When we booked our cruise, one of the drawing points was the promise of visiting four countries. I had already been to the Dominican Republic back in the early 90s however this visit would be to an entirely different coast (the east) and I had never been to the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or Haiti (where Royal Caribbean have their private island that is not an island…). The first stop was San Juan and I was excited to see such an interesting place where Ricky Martin and scores of baseball players come from (okay, I cannot think of any more exports). Sadly we learned after booking the trip that it was a bit of a ruse. We would not arrive till 430pm. Sun goes down around 530 in late November and anyone who has travelled to the Caribbean can tell you, night time arrives fast.
We disembarked from the ship and wandered off the pier with no plans. I wanted to get a shirt. A fairly reasonable tour person offered us a cheapish ride in an air conditioned bus to see nearby sights including the big castle/fort structure we passed hours earlier on our way into port.
Note, the entering of the port was uneventful apart from a few minor events. First, the side motors stirred up the filth that silts up the harbour of San Juan. Second, some cruise ship had recently smacked into the pier and crushed a metal guard rail. Third, the US coast guard guys did doughnuts and figure eights to the cheers of the single women on balconies along the port side of the ship. I found this terribly amusing as I watched the city loom into view.
We toured, did the photography thing, saw a series of bronze statues of US presidents who “bothered” to visit San Juan, watched huge scary waves crash on a beach near some pricey hotels and witnessed a Japanese traveled give a fellow Japanese ex-pat homeless person about $50. We were also shown the condominium where Ricky Martin lives in the penthouse and told we could stop if anyone knew him. When it was all over, darkness having settled early enough to keep us from seeing the castle/fort, we paid the guide and shopped. Weird niknacks purchased, my wife and kids, frustrated at our inability to get a seat at the only decent traditional food place in the area, went back to the ship while I went on a quest for a shirt.
My Excellent Adventure:
Spouse and boys directed to ship, I turned around and marched off to visit a few shops on a sidestreet that headed east if the main town square. The smell of cigar smoke wafted about as merchants sampled their wares at the end of the say along with rum, black and amber, poured into coffee cups. A woman stood as I passed and tried to convince me to coke over, calling me “honey” in Spanish along with something else I couldn’t quite make out that resulted in the men under her awning to laugh aloud. I smiled, said “no gracias” and waved as I walked on.
I wandered into three shops before I found an acceptable t-shirt for under twenty dollars and decided I wanted some food. Now this is where my plan went a bit astray. I checked out a number of menus, listened to a few girls explain the booze specials and continued on my merry way exactly where we were told to not go. West, into the unlit portion of the city.
Now up until this time, there were cops at every intersection, in flak jackets, armed, big, scary in a Spanish Speaking Foreign Country way. Now, no cops. A few stray touristas, a lot of drunk locals, a number of women that I would peg as being prostitutes. I even once turned around mid street when I spied an open shop down a side road and had a cop look at me and go “uh uh. ” as he thought I was heading toward a small gaggle of hookery looking girls. I laughed and pointed at my wedding ring saying “no, no, no, no. Ha ha!”. He laughed too and pointed me in another direction.
Now, no cops, and no prostitutes, just slow driving cars full of young Puerto Ricans looking warily at me. A few blocks into the darkness, I saw sanctuary. A bar called the Red Monkey. It resembled at best, a movie set. Clean though made to look rough. Xmas lights hanging from the ceiling, strange masks and paintings in the walls interspersed with Spanish and English neon beer signs. Oddly, it was almost empty. I walked in.
At the bar sat one of the aforementioned police. He was eating black beans and rice with chicken from a square Tupperware container ans watching TV as a shaggy bartender chatted with him. I sat, ordered “uno biere por favor” and after paying the paltry one dollar I calmly began to watch tv too. It was, oddly relaxing and I felt safe. The bartender leapt for the remote after seeing it was sieze o’clock. He turned it to channel 25 and turned to the cop and I. “Jumanji!” He half yelled. We nodded in approval and the three of us proceeded to watch twenty minutes of Robin Williams dubbed in Spanish. My second beer finished, I issued a “mucho gracias, buenas noches..” and wandered out into the night.
I quickly made my way to the main street, was again unsuccessful finding a quick but safe looking take out, wandered around a Senor Frogs in disgust, watched a parrot show then got in line to reboard the ship.
The lights of the city glowed as I stood on the balcony of our suite and I took more than a few pictures as drumming, whistles and cheers erupted from Senor Frogs back on shore. I wandered off with my wife to get some long awaited food as the boys played PlayStation. St Thomas USVI was the next day, early, and I needed to prepare for more fun.
I think I like San Juan.
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