I am sitting at the dinner table next to Gabriel (Gabi)
I’ll be sleeping on his couch tonight
We just met
Across from me is Johanna (yo-ha-na)
Johanna is sitting almost too close to Carlos,
Whose couch she has slept on for the past two nights
She just met him
Her girlfriends ditched her
In between them and us is Don
NOT Donald – “Who’s Donald? I don’t know any Donalds”
Don used to sleep on Gabi’s couch but
Now he’s been sleeping more on Carlos’
I arrived in San Juan alone an hour ago
Carlos and Gabi live here,
Just a few blocks away from each other
Don sort of lives here,
Kind of wants a job,
None of them are good enough,
Yada yada yada,
Viva San Juan!
Johanna got here two days ago,
Recently became a citizen of the US,
Quit her teaching job and
Works as a nanny for some millionaires in Miami
They take her on trips to fun places like Amsterdam
We are in the Rio Piedras district of San Juan
The rum drinks are flowing
These are the facts.
All of us met on the website Couchsurfing.org. Don, a tall slender wonderer in his mid thirties with the ponytail look and a rabid thirst for knowledge, is our predecessor on these couches. Before coming here I sent an online request first, oddly enough, to Carlos, a fashionable, quick-witted professional, who with his dark tousled hair and stylish clothes looks, and acts much younger than his 34 years. However, he declined due to the fact that his girlfriend from the states was going to be in town visiting. I did not ask where she was tonight or why he was rubbing Johanna’s inviting legs. Next, I tried two other potential couch owners unsuccessfully before Gabi, a short, curly haired auditor in his mid twenties, answered my verbose request with the simple response “Yea, sure you can come.” When I wrote back to see if there was anything else I needed to know I got a minimal response again, “Just call me when you get here. I will be on vacations.” I did as I was told. I later learned that this kind of response was typical from Gabi. A short man of even shorter expression, he chooses his words wisely, often to great comedic effect. His deadpan monotone, while at first perplexing, manifests an understated sarcasm that runs through every discourse.
On my way over from the airport I call from the grocery store Pueblo to see if he needs anything and after grabbing some Canola Oil, I head across the Laguna San Jose to his apartment near the campus of UPR. Gabi’s mother commutes from Caguas to work at a gallery on the other side of Rio Piedras, so there is an eclectic assortment of contemporary art strewn about the white stucco walls. A bottle of Don Q sits on the dark wooden table next to a 2-liter of Diet Coke – Puerto Ricans don’t drink Bacardi, they drink Don Q. However, most of us are bypassing the Don Q for the Flor de Cana, a smooth, aged, Nicaraguan Rum that Carlos brought over. We all agree that it is a fine sipping rum, although we are debating the legitimacy of the plethora of medals and awards touted on the bottle. The 5 glasses on the table leave ever-growing pools of condensation in the humid, tropic air. Gabi, our pajama-clad host, takes it upon himself to give the table a wipe down every few minutes while he cooks his own special dish “Gabi Hodgepodge,” a vegetable medley of stewed yucca, carrots and corn (among other aromatic ingredients) served over rice.
The door is opened out to the apartment complex’s courtyard with an oscillating fan ushering a cool breeze into the dining area. Outside, a gang of dogs is waging war with a pair of regal-looking roosters. For our sake, I am hoping the dogs win, although my wake-up calls at 5:00am would prove otherwise. The neighbors are outside on their porch in lawn chairs watching Telemundo on the TV that is inside, and chatting with passersby. Inside Gabi’s we are all gathered at the table speaking in English, even though Johanna, Don and I have a basic understanding of the language here. Every now and again one of us will interject in Spanish just to prove we can. Everyone at the table is sharing stories, jostling for attention the way enthusiastic travelers do. I am curious if their territorial rights are similar to those of the Virgin Islands, where I live. It turns out that they are quite different. After a brief history lesson on Puerto Rico and an impassioned speech about the Puerto Rican Independence Movement headed by Pedro Albizu Campos, whose picture hangs proudly in the hallway, Johanna asks if we are interested to hear her heritage story. Johanna is the type that can captivate a whole room the second she opens her mouth. With piercing eyes and curvy features that she wields like weapons, Johanna has us locked into her story. She was born and spent her formative years in the autonomous province of Italy called South Tyrol, which lies haphazardly along the northern border in the Alps. She was raised, like everyone else in the area, speaking German, and spoke of the border conflicts that allies Hitler and Mussolini held over the region during WWII.
With a sudden change in music the topic shifts to Reggaeton. Do we like it? Is there really any need for Reggaeton ballads? The topic shifts again as Shakira’s new song Loba (She Wolf) comes on – the first of many times I will hear the song in the next few days. While Shakira and Gabi howl in the background Carlos invites us all out on a road trip the next day to Gozalandia. From what I can gather, it is a river with a waterfall, and we should be prepared to walk through mud and do some cliff jumping. Nobody quite knows how to get there and we will probably get lost but we are assured that when we find it, it will be well worth it. I am intrigued and we all agree to meet the following day at Plaza de Las Americas at 9:30 am, before heading out on the town for the duration of the night. We make our way to some of the local college bars in Rio Piedras, and then to a dark, fog-happy discothèque in Santurce. Eventually, my eyes get tired of fighting the strobe light, and 9:30 is approaching fast, so we head home to try and squeeze in a few hours of slumber before our adventure tomorrow.
Gabi and I wake around 9:30 the next morning and I am worried we are going to miss our road trip. He laughs, “Did you think they really meant 9:30?” At 11, we make our way to Plaza de Las Americas, an amusement park of consumption and the largest mall in the Caribbean. Since Johanna did not buy the insurance plan, we all jump into my rental and head west on 22 towards Arecibo. As we depart the greater San Juan metropolitan area we get our first glimpse of the less polished side of Puerto Rico. Gabi is using the word “sherk” a lot until I ask him what that is and realize he is meaning to say “shack”. Having traveled to the territory before, I am not at all shocked by the poorly planned communities that dot the sides of the highway as you head west out of town. However Carlos, fueled by his Cornell education, feels compelled to tell us how embarrassed he is. He shows contempt for the less than perfect parts of the Puerto Rican landscape and seems ashamed that we are observing it. “This is the image that they have of us in the States, like we are some third world country.” Johanna had mistakenly asked if Plaza de Las Americas was their “American Mall” earlier and had yet to live it down. Carlos would point out other shopping centers as we drove calling them “Taino Indian Mall,” “Borinquen Mall” … While Carlos rants about the poorly designed structures and the inherent water issues, I cannot help but think that there are much worse places stateside. At least these villages, one in particular that stands in the shadow of a sheer limestone cliff, have a palpable sense of community.
We stop in Arecibo for lunch at Gabi’s favorite fast food restaurant El Meson where curiously, he orders only papas fritas (fries). A few more kilometers down the road we turn south on 119 towards San Sebastian in the mountainous interior. Driving through cow country in a light rain we pass through misty fields around the magical Laga de Guajataca, a tranquil lake surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. After getting lost (as planned) for about an hour and timidly asking for directions several times, the iPhones come out and we are finally able to locate a semblance of a trail.
We park in front of a grand estate, head over to a chained off opening in the bush, take off our shoes and head down the muddiest trail I have ever hiked. Tropical Storm Erika brushed by two days ago, drenching this part of the island so how I will ever make it down without falling is a mystery. The mud webs my toes and crusts into streaks across my extremities. Many parts of the trail are easier to slide than to walk. Carlos, who came with water shoes, bolts down the trail first and reappears near the bottom sporting brown war paint atop a big grin on his face. At the bottom we wade up Gozalandia River, leaving a trail of brown water swirling behind us as we head towards the noise of the falls and its revelers. Carlos was right – it was worth the trip. Ahead is a beautiful oasis, a purist’s alternative to the touristy, overcrowded waterfalls of El Yunque Rain Forest just east of San Juan. Here there are simply a few locals who noticeably frequent the spot. A father is yelling to his boys above, mentoring them on the intricacies of the descent from the highest reachable spot on the falls about 50 feet above. It is a dangerous feat, as you must clear the slant of the rock face in order to land safely in the pool below. The older brother is scared but the younger one is fearless and jumps time and time again to his father’s great adoration. Young Puerto Rican couples sit intertwined in the cold river water below watching.
A rope swing lies unused in the corner, so I navigate a path through the rocks and give it a try with disastrous results. The water below is too shallow, which is presumably why no one is using the apparatus… turns out you just end up scraping your legs on the underwater rocks. After this embarrassment, I had to redeem myself so I successfully jump two of the lower overhangs on the falls as do Don, Carlos and Johanna. The water is cold, and the rain gives the air a brusque chill, so we begin our ascent back up the muddy path in our damp clothes.
About two-thirds of the way up the trail Gabi veers off into the bushes towards a nearby house. In the backyard he has spotted a local kid about 15 feet up in a tree picking Pumarosas, dropping them down to his sister below. As I listen to a boisterous parrot in the distance, Gabi chats with the siblings for a short while before returning with a Pumarosa for me to sample. Pumarosas, I am told, do not last but a day or two after they are picked so this is a special treat. The plum-shaped red fruit’s taste is similar to that of an apple with a hint of rose (as the name would imply). It is quite refreshing, especially after the adventure we just had fighting to stay on two feet walking uphill in a downhill mud stream.
Gozalandia conquered, Gabi wants to take us to a town about a half hour deeper into the hilly interior called Lares, particularly to a renowned ice cream shop there called Heladería de Lares. As we enter into town he explains to me, “There are three parts to every town in Puerto Rico – a church, a city hall, and a plaza. Usually the church and city hall are on the plaza.” As I think back on every town in Puerto Rico I have visited I wonder why I never made this realization before. Lares, I am told, is about as far away from the ocean as you can get in Puerto Rico. The town has a very idyllic charm, a dollhouse air of a quaint, well-planned town at the foothills of the central mountains. When we arrive at the ice cream shop on the plaza next to the city hall across from the church, there is a line out the door. It is as if the whole town is on their ice cream break. This is no ordinary ice cream shop. As I wait in the massive line I look at all the pictures on the wall outlining the history of Lares and it’s visitors. Even Bill Clinton made his way here for a snapshot and an ice cream grin. However, what really makes this place special is the type of ice cream they serve; nothing is off limits. A sampling of the flavors includes white cheese, corn, rice and beans, pigeon pea, avocado, yucca, garlic, rum, as well as local fruit flavors like tamarind, genip, plantain and passion fruit. I opt for two sweet flavors, tamarind and sweet plantain, and one savory, Rice and Beans. Surprisingly enough, Rice and Beans is my favorite, and yes it tastes like Rice and Beans. I sample some of the other flavors and, unfailingly, the grossest sounding ones are unequivocally the best. Even white cheese and corn taste delicious in ice cream form. Then again, I have always opted for savory over sweet.
I sit in the plaza eating my ice cream and watching the sad remains of a hairless, feral dog struggle to make his way over to the trash can full of abandoned ice cream cups. Beyond him, behind the fountain, is a street vendor selling a glorious array of fried foods. I cannot resist so I purchase an Arepa, a fried ball of yucca and dough with ground beef in the middle, for a dollar. But, we are not done eating yet. Gabi wants to go to a little family restaurant even further into the interior of the island just past the Parque Ceremonial Indigena in Caguna.
As we head up and down the winding roads at dusk, Don opens the window so as not to throw up his Pigeon Pea ice cream, Gabi’s polyester shirt is rubbing against Carlos’ skin aggravating him and giving him a rash, and the least knowledgeable members of our group, Johanna and I, are left navigating in front. It is dark when we arrive at Casa Familia, a small, unassuming building on the side of a perilous curve in the road. On the far wall is a mural of a powerful Taino Indian carrying his crops up a hill away from an oddly familiar waterfall. Johanna orders garlic chicken, and I order the Chicken Mofongo, the Puerto Rican staple of stewed chicken served in a bowl of mashed fried green plantains. The others ordered pizza, not needing to order their own cultural offerings. After our meal Gabi orders us all coffee, which is grown just down the street and tastes like it. With food in my belly, a refreshing coffee buzz, and a bag of Aromas del Campo’s select coffee to go, I am ready to face the roads again en route to the highway back to San Juan.
When we finally make it back to Plaza de Las Americas I am the only one awake. All plans to go out dancing have been ditched, and we are all happily wiped out. Johanna and Don head off with Carlos to sleep on their respective couches and I depart with Gabi to sleep on my own. Johanna leaves for Miami tomorrow – more kids to watch and parents to placate. Don might have a job interview tomorrow and will probably get his own apartment soon (or switch back over to Gabi’s for a while). Carlos and Gabi have more couch surfers coming tomorrow, a cycle that never ends. It strikes me that they are the ambassadors of their city, offering a peephole and injecting their truths into a city steeped in myth and tropic fantasy. They have opened up their doors so that others may see the island they love in a new light, a light they are careful to project.