SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico promises tourists once-in-a-lifetime experiences and things they’ve never seen before, but even the locals get an unexpected surprise or two throughout the day.
I knew my latest visit would not disappoint when I saw a woman driving a motorized beach chair, riding against traffic of course, and drinking a beer. The other drivers didn’t blink twice, they simply cheered her on.
It was Friday afternoon, and “hoy se bebe,” after all…
But even I wasn’t prepared to be awakened one morning by the repetitive, rhythmic beats of salsa music blasted by a rental truck, and seeing two huge inflatable rats at the hotel across the street, either scaring away pedestrians or inviting them over. Naturally, I had questions, and went out looking for answers.
It took me about a minute to find a person of interest. He was standing a few feet away from the giant grey rat, holding leaflets and wearing earplugs. He was clearly a part of the manifestation. I figured he was used to getting the same questions over and over again, so I wanted to catch him off-guard and get a genuine response.
Instead of asking, “Why are the rats here?” I asked if I could buy a copy of the song blaring from the loudspeakers. I said I was a big fan of protest-salsa, and felt it was a shame only those near the hotel could enjoy it.
The gentleman did not seem to be a fan of my musical tastes, or my questions, suggesting that I get the hell out of his face. I figured it’d be best if I did.
I would not be deterred, however, and spotted another man wearing the same shirt and with the same leaflets. He was walking east on Ashford Avenue, in the heart of the tourist section of Condado—like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, but with fewer designer stores and many more pedestrians getting hit by reckless scooter drivers. I followed the second man for a few blocks, until he turned around and made eye contact with me.
Maybe his spider senses kicked in, or maybe he’d been tipped off by his inflatable rat comrade. Whatever the case, he kept turning around, looking to see if I was still there. I didn’t want my cover blown, so I walked inside the first store I saw, to seem less suspicious.
On the one hand, it was a perfect place to find subterfuge. On the other hand, I was inside the very store where many moons ago I had made a purchase meant as a prank for a bachelor party, only to be spotted by family friends while exiting the store with seethrough plastic bags and an obscene amount of adult toys.
The feelings of shame made me want to run out of the store, but employees are apparently trained to immediately walk up and ask if there’s something specific you’re looking for. I had to think on my feet, and the first thing I noticed was the sign on their door that advertised their business as a smoke shop.
“Why are you calling yourselves a smoke shop now?” I asked.
“Because more people buy cigarettes than vibrators,” the employee said.
That sounds about right, I thought, and left the store.
I needed to find the leaflet guy. He was taking a break, and I figured the obvious place to relax for a bit was a park two blocks away. Trees, open spaces, a guy selling coconut ice cream… That’s where I’d go, if I were him.
I got to the park and looked around. No leaflet guy. But I heard farm noises—in the middle of the city.
There were dozens of roosters and hens and chickens running around, chasing pigeons, scaring the dogs that once ruled the park. Everyone else didn’t seem to find this odd at all. In a place where people now paid millions of dollars live near the Rodeo Drive of San Juan, they’d enjoy the added feature of being awakened by crowing at five in the morning.
I sat down next to a gentleman with long hair I’d met at the coffee shop weeks before. I asked him what he thought about the invasion. At first he suggested someone must’ve brought a rooster to the city and left it there, and then someone must’ve brought a hen, and the two must’ve met and created more roosters and hens, until they reached the current population. He also suggested these animals may be a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and they may be planning to take over the world.
Ultimately he backtracked and settled on the simplest explanation: After the big hurricane, they found their way to the city and decided to stay. He agreed it was weird the locals carried on as if this was normal.
That was good enough for me. I headed back towards the hotel.
Both leaflet men were in front of the hotel now, handing out the leaflets to anyone who stopped for a second. I had already burned that bridge, and did what I probably should’ve done in the first place: I listened to the lyrics of the hit protest-salsa song playing on a non-stop loop.
Apparently, employees felt they were being underpaid and humiliated by the contractor. They wanted me to call the hotel owner’s representative to voice my concern. The rats were strategically placed outside the hotel entrance so that guests would call and complain. Guests paid hundreds of dollars a night to stay there, and presumably were just as upset as I was with the loud music.
One of the guests walked out of the hotel and must’ve seen I was paying way too much attention to the song. He walked over and shared his thoughts on the protest. He gave a sound argument on why the owner had every right to pay what he was paying the employees. He also empathized with the employees too, though, agreeing they deserved to be paid more. He pointed out that this situation was playing out everywhere in the world.
“What are you gonna do,” he told me, shrugging his shoulders, acknowledging there were no easy solutions and no way to keep everyone happy. He laughed, telling me he booked his Puerto Rico vacation just so he could escape the giant rats of New York and get some relaxing sleep.
“Go figure,” he said, shrugging his shoulders again as he walked away.
I had a lot of questions that day. I got a lot of answers, too. Some of them made perfect sense, while others seemed incomplete.
The rats were there the next day, along with the loud music and the men with the leaflets, ready for a full day of protesting. Somewhere on Ashford Avenue, a pedestrian would get run over by a scooter. Someone looking for cigarettes would buy them at a sex shop. Somewhere in the city, a rooster would chase off a dog. And that woman with the motorized beach chair was probably enjoying a cold beer, without a care in the world.
The Puerto Rican circle of life…
Rafael Riera is a screenwriter and producer, born and raised in Puerto Rico and currently living in Los Angeles. He is working on his first novel and is not allowed to talk politics with friends and family.