December, 2017–San Juan, Puerto Rico
Corny as it sounds, as we’re touching down in Puerto Rico, there’s a rainbow arching over the land mass. I can also see the vegetation has begun to spring back, though it’s hard not to notice the skeletal waste and bare branches. San Juan itself looks stable but battered and worn.
We’re staying at La Concha—a mod late fifties hotel that makes me feel as if we’ve walked into the casino scenes in Cuba in Godfather II—marble floors, low space age furniture, elongated hexagonal lattices and orange slats over the balconies, a clamshell roof on the restaurant. The elevator doesn’t work, so we all follow the work men to service area and go up, squeezed behind huge laundry trolleys. I learn later that the hotel, which sits right on the ocean in Condado, survived the hurricane—they did not even board up the glass windows. Wind crashed from the ocean and then swirled in circles around the wavy roofs. Water sloshed down the low marble steps of the lobby but they managed to drag out the sodden rugs, and stayed open the whole time and FEMA workers and administrators are staying here through February.
That evening we walk on the beach, and see block after block of hotels and apartment houses, all stable, surviving, a few swaddled in scaffolding. And yet most of the windows are dark—Puerto Ricans who have left, the apartments now abandoned. Occasionally we see a generator hooked up on the street, but by and large the electricity is working in this part of San Juan. Walgreens and CVS are glaring bright boxes down the block, freshly stocked.
That evening we head out for a meal at Café Tresbe, a hip outdoor place that serves tacos, empadillas, and tamarind-flavored barbecue wings, all out of a repurposed container. The place is low-key, groovy, and we might be in Austin with the strung lights and music and murals. Across the way is Sabrina’s, another restaurant with seafood and vegetarian fare.
Later, when we return to our area, we walk over to the Condado Vanderbilt, an elegant turn-of-the-century hotel that’s been completely redone—a sunken bar area of velvet settees, dark wood, and sleek statues. But it is utterly empty—the lounge area, the bar, where the staff wait expectantly; the restaurant and the terrace where the ocean pounds below. Continue reading