For the third iteration of the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I was the only new student. The other students were returning (they had been in the clinic before) and knew what to expect. I was about to experience Puerto Rico for the first time.
This clinic is far from over, and being the only non-3L student, we will need more manpower to replace the graduating students. I feel that this outlet is great to attract new students and others to important work to be done in Puerto Rico.
In my short 23 years, I have traveled around the world, over 20 states, about 30 countries, and 4 continents. Every place I visited has left a lasting impression. I noticed a unique feeling from every place I visited. Each place presented a different experience. Having been to so many places, I spot recurring themes. Puerto Rico, specifically San Juan, is a perfect example.
A long time has passed since Hurricane Maria. It was challenging for me to identify Maria’s impacts. A buzz surrounds the city. Although there is no shortage of poverty and beaten infrastructure, you can sense the vibe of a lively community. Some traffic lights are down but traffic moves about as if it was and is the new “normal”. Some tree canopies were destroyed but vegetation has recovered the bare treetops. Therefore, for me, it isn’t a post-hurricane Puerto Rico trip, it is Puerto Rico in its “usual and ordinary” state.
“Usual and ordinary” shouldn’t suggest that Puerto Rico isn’t special. Even though many memories come to mind of my previous travels when I spot similarities, it is a unique place that will leave me with lasting impressions. The most important for me in any travel destination is the natural beauty. What man has created doesn’t match God’s natural endowments. Here, there was not enough time to soak in the gorgeous scenery.
On a drive from San Juan towards the mountains in the middle of the island, the views made it difficult for me to keep my eyes on the road. While I was flying up and down windy one-lane roads avoiding bumps, barriers, and oncoming cars, I couldn’t help to glance out into the valleys. Being the lead car in a group, I selfishly stopped my caravan and pulled over just so I can sneak an amazing picture of the setting sun. Intermittent clouds added beauty to the sunset. The rays of sun that avoided the cloud cover baked the greenery with a warm golden-brown hue. The views remind me of Costa Rica. In one direction you see mountains and in the other you see the hills tapering off into the sea. Although, Puerto Rico has scattered and jagged mountains that I have yet to see. Driving closer to the sea, turbulent waters attack the north shore of San Juan. All the little details in the topography engulfed me with cheerfulness. You see why the “Rico” is in the name of Puerto Rico.
Old San Juan brought back memories of Cartagena. All the streets and castles are of that similar Columbian style. It made me realize that Cartagena might actually be of Puerto Rican style. The streets of stone, the colorful buildings, the architecture of the castle, and even the flagship luxury stores scattered throughout the tourist areas, all remind of Cartagena. The “wow” factor of Old San Juan didn’t compare, but it didn’t disappoint. The views from the castles were spectacular. Not only do you get a view of San Juan, but also the mountainous terrain along the horizon.
The heart of San Juan is vibrant day and night. Pedestrian and vehicular traffic crowd the streets in the day and, plainly, the nightlife gives life to the night. As any city, San Juan is divided in various sections: business sectors, hipster areas, poverty zones, tourist destinations, and housing districts. The young and progressive-minded people of Santurce remind me of Santiago. Fenced in residential areas are like the ones I saw in Buenos Aires. The traffic flows similar to Lima but here the claxonis not used and Peruvian road rage is replaced with much more respectful driving. The simple life and architecture of San Juan’s outskirts carry a resemblance of some Cuban towns I visited. The location and style of tourist areas in San Juan and Cartagena are comparable. My fellow attorney who came along for the trip, who also has been in many parts of Latin America, agreed with my observation: San Juan has a little bit of many different places, but it is still unique in its own special way.
Although many readers who haven’t been to the places I referred to may struggle to relate to my comparisons, some may get a glimpse of my first impressions of Puerto Rico. I often like to come up with one word or phrase that I would describe each place I have visited. Obviously, it is a description of what I see in Puerto Rico. It may be completely different to what everybody else thinks. I would think that many people will struggle to agree with my description of Hong Kong – “homey”, New York City – “not much to do there”, and Prague – “too busy to fully enjoy it”. We all have our perceptions of a place and this is the way I illustrate to others what I thought of a place. Although some of my descriptions may be controversial, I think that locals and tourists can agree with my one-liner of San Juan.
“Vibrant, Naturally and Socially.”
The natural and social aspects of the capital city were most significant in forming my first impression. The natural aspect serves as a metaphor of the social counterpart. The bright sun in Puerto Rico always shines bright. The flora gives the landscape color. The spontaneous showers come but even those can’t hide the natural beauty of everything around, from the mountains to the sea. Similarly, the people of the island are full of life. Yes, the island has its deficiencies. But when troubles come, the soul of Puerto Rico survives. It is the everlasting sun. Just as the sun is needed for the island, the soul is essential for Puerto Rico to grow and thrive.
I found it surprising that in San Juan, less than two years after Hurricane Maria, it is hard to spot evidence of the devastation the storm brought. On the contrary, it is impossible not to spot the vibe of the city. I know that being in the capital city I wouldn’t fully understand the damage done by Maria. I am looking forward to our trip across the island to Mayagüez to see more of Puerto Rico. While there is still a long way for Puerto Rico to go, especially for it to be economically sound, this vibrant energy will be a big factor in its upbringing.