Thursday, November 07, 2013

pr travel journal, 10/27: swimming with reluctant horses, walking with history

We interrupt the Blog As You Are Project to bring you the Way Too Many Details From My Puerto Rico Trip Project! I feel very old-school, posting excerpts from my travel journal almost a week after returning. A proper modern traveler would upload pics as she went and not use much text at all. But one of the best parts of the trip was the internet detox component, which I’m doing my best to maintain now that I’m home. So far this has translated into checking Facebook five times a day instead of fifteen. It’s an uphill battle.

10/27/13, Sunday

1. just like ricky martin

After a long travel day and a logistical morning, we made it out to Corozal, a hilly inland town where we had a date with Rafael to ride horses. AK found him through a confederacy of tourist activities called PR For Less. Dos Hermanos ranch was a small, square, flat-roofed house painted light green. Behind it, a stable with rusting, corrugated tin walls.

Dos Hermanos, un camino.
A handful of scruffy, friendly dogs ran around. One, a pit with a big scab on her head, had shown up a few weeks ago, Rafael said, and had proceeded to nurse a tabby kitten, who still weaved between her legs. She quickly became my hero. So did Princesa, a short-legged mutt who followed us for the entire ride, gamely swimming across streams when necessary.

Mama and foster baby.
Rafael was a jokey guy in his forties, who called his horses his “babies” and waxed philosophical about animals being nobler than humans. He reinforced his own point by hitting the trifecta of jokes—sexist, racist, homophobic—in the first five minutes. He said that for ladies, riding a horse was like visiting the gynecologist—just relax, follow instructions and keep your legs open!

The other people on the tour, Wanda and Damal, were a black couple from the Bronx. Rafael told Damal that if he mastered riding he could be like the black Lone Ranger. Rafael noted that they’d remade one of his favorite eighties movies, Can’t Buy Me Love, with an all-black cast. He called Damal “homes” and “brother” throughout the trip.

When he was putting Wanda on a horse named Luigi, he told Damal not to get jealous—all his horses were gay. He also promised Damal that he, Rafael, wasn’t getting off on lifting Wanda onto the horse: “For this, I’m just like Ricky Martin.” He did a brief, limp-wristed impression of Ricky. Or rather, of a generic gay man.

(Side note: Didn’t so many closeted gay men rise to fame partly because they did excellent impressions of hyper-masculine straight men?)

AK was assigned a dark brown mare named Chocolate (pronounced the Spanish way, choco-latte). I was silently grateful she didn’t have the name of some African-American celebrity. I got a spotted stallion named Pepe. We rode Paso Fino style, a smooth, fast-footed ride in which the horses’ hooves never came more than six inches off the ground.

Pepe's like, "Look, I'm not gay, but I like EQUINE ladies."
Recent rains had made the trails muddy, so we kept to the road, riding through what seemed to be a middle-class neighborhood. Some of the houses—flat-roofed, brightly colored, somehow very un-continental in their architecture, in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on—were rundown, others were kept up. Most of the cars in the driveways were newer than mine. But they all had bars on the windows and porches, and stray dogs and semi-stray dogs ran in the streets.

It felt good to be outside after a morning in the car, a day on the plane, and a year at work, in bed and too often in a doctor’s office. The air was warm and humid. Ivy and vines covered green trees in more green. Rafael pointed out the occasional burst of orange-red—African tulips—amid the trees. We came back by way of a river that had been bursting at its seams a few days before. Now we just got splashed as the horses pranced knee-deep.

Rafael made jokes about stopping to swim, and soon we saw he was serious. We stopped at a deep part of the river, and he unsaddled the horses. Wanda said no thank you, she didn’t swim, and Damal said he’d stay with Wanda so she wouldn’t get lonely.

Soon AK and Chocolate and Pepe and I were up to our chests (and the horses’ necks) in slightly-too-cool water. Rafael urged us deeper, assured us that the horses could swim. Chocolate made some horsey grunts that clearly translated to “This is bullshit.”

I guess the water one foot to my right was a lot deeper?
The horses did due diligence, then climbed back to land. Next time I hear someone talking about swimming with dolphins, I’m going to say, “Yeah, but have you ever swum with reluctant horses?”

They raced home, and I started to love going fast. The rhythm and speed, leaning forward in the saddle.

2. the first of many detailed descriptions of what i ate

Back in San Juan, we changed out of our wet clothes and found dinner at one of the overpriced (but not the most overpriced) restaurants on Fortaleza Street. Fish called chillo and tostones—plantain slices pounded into little pancakes and fried—for AK, asopao de mariscos and mofongo for me. I cut little pie-shaped slices of the mofongo and dunked it in the red soup, which swam with muscles and soft rice. Our guidebooks said restaurants in Puerto Rico were nothing to write home about, best to stick to cheap street food, but I suspected I would love what I ate here, and I was right.

Asopao de YES.
We had a second drink—rum punch—at Café Puerto Rico nearby and chatted with our waiter, a young, cosmopolitan guy with Buddy Holly glasses. He told us that there were so many Puerto Ricans in NYC because the U.S. had a shortage of cheap immigrant labor during the Depression and imported reluctant Puerto Ricans. (I can only imagine what kind of job no American-American wanted in the Depression.) He said now California attracted educated Puerto Ricans to San Diego, for the military, and SF, for gay culture.

We finished the night with a good salsa band at the Nuyorican Café. The scene around town was generally mellow. Even the folks at Señor Frog’s seemed subdued.

3. puerta de la tierra

This morning we planned to bike to a couple of museums, but the sky poured sheets of warm rain. We decided walking would be less slippery. After rice and beans and plantains and coffee and a mallorca sandwich at Cafeteria Mallorca, a diner-style establishment with a trumpet player and a window full of pastries, we set out along the marina in what would turn out to be the wrong direction.

Cafeteria Mallorca. I loved these girls' stack of fedoras.
But that took us through Puerta de la Tierra, a strip of abandoned and not-abandoned housing projects thick with beautiful graffiti and vines that felt very “world after us.” We stopped at a McDonald’s to consult our maps and AK’s phone. It was like any McDonald’s in L.A. A cluster of people in bright pink shirts had just completed some kind of breast cancer—cancer de seno—walk. We had a moment of grouchiness and blame, then took off in the correct direction, deciding we’d gotten good exercise and the opportunity to see an area our guidebook warned us against.

Puerta de la Tierra will swallow you whole.

Prayer for Puerta de la Tierra.

Blue Man Group.
In the last centuries, it had been an area outside the city walls, where free blacks and other poor people lived. It ended with the word “beware.”

4. spaniards were the original pirates of the caribbean

We hiked to the Atlantic side of the city, where colorful rooftops looked out at a large flat blue. All the museums were closed except for the Museo de las Americas. There was an unimpressive gallery of paintings (sort of all one painting, actually) “exploring female sexuality” and a sweet collection called Balcones by a local painter of country streetscapes.

Next year for Halloween, I'm going as Sexy Che Guevara.

Felix Cordero's rain-slick streets.
The most interesting gallery was devoted to African influence on Puerto Rico. It answered my most ignorant and burning questions: Why are Haitians and Dominicans mostly black, while Puerto Ricans mostly look like my internal picture of “Latinos”? Are black people native to the Caribbean or not? The (no doubt simplistic) answer is that black people were brought to all the islands as slaves, but the slave trade in Puerto Rico wasn’t as intense. Spaniards had enslaved the indigenous Taínos too, but intermarriage (or, you know, rape) seemed to have swallowed up both races. African blood is probably why you find more curly haired Puerto Ricans than Mexicans.

This woman is giving this slaver some serious side-eye.

The exhibit was a little weird. Although each block of text reminded us, in English and Spanish, that slavery was “immoral” and “unjust,” it also seemed a little racist. The first section seemed devoted to random handicrafts from Africa, none of them labeled with a year. It was like, Hey, here’s some stuff from Africa! To show us what slavery was like, there was a clip of Amistad running on a loop, next to a set of wrist chains you could slip your hands into.

Now we’re watching the sunset over one of several old forts that protected the island from pirates.

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