Intimate Geography: Puerto Rico

by Vicky Paz, SUNY Cortland, February 15, 2010

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"...Because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself."
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick

No digital photo album or slideshow could do justice to the beautiful sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures and memories I have of Puerto Rico, just one of the several Caribbean islands that run through my family's veins. The photos though, always take me back to the island whenever I miss my family while I'm away at school, and on days when scraping the ice off my car's windshield is simply depressing, mind and body numbing. It is not always a steaming mug of rich, piping hot cocoa that warms me up on days like these; It is the memories from the days I spent there replaying in my mind that warm me up the most.

It's watching the sea-foam covered coastline draw nearer as the airplane approaches San Juan; it's my family picking up the rental car from "Don't Worry, Drive Happy" Alamo after we land. It's the traditional stop at our favorite restaurant before we take the two-and-a-half hour drive to my great-grandmother's house in Guanica. It's the winding roads carved into the endless mountain ranges that look greyer the further back you look and the landmarks we pass along the way. It's my four-year-old nephew's ever-changing face as he grows older and my great-grandmother's face that hasn't changed for as long as I can remember. It's the smell of her delectable cooking that lingers from outside her house and the undeniable, palpable love that she puts into it. It is the trademark country sound of the native Coquis at night. It is the white sand and turquoise seas, the salty air, and the millions of stars that take me away....just to name a few.

I've been going to Puerto Rico at least once every year to visit family since before I could even utter my first words. However, it wasn't until late in middle school/early in high school when I truly started to appreciate our annual family trips, what they meant and how they made me feel.

We always take an early morning flight and I never sleep the night before. I always stay up late packing as the excitement and anticipation brew in my mind. I sleep on the way to the airport, I sleep in the airport and I sleep in the airplane. But I always steal the window seat because, like clockwork, I will mysteriously wake up when the coastline first comes into view and we are close to landing, yet I won't even wake up for a meal. Foamy aqua and white waves hug the curves of the coastline, where the sand, adorned by swaying palm trees, is a marbled swirl of beige and light browns before it clears up into a solid white nude.

After departing the plane, heading over to the baggage claim and hopping on the blue and yellow box-shaped shuttle that plays a loop of their Bob Marley theme song to the car rental place, we head to Metropol for a long-awaited, spice-infused traditional Cuban meal in one of its neighboring islands. It's a quaint place but it is always bustling with long lines and crowds. We know better and have already called to make reservations. We walk in to the savory smells of oregano, garlic, bay leaves and sofrito. As always, I order ropa vieja ("old clothes") which is tender, shredded flank steak marinated and cooked to perfection in a brown tomato-based sauce, served with a side of fluffy yellow rice and fresh garbanzo beans.

Our family eats to our hearts' contents and bring back Mofongo, or fried, mashed plaintains topped by a stewed red sauce, seasoned with saffron and tender meats, for my great-grandmother; it is her absolute favorite and she doesn't get to indulge in it much.
After a flavorsome lunch, we embark onto the highway. We know we're leaving San Juan when we cross the bridge that is framed by a series of American and Puerto Rican flags on either side, the red in their stripes extra rich and vibrant. The further we drive, the higher up we are in the mountains. When my ears begin to pop like bubble wrap, I know we are close. Ascending and descending from the highest part of the mountain is the halfway point and my excitement has brewed to a boiling point; I am so eager to see my family. Aside from the breathtaking views of the tops of the mountain ranges, the lush greenery and the pastures of chocolate-colored cows and horses, are some of the most beautiful houses I've ever seen.

That's one thing I've always loved about Puerto Rico: no house is dull or drab. Every single one is a color of the rainbow, usually a friendly pastel. I just look at the houses and I feel at ease. Puerto Ricans are always so happy and carefree; those qualities are truly imbued in their culture. Sometimes I think a playful-colored home is one secret to their contentment. Let's face it: who wouldn't be happy to come home from a stressful day at work to a house that's painted in his or her favorite color?

My great-grandmother's own home is tangerine with white trim. It is a modest, one-story cement house nuzzled behind a wire fence and tucked in by wrought iron gate around the patio. It sits alongside Carretera Ochoa, a small side street at the base of a mountain in Guanica. Her house is encircled by towering avocado, lemon and platano (plaintain) trees, coral-pink and bumble-bee yellow hibiscus flowers, fluttering hummingbirds, and bud-covered bushes.

You walk in and her house is more humid than the famous El Yunque Rainforest; there is no air conditioning except in the guest room and in her bedroom, which she's probably only used twice. She has vintage moss green, floral/paisley-embroidered sofas that have been around since before my mom was born and are covered by clear plastic furniture protectors. When you sit down, your skin sticks to the plastic and it's unpleasantly painful when you try to adjust yourself to get comfortable; your flesh pops off of the plastic like a suction cup. She has a midsize television set with an antenna that receives two snowy channels so that she can watch her novelas (Spanish soap operas) and noticias (news).

My great-grandmother has no need for much else and hasn't really kept up with technology. I sometimes feel Amish when I'm there because I'm rather spoiled by central air and satellite TV. But I think the beauty of her home is in its mere simplicity and lack of distractions. No Facebook or video games to distract you from homework. No text message alerts going off as you bury your face in your phone in the middle of -gasp-- an actual conversation. No booming iPods or loud air conditioners to garble the sounds of Mother Nature outside. Not even an alarm clock buzzing; that's what the roosters in the backyard are for. It's just an old-fashioned, peaceful, relaxing, no-frills home. Being there is a time warp, but a pleasant one.

Our family, now of five generations, sits around on the suction cup couches and a straw rocking chair in talks of "the good old days" and the way things used to be. We reminisce about the first time I walked, which was in that very house, and laugh about the antics my mother and I used to pull when we were kids. Her house holds so much history and I feel genuine closeness with my family while in it; I wish that closeness were more frequent in every relationship. As time and technology have progressed, the ability to be close with others has seemingly regressed, when it aims to do quite the opposite: quite ironic.

Couldn't we all use a nice vacation not from just people, work or stress, but technology: a 24-hour tool that makes our lives just that much more stressful and impersonal. Who sits around and talks anymore when we have chat rooms now? Who picks up the phone or stops by their neighbor's house to say hello when you can just send a text or IM?
I never understood those people who go to the beach just to lay with their shades on, glaring at some glossy magazine or texting away with their earbuds intact. They are missing out on all that is beautiful around them. I've seen this all too often at La Playa Cana Gorda.

As I approach the beach, palm and willow-like trees drape over the sea ahead. The salty breeze sweeps up my sand-dusted curls, which are just as wavy as the ocean itself. Palm trees are dancing and swaying in rhythm with the breeze and the salsa music playing from afar. The sound of waves crashing against the sand is pure serenity, an escape from the blaring traffic horns of the streets. The child, or should I say the human, in me emerges as I thrash and splash in the turquoise sea, which becomes a pool of glittering diamonds as the sun in the cloudless, velvet sky beams off of it. It is magical phenomenon. I think Melville puts it perfectly in his novel, Moby Dick. "Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries--stand that man on his legs, set his feet a going, and he will infallibly lead you to water...As everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded ever."

How could anyone be so detached from this?

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