April 17, 2005

Tidbits from Puerto Rico

Make no mistake, Puerto Rico, the Free Associated State, does not FEEL like it is part of the United States. I kept referring to it as a "country" and it seemed proper that United Airlines required us to fly on their international arm. Obvious differences include: Language; Beer cans are 10 ounces (but bottles are 12); while speed limits are listed in miles per hour, exits are marked in kilometers; cops and emergency vehicles drive with their lights flashing at all times (I never did figure out how to know if you're getting pulled over or if you need to make way); and of course, all of the major cultural differences including the oh-so-welcome-on-vacation decreased pace of life.

Despite what the guidebooks say, English is not spoken by everyone (particularly once you leave San Juan). Furthermore, it is not that you've warmed your way into their hearts and they're opening up to speak to you in Spanish. It's their primary language (although the dialect is quite strong and unlike any Spanish I've heard before), and if you plan on leaving tourist areas (which I highly recommend) you will be well-served by a basic understanding of and ability to speak at least a few key phrases in Spanish.

I highly recommend taking the $2 ferry from Fajardo on the mainland to Vieques, or La Isla Nena. It was probably one of the more educational experiences of the trip to wait in line for an hour, sit on the boat for 20 minutes, and ride the ferry for an hour while listening to Puerto Rican hellos, goodbyes, family reunions, and complaints about the newly installed computer system and how it takes much longer to get tickets now.

Vieques is a smaller island with a higher density of Ex-pats, gorgeous beaches, and a relatively low tourist population. It is also home to one of the coolest things I've ever experienced: night swimming in the bioluminscent bay under the stars.

On the way back from Vieques, we splurged on the $76 flight from Vieques to San Juan International instead of returning on the ferry and renting a car or finding a publico to drive us back to San Juan. Those 22 minutes in a 10-seat Cessna give views of Puerto Rico that are unavailable from any other vantage point. It also saved quite a bit of time over the ferry plus drive from Fajardo to San Juan.

The food was amazingly tasty. Many of the offerings are fried in lard, which explains the tastiness, but unfortunately knocks them out of the "I can't wait to add this to the list of regular recipes" category. In particular, I could not get enough Mofongo--fried mashed plantains stuffed with various meat offerings. I also would have liked to have more Asopao. E took advantage of the island's availability of octopus and had approximately 7 octopus-based meals. All in all, we sincerely enjoyed ourselves, and it was an excellent adventure. Also, just like after all the "truly" international travel I've done, I'm happy to be home and more appreciative of the benefits of my life than I was before I left.

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