Journey to the Center

This weekend found us at the center of the island. I wish my poor photography could do justice to what we saw, but I’m working on that. Boricua has a crazy face haha - but I promised him only one picture, and this was the best of the three I took! :)  To get to the center, we left the freeway that hugs the coast and headed toward the mountains.

What amazes me is that there are entire cities there! It’s as if the mix of Spanish/African/Taino people just found places literally in the middle of the mountainous jungle wherever they wanted (probably places teeming with resources or where they could easily grow - pana, yuca, mamey, mandioca, guineo, plátano, ají, maní, batata, malanga, chayote) and as the society developed, they made roads along the little paths that people used connecting the little communities. That’s what it seems like, because driving through the center of the island, there are very few streets besides the main highway.

The neighborhoods are like these tunnels in the jungle all centered around the main road, with bamboo and vines and flowers just beyond the houses. The creativity in construction is incredible. There are houses on stilts, houses where the roof is what you access from the road, four-story homes with Spanish style courtyards in the center, and the fourth wall is not a wall but the side of the mountain… Then, all of a sudden, the topography opens up a little bit and that is where the people have made their town center. Each city, as in most Spanish colonies, has a central plaza with a Catholic church. Visiting them is like stepping back into a different economy - one where a person literally “goes to town” to make transactions - no suburbia, no grocery stores, just a beautiful central plaza with a municipality, a church, and various entrepreneurs selling clothes, household goods, and gifts in the shops around the plaza. And, of course, a restaurant/bar or two. I mean, we have downtowns these days, but they aren’t so central to our economy. They seem more of a place to eat out and be among the community than the literal seat of economic and government activity.

We visited Aibonito first, which to me sounds like someone got tired of saying “¡Hay que bonito!” and the name just stuck haha. The white and gray church is the one at the plaza of Aibonito. We walked inside, and it was very beautiful with the traditional artwork of the virgin Mary, Joseph, and the Sacred Heart. It felt so small-town - people were in there chatting, and when we walked in, you could tell they were curious who the gringa was - people confuse Boricua for a foreigner when he’s with me, too (that is, until he starts talking). 

The rest of the photos are from a place called Barranquitas - barranca, I learned, is a gully or ravine - Boricua described it as “little cliffs.” I wish I could transmit to you how lovely this place is. Colorful homes lining the highway, very pretty and well-kept schools, old people hanging out along the road talking to each other… I have this incredible urge to go talk to them - I miss being a missionary, when it was so easy because I was always out walking, looking for people to teach, and got to know the people so intimately. Now, I just drive by in the car, longing to meet them. Luckily, Boricua informed me that his paternal grandfather’s family is from Comerío, which is just the next town over from Barranquitas. Family reunion, please!  The plazita in Barranquitas was even more quaint than the one in Aibonito - it was literally dead and we were there around dinner time on a Saturday evening. All we saw was one way-too-young couple and some little kids practicing on their skateboards. When the lamps came on, they were orange. 


I loved being there because although there isn’t great wifi, the power can’t be reliable (it’s not even reliable in Caguas), and signs are made using Comic Sans, I am comforted knowing that not everyone lives having to adapt to the high-velocity changes that myself and the people I know experience. I mean, for my friends and I, careers that didn’t even exist in elementary school are now what a ton of us work in - the world of Internet and data is where our economy is, isn’t it? Social media wasn’t even a thing when we were in elementary school. In el centro de Puerto Rico, life is slower; more predictable. It’s okay if you haven’t read the latest Linkedin article about what not to do in an interview - because if you’re a good, honest person, you’re probably enough for your employer. I love what I do, and I’m first in line to start using new productivity apps and find out where the action is, but the simplicity we saw in Barranquitas and Aibonito is so attractive. Apparently, quite a few professionals retire up in those mountains.

On our drive home, we passed miles and miles of homes. Puerto Rico has an incredible ratio of cars-to-people - from what Boricua has heard, there is one car or more for every person on the island - and it was extremely weird to be somewhere that I felt was so far-removed, turn the corner, and see yet another car dealership. Those are the three things we saw consistently on our drive - car dealerships, homes, and chinchorros - those are little places to eat (you guessed it - on the side of the road). It’s an actual past time here - they call it “La Ruta Gastronómica.” I always thought gastronomy just meant having to do with digestion - but I found out this morning that “gastronomía” is the study of food and culture - the idea of the “Gastronomic Route” is taking some time, and your friends or family, and stopping along the drive at different chinchorros to grab a bite. They serve comida criolla, and of course plenty of people go to have a beer. Puerto Ricans love their local-brewed Medalla. In fact, I’m pretty sure that in these towns, that is one of the only things to do - social life revolves in large part around chinchorros. Samuel, my friend from work who does the painting, maintenance, and cleaning at INTECO, tells me that a ton of people take their jeeps on the weekend and head up to the Ruta Gastronómica. I told a few other people about our adventure and their comment was about how “cold” it is there! Haha. On this island, cold means needing a sweater (my heart is going out to one of my best friends and her husband, in Michigan). 

Anyway… Puerto Rico is really cool. I keep asking myself how this economy functions - I mean, we saw so many homes and people and yet the few businesses you see are literally revolving around cars (dealerships, workshops, paintshops) and food (chinchorros, colmados -in Argentina they call these almacenes, they’re just tiny little markets with your basic needs, people selling produce, on the side of the road).  There are buildings for a few doctors and lawyers that I would see near the plazas, but definitely not the same amount of commerce that you would see in a typical town - what are all the people doing every day? Boricua had told me before that more than half of Puerto Ricans are supported with government money, but after yesterday’s trip, I think it is finally starting to sink in. With no property taxes, a family can find a plot of land, build their home, get groceries (especially if they are unmarried with children) and health care (La Reforma) through the government, and afford other expenses with their jobs. Many times, homes are passed down through the family, or people build little by little as their income permits, so it is quite possible that not many people even have mortgages. Food grows everywhere - at my in-laws, they have banana trees, all kinds of tubers, peppers, spinach, breadfruit, chayote, avocados - all growing on their property! Of course I’m not trying to paint a picture of some paradise, because it’s not like people just survive off of nothing - and lots of people work and very hard- but the way things are here is so very different from your typical middle class mainland U.S. family, if that exists. 

I’ve gotten a picture of the way society has developed by talking to Boricua's parents and grandparents - both his grandmothers grew up in societies that were very rural. Many families survived by growing cash crops such as sugar or coffee. They would have entire days to go to the river to wash clothes (even my mom-in-law, Coquí, would do that), entire days for ironing clothes for school, and hours preparing food over wood fires. Going to town was a once a week affair, when they would walk down the mountain quite a ways in order to attend early Mass on Sundays. Boricua's dad (his nickname is Wiso) shared an anecdote w/ him that I don’t yet know what to think about_ when they were ready to make a road (dirt, not paved yet), they would attach something to a cow and the way the cow went, was where the path was made. Haha I hope the cow wasn’t hungry! But, according to Wiso, the cows knew the best routes! Coqui told me that when it was finally time for the municipality to build a cement road by her property, it required the little community gathering together and signing papers that they did, indeed, want a road. Then the asphalt was poured! Before that, on rainy days they would wear one pair of shoes to walk in the mud from their home until they got to the main highway and then put on their nice shoes for school!

One of the coolest parts, to me, about these pueblitos, is that all kinds of people, rich or not, have absolutely beautiful views from their houses. Almost everyone has a porch or roof where they spend a lot of time chatting and enjoying the view. I won’t forget the glimpse I caught of a little family as we passed one house - through the window I saw a teenage boy with his basketball shoes, flat-billed cap on backwards, standing up and rocking a baby. There was a young woman close by, and middle aged woman who could have been the baby’s grandma at the stove. The tv was glowing and it was twilight outside. I hope they are happy, tucked away there. When we finally started coming out of the mountain, we passed by my in-laws’ neighborhood - I always felt like they lived deep in the heart of the “jungle,” but now I know that they are just on the edge and as you come down the mountain into the Caguas valley, the road widens to four lanes and you start to see fast food, supermarkets, and other chain stores. We finished our adventure with a shared Nutella Frosty (yes, Wendy’s + Puerto Rican market = unique and delicious menu items) and came home to watch The Princess Bride. Yep, Boricua shared with me the amazing and awe-inspiring center of his country, and I shared with him a somewhat-tacky, but culturally important (can I even say that?), comedy from the 1980’s. :) As a side note, watching it again made me realize it totally doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. In the end I probably just wanted to have someone to whom I could say “aaas yoooouuu wiiishhhh” and “inconceivable” to that would understand. 

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