A Weekend in Puerto Rico

A lapdog belonging to a party lolling on the grass rushed toward another party walking a Great Dane. The lapdog party shot up from the grass to fetch the little fellow, and the walkers struggled to restrain the Great Dane. Another party readied a large red kite for flight in the promising wind. Hurricane Maria wasn’t coming, whereas she had threatened to arrive last night. She merely swished her hems upon Puerto Rico, and upon Puerto Rico's neighbors the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Some rain did come down and it was heavy when it fell, but the whole thing lasted only a few minutes a time, and the sun beamed after each rain like he’d never been gone.

All this expanse has been like this for centuries—deep and wide and open—by design. The field is in this age open for play and blissful rest, but in the past its purpose was deadly defense. After the enemy had breached fire from cannons mounted on this island and another, tiny island right across, after the enemy had scaled the impossible cliff-height from which the fort wall rises, its next task was to brave this field, to charge toward the defenders who had time to consider whom to kill first, and where to train the guns next, and for whom to save the last volley.

All of Old San Juan is as well preserved as the Fort. The cobblestones on the long narrow streets are worn smooth by scores of changing seasons and millions of footfalls. The museums had closed out of respect to hurricane Maria, but I wasn’t disappointed, being happy to just sit in the squares in the middle and in the end of Calle San Francisco, and watch the pigeons crowd and play in the puddles among the cobblestones. The colors on their necks turned off and on and glinted in the sun. The islanders like to visit Old San Juan on the weekend for the sights and the restaurants and to shop in boutiques selling modern brands in old quiet buildings. When the shoppers crossed the square they paused and fed the pigeons and allowed them to alight and beat their wings on their arms. Little girls squealed until they got used to the birds and then they squealed to papa to bring a bird for them to hold.

Later, I walked the three lovely miles of promenade between the fort walls and the ocean. And I came upon an iguana on a clump of black rocks. It was green and long and pointy, and pretty, unlike its cousins that I know at home, and not one bit shy, and it allowed me to take as many pictures as I wished on both its sides. Only later I learnt that all iguanas tend to behave like this one that I saw.

Puerto Rico has its problems: teen marriages abound and they do not last three years; drugs transit the island from producer-nations to the US, leaving behind their trace of vice; a feeling of lost identity prevails, and a sense of being wronged by too many for too long—which weighs a good part of Puerto Rican writing with soggy emotion; alcohol consumption is high and rampant. But the people are quick to sing and quick to kick off worry, and dance—the Latino in them, they say. That, and an acceptance by each of their lot, and an easy adjustment to life, all make Puerto Ricans, some surveys say, the happiest people on the planet.

Happy people make good employees, I suppose. I spent the work-week in an American plant on the south of the island, in Ponce. A fine plant, with best-practices on full display. The Latinos suffer from machista, a local told me, and listed the attendant weaknesses of the macho, but the men and women that I saw on the shop-floor, in their thirties and forties, had both mastered the skills for their processes and worked as deftly and nimbly as any worker in a disciplined Asian plant. How did they stay focused with the beach two minutes away? The workmen didn’t have the English, and I didn’t have the Spanish. When I brought up the question with the managers they assigned the credit to their inspiring systems. Deservingly so, perhaps. The systems were working.