Round The World in 100 Days: Puerto Rico, USA

Happy Thursday beautiful people! It’s Dia with your bi-weekly update on the slowest moving ’round the world trip ever! We are well under way chasing the sun around the globe, sailing east and hope you’ll enjoy the ride vicariously.

It seemed strange to be sailing from Nassau, Bahamas (basically a foreign territory) to Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory) as we head around the world at 20 mph. That said, I have no sea sickness to report though many, many of the almost 900 people on board with SAS, are feeling queasy as we all get our sea legs. The run from the Bahamas to Puerto Rico was uneventful in terms of weather, but we’re all getting used to living on a floating city with 900 strangers. The students are learning their way around the ship and starting their classes, the staff (myself included) are learning that there is no place on the ship that the students don’t take over like a swarm of locusts. Fortunately, we have one of the best groups ever in terms of academic standing, and even after only a week, I have to admit that my affection for them is high.

We sailed into Puerto Rico on another beautiful morning. The sunrise was magnificent and we got great pictures of the PILOT boat coming out to guide the ship into harbor. We could see the government center, famous fort, and the coast guard station. Last, but not least, the closer we got to port, the more you could see the beautiful pastel-colored Spanish colonial architecture.

Once we had all cleared immigration, a process that takes a little over an hour and includes all 900 passengers collecting our passports and having them stamped one by one before anyone can disembark the ship, San Juan was under siege. Puerto Rico is the world’s largest producer of rum, that sugarcane based nectar of the gods. And by goodness, we were going to find it (along with the locally brewed beer: Medalla).

I held back a little and let the ship empty before I packed up my cameras and loaded up my daypack. I wanted to give everyone a running start into San Juan, so that we wouldn’t be tripping all over each other while in port. Some people took off for the beach at Vieques, others for the Museo de nuestra raiz Africana (Museum of our African Roots), others for a 4 hour walking tour of the city, but I took off for the Zocalo in homage to my time in Mexico. I knew this would be my best bet at finding the rhythm of the city and my best chance to observe people doing whatever it was they do on a random morning.

After my photographic journey into the life of San Juan residents, I caught up with some fellow staffers and we begged a taxi driver to take us to his favorite local eatery. We ended up at El Jibarito on Sol Street in old San Juan. The place was empty, but had a great vibe and the waitress teased us in Spanish before admitting that she spoke flawless English.

The three of us hung out in the back room drinking Medalla’s (Puerto Rican beer) in the filtered sunshine, and enjoying the quiet. Little did we know that 700 other people from our ship had the same idea and when we went pay the check and leave, the restaurant was packed with all of our shipmates! I chowed down on red beans and yellow rice with grilled pork chops and plantains dipped in garlic butter (yum!) all for about $11US.

We rode around for a bit watching people surf, watching school children on tours of the city government buildings and testing the relative “icy coldness” of the Medallas at several local haunts. I had to get back to the ship to get ready for the evening’s activities. I was a trip leader and took 47 of our students out to Universidad Interamericana for a night of cross-cultural fun. We ended up taking 2 buses to the university so about 100 of us in total. When we arrived the Puerto Rican students were outside, all dressed in maroon polo shirts with their school mascot (the tiger) and clapping and singing “ole’, ole’, ole’, ole’, ole'” with huge smiles on their faces.

We spent the evening eating local food, hanging out and mostly salsa dancing (them-very well, us-very poorly). We danced for 3 hours before we finally packed up our stuff and went home. I changed clothes and again met up with some staff to hit Bar Rumba.

I hit the streets of San Juan early. very early. So early that nothing was open except for the jewelry stores and the restaurants serving breakfast. I joined a friend who was looking for a tattoo parlor to complete the design she wanted to have done. We spent the morning wandering around Old San Juan and the streets reminded me of San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) in some places with their narrow access and brightly painted buildings. We came to learn that the 7 block grid that comprises Old San Juan is a World Heritage Site, with buildings that date back to the 16th century and amazing cobble-stoned streets.

It was a nice breezy morning and we just strolled which I love. I found that as the day progressed my rusty Spanish was improving bit by bit, and I will admit that my ego was pumped by how many people were impressed with my skills (which just goes to show that they know nothing!). We slipped into Cafe Mallorca, where we heard that they have an amazing breakfast, and picked up some homemade macaroons to sample while we checked things out.

While waiting for the tattoo parlors to open we found a music store (Jah Rastafari) and I was excited that I could pick up some Puertorequeno tunes, alas…they sold only Bob Marley and Marley-esque tunes, but we did meet an expat, SAS alumni. Rashonda did the spring voyage last year and loved Puerto Rico so much that after returning home and graduating, she packed up and moved down here last August! How cool is that? She was great and gave us a recommendation for lunch, but had no help for me regarding my music crisis. We found two tattoo parlors for Shayla and she got quotes from both of them.

We decided to mull her options over lunch at Cafe Puerto Rico. I know, cheesy name, but the food was oh, so, good. San Juan it turns out is gaining a reputation as the culinary capital of the Caribbean, and I can honestly say that I did not have a bad meal my entire stay.

After mulling the menu, and chatting up the cutie-pie bartender/owner and his brother while he made us some noon-time cocktails…I decided on arroz con camarones, plantanas (yellow rice with saute’d shrimp, plantains) and…red beans all for about $15 US including 2 mojitos. They also made their own salsa picante (hot sauce) from scratch and it worth the sweat beading up on my forehead, they couldn’t give me the recipe though b/c they said their father made it, and they had no idea what was in it!

After lunch we stumbled across this little store (Hecho a Mano) where we spent a small fortune in jewelry and music, a lot of the students had found it too after word got out about the great prices and the place was packed but I picked up two CDs that I am totally infatuated with now and have on constant rotation.

Shayla got her tattoo, it took about 20 minutes (17 of which I slept through) and I waited for her in the parlor lobby. The artwork came out beautifully. She hugged her tattoo artist as if she was glad to still be alive. We also stocked up on drinks and snacks, etc for the ship (we leave tomorrow!

The last stop of the day: booking our indie (independent) trip to El Yunque rainforest (about $45 US including roundtrip transport). Alot of people went yesterday with groups but we decided it would be more fun with less people so we cabbed (best cab ever) it over to the Ritz Carlton’s tour desk and hooked up a tour for the next morning. I’m still coming to grips with traveling in a group, but I realized I’d rather travel this way than not at all, so I’m keeping my attitude and perspective in check. All of which are easier to do because I genuinely enjoy everyone that I’ve met so far.

I highly recommend the trip out to El Yunque (Caribbean National Forest), which is the only rainforest in the US Forest System. The 23 miles of trails, copious bird, plant and animal life and humidity make for a once in a lifetime experience. Flights to Puerto Rico are fairly cheap, the beaches have been largely (miraculously) untouched and the weather is pretty good year round. If I had to sum up the three best reasons to visit PR, they would be: the warm and gracious people (our fellow US citizens!), the amazing food, and the natural beauty of the environment perfect for outdoor and water sports.

Next Stop: Salvador, Brazil
Previously: Nassau, Bahamas