My last day in Puerto Rico, I woke up to find sand in my sheets and a little tequila hangover — both souvenirs from the night before. Along the beach closest to my resort, there were three tiny huts that passed as bars and after realizing they were where the locals go, I vowed to eat dinner at one for a true Puerto Rican experience.
As I was sitting alone with my Mofongo, reading Condenast Traveler, sipping a Mojito and listening to the ocean, the table across from me — two girls and a guy — waved me over to join them. (Here’s a snippet of the man, trying on my shoes!)
That gesture is what I loved most about PR and about traveling alone: everyone is so welcoming and accommodating, and they can’t stand to see you by yourself, so they don’t let you. I didn’t know if I’d get used to flying solo for four nights and five days, and luckily I didn’t have to- every place I went, the beach, the pool, the local shops, the resort grounds, the bus, I made friends. Everyone called me courageous and a little crazy because they couldn’t believe I would choose to vacation with only my company, so they kept me company to ease their (and my) mind.
I found a North Carolina themed bar on top of the Intercontential with two gals from D.C. I met by the tiki bar while chatting up Pedro, the bartender with a crooked, crazy smile. I heard about the woes of professional soccer – or really, the lack of financial opportunity – from my 20-year-old massage therapist who’s currently going through a “rough patch” with his girlfriend. I helped the guy who made the best iced coffee I’ve ever had plan his proposal to his lady of six years (it’s on May 20th!). And then there was the friendly older man who sat next to me on the bus and asked if I’d tell New York “Hola” for him, since I only live about 20 blocks from where he grew up. I met three sets of Honeymooners, from Texas to Brooklyn. An older, drunken man playing the guitar on the cobble-stoned streets of Old San Juan asked if I’d be his wife, and when I politely declined, he offered his equally intoxicated friend instead.
I sat on the beach at nighttime, covered in sand and feeling the warm water tickle my toes, talking to a Puerto Rican cardiologist with deep green eyes about literally healing a heart. I walked with three families and a couple through the tropical rain forest, and a little girl with blonde curls fell asleep on my shoulder on the way back. I listened to a woman with age spots and wild white hair read her favorite poem in Spanish, and then do her best to translate that it advised when you let go of something or someone, you should do it with love, not hate. Then there was the man who made pottery at the resort and let me spin the wheel, and another woman with piercing blue eyes who told me the locally-made bracelet I selected would bring me luck. And the couple I shared the breathtaking moment when walking by the colorful, historic buildings downtown, a rainbow appeared across the Puerto Rican sky.
I thought about these characters, trying to figure out the lessons I was supposed to learn from these chance encounters, while watching the clear sea splash to the shore that last morning. While I had met and experienced so many adventures in my short time on this island, I was worried I wouldn’t find the inspiration I came looking for. Traveling to this unfamiliar place, I hoped I would find something inside of me that made me believe again – maybe in myself, maybe in the universe as a whole, or maybe just in love. I didn’t come to Puerto Rico to find myself or to rediscover the person I once was, but to let myself be still, be on my own, and let whatever was to happen, happen. That, and get a tan – which quickly became a difficult task with my Irish roots and the fact that I can barely stand still, much less lay still for hours to bake in the sun. But at ten in the morning, sipping coffee to wake me up (and rid of that tequila) I was determined to at least come back with a sunburn, so people would believe I actually went on vacation.
However, as it often does, the tropical rain came without warning, and at full torrential force. I watched as the tourists threw towels and hats over their heads and ran to shelter under the palm trees or the security of their lofty hotel balconies. The Puerto Ricans, though, ran in the opposite direction – toward the ocean, letting the rain be a playful turn in the afternoon, not the end of it. I hunched under my umbrella with my soaked towel draped across me half-way looking out at the scattered scene, while partly trying to keep dry. Though I was trying – very hard – to find my Zen before leaving PR and to discover peace in this place, I couldn’t help my annoyance at the weather. The sun was now entirely hidden, and I worried that I’d be forced to spend my last day here, cooped up in the hotel, ordering room service and watching movies in Spanish with English subtitles.
Just as I was about to follow suit and race back to the room, a Puerto Rican man with a Corona-belly walked past me to join his family in the water, and said:
“It’s not so bad!”
I’m sure he was just encouraging the embarrassingly pale lady he noticed hiding, but those four little words were exactly what I needed to hear. Did I really care if the magazine and cover-up in my beach bag became saturated? Did I have makeup on? Did it really matter if the rain-and-wind mix made me a tad chilly for ten minutes?
Or really, did I have anything in New York to escape from? Is a tender heart that’s been a bit bruised or the stress of a full and robust life anything to really complain about? Or are those things, these unexpected — and sometimes difficult – parts of existing that really make life worth living? Aren’t the times when you’re aching or you’re afraid of the unknown that really, your soul is just awakening? That you’re discovering what you’re made of? What you can do without the help of anyone else, without speaking the same language of strangers, old lovers or friends who know you best?
Why was I hiding under that umbrella, convincing myself that the day I had planned was now ruined? Why did I let myself live under a similar shelter in New York – staying away from anything that could really hurt or put me out of my comfort zone, keeping anything that could make me vulnerable far out of reach? Isn’t it time to just…live? Time to let the weather take whatever course it’s meant to take?
So I dropped my bag, towel and sunglasses and ran to join the locals in the angry waves. The rain stung at first, but then the water felt even warmer than before, and the spirit of those in the sea was joyful because they know a little rain never stops anything for long. It always passes. You just have to be brave enough to let it fall. Brave enough to let it hit your skin and wash away all that you thought you wanted so you can find something you didn’t know you needed. Like a swim in the tropical rain on a tropical island, all by yourself.
And you know what? He was right. It wasn’t so bad after all. It was actually, beautiful.