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York Daily Record

Island With Identity Puerto Rico Mixes The Best Of The United States And Latin America To Create A Culture All Its Own.

By Jennifer Vogelsong

July 20, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

The irony was obvious from the start.

My journey from Pennsylvania to Puerto Rico a U.S. commonwealth began in the Philadelphia airport's international terminal. But when I arrived on the island for a weeklong visit in May, no one asked to see my passport or hassled me about customs declarations.

After all, I'm a U.S. citizen just like everyone else there.

Sure, Transportation Security Administration employees made me take off my sandals when I went through airport security. But they cracked jokes about stinky shoes as they did so and sent me on my way with smiles and wishes for a good day.

"Nice," I thought I've got the best of both worlds here, American standards and Latin American hospitality.

It wasn't quite so simple, though. Once I walked through the doors of the San Juan airport, I felt more like I was in Latin America than a land ruled by the U.S. government.

Inside the city's old-fashioned Rio Piedras market, vendors sold slabs of beef and red snapper, avocados, plantains and star fruit. At one stand, a woman peddled potions and herbs to cure any ill. Other open-air markets offered clothing and trinkets.

Not far away, the commercial mammoths of Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Bed Bath & Beyond loomed over smaller shops that have survived despite the competition. In a tropical land so steeped in tradition, there are some things you just can't get at Wal-Mart.

I stopped at the U.S. Post Office to stick something in the mail and watched the clerks tap infectious rhythms on the counter between customers. The radio in the back never stopped singing. Out on the street, people who can't vote for the U.S. president hung out of car windows, honking and waving signs to convince the city to vote for their party's candidate for mayor.

This is an island with an identity crisis, I thought; a place where people are cramming the best of the United States next to the best of Latin America, teaching two worlds to coexist.

Melding cultures is nothing new for people here. After all, Puerto Rico has a long history of cultural and ethnic mixing.

The Spaniards who came after Columbus found themselves living with the native Taino Indians. Later, the Spaniards started importing African slaves to work on the sugar, tobacco and coffee plantations. After the Spanish-American War, the United States took over rule of the island, first as a colony, later as the commonwealth that it is today.

Even though it's technically a part of the United States, traveling to Puerto Rico is probably more like heading to a foreign country than any other trip between two U.S. states or territories.

For starters, the people who live there speak Spanish.

Yes, most people on the island understand at least some English and can get by in a pinch. They have to, seeing as tourism is the island's third-largest industry. But they'd rather speak Spanish. And when you're sitting on a city bus with salsa music spilling from the speakers and palm trees flipping past the windows, it just seems right that way. English doesn't fit into this tropical landscape.

This is home of the pia colada and the plantain, a starchy fruit served nearly as many ways as there are shades of skin on the island. It's a place that once produced rum, tobacco and sugar by the bushel, but now counts pharmaceutical companies among its top employers.

The traffic in San Juan was worse than I'd ever seen in a major metropolitan area on the mainland, and bad in a different sort of way. Not only were there miles of backups on the highways twice a day, but vehicles parked on the sidewalks when they couldn't find anywhere else downtown. Someone told me most households on the island have an average of three cars. The roads certainly weren't made to handle such a situation.

The federal highway administration is well on its way to completing an urban train system for the San Juan metropolitan area in hopes of easing the congestion. The rails are up, but the service hasn't opened yet to the public.

In the historic section of the city, known as Old San Juan, pedestrians, not cars, are the norm. Painted houses of every hue neatly line the blue brick streets. Peek through gated entrances and you'll find lush courtyards and gardens overflowing with hibiscus, orchids and other tropical flowers.

And at the far corner of the walled old city, the fort of El Morro rises 140 feet above the water. In days gone by, it was an important part of protecting the city from attacks by sea. Inside the stone fortress, visitors can walk through secret tunnels, peek into ammunition chambers and dungeons, or climb to the top and see the lighthouse where U.S., Puerto Rican and Spanish military flags flap in the wind.

Outside of San Juan, on what locals call "the island," visitors can find some of the most magnificent sights in the United States.

Puerto Rico is blessed with three bioluminescent bays three more than can be found anywhere else in the United States. Visit one of these magical places (at Fajardo in the east, off the coast of Lajas in the south, or near the shores of the island Vieques) and you can swim in stars rather than just watch them.

Swish an arm or an oar through the water and a stream of greenish- white light follows the path of movement. It's like someone snapped a glo-stick in half and dumped the contents in the water. Smack your palms on the surface of the water and send a stream of sparkles shooting out in all directions.

Every drop of water sprinkles light and the tiny crests of the current gleam white as they bob along.

The phenomenon is created by tiny half-plant, half-animal microorganisms called dinoflagellates that light up when disturbed as a defense mechanism. The mangrove trees surrounding the three bio bays produce vitamin B-12, a nutrient the dinoflagellates feed on, and because the bays are shallow with narrow outlets to the ocean, the amount of B-12, and consequently the number of bright microorganisms, build up.

In the eastern part of the island, visitors will find the only tropical rainforest in the United States. El Yunque's 28,000 acres is home to the Puerto Rican parrot, one of the world's 10 most endangered birds. It's also center stage for 13 species of tiny singing tree frogs that are known as coquis' after the two-beat tropical melody they call out to each other each evening.

In the northwest, millions of years of erosion have formed the world's third-largest underground cave system just south of Arecibo. Visitors to the Rio Camuy cave park can walk through the slippery chambers of the 170-foot tall Cueva Clara and peer into a sinkhole more than 400 feet deep.

Not far from the caves, scientists from around the globe convene at the Arecibo Observatory to investigate the ionosphere and nearby planets using the world's largest radio telescope.

The area's natural sinkholes and proximity to the equator made it a prime location for studying outer space. When the morning mist lifts above the trees, visitors to the observatory will find that it looks more like an oversized satellite dish plunked down in the middle of a forest than a traditional telescope.

Birds fly back and forth overhead, singing songs of their own above the constant sonic squeaking that tells scientists the telescope's receiver dish is staying centered.

Of course, I can't forget the beaches. Puerto Rico is known for having some of the best, and with 365, you're never more than a couple of hours away from great surfing and sunbathing.

Yes, Puerto Rico may be an island of irony. But it's also a place with an identity all its own.


A young girl dances to salsa music on the back of a pickup in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. At night, the historic section of the city comes alive as locals and tourists head for its many restaurants and clubs to eat, drink and dance the night away.


The homes and buildings in the Old San Juan section of Puerto Rico's capital city are known for their Spanish Colonial architecture, intricate ironwork and colorful exteriors.


A lone man sunbathes near cliffs at Wilderness Beach in Aguadilla, on the northwest

coast of Puerto Rico. Wilderness Beach is known for its surfing.


A fruit vendor takes a break between customers at his stand in the Rio Piedras market in San Juan. The plantains hanging from his stand are a staple in the diet of most Puerto Rican people. They eat it mashed or fried, super-ripe or green, as snacks or a main course.

PIC: DAILY RECORD / SUNDAY NEWS JENNIFER VOGELSONG Visitors to El Morro fortress in Old San Juan can walk through tunnels, check out old dungeons and ammunition chambers, or simply stand on the different levels of the old fort and enjoy views of the sea and the city's historic section.



A group of men whiles away the afternoon with a game of dominoes in the main plaza of Bayamon, a city southwest of San Juan. Dominoes is a popular form of entertainment on the island.

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