A Day Out in Puerto Rico
Dick Kefford, CEA
We four walk down the gangway, away from the cool, calm grey organisation of the ship. We wander through the naval base looking for a way out into the unknown exoticness of Puerto Rico. We have no sun glasses so squint against the early morning tropical glinting sun.
We wave to the American marine guarding the gate, we are free – for a day at least. We are determined to explore and see as much as we can of the island.
‘You wan a taxi man.’ It is a statement, not a question. ‘You hire me all day, fixed price, I tak youse anywhere you wanna go.’ He is very wrinkled with nearly white hair. He looks like someone’s grandfather so we trust him.
Sid negotiates a price, we follow ‘Call me Hosef’ to his prized car. It is a very old, very rusty Austin Cambridge, black of course. It is air conditioned against the heat by none of the windows closing but no matter.
We set off through the town that sounds like a song ‘Old San Juan’. Sunday morning, roads quiet, children in chattering groups walking to church, white shirts and blouses, very smart.
‘I take you to jungle rain forest, OK?’
‘OK Hosef .’we agree in chorus.’
We ask him about his family.
‘I have seven children, four are still alive. Many, many grandchildren.’
‘Don know man, don keep track.’
The car sets at the hill, second gear grinding up the hair pins, breeze drops, very hot. Gets cloudy, headlights on, trees close in, still very hot but now wet as well, raining in the mist. Josef tells us about recent rebel attacks around here – guerillas in the mist. We stop and decide to go for a walk in the rain forest.
‘Watch for snakes man!’ Josef laughs, ‘I be here wit de car, don get lost.’
Snakes are no problem, we are young, we’ll live forever. We walk into the jungle, everything drips, even the air. It is hot and wet, like opening a just-finished dishwasher. It smells of life and death, there are supicious movements in the leaf litter. I fondle the foetid fecund fern fronds from the forest while I set about looking for the fever trees – I haven’t been Kipled for a while. We wander for an hour or so, squelching unthinkables in the wet mush under our flip flops and releasing the rotting sulphide smells of many deaths.
Digger breaks first.‘Come on guys, lets go back to the car and get Josef to take us to a beach.’ It still rains and smells and sweats and drips and rustles so we agree.
‘I tak you best beach in P R,’ says Josef.
The cambridge slithers easily down the hill away from the clinging cloud, reluctant to slow for the hairpins, leaving El Yunque and the snakes behind in their hot, wet home. We drive for half an hour on back roads that are mainly metalled. We stop at a roadside stall and eat Josef’s reccommendation, curry meat rotis all round, not sure what meat.
‘Don ask,’ suggests Josef. We suspect goat, many grazing at side of road, tastes good, who cares? Later, back on the ship, apochryphal tales of rat rotis – alliteration makes them attractive but we insist on goat – we prefer the half rhyme to the alliteration, literary snobs.
We arrive at Luquillo beach, a cliché on speed.
Palm trees lean over a wide sweep of sand while white breakers march in serried ranks across the wide cerulean bay… ( well, I did say it was a cliché – sorry, received phrase. )
The sun is too hot, it is nearly midday so we leave our tee shirts on and rush down to the water, drop our flip flops at the edge for the return trip, the sand too hot to walk on. We dive in through the first wave into a delicious warm wetness then strike out through the cooler breakers which have picked up the sand and turned it into an underwater sandstorm. It blasts the work and confinement off our skin and takes it back to a clean undercoat ready for the red finish from the afternoon sun.
We body surf back to the beach. This place is paradise on sea, just like Clacton. A goffer wallah trudges along the beach carrying his ice box. He comes over to offer a goffer. We honoured his offer - you know the rest. Pete pays, we sit under a palm in the shade and the heat drinking ice cold coke that fights the dry hotness in our throats. We try to persuade Josef to come and swim.
‘No man, I have bath at home. I watch de car, bad people round this way.’
The sun droops towards the sea, we pack up – one last swim to wash off the sand and sweat from our seared bodies. Back to the ship, work tomorrow. Give Josef a good tip, he has been good to us.
An oasis of a day in the monotony of ship-board routine, a page to write in the memory of life.