I arrived in Puerto Rico on July 25th, the day corrupt Governor Ricardo Rosselló resigned after masses stormed San Juan. “Ricky’s” homophobic and misogynistic private messages were leaked to the public, yet he’d released an initial statement that he would not step down from office. So many protestors marched that a major highway shut down and cruise ships cancelled their stops to the city; until, at last Ricky relented.
When I stepped onto the cobblestoned streets, it was raining and cheers from marchers were audible over the deluge. Puerto Rican flags streamed above beaming faces, motorcycle rallies charged, and a joyous parade consumed the narrow roads.
My flight had arrived hours ahead of my companion’s. Kyrsten, one of my oldest friends from college, spontaneously made travel arrangements just a few weeks before to join me. Once I was settled in the hostel, I took my camera through Old San Juan, which unfolded directly outside of our door.
To me, the best part in touching down in another culture is seeing the patina and depth of age in walls and roads.
The next day, Kyrsten and I rented a car and drove the 45 minutes outside the city to El Bosque Pluvial, El Yunque. Just outside the information booth there was a sign warning of rabid mongoose.
Once we were inside the rain forest, it took another 30 minutes to drive towards the summit. Many trails were still closed due to damage from María, but the windy trek to the very top was still open.
The next day we ventured to Miramar for MADMI, El Museo de Arte y Diseño, a quirky little museum in a pink house with white scalloped trim. We saw the work of Nathan Budoff’s Diseñando Utopías—massive canvases of landscapes with bears, sharks, prairie dogs, and elephants.
The gallery at the end showcased abstracts in a high-ceilinged glass room with expansive beanbag chairs, upon which we promptly fell asleep and dosed for a good 45 min.
Next, we went to Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, a brick building that was once a school. Galleries encircle the grand central courtyard, which is open to the sky which. We entered Marta Pérez-García’s workshop, where she comes to teach museum-goers how to craft rustic dolls—she was absent that day, but the attendants showed us her shelves of material and mounds of dolls in various states of completion. Her collection critiques the physical and mental violence women face.
The main exhibit was of Antonio Martorell. Umbrellas in various forms were used as stencils on large sheets of paper that are hung in a grid. Part of the room is separated by open black umbrellas blockading your passage. They are tangled in red, white, and blue yarn and represent Trump’s wall. Beyond are historical texts declaiming freedom superimposed with portraits painted in bleeding marks like they were sprayed with water.
Aside from the ruins, the museums, the beaches, the hikes, the drum circle, the Bacardí tour, the brewery, the salsa dancing at La Factoría, the poetry reading open mike night, there was food. If I tell the story of this trip with images, the product is this post. If I tell the story of this trip with spoken words, the words are about food.
Mofongo is a classic Puerto Rican dish that consists of a brick of mashed plantains topped with any number of things: conche, pork, broccoli. It is a dense mass of pleasure and everyone eats it all the time. There were also enchiladas, tacos, empanadas, paella, pulpo gallego, ceviche, tostones, fried cheese with guava BBQ sauce (with which I feel in love), mallorca pastries, soursop mimosas, piña coladas, Puerto Rican brewed Ocean Lab beers...my stomach explored as much as my eyes.
On the morning of the 29th, we walked to San Cristóbal to learn about the fortress ruins that used to guard Old San Juan.
The following morning brought an intense warm rain. To the north, I visited the second fort of San Juan, El Morro. I brought along a disposable waterproof film camera. From the highest point in El Morro I could see the coast stretch to San Cristóbal, between which was a cemetery and a bright block of colors.
I followed the water and came upon La Perla, a slum impacted by María. Chickens run free here and every wall is a different vidid color. Trash was strewn in the roads and a young hen picked and swallowed styrofoam beads from a discarded package.
This is rusty metal showing through paint on a gate along La Perla's coast when you head north towards El Morro. I was so captivated I crab walked side-ways, crouching up and down, cataloguing across the boardwalk. This one looks like rockets of exploding roses to me. The images below relate to one of my previous projects, Esthesia, which explores our response to texture.
I tried to go to el Museo de Casa Blanca in the historic district, but the Ponce de Leon house museum was closed that day. I could, however, access the gardens behind. It was still sprinkling, but nonetheless I walked through the quiet pathways and admired the way mossy growths found life on their concrete surroundings.
Back in the historic district, I exited the gardens and began the trek back to our hostel.
On the last day, I asked our hostel mates if I could take their portraits. This is Assal from Iran. She lives in LA and travels internationally every year for her birthday.
The hostel on Calle Fortaleza was comfortable—the location was key and we enjoyed its charm. In the kitchen there was an antique cast iron stove with decorative iron tendrils that we had to light with a propane tank and a lighter, on which we cooked breakfast burritos for a handful of mornings. Avocados in Puerto Rico were the size of squash and had smooth, un-dimpled skin. They maintained a bright green when they were ripe, and made their way into as many meals as we could manage.
Kyrsten and I shared a small room of two bunk beds with young women that first weekend, and were then the only occupants the rest of our time there. We each took bottom bunks and slept beneath scratchy white cotton sheets amidst a rattling air conditioner.
Our room was next to the only balcony that opened onto the streets. One night we were serenaded to sleep by a saxophone player on the street. On another, we were kept awake by an older occupant named Anne.
Anne was likely in her late 50’s, had great pillowy bags beneath her eyes, and the possibility of her arhythmic gait became a crippling limp when she knew you were watching. She was the kind of guest that assaulted you with unending monologues about the ingredients of her last meal while blocking your entrance to the bathroom.
The night Anne kept us awake was during a conversation with Assal. We couldn’t hear Assal’s soft responses, only Anne’s sharp, thunderous voice excitedly discussing her auras, and some “high level of security clearance” she had been awarded. Anne was to be avoided at all costs—her presence was deemed by all as unacceptable.
At one point a lawyer stayed at the hostel. He made his presence known from beyond our closed doors when he picked up his guitar and broke out into booming operatic song alone in the hallway…until Anne contested with a squall, her interchangeably defective legs audibly dragging the linoleum.
Richie, self-described as a “puffy man” while motioning a toke, was the only other presence. Though his uncle managed the hostel, Richie was on duty every shift we were there for except the first. Richie was from the Dominican Republic and also ran a small screen printing business. I bought a black shirt from him with the PR flag printed in white.
His dark dreads cascaded down to mid-thigh and his gummy smile was infectious--details that did not seem to be lost on Assal, who puffed out her formidable chest when in his company. She made him dinner on at least one occasion.
Assal and Richie were enjoyable company, and on the last night we shared some red wine in the small foyer and talked. Richie regaled us with tales of military grade “popper” fireworks he played with as a child in the Dominical Republic (which, regrettably, he hasn’t been able to obtain since), and about how his greatest wish was to see a manatee in the sea.
“I want to connect with it” he said, hands Egyptian-mummy-style crossed tight against his chest, “really hug it and look into its eyes, and communicate, ‘I love you.’ “ He also translated a poem about María I had found printed on a wall in La Perla.
“The hurricane, of course it was bad, but after it passed it made you see, really see your neighbors, and come together, no phones, nothing to distract you, to rebuild. We had dehydrated food sent to us in military packages—strange things. The worst was this philly sandwich with powdered cheese you had to add water to, plus no microwave or nothing. That was rough.”
Then Assal described her many travels; each year on her birthday she goes somewhere English isn’t spoken. Morocco, Egypt, Costa Rica (where she found the finest medical grade cocaine and laid solo and happy in a hammock singing and watching in fascination as her own hands danced in the air above her). She was now living in LA, worked at a farmer’s market, and commuted by bike. “Visit LA, and I’ll show you how to be. I know how to work the city, it’s best parts.”
Abruptly, Anne buzzed into the building and squinted up the steep steps at us in the foyer, worldless and furious, until Richie shrugged and went down to help her with some bags. Her limp was especially pronounced and she passed us by at a snail’s pace, immediate distaste for our congregation clear on her downturned mouth.
A few minutes after she’d been in her room, she limped into the foyer. “How long will you be talking?” she demanded. We stared back at her with no answer. “Because I’m meditating. I really need quiet for my meditating. I need you all to be quiet.” We said nothing, expressionless. She huffed back to her room.
“She can shriek all night on the balcony, but we can’t have a conversation? It was much later and we didn’t even ask her to be quiet, because that’s not what you do at a hostel. You put in your ear plugs and roll over and deal.” I said, Richie applauding. She had argued frequently about her amenities and had been a general pain to Richie and the guests.
She poked her fleshy nose through the slit of her open door. “Quiet,” she hissed. “When will you be all be done?”
“In a minute,” we said. Her nose retreated. She moaned dramatically from behind her door.
“Meditating,” Richie mused, and we laughed helplessly. Hostels are not strictly for the young, but they demand an easy-going outlook and an adventurous spirit. If you have neither, you don’t belong, and no one will care—those are the known facts, and I love the youthful spaces that are created by these attitudes.
The next morning, before we left for the airport, Richie was on the phone, scattered and on hold. “It’s Anne,” he said. She’d shut herself in her room. “She’s refusing to leave today, but her reservation is up. I’m calling the police to have her forcibly removed.” His eyes were frantic, darting side to side, “She has to leave!” he whispered.
I was devastated to depart without the end of Anne’s story.