Es Un Viaje!
Let me start with a short demography lesson. Then a somewhat lengthy story before wrapping things up with the reason for this whole post, and a quick question for you.
My 2nd edition Puerto Rico Lonely Planet guidebook says that La Perla, “is not a place to wander into.” Squashed into a small stretch of property between the ocean and Old San Juan’s city walls, La Perla is an impoverished settlement of working class individuals and families. Wikipedia cites that it was “established in the late 19th century . . . because the law required . . . homes of former slaves and homeless non white servants . . . to be . . . outside the city walls.” It also states that “in recent years La Perla has become known because of the high rate of illegal drug trafficking and crime,” and that the United States 2000 Census reported a total population of 338. This included 198 housing units (29 unoccupied) in an area of 16.5 acres.
(out of respect to friends old and new, all names have been changed)
It’s impossible to fully describe to you what lies beyond that wall. Before I begin to try, let me preface my tale by saying that I find La Perla and its people to be absolutely beautiful, and excitedly look forward to my next visit!
My phone shows that it’s almost 1:00am on Tuesday morning. I glance over and notice that the speedometer reads 52 mph. We’re racing far too fast through the city streets, swinging far too wide at every turn, when my driver decides to tell me that she doesn’t have a driver’s license and hasn’t been behind the wheel in over a year. That’s also about the time she mentions that we’re making a quick stop at the La Perla home of her friend, Evalisse, who’s leading in the car in front of us. La Perla? “Marisa, are you sure it’s okay to be bringing a gringo down there?” Her response, “yeah, I . . . think so,” doesn’t exactly bring the reassurance I was hoping for. I get to work emptying the contents of my pockets into my Kiva daypack, and stuff it all as far back underneath the passenger seat as possible. I want to be carrying nothing.
Our entrance to the district was through a dark, one-lane tunnel that plummets underground near Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, on the north side of Viejo San Juan. Blaring the car horn to warn others that may be entering from below, we emerge alongside the Cementerio de San Juan, gravesite of many of the colony’s first citizens. We park the cars [note: this is the only time I’ve ever seen someone here use The Club] and set out on foot. As far as I can tell, our vehicles are the only two that aren’t missing several parts of their exteriors. I hope that’s still the case when . . . if . . . we get back later.
The roadway into La Perla looks as normal as any other. It’s decently paved, with speedbumps in place to slow down traffic through the weaving, tightly constructed neighborhood. But stepping off that road is stepping into another world. As we were walking along with a full moon overhead, I became acutely aware of my increased heart rate. Everything I’ve ever heard and read has told me that I shouldn’t be here. Evalisse guided us down stench-filled, pitch black alleyways, between homes built merely feet apart from each other, up and down decrepit concrete staircases, flipping a small flashlight on and off to help us safely navigate around otherwise invisible obstacles in our path. I wouldn’t recommend it to any of you claustrophobes.
Evalisse shouted through the open doorway of one ramshackle abode that we passed and a man suddenly appeared, looking as though he’d just pulled himself out of the city sewer. Although between the two us, our broken Spanglish couldn’t support much of a conversation, it was immediately apparent that my being a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend meant that Madesio and I were like brothers. I got a genuine feeling that, if you’re there with a resident of The Pearl, you’re in good hands and have someone (or several someones) to watch your back. In communities like these, looking out for one other is a must and relationships are sacred.
The four of us finally arriving at her place, Eva explained that the policía had recently broken in for the second time. Since she lives in the center of La Perla, which has the heaviest concentration of drugs and dealers, the authorities often come busting through everyone’s homes in search of illegal substances, valuable possessions to steal and the hopes of driving the poverty-stricken inhabitants out of the area. But she’s optimistic that it’s the last time they’ll bother her. The apartment, filled with stacks of books, a mattress on the floor and random knick-knacks, hardly resembles the lair of a user or pusher.
We each gathered up a folding chair and glass of wine, and headed back outside, up another handful of stairs and onto the rooftop. Dios mio! What a dichotomy between good and bad. La Perla, while quite possibly one of the ugliest places one could choose to live, is also one of the most gorgeous! I sat in utter awe for a while, watching and listening to the powerful Atlantic waves crashing onto the rocky shore below, only a few steps away from Eva’s building. People here get to walk outside and see this . . . every single day. Then I spin around to face the buildings of La Perla and see nothing but dirty, graffiti-covered homes. Many windows are devoid of glass and have been either left open, or covered with wooden boards. What initially appear as no more than tiny, rundown, rectangular boxes are humble dwellings that hundreds of people call home. I express my disbelief of the yin and the yang I’m witnessing and Madesio struggles his way through explaining how crazy (and, not uncommon) it is to sit here smiling and laughing with friends, while you hear gunfire a block behind you.
I spent much of our little party listening to my three companions chattering away in rapidfire español, catching only the gist of each joke and story, and managing to pick up a number of new sentences and bits of Puerto Rican slang. Apparently, the common English phrase, “it’s a trip” (used after telling the tale of some wacky experience), translates quite literally: Es un viaje! I laugh to myself about the appropriateness of those words at this very moment. The conversation was interrupted occasionally by the girls bursting into song, the woman next door screaming obscenities at the top of her lungs in an attempt to shut us up, and Madesio turning his chair away from the group while he got his fix.
The Point, and My Question:
All of this has been to lead up to the knee jerker of the evening. I’m sitting on the roof of a nearly dilapitated structure in the wee hours of the morning, in the slum of an already not-so-well-to-do commonwealth, with a beautiful young girl who has almost nothing to her name. She reaches for her bag and pulls out . . . a brand spanking new . . . MacBook Pro.
Is there something wrong with this picture?
I seriously want to know. Is it just me? I’m still in shock over it- I believe for a number of reasons- and haven’t yet fully sorted through the issues that the experience stirred up inside me. Commercialism? Priorities? Society? Choices? Help me decipher the problems I’ve having.
Please drop a comment below and let me know your thoughts. And I’ll keep you posted as I get mine straightened out.
Thanks for reading!