On the first stop of his yearlong journey, the 52 Places Traveler makes it his mission to get off the beaten path and into the island.
A report by SEBASTIAN MODAK for The New York Times.
If this is a Monday night, it’s hard to imagine what Friday looks like. About 300 people are spilling out of a club onto Avenida Eduardo Conde in the Santurce district of San Juan. The space I’m in has limited seating, but the stools are empty anyway because everyone is standing. One window sells fluffy, fist-sized empanadillas and stacks of lightly salted tostones while another one hands over cans of Medalla beer at a furious pace. Everyone is here for bomba and plena, two distinct but closely linked Puerto Rican musical traditions that can trace their roots to the African slaves brought to the island starting in the 17th century.
The first set is all plena: A dozen men fill the stage, their fingers ricocheting off circular pandereta drums, providing a bedrock for the call-and-response vocal lines. The lyrics are largely improvised and often lewd and full of thinly veiled social and political commentary. There are repeated mentions of the venue we’re in, La Terraza de Bonanza, and calls to dance “la plena” and love “la isla.” Judging by the expressions on the faces of the people around me, the lyrics hold several inside jokes that fly right over my head.
After about an hour, there’s a 10-minute break and the set changes to bomba, an even older musical tradition (and a kind of cultural parent to plena) anchored by barrel-like drums. Women take center stage. A trio of vocalists face the drummers and a revolving cast of dancers leap, twirl, grin, shout and have me so transfixed that it’s a full 15 minutes before I realize I forgot to hit the record button on my camera.
I came to Puerto Rico, my first stop as this year’s 52 Places Traveler, hoping to see an island well on its way to recovery, a year and a half after Hurricane Maria. I knew I would see progress, especially when compared to the fresh devastation that my predecessor Jada Yuan saw just five months after the hurricane when she visited the island. What I didn’t expect to see were the omnipresent smiles, the sense of optimism shared by so many people I met, from pig roasters to young entrepreneurs, and from the meticulously manicured cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan to the roller-coaster hills in the center of the island.
Throughout my six days on the island, a single sentence spoken to me by a 13-year-old in the ocean-hugging neighborhood of La Perla, just below Old San Juan, was on repeat in my mind: “La vida continúa,” or “Life goes on.”
The ensemble I saw at La Terraza, where it plays every Monday night, is more than a bar band. It’s a movement called Compartir de Plena, or Sharing Plena. Led by Alfredo Emerson and Axel Cotto, the group started five years ago in the northern coastal town of Cataño as a way to teach young people free of charge to play bomba and plena music. After Hurricane Maria hit, the group waited just two weeks before putting on a show in its hometown as a way to lift the spirits of a devastated population.
One week after that, Compartir de Plena were back at La Terraza de Bonanza, where a generator kept the beers cold and the microphones on for months. These days, the group sometimes streams the Terraza performances live on Instagram and Facebook, Mr. Emerson told me when I connected with him days after the performance. “It’s to bring happiness to people to see and hear our native music not just here in Puerto Rico, but also in other countries around the world,” he said.
La Terraza de Bonanza was the first stop in my mission to explore the island of Puerto Rico beyond the regular tourism routes. I didn’t make it to a beach until my last full day. I never made it El Yunque, the giant National Forest that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. I didn’t have time to hop over to Vieques, the speck of land that sits off the main island’s east coast like a sideways teardrop. That’s not to say these aren’t attractions for good reasons, but I came wanting to see other parts of the island to see if those places had rebounded in the same way as the cruise ship ports and tour bus destinations. So I put the little time I had on the island largely into the hands of some young, energetic Puerto Ricans I met — one introducing me to another.
Loreana González Lazzarini, 34, is from Isabela, a town on the island’s northwestern coast. One day, she mapped out a trail of chinchorros (rural roadside restaurants) for me, stretching from the outskirts of San Juan to Orocovis, in the island’s center. The night before my road trip, speaking of the need for tourists to see the island beyond San Juan, Ms. González Lazzarini told me, “I want tourists to experience the people of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans’ main concern is always, ‘Are you having a good time?’”
I spent the day alone, weaving through the winding, narrow roads that snake up and down jungle-covered hills into the interior. There were clear signs of the hurricane’s devastation. I saw the infamous blue tarps, still covering the tops of houses whose roofs had been blown off a year and a half ago. Rounding one corner I saw a pile of tree parts and, crossing right in front of it, a stray puppy dragging the beheaded carcass of an iguana: a poignant, if a little heavy-handed, symbol for the brutality of nature.
That same day, I saw the immense generosity that has carried the island through the hurricane and other crises over the past several years. I had made the mistake of trying to go on a “chinchorreo” on a Wednesday — for Puerto Ricans, it quickly became clear, that’s more of an activity for weekends. But one after another, the chinchorro owners whose places were closed until the weekend, rattled off recommendations for spots further down the road that might be open.
When I finally found a place for a late lunch — Roka Dura, an open-air restaurant at the top of a hill overlooking Orocovis — I ate a plate of country specialties: chicken chicharrón, fried till the skin cracked off the meat like an extra greasy potato chip; alcapurrias, fritters stuffed with mashed green plantains and ground meat; and longaniza, a Puerto Rican take on chorizo. After the meal, the server who had been making sure I liked everything, came over with a single sprig of fresh mint as a palate cleanser. “I know it’s organic, because my neighbor grows it,” she said.