As we sat playing some video poker at the Bugsy’s Bar, our favourite hangout at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, one late afternoon in November, we overheard something unreal and disturbing.
Two young men, who sat at the bar drinking beer, started talking about the hurricane season and how hard it hit some of the Caribbean islands. They wondered if the worst hit ones have the resources for recovery. One of the bartenders took part in the conversation, telling he has some Puerto Rican friends he is deeply sorry for. A woman in her thirties, slightly drunk and loud, started sharing her opinions.
She started by expressing how she feels about that ”useless, s****y island that pretends it is part of her country”. That she ”couldn’t care less if the s****y piece of land dissappeared”. That ”US should sell Puerto Rico for someone, just to get rid of it”. It is ”a pretends part of the country” that ”just uses her tax money”.
The bartender and the guys were speechless and shocked about her outburst. They asked her to stop her rant and leave immediately.
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an incorporated territory of the United States. It is not a state and for this reason has a different, complicated status. Complicated is obviously the relationship with the continent at many levels. When we planned our cruise that would take us to Puerto Rico some years back we scratched some of the surface of this pretty island – a place that we only then understood belongs to the United States. Our knowledge of the island came mostly in the form of “famous people from Puerto Rico”. Ricky Martin, Benicio del Toro, Roselyn Sánchez, Luis Guzmán, Jaquin Phoenix and many more.
But after visiting Puerto Rico and spending some time with the locals, the hurricane disaster felt more personal, which obviously is very human. As we are writing this, about two weeks before Christmas, the island has again been able to welcome visitors. Even the cruise lines have returned, which is a huge thing for a place for which tourism is an important source of income.
At port we hired a taxi driver. Our driver was maybe in his fifties, dressed in jeans and short sleeved shirt. We asked him to drive around, show us things he thinks we should see of San Juan. And so he did, and he talked – aah, he loved to talk. He told us he had lived and studied in New York, but had wanted to move back to San Juan. He lives in the Old San Juan and as we later witnessed, knows pretty much everyone there. Maybe even the cats that seem to be everywhere in some parts of the old town.
He knew something about most of the buildings, also the facts like when their renovation had stopped due the lack of government funding. We drove past banks and insurance companies and he opened up about his thoughts on the way Puerto Rico is affected by money and power. He had a pile of books next to him and he explained he likes to read both poetry and conspiracy theories as he waits for new rides.
Our guide drove us around in the areas that gave us an idea of how the island streches to the horizon and explained what we would find driving to further on the island. Then he decided we need to see how well the island blends with the sea and how it can be done in the most luxurious way.
We were a little surprised when he stopped in front of the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel at Avenue Ashford, went to talk to the staff and then came to us: “Hop off, come, come”. Unfortunately we didn’t take photos of the entrance or the beautiful lobby or the restaurant in which local celebs and politicians were just having lunch (he told us with a quiet voice who’s who). This sophisticated ocean side hotel is both a hide away and the place to be seen. We tried to act normal as we followed our driver. He took us to see the terrace overlooking the ocean. The high waves hitting the black rocks, the waves that at times hit the glasses of the terrace as well. As we left a tv-crew had just arrived to the restaurant, they were filming an interview of someone important.
Our driver told us about the restaurant and night life areas, his favourite eateries. And the soon-to-be-open clubs his friends are running. Obviously, San Juan has a lively night life scene. Next up was the Old San Juan. The City Wall is about three miles long and we stopped at a site where it is easy to see both directions. Our taxi driver went to buy some ice cream and told us to go explore the site.
The beautiful wall was modeled after the city walls of some Europen cities and by 1790 the wall encircled the whole city. Most areas of the wall can be accessed. Below the wall at one point is “ghetto, are of the drug dealers and prostitutes”, an area our driver doesn’t recommend visiting. He had stories at many parts of the wall as he had spent most of his life here. And as we later that day sailed away, we saw how very inseparable part of the San Juan characteristics that stone structure is also viewed from the ocean.
We drove around the narrow cobblestone streets and heard more stories of the pretty, pastel colored houses. Who lives where, what happened here and why some streets have certain names. Then he asked if we wanted to see a museum he would personally recommend, a place to step back in time. Of course we wanted to visit.
He took us to the Casa Blanca Museum. The white building was built in 1521 and our taxi driver said it is the oldest existing house of the Americas. Maybe it is, we don’t know. But it was built in the times of Columbus and now it serves as kind of a house museum. The museum was closing, but our driver knew the staff and sneaked us inside. There we walked, in those cool rooms, thinking how the life was during the Columbus era. But the view to the Bay, that is what they had and we had in common on this island.
The rest of the day we walked around the city, had a snack here and beer here. Old Town is such eye candy we felt sad we had to leave. See you again one day, promise.