Culture

Through the Time Warp I Made it Back From Puerto Rico, But My Shoes Didn’t

The sun was shining brightly this Sunday morning and I could not help but murmur to myself “and let there be light.” Just last night I changed time zones, returning to East Coast time, gaining an hour to just end up losing it again at 2am this Sunday.  Why did I have to spring forward when I had just fallen back into my own bed?  I just returned from having been on the proverbial and literal Puerto Rico road for seven days straight, staying at two different hotels on different ends the island.  I have a very special relationship with Puerto Rico, where my identity is always being questioned and my eyes itch nonstop (I shouldn’t be allergic to pretty much everything where I was born, but so it goes). Puerto Rico’s tourism slogan is the “Isla del Encanto” [the land of enchantment] and I am sure that for many tourists and residents that may hold true. For an “in-betweener” like myself enchantment is far from possible. This is akin to being part of the 1.5 generation (1.5G). Have you ever heard of that phrase? 1.5 generation refers to people who immigrate to a new country before or during their early teens. They bring with them characteristics from their home country, but continue their assimilation in the new country, thus being “halfway” between the 1st generation and the 2nd generation. So, for me I am an “in betweener” living in that weird interstitial gap between being thought of as a Puerto Rican and being disavowed as one. Perhaps it is how John Creighton felt on “Farscape.” (hurled to anther end of the galaxy, the main alien meanies look like humans, but aren’t, and so everyone thinks he’s one of them).  To them, my Spanish is not good enough, although I’m perfectly fluent (my accent is a little strange to those used to Puerto Rican Spanish), and I also do not like those primary staples of Puerto Rican cuisine—beans and avocados. But I thoroughly enjoy rum, parcha and asopao.  Lovely things to try if you have not yet had the pleasure. I even heat up the milk before I mix it with my morning coffee at home, and believe in teaching my son to do the same; just as they do in Puerto Rico.  Yet at an event in Puerto Rico I was chastised because the caterer didn’t make the milk hot enough, which to locals clearly signified my lack of understanding that Puerto Ricans drink their milk hot. Really? Sigh.  One of the first things I learned when I started applying social science in the real world was that cultural competence is generally perceived as a one way street.  As if catering food at an event wasn’t hard enough, it’s even harder when those you are working with use milk temperature (I mean, I didn’t heat the milk myself, for god’s sake) as a yardstick for ethnocentrism.

 

Earlier in the week, I had no hot shower and the exercise room was filled with “out of order” machines, certainly not an unheard of travel experience, but this was while I was working on writing two grants and doing my training sessions. There were numerous other barriers such as lack of WiFi, and angry training participants, primarily because there was no meat in the lasagna and we served pancakes for breakfast instead of eggs (and meat). Let me tell you, I hardly ever attend a meeting where warm breakfast of any kind is served and most people are super happy when the courtyard Marriot or other such hotel has hot pancakes for the free breakfast, Note the key word “free.”  Throughout it all, I kept uttering “it is what it is.” And, surely when in Puerto Rico that’s how things roll, or rather that is how business visitors are expected to take the ups and down. Some things are cultural, some things are a result of colonialism (attitudes towards Nuyoricans possibly being emblematic). These weren’t things necessarily within my control. And other things, were, they just were.

After three days in one city near the San Juan metro area, we hit the road to the other end of the island. En route, in the middle of our supposedly easy 3-hour road trip, a colleague (specifically our colleague under whom the rental car was registered) ending up in the ER of a small town, resulting from some sudden allergy onset. We had stopped at a local breakfast eatery and ordered strong coffees and Cuban sandwiches and the like. Don’t know what went wrong there.  While at the emergency room, he witnessed the death of a young man which prompted the whole town to come to the hospital and mourn his passing. For sure, nothing is sadder than seeing a mom mourn her child’s death.  Watching such a mother’s heartache can be quite traumatizing. This was an inauspicious sign. We thought we had left the bad luck and difficulties behind in the metro area.

We finally reached our “resort” hotel and settled in. My room, this being Puerto Rico, and myself being Puerto Rican, was obviously haunted.  I am absolutely convinced of it. The room was big and perhaps stately at some point. The bathroom was huge, with a whirlpool that looked more like a possible torture chamber or Victorian insane asylum therapy device. There were 4 total mirrors, making it extremely hard to avoid looking at the mirror at night. I quickly passed by said mirrors and would close my eyes to avert seeing anything possibly looking back at me. Going back to my ghost, I think it was haunted by an old local movie star who would sit at the vanity table night after night. The room just had that feel to it.

 

I managed to take an early morning run on the beach and that was indeed a lovely experience. It felt serene and I could decompress. I could feel at one with Puerto Rico. This was the land of my ancestors. It’s the land where my grandparents and my mom died. I should feel that connection with it.  While I ran and then walked on the beach, I came across locals and the police department. No one knew I was Nuyorican. I said “buenas” to everyone I saw. I did come across some odd creatures and formations out on the beach that looked rather otherworldly. Where was I, really? Just as I was asking myself this, I came across a small boat a little inland that for some reason reminded me of the TV show Lost.  Regardless of the beach creatures and random boats, I still fit in there.  I was treated like a local. The jog was a good one for my ego’s identity. But then it was back to reality.

 

Although, we had arranged for a warm meat-laden breakfast to be served to the participants, there was nothing other than bread. Oh boy. No meat?  No eggs? We cannot have yet another food fiasco where we would be labeled culturally incompetent although 3 of us were ourselves of Puerto Rican heritage. We managed to have participants eat at the onsite restaurant where the coffee tasted burnt but people were evenly divided as to whether that was a good thing or not. Just for your reference and further context, Puerto Ricans eat something called “pegao” which is cooked rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot: it is crispy and I must say quite tasty.  There is a song by Wisin & Yandel called “Pegao” with the following lyrics “Ella lo baila pegao, pegao, pegao (she likes to dance mad close, close, close)”. So, you can see where burnt coffee –coffee that is really close to the bottom of the pot- could be up for discussion in terms of its culinary merits.

 

During that day, I got the chance to sit outside by the pool and work on a grant. Yay-to the sun part, and not so much for the grant part! This would be grant number three that week. While working, typing away I look to the side for a moment. I then hear a loud plop sound. I turn, look down and a bird had pooped an enormous amount on my keyboard. Now, I was immediately grossed out, but I am Hispanic and I was with two other Hispanics. We all kind of cheered at that moment. Poop is a sign of good luck. Usually means money is coming one’s way. What better luck than poop landing on the keyboard I was using to write a grant.  If we are awarded that grant, we will have to do a major homage to that Puerto Rican bird.

Now, to celebrate the upload of our grants, we spent the first half of the evening in the whirlpool. Problem is that the jets are controlled by a central office. I am not too sure where that central office is located. But we could not set a timer for the jets as you do in almost every other hotel in the world.  I definitely felt like I was in some parallel universe. While I got major bug bites the size of eyeballs, I still remained optimistic. There was a store on the premises, they surely had bug spray. I went over and they were closed. I asked around, apparently they were always closed. The store had a sign that said they would return, but no such thing would ever happen.

Later that evening, we went to a pizza restaurant called Don Quijote in the town of Mayaguez that for some reason had the most awesome asapao. Bird poop be damned. I ended up trying something I never had before called “chichaitos” which are some weird flavored shots. I tried one that tasted as if my green apple candies had been melted and served up as puree. Ok, let me give you the real low down on it. A chichaito is a shot consisting of Palo Viejo brand white rum mixed with anise liqueur or other flavored liqueur like parcha (passionfruit).  The flavors make this shot a fairly sweet drink that masks the flavor of the rum – it’s like licorice or kool aid with a bad-ass kick. That was my ode to cultural competence. It was an interesting drink to try and I never once had a pina colada while in Puerto Rico this last trip. Although, I did have a drink that tasted like coconut pudding, more specifically, tembleque, served in a coconut.

The morning after my night of chichaitos, I went to go for another run on the beach when I realized I had no sneakers. My sneakers had been stolen the night before at the pool. I asked every hotel employee I could find as to whether they had come across my sneakers. But the answer I got over and over again was “well, if I find it I will let you know”, but they never bothered to ask me for my name or my room number.  All I could do at that point was just shake my head. Why would anyone steal my sneakers? They weren’t even nice sneakers.  They are the ratty sneakers I work out in every day.  As the New York Post once exclaimed “If the sneaker fits . . . steal it.”  I curse myself for having such a common-sized foot (7 1/2) but it is what it is. Maybe the ghost inhabiting my hotel room took them?

I finally made it to the airport with a sense of glee and abject physical exhaustion. Oddly, enough (but not so odd, considering my week) my flight never appeared on the departure board. Every other flight to New York was listed except for mine. I was slightly panicked because I was convinced we would fly through a time warp into a parallel universe and I’d wind up fighting smoke monsters and the Dharma Initiative on a creepy uncharted island while I discovered who I was.  But then again, wasn’t I flying out of one back into reality? I do not know whether I am coming or going anymore. But I do know I have one less pair of shoes. Off to shop I go.

 

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