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Madness

5 days in Puerto Rico: Day 1 – Black Mold and Mofongo

I dove for my phone, trying to catch it before the last ring. It was my sister. Just as I prepared to hit redial, her text message flashed across my screen.
CALL ME BACK NOW.
Jeesh. What could be so urgent? We’d just spoken two hours earlier. Dutifully, I rang her back. She picked up on the first ring, her voice tinged with fury.

“What day am I supposed to be going to Puerto Rico?”
“Tomorrow,” I replied. As I said, we had just spoken two hours earlier. She had been planning this trip with her friend, Ida*, for over a month. My sister asked me in April if I wanted to come, but I knew I’d be travel weary from flying in from SA so I declined without a second thought.

“That’s right! Tomorrow,” she raged. “Tell me why Ida cancelled on me.”
“What? When?!”
“Literally minutes before I got on the phone with you!”
“Then I guess I’m going to Puerto Rico with you,” I said with finality. My protection instincts kicked in immediately. There was no way I was going to have my sister out on a strange island by herself.
“I thought you might,” she replied, this time with a hint of smug satisfaction. “I’m looking at fares for you now.”
Then I dashed off to CVS to get the requisite PCR test, packed some carry-on luggage and left for the airport at dawn.

That was how I ended up in Puerto Rico for the first time in my life: No plan; no itinerary; no purpose. Not the best way to begin a “vacation”. For me, this trip was more of a rescue mission than a holiday – and that’s what clouded my judgment. I never visit a location without knowing a bit about it first, and I knew next to nothing about archipelago that was once ruled by the Spanish now turned American colony territory. Had I done some reading up on the island’s culture, the relationship with the locals and the USA and why PR’s tourism “industry” has been the subject of several news articles these past months, I would’ve attempted to dissuade my sister from going, concerns about the pandemic aside. If I had wanted to be treated like a nigger, I could have done that without spending an additional dime here in Ohio.

******

My Uber driver was kind. He told me about all the different sorts of plantains I could try while I on the island.
“You have to have mofongo,” he said. “And tostones.”
“I like sweet plantain,” I said.
“Yes. That is called amarillos.”
I’ve never taken a Spanish course in my life, and the names of all the foods began to run into an unrecognizable jumble in my head. My driver, Fidel, assured me that anyone on the island would be willing to help me out with my plantain requests. He dropped me off in front of my hotel – a towering edifice of glittering white and jewel green – and wished me well. I gave him a 5-star review and a note thanking him for making my first interaction with the island such a pleasant one.

“Hi! I’m here to check-in,” I said breathlessly to the contemplative desk clerk.
“What name is it under?”
“Gyekye.”
He told me that he did not see anything in his register under that name. Odd. My sister said that she had already checked in earlier, that she was waiting in the room. Could he check again?
“Whats the name of your hotel?”
“Costa Bahia,” I beamed. I loved the name “bahia”. It reminded me of Bahai, the religion of one of my favorite aunts.
“Si. Your hotel is over there,” said the clerk. He pointed in the direction of a dingy, pinto beaned colored building that shared access to the palace lobby I was standing in. “People get confused sometimes.”

I thanked him and trudged next door, my signature travel smile plastered to my face. I learned long ago that if you exude positive energy, there is a 90% chance that you’ll get it back…unless that person was having a bad day. Clearly, the two men at the reception desk were having the worst of days. The details of how I eventually got to my room are unpleasant and unimportant. What matters is that my sister came to the “lobby” – scowling – retrieved me and escorted me to our suite.
“Here’s your key,” she said brusquely. “It’s $5.00 if you lose it, so keep a close watch on it.”
“$5.00 if you lose a piece of disposable plastic??”
“Look, I’m already over it.”

I wasn’t, of course. Over it, I mean. Ever the optimist, I knew that the pair of us could turn this trip taken in haste and built on an foundation of frustration around. Hadn’t we always made the best of things? Our super power was finding the mirth in everything. I looked around the corridor. There was decay everywhere: paint chipping, nails rusting, bilge water that had collected and settled in various areas of the walkway. I looked into the room that held the ice machine and made a note to avoid it at every cost.

“Here we are,” said my sister. “Room 7731.”

I scooted past her, grinning foolishly. The windows were open and there was a magnificent view of the ocean and lagoon outside. I raced to greet the seascape. Then I slipped.

“What your step! The floor is wet.”
“Why? Did they just mop?”
“No. The whole room is just…wet.”

It was true. The feel of mildew hung in the air. (Remember I can’t smell, but my other senses are heightened.) The walls and floors were slick with moisture. I spotted white rice on the carpet, and knew that it had not been vacuumed prior to our arrival. Over my the fridge, black mold grew around the base of a fridge in need of replacement, repair, reconsideration.

“Is this it?” My confusion amused my sister. “Where’s the other bed?”
“This is it. There’s only one bed. I’ve been asking them if I can change rooms, but they said they’re fully booked.”
“Did YOU book this room?” My sister does research for a living. Surely she would’ve done better digging than this.
“Nope. Ida did,” was the simple reply. “She booked it at the last minute when she cancelled and didn’t give me a chance to choose where I wanted to stay.”
“Does Ida hate you? Does she think you have no standards? Why the f**k would she book you a room here and at $190 a night?!?”
My sister grunted, her lips turned downward.

No matter. Things like this always happen to us. It’s like a Griswold vacation, wasn’t it? Besides, we didn’t come here to sleep in the room. We’d just use it for storage. This is how I spun it.
“Sure. Whatever,” said my sister.
“That’s the spirit! Lets go get something to eat. All I’ve had is Cheetos at the airport.”

There are no brochures at the Costa Bahia – in case you’re wondering – and the staff would rather eat razor wire and chase it with bleach than speak to you with courtesy, let alone make a recommendation of any sort. We wandered around the complex of hotels until we come upon Mojito’s, where a cheese burger will set you back $24 but the service makes it all worth it. (Note: Don’t ever eat a burger at Mojito’s. Try the lobster mofongo instead.) Sated by island comfort food and cooled by pretty drinks, I began to feel a shift.

“Let’s go for a stroll around the area after dinner. It’s so pretty here. I think this is going to be a great holiday.” I grinned into my pina colada and nodded confidently at my sister, now studying and trying to make sense of a bill that totaled $120 for some mashed plantain, jerk chicken a four drinks.

Boy, was I fucking wrong.

For the next few days I will be chronicling my trip to Puerto Rico, sharing my discoveries about myself and humanity. Have you ever been to the island? What feelings were you left with?

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