The flunky in a pin-stripe suit slouched against a wall outside the office of the director of tourism. He was cleaning his nails with a switchblade knife. He worked for the guys inside whose idea of tourism in Puerto Rico was to promote more hotel casinos and Vegas-like crowds.
I was the idealistic executive director of the Caribbean Travel Association, tilting at the windmill that was turning islands throughout the region into escapist clones of each other.
This was 30 years ago. Puerto Rico was more than just another postcard beach with golden sunsets. The island enjoyed a rich tradition of arts that, like everything, was wrapped up in the duality that gave character to life there.
Puerto Ricans were pulled between their Hispanic heritage and pragmatic lifestyles learned from the United States. Every cultural circumstance seemed to intensify that conflict, none more than the restoration of Old San Juan, which produced an outpouring of art that invoked the lost cause of independence. That independence, almost realized a century ago, was sacrificed instead to the expedience of Commonwealth status.
The ups and downs of my own life resonated well with the ambivalence of the islanders. But the people in charge of tourism had turned me off their place.
At home, I cycled everywhere, but felt like I was going nowhere. What I knew best was how to frame big pictures — a skill in positioning ideas that changed how people saw things. Swell! But no one was buying, perhaps because I wasn’t really selling. I didn’t want to sell. I was on my bike, but off my life’s track. Tourism had badly turned me off so many places.
Now I was back in Puerto Rico, this time cycling. It wasn’t just because the roads in Puerto Rico were better than elsewhere in the region. I decided that I had carried my prejudice against the place for too long. I needed to mellow out that good-guy bad-guy way of seeing the world. A week’s workout, I thought, might get me beyond my love-hate for the island and resolve my own ambiguities at the same time.
I cycled through towns where the intensity of life counted for everything. People lived one day at time, figuring out life from imagination and risk more than from the assurance of any bank account. Law and governance seemed to count for less than street corner inflections and body language, a way of greeting the morning, of kindness to children and elders, of regard for ancient ways and common accord. You lived with the neighbors. It was they who reassured you about daily order, about common gifts. They, too, who could make your life miserable, deprive you of reward if you overstepped some unmarked bound of behavior. Life came across as an unwritten book.
Even though I cycled with minimum gear, as I pushed forward on mountain climbs the speedometer sometimes registered “0.” Reward finally came one day as two fellows on a high mountain road eased alongside me, towing a horse behind.
“Amigo, what you training for?” one called out.
“Por la vida!” I shouted back.
Later, as I flew downhill, the one yelled out again, “Hey, what’s your name?”
“Herberto,” I yelled.
“H-e-r-b-e-r-t-o-o-o-o. . .,” he yelled back, my name echoing on the mountain wind.
Reward came again at the Parador Hacienda Juanita in the mountain town of Maricao.
There, Rádames Rivera, an artist, explained how he was working out the conflict between his career in San Juan and his loyalty to a brother who wanted him at the family inn in the country.
“It was very hard to convince me,” said Rádames. “I was a city man. Last night before I went to sleep I felt anguish. I want to stay here but I don’t want to stay here. I think the anguish will pass.”
I arrived in Mayagüez on an evening when a city club was celebrating a hundred years of popular music in Puerto Rico. Forty musicians sat on stage. Official introductions droned on: the reading of proclamations, each introducer in turn introducing the next. They paraded their ceremony endlessly.
Four came on stage at once. Dignitaries from the audience were asked to stand. Another speaker was invited up. She motioned two more to join her. Each was photographed. At last the musicians were introduced. Yet there followed not music, but a discourse on music.
When the music finally began, trumpets poured sound ripe and round as June mangoes. Propeller-age rhythms rocked the auditorium. The sufferance of endless ceremony seemed bound up with life itself as now, ceremony indulged, older men and women rose up and danced. Young people joined in. The place came alive. I watched, alone and content.
When the music stopped, the crowd continued to rouse the night. Rivers of excitement streamed out. I pedaled absorbed in the tapering flow until, passing beyond farthest reach, calm returned. I cycled a street beneath arches of colorful lights, the kind I remembered as a spellbound kid that, on movie marquees, went round and round.
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Freelance writer Herb Hiller is a former executive director of the Caribbean Travel Assn., initiator of the Caribbean Tourism Research Centre (now the Caribbean Tourism Organization) in Barbados, and a critical observer of tourism in Florida. His “Guide To the Small & Historic Lodgings of Florida” (out of print) won a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award as best travel guidebook in America. He is currently at work on an historical romance about Florida Highway A1A for University Press of Florida.