Beach Clichés

The feeling of sand between my toes. The sound of surf washing through my head. The taste of salt on my lips. This is what we were here for. Cliché but we didn’t care. It all seemed so right. It was Spring Break after all…

Slower start. The sun was lazy, hiding beneath the cloud cover for most of the day. But as it was our last day in PR, the beach called.

An Uber to Ocean Park at noon, passing for sale signs, gated neighborhoods, graffiti, public murals, adult entertainment ads, huge hotels, and glittering billboards.

Ocean Park Beach: a surf beach with soft sands, seaweed lines, and massive waves. The wind was strong and the sky was heavy and beclouded. Only a few tourists, desperate for a tan, were there. We didn’t stay long.

Lunch at a highly recommended (by tourists and locals) seafood chain of sit down restaurants. As the bartender from the other day put it: They’ve been around for 10 years and they’ve opened up 10 locations; while everything else is going to shit, they’ve been booming. So that tells you something.

Alexa got mahi-mahi and Nathaniel and I filled ourselves with the Puerto Rican version of paella and fried plantains. We all acknowledged that we were going to miss Puerto Rican food.

The wind had died and the weather had warmed (yet the sun still refused to show its face), so we decided to try our luck again with another beach. La Isla Verde Beach also came recommended. Surrounded by hotels and condos, the area had been another option when we were looking for places to stay. So it wasn’t surprising to see so many people, who despite the lack of sun, were lounging and drinking in the sand.

We set up camp between a gaggle of spring breakers who thought Nathaniel looked like Donald Glover (they were not the first, people tell him that all the time, so much so that we’ve recently nicknamed him “Tallish Gambino”) and a group of roaring drunk black girls who ended the afternoon dry humping each other and flashing their boobs…yup.

Body surfing, sand man making, existential walk taking, and coconut drinking followed. Check. Check. Check. All we could’ve wanted from the beach. We stayed until the area began to clear and the sun began to set, eventually leaving sand-covered and happy.

The Bricks of Puerto Rican History

The Puerto Rican capital was in our sights before the clock struck 9am. A mix of Spanish and Greco-Roman styles and built out of swirling white granite, the capital stood out amongst the colorful Mediterranean buildings at the edge of Old San Juan. A dozen bronze US Presidents (including Obama) guarded the street across from the front entrance, each one honored for paying their respects to the territory (even if it was just a simple state visit). We found American and a few Asian tourists clustered around them, pictures and delighted laughs abound.

We snuck in with that tour group, passing through security and entering the main rotunda just before masses of Puerto Rican school children streamed in. We gazed up at the mosaicked ceiling with them, everyone ooing and aweing over the intricate depiction of Chris Columbus (the European “discoverer” of the island), other famous people in Puerto Rican history, and personified images of ideals and governmental duties. It was really quite stunning.

As the students chatter quickly created a cacophony within the space, we left the rotunda behind and began to wander around: dull painted faces of Puerto Rican politicians, wood-lined hallways, closed offices, and busy secretaries. It didn’t take us long to see all that we were allowed to see.

To continue our history tour: Castillo de San Cristobal and Castillo de San Felipe Del Morro, the two forts that once guarded the island and the city from attack. It was in El Morro that a former Floridian history teacher turned park ranger gave us a brief history lesson about the forts and Puerto Rico itself. It began with the Columbus and the Spanish Empire. (He argued that Puerto Rico was the key to the success and might of the Spanish in the New World.) The English attacked the island twice. The Dutch once (burning San Juan to the ground). The Americans popped up a couple of times, once during the revolution when they sought help and safe harbor from the British and then again over a 100 years later during the Spanish-American War in which America gained Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and other islands as territories. And through everything, the forts were at the center of it all. The last time they were used as military bases was during the World Wars, particularly the second.

Images and impressions of the two forts easily blended together in my mind…A maze of plastered walls, limestone brick, and concrete sentries. Views of the flat rooftops of Old San Juan. Echoes of the crashing waves in empty white rooms. Shadowy tunnels designed to blow up. Gaggles of cruise ship passengers smelling of sunscreen. American WWII concrete look-outs, black amongst the red of the chipping Spanish brick and plaster.

At each fort, we wandered from level to level, often finding ourselves along on the terraces and outlooks as sun showers appeared and the wind pushed the waves against the rocks at the base of the stone fortress. I often found myself wondering what life was like on the bases and I wasn’t alone…

“Aim and fire!” Alexa proclaimed at every cannon.

Yup, probably very different from now.

Locals on the Beach

The sun filtered between the palm trees as the sand sifted between my toes. The chattering of tourists blended with the constant crashing of the surf as the occasional bell of the ice cream vender and the coo of the pigeons interrupted the lethargy.

“Are we human?” wondered Nathaniel as we all laid on our backs, looking up at the unripe coconuts bundled underneath the palm trees’ leaves.

“Debatable,” answered Alexa, beer in hand.

 

The sun streaming through the unclosed curtains in our condo in Old San Juan, PR woke us up at 7:30am. Begrudgingly we got out of bed and ate our breakfast (bakery bread and ripe pineapple both bought the day before). The weather forcast: mixed but hopeful.

“To the beach!” exclaimed Alexa.

We were out by 9am. A stop for the customary Puerto Rican cheap beer, Medalia, and we were off to the beach. While walking along a newly built boardwalk, we past an abandoned hotel graffitied: “muerte a la opresión” “Libertad y socialismo” and “Yankees go away.” Naively, we practiced our Spanish by saying them out loud.

Once at the beach, we noticed that two groups of tourists had beat us, but the lifeguard wasn’t even set up yet. In the parking lot, a cop car oversaw the palm trees and out-of-order restrooms. We planted ourselves underneath a tree, cracked open a beer, and stared out at the turquoise waves.

The next few hours were a series of moments that flowed with the same pace and rhythm as the waves: Wading waist deep in the water, fighting the push and pull of the surf. Filling empty beer cans with sea water to aid the construction of a sand man. Dozing in the sun as Alexa turned our sand man into Zander the Sand Alien. Bananas, bread, and ham for lunch. Watching a birthday party set up camp in the shade. Listening to two tourists chatting with locals over cans of Medalia. Drifting in and out with flittering of the shadows of the palm tree leaves.

Hours later, when we were turned away, preparing to leave, we heard someone say:

“Did you see that?”

The Madalia-drinking tourists had just been robbed. The locals had run off with their bags. The tourists had taken off in pursuit but everyone knew they weren’t going to catch the thieves.

With our own bags safely in hand, we walked along the sand, the beach not much more crowded than before. We side-stepped bikini-clad bodies and beer-drinking bros to reach a grassy hill that laid just beyond the sand, the sight of some old Spanish ruins. We stood at those weather beaten walls and gazed out into the waves. Nearby, the tourist hotels and time shares of Ocean Park were lost in the glimmer of the heat and the spray of the sea.

Ruins, palm trees, and condos…

On our way back to Old San Juan and our Airbnb, we passed the Medalia-drinking tourists reporting their theft to the cop in the parking lot. We walked on. We then encountered another tourist (at least he looked like one). Bearing scratches on his nose and a hosting a swollen hand, he told us his story about how he and his father wandered into the wrong area, got beaten and robbed, and now their hotel won’t help them with the cap fare from the hospital. We gave him our singles and walked on.

Sun and heat and a mile of walking later and we were back in the condo. Shower, rest, change of clothes, and we were out again. Dinner: plantain tamales stuffed with pork, red peppers, and one olive paired with rice and beans and fried cod flat bread, all topped off with vanilla flan. The others had good food as well. Much better than last night. A no muss, no fuss eatery that served tourists and locals alike.

We roamed around the street of Old San Juan again afterwards, walking off our dinner and buying postcards. The orange street lights turned the world sepia-toned as the sidewalks emptied and we reached that awkward time between dinner and drinks. Undaunted, we stopped at an empty reggae bar for happy hour-priced alcohol. Two mojitos and one rum punch ordered amongst us. As we were sipping, the bar tender wrote us a list of things to do and places to party while we were here on spring break. He was eager and adamant that we both had fun and see things and places that he, a local, knew and loved (and were safe). We thanked him and gave him a big tip before going home for the night.

Arriving in the American Caribbean

Nathaniel, Alexa, and I were in his Honda, still bundled up for the northeastern cold, driving quickly through the beclouded city. In a Hispanic accent, our Airbnb host guided us through the notable sights of San Juan, Puerto Rico, spouting tips and history as we nodded awkwardly along . The wind, he said, had been ferocious  today and, as if to prove his point, we zoomed past tourists clinging desperately to their hats as their shirts pressed into their sunburnt bodies.

And then, we were in Old San Juan, bumping along narrow one-way cobble stone streets, frequently stopping for tourists and construction trucks that skirted around the edges of colorful Spanish-style buildings. While sifting through the traffic, our host continued his tour: there’s a bakery over there that’s really good; here’s the chocolate café; around that corner is the supermercado and the visitors’ center; etc. I got quickly turned around in the maze of streets as I started to sweat in my pants and boots.

Eventually, he dropped us off at our Airbnb, a condo inside a gated and locked building complex. Complete with ‘70s-style tiles and turquoise-colored fixtures, the condo was simple and clean, just enough for our three day trip.

The view from the staircase in the condominium complex our Airbnb was located in. © Violet Acevedo

Food — that’s what we needed the most. So to the supermercado we went. As we walked amongst the colors and the cruise ship passengers, Spanish-language music faintly wafted out of the restaurants, mingling with the American pop that blasted out of the tourist shops.

We soon reached the supermercado and wandered the isles in search for breakfast nibbles for the next few days. At check out, the cashier joked in Spanish and I awkwardly choked out a “Gracias” as she handed me my bag. The exchange felt amazingly foreign, but as my friends kept saying, “Puerto Rico is America!” And, yes, my passport was still locked up in Boston and the American flag flapped in the wind at the visitors’ center, but it was still hard for me to grasp that I wasn’t technically on foreign shores.

Off on the side street, Calle de Luna, in Old San Juan. © Violet Acevedo

After we grabbed our breakfast supplies, we found dinner at a restaurant that occupied a slice of a building on San Francisco Street. The waiters spoke fluent English and the walls were covered with sharpied statements of love or celebrations, other spring breakers proclaiming their presence or advertising their Twitter handles. I had chicken stew with rice and beans, topped off with a Piña Colada. It was good and authentic for all we knew.

As we walked around afterwards, my eyes drooping with the alcohol and the lack of sleep (we woke up at 4:30am for our flight). On our wanderings around Old San Juan saw a Sheraton and a Starbucks nestled amongst the locally-owned bars and cafes, and massive cruise ships towering over the docks as the territory’s capital stood quietly in the distance. Soon the wind picked up again and rain peppered the sky. We huddled under doorways and slowly made our way back to the condo where a night of card games and Puerto Rican cookies awaited us.

A mural spotted while walking back to our condo. © Violet Acevedo