SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — I arrived in Puerto Rico yesterday. I never been here before and I’m not sure why. It’s a hundred dollar flight from New York or Boston — I figure I would have just said fuck it and hopped on a plane down here at some point before nearly reaching year 18 of my travels. I don’t need a passport to go to Puerto Rico and I can stay for as long as I want. Apparently, it’s a part of my country, a self-governing part of my country, a territory — an archaic leftover from another era.
My next book may be about territories — what are these places and why do they still exist?
I was expecting typical Latin America in Puerto Rico but I got something that actually should have been what I expected: a strange hybrid of Latin Caribbean and the USA.
I spent many years traveling between Mexico and Patagonia, tying in the Dominican Republic and Haiti every once in a while. I know this region rather well, but San Juan surprised me: it looked and felt like normal Latin America . . . without anybody in the streets.
I couldn’t shake this fact all day yesterday. The houses, the people, the music were all the same, but the street life was that of some South Florida suburb. It just didn’t exist.
I was staying in the “real city,” not Old San Juan, and the place was dead. You go to Miami…anywhere in the Latin realm of the world, and the street life is vibrant, these places are happening. You walk down the street, see interesting things, talk to people, and usually find yourself having a series of unexpected encounters. In San Juan all I found on the streets was myself, two junkies, and a screaming schizophrenic. Everybody else was in cars.
It was almost startling. The streets here didn’t seem particularly dangerous, just vacant.
I eventually wandered down to the university area, and found myself relieved — it was the Latin America that I remembered. Good action everywhere. I drank beer on a sidewalk patio and watched the scene as it rolled by. Music was blasting out of every window and doorway. College kids were drinking $1 beers in circles of friends. Local drunks leaned against the railing that served as the barrier between the bar and the street. A group of fat men were getting drunk out in front of the laundromat next door. I felt as if I returned.
It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled in Latin America.
I remember a walk that I took with my wife on the outskirts of San Cristobal in the beginning of 2012 where we made the decision to leave Mexico and go to China. We considered just staying there — life was easy, life was good — but there was something else that we wanted. A challenge, perhaps — jobs that actually paid something, a shot at a career. Mexico is excellent for 20 year olds looking to drink beer and score and for old guys … looking to drink beer and score. For anyone in between there isn’t much happening.
We left Mexico and everything changed. I began a project that got me my first book deal, I started writing for a Hong Kong newspaper. I suppose I could say that I earned my bonafides as a traveling writer. None of that had to happen. None of it was expected. None of it could have been planned for. I was in the right place at the right time working on the right project.
I wonder what would have happened if we stayed in Mexico.