Puerto Rico - San Juan

Caribbean Sunburst  

As I look out the window of my San Francisco apartment at the apocalyptic torrents of rain, looking after my pneumonia ridden toddler. I am reminded that this time last year we were teetering down the gangway of our cruise ship as it dropped anchor in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Not a care (or nebulizer) in the world.

The sun licked our faces as we explored the land the colonising Spanish named ‘Rich Port’ (having found gold in the rivers there). Like every harrowing story of colonisation the native tribes were long ago wiped out from disease, destruction and mass suicides! Once the Spanish had laid their stake in the ground they started importing slaves from Africa.

Hhmm, there is definitely something Spanish about this house

Despite the imperialists despicable human rights record, they didn’t get to be the only ones to leave their stamp on Puerto Rico. As we took off on foot to explore the old streets, the architecture was noticeably Spanish, naturally enough, but you can very much see and feel the heavy African influence.

I have a tradition of buying my Dad a walking stick from new countries I visit (or variations on a stick – I landed home from Japan with a Samurai sword, from Australia I sent him a didgeridoo, from Canada I presented him with a Inuit paddle, part of me thinks he wants me to stop, but part of me can’t).

The stick gods were shining on me that day, in a Caribbean woodsmiths, tucked behind some shops, I managed to procure a stick resplendent with a voodoo face (the face’s prominent teeth came from a goat, that same goat, the seller assured me, supplied the strong tusk handle). The piece de resistance was the resin from the wood, mixed with paint, provided the voodoo face with a hat of Caribbean reggae colours.

Magic stick under my oxter, we went in search of the ramparts.

All wrapped up with a red bow, fabulous!
Given its location, an early Puerto Rico became a military base for Spain to defend its empire in the West Indies. After the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was ceded to the US. There are tell tale signs everywhere that you are in a US Protectorate. The Capitol Building of San Juan has a quote from Abraham Lincoln emblazoned on it, “Beards by the people, of the people, for the people” or words to that effect.

There are some street signs named after Americans, ‘Calle McCleary’. The US are in charge of the Puerto Rican Border Control so no passport needed if you're American and want to travel to PR (cue heaps of US tourists). But because of the easy access PR has to the US, and in turn South America, unfortunately there is an infamous drug smuggling problem across the border.

In certain circles (mostly Puerto Rican cĂ­rculous) the Protectorate is whispered to soon become the next 51st State of the USA; On the mainland folks aren’t so sure. Although the US did make Puerto Ricans US citizens just in time to draft them into WW2. During this World War the US increased its military presence in PR and stayed until the 1960s.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea
At the forefront of the military infrastructure for hundreds of years was the ancient fort of Castillo San Cristobal. As we approached an information sign described the fort as being built for defence (as surely all forts are!). It was very well preserved complete with a labyrinth of tunnels. The fort is drenched in history but the best thing about it is the abundance of childlike exploration you can do with steep ramps, dark tunnels, dungeons, open plazas and artillery turrets. Let’s just say Roisin wasn’t the only one I had to keep an eye on!

We took a spin around the city on a tour bus, the first fact about San Juan, delivered to us by the guide with much gusto, was San Juan’s stature as home to the largest public housing project (ever? In the world? It wasn’t clear). An admirable feat for sure, but as the guide locked his expectant eyes on me I wasn’t certain how to respond, “Congratulations” had sarcastic connotations, so I went with the crowd pleasing “Wow, that’s somethin’”.

The guide went on to say San Juan was known as “Ciudad de Todos” the “City of All”. No explanation was given, but I like to think it meant it was a city that welcomed all. It certainly felt that way.

Sadly, as well as ‘welcoming all’ it is also saying goodbye to (not quite) all as it undergoes a substantial migration due to poor economic conditions since 2008.

This sadness and poverty doesn’t strike you the way it can in other countries going through the same issues. The Puerto Rican people fill the streets, enjoying life. Like all Caribbean people, you just know melody pumps through their veins. This is the country that gave us Ricky Martin for God’s sake, he said himself he was Livin’ La Vida Loca.

Plentiful public beaches front public parks. Tanned twentysomethings kicking hacky sacks over nets…?! (I don’t ask questions, I just observe, it’s La Vida Loca, anything goes). In contrast to the social housing and failing economy, the posh part of town is home to designer shops and swanky hotels. The American tourists have been coming here for years, the oldest hotel was built in 1919 by New York’s Vanderbilt family, the pinnacle of East Coast old money.

Feel the rain against the window

One freak-of-nature occurrence, that seemed of little consequence to native Puerto Ricans, was the daily deluge of rain. These bursts of rain were fierce, frequent and about five minutes long. It had something to do with trade winds and the PR rain forest. Given the lovely heat, people were dry within minutes. It was treated as a little spritz to freshen your day, plus it was followed by a beautiful rainbow.

A poster on a wall caught my eye, it was announcing an upcoming hometown concert for good ole Ricky Martin. Keep livin that crazy life, man! Beside Ricky there was mural I had spotted in several places around the town, usually on a corner (like it was hiding) or up high on verandas (like it could step back into the shadows of the building at any time). It was the figure of an elderly man, a modern day scruffy Joe Shmo in a baggy jumper and worn out sneakers, perhaps someone’s slightly disheveled Grandad. He was clearly part of the culture of the city so I captured him on my camera. I now needed to find out who this character was and why on earth he was ‘hiding’ in plain view around town.

While browsing in a shop, I decided to ask the shop owner about the mural. The shop fell silent and everyone stared at me. I gulped and thought about bolting. The owner looked left and right, chewing her bottom lip as she leaned in and whispered his name….I’m going to say it was ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, because that’s about as much as I understood. I gave her my “Wow, that’s somethin’” look and she drew me in closer to tell me he was involved in terrorism and was currently being hunted by the FBI. She claimed that she herself had seen him in San Juan, that very week, wearing the exact same clothes as the mural!


Aflush with Caribbean secrets, I grabbed Dom and Roisin and dashed to the boat just as another Puerto Rican rain shower fell.

What an interesting place; charged with energy, fuelled by history. Where does its future lie? Somewhere over the rainbow, I hope.

"For old acquaintance be forgot...because I am a one year old"

Meanwhile on board the ship, somewhere in the middle of a big blue ocean, it was New Year's Eve! “Livin’ La Vida Loca…”

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