My first interaction with a guidebook writer was in 2006 and I was not impressed.
We were sitting around a table at my friends’ house up in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico; Francisco was cooking dinner for said writer, who’d had no qualms about asking my friends if he could get a comped night or two at their guesthouse. They declined his request, explaining to me (though not to him, I think) that they received many such requests, and as a two-person operation with limited accommodations, it made little financial sense for them to respond with invitations. I understood; their property consisted, at the time, of a couple guesthouses. One person in the guesthouse meant that the whole house was off the market. And a single night in the guesthouse meant that my friends would spend the next morning cleaning it…all for what? No promise of a review of any sort.
Nevertheless, they were friendly and generous with writers, often inviting them to take a look at the property and sit down for coffee or, in this case, a meal, to just talk shop and answer any questions the writer might have.
At the time, I was just starting my career as a professional writer, and I was under the same illusion that many people have about guidebook writing (that it’s a fun and lucrative job. Fun: Yes. Lucrative: Usually not). Also, my honeymoon period with Puerto Rico hadn’t quite worn off yet, so I was curious about the writer’s itinerary and wanted to hear about where he planned to travel on the island, what he planned to include in the guide, and how he handled the logistics of his job.
“Oh, El Yunque?” he said, as Francisco served the meal. “I went there a few years ago. But I mean, it’s a rain forest. It hasn’t changed. No, I’m not going back.”
I was either too dumbstruck or too polite to respond. I’d been working as a tour guide on the island for an educational travel company; my work had me in the rain forest every week and every single visit, I noticed changes. He hadn’t been there in several years, but he assumed that nothing had changed.
I thought of the writer today as I headed out to Catano, site of the Bacardi Rum Factory. Two large wind turbines had been installed on the property–the first on the island. Both were new. The Holiday Inn in Isla Verde is now the Verdanza Hotel. Author Jared Romey and I went out for dinner at Ummo, an Argentinean restaurant in Condado– if it wasn’t new, I hadn’t noticed it when I was here last June and again in July. The Raices fountain on the Paseo de la Princesa is broken. The storefront that used to sell shoes in Plaza de Armas has apparently been a restaurant since last summer, but it’s closed. The taxis don’t line up in front of Toro Salao anymore; they’re across from the Casino (which is not, by the way, a casino).
I’ve mentioned before how important it is to go to the places we write about. Sometimes, I think that statement is painfully obvious, but for some people, it’s not. Earlier today, I realized that I’d fallen into the same mental trap as that guide book writer. I left Puerto Rico in 2007, deeply frustrated with and conflicted about this country. Though I returned frequently for various assignments, I often kept seeing Puerto Rico in the same tainted light I’d looked at it when I lived here.
Curiously enough, it was writing my features for the Fodor’s Puerto Rico guide book that helped me see Puerto Rico with fresh eyes. One of my assignments took me into Puerto Rico’s little-explored interior; other features compelled me to interview local artists, who (more than anyone or anything) helped me rekindle that early flame I had when I first moved here. I thought about that writer again and wished he could be excited about rediscovering the island.
Tonight, I talked with a woman who was born and raised here, but who left 20 years ago. She entertained me for an hour with stories about picking coffee as a kid on her grandfather’s farm, about her husband carrying plantains and milk to cement factory workers in Ponce when he was a boy. She told me about her 10 brothers and sisters, and how they’ve upheld important cultural traditions like bomba y plena. “You’ve got to record these stories,” I said, my synapses firing with a dozen story ideas.
“It’s amazing,” I told her, when she was done. “Twenty or thirty years–hardly anyone farms anymore. And I’ll bet no one carries plantains and milk to the cement factory anymore.” A silence hung between us for a few moments. Maybe she felt nostalgic, I don’t know. I did- I always do when people tell me their stories. The thought that so much had changed in so little time really did blow me away. And made me grateful anew for the time I’ve spent here to witness the things that change… as well as the ones that stay the same.