sunset birds – San Juan
a gathering collective
a glance of breeze
two be one
a meeting of minds
and alone together
an old house in a new world.
please bless us
us who sit in the changing light
and hope for all hopes
that serenity comes to those
and us who strain in all that longs
for peace to grace those who
refuse to leave the light
-san juan rooftop, feb. 15, 2008
If you arrive in Old San Juan in the middle of the night, with men sleeping on the dark silent sidewalks and the smell of piss in the dank air, the first morning is brilliant.
Bright sky and the comforting blanket of vegetal heat. Color splashes everywhere – aquamarine water, shaded gardens, sea-weathered walls, and pastel on every building in sight. The green carpet of El Morro’s vast Campo. The paving stones, carried over as ballast on colonial Spanish ships, are a metallic blue.
The smell of coffee and breakfast pepper the air, mixing with the scent of sea and earth.
The city was founded only 16 years after Columbus’s first voyage, by Juan Ponce de León, the man who searched for the Fountain of Youth. For centuries, it was a stopover on the Spanish galleon routes, and an occasional target of English pirates and privateers. In testament to the city’s former stature, Old San Juan is surrounded by a wall and protected by two mighty forts.
Evening in San Juan is golden light, ice cream, and cigars in parks. The breeze becomes sublime as the sun drops in glorious orange and yellow.
Night in San Juan is music and life. Restaurants overflow. Teenagers fill corner stores, drinking rum punch from “Capri-sun” pouches. Salsa pours out of the Nuyorican Cafe, bomba y plena from hidden bars and at outdoor parties. (Bomba y plena is a precursor to salsa using a variety of hand percussion and call-response singing. It is not so much performed as played communally. The dancing interacts intimately with the rhythm and the melodies are thrillingly hypnotic.)
At the impromptu party on the waterfront, cake is passed out liberally to guests and by-standers alike. The experience of San Juan is not observational. When you’re here, you become a part of the town’s fabric.
Rum is everywhere. Bacardi, of course, but also del Barrilito, Palo Viejo, Don Q, and scores of others fill supermarket shelves and stock bars. They well fuel mojitos – but it’s most tasty on the rocks, as in Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary.