vəˈräɡō/: a woman of strength or spirit; a female warrior.
El Morro

Preciosa Puerto Rico, Island of Enchantment

My wanderlust started when I was still an angsty, little goth-punk, because in the spirit of DIY, if you tell me something can’t be done, I have to do it.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Badlands National Park, South Dakota

During college, I went cross country in a 1967 split window VW bus with four friends. We camped for 30 nights in 33 states. I hadn’t so much as even opened a tent. I was an anxious wreck, stuffing a compression bag full of clothes I never ended up wearing. The experience turned out to be an amazing adventure to say the least, cruising through Badlands and ghost towns listening to Joni Mitchell and Jim Croce, swimming nude in a man-made reservoir in Kansas, the salt flats in Oregon, the wolves in Yellowstone–places and people you can’t get to from an airport. Occasionally dangerous, but always adventurous, I was the the official “Ginger” of Gilligan’s Island on that trip, cooking rice noodles on an open fire with red lipstick and a black bathing suit. One night, a bear (not the little kind, the BIG kind) walked passed my tent. I saw it’s enormous shadow and almost peed myself, my heart beating like a high-tempo drum into the cold earth of our camping site in Northern California’s Whiskey Park. I’d heard it approaching for about ten minutes. It was dragging something in its mouth.

After college, I did the Europe thing. England, France, Ireland, Switzerland and Wales. I became an expert hosteler and learned to nap quite efficiently on trains and planes and got scolded by the French police for putting my feet up on the Eurorail. “Third time!”, in French, the officer shouted in my face. Next time, I’m kicking you off. I should note that French police aren’t very intimidating, but Paris, culturally, is one of my favorites places on earth.

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Arc de Triomphe, Paris France

Then to South America. My first solo trip after leaving my first tech job. I went to get in touch with my Latin roots and to meet what was left of my Dad’s family. I was planning on moving there (I’m a dually) and teaching at Berlitz, but the post-911 economy wasn’t having it. Folks were leaving for Italy to find work. Now it’s the reverse scenario. I met a cool lady from Argentina on the plane (along with the entire Argentinian Rugby team who wouldn’t let me sleep). She emailed me a day after I came home to say the Uruguayan police had a warrant out for my arrest because of a $40 balance on my hotel stay (I’d forgotten to check out). I promptly sent them a check, but I felt kind of cool for a minute, though I don’t think I made the Interpol’s top ten.

Plaza Independencia, Montevideo Uruguay (where my Father was born)
Plaza Independencia, Montevideo Uruguay (where my Father was born)

So I came back to the states, but the wanderlust never left me.

Island vibes hit me a bit in Bermuda a little, when I went on my first (and likely last) cruise. I got to visit some of my friend’s family which was really cool. Turns out Bermuda isn’t even geographically the Caribbean (it’s a little confusing) but the island people are very kind and really chill. Not exactly what I’d been accustomed to up North.

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St. Georges, Bermuda

Something about island life–art and beaches and hot heat makes for a beautiful combination. America has a lot of confusion about success and money and a very innate focus on production. Island time keeps its own rhythm quite efficiently. Art and music stand unapologetically in the center of commerce. Unlike America, art hasn’t been so homogeneously washed out of the culture by industry. It’s not unusual to see people painting during lunch, much like the impressionists. In America, we’re on business calls. Not to say there’s anything wrong with that, but much of the time it’s just work for the sake of saying we’re working.

But back to the island. Nowhere is art and music so inextricably woven into the tapestry of daily life as in Puerto Rico.

This is my second time to the beautiful island of and I’m writing this as my skin peels sunburn away. I’ve just been to the islands of Culebra and Cayo Luis Peña. Playa Flamenco still ranks in the top six most beautiful beaches in the world. The ride was on choppy catamaran going about 100 mph blasting salsa. Our captains are reggaeton dancers for Tito El Bambino. I planned this trip about a week ago. I had a budget and I didn’t want to stray too far because apparently this is the year that everyone gets sick or dies. Um, what the HELL is going on, universe?

[Sidebar]: I micro-packed like a damn boss. I packed like I have never packed before. I packed…deducted a shirt, packed again, deducted a pair of pants, so on and so forth until I had one very small tote bag. I wanted room for my camera gear and I’m proud to report that I’ve worn everything I packed at least once except for one pair of sandals. Again, you get to PR and you immediately lose about 10 lbs of clothing. And if you’re looking to make your dollar stretch, I recommend Nerd Wallet, Nomadic Matt, the Points Guy or this gal: http://www.racked.com/2015/4/1/8320731/credit-card-points-miles/ Already my flight to Hawaii is paid for just by paying my cell phone bill with my United Card. It didn’t hurt my credit either. [End Sidebar]
My tiny, little bag that could

But back to choppy waters. I am not afraid. I am not afraid of losing my belongings, but one of these bumps might ruin my chances of ever bearing children. My fear, I mean, my deepest human fear is NOT of not being able to bear children, but of sharks. I think it’s because my parents let me watch Jaws when I was 5 years old. I was convinced that Jaws was making his way through the cracks in the floor, through the window and also following me to the bus. I pretty much, like the movie, thought Jaws was like the all-seeing, all-knowing Oracle. My other fear is boredom. Like not that, (it’s-friday-and-I’ve-got-no-plans-boredom), but that deep, trapped-suburban-ROTH-IRA, kid-named-Beckett-AUDI-SUV-boredom. More power to you if that’s your thing, but it scares the shit out of me.

So now I’m jetting through the middle of the Caribbean ocean across from a couple as the boat jerks up and down. We are holding on for dear life. We are off to Última Virgen, 80 percent volcanic rock, the place the Taíno peoples took refuge during the rebellion of 1511–a place where the US Navy under Teddy Roosevelt’s wonderful direction, used as a bombing site until the people united and kicked them out in 1971.

The couple across from me are as blissed out as I am, laughing hysterically every time the boat nearly ejects their petite bodies out to sea. I can’t believe there backpack hasn’t flown off the boat yet. I know every time I take a video, there’s a REALLY good chance I’ll lose my phone and I’m pinning my flippers down with my feet so they literally don’t fly away. I’ve never snorkeled in my life, but I’m a decent swimmer. Already I’m fear-coaching two women who are terrified of swimming, like horrified, but we all have our own innate fears. They coached me later on when I was afraid to climb down the catamaran ladder while the boat was moving. And for good reason, my whole body ached for days from all the jerking.

Cayo Luis Peña
Cayo Luis Peña

The petrified swimmers are now yards away from the boat, about 9 feet deep. I swim by them and we high five each other. I’ve got this snorkel thing down, but earlier I was gurgling water straight up my nose. We are in turquoise Eden. I mean, this is paradise. I’m not even really aware anymore of time and space. I’m on 4 hours sleep and I don’t even feel it. A sea turtle swims underneath me and a couple from Wisconsin point him out to me in a deep fargo accent. I’ve been instructed to not touch anything because we’re in a nature reserve, but I’m swimming over this coral reef that looks exactly like brains. It’s been almost an hour and I realize I haven’t had a “jaws moment” yet, not even a hint. No man-eating mega shark has approached me, but hundreds of beautiful fish commune as far as the eye can see. I see the largest cangrejo ever. We end the day with a swim and tour of Flamenco Beach, which cannot be described in words. I don’t want to get back in the boat. In fact, I’m one of the last and I’m chatting with this Dad from Columbia. He’s on the boat and I’m still bobbing in the ocean. He’s asking me in Spanish if I like fruit and something about needing a secretary. It’s like a dream, as a float up and down. This kid lets me borrow his boogie board. I glide over waves. Sand is officially down my pants. I don’t even care.

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Me (with sand down officially down my pants)

 

Isla Culebra, Puerto Rico (Flamenco Beach/Playa Flamenco)
Isla Culebra, Puerto Rico (Flamenco Beach/Playa Flamenco)

 

 

Calle San Francisco, Old San Juan

It’s the next day and I look like a red lobster. The misery on my face is hard to contain. I’m covered in Goya olive oil and Solarcaine gel that my friends were kind enough to lend me. The only time I feel somewhat okay is when I’m topless, slathered and under an air conditioner. The sunblock must have washed off during my snorkeling daydream. I’m at the Poet’s Passage (an amazing cafe on Calle Cruz in Viejo San Juan) trying to decide if I should drink a gallon of water or get a coffee and I’m having my first experience of feeling woozy from the heat. Several days of rain has brought all the impurities down and I’m having to sit and drink water with salt. Thank you google for the tip on a quick electrolyte drink. I get an amazing cup of soup from this wonderful, family owned cafe/performance spot.

 

 

 

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Poet’s Passage, Old San Juan

Yeah, there’s a Starbucks here now, but Old San Juan has really held court in terms of keeping family owned businesses. Still, it’s changed a lot since last time. Way more touristy. Suddenly, the clarity comes back to my head and my body starts to cool as I sit under the deep cool of the A/C. Sitting next to me is a business man working on his mac and a couple from Bayamón. They built a house here years ago and shuttle between here and Redfield, NY. We strike up a great conversation. They attest to my make-shift electorlyte salt-beverage. Everything is chill again. Taking the day off and staying out of the sun is definitely the plan. The day is now consisting of visiting the supermarket and taking photos at Plaza Colón and the Birdman. But the Birdamn (there are many Birdmen, not just one) inadvertently brings the pigeons my way with his bag of breadcrumbs. Their claws dig into my first-degree level sunburn and I scream “Pelar! Pelar! ”because la quemadura de sol is way too long to scream. I can tell he feels bad. This is his daily bread (literally), so I hand him some money and go back to the safe shade.

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The Birdman of Plaza Colón

The locals on the bench are in deep conversation. Vivir el presente, indeed. Island time. They offer me a banana. I offer them chocolate. There are two women preaching the bible in front of me. They smile and tell me I have a nice tan, but I feel like a bright red, oompa loompa.

Finally that breeze hits me. The heavy heat of sun hitting sidewalk retreats and the cool shade, coconut water and a strong cup of Yaucono has just enlivened me. It’s feels a bit like a hot summer day back home in El Barrio, with a few marked differences. Men from Puerto Rico greet their close friends with an embrace. Women greet each other with a brief hug and a kiss on the cheek. That’s how my Uruguaya familia greets me too. So much warmth. Surely no group of people are without ego, but the lack of emphasis on conspicuous wealth is refreshing.

 

IMG_0223Early in the evening I venture out with my friend Davida who lives in Carolina. You walk one block–tango, next block–jazz and yet another block–salsa. It’s definitely Friday night in Viejo San Juan and you don’t have to go far to catch every kind of music. Again, art and music are integral here.

A few nights before, I had met a group of Chileano bailerinas. We became fast friends and the language barrier was quickly dissolved. They’re level of English matched my level of Spanish perfectly. It is my birthday tonight and they’ve quickly procured a fiesta for me complete with chips and Medella, the token beer of PR. It is cheap and delicious. I feel like I do when I’m with my primos. I feel like I’m with family. The love and the Spanish are flowing as we blast reggaeton from the balcony of Posada San Franscisco.

 

My last morning in Puerto Rico, I drink Yaucono in the kitchen while chongos fly around me, much like every other morning. Last night, the sounds of the beautiful coquis lulled me to sleep. I have birthday mofongo at La Cueva Del Mar. It pays to ask locals where to eat here, because it’s legitimately the best damn mofongo I’ve ever had in my life!

Although I am sad to leave, I know I will be back soon, for the passion of this island is deep in my heart now and for many beautiful moments, everything slowed down.

Until next time, mi preciosa Puerto Rico, Isla Del Encanto, I’ll be listening to the coquí and lots of Hector Lavoe.

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Feel free to check out more of my black and white pictures of Puerto Rico at https://www.instagram.com/krzstudios.

 

 

 

About Kristen Demesilda

Kristen Demesilda

Writer and Photographer for Virago Magazine, Kristen grew up listening to vinyl and highlighting the dictionary. Her work has appeared in IrockJazz.com, The East Harlem Journal, Boston’s Culturehive, the Ithacan and other publications. Her love of music cannot be eclipsed by her love of words. She’s been coined the “Akira Kurosawa of Blogs” by such people as herself. An aspiring musician, she has a serious penchant for peach-flavored anything, multi-tasking, slow-paced thrillers and dreams of going back to South America, laying on the beach, and drinking from a coconut.

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