HAPPY NEW YEAR to all our friends and readers.
Last Christmas my husband and I were on board a ship off the coast of New Zealand. This year we decided to again seek warmer weather but without traveling from the northern to the southern hemisphere.
Though we’ve visited many Caribbean islands in the past, this was our first visit to Puerto Rico and we now see why it’s called “Island of Enchantment.” With no grandchildren to spoil on Christmas Day, we planned this trip on the spur of the moment. We’d fly from Southern California to New York City to stay with our globe-trotting son for a week then arrive in Puerto Rico on December 15th. Our suitcases bulged with winter clothes mixed in with lightweight tropical garb.
After a fun, but chilly (weather-wise) visit with our son, we flew southeast and arrived late in the evening. San Juan greeted us with a downpour and a comfortable 70 plus degree breeze. Quick, throw off your jacket and put on a tank top! In San Juan we viewed beautiful Christmas light displays in all the plazas.
La Fortaleza (the Governor’s mansion) has a charming light and Christmas carols show as well. I have to say Puerto Rico goes all out decorating their public places for Christmas. The lights and colors were awe-inspiring as were the families with small children delighting in the spectacle.
In the west coast city of Mayagüez there is a very different holiday display, what seemed at first an odd theme of an Arabic woman titled La Sultana Del Caribe.
We learned there are several legends on the subject, including one that said that the Sultana was a beautiful woman who was walking through the streets of Mayagüez but no one knew her ancestry. The fact is that the city adopted a tradition from Moorish Cordoba, Spain. Now in the 21st century Mayagüez is known as the Sultan of the Caribbean for marketing purposes worldwide.
Fearing we’d be stuck in a cold lonely hotel room for the holiday I had searched frantically before leaving home for somewhere hospitable and intimate. Luckily, I found lodging for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at a remote location deep in the northwest karst country between Arecibo and Utuado.
We had our own casita (little house) consisting of a bedroom, screened porch and private bathroom. No glass windows, only screens and wooden shutters.
Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) trumps Christmas Day for most Puerto Ricans. Our hosts Joan/Juanita and Tony, a former chef and restaurant owner, served a typical and delicious Puerto Rican Christmas Eve dinner. Tony’s eighty-seven year old mother made pasteles (folded over dough filled with meat and vegetables, and then fried). Lechón (roast pork) followed this hearty appetizer, accompanied with coleslaw and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas which Tony had harvested from his own garden). Small platters of amarillos (overripe sliced plantains fried until sweetly caramelized) complemented the pork, replacing the standard apple sauce.
Instead of eggnog, you have coquito, or coconut nog (with rum) which is delicious and a lot more potent than it tastes! We spent the evening eating, drinking and getting acquainted with everyone. This included the host’s grown son and daughter along with one other couple, old friends of the family. Tony’s mother was a charmer, speaking only Spanish to us as if we understood every word. But it didn’t matter because the friendliness and joy of the gathering overcame any language barrier.
As if this unique experience wasn’t enough a 5.4 earthquake struck as we stood in the open air “bohio” after our meal.
Our location wasn’t the epicenter. We didn’t learn the Richter scale magnitude of the quake until a couple days later. You are lucky to get cell phone service and don’t expect Wi Fi! This is a no TV or radio type of existence, which we loved.
Christmas celebrations don’t end on Christmas Day here. Before Puerto Rican traditions became influenced by American culture some gifts were received at some houses, but it was not from San Nicolás. Santa couldn't make it to the tropics in his hot wool suit with cap and reindeer. Their holiday gifts used to be from Los Reyes Magos.
On the night before January 6, El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day), Puerto Rican children go outside with scissors and shoe boxes to cut grass for the camels to eat. The grass goes into shoe boxes and the boxes are placed under the beds of parents, grandparents, godparents, uncles, aunts, etc. Sometime during the night Los Reyes come and while their camels eat the grass Los Reyes fill the shoe boxes to overflowing with gifts, and sweets, and many wonderful things. The Kings themselves don't get a plate of cookies or a glass of warm milk. All these traditions give Puerto Ricans a separate identity from the rest of the world.
Awash in vivid memories of beautiful beaches, lush vegetation, rugged mountains and boldly colored homes, we returned to Southern California on December 27. But most of all, our hearts overflowed with a sense of peace on earth. The truly special part is the new friends we made during our brief stay and a new understanding of the place named Puerto Rico.
What is your most unusual Christmas experience?