right word—then lasting existence in Puerto Rico. Time ever sneaks by. I will surely create more occasions for nomading in my future, but in the meantime, my endlessly supportive sister posed a motivational challenge to increase the production of the UnTourist to two issues a month. This presented an opportunity to rethink and broaden the notion of UnTourism.
The result? I’ve hit the Puerto Rican road (and nooks and crannies), in search of, or more accurately, in willingness to collide with UnTourist experiences. After all, there can be no shortage right here on the Isla del Encanto, right?
Stop 1: Culebra
I know! I’m quite certain Culebra makes every tourism list, book, website, and word-of-mouth endorsement. It is a tourist “must do”. More than that, it appears it is a Puerto Rican must do, as every friend, acquaintance, taxi driver and store clerk with whom I’ve conversed about it mimic the same answer, “You have to go”. When in Rome, right? However, that just means that Culebra becomes a challenge to do the touristy thing in not-so-touristy style.
So I present to you… The UnTourist’s Guide to Culebra.
- Find a fellow gypsy to accompany you.
- Pack a duffel, a backpack, and a guitar. Tent optional, throw blanket mandatory. A few cans of Chef Boyardee and packs of crackers are going to come in real handy.
- Arrange blanket across hot cement in the ferry ticket waiting area. Fetch a few cervezas from the guy selling them from a cooler on the corner.
- Commence sweating, singing and swooning for the next 2 hours (well, 2.5 hours…it’s Puerto Rico) until without announcement it appears someone is now in the ticket booth and passage can be obtained for $3.
- Aboard the ferry, try for the top deck views, but when you find the section roped off without explanation; settle instead for an empty row of plastic chairs in the ship’s belly.
- Use duffel as pillow, blanket as protection from the blasting air conditioner, and capitalize on the wavy opportunity to nap.
- Arrive and flag down the first mini-van that will haul you to the beachside campground for a few dollars’ fee.
- Befriend Henry, the campground supervisor, and with luck he will only charge you half the “permit” price.
- Set-up the tent if you’d like. It’s a convenient place to store your few belongings.
- Flamenco Beach is fun. There’s people, music, food vendors, skimpy bikinis. Fun is in the air and the surroundings cannot be more picturesque. There is a usually a choice to be made in terms of natural beauty: mountains or sea. Luxuriate in both. You can be an UnTourist tomorrow…
- Or tonight. Walk to the more remote outdoor showers so you can strip down and rinse away the day’s salt, sand, and grime. Bathe by moonlight.
- The campground is muggy and full of mosquitoes which might carry one of the two weird sicknesses that have been going around lately (your boxing coach’s joints are still so sore he can’t finish his lifting workouts). Opt instead for the beach.
- You might be an UnTourist, but that doesn’t mean you want to sleep among sand fleas and scurrying crabs. Besides the sand is slightly damp and a bit chilly despite the air’s heat.
- Hike down to the far end of the beach. “Borrow” a beach chair from the fancy guest house there. In tandem (worker ant style) walk the chair back to the lifeguard station you’ve claimed.
- Crack open the pop-top cans of spaghetti and meatballs, scoop out dinner with your wheat crackers, share wisely the one bottle of water you managed to snag from a kiosk as it was closing for the evening.
- Sit back. Reflect on how little you actually need. Allow happiness to flicker in your gut, spread in tingles throughout your limbs, race off your body and along the air. Hope it reaches and fills someone else.
- Float your voices atop the strong ocean breeze until you sing yourselves to sleep.
- Allow the first hints of sunrise to wake you. Watch the sun’s reach stir the earth into another day.
- Greet Henry as he ambles by. Smile at his surprise to find you there. Revel in his expression that says “you crazy kids”, linger in the nostalgia it contains so you can use it, later, as a reminder that getting older doesn’t have to mean being old.
- Be the first to greet the Domincan propieter of a kiosk promising warm desayuno and savor the breakfast flavors: cheese melted over ham on french bread, warm coconut cake, freshly brewed coffee sprinkled with nutmeg because that’s how she makes it at home.
- And now, finally, it is time to leave humanity behind.
- Do not be scared by the stretch of rock at which the beach seems to end. Begin climbing, scrambling, scurrying, angling. Keep going.
- You’re reward will be this: privacy; a crystal stretch of white sand; impossibly blue waters, shallow ones that expose a coral world so intricate it’s as if it was built by your imagination and placed in this spot on this day for your pleasure alone.
Stop 2: Guavate
Guavate is about an hour and another world inland of San Juan. We head there on a Sunday afternoon, clear civilization, and begin winding through mountainous scenery. Tucked alongside several U-curves, the “town” emerges from the thickly forested roadside, a sudden eruption of bare-midriffed women, spit-turned pigs, cheap-speakered salsa beats, and colors, of course color: orange shock of Flamboyan tree blooms against lush canopy, neon streaks of glossy lipstick against brown tones of skin, polished chrome flashes of passing motorcycles, ATVs, low riders, sports cars…it’s a bit much to take in.
From the angled, hilltop space we managed to squeeze the car into, I step out and take a moment to try to do so, before being swept into the swarms of people converting this particular stretch of highway into sidewalk. We drink, we eat roasted pig, morcilla (blood sausage), and pasteles.
And all at once I remember everything I love about being an UnTourist. How a moment can transport you to another world, how living those individual moments can stretch time into lengthier divisions. How in a single bite of a foreign taste is a rich history and hours of preparation.
Because I later learned that in Puerto Rico, pasteles are a cherished culinary recipe. The masa typically consists of grated green banana, green plantain, taro (yautía), potato, and tropical pumpkins known as calabazas. It is seasoned with liquid from the meat mixture, milk, and annatto oil. The meat is prepared as a stew and usually contains any combination of boston butt, ham, bacon, raisins, chickpeas, olives, and/or capers, and is commonly seasoned with bay leaves, recaito, tomato sauce, adobo seco, and annatto oil. The meat can be anything from pork shoulder, chicken, turkey, crab, duck, fish, etc. Because they are so labor-intensive, Puerto Rican families often make anywhere from 50–200 or more at a time, especially around the holiday season. And here I was in Guavate, on a random Sunday, tasting one for the first time, for less than a dollar.
And then…a snake encounter. Some guys wear thick-chained gold about their necks, others don boas…and not the feather kind. When we spotted them, I of course wanted a meet and greet, which my up-for-anything friends immediately arranged. The snake liked me back, not hesitating to slide around my arm and curl his head up to mine. As he massaged my bicep and flicked his tongue at my cheek there was no other way to feel but in love.
Stop 3: Johnny Walker Private Tasting
In my rethinking, I’ve decided UnTourism is not synonymous with bohemianism. Off the map luxury is still off the map. So when my friend extends an invitation to join the “blue bloods” of Puerto Rico in a private tasting event, I reach into my closet for the dress most likely to pass as proper cocktail attire and prepare to hobnob. The restaurant parking lot has an automated security gate. We enter a wine shop section of sorts, walk among barrels of assorted blends in a set-up that is oh so very European. We are greeted by a senior VP something or other. We are shown to a sparkling table and given samples of whiskey from bottles that cost more than my rent. Our table mates speak of investment opportunities and charity causes and when I finish my evening with my toes in the sea, I am all again reminded of how many worlds there are and in how few of them I’ve lived (as I say in my essay What Luck).
Stop 4: Segundo Congreso de Áreas Naturales Protegidas
I’ll admit UnTourist potential of business-related contexts had somewhat escaped me, until my brilliant and talented friend Kasey invited me to volunteer at the 2nd Protected Areas Congress in Puerto Rico. About as real life as it gets, including an excruciatingly cold set of the air conditioner*, I served as the timer to warn presenters that their 15 minute slot was dwindling down as they discussed bioluminescence levels at Bahia Fosforescente, effects of hurricane disturbance and feral goat herbivory on the structure of a Caribbean Dry Forest, and citizen science as a cost-effective tool for resource management. It was a fascinating reminder that there are all of these people doing all of these things and human curiosity is forever churning. In true PR style, the whole event was capped off with Sangria, a live salsa band, and a chance to relax under the sun setting along the lagoon.
*Check out Kasey’s hilarious rant on this subject in her blog: “Frozen Phalanges on a Tropical Island” at http://raekapuertorico.blogspot.com/.
Stop 5: Cochinillo Fest
If you are like me, you are a bit disgusted by the site of this baby pig laid out on a platter…but trust me, you had to be there. Let’s just say my good friend Jorge, a.k.a. happiness service provider, knows how to throw a party. He invites a group, including two Spaniards for whom chochinillo is a hometown, holiday treat. When the roasted animal arrives, my turning stomach is quelled by the delight on our companion’s face. It goes beyond salivation for a preferred taste, beyond excitement at the extravagance. In her expression you can see all the nostalgia of what home means in the face of someone who has been away for too long. The tone has been set and it carries us through hours of conversation and nibbling, through three bottles of wine, through a course of desert. It carries us to the local bar next door where we join a private birthday party for karaoke and salsa, for goading some shy locals into using their limited English, for throwing our heads back and singing tribute ballads to the birthday girl turning 65. It carries us to La Placita to swim among throngs of patrons in the open square and then to La Jirafa Verde, the newest night club addition to my neighborhood where I can lose my mind on the dance floor because the mostly gay clientele doesn’t really care what a single white girl is doing. So that in the end, when every delight has finally been exhausted, it is but an understatement to label Cochinillo Fest an UnTourist success!