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.

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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

Big and Loud in New Orleans

We took is slow that morning. Still sore and sunburnt from yesterday, we ate a relaxed breakfast at a local café before heading off on the trolley to see the Garden District. We transferred at the famous St. Charles Line, waiting with the other tourists as they cluster in awed packs. After a short trip on the old-fashioned trolley, we got off and walked over to the Lafayette Cemetery.

We listened in on a few tour groups as we wandered amongst the tombs. Apparently, after something that happened during the filming of Easy Rider, the Church now won’t allow filming to take place in their cemeteries, making this Non-Catholic gravesite the only one in town available to film crews. I haven’t seen enough movies/TV shows set in New Orleans to recognize anything, but others sure did.

“It’s just like in the movies!” I heard one tourist exclaim.

Afterwards, we ended up unintentionally following one of the tour groups around the neighborhood, watching as they listened to the guide and gaped at the pristine, 100-year-old mansions around them. We did our fair of gaping too. The houses were dripping with old southern grandeur and decadence. Besides one, which was clearly labeled as Anne Rice’s house, we couldn’t tell who lived in there and wondered how they felt about the tourists constantly gawking at their home.

Once we got our fill of architectural beauties, we hopped back onto the trolley and got off at Lee Circle. Ignoring General Lee up on top of his column, we walked off in search of food. By passing the art museums and the National WWII Museum, we found a grill/bar and settled down for lunch. We watched the waiters served bottomless mimosas as we ate our shrimp po-boys and enjoyed the A/C.

The tourist map became our guide as to what to do next. We noticed off in the far corner along the river and next to the nearly mile-long convention center was a building marked “Mardi Gras World.” We decided to check it out. After some more walking, we reached the building. It was sight to behold. The warehouse proudly named itself in loud colors and statuary. Inside 10-foot-tall paper mache famous figures and fantasy creatures towered over us and the other tourists with frozen grins. It was in this building that they made most of the fantastic decorations for the extravagant Mardi Gras floats. The place was huge, but they charged $20 each to see father behind the curtain. We abstained, instead taking photos in the lobby and then going out back to watch the Mississippi.

Fading fast, we walked to the closest trolley stop past the convention center and near the outlet mall. After transferring at the casino, we hopped onto a City Park trolley and rode it all the way to back to Bayou Boogaloo. During the previous 48 hours a fair number of locals had recommended it to us, so we made a point to go back.

It was hot and crowded as two bands competed for attention at opposite ends of the park. My mom grabbed a spot in the shade as I roamed, took photos, and bought a couple souvenirs at a craft booth. We didn’t stay long after that.

The shower called us in again, and once we were clean, we went out for pizza at a local, funky restaurant. The bar across the street was warming up for a long night of live music and beer, but we were too tired to do anything else so we went back and settled down for the night, satisfied that we had spent our time in New Orleans wisely.

New Orleans Neighbors

My mother had heard that people from New Orleans were fairly laid back and mellow, a combination of southern hospitality and eccentric flare (all fueled by a fair amount of alcohol).

We could tell by the houses in the Mid-City neighborhood that our Airbnb was located in: Brightly painted shot-gun houses often with quirky lawn art and well-used front porches. People walked in T-shirts and flip-flops along the root-cracked sidewalks, waving hello to everyone they passed. It was a beautiful sight to see as we strolled to a local breakfast joint that morning. After filling our bellies with chorizo and grits, we headed back to the Airbnb.

Our hosts’ friend had mentioned that the backyard gate opened up to the cemetery immediately behind the house.

“Our neighbors are pretty quiet,” he explained.

It seemed like as good of place as any to start the day. After wandering amongst the family tombs of St. Patrick and Greenwood Cemeteries and stopping for a silent moment at the Hurricane Katrina Memorial, we took the trolley downtown to check things off our tourist bucket list.

We strolled into the French Quarter from the urban bustle of Canal Street. The famous and colorful buildings with their wrought iron clad porches stretched before us. We stopped in to look into a couple boutiques and galleries, of which there were many. There was the photography gallery full of signed prints from many giants of the photography world (including Man Ray and Ansel Adams). There was the gallery full of local artists and tended by a couple and their sons, one of which eagerly showed us around. And then there was the Historic New Orleans Collection, which looked out on the street with a windowless face and one small sign.

Eventually, we hit an explosion of tourists, artists, performers and jazz musicians: Jackson Square. A woman with a cardboard sign labeling her a cunt walked passed a woman dressed up in miss-matched period costume and street magicians. Horn players recited the classics as tourists took selfies in front of the St. Louis Cathedral.

Upon the gates surrounding the part in the middle of the square were dozens of artists proudly selling their wares to the gapping visitors. But unlike some of the art I’ve seen in other touristy hubs, the art that hung upon those gates was eclectic, striking, and inviting. Yes, there were still the cliché images of the landmarks and icons of the city, but the originality far outnumbered the mundane.

After stopping to gap at the enormous line at the Café Du Monde, we walked along the Mississippi River and watched the occasional boat pass before heading back to the streets. We briefly popped into an artist Co-op (fully of more eccentric and unique art) and then moved on to the French Market.

Like Jackson Square, the place was bursting with activity, only this time the oddities were gone and replaced with more tourists. It being lunch time, we settled down with a smoothie and some fresh BBQ-ed shrimp.

Suddenly, a man with a can came up to our table and asked if he could sit with us. We of course said yes. He introduced himself as Bob and then when on to explain, in detail, his motorcycle accident and recovery that had led to his hobbling condition. He was a veteran and former New Orleans resident who had come back to get some beignets and coffee. He went on to recount a big chunk of his most recent history and memories of his time in the force, yammering on as his wife came and left with a tired and exasperated gaze. While speechifying, he gave us a restaurant recommendation, explaining in detail their garden, architecture, and even the softness of their bread. Fortunately, another couple sat down, diverting Bob’s attention so we could safely leave without committing an abrupt and rude good-bye.

Once we successfully extracted ourselves from the table, we walked around the market some more, casually glancing at the touristy souvenirs and lingering over the art and ethnic imports. We bought a couple T-shirts and then headed back over to the food. My mom had heard many good things about Loretta’s sweet potato cookies, only when we got there they were all sold out. We settled of praline filled beignets instead.

The sugar comfortably making a home in our stomach, we walked around the neighborhood some more, escaping to the side streets to get away from the crowds and admire the colors and iron work. The thing about New Orleans that we noticed is that the city is not afraid to show its age. It doesn’t try to cover its wrinkles for the tourists, refuses to display a photoshopped image for the camera. Yes, of course there are buildings that are all dolled up and ready for attention, but they live right next to places with cracks in the sidewalk and sideboards faded from the sun. It made the place seem real, not hiding behind a mask of false glamour.

During our wanderings, we stumbled into the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park/Louis Armstrong Park. The soft green hills, murmuring fountains, and colorful statues of the jazz greats were crowded with relatively few people, so we enjoyed the quiet, soaking our feet in the water and soothing our sore muscles.

We eventually took a trolley back to the Airbnb and washed the sweat of the day off before heading back out for dinner. We decided to try the place Bob had suggested: Ye Old College Inn. It was fancier than expected, the kind of place city council members would dine, but that only meant that the food was exquisitely prepared and mouth-wateringly fresh. We filled our bellies and mom emptied her wallet and then returned to Bernadotte Street for an early night.

New Orleans’ Bernadotte Village

The Texas skies expanded, wide and blue. The East Texas pines loomed, straight and tall. The Texas highways rolled out, smooth and empty. We had never been here before but we liked what we saw. My mom and I were on our way to New Orleans, a place that we had only heard about in tales and TV shows. We were excited, but it was a very long drive.

We eventually turned off the tree-lined highways and onto the massive, honking behemoth that is I-10. The asphalt groaned, the exhaust fumes shimmered, and the strip malls surrounded us: Welcome to the modern American interstate.

Louisiana greeted us with a bridge and traffic, shortly followed by refineries and swamps. Everything was accented with violent green vegetation. After hitting traffic in Baton Rouge and an accident in the New Orleans suburbs, we finally arrived, tired and hungry, in the Crescent City.

We pulled up to our Airbnb on Bernadotte Street in Mid-City ready to take it easy and prepare for sightseeing tomorrow. But parked in the driveway was a white pick-up truck. Two white-haired and tanned people in well-worn T-shirts came out and greeted us with warm smiles and happy hellos. They weren’t our hosts. Our host was up on the second floor porch, putting things away. Instead, this duo was his friend and his sister, Dawn. They were all headed to a free concert. True to traditional southern hospitality, they invited us along. Before I knew what was happening, my mom said yes and we were piling into the white pick-up, off to see The Wailers at the Bayou Boogaloo in City Park.

It was a short ride to the festival and then, once there, it was a straight shot to the beer tent where our other host was serving as a volunteer bartender. Dawn, already tipsy, led us by the hand through the crowds of casual locals, eccentric twenty-somethings, and passive dogs. After braving the crowds and lines, we got our beers just as a rain cloud passed overhead. Dawn and I waited for the rain to stop underneath the awning of the beer tent, watching the umbrellas bloom as other people got soaked.

Afterwards, Dawn explained to me how during Hurricane Katrina this whole place was underwater, except the sidewalk we were standing on. She went on to describe the nearby hospital patients being swept away on helicopters and the confusion during and after the evacuation. No one in her family knew she was alive until a week after the storm. Then, as one does when their well on their way to drunkenness, Dawn got distracted with friends and dogs and babies before finally moving my mom and I on to the food tents.

The lights from the stage shinning out and inviting the crowd to sing-along.
The lights from the stage shinning out and inviting the crowd to sing-along.

We lost her amongst the lines and confusion over cash, but we managed and eventually got food, settling in underneath picnic tent. The Wailers had already begun playing, and we listened and talked while we ate our food (ribs paired with crab and crawfish mac and cheese…and oh boy were they good). Once done, we moved closer to the stage and the crowd that had condensed around it. With the faint whiff of pot smoke in the air and a fair share of dogs and hula-hoops, Ziggy Marley led the crowd in sing-alongs of his father’s greatest hits, including “Three Little Birds” and “Redemption Song.” He knew how to work an audience and the audience, my mom and myself included, ate it up.

We eventually found Dawn again and caught a ride back to the house in the same white pick-up. On the way back, Dawn, now drunk, explained that she lived nearby. Apparently many others in the family did so as well. They jokingly called the street the “Bernadotte Village.” Then, once the short ride was over, she took it upon herself to show us around the house. She took particular pride in the backyard, which held their own “Superdome,” a large and elaborate viewing area for Saints games complete with bleachers and a projection screen. Everywhere we looked things were covered with off-the-wall folk art apparently gathered from places and friends over the decades. It was funky and cool and little too much to take in at the moment especially after the long hours gazing into the lazy, blue Texan skies.

Nature in Portlandia

The sun woke me up again. But, after quickly checking my phone, I learned that it wasn’t going to last. Changing my plans to get brunch, I rushed out, grabbing a quick bite at a local bakery instead. You see, I wanted to get a chance to enjoy the city’s parks and get in some fresh air while I still could. Through my research of the city, I had found out about a trail called the 4T Trail that takes one from Washington Park to the peak at Council Crest Park to the Portland Aerial Tram—a nice little tour of the nature and views of the city. I had hoped based on the previous weather reports that rain wouldn’t interfere too much. But I guess the weather reports aren’t very accurate too far into the future.

The rain did eventually appear. An on and off drizzle that was both easy to ignore and just enough to become annoying. Thankfully, the scenery made up for it: Vivid green moss blanketing deep, dark tree limps, and ferns and vines filling in the gaps on the ground. It was a forest, a right proper forest, but civilization was never far. Glimpses of multi-million dollar houses and the distant hum of highway traffic would appear and disappear as the nearly 5 mile trail twisted and turned through the parks.

It was almost one o’clock when I finally took the Portland Aerial Tram back down to civilization. Everyone inside gazed out over the city as the buildings slowly grew up around us. I was tempted to take it again.

After a quick bite at another nearby food truck pod, I headed back to the Hawthorne District. There were still more places that I had wanted to check out. I wandered around for a bit, falling in love with the local, ethnic, unusual stores. Yes, they were evidence that the “hipster” stereotype was true. I mean I did get some organic, mango carrot froyo after passing a micro-brewed hard cider tasting bar, but the hipster-ness wasn’t as intense as Portlandia likes to make people think it is. There were still chains such as Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s, and Peet’s Coffee & Tea. In many ways, this area reminded me a lot of Austin.

The rain had risen in strength while I was there, and I had to walk through it to grab my bags from my family friends’ and then check back into the hostel. But strangely enough, I didn’t mind it that much. The rain was light, and there was no wind to intensify the situation. Dare I say, I was getting used to it? Of course I would, right when I had to go back to windy Boston.

Voodoo Doughnuts in the Sun

I woke up that morning with sun shining on my face. It had broken through the clouds and now patches of pale blue broke up the previously uniform grey. I hadn’t expected this. The weather reports had called for more rain.

I celebrated this expected sun with a sugar rush sponsored by Portland’s famous Voodoo Doughnuts. I ate my fruit loop doughnut outside, sipping on my coffee and watching the line in front of the brightly painted establishment grow longer and longer. Like any other attraction in any other city, pictures and selfies were plentiful.

Hoping to walk off the sugar mountain that now sat in my stomach, I wandered around the urban grit of Old Town/Chinatown District. It being the middle of a week day, the place was fairly deserted save the restless homeless and meandering tourists. I took advantage of the now patchy sunshine to satisfy my photography craving without worry of the rain.

By the time I reached the train station, I was starting to feel the sugar leave my system and it wasn’t happy. I needed to sit and rest. I made my way to the Waterfront Park, parked myself on a bench, and then watched the joggers fly past and the photographers snap pictures as the falling petals of the cherry trees spun around us. A brief shower broke up this early spring beauty.

Remembering a vintage shop I wanted to check out, I returned to 10th street after most of the sugar had worn off. I bought a flannel shirt (when in Rome…) and a snack at the same food truck pod that I went to the day before and debated what to do next. The intense sugar of that morning and the many miles I had walked in the past 24 hours had taken their toll. So wandering around on foot didn’t seem like an option. I had to figure out a plan B. And then the trolley ran past. (Yes, Portland recently brought back the trolley system…what could be more Portland?) I knew what I wanted to do: ride the rails.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, and I did get to see parts of the city that I wouldn’t normally have, but the trolley kept getting caught in traffic and when it wasn’t being slowed down by other cars, the driver would still creep along. The thing was slower than a bus. I nearly feel asleep out of boredom.

When I finally got back downtown, I wandered around some more but I kept walking around in circles. The area is not very big after all. So, while feeling guilty about abandoning the relatively nice weather for the indoors, I, on a whim, decided to see a show at the Regal downtown. Since none of the blockbusters sounded interesting and I had already seen Spotlight, I choice to watch a recently dubbed anime film called The Boy and the Beast. I had heard good things, and I was grateful I saw it. It was very much of its genre, but still very good.

I got dinner back in Hawthorne at the pizza place/bar near my family friends’ apartment. Amazingly, and unusual for the states, they had hard cider on tap. Locally brewed of course.

Portland and Powell’s

Suddenly 30 or so kids filed into the city bus, laughing and talking, their teacher urging them to be quiet. I watched them, trying to follow their teacher’s orders but still unable to stop acting silly, with a smile. They were obviously glad to be out of the rain. Their hair was wet; some who had forgotten their rain jacket were fairly soaked. It had been raining all morning, a steady shower that would continue for the rest of the day.

I knew it was going to be wet in Portland. My spring break wasn’t going to be filled with sunshine (ironically Boston, where I was coming from, was sunnier and warmer at that moment), but I had always wanted to visit Portland, the northwest sister city to my hometown of Austin, TX. Rain wasn’t going to let me down. It was part of what made Portland, Portland, right?

Within the nonfiction section of Powell's City of Books. © Violet Acevedo
Within the nonfiction section of Powell’s City of Books. © Violet Acevedo

After having a filling breakfast in the hostel, I began my first day by heading straight to Powell’s City of Books, a local book emporium that is basically the west coast version of the Strand Bookstore in New York City. Powell’s is such an icon that it’s marked on all the tourist maps. One step inside and it’s easy to see why. The place is three floors of ceiling-high bookshelves, sloping mountains of new and used paper bound worlds. The selection was nothing like I’ve seen before. For instance, four selves were filled with all of Vonnegut’s novels in various additions and a dozen or so isles were devoted to science-fiction. They had books by my favorite authors that I’ve never seen before. Those finds felt like previously undiscovered literary treasures or presents from the literary gods. And in truth that’s what this place is to the book lover/book shopper: A temple, a west coast literary mecca.

After I left that bastion of books, I walked around Downtown and the Pearl District for a bit. It was still raining (forcing my photographing cravings to be left unsatisfied), so I decided to walk to the Portland Art Museum. My path down 10th street took me past vintage stores, craft stores, Starbucks, local coffee shops, and even a City Target. I stopped at some and only barely glanced at others. I ate lunch at a food truck “pod” that circled a parking lot and boasted everything from Vietnamese noodles to Mexican tacos to German sausage to Hawaiian sushi.

When I finally reached the museum, the damp grey and misty greens of the buildings across the street were accented by a line of yellow school buses. I could hear the cheerful chatter of children drifting through the soft and steady patter of the rain. The kids on the city bus this morning had said that they were going to see the Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and there, on the marquee above the entrance to the theater, was the orchestra. I smiled at the coincidence and walked into the art museum.

After seeing so many world famous museums, such as the British National Gallery and the Louvre, my standards are fairly high. I can’t help it. It’s one side effect of traveling. But instead of trying to imitate and/or live up to those world-class institutions, the Portland Art Museum focuses on what it can do best: local and/or contemporary art. Their galleries held beautiful exhibits by local artists or about local topics, exploring concepts that were both relatable and up to interpretation, experimental yet understandable. I was especially partial towards the photography exhibit dealing with past and contemporary photographs of Native Americans and how visual interpretations of these peoples related to Americans’ different perceptions of them. I was enthralled.

The rain had actually picked up when I finally walked out of the museum. The school buses were gone and the only bright color left were the few twinkling lights of the theater’s marquee, turned on in to fight against the darkening sky. I wondered if the kids enjoyed the show. I walked back to the bus stop, the rain beating loudly against my umbrella.

It was supposed to meet with family friends who live a few blocks away from the hostel. They were kind enough to let me crash on their couch for a couple nights, saving me about $60. But I had a little time before I should meet with them so I visited a vintage store in the area (the Hawthorne District). Called House of Vintage, the store spanned two whole buildings each full of vintage clothing mostly from the ‘80s but also touching on other eras such as the ‘60s and ‘70s. I spent hours in there.

After I finally met with my family friends and dropped off my stuff, I went to the nearby food truck pod for dinner. I remember the kids on the bus pointing it out as we passed it, and I thought I’d check it out. One truck specialized in grilled PB&J sandwiches with local, fair-trade, and/or organic nut butters, fruit spreads, and cheeses. Another truck (the kids’ favorite) sold only French fry dishes like chili cheese fries and poutine. As much as I wanted to follow the kids’ recommendation, I decided to be less adventurous and stick with simple Egyptian food. Maybe next time…