April, 1969: So Gary Van Kirk, Bill Rilling and I arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
On our arrival we went for breakfast at one of the large tourist hotels on the beach. Our first mistake. The breakfast, while expensive, was awful! Even the coffee. Especially the coffee!
That’s when we decided we were going to stay as far away from Americans and places that catered to tourists. We were going to go native as best we could! It had worked for me in Paris and we all agreed. I recently heard it said that if you travel and stay in an American-style hotel, you don’t really like to travel!
We rented a Volkswagen and found a small picturesque hotel in Old San Juan.
It was only four stories and the rooms all faced a four-story open atrium with a fountain in the center. The floors were all tile and un-carpeted. In the center of the ceiling in every room was a large carved wooden ceiling fan and the windows could be shuttered closed against the blazing sun. It was like returning to the 19th century and it was exactly what we were hoping for!
So we checked in and started our great adventure.
Bill spoke a smattering of Spanish — just enough to help when we encountered Spanish-only situations!
We left the hotel for the beach. It was still early and there was nobody on the beach but a group of about six young Puerto Rican men a short distance away. They approached us, and being New Yorkers we were naturally a little cautious.
One of them spoke english and asked if we were from New York.
“… Yes,” we said.
Then he asked, “Do you like Puerto Rican music?”
“Ohh YES!” We replied. “We Love it!”
He called his friends over and told them that we liked Puerto Rican music whereupon the others produced guitars and serenaded us with Puerto Rican pop songs! Then they took us to lunch!
The English speaking guy asked us if we’d been initially nervous about meeting them and we said, “… Well — sorta.”
And he told us that New York got the worst Puerto Ricans and while they were glad to be rid of them, they were sorry that we had to get them — giving Puerto Ricans a bad name!
Our first introduction to Puerto Rican hospitality! And it continued!
Everyone we met (everywhere we went) couldn’t have been kinder!
We set out in our Volkswagen in the morning and driving along the south coast found a small restaurant right on the water. It was called The Floridian.
We decided to sit outside on a deck that cantilevered over the water and ordered lunch. Their specialty was fried chicken and plantains and that was what we ordered — along with ice cold beer. Lunch was so delicious and the location so idyllic that we stayed several hours! There were so few people there that we were virtually alone and wondering why this wasn’t the most popular place on the island!
We returned to San Juan to our hotel, changed for dinner and continued our adventure.
The next day, more exploring in Old San Juan and dinner in another picturesque local restaurant where we were apparently the only visitors from the mainland. And another perfect dining experience.
We decided to take a quick side trip to Charlotte Amalie. We were told that the beaches were beautiful with super clear water for snorkeling and if we were interested, shopping was very inexpensive and duty free!
The beaches! I had brought my trisoralen pills along, the pills that would enable me to sit in the sun without burning up — and possibly even being able to get a tan!
The crossing on the water was rough and I became seasick — not desperately but just nauseated enough to be disabled. I resorted to the trusty anti-nausea cure I’d learned from my advertising firm compatriots when I first arrived in New York and was invited to a lot of cocktail parties: ice cold bottled Coca Cola! Instant cure! Nausea begone!
It had been explained to me that Coca-Cola was a major antacid and nausea was acidity!
It’s never failed.
We checked into The Villa Fairview, perched on a hillside with a more than fair view! There was below us an unobstructed view of the town and harbor!
Coming up from the bottom of the hill was the music of a steel band group who were practicing and the sound slipped up the hill and onto the terrace of the Villa Fairview.
Drinking Piña Coladas in the soft sunlight we were immersed in the Virgin Islands’ charismatic atmosphere!
We went to the beach and as my doctor had advised (and the instructions cautioned) I drank a glass of milk to cushion the powerful trisoralen sun pill, waited the prescribed hour and then apprehensively but somewhat confidently, I lay down on a towel on the sand! After a few minutes I understood why sunbathing was so pleasant for so many! I felt no burning, just a most comfortable toasty warmth!
We also went snorkeling looking at gorgeous fish in crystal clear blue water.
That evening, I still felt no pain from sunburn even though I’d had quite a lot of exposure!
Living full time at the Villa Fairview was a middle aged woman named Emily Sargent. She was friendly but there was something else; she was somewhat like a character in a Somerset Maugham story — possibly on the verge of Tennessee Williams but not as overtly caricatured! Maugham’s characters seem to contain their dramas more than Williams’ characters and that was certainly Emily Sargent. We never knew where she was from or if there were a hint of a story — it seemed complex!
Meanwhile, Olivia the maid sang nonstop “what a friend we have in Jesus” at the top of her lungs as she cleaned.
There was a commercial quality to Charlotte Amalie that we found to be oppressive. All the Americans and tourists we’d been successfully avoiding in Puerto Rico appeared to be shopping in Charlotte Amalie! People we’d avoided in New York were not people we wanted to see in the Virgin Islands! We began to miss Puerto Rico!
We returned to San Juan and our hotel where we’d retained our rooms and dressed up and went to an elegant restaurant, La Mallorquina in Old San Juan.
It felt very European and in its elegant restraint reminded me of Paris.
We rested and looked around Old San Juan and found another wonderful restaurant, La Gallega.
We finally decided that it was time to check out of our hotel and investigate other parts of the island.
We had breakfast and started out in our faithful Volkswagen.
In our travels we found a lonely side road that led to the ocean so we turned off the main road and came to a beach fringed with palm trees and to the side, a calm fresh water lagoon where a few cows were grazing and drinking the clear water. There was nobody on the beach and no sign of any habitation. It actually looked like a landscape that Gaugin would have painted.
This was certainly as good as it could possibly get and we stopped the car and stayed. Bill and Gary immediately whipped off all their clothes and went streaking down the beach and back and forth into the perfect waves! Having no milk handy I couldn’t take my sun pill so stayed in the shade with the cows wishing I had my watercolor paint with me! It was the most beautiful environment in which to dream! In fact, it was the most beautiful beach I’d ever seen, an image from a travel book — but real!
As it was getting late we had to leave and since we had no idea where we were going we thought it best to drive before it got dark. But it did get dark and we found ourselves driving through mountains! We just kept driving.
Finally we came to a clearing in a forest. There was a wide rustic gate and beyond, small buildings like a non-contiguous motel but not like a motel.
There were strings of lights everywhere but not a sign of any people or any signage to indicate what this might be. It was like a strange surrealist setting from an art film, this clearing in a dark forest with a deserted group of buildings lit and decorated as if for a festival. We parked the car in front of a larger building and noticed an old man sitting in a large chair on a broad covered porch. A door next to him was open. We walked up to the porch but the man seemed to be asleep.
Or something …
We walked past him into the building which was brightly lit but without a sign of any people. Tables in a large room were set as if for a reception but there were no waiters or still no sign of life.
I was getting a strange feeling — something I’d never felt. I wondered if I was dreaming. It was very much like a dream.
We left the large building and started to walk to one of the smaller ones when from a great distance we heard singing.
It got closer and closer and suddenly there were crowds of people!
It was not unlike a surprise party where suddenly guests come from hiding while shouting Happy Birthday!
The old man woke up — he had been sleeping — and explained to us in halting English that there was a pop concert that everyone had attended and we could rent a room and spend the night!
After we had signed in, sharing one room, Gary looked up and said what we were all thinking: “I was wondering when it had happened …”
It turned out that we’d all had the same thought — that we had had a car crash and had died! It was that kind of unreality!
The next morning we set our for Mayagüez, located in the center of the western coast of Puerto Rico. We checked into a hotel there, I drank a glass of milk, took my trisoralen pill, waited the required hour and we went to the beach!
Bill Rilling and I had the same birthday date and Gary teased us about which of us was the most Virgo! As we were on the beach, Bill and I were both complaining that the ocean water was so warm that it wasn’t very pleasant to be in it. A young guy sitting near us heard us speaking english and came up and introduced himself. He spoke perfect English so he joined us and Gary explained that he’d been teasing Bill and me about being picky Virgos! The young guy, Oscar Rosado, smiled and said that he too was a Virgo! It turned out that he shared the same birthday as Bill and me. Gary had become the odd man out!
Oscar invited us to dinner!
During one of our trips we had driven through the rain forest. We’d been invited to a wonderful house right across the road from the rainforest and admired the open plan of the house. There were wide decks extending from the living room and a swing on which we were encouraged to take a ride! The arc of the swing took us over the tops of trees growing beneath the cliff on which the house was perched. The house didn’t appear to have obvious glass windows but appeared to be open to the mild climate. The roof had a deep overhang so rain didn’t appear to bother it!
(I’ve thought long and hard about this beautiful house after the cataclysmic damage wrought by the hurricane, Maria.)
After leaving this house we passed a beautiful five-acre peak of land that had a For Sale sign on it. We stopped to get out and walked over the property. There was a magnificent view looking across to an island called Monkey Island!
At the bottom of the hill was a spot that we thought could one day become an elegant beach and yacht club! We stayed for a long time dreaming and imagining what this beautiful property could become. The rainforest was right across the road and could never be anything but the rainforest!
On the spot we decided to make an offer to buy it! It was for sale for only $15,000! $3,000 an acre!
We were telling Oscar in Mayagüez how much we loved the island and on a scrap of paper I made rough idea sketches about what we were imagining! Not a dumb little suburban house and garage but an organic-looking hacienda that would blend into the spectacular landscape!
We left Mayagüez and drove back to San Juan. Now we were excited and met with the realtor who was handling the property! We were imagining that it could even be a good source of income as a rental for New Yorkers coming to visit once we built the dream hacienda!
Once we built it …
We hadn’t thought a lot about that; it would all work out!
So we were returning to New York and I was thinking what a weird kind of traveler I was: I went to Paris for a month not knowing the language and by the time I left I could barely speak English — and now, a very short trip to the Caribbean and I’m going home thinking of owning property there!
I must be very careful about where I go on vacation!
Now, back in New York, calling my mother to share the news!