Woo, it’s been an intense past two days. I am sitting here sipping on my to-go cup of strawberry lemonade in the Atlanta airport. People are huddled amongst rows of dirty blue, metal chairs with t-shirts and towels covering them. They are abusing their unlimited cell phone plans and luggage handles stick up like grass. It’s pretty intense. Unfortunately, to get home we’re traveling through the blizzards on the East Coast. I think this is universal karma for me being able to enjoy two hot, tropical climates in a row while everyone in the US is frozen in time.
Tropical climate numero dos (see how good my spanish has gotten) was the lovely little destination of Puerto Rico. I arrived a week ago and for lack of internet I haven’t been able to blog so I’ll blog my day-by-day trip, slowly but surely. Day 1: Three Kings Festival, and Ponce.
Before I even start this blog, I need everyone to know something really important about my family, so that you know what kind of unsavory characters I have been raised and/or surrounded by for my complete twenty-three years. My family…had a total….of 23 poop conversations (and all other variations of poop; shit, crap, doo-doo, poopy, etc…come up with your own for some real fun). Twenty-three in a record number 5 days.
It’s a wonder I’ve survived this long with so many bowel movement egos. And the biggest of all wasn’t even in attendance, but instead stayed in Raleigh, where he progressed to most likely discuss his bathroom tactics with the cat.
Just wanted to share that…so when I write about each one of them, you’ve already had warning and aren’t shocked by our behavior. This isn’t the Jersey Shore, but it’s close.
When we arrived, we realized that Puerto Ricans either don’t have to go through the vast weeks of driver’s-ed like Americans, or they are all drunk driving, twenty-four hours a day. I’ve never seen so many people cut-off in my life. And not only that, but I’m pretty sure Mac Trucks there give less of a shit than they do anywhere else, which is pretty profound if you ask me. This might just be because we packed four women and one man into a Taurus (lucky me, in the middle) and drove two hours to the house we were staying in. I almost wish I could show you a video of just one driving experience in Puerto Rico, but then you might not go…and that would be a shame.
After my near death car experience, we got to the community gate and settled in the house. From what my friend Seth tells me, Puerto Rico is very much like South Africa, everything is gated and the house we stayed in had so many locks and so many keys my Aunt had to carry around a huge key ring like Kramer in Seinfeld. How we ever got in and out of that house (plus the scary wildlife that wanted to wait for us outside our door), I’ll never know. We actually had to lock ourselves in the house, so in case of fire…..climb down your terrace railings like all the lizards…just follow the lizards. (I really wanted to write spider monkeys, but I thought lizards was more appropriate for Puerto Rico, just know that I will be writing spider monkeys somewhere in a blog eventually…)
That first day we didn’t get in until really late because Puerto Rico is one big road/highway mess (seriously America, send some money to Puerto Rico for new roads). But the second day, we drove two hours over these beautiful mountain winding roads (beautiful and death defying) to get to Juana Diaz for the community Three Kings Festival. Being Catholic, this really was something I needed to see, and I’m sure any other religion as well. Three Kings is the second Christmas celebration in Puerto Rico. It’s the celebration of the epiphany when the Three Kings return to Jesus’ side. I really wanted to attend the Juana Diaz festival most importantly because they actually send three men from the town to travel around the island and return to the town for the epiphany. It’s like a manly voyage. Juana Diaz also has a parade where everyone dresses as we imagine people dressed in Jesus’ day and hands out candy (and apparently one group handed out air fresheners because I have one). The Christmas decorations are absolutely gorgeous, they look like they were designed by little elf hands all throughout the year, and since the festival is one of the biggest things in their year, there are Three Kings markets and decorations everywhere. Even large, Styrofoam cut outs on sticks outside of a bar.
It was definitely an experience to see a community coming together for a celebration that really didn’t benefit them in a material way. Everyone loves Christmas and Hanukkah and Festivus for the Rest-of-us because we receive presents. On Halloween, we all get candy. On New Years, we have the hopes of receiving one drunken, sloppy kiss at a bar with sparkles from hats and and blouses floating around. On Valentines day, we get flowers, cards and boxes of chocolate. But Three Kings, you get a mass, a parade and for three dollars your first sip of coconut milk. It’s a holiday with no benefits, it’s the benefit inside of the people. They get to parade their joy that Jesus has been born and that the Three Kings are returning to their homes. And that meant a lot to me because in the New Year, we need to be reminded it isn’t always about the material, it might just be about the joy, the feeling, or the experience.
Here are some of my more exciting photos to make it come alive:
It got unbearably hot in Juana Diaz during this festival (even though I had practically no clothes on and I was blasting my pale skin onto people’s eyes) and so we left there in order to feed ourselves before we sweat everything out. (There’s a man sitting next to me pronouncing loudly his next few church activities and saying “God Bless” everytime he gets off the phone, and I’m trying to decide if he’s a. trying to convert those around him or b. just really pumped to get to Church when he gets out of the airport. I’m putting five bucks on his ball cap saying “________ _______ ________ Church).”
ANYWAY. It was hot. So, what did we do, but search out more ridiculously fried food, of course. When it’s hot the first thing you want is fried dough, at least that’s the case for me. We ended up in this really ritzy restaurant, and we were the only ones in there and so we tried every single one of their appetizers and took photos of the little path on the side of the place. I’ll put up photos. No one spoke English, and the menu didn’t either so we we’re flying free ordering those corn fritters, and lots of foods that ended in -as (as in enchiladas, even though they weren’t anywhere in Puerto Rico. Now to people who want to go to Puerto Rico…the food is not Mexican. And we all know how much I obsess over some good Mexican food. Next stop, Mexico).
I’m getting a bit schizo, let me manage myself.
The lucky part about going into the ritzy restaurant was that right down the road we found another Three Kings Festival in Ponce. But more importantly we found the Ponce Fire Station which is something that you would immediately recognize if you ever went to Puerto Rico. It’s a huge building, with black and red stripes. I thought it looked Asian inspired, but you make your own opinions about it. I liked it because a few old men with graying beards and unsculpted whiskers were sitting around inside playing cards, obviously not about to fight a fire. Under one of the roof rivets, one of Puerto Rico’s MANY stray dogs was sleeping soundly behind a rope and on the side of the building, there was a homeless man, sleeping on a pillow and some plastic bags. I’m not sure what hope I gave from this image, but it wasn’t unsettling. It was … somehow complete. Here is this festival, with all kinds of children’s carnival rides, and little girls holding puppies and wearing pink barrettes in their hair and then on the opposite side of the street a historic fire house is both a bed, safe haven and a place where men can escape their wives (or lives) for a few games of cards. It was like the full human picture in one little stylish building. The town of Ponce didn’t just have a fire station, it was breathtaking. All the buildings looked familiar somehow, like Savannah, Georgia or Charleston, South Carolina. They all had big porches and terraces. The churches had angels flying statuesque at the rafters. There was a large fountain (with very little change, and my cousin said if he were homeless he’d live near a fountain so he could get all the change out at night…he’s probably smarter than me). And then a little gift shop that most of my family spent about an hour in, because they are dawdlers. Even though I love them, these people can stare at things for a while.
Here are a few photos of the beautiful city of Ponce, one of my favorite places in Puerto Rico….well one of the like…twelve.
I have to admit, when we were driving from the airport to the house I really wasn’t sold on Puerto Rico, at all. There were shanty towns on the side of the road, people were begging on the street and dogs with ribs showing were trotting along the highways. My mother (and anyone) kept pointing them all out and I started to think people loved their puppies and then when they got too big just set them free and told them to fend for themselves. I tried to pet as many stray dogs as I can, I feel like that’s like petting a leper in olden’ times. Dogs are a (wo)man’s best friend right? Anyway, on the drive I really noticed how many guarded gates there were, how many people had wire fences surrounding their homes, or even barbed wire. How no houses could trust that they wouldn’t be broken into. It was kind of scary sitting in a house that you knew you were locked into, in a nice, gated community. Here I was thinking, why again do I have to be locked in here and who exactly am I hiding from?
But, I don’t think anyone was ever rude or mean to us in Puerto Rico. People actually went out of their way to be kind to us. Once, a man got off the tram so our entire family could fit and he just walked to his destination. Servers at restaurants tried really hard to understand our Buffalo or Carolina English. People gave us directions (although usually wrong) and made silly conversation over our stay. I mean, I was never scared in Puerto Rico of anyone.
I think this sums up how my mom felt about Puerto Rico:
This morning a woman at the airport was standing in the line we were in and muttering to herself. Her teeth were haggard with spaces and flecked with yellow. Her lips were chipped. Sweatshirt and t-shirt covered in holes and hair-a-mess. She stood with one arm holding the other as if she had been injured for a long time. She was talking to herself in Spanish. My mother turned to her and said “I’m sorry, no espanol” and she turned to her and said in perfect English, “I’m sorry ma’am, I don’t mean to bother you, may I just have two dollars for some food” and with a “good heart” as my mother says, she turned and gave it to her. This woman had learned two languages, she would be sought out in America and given a job to help with almost anything. Craigslist is exploding in Raleigh for bilingual people like her. And yet she was alone and begging. I know that’s a sad image, but it’s a hopeful image also. It’s an image of people who are learned, and friendly, and hopeful and cheerful even in the neediest of times. Puerto Ricans are a friendly bunch, and a bunch that gives hope to people who are lost, or are foreign.
I still have four days to recount for you and some of them may not be as positive. But if you never get to Puerto Rico (and therefore never experience a bio-luminescent bay) then you haven’t seen enough. Experience this land and experience these people. Don’t let a few barb-wired fences keep you out.