PUERTO RICO WASN’T what I expected.
Invited on a yoga retreat there in mid-October, I flew in with eyes wide and wondering. What effects of Hurricane Maria would I see? Would people be angry and bitter?
Two early stops: Walgreens in Luquillo, a beach town on the island’s northeast tip, and the Poet’s Passage, a shop in the capital of San Juan.
On entering the large, sparkling Walgreens, one of the young staff members met us with a smile and “Bienvenidos.” Welcome. This was not a saccharine greeting, but a dignified one. The man working the cash register also greeted us warmly. My traveling companion, Rachel, is from the Bronx, N.Y., and somehow learned, almost instantly, that so is he.
We — a group of women organized by a yoga studio in New York City — then practiced yoga on the soft sand beside the Caribbean, walked through the El Yunque National Forest, where ferns are big as pillows, and visited Old San Juan, where the buildings are painted sherbet colors of lime, peach and lemon.
Off the central plaza, I saw the sign for the Poet’s Passage, and on walking in, was greeted again with grace.
Staffer Katarina calmly answered my questions: How long were you without power after Maria? I had read on its website about a GoFundMe campaign to help the shop recover. How did that go?
The lights came back on in October 2017, a few weeks following the hurricane. But Old San Juan was empty of people, Katarina told me.
The GoFundMe support kept the store going until the Christmas shoppers began to return.
The Poet’s Passage has since restored its open-mic nights as well as its art, poetry and coffee business.
Later I overheard Katarina talking with another visitor about Save a Gato (SaveaGato.com, claro que si), an organization caring for the colony of cats on Old San Juan’s Paseo del Morro.
Volunteers trap the cats; local veterinarians neuter them and they’re released, to lounge again in the sun.
A donation jar sat on the counter, making it easy to drop in the change from my purchase of a framed piece by a local poet.
Back in Luquillo on Saturday, a music festival filled the plaza with food kiosks and a nine-piece salsa band. Afternoon showers had no dampening effect.
I asked innkeeper Molly Jones: What do you wish people knew about Puerto Rico?
She paused. Then: “How beautiful it is.”
At every passage, people greeted me with a relaxed geniality. Shopkeepers didn’t pounce nor follow me around their stores. They simply acknowledged my presence and made me feel welcome.
All is not hunky-dory on this island. Everyone has not recovered. But the Puertorriqueños I encountered are full of grace.
I was reminded of my 2016 trip to Bogotá, Colombia, another place some might not go because of its reputation.
At the labyrinthine Usaquén flea market, each vendor bid me “bienvenidos.” When I purchased a scarf and a pair of embroidered Mary Janes, sellers said, “Gracias por su comprar,” thank you for your business.
Back home, I walk into cafes and stores where no one so much as looks up. When someone does smile and say “good morning” or “welcome,” well, it gives a lasting impression.
It’s not just a matter of selling more goods.
A simple human interaction improves quality of life, whether you’re a retailer, barista, local shopper or visitor, whether you’re in Puerto Rico, Port Angeles or Port Townsend.
With the ubiquity of electronic devices, internet shopping and politically induced exhaustion, we need all the grace we can muster.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.
Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be Nov. 21.
Reach her at [email protected]