By Leila Baez / Matthew staff
We extended our time in Puerto Rico. Being in Puerto Rico was a vacation from the “vacation” that Panama had been. Luckily for us, this hotel had a free happy hour from five in the afternoon to seven in the afternoon. We checked in a bit after four. The hotel was absolutely gorgeous, with a lobby designed to look like the rainforests were sprouting out through the ground, beginning to reclaim their once lost territory. A chorus of coqui songs filled the lobby at a higher level than the gentle plena coming from the speakers. After Mother and I checked in and unpacked, we heard the rapid buzzing of a crowd of people. Curious to know what was going on, I opened the door and stepped out into the hall, glancing over the balcony gate, and saw a large group of people in the dining area the receptionist had informed us was where the continental breakfast would be served. Staying on the fourth floor had its upsides. I could see everything. At that moment I was not watching the crowds grab at plates of pancakes and glasses of guava juice.
It was happy hour. As with most other great things of Puerto Rico, this happy hour was bigger and better than anything I had expected. Back in the U.S., happy hour was a sixty minute event that only the derelicts and desperate househusbands ever really attended, complete with an average three types of beer and some random college football game playing on a flat screen. In Puerto Rico, it not only lasted two full hours, but the choices did not run out. Men in suits ordered different types of golden glasses or crimson cups, the women and younger crowds ordered every type of sangria I did or did not yet know about. I heard mother come out of the room, peeking at the patrons from over my shoulder. She looked at me as if analyzing whether me being over sixteen at the time was good enough. It was.
“Follow me. We’re going to check it out.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. Happy hour, I was on my way.
The elevators were all located in a single corner, all three next to each other in one giant pillar, clear industrial grade glass. I tried to stand like a normal person but, between my excitement to be going to my first happy hour and being deathly afraid of heights, I was flat against the back wall, watching random people in the crowd with wide eyes, my fingers twitching with unbridled excitement. Mom told me to stay calm and try to act as if I was “supposed to be there” so the bartenders wouldn’t immediately send us away. Eight-
I observed the way people passed back and forth between their tables and the counters, it felt like we were in the rainforests, each of us a different animal with our places on the ecosystemic hierarchy, the food chain, certain people staying in their seats to defend their territory while the hunters and predators weaved around each other for their next rounds. They all had to be fast or run-ins and stumbles were inevitable. There was one table a family sat at. The mother played huntress, surveying the area to figure out a clear path to her prey: the bartender. She weaved masterfully around the tables and successfully took trips back and forth every ten minutes or so. Her husband and their son stayed at the table, the father gulping down his Dos Equis while the boy, only a few years younger than myself, snuck a couple sips of his mother’s cocktail between gulps of his Pepsi.
At another table, there was a group of eight men, likely there for a business trip based on their crisply ironed khakis and different colored polo shirts. There wasn’t an old one among them, the eldest likely in his forties. Even they had a present hierarchy among their ranks. Three of eight were the co-leaders, never getting up to get anything, howling at every joke and anecdote while the other five took turns refilling the chips and salsa. The new guy was easy to spot. His shirt untucked, hair not yet flat under the weight of half melted hair gel, and always on drinks duty. Up and down every five minutes or so, the poor guy was being treated as the caddy, the intern, taking orders at a speed that would give a Starbucks barista whiplash, charging through the dining area to the bartender. Even he had pity on the poor soul. Within the first ten trips back and forth, the bartender knew to have the tray pre-made, using whatever free time he had between the other dozen orders to have something ready for the man ahead of time.
This reoccurred four nights in a row, every night the group of men was there. Every time I watched, the entire act only got funnier. Mother and I would sit there and theorize stories about the different people we saw go up to the counter, our headcanons only getting that much more specific based on the drinks they would order.
“That woman is on an Eat Pray Love trip.”
“How can you tell?”
“She’s sitting at that table alone, it’s been at least an hour and she doesn’t look to be waiting for anyone. No makeup, no jewelry, just a bandana to keep the hair back and a crossbody bag. She’s dressed in cotton from her peasant top to her fabric flip flops. She’s watching everyone else just like us.”
“Do you think she knows we’re watching her?”
“She’s watching, not observing. She has no clue what’s actually going on and it’s her sixth glass of white wine.”
“What’s the difference between white wine and sangria, Mom?”
“Sangria doesn’t make you want to wince when you drink it. She’s going through something and white wine can be cathartic.”
“Did you ever drink white wine like that?”
“Only a couple times. I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“I’m a teenager, how much older do I need to be?”
“Older. Now what do you think about that elderly couple in the back corner?”
“I think,” I would take a long sip of my Shirley Temple, nibbling on the cherry stem, “I think that they are here for an anniversary.”
“A retirement anniversary. They’re not sitting very close but he looks very happy with that vodka in his hand. She just looks happy to be in Puerto Rico. She hasn’t touched her wine”
The way we talked about everyone else but ourselves made me wonder how the cliques and mean girls in high school could do it for so long. There was a difference between hotel resort crowds and the same couple dozen classmates they knew. How did they not get tired of it? Or, at least, how long did they really last before having to recycle old material? By the time Mom and I got back to our hotel room, we were completely spent. I would reach for my Nintendo DS and she would reach for the TV remote. Seven at night was a weird time in Puerto Rico. If you weren’t already out and about the town, restaurants were full and shops were beginning to get ready to close. I was still too young for the real night life so, once the sun went down, we would always head back to the hotel and plan out the next day. Every planned out day followed a similar script: get up no later than seven thirty so we could get the best picks at the continental breakfast, get back to the room and dressed, leave the hotel no later than nine, go to some randomized museum or national monument, leave no later than noon. The afternoon began with lunch and wrapped up with shopping, squeezing in some other monument if there was time, and heading back to the hotel for Happy Hour. We would order delivery from a restaurant about a ten minute drive away, Las Carnitas. Another dime a dozen hole-in-the-wall comida tipica restaurant with their own special way of making their food in a way that Gordon Ramsay could never. Each meal made me hate the fact there was nothing quite like it in the States unless I visited my grandparents. By our last night, the room smelled like fresh pernil and arroz con gandules. Not even the daily cleaning crew could get rid of the hunger inducing scent.
I will be the first to admit that every moment spent in Puerto Rico was a new memory for the mental scrapbook I carry with me every day, at all times, but my happiest hours were those spent eating and drinking with Mom at the hotel.