Visiting The City of Old San Juan

Trip Start Oct 17, 2006
Trip End Oct 23, 2006

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Flag of Puerto Rico  ,
Thursday, October 19, 2006

Tangerine is the swanky restaurant at The Water Club that features a wall made of rippled tin with water streaming over it, onto which is projected scenes of lovely young ladies swimming through crystal clear waters. At first glance it looks like an aquarium where bikini-clad "mermaids" play all day. It's a pleasant scene to view while dining.

Before we find our seats for breakfast, we're greeted by William, who has to be the friendliest bellman in San Juan. He excitedly waves us over to the front door. "Good morning, my friends," he says. "Come out here; you gotta see this!" We follow William outside and stand with him atop the steps of The Water Club as he points across the street at a scene that could only be described as breathtaking. "Look at that," he says with a smile, referring to the beautiful landscape across the way, with palm trees swaying and waves rolling up to a pristine sandy beach; birds flying to and fro; and the occasional sun worshipper settling in for a day of tanning.

"God paints a different scene everyday, but each day it's just as beautiful and each time it's perfect," he says. We agree and thank him for sharing with us the beauty of his country; something it's good to know the locals don't take for granted.

After breakfast, we head out for our adventure today. We've decided to take the city bus into Viejo San Juan, the city of Old San Juan, where we'll meet up with Kristin later. I imagine it to be village of old Spanish-style buildings made of adobe and stucco, bell towers, churches and dirt roads. What we find is a very modern downtown city with tall buildings (not skyscrapers, but tall nonetheless), traffic and lots of people hurrying to their destinations. What modern-day tourist metropolis would be complete without a Hard Rock Café? When I see that I know my initial idea of Old San Juan is blown completely out of th
e water.

Reminiscent of New Orleans in its architecture, many of the buildings that line the narrow cobblestone streets feature iron (and sometimes wooden) railing adorning the balconies, doorways and windows. The Caribbean influence is seen in the brightly colored paint of the buildings where people live, work, dine and gather. Shops and restaurants are sprinkled throughout neighborhoods found only when trekking through side streets away from the bustle of the big city streets.

We make our way through just such a neighborhood and find ourselves at the end of the road as we approach a concrete wall built as a fortress to surround the city. Down below on the outer perimeter of the wall is an incredible scene of despair and poverty - much different from the streets we walked to arrive here. We later learn that this small, neglected area is La Perla, "The Pearl", one of the most dangerous, drug infested areas on the island of Puerto Rico. The sale and use of drugs is legal here only because the police dare not venture into these dangerous streets to enforce the law. In a gratuitous gesture, the drug dealers of La Perla agree to remain outside of the walls and away from the many tourists who visit Old San Juan.

Just down the way is the Museo de San Juan, an old Place de Arms, a parade grounds of the Spanish military troops converted into a museum. Here we venture in to discover two exhibits - one depicting the history of San Juan, its people, its struggles and its future. I'm grateful for the English language printout of the exhibit's displays. From there we view the life and times of Puertorican orchestra conductor, Pablo Casias. He must have been a beloved figure in the arts. From there, we find the Museo de Nuestra Raiz African. Unfortunately, we weren't able to spend much time there because we had to meet Kristin soon. We make arrangements with the museum host to return later with our "interpreter". Sadly, we weren't able to make it back before the museum closed.

On our way to our agreed-upon meeting spot with Kristin, we were delayed by a downpour of tropical rain that kept us hold up in the entryway of an office building for about 20 minutes. After being splashed with rainwater by drivers who either couldn't avoid upcoming puddles of water formed in the stone streets, or found it amusing to play "splash the pedestrians," we made our way (in wet shoes and socks) to one of our favorite "chill-out" spots -- Starbucks. No matter where you go in the world, Starbucks is a welcome, familiar place, always warm and cozy, and always offering some yummy treats.

Within minutes, Kristin struts through the door and we have one of those "hey girl, it's been so long since I've seen you" moments (even though it's only been about two months). I can feel the atmosphere of the café warm up as onlookers smile at the reunion; hugs, smiles, love. It's good to see my girl. She passes Globetrotter test #1 - able to follow instructions and willing to go it alone for a while in order to meet up with the other Globetrotters.

We all chat over hot chocolate (the real stuff), coffee, cheesecake and cookies. Then Michael and I drill her with questions: "Does it rain like this everyday?" "How do you like it here?" "How far is the University of Puerto Rico from Old San Juan?" "Do you come downtown often?" She answers: "Yes, like clockwork." "Love it here." "About 45 minutes." "Just about every weekend." And it goes on like that for about an hour. The rain finally stops and we head out to the streets again for a brief tour, a la Kristin, then back on the bus towards Rio Piedras to visit UPR.

It's a typical urban college town - tight streets with no available parking spaces, students wandering the streets in packs headed towards the library or the dormitory or the local snack shop. We follow Kristin into Torre del Norte, the student residence hall, and smile as she greets several of her friends in the familiar Puertorican manner, a kiss on the right cheek. They exchange words that neither Michael nor I understand, but it sounds pleasant and friendly, and I'm pleased to know that she has connected with her own circle of influence.

As the town is "typical urban college", so is the dorm - old, rugged, in desperate need of renovation. I imagine that with just a splash of gold paint, a few plants and a really good cleaning, this tiny dorm room could be transformed into an urban oasis. But hey, Kris is only here for one semester, and she's tough enough to rough it out for a few more months.

With dinner on our minds, we walk a few blocks over to one of her favorite eateries for a taste of the local snack - pinchos (peen chos), grilled chicken on a stick, much like shish kabobs, only without the veggies. We chat some more, and soon enough two of Kristin's friends arrive to get their munch-on. Jaimee and Alanna are also foreign exchange students. Both from Tennessee State University, they, like Kristin discovered shortly after arrival in San Juan that their fluency in Spanish was lacking in comparison to the other foreign students here. They agreed that the American education system doesn't hold a candle to the education that students in other countries get, especially those is Europe.

With our bellies full we start to feel tired from a long day. We escort Kris back to her dorm and bid her farewell. She calls Francis, a taxi driver that she and her crew have befriended. Twenty minutes and eleven dollars later we arrive back at The Water Club and anticipate what tomorrow will bring.
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