San Juan Puerto Rico, Monday September 15th, 8:40 a.m.
I rode the ferry back from Santo Domingo like the poor Dominicans do – without paying for a berth. I tried to on the way over, but the little smelly room with berths for four was hot, poorly lit, and may have been previously occupied by cats with little critters in their fur. I slept in “Stockholm,” what used to be a conference room back when the Carribbean Express was still a first-rate passenger ferry in Denmark. The other rooms were also full: “Berlin,” “Oslo,” “Copenhagen.” I slept on the carpet which was probably at least as clean as the berth on deck two – underneath the car deck, mind you.
From the ferry dock and passport control (nobody ever blinks when I tell them I’m from the States – the customs officer practically dropped my bag on the spot when I answered her) I hitched it up to Aguadilla to get some Scuba diving in. I was picked up by a pair of chatty fire extinguisher installers who spoke gentle Spanish like I tried to do, often using the chordial and slightly Christian “hermano” when speaking to man – calling them “brother” instead of “sir.” We talked. The subject of Jenifer Lopez’s butt was broached. They dropped me in Aguadilla. I took off walking into the city, only to have them circle back five minutes later to collect me. They’d asked about the dive shops on their way out of town, and found out the nearest one was a good several clicks away, and far off the beaten trail. They took me right there, a good half hour out of their way, before turning around to get back to their installation.
I rented gear for fifty bucks, got dropped off at Crash Boat beach (why it’s called that I never learned) and spend almost two hours scaring the piña colada guy in the parking lot. I only had one tank, so I suited up and snorkeled out along the dock and around the dolphins (the name given to remote dock platforms) for about half an hour before I finally switched out snorkel for regulator and deflated my BCD to drop to the bottom. The dive wasn’t that deep, and I was moving slowly the whole time (in the past, divemasters have compared me to a seal, with my floating upside down and sticking my head in holes, using up all my air way ahead of the rest of the group) but this time I was in stealth mellow mode, picking up garbage, catching a lobster with my hands (I let it go) and watching the little triangular horse fish flap their ridiculously tiny fins madly to escape from me.
All that to say that I was in the water for way longer than one expects a diver to be, and that the parking lot vendor guy was minutes from calling the police when I re-surfaced. I hitched back with a woman who told me she picked me up “because I looked foreign and Puerto Ricans will never pick you up.” Hey, whatever works.
It was almost four when I stuck my thumb out and headed back to the highway. I got stuck, too. A trucker took me as far as Manati (still a good hour from San Jose, where I was due the next morning at eight) then he offered to drop me at the gas station a few miles off the highway – I asked for the on-ramp, and he reluctantly obliged. It’s always a crap shoot. The on ramp is closer, and everybody there is definitely going your way. The gas station is a good chance to start conversation (hitching is all about what you communicate in the precious first seconds that gets the driver comfortable enough to make what they think might be a risky decision.)
I paced that on-ramp until past dark, making swinging invitational arms: “pick MEEE!” or folded together looking at the heavens “I’m praying you’ll pick MEEEE” or jumping up and down, motioning to the back of their pickup trucks, “I can sit in back, ok? No risk!” – all to no avail. A good solid hour after dark, I gave it up and walked into town, assuming a hotel. A guy at a hotdog booth bought me dinner and a bottle of water (Puerto Rican, lives in New Jersey, had a wedding ring on and a rail-thin, well tattooed shy gal sitting beside him: “old friend of mine,” he says) then I start walking for the nearest hotel “seven lights up that way” says the hot dog guy.
The lights are almost a mile apart, some of them. At light number six, I enquire and am told: “oh, not much farther, three more lights.” and that doesn’t even mention light number five, wherein the unlikely gringo hero of our story is walking along the deserted country road and a young man is crossing the street quickly towards him, with one hand behind his back. I cross quickly, thinking through exactly how to quickly unbuckle my forty-pound backpack and where I needed to hit him hard if he were hiding a knife. He keeps walking, I keep walking, I look halfway over my shoulder every few seconds all the way to light number six.
At number nine, a nice Muslim family is working (there are six of them behind the gas station glass) and I’m told it’s “just around the corner.” I fully expect after a blistering five miles in sandals ( I’m sweating buckets, chafing in the wrong places, and it’s now close to midnight) that the hotel will be closed.
It wasn’t. Cute little place – garages for every room, a guy in a golf cart took thirty bucks from me and handed me a set of clean sheets and a towel. The mattresses were plastic, there were mirrors on every imaginable surface facing the bed, and I was surprised that there were 24 channels of TV on that weren’t “Oh baby, oh yeah, oh baby more.” The horse-pee shower was warm, the starched white towel was thin but clean and effective. I flipped through all the channels once or twice before bed, pretty thoroughly disturbed by how women get treated in those things.
I was out of that room five hours later, still dark, took a collective taxi (a 14-passenger van with my pack in my lap) into town. Since my first day in Puerto Rico when I met Juan Yambo, I’d had the Creole music class on my to-do list, so I made good on it. Interesting class. Got some decent footage, but made no friends to jam with. The professor gave a good interview. Juan didn’t show. I left him a message, then called back the next day. He flaked for our meeting, so I let it go and returned to my $18-a-night little hotel in the old city next door to a teenybopper dance club.
And here I still am. Two nights ago I hung out with Johanna, a Spanish-speaking Austrian gal who’d come for the salsa and the pretty chocolate boys. She was my first foreign contact in three weeks, and she seemed to attract a pile of others – Zack, an American from Buenos Aires who has come to interview for a job ( he got it) and Rob and Rich, two Englishmen who have just turned twenty one. Rich was working pretty hard on getting chummy with Johanna last night, and I’ll bet it paid off. Me, I’ve been walking around the city, not so much in work mode as vacation mode. I did go to the rainforest the other day and climbed around off the marked trails full of Americans in nice Herz rentals. I bathed in a little stream below a waterfall I couldn’t see and laughed at how amazing life can be sometimes. The trip has been pretty emotional (“Solvitur Ambulando,” says Chatwin) so standing naked in the rain did me a world of good.
Baltimore tomorrow morning, then Philly, Rochester, Dallas, Columbus, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and St. Louis all in the next three weeks. Somewhere in there I’ll edit seven hours of video footage.