looooong travelogue-y kind of thing, based on a trip to Puerto Rico taken in October of 2003.
- flying over the caribbean, I look out the window and marvel at the shades of blue, and giggle as the plane's shadow plays over beaches. feeling a little antsy about the coming weekend.
as the plane descends to the airport, get a glorious view of san juan. It is much busier than I expected it to be, traffic everwhere, and that sense of a sparkling jewelbox is very prevalent.
the plane touches down. "Hola, mujer, como estas?"
- muggy. my second cousin is picking me up. only problematic in the sense that I have no idea what he looks like, and vice versa. wait forever for my bag to come through the baggage claim area. Call the second cousin, and before I can start panicking, I hear "Jesus, man, were you the last one out?"
Two things become apparent. Firstly, and most importantly, the guy speaks english. this is good, as I had no idea how good my spanish would be. Secondly, he was also panicking about being able to recognize me, until he saw my build, which he immediately placed as belonging to his clan. Major crisis averted, and a seed is planted for a later revelation.
- The reason for this trip is simple. My grandmother, who presently lives in Denver, had decided to go back to PR to visit her family for a month. My mother escorted her out there, I'd be bringing her back. (Only later do I find out that this is for a reason. My grandmother? Drama. Queen. Not the most fun when 1)you're dealing with the stress of traveling, 2)there's a language barrier--she speaks no english, and 3)you go over 8 hours not having a cigarette.)
- The second cousin, Miguel, brings me over to my grandmother's house, where we drop off my luggage, call my mother to let her know i've arrived, and essentially ditch the place as quickly as possible, before the grandmother decides to cook us a meal. time being of the essence.
We go to a local restaurant chain, and goddamnit if it isn't the tastiest thing a Puerto Rican non-relative had cooked for me. Authentic and delicious. It is at this point that I decide that my diet will be damned over the next 72 hours. Fuck it, it's good, and it's been 21 years. (Should you go to PR, I advise the same. Also, forget about being a vegetarian.) Everything is deep fried and salty...well not everything, but you know. I had the mofongo relleno, fried plantain shell filled with this chicken type thing. delicious.
Miguel and I talk about our respective family history, and I notice that the man (who has been in NA for 17 years now) is a bit pensive. I find out that his fourth wife had just left him a few months prior. She took their daughter with her. It is this last that really bothers him. He figured that the marriage was pretty much shot when she left (she left him, not for lack of love, but because her family had never approved of the marriage...in the end, the family won out), but he loves his kid, and now that they live in SF, he doesn't figure to see much of her...
- Driving through the capital, San Juan, after dinner.
We pass the capital building, and notice a stage is set up and someone is announcing something. Miguel pulls over, and we check out the scene. They were announcing this rhumba band. A rhumba band is comprised of nothing but vocals and percussion, this was a 10 piece band. It turns out that this was not just some plain ass rhumba band, this was a world-renowned rhumba band. Had they been playing in NYC, tickets would go for $35-$50, and they would sell out. They were playing for free. There were 75 people there.
After about 45 minutes, I become overwhelmed with sentiment. Here's the capital building, all lit up. Huge PR flags waving in the warm breeze. It's about 72 degrees at 11p. I'd been there for about four hours by this point, and the fact of my situation, listening to this amazing band playing music I hadn't been truly immersed in for over 21 years, is just too much. I tell Miguel that I was gonna stroll about.
I cross the street, to this little park, directly across from the capital building, and overlooking the ocean. So, music is still going, traffic is still going, the building is in full sight, and now the ocean...I light a cigarette (one of so many smoked that weekend) and just when I thought I couldn't be more pleased. Fireworks. off to my right. There is no reason whatsoever for fireworks to be going off that night, but there they were.
The island seems to say, "welcome back, you son of a bitch, don't let it be another 21 years."
- Much later that night, we arrive at a club, where another world renowned band is playing for very cheap.
Sir Mix-a-lot would be in pig fucking heaven in Puerto Rico. Young, old, fat, skinny, black, white, doesn't matter, an enormous majority of the women there have asses to die for. slapping asses. big juicy booties everywhere. It becomes mind boggling after a while that all these beautiful women are everywhere. And then I started checking out the guys. We are a good looking people. Equal opportunity eye candy everywhere I looked that night. And like I mentioned earlier, age played no role at this club. Young and old alike were there for the music and for the cruising and the dancing.
This last is the only area where I felt like a fish out of water. I never learned to salsa dance, let alone merengue (a style of music from the Dominican Republic), or any of the dances prevalent to my culture.
Also, rubinesque women in the states who feel insecure about their bodies could learn more than a few things from their Puerto Rican counterparts.
- And then I started to figure out why my mother took us out of that environment. At that time is was the three older boys who left PR, the two youngest girls had yet to be born. I may talk about how hot everyone is, but it's a little disconcerting to be checking out someone only to have them turn around and then realize that you're checking out some 12 year old. Also, it seems that girls learn to wear three inch heels at about 8 (probably the reason for the leg-butt fine-ness). There's something off about a society that encourages this.
There's also something off about a society where women are encouraged to stay at home to mind the homefront (cooking, children, etc.) while their husbands are encouraged to play and fuck around. I'm not saying that everyone does this, but a surprising number do, considering that catholicism is the prevalent religion there. (Miguel is not amongst those ranks, I find out.)
- Saturday, I hang out with the grandmother, then I visit my old school. Still looked the same. Trip at the memories flooding from looking at the place. On the same lot is the church where I had my first communion. I recall chasing girls at least 8 years older. Figure out that part of my brain.
That night, a very tired Miguel takes me out to the boonies for another renowned band playing for free. While impressed, we leave early so that Miguel doesn't pass out taking us back to his house. Which turns out to be the house I grew up in before we left PR. And again with the overwhelming. I sleep in the room where I witnessed my brother's poop in mouth incident. The back yard where my brother and I confused baby chicks for baby ducklings and wondered why they stopped swimming at the bottom of the bucket we'd filled up with water. The stairs where I would sneak out and sit on top of, to listen to the grown ups having their party. These same stairs were the ones my father once passed out on and concurrently fell down.
Images and memories swirls, with the realization that the old saw about how everything is smaller is true.
- Sunday. First order of business, visit my father's gravesite.
Once we found out where it is, we drive out to that section and get out.
As I'm traveling over the other gravestones, my mind is empty. It's not really shock, just a lack of expectation. But the sheer number of graves I'm passing is impressive. Finally, we arrive on the row where he is. Gonzales, Rodriguez...Amador.
Tears well. I find the fact that a hill of red ants have decided to roost just off of the marker to be entirely apropos, and while avoiding it, I damn the torpedoes and sit on the grass.
you must understand that at the time he passed away, I was too broke to come out for the funeral. The rest of my family was able to come, and the stories of that time still flow. I had no closure with the man, while everyone else at least got to see him in the hospital where he was in a coma. The rest of the family had to deal with his relatives, and to continue down that storyline would be yet another long rambly post, so I'll hold off there.
"you son of a bitch." and the tears continue. I chant three times, which does the job of both expelling the built up emotions, and centering my head. "I'll be back later." I get up and leave.
The rest of the day is spent in a mad dash across PR to visit as many relatives as time and traffic would allow. Heard many stories about how precocious I was (if we were to take the overall picture these stories portrayed, I was a fucking handful, flirting with women who were my mother's contemporaries, and being bossy to those younger than me).
And along about here, is when a couple of things hit me. One was that there are a lot of people who looked like me. My body type is common over there, so I wasn't exactly a "big" kid over there...I mean no bigger than some of the types...there were plenty of the smaller, but this whole notion that I was abnormally bigger than most kids was something that began over here. It didn't help that when I came to the states, my grasp of English was such that I thought "big" meant "fat."
Also, the women there love to flirt. Looooove. I'd be called "my love" by women I'd just met. And talk of my handsomeness was both welcome and plentiful. I finally understand why I behave the way I do when in the beginning stages of any flirtatious situation, and why I tend to panic and freak out when the cues just aren't picked up over here..."If A leads to B, which demands C, why haven't I gotten B yet?"
Visit great aunt, who runs her own food shanty in Loisa, one of the areas in PR where the slaves congregated after being freed. Am fed for the whole day in 45 minutes, as I'd be handed the next deep fried goodness I'd eat just as I finish the previous bit of deep fried goodness. I can't even begin to describe what I was eating, but ingredients included chicken, beef, crab, sea slug. The deep fried fish something or other (called bacalao) was also good. topped off with dulce de coco, this coconut candy thing which is just ridiculously good.
amidst all this, I do some souvenir shopping/collecting...
- I stand on the sand, looking at wave after wave coming into the beach. It's a hot day, I'm wearing shorts. I take off my shoes and walk towards the water. ankle deep, and it's warm...just about body temperature, or at least, it doesn't feel any colder than me. knee deep, and for the umpteenth time during that weekend, the memories of being a kid playing around in this stuff come flooding back to me. This is aided by the actual kids playing around in the surf. and I'm reminded of the time my father swung me around on a strip of bark from a palm tree, which then broke and gave me a bloody lip. I'm reminded of the warm rain that would torrent down on my head back in my old neighborhood. I'm reminded of the rolling black outs which the kids in my neighborhood would get rid of by chanting the "oogachaka" refrain from "hooked on a feeling." I'm reminded of the hurricanes we'd survive by sitting in my grandparents house listening to AM radio, eating fresh french bread with coffee cut with condensed milk, and playing word search games. and a kid splashes me. and I splash him, and he splashes me, and I start chasing him around in the surf, slipping on the loose sand beneath my feet and I fall. Immersing myself in the waters of home. I get up, laughing and think "no, it won't be twenty one years again."