The first thing I noticed, as I got off the plane at 12:30am at the Rafael Hernandez Airport in Aguadilla, is that Puerto Rico is very humid. And that the island smells like flowers.
Thanks to the awesome mystery drugs that I bought in Thailand for motion sickness, I was able to sleep during both legs of the flight (Buffalo to Newark and Newark to Aguadilla) without feeling totally out of it when awake. It was a much more lucid experience flying to Puerto Rico than it was 2 years ago flying to Korea.
Our first day in Puerto Rico was Monday, August 11th, and it technically began at 12:30am when we landed in Aguadilla, which is on the northwest part of the island. It took only 10 minutes from the time we got off the plane to when we picked up our checked bags, and just another 5 minutes until we caught the shuttle to the car rental office. 45 minutes later, we had our rental car and were ready to go. As we attempted to check in to our hotel that I had previously booked online, just to find that there was no reservation under my name, we realized that we had been given directions to the wrong hotel, not knowing that there are 2 hotels near the Aguadilla airport with similar names: El Faro and Faro Suites. So, the front desk agent at El Faro gave us directions to Faro Suites, and 10 minutes later we had checked in and were settling into our room for the night. It was around 2:30am by the time we called it a night.
We woke up around 9:30am and got ready to start the day. It looked a lot different outside in daylight; from the front window, we could see the parking lot, surrounded by mango trees and palm trees laden with coconuts. We walked to the front office, which had no walls and just a roof, checked out, and decided to drive down to Rincón, where we will be staying until Saturday. Instead of booking a hotel for the week, we opted with finding a place on airbnb.com. (People can advertise their apartments on this site, and either rent out a room or their entire place for the rate per night of their choosing. We had found a guy named Greg, who lives in Rincón, and rents out his 2-bedroom apartment for just $42/night.) We hopped in the car, drove to Rincón, which took about 25 minutes from Aguadilla. Along the way were brightly colored homes and stores with Spanish colonial architecture, thousands of palm trees, rolling hills covered in lush vegetation, mango groves, horses, roosters, and of course, the Caribbean sea along the coast. Driving is a bit of an experience here, as traffic can be rather bad at any time of the day since roads seem to be just one or 2 lanes. Stop signs and lights are obeyed, but drivers are slightly more aggressive than on the mainland, and I hear that it’s far worse in San Juan and in some of the other big cities. Perhaps starting out on the western side of the island, which is supposedly a lot more laidback and friendly, is a good way for us to get used to driving here.
Anyway, we drove to Rincón and attempted to find the apartment but were unsuccessful. Addresses in Puerto Rico are rarely used in Puerto Rico, as they can be difficult to find (GPS’s are not useful here), and people here use landmarks to give directions. After several attempts at following the instructions Greg had emailed me, we couldn’t find the particular sign we were to turn at, so we decided to try again later and set off to find a restaurant where we could get some lunch.
As we discovered the hard way, many businesses are closed on Mondays, but we were able to find a really nice restaurant that was open just outside of the town of Rincón, called ‘El Coche,’ where we selected a table out on the balcony with the Caribbean sea directly below us. Glenn ordered some Puerto Rican coffee – which he claims is some of the best he’s ever had in his life – and we both ordered a Puerto Rican dish called ‘mofongo’ for lunch. It started with a salad, followed by garlic bread, and when I was already full, they brought out the mofongo (a stew consisting of grilled meat and mashed plantains), and it was delicious. Glenn not only finished mine since I was full, he went on to order cheese flan for dessert. Like he always says every time he overeats, he was “training for Thanksgiving.”
We were surprised to learn that the restaurant had wifi, and so after finishing our meal, I took out the laptop to use Skype so that I could call our host, Greg, and get some more specific directions for finding his apartment. He didn’t answer when I called, so I left a message and sent him an email explaining that I would call again later and to not bother calling me back since I was using Skype and wouldn’t hear his call unless I was online.
Since we couldn’t go to the apartment yet, we decided to check out the Rincón Sports Complex, which we had remembered passing on our way in and out of town. We walked around there and discovered that they have a full indoor basketball court, track, baseball pitch, weight room, and fitness studios for aerobics and martial arts classes. Glenn was excited about the idea of possibly working there, and we got as much information about the place as we could from the few people we ran into there. So far, I had been speaking a mix of English and Spanish (Spanglish?) with everyone here, which seems to be the norm even among the islanders; if you listen to two Boricuas (what Puerto Ricans call themselves) speaking, you will hear fast Caribbean Spanish with some English words thrown in here and there, followed by English with some Spanish words thrown in, and sometimes a perfect blend of the two languages in the same sentence. It’s an interesting representation of the duality of the island: A Spanish-speaking country and American territory simultaneously. Even on some of the license plates here, the background is the Puerto Rican flag right next to the American flag.
After exploring the Rincón Sports Complex, we decided to find a café or somewhere with wifi so that we could try calling Greg again. We ended up at EC Bakery, right across the street from Greg’s neighborhood, and we were able to talk to him this time and get better directions, but he wasn’t home yet and we would have to wait an hour until we could come over. We hung out at EC Bakery, enjoyed some more Puerto Rican coffee, and checked our email. Around 5pm, we went over to Greg’s and checked in. He was on his way out and left after about 10 minutes of showing us around his place.
Glenn and I walked to Villa Cofresí, a small resort with an open restaurant and bar right on the beach just 5 minutes away from Greg’s. We ordered dinner, which came in courses, just like lunch did: salad, garlic bread, and then the main entrée. I got chicken and rice stew and Glenn got pork chops, and as our sides we ordered tostones, which are like fried plantain chips. The drinks we ordered came in fresh coconuts that had been hollowed out, and it was extra delicious to use the straw to scrape some of the coconut meat down into the drink. As the sun set, the sky turned pink and orange and set over the Caribbean sea, which was an amazing view since we were facing due west. As the sun set, guests filtered in to the restaurant and bar area, and the bar blasted salsa and other Latin music. Some people were playing pool, some were dancing, and others were sitting at the tables and bar. Everyone was having a blast, and the laidback, carefree atmosphere was contagious. It’s the rainy season right now and it rained twice: once when we were at the Sports Complex, and once during dinner, but both times it was very light rain and lasted only a few minutes. The rain was refreshing and actually made the night even better.
As we walked back to Greg’s after dinner, we could hear the coquís all around us. The coquí is a small frog native to Puerto Rico and is the island’s official mascot. They are nocturnal and so small that they are rarely seen, but are always heard at night. The sound is not annoying at all and is actually quite pleasant. It was nice background noise to fall asleep to. The island’s slogan, “La isla del encanto” (“the island of enchantment”) seems quite fitting.
I awoke Tuesday morning around 4:30am and have not been able to fall back asleep. It’s probably a combination of excitement, an itchy mosquito bite on my wrist, and the humidity of the apartment (there is no AC) that has kept me awake. Once Glenn wakes up in a few hours, we’re heading down to Mayagüez to check out some apartments and a gym where Glenn is hoping to get a job.
I’m looking forward to seeing if Mayagüez smells like flowers, too.