Tropical island. Paradise. Warm climate. These are some of many phrases that people associate with Puerto Rico. It’s a lovely place to visit….but would you want to live here?
I have been living in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico now for 5 weeks. It’s the third largest city in Puerto Rico and is known as, “La Sultana del oeste,” or, “The sultana of the West.” There’s a lot of interesting information about Mayagüez on the Internet, but the point of this blog is not to regurgitate information that already exists. What I’m going to share with you is what it’s like to live here, in Mayagüez, based on my own personal experience.
5 weeks doesn’t seem like a long enough time to really know what it’s like to live in Puerto Rico. I can’t speak for the rest of the island, but by now, I have a very good feel of what Mayagüez is like. It already feels like home.
Aside from the refrigerator and plumbing disasters in my apartment, I’m really loving it here. My apartment is situated in Guanajibo, a neighborhood on the southwestern side of town, just several minutes from the border with Cabo Rojo (the municipality that is south of Mayagüez). The main road that runs through Guanajibo is route 102, otherwise called Avenida José González Clemente, and it follows the coast so that you are right next to the water. This is both good and bad. It’s good because it’s a beautiful view. It’s bad because our area experiences flooding during downpours. However, in my experience so far, the roads don’t get so flooded that they are unusable.
My apartment is located on the second floor of a combined commercial-residential building. Directly below my apartment is a restaurant called El Mesón, which is a landmark in Mayagüez, from what I’ve been told. Once I learned this, it became a lot easier to give people directions. That is one thing you will learn in Puerto Rico: nobody uses addresses or street names, because more often than not, streets are not well marked and numbers are not marked on homes and buildings. Even if you use a GPS, it’s rather useless here; it doesn’t recognize a lot of addresses and street names. (We learned this the hard way when we paid extra for a GPS in the rental car. What a waste of money that was!) Rather, when giving driving directions, people will use landmarks. So, when I give directions now, I just say that I live above El Mesón, and people immediately know where I’m talking about.
The weather here is usually predictable. Rainy season goes all summer and, from what I’ve been told and have researched, it lasts until late September. Of course, we have had a few rainy days as well as a few sunny days, but in general, it’s been sunny/cloudy every day and rains for 10-30 minutes between the hours of 2-4pm. It’s nothing like the rainy season in Asia where it pours for 2 weeks straight (or longer). It’s currently 2:05pm, and like clockwork, the first storm clouds are rolling in and I just heard the first clap of thunder for the afternoon.
Of course, with the storms, are the regular power outages. We’ve been lucky in that we haven’t had too many of those yet, but when there’s lightning, we can expect to lose power at some point and we also have to expect that it could be out for hours. Again, we have been lucky so far in that regard. Unfortunately, though, the lightning can mess with Internet routers, and a couple of times I’ve had to cancel lessons with my students because the Internet connection wasn’t good enough to conduct the lessons. Since my livelihood depends on how many hours I teach, this is not a good thing. Welcome to island living…!
One more note about the weather: It’s ALWAYS warm here! And humid. It has actually cooled off a bit since we arrived in mid-August, but it will not get much cooler all year than it is now. The funny thing is, after Korea (where I experienced the coldest and longest winters of my life), I thought I would really enjoy being in a warm climate for a couple of years. I am indeed enjoying it, but it being this warm in September has made me realize how much I’ll miss the fall season. It “feels” like fall, but when I look outside and see the blue skies and palm trees, my internal clock gets confused. I want to see the leaves change colors, fall off the trees, and eat foods made with pumpkin. The year-round warm weather is something I will have to adjust to.
Outside our apartment, our dinky parking lot connects with the parking lot belonging to El Caribe, a gasolinera (gas station). Every weekday, from 6:30am to about 3 or 4pm, a man named Miguel brings his food truck, which is called “Hot Dog Heaven.” He does serve hot dogs, but what we really love are the sandwiches and sauces that he creates himself. Once or twice a week, we eat lunch there for about $4 each. Glenn yells our orders out the window, and 10 minutes later we go downstairs and our lunches are waiting for us on the table.
Puerto Rican cuisine is really good; I’m a fan. However, I can’t eat it every day because most of their foods are fried and oily. My favorite dish here is asopao de pollo, a chicken soup made with rice and vegetables. Puerto Rican food is considered criollo, or “Creole,” which is a colonial word meaning something like “Spanish, in the New World”. It’s basically European dishes made with local ingredients, which is why there are a lot of dishes with plantains and yucca. Everything I’ve tried has been delicious, but I prefer to eat healthier foods (i.e. not fried) on a daily basis.
More about Mayagüez specifically:
There is a downtown, which is colonial in history and style. The streets are narrow and crowded, and buildings are small and Spanish-colonial in architecture. It’s a vibrant part of town that Glenn and I really haven’t explored very much yet. The rest of Mayagüez sprawls outward from Carretera 2 (highway 2), which runs north-to-south through the city. 10 minutes south of us is our gym and Mayagüez Mall, which feels more like North American than Beltway Plaza, the mall in the neighborhood where I grew up, containing Central American and African restaurants and shops. Mayagüez Mall contains every imagineable American chain and is ALWAYS busy, even on a Monday morning when you would expect people to be working.
Everywhere you go, someone is selling something. You will notice, as you drive through town, that poor people stand on the side of the road at busy intersections, selling bottled water and avocadoes. There is another thing that some of them sell, which is rectangular and white and wrapped in plastic, but I haven’t managed to figure out what it is yet. Another thing that you will see everywhere is horses! Not stray dogs or cats, but horses, tied up or even roaming free sometimes. Quite often, we can hear the clip-clopping of people riding their hoses down route 102 just outside our apartment. It was a strange – almost nostalgic – sensation when I heard this sound while completing an assignment on Victorian England!
Getting around Mayagüez is… interesting. I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that driving is a different experience in Puerto Rico, and parking is no exception. The parking lot at the mall is especially nightmarish, because instead of parking in the actual designated parking spaces, people will park as close as possible to the mall or store entrance. This means that the roads are crowded and only one car can fit through at a time, even though it’s supposed to be a two-way road. Yellow curbs are totally ignored here.
Also, you have to be on constant lookout for people who pull out into traffic without looking (or with looking, but just don’t care whether someone is coming or not). There is even a term for this: “The Puerto-Rican pull-out.”
Should you ever have to take a taxi, ask about the rate as soon as you call or hail it down; meters are not used in Puerto Rico. For example, from my apartment to the downtown of Mayagüez, it will always be a flat rate of $8, and from my apartment to the mall it will always be a flat rate of $12.
In my opinion, one of the funniest things about Puerto Rico (not just Mayagüez) is that Walgreen’s is EVERYWHERE. Literally. I think there are more Walgreens than McDonalds. And they are always busy – even in the wee hours of the morning, because they are open 24/7.
To summarize, with some additions, living in Mayagüez encompasses the following:
A hot apartment, because electricity (and thus A/C) is expensive
Rain every day between 2-4pm
Water and avocado vendors, and horses, along the roads
Daily near-accidents while driving
Crowded malls and parking lots
Standing in lines everywhere you go
The omnipresent Caribbean Sea
Vegetation that wants to swallow up the city and spill out into the ocean
Latin music blasting from every home, car, and building
A bilingual people and culture (a mix of Caribbean+American, Spanish+English)
Friendly smiles and warm greetings everywhere you go, even from strangers
So… based on what I’ve told you, would you want to live here? Leave me a comment below!