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Notes on (almost) giving up on Puerto Rico

[Note: It’s been quiet around here, I know. I was away for a week in Mexico City working on an assignment for Sherman’s Travel; five days in South Carolina to celebrate Mariel’s birthday and continue researching an essay I’m working on about the redevelopment of Southern towns; five days in Puerto Rico, working on features about Puerto Rico’s “culinary scene” and about conservation, and, finally (hopefully)… the conclusion of the iPhone app project.]

The annoyance is rising up before we’re even out of the terminal. I feel it in my right shoulder, in my stomach, behind my eyes. It’s familiar; it’s the same feeling I had every time we landed when we lived here. The 30 minutes to get out of the plane because of overstuffed bins. The interminably slow delivery of bags. The unannounced change of carousel where the bags eventually make their appearance. The inevitable search for baggage tickets, which are always, always, matched to luggage tags in a spectacularly useless display of authority.

By the time Francisco has strapped the baby’s seat into the rental car, I’m full on furious. In addition to the expected surcharge for using a debit card, there’s a host of new fees I didn’t figure into our budget. Some are optional, some aren’t, but I haven’t heard of these anywhere else, not even in New York City, where we rent a car at least once a month. Francisco documents all the car’s scratches. We know from experience that missing a scratch here will cost us a lot of money. I look at all the flattened Heineken and Medalla bottle caps on the parking lot and wonder how and why they’re here. I’m muttering to myself about the tourism board’s lack of helpfulness and wondering where we’re going to stay as I strap Mariel in.

We’ve been on the ground for an hour. Mariel is out of milk, so we stop at two grocery stores; neither carries organic. “What should I get, then?” Francisco asks me, calling on the cell phone as I drive around the parking lot and marvel, as always, that people just leave shopping carts wherever they finish unloading them, that they block handicapped spaces so they can idle their cars as close as possible to the store entrance. I flip through the catalog of phenomena that annoyed me when we lived here.

Nothing has changed.

“Dammit, just get regular milk then,” I tell him, hanging up so I can call the hotel where we intended to stay. “Nope, sorry, reservations is closed. We’re sold out.” I don’t know why I’m surprised that the arrangements I’d made–a media rate, not a comp–have fallen through. Here, I’ve always got to have a Plan B. Or C.

Francisco hustles back to the car, a 1/2 gallon of milk in hand. He looks a little defeated. I choose a cheap hotel in Miramar. The desk agent is slow and he’s the only person on duty. In addition to check-ins, he’s also, apparently, the valet parking attendant. Forty minutes later, the car is parked, we’re in our room, and we’re hungry. We’re also late for an appointment I’d made with a chef, who is waiting for us. Back in the car, we’re sitting in standstill traffic. Mariel starts howling. She hates restraints and she’s hit the wall. “Just go back to the hotel,” I tell Francisco. “I’ll reschedule.” I do–twice–but we never make the appointment.

“We’ll get a cream of corn soup and some water and everything’ll be cool.” I go into trip manager mode because travel–the logistics part, in particular–makes Francisco anxious. As soon as he stops the car, I bound into the hotel’s restaurant to place our order. “Um, we’re closed,” says the girl behind the bar. “But hey, you can order drinks!” I want to say “Look at me. Are you fucking kidding?” But I don’t. I don’t say thank you or good night. I scoop up Mariel and go upstairs. Francisco goes to a Chinese joint and brings back some shitty noodles, which we eat as we watch a show on Discovery about prisons.

It all feels metaphoric.

*

There’s a lot to get done in five days. Too much. Photos of at least 100 places. Meetings with chefs and hotel managers and conservation people and art collectors and artists. I need to maximize this trip, need to advance or finish multiple projects while I’m here. I need, for once, to not go home in overdraft.

Another frustration pops up, and then another, and it shouldn’t break my stride, really, because I’m so accustomed to this here, but I hear myself as I get close to my breaking point. “Why do I keep trying?” I say to Francisco. “Why do I keep working on Puerto Rico?” He is patient as ever as I complain about all the annoyances that he already knows about. “Honest to God, I’m so over this place.”

I go quiet, thinking about why I keep coming back: because I think there’s something worthy here even if it’s really, really hard to see. Because I keep learning more that helps me understand why everything here is so very often so very, very fucked up. Because for some crazy reason, I actually do care and there’s nothing I like more than the challenge of helping lost causes.

But still.

It would be easier to give up.

*

There are three things that convince me not to give up on Puerto Rico:

1. Francisco has gone out to Guaynabo to meet up with Curacao’s baseball team, which is in town for the pre-mundiales. I’m determined not to be late for a meeting and dinner with Chef Wilo Benet, so I pack Mariel up and walk to the bus stop. I’m resigned to this particular annoyance- the exact change, the inexact schedule, the guaranteed wait, the traffic as we crawl along to Condado. There’s no use in getting worked up about it. Mariel is tired and cries as we wait for the bus. I’m tired, too; we’re not getting nearly as much done as I’d hoped. I hold her and try to soothe her, but I probably have one of those vacant mom stares that can scare a person. An older woman walks by and then turns around “Quieres un pon, mija?” she asks me. I’m startled by her kindness, as well as the state I must look like I’m in to warrant her offer of a ride. “No, gracias,” I tell her, not wanting to put her through the inconvenience of a drive to Condado at this hour. But I think about her all afternoon with a gratitude I can’t quite explain and don’t tell anyone about.

2. We’re talking with Wilo over dinner at Pikayo. The conversation is in Spanish and English and it’s honest and it’s easy and it’s interesting. Wilo says something that explains everything: “Puerto Ricans are the nicest, most helpful people in the world. Until money gets involved.” It’s a simple statement, an obvious one, a thought that’s almost cliched and feels that way as I write it. But it’s not and as the thought rests in the space between us, I try to think about how I might explain this to someone else.

3. We drive west out of San Juan to visit Hacienda La Esperanza, an old sugar plantation now under the auspices of Fideicomiso. The trip is part of my research for an article about the state of the environment in Puerto Rico. We’re far enough from the highway that we can’t see it at all; we’re surrounded by sugar cane and tall grasses that will become heno. The light is strange and beautiful, the way it meets the land and I feel sad and hopeful and angry, but committed. To help save this place and share it is part of my work.

 

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4 responses »

  1. Great post, Julie. And as always, I’m in awe at the number of projects you’re juggling!

    Reply
  2. felt the frustration right there with you jules, and just had to laugh a bit too.

    in argentina there’s no ‘customer service’ – it’s more like the customer is always wrong.

    kind of reminds me of the last track on the latest Roots album: ‘be a hustler, if not then you’re only a customer.’

    Reply
  3. I think the shopping cart thing is universal!

    Reply

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