My mother is Irish and Italian and my father is Puerto Rican. They are both strong believers that my siblings and I should be proud of our heritage and learn about our culture. So, three years ago we took a family vacation to Puerto Rico. Not only did I learn about the culture and my heritage, but I grew more as a person in those ten days than I had in the fifteen years prior. We stayed in the El San Juan hotel in a private condo with a private pool and beach. During the first few days we spent lazy morning and afternoons lying by the pool, swimming in the clear blue water or burying our toes in the fine white sand. Nights were filled with an assortment of hotel-recommended restaurants and family friendly activities; since this is what my other three siblings and I had become accustomed to, we certainly did not complain. After the first five days, however, my father decided we needed to experience the “real culture”. To four kids born and raised in Staten Island, New York, culture meant a restaurant that served only Puerto Rican food and site seeing. My father had other plans in mind.
Our first big culture blast began the morning our parents told us to wear old clothes and sneakers. Not only did we not have any old clothes with us, but we didn’t want to go anywhere that required dirty jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers. As we drove up the pot-hole infested road, my father explained that horse back riding through the El Yunque rain forest was a common activity in Puerto Rico and something he did quite often when he was younger. When we pulled up to the broken down barn located off the windy, half-paved road, however, we hoped it wasn’t the final destination. And when the men began saddling horses and walking them over to us we prayed we were not expected to mount or ride them. But, when we were mounted and the horses began moving, our hope became desperation.
Despite our complaints and behavior we were riding horses through the El Yunque rain forest within minutes. Our guide highlighted 200 year old trees, exotic birds, rivers and springs, and an assortment of insects. We were having a great time until it began to rain half way through the tour. Initially, I complained and begged to go back to the hotel where I knew a hot shower and dry clothes awaited me, but, when I finally let myself be open to the new adventure I found it was an exhilarating experience. The sound of countless birds flying through the tree tops for cover, dozens of frogs croaking, rivers flowing, and rain splattering on the canopy top is indescribable.
Although horseback riding through the rain forest turned out to be an amazing day, we were still wary about out next culture encounter. On our 7th day we went to El Morro and explored the tiny shops in the surrounding areas. This was a major eye-opening experience for me and my siblings. Inside El Morro we were safe and didn’t feel out of place since everyone was a tourist. Outside of those thick, protective walls, however, was poverty right next to a shiny new Mercedes Benz. It seemed surreal. It was at that moment I realized how fortunate I truly was. Later that night when we went to a “bodega” instead of a nice restaurant and saw a family try to make a living from their modest roadside business my realizations were further proven. The image of the boy, who couldn’t be older than seven cleaning tables and serving food, will never leave me.
The vacation taught me that foreign experiences are the most rewarding and valuable. When we landed in San Juan I didn’t want to go outside of my comfort zone of nice clothes and private condos. But, by the end I was begging for more horseback riding and roadside Puerto Rican food. It was the most gratifying vacation to date.
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