In my Old San Juan, so many dreams I forged, in my childhood years.My first illusions, and my unrequited loves, are memories of the soul.
One afternoon I departed for a place far away, that’s how destiny wished it.
But my heart stayed behind, at the edge of the sea, of my Old San Juan.
Farewell, farewell – farewell
My goddess of the sea – my Queen of the palms.
I go, I’m leaving now – but someday I’ll return.
To find my true love, to dream once again, in my Old San Juan.
(Translation of the national song of San Juan: En Mi Viejo San Juan - Noel Estrada, 1943)
I’ve been struggling for months about how to describe my recent trip to Puerto Rico. Should I make it a travelogue about our explorations of this enchanted, Caribbean island? Should I make it about the joys of a healthy recovery after a health scare in Dublin? Or, should I make it about friendship and the importance of relationships that stretch back to high school? I finally decided to just start writing in the hope that the story would figure itself out. It ultimately became an epic-long odyssey about three old friends who took an impulsive trip together. Greg summarized it best on various occasions in Puerto Rico: when we stood overlooking the expansive Atlantic shoreline of San Juan from the parapet of “la Fortaleza”; when we sat in a patio bar modeling our new Panama hats; and when we played dominos in our hotel room after a day of exploring.
“Isn’t this great,” he would sigh. “Here we are, three retired, old friends who can just take a trip to Puerto Rico without work, worry, or constraints. These are moments that we’ll never forget”.
That was pretty much the mood for the whole trip, and Greg was the instigator.
I never thought that I would ever see the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean island 762 miles southwest of Cuba. I simply knew it as the American territory gained after the Spanish-American War in 1898, and that many natives, who at birth become naturalized American citizens, emigrated to the United States to work. The idea came up by chance during a telephone conversation with my friend Greg, who lives in San Diego. I was calling him to describe my recent trip to Ireland, and the medical issues I experienced. It was only when I asked him what he was up to that he mentioned his upcoming trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to judge a barbecue contest in February. I was surprised and impressed. I had known for a while that he traveled up and down California judging barbecue competitions, and I had hoped to join him at one, if it came close to Los Angeles. But I never imagined that he would travel so far to judge a contest, especially one in such an exotic location. Puerto Rico was the next best thing to going to Cuba – there were beaches, rain forests, historical cities, music, art, and great food. It also had the advantage of a more or less bilingual population that used American currency and US cell phone providers. In my questioning I learned that Greg was going alone. At the end of our conversation, I praised him for his sense of adventure, expressed a little envy, and wished him luck. When I recounted this conversation to Kathy later that evening, she simply said, “You should go too!”
“Are you serious,” I stammered, not believing what I heard.
“Yes,” she insisted. “Don’t you want to go?” she added, “because I think you should. You didn’t get much of a vacation in Ireland, and I think this trip will be good for you.”
This staggering suggestion, and Kathy’s willingness to act as my travel agent in making all the arrangements, sealed the deal. I was in a tropical haze for a few days and then I received another bombshell from John. He called the following Sunday to check on my convalescence from Ireland, and then mentioned that Greg had also called him with news about my joining him in Puerto Rico.
“Yeah,” I said, “I don’t know what got into me. When Kathy said I should go, I suddenly realized that I wanted to.”
“Yeah, “ he responded, “that happened to me too. When I mentioned your trip to my wife Kathy, she told me to get out of the house and join you two in Puerto Rico. So I’m going too.”
Greg and I arrived in San Juan at 6:30 in the morning, Atlantic Standard Time (AST), on Friday, February 19th
, about 6 hours before John. Upon our arrival, I asked Greg if we were catching a cab to the hotel.
“No,” he replied, matter-of-factly, “I’m renting a car”.
This was stunning news and it changed all of my previous expectations of the trip. Miraculously, we somehow managed to navigate our way to the hotel in the Convention Center District of San Juan, where we checked in and asked the receptionist for a walking map of San Juan.
“You do not truly wish to walk to Old San Juan?” the amazed receptionist queried. “I can request a taxi for you.”
“How long a walk is it to the old city?” Greg asked. “We’ve been on airplanes for hours. A walk would do us good.”
“It would take about an hour, I think”, she replied, “so a taxi would be better.”
,” intoned Greg with a charming smile, “a short walk would be a great way to stretch our legs.”
I love walking and exploring a new city, and Viejo San Juan was a delight. Now understand that Old San Juan, especially the tourist section concentrated in the westernmost part of the bay, is not “typical” to the rest of the island. The colonial streets are narrow and paved with ancient blue bricks. Apartments and homes are balconied and painted in the colonial style of the 1600’s. Many of these buildings serve as street level shops and restaurants, with residents living on the second and third floors. Here English is the default language, and even when speaking to the natives in Spanish, they pronounce English words using standard English vernacular – a hamburger is pronounced hamburger, not hamburguesa
. It is in the non-tourist sections of town, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the Bay that the architecture becomes more functional and typical of a modern city, and Spanish is the exclusive language.
In another time, when Greg and I lived and traveled in Mexico City during the summer of 1973, we would metro, bus, and walk everywhere in and around the city. In those youthful days, we were convinced that we could never get lost, even when we failed to reach our desired destination right away. Every excursion was an exploration through an unknown wonderland, and we were navigating our own course and drawing our own map. Every sight was a novelty, every missed turn an adventure, and all we needed was time to recalculate our location, make corrections, and reach our goal – eventually. This again happened on our first day in San Juan. We crossed the channel of the Bay and took, as it turned out, the longest
route to the Old City. We ignored “El Condado
”, the popular beachside resort area, and made our way toward the center of the old city along a seaside street that changed names and appearance every block. We passed La Iglesia de San Agustin
, and then another street dotted with municipal and Federal buildings. Soon we spotted the distinctive Castillo de San Cristobál
, the fortress signaling the beginning of the walled city of Old San Juan.
As it turned out, 9 am was the perfect hour to explore the narrow cobblestone streets of San Juan. The serpentine traffic and densely parked cars had not yet appeared and we were able to truly appreciate the blue, red, and green colonial facades, verandas, and overhanging balconies that surrounded and overlooked us as we walked. We found Ole’s Hat Store
(the hat store mentioned in a New York Times Travel article we had read), and vowed to return later with John. We made our way to the Bayside of the city and headed back to the hotel along a modern street that skirted the piers, docks, and parks that studded the shore. Although it proved the shortest route home, it seemed a longer walk because of the weather. It was getting hotter and brighter, with no seaside breezes to cool us down, and we were becoming worried about being late to pick up John at the airport.
Something happens to Greg when he’s in a Spanish-speaking country. I saw it occurring for the first time when we traveled to Mexico City in the summer of 1973, and every time since, whenever we’ve traveled through Baja California throughout the years. Greg goes native. His Spanish fluency reasserts itself, and he becomes strangely emboldened to try, or do, ANYTHING. He changes from being just
an encouraging friend and supporter, into a bold and assertive innovator and field commander. While he never actually drove while we were in Mexico City, I could tell by the way he studied the streets, the traffic and driving patterns, and the techniques of the drivers who chauffeured us around. And he has ever since. I witnessed this metamorphosis of Greg into a Puerto Rican driver on our trip back to the airport to pick up John. Again, as his copilot, I knew the direction we were supposed to travel, and I held the cell phone GPS in my hand, but the streets of San Juan did not cooperate. After one failed attempt had us driving away from the airport, Greg finally concluded that the highway to the airport was dividing into parallel routes that were actually frontage roads (eventually we translated the Spanish road sign “laterales”
to mean just that). Anyway, between the oral directions coming from the GPS, and Greg’s intuitive assimilation of Puerto Rican road signs and traffic patterns, we finally arrived at the airport and found John waiting outside of the arrival gates. After getting him checked into his room, we resumed our explorations of Old San Juan. Only this time we drove there and bought our Panama hats.
There is something special about strolling through Old San Juan on a warm and sunny afternoon in an authentic Panama hat. Although we all agreed that we paid exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege of wearing a hat purchased at the New York Times recommended millinery, the experience was worth it. We were hand fitted for size and shape, and shown the various colors and textures of hatbands we could choose and have attached. I walked out of the store feeling every inch a Puerto Rican native, and I mocked Greg and John for their precaution of shipping their hats home from the store (a precaution I took the following day when faced with a possible rainstorm).
I once roomed with Greg and John for about 6 months in an apartment in Santa Monica while I was attending graduate school at UCLA. It was during those carefree, bachelor days, when I was dating Kathleen that I saw what a volatile combination these two friends made in two areas. They literally energized and challenged each other in developing the most creative and outlandish culinary menus and travel itineraries I’d ever heard of. They seemed to unleash in each other a limitless number of crazy ideas, plans, and trips. John didn’t blink when he learned that Greg had rented a car in Puerto Rico and was planning on driving.
“Great! Where are we going?” He simply asked.
It was clear that we were not going to be bound to the city. With John bringing along his own Garmin GPS to complement his wanderlust, he had complete confidence that with Greg driving we could travel anywhere and find any place. For example, we quickly realized that it would be cheaper to buy a couple of bottles of wine at a store rather than pay hotel prices. So John convinced Greg to drive to a liquor store he found on his GPS that was 8 miles, or 10 minutes away from Old Town. Well, 15 minutes later, on a highway taking us to the other side of the bay, we knew there was a problem. We passed countless shopping centers and big box stores like Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, and still we followed the verbal directions of the Garmin. Eventually we came to an address in the city of Bayamon that looked
like a store, but turned out being a neighborhood bar in a seedy part of town. So much for the Garmin’s ability to find liquor stores in San Juan! But even that experience didn’t dampen Greg or John’s enthusiasm to explore the island. Over very expensive glasses of hotel wine that evening, Greg and John planned our drive and itinerary for Saturday.
Our second day in San Juan began with John and I walking to a convenience store, while Greg attended an orientation meeting for the judges and officials of the Barbecue Competition on Sunday. The “nearby” store turned out to be an uphill climb that went on for almost two miles. I loved it because we broke free of the Convention District and wandered through a regular, middle class, residential neighborhood with homes, shops, and condominiums. This was the first time I was in a normal living environment, and I relished the signs, the slow traffic, and the snatches of conversation I overheard from passing pedestrians. On our return, we found Greg ready and eager to begin our quest to find a tropical rainforest. Other than our accidental trip to Bayamon, Saturday would be our first real taste of Puerto Rico outside of San Juan. Leaving the hotel and traveling east, we passed the airport and quickly headed into the countryside of the island. At Rio Grande, about 32 miles out of San Juan, we went off highway toward the mountains, and the threatening clouds gathering over them. Signs soon directed us to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Park system.
John had hazy memories of his first visit to this rainforest in Puerto Rico, and he served as our guide when we reached El Portal, the Visitor’s Center of the forest. It was there, as we left the car, that John and Greg looked at me and inspected my tropical apparel – sandals, shorts, golf shirt and my new Panama hat.
“Are you sure you want to wear that?” John said, pointing to my hat.
“Why?” I asked naively.
“One cloudburst and it’s done”, Greg added.
“Really?” I forlornly questioned.
My two friends nodded silently, as I solemnly turned around, took off my hat, and returned to the car. I finally recognized their wisdom in shipping their Panama hats from the store. Although the weather had been remarkably hospitable, the forecast for the week called for cloudy conditions with daily intermittent rain. So far, we had experienced a sunny Friday and a cloudy Saturday morning, with ocean breezes picking up in the afternoons, but that could change suddenly in the mountains. Although insects or rain had not bothered us so far, the skies above the tropical forest were fast becoming darker and more ominous.
John advised us to restrict ourselves to the well tended, walking trails and use the car for longer forays into the rainforest. The whole experience was a revelation. Even on a manicured trail, we saw, heard, and felt the lush, moist, and thick vegetation that surrounded us. We were in constant shadows, not just from the overhanging trees, ferns, vines, and branches but also from the build up of low-lying clouds. It seemed like the moist vegetation around us was the source of the rising mists and darkening clouds. Occasionally, rays of sunlight pierced through, but quickly disappear, as if spotlights were being turned on and off. We assumed that frogs and parrots accounted for the calls and cries that we heard along the trail. Overall I was delighted with my first rainforest trek, especially since I was not interested in a jungle experience with snakes, mosquitoes, jaguars, and other carnivorous mammals and reptiles. After our forest hike, we followed the paved road up the mountain to the Yokahu Observation Tower. The tower, and its surrounding vegetation, was by far the most impressive stop because it provided such a wide, breathtaking view of the rainforest and the lush mountainsides sweeping up from the coastal city in the distance. You could see the steam rising from the mountain vegetation after each misting rainfall. It was a glorious afternoon, capped off by a sumptuous cena
at a restaurant in a barrio on the outskirts of San Juan.
How Greg discovers these places always mystifies me, and when he and John begin trading culinary tips and cooking recommendations, I am doubly bewildered. But I will admit that they have rarely steered me wrong when it comes to new foods and restaurants. La Casita Blanca
was a restaurant off the beaten tourist track, with a fantastic reputation and a menu that was exotic and savory. I’ve adopted a rule of thumb about restaurants that use daily handwritten menus on whiteboards or chalkboards – they prepare dishes that are fresh, typical of the region, and delicious. La Casita Blanca
offered all of that. It was where I truly learned to appreciate mofongo
, an Afro-Puerto Rican side dish made of fried plantains. I had tried them with a cod dinner the night before at a restaurant near the hotel, but I only appreciated them here. The meal ended with complimentary shots of chichaito
, a licorice drink of anise and coffee. Of course, now I regret not having taken pictures of my meal and appetizers, an Instagram practice I had foresworn. On our return to the hotel, Greg and I dropped John off and drove into Old Town to have my hat shipped home. There we began loitering and window-shopping for possible gifts and purchases. We added a little bar hopping and discovered La Barrachina
, a hotel, restaurant, and patio bar that claimed to be the home of the piña colada
, and Punto de Vista Bar
, a restaurant on the rooftop of the Hotel Milano, where we toasted their signature mojitos
. About the only thing we purchased was a set of dominos, which we began playing that night over wine and munchies. On Sunday, we would finally address the real reason for our trip to Puerto Rico – attending the International Barbecue Contest being held at a bayside park in San Juan.
John and I were always curious about Greg’s judging at barbecue contests. Soon after his retirement in 2010, he completed a course to become a certified judge, and started evaluating grilled and smoked meats at countless contests in California and the American Southwest. Despite his attempts at describing these events to us, John and I never got a clear idea of what he actually did. We imagined these contests were something like the chili cook-offs and wine-tastings we had attended that were sponsored by civic and business clubs and organizations. Whatever we imagined, we were not prepared for what we found in San Juan. First of all, we did not expect to find it in such an upscale setting. Rather than holding it in an aging municipal park or rural event space, the location was on the luxurious bayside of Old San Juan, in a futuristic park next to a massive cruise ship, with hotels, shops, and restaurants across the street. We also didn’t expect the cost. Even Greg was caught by surprise and asked us if we were sure about paying such a steep price for admission. John and I looked at each other and shrugged.
“This is what we came for.” I told Greg, and paid.
With Greg rushing off to check in with the event officials, John and I wandered around the grounds, looking in amazements at the plethora of pavilions, product sponsors, food tents, grilling and smoking equipment. I had never seen so many high tech and modern barbecue tools and appliances in my life. I was stunned into silence at the diversity and expense. Later, after locating the tent sheltering the Judge’s Table and waving at Greg, he joined us during a break with food samples and more information. This competition was sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), one of the largest organizations in the US, and it was divided into four rounds, each serving different meats – chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket. He explained that each entry was judged after taking only one or two bites, scoring for appearance, taste, and tenderness. In this way we passed the early afternoon, John and I wandering about the grounds, sampling meats, or sitting in the shade of a bar side pavilion, and waiting for Greg to join us with more food.
By Sunday night, after three days of eating, shopping, and driving to the rainforests of the eastern mountains, we felt confident in expanding our horizons to the Caribbean side of the island. When I say “we”, I really mean Greg and John. They were desperate to go anywhere new, and I became infected with this enthusiasm to breakout of the confines of the capitol and its surrounding towns and communities. My own internet research found the colonial city of Ponce on the opposite side of the island, with an ideal midway stop at the city of Caguas. As I was reading aloud about the town and its nearby sights, Greg interrupted.
“Wait, did you say Guavate? I’ve heard about that place”. He stopped for a moment to speak into his phone and then read the result of his query.
“Here it is – Guavate. Guavate has La Ruta del Lechón
, the ‘Silk Road of Roasted Pork!
My God, how can we not stop at this place?”
Although we were a little “barbecued out” at the moment, I had to admit that the famed Road of Lechoneras
sounded interesting. So after further investigation it was decided that we would depart on Monday for a trans-island road trip, stopping at Caguas and Guavate before crossing over to Ponce. From there we would return across the island to Arecibo, and then continue back to San Juan. I foolishly assumed our itinerary was set.
As any exotic place you see for the first time, the highland city of Caguas, midway between San Juan and Ponce, was a wonderful surprise. We entered from the commercial sector of the town on a busy Monday, and quickly made our way to the tranquil central plaza with its colonial cathedral and government buildings. It was just awakening to the day on the morning we arrived. The carousel was closed, and vendors and pedestrians were arriving to take up their stations near the fountain, gardens, and benches along tree-lined walkways. We walked around the square and then entered the Catedral del Dulce Nombre de Jesús
(the Cathedral of the Sweet Name of Jesus). From there we made our way along a nearby mall, lined with kiosks, restaurants, and shops, which were just opening. Eventually we came to the Centro de Bellas Artes
, a fine arts complex, located just west of the Plaza, where we returned to the car. Resuming our road trip we drove to “La Ruta del Lechon
” (Roasted Pork Road), in Guavate. This route wound its way up a mountainous road, shaded by overhanging bamboo trees, until we entered a stretch of Lechoneras
, or rustic roadside eateries, on both sides of the road. These establishments specialized in one dish, lechón
, or spit-roasted suckling pig. Even though it was early, all three of us felt the need to stop and sample this cuisine that attracts tourists and locals from all over the island. After the delicious meal, we resumed our travels across the island to the Caribbean.
Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico, is called La Perla del Sur
(the Pearl of the South) and is famous for its beautiful neoclassical and colonial style architecture and facades. Upon entering the city limits, we again made our way to the central plaza (Plaza de las Delicias
) where we were greeted by more lovely gardens, fountains, tree-lined walkways with benches, and a nearby cathedral. The most eye-catching attraction was a glaring red and black antique firehouse in the corner of the plaza called El Parque de Bombas
(Park of Pumps). From there, with a freshly acquired mapa turístico
in hand, we spent the next 90 minutes exploring Ponce – inspecting and commenting on its buildings and museums, and finally relaxing and recapping at a local bar and grill. I would have to say that after San Juan, Ponce is the place to see and stay in Puerto Rico. The city is old and lovely without the commercialized air of San Juan, an authentic mix of old and new, without the Disneyland Main Street feel of the capitol city.
It was at this bar, called La Parrilla 50
that I lost control of the itinerary and what Greg and John were planning. As I reviewed my photos in a corner booth over a glass of beer, the old traveling buddies went into a quiet discussion over a map. I assumed we would be making our way north, along Hwy 10, through the mountains to Arecibo on the Atlantic shore, and perhaps stopping there. However, I became suspicious when we returned to the car and John took the shotgun seat, forcing me to the back. I knew something was afoot when we started winding through a series of side streets and back roads, but I didn’t say anything until we exited the main highway and headed up toward the hills on a one lane road.
“Now where are we going?” I asked from the rear.
“It’s a surprise”, Greg responded, without elaboration.
“You’ll see,” John added.
The pair remained silent until the road became extremely rugged and more and more wild.
“I think I took the wrong turn back there”, Greg finally muttered as he stopped the car at a hilltop intersection with a gas station.
“Which turn was that?” I groused aloud, since we had been curving our way up the mountain for the last 30 minutes. At least this stop gave me the chance to exit the car and get my bearings. Looking south from the mountainside crossroad, I could see the wondrous sight of the city of Ponce and the Caribbean shoreline in the far distance. If nothing else, the view made the mystery trip worthwhile.
When I reentered the car, I was greeted with Greg’s assurance of, “Okay, I think I know what happened”.
“So where are we going?” I asked again.
“We’re looking for John’s coffee plantation”, he finally admitted.
We turned around and Greg actually did, somehow, find a coffee plantation (which, unfortunately, was closed to the public on Mondays). From that point on, I gave up predicting where we were going and simply enjoyed the ride. I especially loved the sudden, tropical cloudburst we drove through, toward Arecibo. Later that evening Greg invited us to dinner at Aguaviva
, an upscale restaurant in Old San Juan, to review our travels and our trip, which was ending the next day.
So, what was the point of this story? Well, while still writing it, an event occurred which suggested a theme. I was at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim when I attended a session given by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser. The presentation bore the intimidating title of Moral Loneliness in Our Lives and Ministry: The Deeper Reality Beneath Our Longing for a Soul Mate
, but it was during a “spiritual riff” that I made my connection between lifelong friends and Puerto Rico. Rolheiser started with St. Augustine’s quote, “You have made us for yourself, Oh Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You”, as an explanation for loneliness. Then he elaborated with a meandering journey through biblical stories, legends, and archetypal myths that hinted at the idea that we are in the Second Act of a 3-part drama. Act One was our original union with God and subsequent departure; the Second is our birth and quest through life, searching to recover that sacred union; and the Last Act is the soul’s return and homecoming after death. That is our Faith – that is our Christian belief. Rolheiser suggested that this archetypal drama has been revealed in myth, mysticism, and Catholic tradition. During our lives on earth, we actively seek love, union, and the soulful relationships that hearken back to our existence before birth, when we knew the eternal union with God. Church is one of those unifying relationships, as is marriage, family, and, equally important, lifelong friends.
Thoughts of aging, illness, and death did intrude at various times in Puerto Rico with Greg and John, especially on our last day there, when we finally made time to visit the beach and seashore of San Juan before departing. I had insisted that we couldn’t leave the island until we actually walked along its beaches and took photographs of the Atlantic Ocean. It was during those moments, moments of joy and laughter with two old friends who have shared so many other trips, secrets, and memories, that those thoughts occurred. These crazy and impulsive trips, with their gestalt
moments, were unique experiences that no one else knew, shared, or could even imagine. These would be the stories that we tell each other, and argue over, as our memories fade and details become more and more hazy. When these friends die, those memories will be gone forever, and I will be lonelier because of it. This isolation, with the snuffing out of shared memories and the darkening of the past, was what Dr. Greaney bemoaned when he told me that all his friends from medical school, World War II, and his practice were dead. As they died, thier shared memories were also buried, and his children would eventually cease retelling them. In those moments with John and Greg, I realized that this life can end in an instant, or be unbearably drawn out through a long-suffering illness. That was life. And yet, thoughts of isolation, illness, and even the dying process, are dispelled when we are in joyous union with loved ones and friends. That is what happened in Puerto Rico. For 5 days we three friends were together in a blissful paradise – three amigos viejos
, without jobs, wives, or families – joyfully at play in the tropical cities, beaches, rainforests, and mountains of Puerto Rico.