Puerto Rico: Day 3 “Rooted, A Cultural Exploration”

Puerto Rico: Day 3 “Rooted, A Cultural Exploration”

*Make sure to click the links to learn more!

Two days before my trip, one of the tours that I had booked emailed me to cancel – I was apparently the only person that signed up for it. I had spent a few minutes being sad because I convinced myself at the time that “this was one of the main reasons I wanted to go,” (gotta stop lying to myself – it was a perk, not a motivation). I was 2/2 for cancelled tours. When I decided to breathe and then find a Plan B, I was able to find a similar tour. “…I’m a solo traveler; would that be an issue for a tour on Sunday?” I asked the host. It was not, and I could get picked up from the apartment. Awesome!

After my little fiasco the night before, I felt reenergized as I awoke Sunday rising. I am an early riser, so I decided to spend the rousing hours perusing the streets of Old San Juan. I had downloaded an app called GPSmyCity, in which I could create a personalized walking tour and it had an audio guide that would read you information about the historic sites. At some point, I decided it was a waste of my $5 and I just aimlessly wandered along the blue cobblestone streets, wherever I felt like going. 

I put on some yoga pants and tank – it couldn’t be that hot at 7am, right? Lawd, I was wrong. 

The streets were effortlessly quiet – the hustle of the bars and events from the night before had settled into deep sleeps and lounge-y vibes. A few city workers cleaned up the streets of bottles and trash. Couplets of bicyclists rode past me. I found my way to the Raíces Fountain in Paseo de la Princesa. The water jets were turned off, but it was still nice to see. It was on an edge of town where the tides beat against the side of the pathways. Boats speckled the waters just off the coast. Walking along, I ended up passing by La Muralla, the City Wall. Its construction began in 1539 and was finished in 1782. From this vantage point, I started to realize how the OSJ neighborhood was almost completely wrapped by a wall. Interesting.Next, Puerta de San Juan got checked off of my to-do list. It’s the city gate, a wooden structure built in the late 1700s. Its rust color was aesthetically beautiful against the thick, sandstone blocks. A few meters away, I stumbled across La Rogativa, a bronze statue commemorating an event in 1797 where the local islanders “fought off” British troops. 

Today’s tour guide planned on picking me up a few minutes before 10am. It was 8:15. I picked up my pace as I headed closer towards the apartment. As I headed back, I stopped into Catedral de San Juan Bautista, the second oldest church in the Western Hemisphere and oldest on in the U.S. that contains the tomb of Ponce de León.

Let me just go check out this street real quick. There was a main avenue that I had come down several times when coming into OSJ, that had some murals. It was close to El Morro, which was close to me, so I strode on over in the direction of the ocean (let’s say I was Northbound, haha). Found ‘em! I took in the art and also read a plaque about the little community below the wall, La Perla.   

As I headed back up a hill, I saw a woman coming up the walkway from the shanty-looking community. “Your hair is beautiful,” she said in Spanish. “Thank you!” I replied in English. Her face changed as she realized I wasn’t Puerto Rican. We spoke briefly and she warned me not to walk up the hill from 11am-4pm. Apparently, the angle of the sun made it unbearable. “We call it Fool’s Road,” because it gets so hot. “We brown people get sun spots, too! Be careful!” “Oh, I will,” I laughed, “That’s why I’m out here so early.” We bid each other a good day and I made it back to the apartment just in time to take a shower, have some tea, and refill my water bottle.

Derek, the tour host, called and told me he’d pick me up first. Once again, I waited outside in the plaza until he arrived. As we headed to the actual meetup spot listed in the tour itinerary, to pick up a few other travelers, we began talking about the history of the island. Passing La Perla, he explained that it was looked at as the “ghetto” of the Old San Juan. “All the Black people that built this town lived down there.” There were no grand walls like the ones that surrounded the rest of the city.  We spoke about art, my adventures thus far, and my pre-trip research I did about the island and Spiritism.

We picked up three women – two that also worked in education and were attending a Ford Fellowship conference, and another solo traveler who I later found out worked in human rights. We drove along the coast until we reached Loiza, which has the highest concentration of Afro-Puerto Ricans/African descendants on the entire island.  

It was a beautiful, relatively untouched town with thick groves of trees and single-story homes littered across the acres. “Runaway slaves settled this area. The area was so thick with trees that they couldn’t be found; but the Spanish knew the town existed.” Derek explained to us. The knowledge and awareness of Loiza was so profound that the Spanish government recognized it as a town in 1719. We were informed about the deep-rooted connection to Africa that thrived in the area, mainly through the arts, especially music. Most of the ancestors can be traced back to Benin, the Congo, and Yoruba tribes – hence the creation and Espiritismo practices such as Santería and Brujería. (see also, my research).

Much to my appeasement, gentrification became a topic of conversation. “Families have been here for generations; so much so that a lot of people don’t have deeds for their property, it was simply passed down and everyone respected and acknowledge who ‘owned’ what.” Yet, it is such a beautiful space – as we drove down the highway, we could get glimpses of the pristine beaches through the palm trees and natural growth. “Poverty can be a state of mind – people here don’t have much and think they are poor, but you can clearly see the resources… People have been finding Taíno and African artifacts in their yards.” Apparently, developers have been taking land since there are no deeds for the locals to prove ownership of their land. “Can’t you imagine beachfront high-rises here?” Yes, we all agreed, but it would destroy the essence of the area. 

We pulled up to the kioskos. “We’ll order food and come back in about an hour,” we were told. A man came out and we ordered fish. His actual stand had been damaged by Hurricane Maria, so he cooked and served food out of his home. Some of the kioskos had the flag of Puerto Rico flying. “There are a lot of Dominican immigrants that have set up shop here, too; so Puerto-Rican owned businesses will display their country’s flag… Everyone’s in search of the American dollar.” We continued on and came to a baseball arena – its outer walls filled with murals from local artists. Next, we visited an artist’s home/gallery, where we learned about the vejigante mask. Then, we stopped at a port along the Río Grande de Loíza. Before the construction of the bridge, the people crossed on top of a pulley. 

We roamed into one of the oldest Catholic churches in Puerto Rico, a small, 17th century church named Parroquia del Espiritu Santo y San Patricio. Church had just ended. Venturing inside, we noticed that Lazarus was the main figure at the head of the church, not Jesus.

Earlier in the morning, Derek had connected with a towns-member who invited us to an exhibition of bomba that was being held in the streets. We took in the hearty rhythms and bold, graceful movements of the dancers. One dance in particular, “children were not allowed to do it because of how emotional it is.” I felt the beat of the drum, foot stomps, and passion deep in my soul; I was deeply moved by the spirit of the dance in a transcendental way. “The musicians follow the lead of the dancer… she bows to them when she is finished.” I walked away with a sense of power and resilience that is hard to explain; I felt connected to the movement, to the space, to the struggle. I felt myself holding my breath as I took in this artistic piece and am still reflecting on how to decipher the feelings that arose.

We stopped at a beach where the sand burned my feet before we headed back to the kiosko and enjoyed a delicious meal of freshly caught fish and tostones – cilantro sauce on deck! I also enjoyed coconut water… con rum!

On the way back to OSJ, we passed by a beach, Vacia Talega. One of the other travelers and I exchanged numbers and planned to go back later in the evening – we both wanted to get in a couple of hours at the beach before the end of our respective trips.

Again, I was dropped off last. “I’ll send you some info about a great place to go dance… Take care, fam!” Derek drove off. It was a beautiful day where I truly felt connected to the culture. As detailed as this narrative may seem, it doesn’t compare to the information and hospitality that Derek shared on this excursion – it was more than I could have asked for, and continuing a theme of this trip, I was overwhelmed with immense gratitude. 

Around 4:30 I called an Uber and picked up the other traveler. The driver blasted back and forth between Lauryn Hill, Post Malone and reggaeton. I buckled my seatbelt as he sped along the slick highway – he seemed like someone who liked to drift for fun in his sports car, haha. “We might not get reception at the beach, can you just come back in two hours?” I asked. He gave me his whatsapp number instead and told me to call him. 

We spent a couple of hours wading in the calm waters as the sun set; reading our books with our toes in the golden, powdery sand. Momentarily, we chatted about our goals and the impact of capitalism on our professions. I took a stroll along the beach, passing families enjoying their Sunday evening. As soon as the sun set, the mosquitoes appeared out of thin air. We had been warned that would happen, but we couldn’t have anticipated the way they swarmed our bodies – I’m pretty sure we even got bit on our faces! I called the Uber driver and it turns out he never left! “We’re along the road where you dropped us off.” As we waited, we soon saw a car reversing down the wrong side of the road. We burst out laughing. This guy…

I dropped off my travel partner, paid the Uber driver in cash, changed, strolled down the street and got some fries and the strongest mojito I’ve ever had in my life, and then turned in for the night. 

This tour was $68, I spent about $15 for lunch, $45 each way for the Uber and $10 for dinner. It was, undoubtedly, one of my favorite days of the entire trip. 

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