When you find a discounted airfare to a Caribbean place where the temperatures haven't dropped below 80 degrees in weeks, and your current location boasts a record snowfall and daily winter ice advisory warnings, and your job is such that you can get work done from anywhere within wifi range, you don't say no to a trip.
I fell into a perfect storm of timely recommendations, off-season prices and other deals that lured me to the US territory of Puerto Rico for an escape from the soggy grey blanket formerly known as the New York skyline. We'd passed 'dreary' weeks ago and had marched confidently into 'dangerous walking conditions,' 'eczema,' and 'everything is closed because no one can leave their homes' for the third time when the trip presented itself to me, nearly wrapped up in a little bow, and you just can't say no to that. For the last month or so, I had watched as several friends fell ill with winter ailments. I laughed it off until I woke up with really dry, cracked hands, so bad, in fact, that I started carrying two tubes of lotion everywhere I went, and pocketing the hand at happy hours, work meetings and social scenarios. Karmic, seasonal or not, the madness of chronic itching was the final straw. So, I said yes to an impromptu trip by stuffing three bikinis, a pair of shorts and a few other incidentals into a weekend bag and booking tickets to San Juan with just two weeks notice.
Puerto Rico was a place of firsts for me. Though I've visited more than twenty countries, this was my very first time in the Caribbean. It was my first time kayaking. My first airbnb stay. And, my first last-minute beach trip for the purpose of soaking up some Vitamin D.
Because I'm addicted to hotels, I had never tried airbnb before this particular trip. Give me a good boutique hotel filled with wonky art, some kind of over-priced farm-to-table food, and quirky in-room snacks, and I'm in vacation heaven. But, for all its beauty, San Juan runs low on those types of properties, and save for a few very pricey options and some moderately-priced casino/resorts, I had to make a different decision. Steering clear of the hordes of cruise ship passengers in Old San Juan, I made my temporary home in the guest house of a clean, white two-family house in the relaxed neighborhood of Ocean Park. Two blocks from Parque Barbosa, three from a sedated beach boasting attractive locals every afternoon.
Religious art in Old San Juan
Often named one of the best beaches in Puerto Rico, Ocean Park is an upscale community that calls to mind LA's Manhattan Beach. The street were quiet, save for kids playing ball and old men gardening, and you can hear the waves and ruffling palm trees from pretty much anywhere. Because it's an area where locals reside, rather than the tourism-heavy 'nabes flanking it on either end, Condado and Isla Verde, there are limited options for food and entertainment within walking distance, and getting a taxi relies on your proximity to a phone. The peace and quiet was perfect for a winter sabbatical, though, and there's nothing better than getting lulled to sleep every night by a chorus of coqui.
And so began the great thaw of 2014. I woke up in my tropical studio every morning, traded pajamas for a bathing suit and spent hours watching the sand rub away my cracked New York skin. I packed a pair of socks in my backpack, but only wore them once. I had bought a new hair brush for this trip, but haven't seen it since my first day in Puerto Rico. It was such a strange juxtaposition to go from rushing around the freezing cold, icy sidewalks, trying my best not to fall and die, to leisurely strolling to the shore without your phone, because the time really doesn't matter. I let myself get a tan and laughed during the prerequisite Caribbean afternoon rain shower.
Back home, there was work to be done. I took a gamble in bringing an iPad, not a laptop -- one choice I do regret -- and was on time for Hangouts, conference calls, and assignments. With one hour difference from the rest of my business world (Puerto Rico doesn't participate in daylight savings time), I had a head start, and endured the grumbles of colleagues when I Skyped beside an open window, or when the waves could be heard during phone calls. Come out here, I told them. The water's fine. But for all the murmuring, no one wanted to get on a flight and away from the city.
On more than one occasion, I found myself walking the 15-minute journey to Kasalta, an infamous neighborhood bakery with thick sandwiches, creamy confections and a cult following. On my first trip, I shoved an entire Cuban sandwich down my throat in two bites with the help of a Fanta. On my second trip i had learned better. I opted for the media noche, filled with pork, ham, swiss cheese, pickles and mustard; the favored sandwich of President Obama on his visits. On every trip, I dreamily imagined myself hunkering down in that 80 degree weather, flanked by local elder sipping doll-sized paper cups of thick, sticky coffee. I fell in love with the romance of it -- living someplace that was always warm and sunny. It was a daydream for my soul as well as relief for my body.
But woman cannot sustain on bakery daydreams alone, and to prove it, I wandered through Ocean Park's little beachfront streets, named after saints and countries, and heavy with pastel homes and fluffy barking dogs, to arrive at the Numero Uno Guesthouse, a quiet hotel with sweeping views of the crystal blue ocean, and a popular restaurant called Pamela's. For $30/entree, you get excellent service, gourmet Puerto Rican food, and the option to eat at a table on the beach. I earned my one luxurious meal and dug my toes into the sand while eating a glutton of a hamburger -- the media noche of hamburgers if there ever was one-- made with pork, beef and chicken. I didn't look up from the foamy green waves while I slurped on my mojito.
To round-off my trip, and see more of Puerto Rico, I booked two out-of-neighborhood tours: One at the only rainforest in the Unites States, and the other kayaking in a bioluminescence bay in Farjado. On one trip, I learned that G.W. Bush, of all people, restored some relations with the natives in Puerto Rico after changing the name of their beloved park to El Yunque National Forest, as opposed to Caribbean National Forest, the name assigned when Teddy Roosevelt gave it national status. On the other, I learned that kayaking is 90% communication, 10% arm strength, and that bio bays should, indeed, be on everyone's bucket list. On both half-day excursions, I met both visitors and locals who confirmed my decision to get away, even if only for a short time. They'd heard about all of the snow, the wind, the rain, the cold, and shuddered out of sympathy. My own shudders were a little more realistic: my time in Puerto Rico was coming to an end.
I spent the last day of my impromptu vacation touring Old San Juan's amazing forts and sitting on the grass by the ocean. I've always been a culture traveler, someone who needs to be entertained with books, movies, entertainment correlating to her destination, but I couldn't imagine doing anything on that afternoon other than listening to the waves crash against the city walls. Anything else would be a waste of time, wouldn't it?
After a long self-guided tour of Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the fort Spain built to protect Puerto Rico after a failed attack attempt by the Dutch (and eventually a US Army post), I enjoyed a mallorca at a tiny, packed greasy spoon where the tables were missing mustard but featured two types of peppers and hot sauces. And gave myself a nightcap of local rum before dragging my weekender back to Luis Munoz Marin Airport.
It was colder than ever when I got back to New York, and it's been snowing since. It's only the beginning of February and we're in for more freak snow storms, more Hudson River icebergs, more R train delays and a lot of little tubes of lotion. Since returning, I've discovered that a sunburn is more painful in the winter, thanks to the layering of sweaters, and that patches of dry skin come back pretty much right away in these temperatures. But, my winter sabbatical did remind me that the sun still exists, even in New York. And while it's a horror story outside tonight, the summer and the sunshine that comes with it, really aren't that far away