After twelve unrelenting days at sea we had finally made it to the Caribbean. While our original goal had been St. John (USVI), we did make it there in a sense, as San Juan is Spanish for St. John. And after no showers, little sleep, and barely sufficient food we were wiling to stop just about anywhere.
We had looked forward to vividly green islands, white sandy beaches and swaying palms welcoming us to the Caribbean. Instead we were greeted by a grey, mist-shrouded expanse of coastline, and couldn’t make out anything until we were practically inside the harbor. But it didn’t matter, we had made it. The mist parted as we entered the fort-lined harbor of Puerto Rico. All six of us were happy and cheering at our final arrival. My mom hollered, “Hola, Puerto Rico!” in a bad Spanish accent.
Shortly after anchoring, we all jumped ship in search of our first shower in nearly two weeks. Unfortunately, all we found was a coldwater shower in a bare cement stall in a ramshackle marina. But at least it was free and we were clean. As soon as we finished with showers, there were even more showers. We were caught in a torrential downpour with no sign of letting up. By then it was nearly dinnertime, so we ducked into the closest eatery—a Sizzler—to wait out the rain. We were all soaked and very thankful that the place wasn’t overly air conditioned, and the buffet had surprisingly decent Puerto Rican-style food and was popular with the locals.
The next day the real work began. We had taken a real beating during the offshore passage and everything above and below deck varied from damp to sopping wet. My cabin was in bad shape after being damp for nearly two weeks with no air circulation. This provided excellent conditions for a healthy crop of mold to grow in our closet and under Isaac’s bunk. So things were removed, closets scrubbed, laundry done at the marina, and before long we were starting to get back to some semblance of normalcy.
On December 2nd (yes, our blog is over a month behind, sorry!) Scott, Molly, Isaac and I had our first outing—to the San Juan SuperWalmart. Lizzards scurried into the shrubbery as we passed. Sidewalks were sometimes absent, sometimes occupied by parked cars. With crosswalks rare or non-functional, we had to nervously run across streets between narrow gaps in the traffic. We passed men at work painting walls or washing or repairing the cars on the sidewalk. All signs and storefronts were in Spanish. Near the end the streets became small and residential, lined with boxy pastel cement houses in various states of repair, from brand new to decrepit and crumbling. Though a part of US territory, it felt like a foreign country.
The San Juan SuperWalmart was quite impressive, and we all had a great time examining the unusual tropical products. We even had a great lunch of local fare in the cafeteria-style restaurant. While we had brought at least a month’s supply of food onboard for the offshore passage, we were all craving fresh fruits and vegetables. We would soon discover that lettuce doesn’t do well in the Caribbean (it turned to slimy mush in about a day, even in the fridge) but found cabbage, a sorely underappreciated and underutilized vegetable, makes a serviceable replacement for many applications. We also enjoyed fresh local papaya, pineapple, and mango, and taught ourselves how to prepare fried yellow and green plantains.
One day, Scott, Molly Isaac and I decided to walk the approximately two miles from the marina to Old San Juan. Old San Juan is the touristy area of the city, although this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are large stone forts, a few museums, and lots of restaurants, cafes, and shops. The narrow streets and comely squares speak of the city’s Old World Spanish heritage. We explored the many levels of El Morro, a fort strategically located near the mouth of San Juan harbor. We had lunch at a Puerto Rican restaurant our guidebook recommended, but found we’d preferred the meal at the Walmart cafeteria.
One highlight of the visit to Old San Juan was the Museo de las Americas, with exhibits and art focusing on the native peoples of the Americas. We particularly enjoyed the exhibit on the many tribes that are native to North, South, and Central America. Each tribe had its own diorama with details on customs and livelihood of that tribe, complete with a life-size bronze statue of a real tribe member. Sweedish artist Felipe Lettersten has traveled around the Americas, making paster casts of Native Peoples (with permission, of course), which he turns into exquisitely detailed statues. He always returns to give a statue to each tribe.
After lunch it rained. And rained. We ate much more than we’d intended as we kept needing to duck into cafes to avoid the downpours. The most interesting place we unintentionally visited was a restaurant called the Chocolate Bar. We ordered a Puerto Rican hot chocolate and a churro, and we were confused when the hot chocolate came out with a slice of cheddar cheese and a square of chocolate. We ate half the cheese and chocolate before the waitress told us it was supposed to go in the beverage. So we plopped it in, but half thought that the waitress was just pulling a prank on the stupid American tourists. However, the internet later confirmed it is in fact a Puerto Rican tradition to put cheese in hot chocolate. But I’m not sure I’d recommend it. The cheese just created a mucus-like film on top of an otherwise excellent cup of hot chocolate.
By the time we finished our chocolate and churro it was starting to get late, but still pouring. We tried to hop in and out of shops to make our way back toward the boat, but by the time we were almost out of town, and almost out of shelter we realized this was not going to work. We tired to hail a taxi, but we weren’t able to pop out of our shelter fast enough. Thankfully, the friendly security guard at the random government building we were taking shelter under hailed a taxi for us. In fact, we were all pleasantly surprised at how people were not only friendly, but often went out of their way to help us out.
While Isaac and I decided to catch a cab just as it had really started to pour, Scott and Molly had left a bit earlier and were already about half way back to the boat at that point. However, this meant they still had about a mile to go, and little to no available shelter from the rain. Veritable rivers popped up alongside or instead of roads, often dotted with large pools, some of which went past Scott’s knees or nearly up to Molly’s waist. By the time Isaac and I arrived back at the marina we were quite wet, but Molly and Scott were utterly soaked.
We were liking Puerto Rico, and enjoying not being rolling across the ocean anymore, but it sure would be a lot nicer if it didn’t rain so much here.