Families in Paradise

31 May


G says that what everyone likes best about Puerto Rico is that you can go to the Caribbean without leaving the U.S.  You get the same soft beaches, the vivid water, and the high-octane rum drinks at tourist class hotels—but if you forget your passport, you can still get on the plane.

 Puerto Rico has to work pretty hard to stay in my good graces, though. The airport always feels like being caught in an amateur production of The Brig. Hotels are overpriced, as a rule. Long swaths of that powdery beach in San Juan are littered with graffiti and broken glass. The stuff I like best of the island is elsewhere.

We stayed in Loiza, a rough and rustic town. I don’t mean tourist rustic: I mean work horses tethered in front of ramshackle houses, tiny bottle shops and egg stalls with oil drum tables. A developer got his hands on some beachfront land in the middle of an otherwise working class settlement. There he built an enclave of shiny condos complete with five pools, playgrounds, mini golf, and private beach access. It’s a stark contrast. The property was right behind the local police station, and had its own private guards for good measure. We joked a little about overkill and bourgeois safety obsessions when we arrived. Then we heard shots fired in the neighborhood around us on a couple of nights.

Poverty exists in every country, I know. And I don’t favor the kind of travel that obscures it completely.  It’s probably a good thing for tourists to be reminded occasionally that vacations are a privilege of financial stability, and not everyone shares the same good fortune. Nobody in my family complained or felt unsafe.

The first few days, most of the units were dark. I actually like that—quiet, plenty of open deck chairs.  The weekend got lively, though, and most of the crowd looked like islanders from the urban areas.  While the complex was empty, we stayed quiet and close to home, cooking our meals in and sunning. My nephew, who has one volume (LOUD), ensured that everyone was up early to get the most out of each day.

 The unit where we stayed had a rooftop patio, and it looked out over the local soccer fields. I watched the young men playing in the evening, their families and friends at the sidelines. It was hard to guess what they might think about the block of vivid blue and yellow buildings in the midst of their neighborhood.  Maybe some of them were glad for the increased business; maybe others wondered if their homes were next. I do know they didn’t let it intrude on the business of their own lives. A local church held a big revival on two evenings; the testimonials and songs went late into the night, and were loud enough to drown out the coqui. In rural Puerto Rico, that takes some doing.

I think we were more preoccupied with the discord in my sister’s family than anything else, honestly. I think a bit of tension accompanies every family vacation—it’s part of the package, along with the tours. This was acute, an early warning sign. It was the beginning of the end for them, I think. We don’t always leave behind the small disintegrations of our personal lives. Sometimes, they travel with you.

Benny Sailboat

Our best day involved a sailing trip on a yacht called the Erin Go Bragh, from the port at Fajardo. We snorkeled and swam with the boat anchored near two tiny islands, watched the drunks on the party barges roaring by. We ate chicken cooked on a tiny grill mounted off the stern, drank bad local beer, listened to the captain and the boat’s owner (a leathery brown woman whose deceased husband started the company) snipe at one another over how close they could afford to bring the boat to the sandbar. By the end of the voyage, the cabin had gotten a bit ripe…those older boats just don’t have the plumbing to mask when eight people have been using the head for several hours. I guess there’s often a slight septic scent to the memory of a fine day. The water was blue beyond blue and the wind was high.

 Fort 3



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