Adjustments [part II]
“A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.”
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
It was cold, crisp & dawn was breaking in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when I boarded my first plane. Despite never leaving the airport, the air temperature in Atlanta, Georgia, was significantly warmer. As before – and with all planes -- I kissed the metal frame that would skirt the Bermuda Triangle and be my vessel across the ocean.
Though slightly overcast, it was a bright day in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Still in my northern winter clothes, I changed from a zip-up hoodie, long-sleeve shirt, fleece North Face pants and tennis shoes into a blue tank top, loose gauchos, and flip-flops in the concourse. The sliding doors opened up and I emerged into the warm, humid breeze. Unbeknownst to me at the time of booking, Thrifty Rental’s office was off-site from Aeropuerto Internacional Luis Munoz Marin a.k.a. San Juan International Airport. The shuttle bus was full except for one seat up front by the driver. That’s one of the advantages of traveling solo: you are the easiest person to accommodate.
Sitting up front and being alone worked in my favor. As couples tried to secure all their luggage and parents rounded up their children, I grabbed my red carry-on and beat everyone to the front of the line (thank goodness because the checking-in process is quite slow). I was going to decline the dollar-per-day EZ-Pass until the pretty lady behind the counter alerted me that I would need it if I was planning on driving anywhere outside of immediate San Juan. According to her (and she was 100% correct) there were many highways across the country that did not accept cash or credit card, only EZ-Pass.
Around 14:30 I pulled out of Thrifty’s parking lot and onto autopista 26 este a.k.a. highway 26 east. I hoped to arrive at Fajardo -- on the northeast coast -- by 14:30 since that was one the four daily times a ferry left for the island of Vieques. I would be cutting it close because the drive was estimated to take about 2 hours [via car]. If missed, I would have to wait until the last ferry at 20:00. For the life of me, I could not grasp why the 40 mile drive to Fajardo required two hours… until I turned onto autopista 3 este a.k.a. east. Then it made sense. Autopista 3 was more like a busy road. With three lanes it weaved through the crowded outskirts of San Juan & Canovanas and was littered with traffic lights. At every stoplight there loitered a group of 3 to 6 men on the median or corner, who – when the light turned red – dispersed and approached stopped vehicles to either beg for change or – more commonly – sell something in particular such as sunglasses.
Though navigating, I tried to take in the scenery that passed by in a blur. The miles of dilapidated houses I saw in combination with the highway peddlers and thoughts of my co-worker who said “All of Puerto Rico is a slum” started to play on my emotions. Maybe I idealized Puerto Rico & was going to be sorely disappointed? Maybe it was a third-world country governed by the United States of America? As soon as the thought crossed my mind I forbade myself from passing judgment so hastily. Besides, regardless of the environment or socio-economic status of the country I was here for a week so I might as well deal with it.
I passed strip malls, a K-Mart, and the automatic toll booths the Thrifty employee had warned me about. Then, autopista 3 narrowed to two lanes with the same stop-and-go traffic. By the time I reached Rio Grande (a halfway point) I inferred there were two types of drivers in Puerto Rico: very aggressive and very unhurried. 50% of the drivers on the road incessantly honked if another car delayed even a millisecond at a green light. These same aggressive drivers then furiously swerved into another lane, floored the gas pedal & slammed on their brakes at the next red light. It was like watching the opening scene of Office Space in real life.
But in a way I understood their frustration. The other 50% of Puerto Rico’s drivers maintained 10 to 15 MPH under the speed limit and obliviously occupied the left lane. Their jalopies, rumbling and roaring, barely got up to speed before the light turned red again.
Even with the windows down on the autopista it was toasty. Add in the numerous traffic lights and this northern-blooded woman was a sweaty mess long before arriving in Fajardo. Briefly the autopista gave way to some countryside which made it feel more like, well, an autopista and I was able to actually reach velocidad maxima a.k.a. top speed. All of the sudden, I saw the unmistakable giant to my right – and I knew exactly what it was!
The way to the port of Fajardo was well-marked. Parking on the street (and for free) was scarce so I left all my hiking clothes and the bright blue Thrifty car in one of the many lots. I arrived at the ferry terminal with 30 minutes to spare and searched for la officina de boletos a.k.a. ticket office. You would think it was at the port, right? Yet the only employees I could find were at the snack counter. I saw a guy around my age that – I assumed – had a family since there were four, black rolling suitcases in his possession. I picked him like a person chooses the ripest apple out of the pile. I asked “Permiso, donde compras los billetes?” I knew I conjugated the simple sentence correctly but my American-accented-Spanish probably gave me away because the handsome guy replied “I speak English too.” Ha! He directed me around the corner to a trailer that housed the ticketing office.
As soon as the boat from Vieques docked, people started lining up. The crowd seemed to be mostly cackling teenagers and families hauling flatbeds stacked with bulk toilet paper, housing décor, and beach chairs. I had forgotten that living on a small island meant importing everything (in fact, I later learned Vieques’ water is transported from the mainland via an underground pipe). I hoped for an outdoor seat but the upper deck was not open. I was dismayed, especially because fresh air helps combat my nausea. I hoped for a window seat but those obviously were the first to be taken so I plopped down, in the center row in the center seat next to one of the many teenagers.
An eternity later the ferry pulled into port at Isabel Segunda. Though the sun was setting, my first view of Vieques was Punta Mulas -- the peach, colonial lighthouse atop the seaside hill. The white wash and palm trees screamed of island life and Puerto Rico's early European influence. This was the stereotypical Puerto Rico I expected, instead of the run-down area by autopista 3 earlier.
As I waited for Miguel’s brown [raper] van, the crowd dispersed. The remaining people were mostly tourists who were waiting on a taxi or trying to get their bearings. Then I saw the same handsome guy from Fajardo – still with four suitcases that apparently all belonged to him. He saw me too & asked “Where are you going?” I replied “A a.k.a. To Esperanza.” He asked where I was staying. Immediately my hyper-sensitive estrogen-filled self thought don’t tell a strange man where you’re staying! That’s the easiest way to get killed! But it was still 100% truth when I answered “No estoy seguro a.k.a. I’m not sure.” The attractive guy laughed, said “you’re crazy” & offered me a ride. Luckily, I didn’t have to lie (because the scrawny 5’2” me did not want to get in a car with the muscular 6’0” Latino) and mentioned that someone was picking me up to transport me to my awaiting scooter. Adolfo asked which company. When I responded “Fun Brothers” he exclaimed “Oh! That’s my uncle!” Yeah right buddy, I may be naïve but I’m not stupid I thought. Trying to catch him deep in his serial killer lie I asked Adolfo how he was related to… and I never said Miguel’s name. Clueless to my reverse psychology, Adolfo gave me his phone number and started telling me a little about his Uncle Miguel. So there it was. I was being paranoid.
I calmed down and around the corner came the beat up brown van. Based on our few phone conversations I expected Miguel to be in his late 30’s, with jet black Spanish hair, a moustache and basically, look like a scraggly version of my Dad when he was young. Actually, Miguel wore – in my opinion – trendy square-shaped glasses, a loose white t-shirt and strap-on sandals. He was bigger with salt & pepper hair and incredibly tan skin. In fact, the only reality about Miguel that matched my idea of him was his genuine, frequent laugh.
I hopped in & Adolfo proved me wrong again by greeting his uncle. As the van pulled away from the port Miguel gave me the summary of family drama & why he was skeptical of Adolfo. Ah, nothing like small-town – or in this case, small-island – drama. Surprisingly there was no awkwardness, though I could tell Miguel was trying to be his version of polite when he said “Do you mind if I stop at the store? I gotta get some sodas for my coworker Doug who’s at the house.” Who was I to protest? This nice guy was giving me a tour of his island, in a sense, his home. Miguel pointed out we were now in one of the unsafe barrios a.k.a. neighborhoods. He passed quite a few convenient stores & it occurred to me that we might not be stopping for soda. I may have just been smooth-talked by yet another guy. Miguel left the van running but parked curbside to an unmarked, vacated mint green two-story building. Now I’m about to be gang-raped. So this is how I die I thought. My palms began to sweat and my chest tightened.
Despite my total helplessness in this foreign ghetto, I steeled myself. If I was going to be slaughtered, I would still [attempt to] put up a fight. I frantically searched for my small scissors with the 5” blades and pointed tips (the only item allowed by airport security in a carry-on) in my backpack as Miguel emerged with a bulging plastic bag… with four silver Diet Coke cans inside. I wanted to beat myself up for entertaining such morbid, pessimistic ideas. I was disappointed that I allowed myself to be brainwashed by my American friends’ heresay.
In retrospect I needed that shock to pop my familiar & isolated bubble. Since 2009 – when I ventured to Australia alone – I had built an emotional barrier. I worked at a business that cared only about its revenue; I lived in a fast-paced city where chain restaurants sprouted weekly; I was used to disconnected & disgruntled humans (myself included).
I was finally starting to let my guard down. Here I was, 28 years old, with nowhere to sleep and a complete stranger driving me somewhere. In just five short hours I made some profound, intrinsic adjustments. 1,800 miles from home the old me was long gone too.
* Fun Brothers is the only scooter rental on Vieques, as well as snorkel equipment, jet skiis and tours. Find them at the hut on the eastern end of the malecon (Flamboyan Street/996), 787.435.9372 or directly call my kind-hearted friend Miguel at 787.403.1830 (seriously, he doesn't mind).