Mucho gusto, Puerto Rico

I admit, I was a little nervous about going to Puerto Rico.

Wasn’t it too … American?

Well, yes … and no.IMG_5633It’s true that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and that the U.S. government is sponsoring a referendum giving Puerto Ricans the opportunity to vote on the possibility of statehood.

But after my Spanish language classes prepping me for stints in Mexico, with all its learning curves and beautiful cultural differences, I was worried about how Puerto Rico could ever compete. “Oh, you won’t need Spanish there,” people told me. I’d heard about the commercialization of San Juan and was even warned to pass it altogether. These warnings bothered me when it came time to plan for the trip; I didn’t want the United States in the middle of the Caribbean/Atlantic. I wanted another country; I wanted to speak Spanish and to be confused; I wanted the dumbfounding and rewarding experiences of Mexico under another country’s name.

And I did get that. Puerto Rico is similar to the United States in that you can throw a rock and hit seven Walgreens and a few shopping malls and a Dunkin Donuts, even. Creature comforts are there, which was odd at first, and then I remembered how, at one point in Mexico, I daydreamed about walking through the immaculate aisles of a Target. After being sequestered on a small island with only a few stores to procure wares, I was ravenous to peruse products, to run my hands across cotton sheets, to push a plastic cart around and buy crap for the sake of buying crap.

So, no, some parts of Puerto Rico are not as exotic or as difficult to adjust to as Mexico, but I did need my Spanish! Not everyone speaks English (and thank Jehoshaphat for that!)! The food is amazing! The people are, too!

Don’t listen to the naysayers: Puerto Rico is very much it’s own country.

And I loved it.

I arrived in early June with Stacy and my poet soul sister and collaborista, Anne Champion. Our agenda was simple: have fun, befriend strangers, practice Spanish (mine), eat mofongo, relax, go crazy, and write a book (with Anne). We would accomplish all, and more.

IMG_5634 We upgraded to this orange Jeep at the airport. You would too, right?

We’d spend three nights in San Juan and four in Rincon, the surfing village on the island’s western coast. We found our accommodations via Airbnb.com and Homeaway.com.

First up, San Juan, where we checked into our condo in the colorful, gay-friendly, and happening neighborhood of Condado. No time to rest, however — Stacy’s attorney friend scooped us up for a late lunch at Kasalta, a bakery and sandwich shop that received a visit from Barack Obama in 2011. The bakery now features huge homages to him.

I ordered a delicious cubano and a slice of pastel de tres leches. My favorite.

2013-06-12Not only is it good to have a local friend, it’s good to have one who’s an expert on law.

Let’s face it: My reputation precedes me. After nearly being thrown in a Mexican jail, I still hadn’t learned my lesson. Law-breaking is an essential part of any vacation, if you ask me. But only if you can get away with it!

So she filled us in on matters of parking, never trusting the police (no surprise there) and the various scams they pull, areas to watch out for, and more.

Would we listen? Sometimes.

Caged in Puerto Rican porch

Caged in Puerto Rican porch

After relaxing for a while and picking up some Medalla from the local grocery store, we got ready for our mofongo-seeking night.

Mofongo is mashed (fried?) plantains stuffed with meat. The foods of Latin America are just far superior than anything here. I could live on pupusas and tacos and mangoes and batidas. After stuffing ourselves, we all remarked how we could eat this food all day, everyday. I’ve just now found an authentic Yucatan-style taqueria in Boston.

Now, someone lead me to the mofongo!

Mofongo delight!

Mofongo delight!

Tips for staying in San Juan:

  • We really enjoyed Condado, right on Ashford Ave., the so-called Rodeo Drive of Puerto Rico. Shopping was great, lots of one-offs you won’t find anywhere else.
  • Find mofongo at all costs! It’s so worth it.
  • Drink Medalla, the undisputed king of all summery warm weather beers. This stuff goes down like water. I’m hooked and can’t find it anywhere.
  • Walk around! If you’re in a hotel, get out there and meet people. Meander into bars and restaurants — San Juan is teeming with options.
  • Rent a car. San Juan’s traffic is notorious and headache-inducing, but you’ll want to get out of the city sooner or later for the nearby Bioluminescent Bay or El Yunque rainforest.
  • The off-season (roughly late spring through summer) is less crowded than the wintry months. But it’s still crowded! I can’t imagine traffic in San Juan on a Friday night in December. Bring your cyanide pills!!

After dinner, we spent out first night recuperating from a day’s travel looking out at the city from the caged-in porch of our Condado condo, full from mofongo, refreshed from Medalla, hair humidity-struck, but we were drunk and delirious and in Puerto Rico.

It was just the first night. We had no idea of the hijinks to come.