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Hurricane Isaac Still Blocking My Path Home-Leading me to Reflect on Caribbean Travels

I have a funny relationship with the Caribbean. My family is from there. I go there for work often. I love love love the stews (goat stew, poll guisado, oxtail stew) and pina coladas are a guilty pleasure of which I’m currently partaking. But I far prefer traveling to Hawaii and laying on their beaches. In both the Caribbean and Hawaii i get so many bug bites that it is to the point where i wonder if there is a toxicity level I should be worried about. I get heat rashes in both. But it’s difficult for me to fully ever enjoy the Caribbean. I guess it’s always difficult to go home particularly when one part of that home sees you as alien to it and calls you gringa. I’m from here, but not. It’s a piece of me, but not really. What does it mean when I just adored Cuba and found it infinitely beautiful and Curacao speaks to my sense of blended, interracial identity; yet Puerto Rico, the land of my ancestors and ostensibly “la isla del encanto”,  is not so enchanting to me? What does it mean that it actually causes me heartburn? Being stranded in Curacao, while waiting out Hurricane Isaac, has made me a bit pensive and reflective on Puerto Rico itself. There must be, must be something about it that makes my heart swell, no?

So, let me compare some variables of travel interest across five key Caribbean islands to aid my reflection. I may not come to a full on revelation, but I will give it a try. Thank you in advance for your indulgence.

1. The weather! It must be the same throughout the whole Caribbean, no? Actually, no it’s not the same. Curacao is pretty perfect temperature-wise. Most places in Curacao where I have been don’t even use air conditioning. In Puerto Rico, you literally need to wear a parka inside any building; in particular the movie theatre. The same was true in the Bahamas and to a certain lesser extent the Dominican Republic. In Cuba, I don’t recall the full on assault of air conditioning, but there are some other factors at play there. So, in Puerto Rico I freeze my a$$ off but simultaneously manage to develop heat rashes. How contrary.

2. What about who else is there? The tourists are very different throughout the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico, you get a ton of American tourists since Puerto Rico is part of the United States and thus no passport is needed. Just as an fyi, 33% of Americans have a passport (lower than many European countries; but that’s the highest number its been). In Curacao, it is mostly Dutch tourists sprinkled with Hispanics from South America. This too, considering its history, makes sense. In the Bahamas, it is an assortment of Americans and Americans. There are those dropped off by the boatload for a day and those staying at the big “you-never-leave” resorts. In Cuba, it is mostly Germans and other Europeans. I’m not a resort kind of girl. Tourists, I can take them or leave them wherever I am.

3. Now, I’m a cocktail kind a girl. Each island has its favorite cocktail or liqueur and over time I have found I’m partial to rum which is a big deal in Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. I must say I have a deep deep fondness for piña coladas. I love my girlie drinks. I have come to appreciate curacao liqueur while stranded in Curacao. I went to the distillery today and had rum raisin. Not bad. Wouldn’t drink it everyday, though. In Cuba, rum was more plentiful than food, no joke. Mojitos are good but aren’t sugary sickly sweet the way I like my drinks. At one event in Cuba I had a pint of rum and champagne in my hands. That’s taking drinking to a whole other level. Then there is the Bahama Mama in the bahamas which is pretty tasty. But the perfect drink for me is the lava flow a mx of piña colada and strawberry daiquiri. I told you I like my drinks girlie and Puerto Rico works for me that way.

4. I’m a New Yorker who gets up everyday around 550am to work out, get my baby ready, commute into the city and speed walk to the office. At all points I need coffee. For me, hands down, I far prefer the coffee in Puerto Rico. Strong and sweet and plentiful. Enough said.

5. How about that Customer service? That’s always a tough one. In terms of world travel, nothing beats the customer service you get in japan. It is just so unbelievably good and they get offended if you tip them. Wow! But back to the Caribbean. Let’s just start by saying: things are slow everywhere. So, we may be talking about degrees of slowness and differences. The hotel staff in Curacao have been phenomenal. They handmade a gift for my son’s birthday. They had special cookies made for him. True enough, my son is adorable and a mayor (see my japan blog)- so that may be a confounding factor. But I will take the great service nonetheless. However, restaurant service is something totally different in curacao. It’s not bad, it’s just indifferent. At five different places we have been ready to pay for our meal and we have had to wait a minimum of  20 minutes to get the check. Seriously, the New Yorker in me was having a brain aneurism unable to comprehend that extremely slow pace. Don’t they want their money? In Cuba, I didn’t get a real sense of customer service; it seemed a bit of a foreign concept to them. Could degree of capitalism be positively associated with customer service? Hmm. Probably not. In the Bahamas, I hate to say it, but customer service was indifferent bordering on the rude.  Listen to what happened to me. A hotel employee tried to help me with my luggage situation and gave me engineering department number to call and when I did they said they weren’t there to help me and that they wanted the name of the staff person that had recommended that action. Ouch! That was so not cool (I did not provide the name of the one helpful staff member). In the Dominican Republic, I actually switched my hotel after half a night. Need I say more? Puerto Rico. Yes, restaurants have been great for the most part. They even have helped me with the stupid receipts I need for my expense reports. However, hotel staff- well, I’ve had bad and good. At this one in the city of Ponce, the hotel desk clerk was actually talking about me, bad-mouthing me in Spanish, thinking I didn’t understand. When I told her in Spanish that I understood what she was saying and that I wanted her manager, she nearly collapsed. That was actually kind of funny and that’s my problem with Puerto Rico- they have an uneasy relationship with the United States (as it should being a “territory”) and I embody that relationship for them. That’s a downer.

6. Ok. On a lighter happier note: I’m a foodie. At the end of the day, I take my cues from food. For instance, I love Hawaii’s mixed plate: it is just so yummy and wonderfully reflective of its diversity. I love sauce, spice, and rice. I have tried the goat stew here in curacao and it’s been good, although I was hoping for something saucier. In the Bahamas it was somewhat hard to find local food but managed to go to the poop deck a great local place on the water. A lot of fresh fish which is great but sometimes I worry about my shellfish allergy. In Cuba, restaurants do run out of food and ingredients. I managed to go to a great palador in Cuba and had homecooked porkchop in garlic sauce (very light): truly cool experience. In the Dominican Republic, I felt comfortable with the food as it is so similar to Puerto Rican food and there are a ton of Dominican restaurants (called Spanish food) in New York City. Again, I am partial to pollo guisado and asopao in Puerto Rico. Plus, the beans are a major point. I hate beans. Have always hated beans, which is why I was a horrible vegetarian and lost a chunk of hair as a result. The caldo (sauce, gravy, etc) of the red beans in Puerto Rico is super yummy. That kind of does it for me.

7. Let’s get real. Race and race relations are tough everywhere. And in the Caribbean its scolding hot to the touch. Now, I’ve mentioned how Curacao is an inter-racial mecca and that has made me feel good. In the Dominican Republic there is no doubt that race and class go hand in hand. The fact that at some point Japanese were brought to the island to lighten the population says more than enough. Cuba and the Cubans I met were dumbfounded at the idea that race is tied with health outcomes but they do have a history of racial segregation. Puerto Rico -well let’s say that as a brown woman, has not always been kind to me. But as I have gotten older and more confident, I have learned to navigate that racial morass.

So, where am I with this reflection? I still have a ways to go with my relationship with Puerto Rico but I definitely value its liqueur, caldo, and coffee! And the way to one’s heart is through the stomach. Filler up I’m on my way!


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