An Invisible Girl
Is solace anywhere more comforting than that in the arms of a sister.
Out of respect for the devastation and suffering visited on Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria and our government’s lack of support for American citizens, I’ve put off writing about my trip to the island. But it occurred to me that as an act of solidarity, it might be nice to highlight the beauty of the people and the island. They are still suffering and neglected, but I know the proud Boricuas on the island, the people I met in 1999 will make an amazing comeback.
I hate Monfongo. There, I said it. The one time I tried the traditional plantain-based Puerto Rican dish it was dry and suspicious, but I love many other things about the commonwealth. It’s not my favorite Caribbean island (that would be Cuba), but it holds a magic all its own, which resides, like most magical things, in its women. Although, I’m obviously not excluding Benicio del Toro or the musical stylings of Marc Anthony from the sachet of PR magic!
But the women of Puerto Rico shine in my imagination and memory. And it’s not just my precious Jennifer Lopez, who I unashamedly adore, nor is it only the lovely Roselyn Sanchez, the badass Justice Sonia Sotomayor or even the relentless, inspiring mayor of San Juan Carmen Yulín Cruz. No, the women who always spring to mind when I think of my four-day jaunt to Puerto Rico are the maids. STOP. I am not stereotyping. Read on.
Dogs have a neat trick. They think if they avoid eye contact by staring resolutely at the floor or at the wall you can’t see them. And if you can’t see them, then you cannot possibly blame them for the ripped-up books, broken vase, half eaten shoe or soiled carpet. Both my beloved dogs Chinaski (name after Charles Bukowski’s literary alter ego Henry Chinaski) and Zora (Zora Neale Hurston Washington Clark, self-explanatory) loved this trick. And it’s one I’ve borrowed from them from time to time in my daily life and often during my solo travels.
If I focus on a point somewhere just over a person’s head or toward an indistinguishable point beyond, I fervently believe/hope they can’t see me. Not that I want to be invisible, at least not all the time, but I am easily flustered and embarrassed. Sometimes I just need to buy a little time to get myself together and pretending people can’t see me helps. But sometimes I forget I’m doing it and am startled when rendered visible. I both discovered I was using Stupid Pet Tricks to hide and that sometimes I don’t mind when my superpower fails on my one and only trip to Puerto Rico in 1998.
On my waitress/day bartender salary, I didn’t have much money and didn’t want to splurge on a nice hotel, intending to be outside most of the time. So, I booked a cheap room with a small pool that closed at 6. Not ideal for a gal who loves to swim, but luck was with me and I discovered that my poor people’s hotel had a sweetheart deal with the fancy pants hotel next door. So, for the price of a chabola/shanty, I was able to use the three large, beautiful pools at the hacienda---one of which had a swim up bar!
PR is where I began my habit of all day swimming. When I travel and there is a pool available, my favorite thing to do is get up early and go for a swim, sightsee for a couple of hours, return for an afternoon swim, get gussied up for cocktails and dinner, and then a late-night float before going to bed. Not only am I originally a Cali girl, my favorite band is Fishbone, and I’m a Pisces. As if it needs to be said, I love the water.
Since my poor people’s pool closed at an unreasonably early hour, I naturally chose it to kick off my day and used the fancy pools for my afternoon/evening swims. And because it was off-peak, almost hurricane season in fact, my hotel’s pool was almost always empty. Heaven.
It was on my first full day in Puerto Rico, around seven or seven thirty on a cloudless, bluesy morning, when pausing to gulp air before I challenged myself to another round of ten continuous laps, I was spotted. Caught off guard by the sudden break in solitude, a sensation of curiosity as I stretched and prepared to conquer the wide expanse of water, I realized that not only was I no longer alone but that I had been rendered corporeal.
After passing unremarked through JFK airport, on the shuttle to the hotel, and at the bar I drank Cuba Libres in the night before, my limbs held weight, my body shape, my face angles and planes.
They, the maids, saw me, another brown girl, tattoos gleaming in the sun, swimming alone at the top of their rundown hotel on that first day and they smiled. Most of the other guests passed out in their beds after a night in Old San Juan, they said hello, delighted when I replied in Spanish, asked how they were, remarked on the beautiful day. They asked if I was traveling alone and when I said sí, there was admiration in their eyes instead of confused pity. They complimented my sharp black and silver one-piece and my strong breast stroke. We traded pleasantries every morning as they cleaned and straightened what needed to be cleaned and straightened and then with a cheery adiós they would leave me to my solitary laps.
It’s a magical thing, a gift really, to be seen and yet remain untethered. I think everyone wants to be included, noticed, but I don’t think everybody wants this all the time. And it is one of the bone deep pleasures of solo travel when, just as the tendrils of loneliness begin to stroke the tender skin on the inside of your elbow, you become visible to another person for the briefest of moments before being left to your own sojourn.
Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back in October when I explain where all the hot Puerto Rican men live.
Hint: it’s not Puerto Rico!
Also, please donate to Puerto Rico if you can!
They are still in need of their fellow citizens help!
In the meantime, be kind to one another, keep on traveling with a feminist eye, and keep on being Feminist AF!