24 Hours in Old San Juan

Darlene’s sister Deborah had business in San Juan yesterday, so the three of us flew from St. Thomas (population 51,000) to Puerto Rico (population 3.9 million) and back, staying overnight at the Hotel el Convento . I had never been to Puerto Rico, except for one airport layover years ago. Now, back on St. John (population 4,200) my impressions from 24 hours in Old San Juan include the following:

At the same plaza, schoolchildren lined up to feed pigeons and later in the morning adjacent streets were barricaded, a Telemundo TV van sprouted a tall satellite dish, and husky men in dark suits with curly wires poking from their collars scanned the crowd in anticipation of an Official Event at a government building. The mood was so intimidating that I didn’t dare take photos, for fear of triggering a rapid response to a profile of a terrorist posing as a tourist. Facing the same plaza, at Marshall’s discount store, I sat in the weary-men seats by the door taking notes while Darlene and Deb shopped. The main impression from that vantage point was the politeness and gentleness of the employees and shoppers, most of them locals. One elderly man sat down in the chair two over from mine and crossed things off a small piece of paper, then stood up a minute later to rejoin his wife. He greeted me with “Buenas dias” when he sat down, but shifted to a formally pronounced “Bye” when he left, realizing I was not a Spanish speaker. At the hotel, I read a business journal on a high patio this morning, with a cup of strong coffee. It said one out of every three salaried jobs in Puerto Rico is with the government, which has projected a $1 billion deficit this year. Yesterday afternoon, I came across a man drunk, suspended, bending over as if he were about to crumble slowly onto the sidewalk. He was too far gone to ask for spare change. At a cigar store, the salesman picked up a cigar, cut it and lit it for me before I could stop him. I ended up taking advantage of his two-for-one special, which in reality turned out to be three-for-one, including the one I walked out of the store smoking. It was a genteel hustle that I paid for again in the middle of the night, when my mouth tasted sour from tobacco despite several doses of the hotel’s complimentary bottle of Scope.

The island of St. John feels safe and serene tonight, with the waves swishing to shore at Frank Bay across the street and the overhead fan in our room whirring quietly. We fly home in six days to Denver, population 557,000.

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