It feels just like magic every time. To hop a plane in the pre-dawn darkness on a frigid February morning in "God give me strength" Baltimore; fly for five hours; disembark in some hot spot like San Juan, Puerto Rico; and then walk out into 80 degree sunshine. It rivals any disappearing act that Harry Houdini, or even Gandalf the Wizard, ever pulled off. And to escape the Endless Winter of 2014 was like being delivered from evil.
Louis Muñoz Marín International Airport is just small enough to make getting around a breeze, and chaotic enough to send you running in circles. But this was not our first trip to San Juan, so we had a vague idea of where we were going, though our previous visit had been quite different. Our very first Royal Caribbean cruise had left from San Juan and we had flown in the night before, landing around midnight. The airport had been dark and eerily vacant as we sleep walked to the baggage area and then followed the signs to the high-rise airport hotel which is attached directly to the airport. That had been a surreal experience, navigating the spooky airport, devoid of all humans, trying to find the check-in desk which turned out to be in a broom closet outside near the front entrance.
This time around we weren’t going to play that game and decided to arrive on a Tuesday morning, four days before the Celebrity Summit left for a seven day Eastern Caribbean cruise.
So, after picking up our bags, we caught the convenient shuttle van to the Thrifty car rental office on the south side of the 66 Freeway right across from the airport. We had decided to rent a car so we could explore the rest of the island and Thrifty was offering a great deal on a full-size car for $38 a day, with unlimited mileage.
Our shuttle driver was popping his gum and bopping to the lively music coming from the van's radio. Gum chewing is muy, muy popular in Puerto Rico, as is blaring salsa music, and we got both barrels as we bounced along the potholed roads surrounding the giant airport complex where a mix of large jets, U.S. military transport planes, and small private Piper Cubs were constantly landing and taking off.
The Thrifty car rental office was a quick lesson in chill. Everyone talked fast and moved slow, and it was immediately clear that time was now a relative concept. Puerto Rico has adopted a curious business model based on the notion that three people can easily do the job of one which makes every task look like a complicated dance in molasses. But we were in no hurry – it was two o’clock and we couldn’t check into our hotel in Old San Juan until three – so we basked in the warmth of our new vacation home and patiently awaited our car after signing all of the who knows what the hell you are filling out? small print forms. We sat on a white bench outside the office for about thirty minutes, taking in the crazy sights, and then a brand new Chevy Impala pulled up and a friendly young man helped us load our bags and complete the final vehicle inspection before we were cut loose.
Driving in a foreign land is always a bit intimidating and scary at first. And when I put the Chevy in drive and slowly proceeded through the barbed wire fence and out onto a narrow road filled with cars darting in and out of roadside attractions lined with old trucks laden with fresh fruit, it was like driving into a rundown Margaritaville fueled by crystal meth.
“Well now, this is different,” I said to Inna as we dodged an emaciated dog and almost hit a brightly-colored taxi head-on.
I have never been able to figure out how Puerto Rico fits into the international scheme of things. It’s sort of like an upscale Caribbean country. But it’s not a country. Technically, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States located in the eastern Caribbean, sandwiched between Haiti and Antigua.
Maps refer to Puerto Rico as being part of the Greater Antilles, along with Cuba, Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti), and Jamaica. It is part of an island chain that includes Culebra (a beach lined paradise), Vieques (a former U.S. Navy bombing range), and Mona (the forgotten island where Puerto Ricans go to play).
The first inhabitants of the island were the peaceful Taino, but when Christopher Columbus landed there in 1493, all of that quickly changed. Puerto Rico means “rich port” and the Spanish held it as their primary base of operations for 400 years as they systematically looted the Caribbean. Most of the Taino died of European diseases for which they had no immunity and the rest either fled or were enslaved by their brutal Spanish masters.
In 1898, the United States, led by Teddy Roosevelt and his band of merry Rough Riders, defeated the Spanish in the short-lived Spanish-American War, and under the generous terms of the Treaty of Paris, the U.S. suddenly became the proud owner of Puerto Rico and some prime Caribbean real estate.
In 1917, the U.S. finally got around to granting citizenship to Puerto Ricans, and for the next thirty years the island was essentially a U.S. protectorate – another one of those nebulous phrases that like “territory” is loosely defined and relegates the citizens to Limboland. Since 1948, Puerto Ricans have elected their own Governor and have adopted their own Constitution. They have a nice flag, vaguely resembling the American flag, and while English is the official language, most people still speak Spanish only. (more on this later)
Puerto Rico has its own elected legislature, but the U.S. Congress pretty much dictates the rules of engagement. The islanders can’t vote in U.S. presidential elections because the territory is not a state. For years the islanders have debated whether they want to be a state and in 2012, 61 percent voted for statehood in a non-binding election – non-binding because there isn’t a chance in hell that they will ever become a state. Why? For the same reason the District of Columbia won’t be a state any time soon. The Republicans in our Congress learned their lesson with Hawaii. Dark-skinned people tend to vote Democrat, and if they granted statehood to Puerto Rico, you can pretty much guarantee that their two Senators would help tip the balance in favor of the Democrats. It’s a political hot potato that Congress is never going to try and catch. And so, Puerto Rico is neither here nor there, and its citizens languish like a welfare child or ward of the state in voiceless anonymity. It’s your classic case of “taxation without representation” and would no doubt raise the hackles of our Founding Fathers who revolted against the very same sort of second class citizen status with England.
I’m not arguing that Puerto Rico should be a state. And we do a helluva lot to support our nearby neighbors to the south; without the millions of dollars in U.S. aid each year, Puerto Rico would immediately come apart at the seams. But the current situation breeds mass confusion and engenders bad blood and deep seeded resentment on both sides of the watery divide.
But it sure is a nice place for those of us from the lower forty-eight to come and play, especially in the dead of winter.
By the time we exited the main highway bisecting San Juan and crossed the causeway between the beachfront high-rises of the fashionable Candado section of town and motored cautiously into Old San Juan, I was feeling pretty comfortable about squeeze car driving, and the constant honking of horns had become mere background noise.
We had booked a room at the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel and Casino located along the El Malecón waterfront on the southern edge of Old San Juan. As with so many other seaside cities, glamming up the inner harbor is a proven way to attract tourists. Knock down the dive bars and docks where Bluto and his buddies used to work and party hardy, and then replace it all with a fancy promenade lined with big sculptures, a cruise ship terminal, trendy shops like Ralph Lauren and the Harley Davidson Boutique, some upscale townhomes, a few high-rise luxury hotels, and a Señor Frog's, and you are off to the races.
It was hard to miss the tall yellow building at the water’s edge plastered with a bright red Sheraton sign, but finding the valet entrance up a side alley took a bit of hunting. It was three o’clock on the button, check-in time, and therein lies a valuable travel lesson. Most people these days book their hotel reservations on-line through Expedia or Travelocity, where they make you run through the standard menu of single, Queen, room with a view, smoking or non-smoking, and you book the deal that’s best for you, thinking that’s what you will find when you arrive. The room you actually end up with is based solely on two factors: availability and when you get there. If you arrive early, like we did, they will give you the best room they have, which at that point is usually most of the hotel. We came early, so we got a better room – someone else’s room. We had booked a ground floor interior room because that was all that was available when we made our reservation at the last minute, but we ended up with a eighth floor room with a balcony overlooking the harbor.
And here’s another travel tip. When you check in after a long flight, you are usually pretty brain dead and often forget to ask the right questions, like about upgrading your room. Always ask for an upgrade. And if you are an early arrival, the chances are you will end up with a better room than you had bargained for.
Coming from the worst winter ever to lush green plants, bright flowers, and blue water was like landing in Paradise. It was a joy to behold as we stood on our lofty balcony, taking in the sights and sounds. Annapolis seemed a million miles away.
After unpacking and donning our summer clothes, we decided to stroll around the old city and grab an early dinner. Old San Juan is one of our favorite places, like stepping back into old Spain, and we love to walk its narrow cobblestone streets. The city was awash in color: little pink houses; yellow and green apartment buildings with tall arched windows, framing brown louvered shutters; blue brick streets; aged white plaster walls; and narrow balconies just wide enough for a person to stand, adorned with flowers and jungle plants, enclosed with ornate wrought iron railings similar to the ones you might see on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Horse drawn carriages clip-clopped along the quiet streets while costumed musicians played for tips. The book stalls and vendors in Paseo Portuario were doing a lively business as students in their black pants and black t-shirts practiced some bouncy school dance across from a pink pillbox bank. ALL schools in the Caribbean require uniforms and each school is recognized by their colors. The locals sauntered by, the men in long, baggy shorts, white tank tops, cool shades and crowned with the signature Puerto Rican head gear, the Pork Pie Hat (which now comes in every color and style imaginable); and the women sashayed along in their flower print dresses, talking a mile a minute in Spanish and laughing like they didn’t have a care in the world.
We stopped for a beer at Calmado Bar Mareno, one of the many outdoor cafes near the San Cristobal Castle (fort) on the east side of the old world city. Medalla beer is the favorite local beer and the eighty-degree sunshine made it taste like cold nectar. We shared a shrimp appetizer as milky white tourists passed by, playing with their cellphones, snapping pictures, and gaping at the endlessly captivating surroundings.
It had been a whirlwind day and after a few beers we settled into a nice groove. We strolled through the trendy shopping district along Fortaleza Street and then back down San Francisco Street, lined with Old World beauty unrivaled in the New. It being a Tuesday in the early evening, there wasn’t much happening and the streets were almost empty. We stopped to sit on a bench in the Plaza La Barandilla where the students from Carlos Albrizu University bustled by laden with books and laptops. The school is a private non-profit college, offering graduate and undergraduate degrees in psychology, business, and education, with satellite campuses in Doral and Miami Florida, for those wanting to flee the impending disaster that is Puerto Rico.
I’m going to discuss at some later point the whole road to financial ruin that Puerto Rico is heading down, but this was our first night in town and all seemed right with the world.
As the sun began to set we stumbled upon the El Asador - The grill Old San Juan, which claimed to serve the best seafood in town. The place itself was charming, like dining in Barcelona. The food was – well, let’s just say it did the trick, but was probably not the best in town. The setting more than made up for anything lacking in the culinary department. We dined in an open doorway, marveling again at the shiny, dark blue bricks of the street, and the eye candy architecture. We were the only people in the place and the wait staff were there when we needed them, and left us alone when we didn’t. Over the mahogany bar, a small television broadcast the Winter Olympics from Sochi, Russia, where athletes were cross country skiing and luging down bobsled runs like rockets. A warm sea breeze blew in from the nearby harbor, a faint aroma of salt air mixed with spicy food, and Inna and I toasted our great escape.
Most of the people on the planet Earth could never experience what we had done over the past twelve hours. And I think we often take such amazing gifts for granted …