Puerto Rico may be an island, but it is a big and diverse island. And San Juan is also a big and diverse city. As I’ve expressed before, I travel slowly, so when I only have a few days in a place, I want to get to know its locals and corner stores, its bodegas and quirks. Therefore, in San Juan I stuck only to the hood of Old San Juan, or San Juan Viejo.
El Viejo reminded me of living in Quito in a way, or of my time Lima or Valparaiso, where the old Spanish colonial has morphed with the newer colored paint and modern bustle of latin american life. However, San Juan is indeed unique and even somewhat confusing. It took me awhile to get my bearings –to realize that to use Spanish or to use English is up to my discretion –to realize just how friendly puerto-riqueños are –to realize people are more than willing to talk about issues ranging from the USA-Puerto Rico territorial debate to the emerging prevalence of gay rights and activism on the island (yay!) — finally, to realize this place is not like any I’ve been before, and yet I feel very comfortable.
My stay was along the waterfront cobblestone roads, which was a treat in itself. Waking up from a mid-afternoon seista to the sound of waves crashing against the old Spanish fort out my window seemed to promise that the each evening would always be a lively one.
Indeed, never did they fail. Just two minutes out the door on my first night, I came across a dance party that had quite literally taken to the the streets. Encouragments of “Baile! Baile!” found me in the middle of a swarming body of dancing men, women, young, old, foreign and local, all swaying and clapping as the sun set just beyond us over the spanish-built wall into the Atlantic.
The following days were a blur of delicious mofongo (a fried plantain-based dish typically made with fried green plantains mashed together in a pilón), stuffed avocados, concha and crab salads, and Don Q rum out of plastic cups; afternoons climbing dizzying staircases and taking in massive vistas atop spanish fortresses; art galleries and shops stuffed with anything from cheesy tourist magnets to traditional island wares to original works by local artists.
My final day in El Viejo served as a perfect reflection of the confusing beauty of the neighborhood and of my experiences here. Whilst eating helado de coco (coconut ice cream), I spent an aimless afternoon wandering throughout the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, Old San Juan’s coastal graveyard. This idealic, slightly melancholy scene was punctuated by the sounds of children playing soccer, just feet from the stark white angles residing over their ancestors graves.
I don’t have much more to say for San Juan, because it was such a brief and simply pleasant experience. What sticks with me is the feeling of warmth and communication that buzzed the street of Old San Juan. People ready to talk and share and question. People ready to dance and eat and probably drink a little, too.
The last night walking home in the rain, looking toward the Spanish fort and listening to the fading sounds of yet another nightly dance party, I felt just as confused and yet comfortable as I had the first day arriving. It was a nice feeling, really. And one I encourage you all to pursue…..perhaps even here in El Viejo.