“Does Puerto Rico have a president?”
The girl with the beginnings of a sleeve tattoo asks this in earnest to the man next to her. She and her girlfriend sit behind us on the plane, their pop-up tent in the carry-on compartment directly above us. They plan on finding a spot on the beach to spend their nights here. The girl with the sleeve has never been somewhere tropical and the girlfriend is excited for the adventure.
How cute — qué linda.
We meet a sweet white and orange kitty during breakfast on our first morning. He is content to prowl the stone floors, laying down in the general proximity of the tables and chairs. We offer him pieces of our breakfast and he inches closer to us with each morsel.
We learn he prefers sausage over bacon. We also learn that some of the staff here might have swatted him away a time or two, as he flinches whenever we move our hands towards him. He eventually wanders away from us, mewling in a way that tells us that he’s still a kitten, and a kitten calling out for his mother, no less. He hops down a banister and reunites with his mom in a small stone cove. There, he lays down and blinks slowly at us — a cat’s way of saying they trust you, that they feel safe enough to close their eyes in your presence. He paws at his mom and rolls on his back and it is obvious that this area of the resort is his sanctuary.
My new favorite buddies on the island. Gatito y su mama.
I’ve been very public about my attempts to learn Spanish. Like most First World White Girls, I have become obsessed with the idea of being bilingual. I married into an Argentine family, which gives my endeavor some level of credibility. But it runs way deeper than that. There’s a concept in sociology/psychology/semantics. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It essentially boils down to two ideas:
1) Language shapes thought.
2) We think within the confines of our language.
Things get lost in translation. There are words in one language that cannot be duplicated in any other language. There are big and small changes to sentence structures in every language — nouns spoken first, action verbs spoken first, reflexive and passive words used or disregarded — that, if you really think about it, probably alter the way we view the world. There’s a beat and a melody to each and every language, and I’d prefer to not be stuck on just one song. I’m ravenous to sing every which way I can.
Cantar en dos idiomas.
There are two pools at the resort, alongside a scattering of hot tubs and the beach. I’m in heaven. I grew up a mile from the ocean. I spent my summers by lakes and ponds of all shapes and sizes. It’s hard to get me out of the water when I’m in it.
The gatito from breakfast is napping under a beach chair when we go into the larger pool to swim laps. Someone makes an offhand comment about the number of feral cats in the area. The kitten gives us a slow blink before looking away.
When I was a kid, I would pretend I was a mermaid when I swam. I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I gave that up completely as an adult. But now sometimes I also imagine I’m a top-tier athlete, swimming laps to get the edge over her opponents. And sometimes I don’t imagine anything at all. I simply float and splash and hold my breath and enjoy the feel of the water.
Nadar y solo nadar.
The warm weather means I can finally run again. Even if I had access to a treadmill during the winter, I wouldn’t use it. I need to be outside. I need the air fresh and the wind on my face. I need the scenery to be changing around me. It’s hypnotic and it’s meditative and it’s why I slip so easily into distance running. There’s always something more to see, if I just go a little bit longer.
The first day, I run along the beach. The second, I run on the streets. The views are drastically different and equally spellbinding. Both times, my legs tire out. Both times, I get to tell myself, “You’re not stopping. We’re not back yet.” I dart around incoming tides and oncoming vehicles and I think to myself, “A girl could get used to mornings like this.”
Corro con todo mi corazon.
They have yoga at the resort. Three times a week at 9 a.m., you can meet by the towel hut and sign up. By 9 on Tuesday, I’ve already had a morning practice and a morning run, but I still sign up. I joke that it’s research, inspiration — but the reality is that yoga has been my saving grace. It balances me. It mellows the neuroses. It keeps my self-directed Irish temper (the kind that will burn like a fiery summer at myself but flicker and diminish at other people) in check.
The instructor takes us up to the tenth story deck, a hidden gem with views of the beach and the mountains. The winds are so intense that my mat nearly blows away. I go through the sequence, making note of a few new moves, a few variations that I’ll want to use in my own class. Research and inspiration, after all. The instructor adjusts her students’ bodies purely by placing a hand on a tensed muscle. Relax your back. Relax your neck. Relax your shoulders. You’re doing yoga. You’re in paradise. Feel the wind. Feel the warmth. Be peaceful.
El ejercicio tranquilo.
We meet one of the kitten’s litter mates by the row of canopies. Unlike her brother, she knows how to work a crowd. She saunters from canopy to canopy, pausing as she looks over at us, rubbing her face against the edges of the mattresses. A little while later, we see a gray tabby who walks with the same slow gait until he sees us. He then scampers behind a chair and stays there.
Gatos por todas partes.
I say I could stay under these canopies forever. I know it’s hyperbole. What I mean is that I could stay here for a long time. A decent amount of time. That I’d gladly have these lounge chair coves with the canopies draped over them as my home base for a long, long time. But I’d never be here forever. I’m never one to sit still. I’ve already started planning adventures. Let’s go to Old San Juan. Let’s go parasailing. An old friend suggested a kayak expedition. Let’s go. Let’s do this. Let’s move.
For now, I am content to lay here. To feel the sun and the breeze. To read and listen to music. To eventually get up and go swimming and be active and return back to base.
Vámonos, porque voy a ir.
Yoga can only do so much to mellow out my neuroses. A bunch of unexpected things throw off the morning that we set out for Old San Juan and it takes every ounce of energy within me not to let the neurotic side win; to remind myself that it’s okay that the weather has turned on you and it’s okay that you forgot the list of places to see and it’s okay that you forgot your sunscreen and it’s okay that the sunscreen you buy while in Old San Juan is an oily mess that wrecks your hair and your shirt and the strap of your camera. It’s okay that plans are different. That does not mean the day is ruined. There are greater tragedies in this world. Stop being una chica loca and go with the flow.
The sun eventually comes out and Old San Juan is positively lovely. We piece together what I had originally and meticulously planned and go with the flow. We meet a black feral cat by one of the oldest churches in Puerto Rico. My husband, who shares the same bleeding heart as me for animals, goes to the nearest store (coincidentally enough, the same store that sold us the oily mess of a sunscreen) for cat food. I sit by the cat, who is sweet and cautious and knows how to work people for food. His efforts are rewarded with a can of Friskies.
Later that day, as we’re trying to find our way to the Paseo de la Princesa by the waterside, we come across a few more feral cats, followed by a whole group congregating by a pink building. This pink building, barely a stone’s throw from one of the major fortresses in Old San Juan and right by an old basketball court, is a sanctuary for feral cats. Here, they not only feed and look after them, but TNR (trap, neuter, release) the older ones and socialize the younger ones to become fit for adoption. The man in charge tells about us about this establishment — a simple, one-room place that you could easily drive by and never see — the cats weaving their way through our feet.
It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking. Even those who notice the building could easily mistake it for a supply hut for the basketball court. Or an abandoned restroom area. But it’s a haven for countless little creatures on this part of the island. It’s a saving grace hidden in plain sight.
We give the rest of the kitty treats to the eager cats, my heart melting with each mewl and meow. One cat plays with the edge of my skirt. Another grabs my hand with both paws so he can get the treat better. Another has the same facial features of Grumpy Cat (only she lives on the street of San Juan and the other is a multi-millionaire). I murmur in English and Spanish to them. Here you go, kitty. Aquí tienes, gatito. I love you, kitty. Te quiero mucho, gatito. You poor thing. Pobrecito.
The super-planned-out-everything-must-go-right portion of the day is flipped on its head, but the spontaneous addition of the feral cats and their sanctuary makes the day something I wouldn’t trade in for the world. When we finally break from the cats and continue on our path, the storm picks up again. I hold my hat to my head and smile. I don’t mind the rain right now.
Even though the website swears they only take guests by reservation, the parasailing people put us on the next available boat — aptly named the WTF (Way Too Fly). We are latched into our harness and slowly fed out into the Atlantic and the ground disappears from below me. I laugh and howl like a banshee, manic and maniacal, for the first five minutes. I lean myself back, past the point where it is probably safe, to get a better view of everything. To the right of me is San Juan, the hi-rises and the airport, the majestic and rolling mountains. Mountains I will have to go to someday, hopefully when I next return. To the left of me is an infinite horizon: the Atlantic ocean sprawling out, way past where I can see, way past where I can fathom. Below me is the bluest water, laps of countless little waves reminding us just how choppy the ocean is right now. The sun is beginning to set and a haze has taken over the city. It is beautiful, it is beautiful, my God, it is beautiful — es hermoso, es hermoso, Díos mio, es hermoso — and I can’t stop smiling.
Heights used to terrify me, which was why I always sought out activities that forced me to confront it. Now it’s my buddy, my partner in crime, there to egg me on and make me take risks and bask in the rewards. I am held up by a few clasps and tether and wind resistance. My legs swing wildly in front of me. For a brief second, I genuinely believe this is a place where I could stay forever. They start pulling us back to the boat. I facetiously pout and go, “Aw, one more minute.”
Uno minuto mas.
We end up not really having too many opportunities to practice our Spanish. Everyone speaks to us in English and I have zero interest in being that gringa who asks to talk in Spanish purely so she can garble her way through a few simple sentences. But, just like life back home, I find ways to incorporate the language. I’ve long gotten into the habit of asking my husband “¿qué dices?” when I need him to repeat something. I say or think something in English and figure out in my head how I’d say it in Spanish.
“I’m from Boston. We don’t have beaches like this there.”
Soy de Boston. No tenemos playas como esta alla.
“I need to put away my sunglasses first.”
Primero, necesito meter mis anteojos del sol.
“I love it here.”
Lo quiero mucho aqui.
Sí, sí. Soy de vacaciones. Estamos aquí por solo una semana.
Mi corazon esta contente aquí. Mi alma esta tranquila.
Quiero una dia mas.
Quiero correr, nadar, volar aquí todas las horas, todas las dias, toda mi vida.
The last time we are under a canopy, I am desperate to take everything in. Even the spring break college students, who have now taken over the poolside with their gigantic tin buckets of booze. I take in the breeze and the smell and the setting sun and the symphonies of idle chatter. Tomorrow we check out. Tomorrow we board a plane out of San Juan, stopping for a layover in Orlando, and make it back to a chillier New Hampshire.
“We should’ve stayed for two weeks,” my husband notes. “Make that three. Four.”
“Y’know what? We just live here now,” I add in.
Travel sparks the wanderlust side of me. The slightly wild, slightly reckless side of me. The manic and maniacal side of me that howls when hoisted hundreds of feet above the Atlantic. The side that says that you don’t have to use that return ticket. You don’t have to stop for a layover in Orlando. You don’t have to drive an hour or so back to New Hampshire from Boston. What would happen if you stayed? What would happen if you woke up every morning for a run in the heat, grabbed some desayuno of coffee and crepes with dulce de leche y frutas and stayed until your Spanish wasn’t one big, garbled, gringa-y mess?
The reality is that this is not my world. My life is back home, in New Hampshire. There are people back north that I would miss terribly. There are people and things that I already miss, even in the midst of this paradise. My heart aches to leave and my heart longs to return.
La realidad mía. El mundo mío.
I’ve never seen a set of cats so happy to see their owners return. We get home by 2 in the morning and they follow us around until we slide into bed. One cat crawls under the covers with us and sleeps by my hip. The other mewls like he’s a kitten again, bursting into purrs the second someone pets him.
Like the cats at the sanctuary in San Juan, our black cat is technically feral, born on the streets to a stray cat. He spent his first six months living this way until the Animal Rescue League of Boston took him in, tended to his health issues, socialized him, and got him ready for adoption. He’s now the sweetest, most social cat you could ever meet. A cat even for people who hate cats.
New Hampshire is beginning to thaw. You can even see the ground in some spots. In our backyard, the snow has melted enough that the chickens are outside of their coop and gingerly walking around a snow-free spot in their fenced in area. Even though we didn’t get to sleep until 2:30, I’m up by 8. I tend to the chickens and throw our vacation clothes in the washer and find a seat on the couch. My formally-feral cat meows at me until I pat the spot next to me on the couch. He hops up, circles the area a few times, and sprawls himself across my legs, keeping me in one spot for now.
Mi gatito negro.
“How’s the vacation blog coming along?” a friend asks.
“Most of the stuff I wrote as I went along, so it’s just editing now.”
“A writer’s favorite part,” the friend replies.
“It’s a smidge melodramatic,” I confess. “But I like it like that.” Pero lo quiero como ese.
“Nothing wrong with melodramatic.”
It’s safe to say I’ve always been one for the dramatics, for hyperbole. Always been one to feel things with an intensity that can feel downright silly in retrospect. Maybe that’s just a writer’s trait: to experience life intensely and to allow it to be raw and overwhelming. Filter life through a magnifying class in order to translate a slice of that onto paper. It can make for an interesting life, and it can make for interesting writing. Estoy una chica loca, pero yo me quiero como ese. A veces. A veces, yo me quiero como ese.
to learn more about the cat sanctuary — Save a Gato — please visit their website here.