Thursday, August 6, 2009

Where Did They Put That Road?

My uncle fell in love with a Puerto Rican woman. After shuffling around the globe with his missionary parents for eighteen or so years, he dug his feet into Puerto Rican sand and committed his life to her. He calls himself a gringo still, but I can’t tell what singles him out among Puerto Rican men his age. He has the same olive skin, the same gentle weathering of his features, the same penchant for hyperbole in his stories, pronouncements and warnings.

One day he took us driving. Locals call this ‘going to the island,’ as the city of San Juan feels too metropolitan and global to be of the same geography. We began with a stitch through the right half of the island, wrapping around the central mountain range toward Juncos. Flamboyan trees waved us along with their spiky red and orange feathery boas. Some sort of purply-pink flower competed for attention. Uncle knew exactly where he wanted to take us, but he could not remember exactly which way to go to get there. Mary and I shared a thrilled look that said “oh goody, we might get lost!”

We dropped down from the mountains and skimmed through little towns. As the asphalt curved and dipped, we tunneled through a tree canopy and caught only brief glimpses of pasture on the other side. Humble country houses in pinks and greens sat along the edge of the road reminded me of old women in housedresses waiting for a bus into town. I sat in the back seat snapping pictures, trying to catch that sense of motion and privilege that comes from letting someone else drive. My eyes blurred; I watched the greens, pinks, reds, yellows flash by the open window like an old movie backdrop replaying the same footage over and over, trying to make it look like the actors were headed somewhere.

We planned to stop in Naguabo for lunch. Naguabo, the town, pulls itself up the edge of the hillside like a girl trying not to get her skirt wet. One side drops down, however, and lands right in the surf. This means they have good fried seafoody things. We were on a hunt for good fried things to eat. Uncle turned right and left trying to pick up the right thread of a road; I watched more scenery, Mary told stories of family back in the States. We passed through the sweet kiss of an afternoon downpour, and rolled up the windows. The rain stopped and we rolled them back down. The air smelled like lime popsicles as the tree canopy disappeared and we reached the peak of the mountain. Below, the surf.

Back in the car, we found Naguabo the same way one comes into Summerville: suddenly, and without fanfare. It’s an “Oh. Here we are.” Not an “Yeah! We made it!” The town looked like a cluster of painted cinderblocks piled at precarious angles, and chickens jutted back and forth across the road. We were in Naguabo, but we had not found the beach. Uncle pulled over to ask directions from a guy walking down center of the street. In his lilting, perfect Spanish he asked the guy if there were still places to get fried things on the beach. “Yes, yes,” said the guy, “just go down here, take a right….” etc. All in English. Even in this tiny town, where chickens own the streets, a native speaker recognized a Gringo and decided to test out his own half-decent English, even after that Gringo had given the island most of his meaty years and it had taken the love of his life. He knew he would never be seen as Puertorriqueño; others knew it, but his nieces just could not see it. He just seems to belong.

Uncle found the spot with the fried things. I can’t wait to tell you about it, dear reader, but that gets into a discussion about food, which deserves its own entry. Tomorrow, then. Tomorrow I’ll tell about food.

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