colanders of constellations
I keep putting off writing about my trip to Puerto Rico last week. I've been dreading it since before I even landed on the island, because I knew just how much I'd have to write about it. But now I can feel my memories starting to fade, so I'd better just eat the frog and get it done. In any case, I want my written accounts to be faithful as can be to how I actually felt at the time, so I should probably strike now before the iron gets cold.
Like I said, I traveled to Puerto Rico with four college friends and two of their partners this week (for a total headcount of seven including me). These four friends (and one other who couldn't make it, sadly) were my core friend group in college, and include some of the people who have seen me the most over the past few years. It's been a long time since all of us have traveled together; the last time was a cabin trip in the winter of 2021, which I had to pull out of last minute since I found alternative lodging in the emergency room (just my luck, am I right). Since we're a big group of six, scattered across the United States (three in California, one in Arizona, one in New York, and me), and on different work schedules, it's been an impossible task to get all six of us in the same place at the same time. There's always someone missing.
Our friend group formed in our sophomore year of college, I think when we created a "study group" as an excuse to cook meals and play cards together. On paper we have a lot in common—same age, same major, same culture—but personality-wise we're very different and that variety made the group interesting. It wasn't perfect, but it was about all I could've asked for in a college friend group: we trauma-bonded over difficult classes, worked together on group projects, and traveled together during breaks.
After graduation we've gone our separate ways. Some of us still keep in touch to various degrees, but our lives have started to diverge sharply. One friend is getting married next spring, another is moving in with her partner soon, and amidst all this change one thing stays constant: I still live at home.
Sorry, I digress. I tell you all this because this trip felt a bit like ... a funeral of this friend group. Not quite in the somber all-black nature of the American variety, but not in the celebratory Mexican Día de los Muertos style either. We've drifted apart from each other as our upbringings, life choices, and jobs pull us in different directions, and while we had fun on this trip, it felt to me that we were just not the same as we used to be. We still play cards till the wee hours of the morning and laugh over inside jokes, but it just wasn't as fun as it was when we were all in college together, when I could still believe that we were in it for the long haul.
I choose the term 'funeral' because I have a strong feeling this might be the last time we're all together again, aside from weddings or other big obligatory events. It's been hard enough corralling everyone together even during Christmas or New Year's, and I know it will only get harder as we get married and start families. And this realization weighed on my mind all week we were in Puerto Rico. I think in many cases keeping the finiteness of life top of mind can be good for helping you appreciate experiences, and it definitely made me try harder to savor every moment we had together, but that very same reminder also made it harder for me to let go and have the kind of carefree fun that used to come so naturally to me.
That was a long aside. Back to Puerto Rico.
The last time I visited Puerto Rico was hardly a year ago, when I went with family. I wouldn't ordinarily have chosen to go again so soon, but October is low (hurricane) season and flights are usually quite cheap. Because of that, San Juan was pretty much exactly as I had remembered it. I needn't have worried about repetition, because traveling with friends is a completely different experience from traveling with family.
For one, my parents are control freaks to the highest degree, whereas some of my friends didn't even think about booking a hotel until the week before. As the token type-A extravert of the group, I took on a good portion of the trip planning. I take special pleasure in doing research and watching my meticulous plans come together, but put that aside and you get many hours of thankless work. All in all, I think I did okay—if I were to go back I would have came up with more backup plans for inclement weather, but you live and you learn.
I was most looking forward to doing a cave tour with tubing, cliff jumping, and hiking all in one, but as with many of the things I most look forward to1, it fell apart (canceled because of rain, naturally). I'm still bummed I didn't get to do it, even if we ended up having a good day in spite of it, but it's going top of my list for the next time I'm back in PR.
The only other thing I really cared about was seeing the bioluminscent bay ('bio bay') again, which also almost got canceled when my tour guide no-showed and left us feeding mosquitoes at night for an entire hour. Fortunately, we did end up going, and boy am I glad. I wrote this about the experience last year in a letter to a pen pal about the experience, which I titled "magic is real":
I read that seeing the bioluminescence wasn’t guaranteed, because it’s subject to natural factors and we were visiting during a relatively bright moon, so I kept my hopes low. As we paddled up the river I noticed my brother’s oar strokes in the water in front of me gradually becoming more visible, but I wasn’t sure if my expectations were playing tricks on my eyes.
As we got closer to the bay it became impossible to deny what my eyes were telling me. I stuck my hand in the water and shook it, transfixed at the ephemeral blue glow in its wake. I got so distracted that we hit a few trees and I almost got my head taken off by a branch, but even that wasn’t enough for me to tear my eyes away from the glowing water.
When we finally reached the open clearing of the bay, our eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness and we could see the light show in all of its glory. I felt like a kid seeing snow for the first time. I cupped some of the salty water in my hands and watched as tiny electric blue sparks flew before by palms. Shaking my arm underwater made me shed shimmering pixie dust.
The dinoflagellates that cause this natural phenomenon apparently light up as a defense mechanism when activated, so you can only see the glow when you splash or stir the water. Our tour guide told us that these dinoflagellates ‘charge’ (photosynthesize) all day in the sunshine to produce just one split-second of glow and that they can only light up once every twenty four hours. I felt a pang of wistfulness thinking of all the billions of little dinoflagellates that worked all day absorbing sunlight just to provide me with a short magical blue flash. How selfless of them…
(Our guides told us that glow is too dim to be captured on camera, so apparently all the pictures of bioluminescent bays online are photoshopped, but that didn’t stop some dense tools in my group from trying. The blinding flash from their phones made me want to capsize their kayak. I liked that we couldn’t take pictures, though. It made the experience feel more precious, like it could only be seen right then and there.)
For as incredible as the bioluminescence was, once we were in the open water of the bay I couldn’t help but marvel at how beautiful it was to be out there after dark. Since the moon was nearing full and my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I realized that the night wasn’t as dark as I had thought. I could see the clouds in the sky, the details of my brother’s silhouette in front of me, and the tree line surrounding me. With the chorus of the forest in my ears, I wanted nothing more than to lay back, float in the warm glowing water of the bay, and fall asleep in the comforting moonlight, far away from land, bright lights, and loud noises.
(My goodness, I can't believe I wrote all that not even a year ago! I don't have that kind of heart anymore, sadly.)
There are few things in life that are as lovely the second time as they are the first, but seeing the bioluminescent bay was one of them. As the de facto odd one out of our group of 72, I shared a kayak with the tour guide, which freed me from rowing and let me pay attention to other things. I watched fish and sharks skitter across the bay in flashes of light, and when I wanted a break from that, I looked upwards toward the sky full of twinkling galaxies and shooting stars. On nights like those I wonder if space is full not of murky darkness but of blinding light, and that we've actually been placed under a colander with the constellations poked into it. It's hard for me not to think of it like that, when Jupiter is so bright it looks like the Sun from through a pinhole in black construction paper.
Tropical novelties aside, Puerto Rico gave me a healthy helping of one of my favorite parts of traveling to places with different cultures: microdoses of cluelessness. I thought of this when I tried to fill up our car with gas before returning it to the rental agency. The pump didn't work as we expected it to, so I had to go in and explain to the attendant what was wrong. Now, while I would call myself fluent in Spanish, I don't often use words like "gas pump" or "the latch beneath the place where the nozzle rests", so my interaction with the (very confused) gas station attendant went sort of like a cross between Taboo and Charades: Taboo in the sense that there were some crucial words I couldn't say (because I didn't know them), and Charades because I had to try to act them out with comically vague gestures when my roundabout ways of describing them failed to get my point across.
It was slightly awkward and uncomfortable in the moment, but afterwards I love this sort of harmless discomfort because it puts me in situations I can't replicate here back at home, forcing me to use dormant muscles in my brain. Sure, I'm clueless often (at work), but there's a difference between not knowing what code to write and not knowing how to use the foreign gas pump. I like to think my farcical episodes overseas help make me more comfortable with asking for help and working through the discomfort and awkwardness of not knowing things. Being impervious to the discomfort of ignorance (not knowing) will take you far in life.
Along those lines, I also love talking to locals when I'm on vacation. The more different their lives are to mine, the better. On the remote island we were on to see the bio bay I spent a few minutes chatting with an elderly lady who worked at one of only three restaurants on the island. I enjoy listening to stories like hers and fantasizing about what my life would be like if I ran away and became someone else, but at the same time I've learned that we all have much more in common than we do difference. Between puffs of her cigarette she told me how tired working at the restaurant made her and how all she wanted was a long break, and I couldn't help but think how we all suffer from the same ailments—boredom, loneliness, exhaustion—regardless of where we come from. I miss her: the way her eyes sparkled with bemusement as I spoke to her in Spanish, the way she called me mi amor and mi corazón when she brought us our food, and the way she sang my name and told me to come back soon as we left. Oh, to be a person in a different time and place!
(I'm coming up on 2200 words somehow. I'll wrap up soon, I promise.)
On our trip we ran into the same group of Asian tourists multiple times, without meaning to, around the island: first at a natural waterslide in El Yunque, then at a seafood restaurant in Santurce. It felt like a miraculous coincidence, unbelievable even, as we giggled at each other from across the same restaurants, but it got me thinking: just how predictable are the patterns we follow when we're on vacation? I imagine we ended up at the same waterslide from finding it on lists of the best attractions online, and at the same restaurant after seeing it among the top-rated restaurants on Yelp/Google Maps. What are we missing out on that we don't even know about by blindly retracing in the footsteps of tourists before us? What would our vacation be like if we didn't look at online reviews at all, and just let serendipity lead the way?
see: partner coming back to the States after a year of long-distance, a long-awaited post-graduation vacation across Asia (thanks, COVID!)↩
being the odd one out is a personality trait of mine at this point...↩