The light had fled and it was pitch black and the cool steel of the jack handle was a relief to my sweaty palms. I was cramped and it was humid and I decided that the trunk of our rented Toyota Camry wasn’t that different than anywhere else in Old San Juan. It certainly wasn’t a bad thing. There are times when crowded is comforting and humid is pleasant and it just so happened that this would turn out to be one of those times.
Then suddenly, and with neither welcome nor warning the light burst forth as quickly as it had fled and my mother stood there laughing, “You are NOT riding in the trunk!”
“But we aren’t poor enough to justify cramming nine people into a Camry.”
“We’re being environmentally conscious.” My father explained. He wore an absurd ironic smile that was delivered with such authenticity that I feared the world would grind to a halt because of the paradox it created.
Confident that if I allowed my father’s smile induced paradox to continue it would bring about the absolution of reason in the universe, I capitulated. “Fine, let’s go.”
I had been the sober driver at my fraternity house often enough to know that a family sedan could hold a maximum of eight people, no more. With nine you were asking for trouble and with ten you needed to stop at the hospital because somebody was going to get hurt. The eight-person-puzzle required that the two drunk girls sit in the passenger seat one on the other’s lap and the four frat-guys cram into the back seats with the last drunk girl laying unceremoniously across their laps. It stole the dignity of all of the passengers and brought verifiable shame on the driver but it worked and it happened. Nine people, however, did not work.
Nonetheless, and despite my fiercely stated and empirically founded objections, there I was in the back seat between my new brother-in-law and my middle sister. Here I use the word “between” in a very relative sense because the configuration of human body parts that occupied the rear seat of our family-sized rental sedan made it scientifically impossible for any one individual to be strictly “between” any two of his similarly hapless and similarly contorted compatriots captive to the same ignoble fate. In reality I was barely on the back seat at all with my right leg twisted around my brother-in-law’s legs and squarely beneath the entire body of my youngest sister. As improbable as it seems, my left leg was even less fortunate. With my foot forced onto the middle hump it was receiving the bulk of the weight from my little brother’s body, which had been meticulously laid across the left two-thirds of the back seat. That leg fell asleep almost immediately but I judiciously elected against rousing it, knowing we had at least a fifteen-minute car ride ahead of us.
Traffic was terrible. So now, in addition to the fact that we were stuffed in a sedan that was regularly, if unpredictably, turning the wrong way down one-way streets, we were also moving at a snail’s pace, giving nearby cars the equivalent of an extended trailer for our feature film, “Nine Gringos in a Camry.” I imagined it as an indie-film. One where the actors are all educated but unglamorous and make obscure literary references but do so in a painfully awkward manner. Ninety minutes of claustrophobic camera angles filled with disheveled and palpably uncomfortable actors. Brilliant.
In comparison to my hypothetical indie-film, however, our conversations were much less erudite and, if possible, more awkward. I occupied my time by smugly calculating our meager gas savings aloud as complaints about weight and bad breath and unsuitably bony asses filled what little air was not occupied by human flesh. All the while our great miserly patriarch drowned out our grievances with his overpowering earnestness, expounding on the virtues of thrift while employing his proprietary interpretation of the Three Stooges’ mannerisms. All of this to say, we never stopped laughing.
We sweated our way around Castillo San Cristóbal, admiring the massive and timeworn battlements before returning to our intrepid sedan and moving lethargically towards San Cristóbal’s counterpart, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and its iconic lighthouse. These ancient stone fortresses have surveilled Puerto Rico’s crystal clear Caribbean waters for four hundred and seventy three years, witnessing far more than just the pirates they were built to politely discourage. In the course of their tenure protecting Puerto Rico’s matchless beauty and immeasurable resources these fortresses have flown three different flags, seen innumerable territorial disputes, and participated in two World Wars. Yet still they stand, a monument to the depths of man’s violent disposition set amidst the height of God-given beauty.
It was on the grounds of El Morro, in front of the colossal fortress, that we concluded our sightseeing for the day. We frolicked about, racing in our bare feet and challenging one another to feats of strength and balance and agility. It was a Sunday afternoon and the families of San Juan were all out picnicking and flying kites and admiring the location in a beautiful and subtle way that we could never hope to match but it still gave us a distinct pleasure to share their admiration for something as perfect as Old San Juan on a warm and brilliantly sunny summer day.
There is no doubt that we were the consummate American tourists: obnoxious, incorrigible, shameless, and unrepentant. Our humor was base and our tongues were firmly in our cheeks and we never abandoned the trademarked self-deprecation upon which our family was founded and that was more than enough to survive this occasionally tumultuous vacation.
- San Cristóbal and El Morro
- Drinking rum drinks out of coconuts