The 52 Places Traveler: The Suffering and Spirit of San Juan

Scenes from San Juan. Clockwise from top right: Old San Juan; vegetable mofongo at Punto de Vista Restaurant & Bar in Old San Juan; "Santurce Renace"(The Rebirth of Santurce), a sculpture by the artist Mark Rivera in Santurce; Esquina Watusi, a chinchorro, or small informal bar, in Santurce.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated islands in the Caribbean last September. Six months later, how are they recovering? To find out, writers for Travel spent time in Vieques, St. Martin, St. John, Dominica and San Juan, P.R. (below).

The reports coming out of San Juan, P.R., as I touched down in mid-February, five months after the Category 4 Hurricane Maria had ripped through the island, were still dire. Some 900,000 people were still without power. Four days earlier, an explosion at a power plant had briefly plunged those who did have light back into darkness, and set the already slow-moving recovery efforts back by who knew how long.

So the last thing I expected to encounter while waiting at an airport baggage carousel at 1:30 in the morning, was singing.

Queremos que Gloria nos baile la pelúa

Queremos que Gloria nos baile la pelúa

Pelúa por aquí, pelúa por allá

Pelúa por delante y pelúa por detrás.

I followed the sounds of laughter and clapping to a dance circle of women in their 50s through 70s, raising and lowering their hands toward one of their own in the center. They were a tour group who’d just come home, delirious and giddy after a 25-hour journey from French Polynesia. According to their travel agent, Blandine de Lataillade, a Frenchwoman who came to Puerto Rico for love 25 years ago and never left, the group began planning this trip shortly after the hurricane. They’d wanted to have something to look forward to. “We want to show the world that Puerto Rico is back,” she said, adding: “People want to travel all over the world because we don’t have any problem with electricity.”

[READ MORE: 52 Places Traveler — Island-Hopping on Vibrant Trinidad and Lush St. Lucia]

The song the women were singing, they told me, was one you can’t go to a party in Puerto Rico without hearing. “Pelúa” effectively translates as “lady with a lot of hair,” and in this case they were asking someone named Gloria to bailar, or dance, like a pelúa. Typically, each person in the circle gets called out to show off center stage — even shy people can’t demur — and the dance is over when everyone has had a turn.

“What’s your name?” one of the women asked me, and then immediately shouted it out to the group, who started singing and clapping all over again. “Queremos que Jada nos baile la pelúa …”

I felt like I’d found my people.

Ms. de Lataillade was quick to point out that the tour group hadn’t forgotten the devastation: an official count of 64 dead from the hurricane, with an estimated death toll of more than a thousand because of resulting conditions. Of those who survived, many were forced to leavethe elderly for medical issues, the young because they had lost their jobs, and often homes — and had no hope of getting new ones. Many members of the tour would be arriving back to houses in the sin luz (without light) zones — after I left, another blackout hit San Juan, as did flooding from storm-related waves. They had just needed a break, and were among the lucky ones who had the means to do so.

I was in Puerto Rico as part of my assignment to spend a year visiting and writing about every destination on the 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. My editors had named the Caribbean — the entire region — to the No. 4 slot and before setting off, we had worked with data scientists from to come up with an impractical, but to me important, itinerary that took me from two islands that had emerged from Hurricanes Irma and Maria unscathed (Trinidad and St. Lucia) to one of the hardest hit, which also happened to be a United States territory.

When I envisioned myself as a normal traveler, who just wanted a relaxing vacation, and who had a choice of spending my money anywhere, though, I could understand why not many are jumping at the chance to visit Puerto Rico, in this state, right now.The tourism department has put together a “Ready to Enchant You” campaign filled with post-storm footage and featuring Luis Fonsi touting how picturesque the beaches are, and how many hotels are open. Those claims are true, but they’re a bit like shoving a mess into a closet before guests come over. Nothing about Puerto Rico after the storm approached normalcy. The beauty I saw was in the rebuilding, in the lives being lived with joy and grace in the most trying of circumstances. Being there was one of the most calming and soul-filling experiences of this trip so far.

Getting there was easy; the airport is in fine working order. My boneheaded assumption that lodging would be ample, though, couldn’t have been more off base. When I tried to book a few days before my trip, every hotel room in the “up-and-running zone” of Old San Juan and the nearby beach area of Condado was already sold out — a combination of, I’d later be told by locals, many hotels operating at a fraction of their capacity (either because of damage or the limits of their generators), and being filled with relief workers.

I don’t know how it happened, but the Airbnb apartment I did find, for under $80 a night, was in an ideal location: in Old San Juan, right across the street from La Factoría, the bar and nightclub made famous when Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee filmed their video for “Despacito” there — the most-watched YouTube video of all time with almost 5 billion views. The outside is a nondescript brown wall without any signage. Inside, the place just keeps going and going, with a large bar leading to a tiny cocktail lounge, which leads to a salsa room, which leads to a nightclub filled with colored lights and couples dancing as closely as couples can dance.

The kitchen was closed, so I sidled up to the bar in the 10-seat cocktail lounge for an expertly made margarita from a bartender, Christian Ortega, who still stands out to me as the sexiest man I’ve met this trip. A smattering of tourists was there, but most customers seemed to be Puerto Ricans from the sin luz zones looking to blow off steam. My conversation companion for much of the night was a young waiter and aspiring comedian, Victor Emmanuelli, whose opening salvo was about his bar stool: “It’s wobbly, like life.” He had no end of devastating stories to tell, in between recreating his favorite stand-up routines from Dave Chappelle.

“I lost my house, I lost everything,” he said. “I didn’t know where my family was, my grandma, my aunt, my cousins, nobody. You want to cry because you didn’t know where your family was and there was not a signal to call them and there was no gas. You had to walk to where you think your family is. I didn’t find them till three months later.”

He also had choice words for President Trump, who he felt ought to stop scolding the territory for being over budget and do something about it. He lived 20 minutes from Old San Juan, and had only intermittent running water. “Sometimes,” he said, “I take a shower in the river.” (He recently told me his light and water have returned.)

Every morning, I woke up in Old San Juan to cobblestone streets dappled with sunlight, and Spanish colonial buildings painted in every color: pink next to yellow next to green next to orange. It was every bit as charming and beautiful as a city established in 1521 should be. I had electricity and running water that I drank from the tap (likely unwise; most of the island is under a boil water advisory and the Puerto Ricans I met only drank bottled water). My street was not one for quiet contemplation — music from bars and restaurants started blasting at noon and didn’t stop till 4 a.m. — but I found the liveliness comforting.

I also loved how during the day I could walk for blocks and barely see another person. When I told Rebeca Rivera Vázquez, a 27 year-old high school science schoolteacher, and Ms. de Lataillade’s stepdaughter, she was horrified. Winter is supposed to be San Juan’s high tourist season, when its seasonal businesses make all their money. “That’s no good!” she said. “You shouldn’t be able to walk in the streets. Old San Juan should feel like the middle of Fifth Avenue right now.”

All the more reason to book a ticket, I thought: The crowds may never again be this thin, with weather this perfect.

I never knew San Juan before the hurricane, but my guess is that those looking for the city they knew before the storm will not find it. For every cleaned street in the old city there are 10 just outside it with lampposts snapped in two, and fallen trees barely pushed off the sidewalks. It says much about the intense beauty of this island that the devastation barely detracts from vistas and skies that seem designed to produce audible gasps at every turn.

In the colorful hipster arts district of Santurce, where one can find street art on every wall, in every direction, I saw a bus stop that was completely caved in and an open-air flea market that, a vendor told me, had brick walls until last September. Over in ritzy Condado, just down the beach from the tourist hotels, a concrete boardwalk simply disappeared into the ground, as if struck by a meteor, and, nearby, a car sat dusty and unused under thick steel fencing that appeared to have crumbled like paper.

Locals I met, like Ms. Rivera Vásquez and her friend Francisco Muñoz-Torres, a statistician and bar owner, pointed out the “Dr. Seuss trees” that looked as if they’d been drawn by someone on LSD — sticks shooting up into the sky with a tiny puff of plumage at the top. What did they look like before? “Well, they were complete trees,” Mr. Muñoz-Torres said. “They had leaves and branches. They looked like trees normally look.”

A quiet night drinking with friends was no longer something locals took for granted. I went to a lovely boozy happy hour in the apartment of an engaged doctor and nurse, Luís Ortiz and Sheyla Garced, whose Condado high-rise is featured in a famous photo of people sitting in their living rooms without walls.

I’d shown up in Puerto Rico not knowing a soul, and through a chain of events stemming from a random encounter with singing women at the airport, was being welcomed inside the home of strangers (they were friends of Mr. Muñoz-Torres, whom I’d met through Ms. Rivera Vásquez, whom I’d met through Ms. de Lataillade). Incredible hosts, they took me out on their normal Saturday night: Drinking at a gas station (way more fun and popular than it sounds), then heading to Gemileo, a wine bar inside an incense shop. For 10 days after the hurricane, the Puerto Rican government had imposed not only a curfew, but also dry laws. “It was horrible, because the water wasn’t safe to drink, so it was like, what will we drink then?” said Ms. Garced. “We were in our homes, we had no electricity. No one was driving. It was like, ‘Come on, just let us have a beer!’”

On a Sunday, I went with Adnelly Marichal, a Nuyorican documentary filmmaker, to an organic farmers market in Placita Roosevelt in the Hato Rey neighborhood of San Juan. All of the vendors we met, from cocoa purveys to herbalists, came from the interior of the island and not one of them had luz. One farmer, Rafael de Leon, told us it had taken him five months to recover enough to get back to the market, but he’d also had to stop making cheeses and anything that couldn’t be served immediately. “I don’t have refrigeration,” he said in Spanish, “so we have to do everything the day of because there’s no way to keep it.”

Somehow, we wound up with an invitation to La Fiesta de la Amistad (Party of Friendship) on La Finca de Carlos Cuevas, a large farm about an hour outside the city in the region of Cidra. All along the highway were billboards ripped to shreds and giant metal signs felled and crumpled in the medians. As we headed into rural areas, our cellphone GPS began to fail. Not a single traffic light we passed was working. Drivers were operating on a courtesy system with no real order. It had been this way since the storm, Ms. Marichal explained.

In the countryside, while extremely lost, we met a retired teacher, Maria Berrios, cleaning up the side of the road. “I clean because if I didn’t clean, no one would,” she said. “It was four months of trees and dead animals rotting by the side of the road and it smelled so bad I couldn’t stand it anymore.” Her tiny community had just gotten light, and she was pretty sure they were the only ones in the area who had it. They’d pooled their money and hired their own electricians to come in and fix the damage. “If we waited for the government, we’d never have light,” she said.

The finca, when we finally found it, too, had light. The entire valley had shown up — 400people at least — as had musicians from all parts of the island. The house bandleader and cuatrista (player of a small Puerto Rican guitar), Christian Nieves, had just come back from performing “Despacito” at the Grammys. Guests lined up for lechón, or roast suckling pig on a spit, while chickens and roosters ran around on the tiered hills below. “We’re here for a festival of friendship,” said José Antonio Rivera Colón, a famous cuartista known as Tony Mapeyé. “We all came here because it’s important, because friendship feeds our souls.”

As the sun set, we headed back, down twisty roads, through intersections without traffic signals, and back into the world of luz. The Dr. Seuss palm trees were lit up in orange. Someday, those trees would be complete trees again. I felt lucky that I’d gotten to see them as they were.

Jada Yuan will be traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. Follow her on Instagram @alphajada.

Previous dispatches:

1: New Orleans

2: Chattanooga, Tenn.

3. Montgomery, Ala.

4. Disney Springs, Fla.

5. Trinidad and St. Lucia

Next dispatch: Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica.

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