An American Abroad

Three Days Back in Puerto Rico

The sun was setting when I returned to San Juan. Hard to tell, but I suspect the people aboard the 737 with me were native Puerto Ricans. This was no tourist flight; this was people going home. Loud and extended clapping and cheering broke out when rubber touched tarmac, more so than on my other arrivals here.

The airport looked as it had when I first arrived here in August. By the time I picked up my bag, it was near dark. A taxi whisked me away. As we left the airport grounds, I began to register the post-Maria environment.

Unlit apartment blocks were silhouetted grey and dead across the bay. Many street lights and traffic signals were still standing, but without electricity they were just aspects of a civilization that had, for the time being, vanished. The driver slowed to a crawl at each intersection and warily scanned for cars. Gloom intensified as we got to the central city. Some shops on the main drags had generator power, but the side streets lay in total darkness. I could see nothing down those roads past the first fifteen feet. No one was outside. Ruined palms and piles of debris were caught in our headlights.

As we approached Hato Rey, electric lights shone from occasional apartment towers. My building was one of the random lit-up minority.

There was water damage in the elevator. Windows and balcony doors had blown in on the upper floors, followed by torrents of wind-driven rain. In some cases, the water spread through living rooms, out the doors, into the landings, and down the elevator shafts. The lift cables squawked for want of lubrication as I ascended.

I unlocked my front door and flicked on the lights. Apart from a faint musty smell, everything was as I’d left it. Actually, everything was neater. I had piled up all the living room furniture in the dining room and the hallway to protect against a balcony door breach. Folks who’d used the apartment while I was off-island had moved the furniture back and arranged my scattered stuff with military precision.

After taking stock of my living quarters, I walked two blocks to the supermarket. At sidewalk level, the city smelled like wet cardboard with notes of diesel and sewage. I stepped over power lines lying sinister on the sidewalk and ducked under coax cables drooping from utility poles.

The supermarket was calmer than it had been 51 days earlier when I was there while Maria was bearing down on the island and people were panic-buying. But there was no water to be had. Many of the frozen food shelves were empty. There was a prominent makeshift display of overpriced D batteries. Though the cash registers and the card readers were functioning, the cashier wrote down my purchase total and the transaction number in a dog-eared notebook.

After a fitful night, I woke up Wednesday morning and enjoyed a hot shower. As the water cascaded over my body, I realized that this ordinary personal hygiene ritual is now a distant memory to most of my neighbors. I felt something akin to guilt as the soapy water swirled down the drain.

My truck started right up. “I’m an old Toyota,” it said, a slight note of indignation creeping into its exhaust. “What’d you expect?”

The commute to work took longer than usual. Everyone seemed to be driving dazed, ten miles an hour slower than before the storm. The intersections were jammed. Is it my turn? Is it my turn? Cars inched through. Despite the care people were taking, I saw the aftermath of two accidents. It’s easy to get distracted driving here. Power poles loomed over the highway, canted at 45-degree angles and dangling wires. Light poles that had snapped but not completely broken looked like bad sculpture. Guardrails had been crushed by falling trees whose branches or trunks protruded horizontally into the roadway.

Trees. Images of tortured, mangled, ruined trees stay with me. This is a tropical island with lush vegetation and thick forests. But hundreds of thousands of trees have been denuded, stripped of leaves, amputated of limbs, uprooted from the soil.

There were piles of debris everywhere. Tree parts, aluminum siding, sodden mattresses, garbage, wire, sheetrock, rugs, glass, toys, furniture, rotting food, window frames, masonry, all piled high and waiting for someone to come scoop it up. It’s likely those piles will be untouched months hence.

The office seemed normal except for the thrum of generators that kept the power up. Coworkers swapped refugee tales, gossiped about absent friends, and shared tips on how to identify the symptoms of leptospirosis. “You’ve got two days to get treatment,” a Puerto Rican native said, “or you’re dead.” Water was running at a trickle, so it was flush with a friend in the bathrooms.

The next morning was wash, rinse, repeat. I went into work. I went out for lunch and waited in line ten minutes to use an ATM, fifteen for gas. When I returned, we started hearing that San Juan was again without power. I drove home, plugged the fridge into my one generator-powered outlet, and cooked spaghetti on a hotplate. It wasn’t as hot as it had been when Hurricane Irma had knocked power out for six days. I padded carefully around my still-unfamiliar apartment, using muscle memory and LED flashlights to avoid collisions with the inanimate.

By Friday I left for work already thinking with Maria brain: keep the truck gassed up, have at least $100 in my wallet, steer clear of water dripping from rooftops. There was a dead horse on a berm in Vega Alta, laying on its side with a death grin and unblinking reflective eyes. Hit by a car? Dead of one of the diseases spreading here? Or just broken-hearted? I tried not to see it as a portent.

Santurce Graffiti, Murals, Tags, and Unauthorized Public Art

The Santurce dictrict of San Juan can fairly be described as an aspiring arts mecca. Not that many years ago, many Puerto Ricans considered it a dangerous drug- and crime-infested place rather than a neighborhood to be proud of. Though there are still grim and blighted parts of Santurce, other areas have exploded with vibrant colors, new businesses, and young Puerto Ricans looking for a place to live. The neighborhood’s revival is another testament to the power of public art to change both the perception and the reality of an urban locale.

There’s a lot of street art in Santurce. And many of these works can be found on and around my favorite street, Calle Loíza.

Some of the most striking works depict human heads and figures.

The tagging is exuberant and precisely rendered.

Murals are common and certainly add life to otherwise derelict buildings. Click here to see what the building in the two photographs below looked like just a few years ago. Quite a turnaround, no?

The wall in the photo below, though, shows that far more subtle compositions can be even more effective at setting the mood of a streetscape.

All of these photos were taken on and around Calle Loíza, which runs parallel to the beach just two blocks north. But there are equally wonderful works of public art in other parts of Santurce. And eventually I will get around to photographing them.

The Santurce Culinary & Art Festival

Some writers call Santurce “the Brooklyn of San Juan.” And there is a hip, entrepreneurial, artistic spirit to this barrio. As the New York Times cooed recently, you can walk down the man drag and find new restaurants “led by inventive chefs who prize local ingredients.” There are dance clubs, boutiques and vintage clothing shops, a gay bar, bakeries, an upscale tattoo and body piercing shop, and colorful graffiti everywhere.

It seems like the perfect setting for a culinary and art festival.

Unfortunately, the actual event didn’t quite live up to its potential. There weren’t very many exhibitors — and there was a certain sameness about those who did show up. Attendance was probably in the high hundreds, but not much more. Still, the vibe was festive and relaxed.

I heard a strong cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” as I approached Calle Loíza. Though Kingston is two islands and 700 miles west of San Juan, no one was complaining about the Caribbean cultural mash-up. The song set my mood for the day. And it was coming from this boutique/cafe, where the bartender mixes a mean mojito.

The first festival-goer I met was jauntily dressed and seemed to be enjoying all the people who came up and talked with him.

He wasn’t the only one who was literally at street-level. Two of the artists from the hipster tattoo parlor were making chalk art on the sidewalk.

Older folks lugged lawn chairs out in front of the pumps at the local filling station and sat there talking, drinking, and people watching. Hanging out like that is pretty common here and, to my mind, nicely obliterates the ordinary commercial grimness of gas stations.

Alcohol, rather than food, seemed to be the vice of choice at the festival. Bar tents outnumbered food tents by about three to one.

The spirit of the festival seemed to be to be captured by this bumpersticker. I think Bob Marley would approve.

It wasn’t only people on the street who were enjoying the relaxed mood of the day. You can just see the bare feet of a man sacked out in a hammock on his Calle Loíza balcony.

While he took a siesta, other people took advantage of the festival being closed to cars and promenaded down the street, seeing and hoping to be seen.

Others used the occasion to walk the dog.

After a couple hours of walking around, I craved someplace peaceful to sit and relax. I walked over to a Dominican chinchorro (i.e., a hole-in-the-wall bar) just off Calle Loíza and bought a Medalla beer from Mercedes, the beautiful old woman who runs the place. I took a seat out on the sidewalk in a plastic lawn chair, watched the world go by, and did my best to chat up one of the Dominican guys who’s a regular at the place.

Santurce’s not Brooklyn, but it’s not trying to be. It’s more like a laboratory where many mostly-younger Puerto Ricans are trying to build something new in a barrio that used to be known for drugs, crime, and blight. Not everyone approves of the changes that are happening here.

My take, though, is that even if the festival wasn’t a roaring success, the people of Santurce are succeeding at building something more enduring and important.

Hato Rey: My New Neighborhood

Tomorrow I celebrate three weeks in Puerto Rico and nine days in my new home in the San Juan neighborhood of Hato Rey. It’s a neighborhood of vertical living and working. I live in a cluster of apartment buildings between 12 and 16 stories tall. At street level, large shade trees provide relief from the tropical August heat. At my level, the eleventh floor of a building on Calle Honduras, gentle breezes blow from the balcony to my kitchen. I get home from work, get some cross-ventilation going, and cook myself dinner.

In the morning, the skies are light blue with puffs of seaside clouds. This is what I see out my window.

Downstairs, out through the lobby, and just a short block away down Calle Mejico is a city park one small block square. There are basketball courts and a swingset for the kids–but at the center of the park is a pavilion with shelves of books free for the taking.

I’ve seen Libros Libres (Free Books) in several parts of San Juan. It’s a mystery to me who sets them up, who tends them, and who frequents them. But I’m glad they exist. I’ve helped myself to one book so far, a hardboiled detective novel by Ross Macdonald. I plan to crack it next weekend.

Though most of Hato Rey is office towers and apartment buildings, there is an old human-scale district just north of where I live. There, the houses are made of wood and breeze block and are, at most, two and a half stories tall. The streets have letter and number names, not the Latin American nation names that the streets have where I live. It’s not a well-heeled locale, but it has a jaunty feel to it that the concrete towers of Hato Rey lack.

The only institutions in this part of Hato Rey are housefront churches of the evangelical Protestant variety and this place, which is called a chinchorro in Puerto Rican Spanish.

Chinchorros are tiny hole-in-the-wall bars–literally, in this case. Customers get their drinks through the window and then sit on ratty old plastic lawn chairs right in the street or on the sidewalk. They are loose, boisterous, fun places.

Darkness comes earlier here than it does in America. From my kitchen window, I look down onto a deserted parking area.

Tomorrow I will get up early again and explore more. Because right now, there is nowhere I would rather be.