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.
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.
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.