I arrived in Puerto Rico with no idea what to expect. Only one person that I had met had visited Puerto Rico and I believe it was a cruise stop off where they were whisked away directly to the Barcadi factory before re joining the luxury boat for a buffet dinner. Just the name Puerto Rico seems to be a mystery as 8/10 people I tell that i’m headed there reply “oh Costa Rica? I hear it’s lovely.” I started to wonder if in fact I had just been pronouncing Costa Rica wrong the whole time but a brief check of my flights with the google machine confirmed that it is indeed a different country, located in the Caribbean. From what I could gather it is unofficially the 51st state of America, which I discovered when upon arrival when my passport wasn’t checked, nor was a Visa issued leaving me in overstayers limbo. However I was allowed to roam free from the air conditioned airport and into the intense humidity of the Caribbean.
To put this into context I should probably explain why i’m here. The past few months have been a whirlwind trip. I decided to fly to England to see the family and watch the Olympics, followed by a roadtrip from Los Angeles up the west coast of America to Vancouver. I worked in Canada for a month and decided that the time on the road had taken it’s toll. At the ripe old age of 21 I needed a break from drinking, socialising and doing things in general. Not yet able to apply for my retirement pension, the cheapest way to do so was wwoofing- a scheme where you volunteer on an organic farm in exchange for food and board. So with the promise of an organic farming retreat in the Caribbean to fulfil my newfound introverted and reclusive needs I booked a ticket. When people meet travellers they tend to throw around buzz words like “experience” and “free spirited.” For me this is quite the opposite. I came to Puerto Rico because I was tired from all the experiences and simply wanted to detox, read, write and live a simple life by myself for a month or two.
It seemed as if I had found the perfect hosts for me to do so as well. The couple hosting me told me from the off set that they aren’t in fact an organic farm but a luxury bed and breakfast, simply looking for some free labour to help do up their property. They said a lot of wwoofers were disappointed find that they wouldn’t be living a sustainable lifestyle, growing their own food and weaving dream catchers out of recycled materiel however this suited me just fine. In exchange for a few hours of work a day, I received free food, free access to internet, films and books and free accommodation right in the heart of the El Yunque rainforest. Perfect to regather my ever sprawling thoughts.
The only problem is that Latino culture is so damned intriguing, confusing, fascinating and just about any other adjective you can think of to describe these beautiful people. Right from being picked up from the airport I liked the way they did things. Traffic here is normally crazy but on this particular day it was election day. Cue hundreds of beaten up old vans crammed with locals in bandannas and megaphones screaming for their favourite candidate. Reminiscent of Homer Simpson the ‘cosmic fool’ bringing back to hippie culture to springfield x 1000. It made the front lawn placards of Orange County seem like the most mundane way to express democracy. The whole city was a buzz with a madness reserved only in western countries for sports. The big issue this election was voting for independence. Obama has pretty much said that if they want to become part of the states then he will continue to support them. If they want to be independent then they are on their own. My hosts reliably informed me that they will vote to become part of USA because they rely too much on U.S. funding.
It seems that Americans are more than happy to move over here and enjoy the tropical lifestyle, however the majority do not like the natives. Most americans living here reside on the hills in locked gate communities and view a lot of the local ways with mistrust and bewilderment. I have been heavily warned against visiting the local bar as it’s ‘all drug users and prostitutes down there’ and to watch out for the public beaches because ‘the locals just play loud music from shitty cars, get drunk on the beach and mug tourists.
I spent most of today wandering the ‘ghettos’ and loved every minute of it. Not only because of my shortage of money do I tend to avoid the touristy areas, but in my opinion, you can only harp on with those travel cliches such as “experience” and “open mindedness” if you actually take the time to see the local culture. Not just drink a fruity “caribbean” cocktail at the hotel or take a guided tour of the nice parts of town, but see the real people of a country, their priorities, hardships and joy.
After wandering through hours of coconut and palm tree lined streets full of abandoned, graffitied houses, half finished buildings and stray dogs seeking shade under broke down cars I arrived at a strip of ‘kioskos’ running parallel to the beach. A long line of of garages and sheds filled with food an drink vendors catering to everyone from rich tourists to locals seeking $1.00 beers and fried meat. I chose the dirtiest, cheapest looking one and sat watching the melee of people. Outside the stores were a range of cars parked, one blasting very loud reggae ton, a latino type of club music. Large groups of families lined the beach barbecuing, drinking and enjoying themselves with all ages involved. The women, who would probably be deemed overweight by Amercian standards, were all dancingwithout worry for image or judgement and looked more beautiful than any of the pretentious plastics who line the beaches of Southern California.
When people say that islanders are lazy, I can see how a westerner, raised in a capitalist dog eat dog world could come to that conclusion. However what I love about the culture is the completely different priorities. The appreciation for things like music, laughter, socialising, family and friends seem to make working harder than you need to somewhat insignificant. The people in Puerto Rico are beautiful and I think even if I do get mugged then my opinion won’t stay the same. If they get stereotyped as thugs by the tourists and avoided in their own country then it would be rude not to buy into it.
After all, they are just leeching off America, robbing the overweight hawaiian shirts fresh off the cruise ship is simply taking out the middle man.