If you tell anyone from the USA that you are going to Puerto Rico, they will ignore you and think you mean Costa Rica. If you tell anyone from the USA you are going to Puerto Rico for an entire month, they will immediately ask you “Why?” This is actually the programmed response for most Americans regardless of the destination as long as it is outside of what they know to be real.
The Rum Diary by Hunter Thompson takes place in Puerto Rico and in particular the San Juan area where I am staying right now. I read this book once before, but considering my circumstance, I thought I would dive in one more time now that I am a local.
In university I wanted to emulate the characters in Thompson’s books. A Raoul Duke halloween costume that lasted for several days even. But more than ever I saw myself in Paul Kemp, the 32 year old wandering journalist who is seeking his next place in life. After 10 years of travel and temporary residences and insignificant relationships, he begins to wonder “Why am I looking?”
I was feeling better now, warm and sleepy and absolutely free. With the palms zipping past and the big sun burning down on the road ahead, I had a flash of something I hadn’t felt since my first months in Europe—a mixture of ignorance and a loose, “what the hell” kind of confidence that comes on a man when the wind picks up and he begins to move in a hard straight line toward an unknown horizon.
When my kids are in elementary school, I plan to swap them out for the children of some international friends. Only temporarily mind you, six months or so. I will inculcate my children with the culture of a dozen lands because it is over the horizon they may find themselves. But there is no place like home Aunty Em and if the blade comes down on you hard enough, you will want to run home for safety. Through unhealthy amounts of rum and police fights and dubious employment, Paul Kemp begins to yearn for a home that didn’t exist and attempts to construct one in San Juan. He knew it wasn’t real but the temporary feeling of safety and the loving embrace of a place to call “yours” is priceless in an unknown land. I knew that all too well after 36 hours in Puerto Rico.
My wife and I had arrived to our “home” for the next month after a very joyous night at a trendy bar De La Vida. The building door was open, the apartment door was open, and inside we found my laptop, passport, camera, solar powered backpack, and travel journal stolen. The Fear set in. I wanted out. Take me home. I can feel their beady eyes watching me. The apartment owner must be in on it. The police inspecting the place just made me feel more uneasy. The hours of telephone hold music as a backdrop to my meager glare out the dark windows. For the first time in my life I felt genuinely frightened and I didn’t know what to do about it other than get the hell out of there. The underbelly of Puerto Rico had won.
The sweat was torture and the rest of the day was littered with the dead remains of all those things that might have happened, but couldn’t stand the heat. When the sun got hot enough it burned away all the illusions and I saw the place as it was—cheap, sullen, and garish—nothing good was going to happen here.