San Juan’s rich mixture of cultures, colonial and indigenous, invites immersion in the Puerto Rican capital. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Credit: Michael Dwyer / Alamy

“Port-o Reek-a,” says the woman behind us, as we disembark the plane at Luis Muñoz Marín International. “It’s Port-o Reek-o,” her husband corrects, smiling at the American Airlines flight attendant. “Isn’t it?”

The flight attendant looks from one of them to the other. Tourists. Mid-50s. Matching white shorts. “Puerto Rico,” he says effortlessly. “Poo-err-toh Ree-koh,” the woman mimics slowly, tugging at her small grey wheelie case. The flight attendant and I lock eyes. “That’s right,” he lies. When the couple turn away, he bears a slight smirk. “Pwertoh Ri-koh,” I pronounce inside my head, suddenly unsure.

It’s almost midnight. Suitcase after overstuffed suitcase is pulled from the conveyor belt. The baggage terminal slowly empties. “Excuse me.” My brother approaches an airport attendant. “We’re missing one of our suitcases.” The man turns slowly towards us, as if moving under water. He speaks lazily: “Hola.”

We’re ushered into a small room. “Where did you fly in from?” “Australia. Melbourne to Sydney. Sydney to Los Angeles. Los Angeles to Miami. Miami to here.” “Sheez,” he says, and looks us over. Me. My brother. Our mum. My two kids, wilting side by side atop a fallen suitcase. “Viajeros cansados. You folks sure have come a long way.” He takes out a bag chart, asks me to point at what the missing case looks like, and reaches for our tickets. He makes phone calls in what is now fast-moving Spanish.

“We’re going on a cruise. Do you think the bag will arrive before the boat leaves?”

“Where you heading?”

“Barbados, Dominica, Grenada… Family reunion.”

Jewel of the Seas,” he says immediately. “Leaving Monday. That’s supposed to be a good one.” He laughs at my surprise. “Puerto Rico is a very small island, señorita. We know everything.”

A small Puerto Rican flag sits on the airport customer service counter, and on the dashboard of our taxi minibus. Large Puerto Rican flags fly over all the government buildings and public fountains. The Puerto Rican flag adorns food stalls and hotel lobbies; it’s emblazoned on all manner of tourist trinket. The Puerto Rican flag has just three red stripes to the American flag’s seven; two white stripes to the American flag’s six; one lone white star, to the American flag’s 50.

The blue cobblestone streets of Old San Juan – the capital city’s old colonial district – are teeming with Americans. They order Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper, ketchup with everything. Puerto Rico is their Tropical Break Away without Needing a Passport. Puerto Rico is their Less-Black Caribbean. America loves Puerto Rico with the same fraught intensity with which Puerto Rico was once loved by Spain. Like they shed blood for her. With a stifling insistence that leaves finger-shaped bruises all over her bronzed Taíno skin. Pre-Columbus this island, my God, she must have been a raw-beautiful thing. The English tried to take her in 1595, and again in 1598. The Dutch, in 1625. The British, 1797. In 1898, the Spanish finally lost her to the Americans. The Spanish Cross of Burgundy is hoisted over each of San Juan’s forts: it flies between the stars and stripes of America, and the star and stripes of new Puerto Rico. A spoil, as much as a tribute.

Old San Juan is vintage pretty, minus First World hipster pretention. It’s the former beating heart of a colony. It’s exquisite and unsettling at once. A city ringed with high, ancient walls fitted with the pocked ghosts of cannon casings. Old San Juan’s white-sand coast remains stone-fortified against the churning midnight-blue Atlantic, even though there’s no one approaching.

The Castillo San Cristóbal sits high-majestic on its hill. Our free open-air tourist bus is body-to-body full. I fan myself with a paper map. Then hate myself for doing it. Unstick my shirt-back from the white plastic seat. Try not to knee-sweat on the stranger next to me. There is a humid asthmatic intensity to the April Caribbean heat.

“San Cristóbal, she is where La Garita del Diablo haunts. You’ve heard of it, yes? Garita del Diablo?” The tour guide retells the legend of the disappearing soldier-watchmen with dramatic relish. Our bus pulls away, slowly onwards towards the next coastal fort, Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

Piña! Coco! Parcha!” calls the man standing behind the white ice-cream barrow. Medium blue jeans. Collared navy shirt. Dark black curls greying at the temples. His scrubbed-clean hands are blackened in the ridges, like a nod to a former tradie’s life. He reaches bucket-deep into each flavour, scoops the sweetness into clear plastic cups. My children taste its heavenly cool, with wide greedy eyes. Sugar-velvet. Dreamlike. Impossibly compacted flavour that makes you want to close your eyes.

Other vendors call to us from the street-food stalls lining the harbour. Piña colada in brightly coloured paper cups. Creamy coconut-guava lollipops. Black sugar coconut cake. Clear plastic packets of wafer-thin plantain chips that banana-salt on your tongue, then dissolve to fibrous starch. Golden-brown ground beef alcapurrias that would make Aussie meat pies shrink with shame. “Limonada? Thirsty? Limonaaadaaa!” a smiling, pretty, wide-hipped woman rattles clear plastic cups filled with crushed lemon, water, brown sugar, ice. “Leeemonaaaada?” My six-year-old asks, looking up at me hopefully. I readjust her sunhat, shake my head no, and laugh.

“I’m looking for the rest of our family. My aunties,” I tell the steward at Hotel CasaBlanca. “I think they went down by the water,” he says, taking out a map. “They have salsa dancing there, and some night things going on.” I check my watch. It’s 9.30, Sunday evening. “Will it be okay to take the kids down there now?” The steward laughs. “Of course! This is Puerto Rico – we love the little ones. Our kids come with us everywhere.”

Intricate metal-worked lampposts line the San Juan streets. The trees are wide-trunked. Wonderland-big. There’s a fierce emerald greenness to their leaves, like some super photosynthesis. Down on the esplanade, cabanas have been erected. A band amble-plays. Sangria is sipped. A gathering of ladies in their semi-casual 40s salsa out the front of a gathered crowd. Hip-sway. Step. Hip-sway. Step. “May I have this dance?” My auntie’s German friend, a good-humoured woman in her mid-60s, asks my 11-year-old son. “Of course.” They hip-sway. Step. Sway.

San Juan is a city that sinks into your skin; a place your body moves to involuntarily. She is street-Spanglish, salsa steps and spiced paella seafood. She is crispy fried pork with gravy rice and peas. She is bright-coloured cement-rendered terrace and sticky plantain with every meal. She is empire and wilds. She is culture and collision. She is everything she ever was, mixed with everything imprinted. San Juan is swelter-heat. She is constant addition, but nothing ever conceded.

San Juan’s coastal water is dense with a blue quite unlike anything I’ve seen, even elsewhere across the Caribbean. Not the clear aquamarine pristineness that laps St Croix, or the postcard turquoise of Maho Beach. Deeper. Heavier. Thick with weight. As if some preschooler just finished her grass-and-sky landscape and washed a paint-clotted brush here. Vibrant indigo-cobalt. Dark and delicious. Schools of slim-bodied near-translucent fish lazy-flit beneath the surface, gathered in their teeming thousands, as if expecting something.

Further down the pier, the clean white engineered lines of two giant docked cruise ships violent-slice the skyline.

“Pwertoh Ri-koh,” I say out loud, but I know I’ve pronounced it wrong.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2017 as "Puerto of call".

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Maxine Beneba Clarke is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil. She is a winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry.

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