by Nicholas Allanach
I wake from a much-needed nap and squint at sunlight beaming-in through the plane window. Six thousand feet below, a light-blue ocean laps-up against a bright shore. In the distance, low hanging clouds dump sheets of rain onto the plush island of Puerto Rico. As our plane descends over palms, thin roads, and small houses with rusted roofs; a two-year-old girl hanging over the seat in front of me screams and then giggles, sending a mouthful of soggy cookie crumbs out onto my face. I laugh and smile at her youthful mischief as La laguna San Juan, covered by a long bridge lined with Puerto Rican and American flags flying side-by-side, appears on the right side of the plane, to the left, the towering white hotels and large cruise ships of San Juan.
By the time Fail and I get off the plane to collect our luggage, all I want is to check-in to the hotel, shower, change clothes and, hopefully, (assuming there’s enough time) eat food alongside some cold drinks. After all, we hadn’t showered since yesterday and our dark colored thick clothing was an uncomfortable contrast to the light shades of the local’s loose fitting la ropa. Unfortunately, it’d be sometime before we’d be able to change inside any air-conditioning. For now, we’d have to sweat-it-out in this thick humidity while waiting for the rental company’s shuttle.
“Where the fuck is the shuttle?” I gripe to Fail. “The other companies have sent five already. These bastards at Enterprise should buy more buses!”
“Call them. See what’s taking so long.” Fail suggests.
My impatience was mostly from exhaustion. We’d been out the entire night before celebrating Jesse’s graduation with our colleagues, Rachel and Jeff, from the University, where we'd spent most of the unseasonably cool, rainy and windy Brooklyn night warm inside the crowded and energetic Black Betty’s Bar. After many hours of drinking and dancing, we settle our tab and have a final night cap at another place across the street. After a round, our conversation sputters down to a few final laughs. We say farewell to our friends and crash at Fail’s friend’s place for a brief nap before catching our morning flight.
“No answer, just a recording with too many options.” I say hanging-up the phone.
Despite my impatience and crankiness from hunger, I find it easy to push my frustration aside; of course, this would be pretty difficult not to do, since I was standing at the start of a seven-day vacation. I had a whole week to spend away from my full-time job, my part time job, and the monotony of my keyboard confined routine. I breathe in the air and take solace in the fact I’m somewhere other than New York.
The beginning of an adventure in any new place can be disorientating (especially, hung-over). But I was confident I’d be able to regain my balance and adapt to these new surroundings once changed into fresh clothes and after eating some food. Of course a large part of this adaptation required tossing aside any impatience and accepting that things here moved at a different pace. Eventually, the shuttle arrives.
On our drive to the company lot, we stand in the aisle of the crowded bus as it bounces and swerves its way onto an express ramp and highway. Suddenly, I feel my cell phone rumble in my pocket. It’s a text from mi cuento de hadas. “What time do you arrive?”
I respond, “Aqui ahora.” And that “I’ll call once checked-in to the hotel.”
As soon as I pull the full-size white rental car out of the lot and onto the highway, I turn on the radio and hit scan. Channels blast-out a welcome assortment of Raggaeton, Salsa, and Hip-Hop. I drive fast while Fail navigates (a partnership that would sustain throughout our trip’s entirety) to Isla Verde.
We drop the car off with the valet parking attendant and then check-in to the borderline “boutique”, slash, Miami trash San Juan Water Beach Club, located right on a beach filled with locals and tourists sunbathing, swimming, and drinking under umbrellas. We drag our luggage through the garishly blue-hued lobby and onto an elevator that feels more like a fish tank (complete with transparent glass ceiling and wall with built-in fountain). The eighth floor hallway is also blue. We enter our room and the same garish tone welcomes us again, along with a radio blasting Reggaeton. A pair of 3D glasses on the bed -strange. The interior designers of this establishment were obviously on cocaine when dreaming-up such sterile postmodern surroundings. I chuckle then change the synthetic lighting by opening-up the curtains to reveal the sun and busy waterfront of Isla Verde.
I strip out of the sweaty clothes I’d been wearing since starting my night of revelry in Brooklyn. I claim the shower first, then put on a fresh pair of kakis, a light button-up shirt, a pair of white Kenneth Cole’s and top it all off with my new vacation hat. My outfit makes me feel like a drug cartel or some character from a Humphrey Bogart flick.
While Fail showers, I call mi cuento de hadas, who talks with me through her translator. She’s nervous to meet; perhaps because she thinks it’s strange I’m here with three other girls who only speak English? Maybe she’s bored with our long distance game? Or is it something more? Whatever the case, I want to see her and eventually assure her we’ll be able to communicate fine (as we have back in el barrio). She agrees to meet me later that night.
I ecstatically jump up-and-down in the room. I realize I should be cautious about such exuberance, but it’s difficult to curb such emotions.
Fail and I retrieve the car from the valet. Unfortunately, there’s no time to grab a proper bite since we must race back to the airport to retrieve our friends, Donna and Kristi, who arrive on a later flight from JFK. We do manage to choke down some fast food while waiting outside the baggage claim. Once our friends arrive, we return to the hotel so they can freshen-up and we can finally head down to a bar on the beach to eat and toast the start of what was already shaping-up to be a tremendous vacation.
Later that night, I sit at the wet bar on the Water Beach Club’s roof, eating sushi, sipping mojitos, and enjoying the warm breeze that rolls-in off the ocean. The moon grows full in the sky above. I feel like a gangster and must honestly ask myself – how did I get so lucky?
Eventually, mi cuento de hadas calls from downstairs. I take the elevator down to meet her across the street, where she sits in her car. As she rolls down her window, my heart leaps in my chest. What is it about her that so inspires me? I’m not sure, and likely never will. We drop her car off with the valet and then return to the roof. I’m so happy she’s here. It’s nice to feel excited about someone. For a while, I do a good job of speaking Spanish, but my limited vocabulary doesn’t allow me to get to the deeper and heavier conversations I want. Unfortunately, I can’t form the words, so we smoke cigarettes while looking-out onto the ocean. Despite how glad I am to be beside her, I’m still frustrated by the unavoidable and awkward distance between us. Is it just our language or something more? For now, I don’t dwell; instead, I just enjoy her presence.
After a few more rounds, Fail puts my hefty wet bar bill on our room tab. I give a quick smile and farewell to the ultra-hot little black dress wearing waitress and head downstairs to Bianca’s car. We drive through heavy traffic to Old San Juan where the Friday night revelry is just gearing-up.
The thin cobble-stoned streets are alive with energy. Cars blasting music move slow past packed clubs, bars, and chic restaurants. Puerto Rican women wear tight-fitting brightly colored summer dresses with open-toed high-heeled shoes. Men stand inside doorways smoking cigarettes. As Bianca leads us through the streets, I hear everyone speaking Spanish. I wish I had had more time and discipline this past year to focus on Spanish so I could understand what was being said. Of course, I wasn’t missing much; after all, the conversation of these late-night revelers was likely similar to the subject matter of conversations the world over. Nevertheless, I wanted to know more so as to speak this language (her language) fluently. All is a work in progress I suppose.
Bianca leads us up a thin cobble-stoned alley full of people smoking and drinking outside three thumping clubs. We go into one where a band plays salsa on stage as people dance and gyrate on a wooden floor. I press my way through the moving crowd to the bar and buy us a round of Medalla. After a few songs and a beer, Bianca and I step outside to buy a pack of smokes from a small walk-up bar across the street. Inside this “bar” (which is about the size of two minivans) stands a raucous crowd of Puerto Ricans taking shots, listening to loud Reggeaton and smoking. This “bar” is aggressive and gets right to the point. One bartender rapidly pours drinks into plastic cups (so as to be consumed on the street). Occasionally, he stops to take a shot with his clientele. After he pours a drink, he tosses the bottles and beer cans down into a corner already overflowing with broken glass and aluminum. Then, he immediately serves-up the next round.
After we get our cigarettes, we step outside to smoke. I stumble through some brief questions, then Bianca’s phone rings; it’s her friend Luis, who walks up the alley toward us. Luis is a stylish, gay, Puerto Rican filmmaker who speaks both English and Spanish. He shakes my hand and follows Bianca and me into the club where Fail sits listening to music while sipping beer. Now that Luis is here, Bianca talks with him in Spanish, while Fail and I talk in English. After a bit, Bianca starts talking to Fail and Luis, in turn, asks me if “I need anything while I’m here?” I inform him there are some supplies I’ll need for my journey to Isla de Culebra and the El Yunque Rainforest. I tell him that it’d be nice to get them by tonight. He tells me he knows where we can go to get what I’m after and then tells Bianca our plans to score in la perla.
I don’t realize it yet, but la perla is –what Hunter S. Thompson would describe in his The Rum Diary as “a slum so foul it appears on maps of San Juan as a blank spot.” Although much had changed in San Juan since Thompson was here in the late fifties, much had also stayed the same –la perla was one such consistency.
Bianca becomes worried when hearing about my plans to go with Luis, which I think is nice; after all, it not only feels good to be excited about someone, but it’s good to know someone gives a damn about my well-being. Rightfully, Bianca was concerned that this gringo would get pegged a NARC inside a part of town intentionally kept out of tourism brochures. I assure her I’ll be fine and that I will see her soon.
With that, Luis and I leave the bar and walk to la perla. On our way he begins to give me the rundown of “let me do the talking.” I agree. As we approach calle de Norzagaray, we're approached by two men on scooters. They ask us questions in Spanish and then in English. They want to know who I am and how I know Luis.
“Soy Americano.” I state the obvious. “Estoy el vacaciones. El es mi amigo, yo le conoce.” I can’t tell if it’s my terrible Spanish or if they just think I’m a cop, but they give me a strange look.
“Come on, let’s go.” Luis says ignoring the guys on the bikes who let us pass.
I follow my new friend across the street. Although it’s dark, I can hear the ocean on the other side of the large wall that surrounds the old part of the city. The path we’re on begins to slant downward toward a tunnel. On the other side I see colored lights, shadowy figures, and can hear loud thumping music.
When we come-out on the other side, ten young men quickly approach us with open briefcases full of an assortment of drugs. Luis speaks with them and comes away with what we need. I’m amazed by the directness of the purchase and only wish a neighborhood in New York was designated for such activity as it is here. Instead of the immediate accessibility of San Juan, New York filters its drugs through fleets of bike messengers, “corner boys”, and gypsy cabs. All play a pointless game of cat and mouse to get their product to the customer. Of course, when looking at the dramatic difference in the cost of the product in San Juan when compared to the same purchase in New York, one begins to see the “point” of the game – profit.
Luis and I grab some cans of Medalla and take a seat in a small square in the center of the slum decorated with graffiti, murals, and stickers. Groups of people sit around on cement blocks smoking blunts, snorting cocaine, and drinking. Prostitutes stroll the street for johns. I feel like I’m in some scene from the movie “City of God” and wonder how many people here are armed? Luis and I begin to make conversation with the locals. While talking with a few Puerto Ricans, I try to imagine what some of the prudish and high-strung people back in the states would think about such a depraved scene.
Sure, la perla is about escape, addiction, and drugs. And admittedly, the shit-stained walls and overflowing toilet of the “bathroom” in the alley totally illustrates the wretched aspects of this empty lifestyle; but nevertheless, I found something endearing about la perla. I suppose the reason this place was so intriguing to me was because it was still seedy, sketchy, and real. Tourists spend millions every year to vacation in fake sterile and secure spots – Disney, cruises, Las Vegas. But, as The Kills say “I’m tired of cheap and cheerful.” I admit, I wanted the real grit and I found it in one of the few places left in the world where one could still keep it real.
As Luis and I walk back to the bars and clubs of Old San Juan, a few men guarding the other side of the district ask us “Where ya' all going so soon?”
“Ir vea mi cuento de hadas.” I reply. After all, one must have their priorities, even when on vacation.