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5 Days in Puerto Rico: Day 4 – High Art, Low Fares

I woke up the next morning with a burning throat and the flames of my compassion doused. I was sick; my body reacting to the numerous allergens in the hotel room and my psyche affected by the series of quarrels the evening prior. The Fellowship had been broken. Frodo had lost his damn mind, Legolas and the Dwarf were off doing whatever, and Samwise Gamgee was hurtling down the pass of Cirith Ungol, vision blurred with tears, rage and a broken heart. How stupid was he to follow the younger Mr. Baggins, willingly, on this ill-fated trip?

Samwise, you fool!

I rolled over and tried staring at the balcony that was supposed to serve as a panacea. Nothing. There was only one thing for it: Brush my teeth (with my wash cloth – because guess who left her toothbrush when she was packing in haste!), take another shower, and settle in for another day in hell. No, I would not venture out into the city. No, I did not want to spend any time with Cagney, Lacey OR my sister. …Which was harder done because there was ONLY ONE BED IN THE FREAKING “SUITE”.

Seeing I was awake, she greeted me cheerily.
“Good morning!”
What was so good about it? And why was she so cheerful?
“Good morning,” I replied dourly.
“Look…about last night – if I said anything to upset you I’m really sorry.”
“Well actually -“
She cut me off before I could say what I was mad about. “I was just so mad! We good?”
“Yeah. Whatever. We’re good.”
I left for the bathroom to complete what I predicted would be the highlight of my day: A dump and a shower. To avoid further conversation, I called my husband to relay the night’s events to him and to thank him and his co-workers for recommending some venues to explore, though I wouldn’t need them. My sister lowered the volume on the TV – out of respect – and listened keenly to my end of the conversation, ready to add her own notes I suppose. I spared no detail, not even the part where she yelled – well, you know. You read it yesterday.

“Dang,” said Marshall, shocked. My sister and I never fight. Haven’t fought in years. “Well, I hope y’all work it out.”
I grunted.
Forty-five minutes later I ended my call and went back to working on some beading. At least I’d sense enough to bring some work with me.

“Hey, can we talk?”
“Sure,” I sighed. Of course I didn’t want to talk…but it’s not like I could fake and say I was “too busy” when I clearly was not.
“I’m really sorry for shouting f*** you at you last night. I didn’t mean it. I don’t even know why I said it. It wasn’t directed at you.”
Except, it was. The details are unimportant and it all played out like an episode of Full House anyways. She apologized, I apologized for retorting with an f-bomb of my own, and she hugged me tightly from behind, screaming to the island of Puerto Rico that it would not take her sister! It would not succeed in tearing us apart! (That’s a Jupiter’s Legacy reference, for those of you who don’t know. Great show.)

“I know you said you didn’t want to go anywhere today, but maybe we should just have a sisters’ day away from the group?”
I was still surly, but I was hungry – and Marshall’s friend had suggested a place called El Platanal in Cupey, which sounded far, far away from San Juan. This was how my sister could make up for inviting me into hell: with food. Nothing soothes this fat girl faster. I texted her the coordinates to El Platanal.
“I want to go to THIS restaurant and then I want to go to the Museum of Art.” It was statement, not a suggestion.

******

Since we had already come to expect that Puerto Ricans would only allow us into their establishments begrudgingly, we did not take offense when the hostess greeted us with tepid enthusiasm. I was determined to give the same energy back to any and everyone. Surly.

…And then we were seated and the sweetest, kindest, more ADORABLE gay waiter – who didn’t look like he weighed more than 80 lbs sopping wet, so youthful that his pores excreted glistening glitter – pranced over to our table and told us how HAPPY he was to be helping us out that day.
My defenses were useless.

“Now, my English not very good…” he said apologetically.
“No, no! Please! Your English is perfect!”
“It’s far better than our Spanish. We have to use Google translate.”
He flashed a dazzling smile. “Si. We will understand each other.”
“Yes…we will.” I was beaming – earnestly and not for the benefit of Instagram – for the first time in many days.

I did not catch his name, and that saddens me till today. But let’s call him The Cuban Sweetie (we found out he’s Cuban) for now. Every 15 minutes or so, The Cuban Sweetie came to check on us. The Cuban Sweetie made excellent menu suggestions based on our likes. He made sure the amarillo was extra soft and sweet. He listened us. Made us feel special. Made me dig deep down into my bra for that fat tip. If I ever go back to Puerto Rico, it will only be to go back to El Platanal to see The Cuban Sweetie and pray a blessing over his life. Everyone talks about how warm and supportive Black women are. No one ever talks about how WE might need some warmth and support sometimes too.

It sucked, but we had to leave and head back to San Juan. Our next stop was the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. My interest in the venue wasn’t so much the art as it was a sense of nostalgia which I’d hoped to satisfy by proxy. When we lived in Atlanta, I purchased an annual membership to the Fernbank Museum and would take the kids every Tuesday. Being in a museum setting might dull some of the ache of the longing I was beginning to develop for my family.

As we entered the building, we were greeting by the same lukewarm acceptance for our presence to which we’d become accustomed. The Wall went back up, reflecting the same energy. All we had to do was get past the pompous boy at the security desk, purchase tickets from the old lady at the ticketing booth, and we could be left alone. How did you say, “Two tickets please?” in Spanish. I pulled out my iPhone to ask Google.

“Good afternoon, ladies!” said the old woman with cheer.
The Wall crumbled. This was emotionally exhausting!
There were two exhibitions going on: Modern, impressionist art and archival exhibit with work dating back to the 1700s. Would we care to see them both? Yes, we would. Great. Here was a yellow wristband. It would give us access to the entire museum. Enjoy!

And did we! Take a look:

The tomfoolery went on like this until the museum closed, but I would’ve slept there if they let me! The staff was really great and eager to share the history of many of the works and interpretation, which I appreciated to no end. Alas, it was time to Uber back to our moldy hold. It had been such a fantastic day, but the Ancestors had one last surprise for us.

******

His name was Enrique and he had long, dark hair that was streaked with silver that he kept in place with a well-worn fedora. Would we like the AC on or the windows down? AC, please.
“Thank you for asking,” I said. “That was very considerate of you.”
And that’s all it took for the floodgates to open.

Enrique talked about his life, just a little, and then wanted to know how our experience in PR was so far; truly. We admitted that we were not having the best time. That we suspect that there might be some racism fueling our treatment, but we might be imagining it all. Who was to say?

“You are not imaging it,” said Enrique, locking his eyes with mine in the review mirror. He was not a handsome man, but he had an interesting face and he spoke with so much authority, peppering his accented monologue with verified facts that I could see how he could be the type of man women (and men) could lose themselves in and go mad over. I broke eye contact and looked out at the city landscape.

“Puerto Rico is a racist society. There’s a little bit of everything at play: racism, colorism, of course classism and anti-Blackness. The only difference between Puerto Rican racism and your American racism – with the one-drop rule – is the philosophy behind it.”

Enrique went on to explain that in the Spanish colonial context, an African could become “more human” (but never fully human) if they adopted Western thinking, became a Catholic, spoke the language of the colonizer. These things would make him more “white”. Now, if he as a white man had biracial children, his white blood would “purify” those kids…whereas in the US, ‘one drop’ of Black blood sullies one’s humanity. Same coin, different side.
“So how does this apply in today’s context and the treatment you are receiving?’ he asked rhetorically. “Well, Spirit airlines and several others reduced fares coming into the island, some below the $100 mark. This opens up travel to EVERYBODY – specifically to a group of people who typically would not have the opportunity to do so. And what happens when people from so-called lower classes converge on a place?”

He didn’t need to say it. There are places my boujie Black behind wouldn’t set foot in for the same reason. He then showed us a video of an all out brawl. Brown skin, booties, balls and balled up fist flying everywhere. This was happening all over the city. When did this happen? Just a few weeks ago, he replied. San Juan residents were incensed and demanded that the police do something. A curfew was instituted; one that was still in force when we arrived on the island.

“Now, I’m not equating violence with Blackness. That would be unfair. When one is brought up in a place like America, in certain environments where everything is solved with violence, your innate instinct is to react to everything with violence in return. You can’t separate violence from poverty or disenfranchisement, and you can’t separate that from race. And when people on the island see you – a Black woman – all they see is your race.”
Of course, I looked up his claims and son-of-a-gun if it wasn’t there in print.

Our lengthy conversation ended with musings about the island itself. About its future. Did they want to remain a vassal state to the USA? Did they want to seek autonomy? They paid taxes but had no representation in the US government. What would the benefits, or risks be if Puerto Rico struck out on its own? Look at what the US had done to Cuba…
But Enrique was an Uber driver and not our therapist. He had to run and take other fares, though I craved his politically charged conversation further. If I ever came back to the island, it would be to see the Cuban Sweetie and Enrique.

Cagney and Lacey may find this interesting! We would tell them about it the next day.
*Sigh* Samwise, you fool…

This article has 3 comments

  1. Wanjoro

    At last! Good news of a day I’d have pictured your vacation to be like. The ancestors came through! Love the pictures too.

    • Malaka

      Thank you! I have to agree, the pictures were stunning. I’m really enjoying the camera hubby got me for my birthday, courtesy of Uncle Biden’s stimmy. (Thank you too, Uncle Joe!) It’s what I’ve been using for all of my photo essays as well. The ancestors were putting in work on Day 4!

  2. Wanjoro

    Yay! A stimmy has understood its assignment. 😁

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