Down deep, I’m a basically positive person – this makes it relatively easy to take life’s bumps and bruises without emotional trauma – I frequently see value in situations that others fear and avoid. And so it was with The Palace Hotel, the site of the cockroach convention – on that first morning in San Juan, we awoke at dawn to a poet’s dream, and a view of the harbor that is etched in my brain forever. It was almost enough to make us forget the previous evening – almost! Ten seconds after absorbing the sunrise spectacle before us out that hotel window, we were agreed that the business of the day was to find a substitute hotel for the remainder of our trip. We quickly dressed and emptied onto the lively streets of Old San Juan.
I love cities – especially old cities. And Old San Juan is by default one of the new world’s historic masterpieces. It’s character and personality is a bit overwhelming, and adding a vibrant local population busy with their daily life only accentuates it. The streets themselves reek of history – they are covered in stone cubes which almost look artificially consistent in size and shape. These are of course the ballast stones used by those early wooden ships to make their journeys safer when under-loaded – what a creative use of a potential waste product – and we congratulate ourselves on our re-cycling efforts!
We had not gone far before we came on a street vendor – one of many, and a completely new phenomenon to us – who was manning an electric juice squeezer. At the moment, he was busy squeezing oranges from an enormous pile, after first cutting them in two. What stopped us in our tracks was the fact that as bumpkins from New Jersey, we’d never seen such a huge machine where you could see the oranges being squeezed through the glass front, and immediately served to the lucky customer. The late ’60s in N.J. was still a time when fresh juice of any kind was rare, and even oranges were costly enough to be a luxury commodity, and squeezing for juice, even more so. We took our place in line, like lemmings. and enjoyed the hell out of that orange juice – our first real street food experience – but certainly, not our last!
Now, I must be allowed one of my cultural observations here – humor me. Over the years, I’ve noticed several quite significant differences between the cultures of America, and our nearby Hispanic neighbors. This is strange, given our close physical proximity and resulting connections and contact – but the more one travels, the more these cultural differences emerge. Arguably, the greatest difference is with the bathroom, and I’ll leave this subject for another time – it certainly deserves its own post – but I will leave you just one example as evidence: the toilet seat! There are perhaps only three, maybe four, public bathrooms in the U.S. without a toilet seat – and all of those occur within 2 miles of the Mexican border somewhere in Texas. However, within Mexico proper, it is rare to find a public bathroom with toilet seats – it’s a cultural thing. I’ll expand on this at a later time – I promise.
Another really significant cultural difference is in the amount of fruit that Hispanics consume daily – it’s easily 3-5 times what U.S. citizens eat. Mexican city streets are clogged with street vendors and I’d guess that a full 1/3rd of them are selling fruit or fruit related products. Yes, our Hispanic neighbors live in the tropics where it’s much easier to grow fruit than in North Dakota. But, I spent a good deal of my life in Florida, friends, and discovered that relatively few Floridians regularly include the many fruits at their disposal in their daily diets – probably about the same as in North Dakota – it’s a cultural thing!
OK, where was I? Oh yeah, back to Old San Juan.
Eventually, our wanderings took us to the El Convento Hotel, a historic Carmelite nunnery, built in 1646 – yeah, I’d dare a cockroach to set foot inside this place! In a fit of terror induced mental instability, we entered in an attempt to find relief. The El Convento introduced to us still another first; we had never encountered a hotel – no less stayed in one – built entirely of stone! Entirely. The floors, the walls, door jams, window sills – even the ceiling was constructed of tile. It was for a young, novice traveler, a mind-blowing experience. It was our first venture into a luxury hotel. It was easily the cleanest environment I had to date ever experienced – and it actually made me feel dirty, or more accurately, it made me more sensitive to the fact that everything in this room itself was cleaner than was I myself. Upon check-in, I would immediately use the magnificent bathroom for a luscious, and much needed, shower. Yes, there was a toilet seat.
We opted for the most modest accommodation for two at $65 a night. We couldn’t afford it, but this was, after all, a knee-jerk reaction to The Palace. The El Convento itself had only been opened as a hotel since 1962, and had not yet reached it’s eventual opulence following a further renovation in the ’90s – still, it represented a watershed hotel experience for we newbies. The El Convento today has moved well beyond our able, but quite unwilling hotel budget – it’s rates begin somewhere around $265 a night and up. We stayed in the heady aura for two nights, and cleansed sufficiently, moved once more to something which more realistically matched our station in life – this time, a downtown business hotel with clean, comfortable rooms, and even air-conditioning, for $35 a night. A perfect match.
With mixed emotion, we said Good-bye to the cobbled streets of Old San Juan, and moved uptown for a completely new San Juan experience – and our first real Cuban connection.