A Puerto Rican Parable

posted by / Magazine / December 12, 2012

A Day In The Life Of The Enchanted Isle

puerto rico
Photo: Russo

Suddenly, a roar of applause jolts you awake. You gasp, coming to your senses and realize it was only a dream. Your plane just touched down in Puerto Rico, all the passengers are clapping and you’re distraught. Night flights are the red-eyed stepchildren of air travel. You yawn, inhale the scuzzy air and grab your carry-on before exiting the plane. The Caribbean air warms your face as you stumble into the tiny airport. Waiting for your boards to surface at baggage claim, you spot a vending machine that sells coffee. Intrigued, you decide to patronize it and feel somewhat relieved that you don’t have to tip the barista. You sip your 6-ounce coffee and your tattered boardbag appears like a beaten dog. It knows this baneful routine all too well, but somehow finds a way to withstand the abuse. You grab it, pet the dust off and head toward the car rental agencies. Every voyager must have a ship, you decide. Your pen carelessly dances upon a few papers; fine print is for the birds. It becomes apparent that you’ve rented the last car in their fleet — a teal Mitsubishi Chariot minivan. It’s a vehicle renowned for pedophilia and sometimes for immigrant families, but never for surfers. However, in Puerto Rico, it somehow makes sense. You climb aboard and head to your rented abode.

Twenty minutes of swerving through potholed roads lit by dull streetlamps and you’re at the house. It’s a concrete ode to flamboyance. Sitting proudly on a hill, it’s painted the color of a flamingo. Its decaying porch makes for a perfect place to enjoy the thick scent of overgrown tropical brush. Inside your room, it’s not so bright. Grim white walls are stained black at the edges. A painting of a conquistador straddling a horse hangs crooked. A 12-inch TV doesn’t work and a 1994 AC unit with taped wires goes drip, drip, drip, struggling to cool the sullen quarters. It’s perfect. You decide that sleep, too, is for the birds. Setting up your boards, each creaking twist of the fin key shatters the still of the pre-dawn. Your body is weary but your mind is electrified. Mind over body, more coffee. The rubbing of your firm tropical wax hums like a church choir. All the stars in the sky begin to fade back into outer space; they hint at the sun’s impending arrival. Back in the minivan, down a hill and to the beach.

In the dark of dawn, you can’t believe your eyes. Walls of ocean, 8 feet high, collapse over themselves like toppling drunkards before rifling down the line in a symmetric play of beauty. Thirty more seconds and the 800 milligrams of caffeine catch up with you. You grab your ready-to-go board and dash to the soft sanctuary of sand. The sun hasn’t risen quite yet and, in the gloom, the water has a refreshing nip to it. You jump in, glide through the water like a sunfish and paddle. You feel stronger. Or skinnier. Or faster. But probably just not burdened by a wetsuit. Once you make it out, you sit with a small group of surfers. They speak rapid Spanish and you worry that this might ostracize you. Your heart races and just when you feel yourself falling into panic mode, Dylan Graves looks at you and smiles. “Hey, how’s it going, man?” he asks, warmly. The weight of the island is lifted from your shoulders and you spend the next three hours logging time inside the great blue womb.

You’re reborn, but all that tube-riding has really worn you down. Drainers, they truly were. Your stomach gnaws at itself while the Mitsubishi engine purrs. But you stomp the gas and eight minutes later, you arrive at the culinary mecca of Puerto Rico: La Panadería. The parking lot is populated by hoopties and jalopies. Rickety motors and rusty exteriors, all crumbling by the cruel hand of time. The salt air has a way to doing that. BEEEP and a mangy street dog sleepwalks out of your parking spot. The teal minivan makes sense here. You walk in and wait in line behind a dapper old man. Ahead of him stands a young man with fake jewelry and a FUBU shirt. The old man holds a cane; the young man dons a rattail. The bakery is musty and smells like an unfinished basement. You order a ham, egg and cheese sandwich. While you wait for it, the dusty fridge stares at you. Hidden amongst the sports drinks and cola, a can of the purest gold catches your eye like a gemstone. Medalla, it reads — the native beer. Your watch says it’s A.M. but you say I am. Hell, it’s vacation. You grab one, only to have your heart sink deep into your stomach. The beer is only 10 ounces. You feel cheated, but buy it anyway. You sip it and even the can sweats in the late morning. You start to consider that maybe the 10-ounce can is genius. Too small to lose its cool. By the time you finish three-quarters of the beer, you swear that it is.

puerto rico
Dylan Graves. Photo: Russo

Into the van and on to the room. You lay your head to rest. In Spain, it’s called a siesta. Or in Minnesota, a cat nap. You don’t know what it’s called in Puerto Rico, but you fall asleep to the humming and dripping of 1994’s best AC unit… And Laird is back, this time in a helicopter. He’s stark nude, wearing only a life vest. The chopper blares a Queen album as it lands in the grassy meadow. You look on, awestruck. He shouts something about the Vancouver Canucks and takes back to sky, swearing he’ll be back with a lamb sometime before 6 P.M. You wave goodbye.

Your skin is glazed with sweat when you awake, and you shoo away the devious fly that’s been buzzing around your ear. You’ve slept through the two hottest hours of the afternoon and although you’re tired, you decide it’s time for another surf. Another pot of coffee should do the trick. You wonder how a heart even manages to beat on its own. The teal bastard storms past the bakery and down the hill to the sand.

Trade winds tickle the faces of the waves and lips now crumble instead of throw. Nostalgia blows in with the sea breeze. It brings you back to a time when just getting in the water was all that mattered and conditions were just an afterthought. Room for children or illegal immigrants also means room for lots of surfboards, so you choose a blade that will slice through the P.M. bump. You jump back into the golden era of your surfhood, if only for 90 minutes, but it feels just as great. The waves are much better than they look and you come in with a smile more radiant than your sunburn. Puerto Rico brings out the best in you.

The minivan is loyal like a golden retriever; it waits patiently for you in a dirt parking lot as you float about the sea. You’ve become fond of the ramshackle beast. Its fabric seats are far more comforting than a scorching patch of leather in the heat of a Puerto Rican afternoon. You love the way it grumbles while it weaves through the bumpy dirt lot. You stop at a bodega on the way home. More canes, more rattails, more beer.

The sun is now setting; you sit on your beaten porch and contemplate your marvelous day. Your beer count is dwindling, but every last sip is as blissfully cold as the first. Ten-ounce cans. The orange glow of the sun encompasses the Chariot, teal and gold are perfect together. You gaze at the spectacle like a proud parent in La Isla de Encanta. The Island of Enchantment indeed.

The next week blurs. A rhythm of golden hands and coffee mugs; of slabs and punts. The minivan takes you to places you’ve only dreamed of. On your last night in the broke-down palace, you slumber into a sea of memories. In deep sleep, you look back on the trip and thank Laird for his sporadic cameos. You flash to a morning when you were tossed onto sharp fingers of coral. You took one in, limped across the sand and went to the minivan for iodine. But in this dream you notice only one trail of footprints in the sand leading back to the Chariot. “Laird,” you gasp, “In a time of anguish, when I needed you most, why weren’t you there for me?” He takes a deep breath and gazes at you. His blue eyes are bedazzling. He replies, “My child. There is only one set of footprints because I was carrying you the whole time.”—Brendan Buckley

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