Thursday, July 19, 2012

International differences

You know how they say there's no place like home?

Well, in Puerto Rico, it may seem almost like home (read: American territory), but it's scarily similar to my secondary home, Latin America.*

On one hand, you have the quintessential Latin American housing, on the other, Puerto Rico is cleaner than most countries in the Caribbean/Latin America.  Flying into San Juan might at first glance appear to be like flying into any American city:  soaring skyscrapers, highways, and parking lots.  However, upon a sight longer glance, it's like flying into Latin America: below you is chaotic traffic, rusty metal roofs, and overgrown vegetation typically around fascinating graffiti.  The metal roofs are what mainly give it away from the air.

Buildings in Puerto Rico are either stately and tall, skyscrapers that you would expect to see in New York or Seattle, or they are squat and square with rusty metal roofs; plants and laundry blowing in the wind sit half-hidden on rooftop terraces.  It's an eclectic mix, although in the older parts of town (now historic sites), colonial spanish town homes dominate the streets.

After retrieving luggage and walking into the humid afternoon air, you could be in any large city around the globe.  However, zipping down the streets, it is fast apparent that you are not.  Street signs, although identical to U.S. signs, are written in Spanish.  (Spanish and English are both national languages in Puerto Rico, although Spanish dominates.)  Approximately 85% of the advertising and stores you pass will be written in Spanish.  But that's not what sets the city apart - it is the driving conditions.  Unless you are a seasoned California driver, and maybe even not then, driving is hectic and indecipherable.  In old San Juan, the streets are cobblestone with a row of parallel parked cars lining the left side of the street.  At this point, I have flashes to the colonial part of Quito, which is the same, although the cobblestone is typical beige, not blue as it is in San Juan.  What in the States is considered one lane would be made into two, or at least one lane and a row of cars.  I can literally reach my hand out the window and touch the car next to us.  Latin American driving at it's finest.**

While staring out the windows hoping like mad that you don't die in an accident, familiar and less familiar signs pop into view.  Pizza Hut.  Pueblo.  McDonalds.  St. Germain. Bar de Tapas.  Wendy's.  Ben & Jerry's.  The island is overrun with U.S. restaurants.  Traditional comida puertoriquena is available in street kiosks as well as restaurants and identifies more with Ecuadorian cuisine than American or Mexican.  Plus, don't expect great service in a restaurant - they seem to have accepted the Spanish tendency to linger over meals.

*I know, I just married a Russian.  I should get over this whole "Latin America" fixation...***

**The worst driving I have seen in my travels is in Mexico, where it appears there are no rules when it comes to the road.  Second place is Costa Rica, with Ecuador coming up third...almost  a tie with San Juan.

***(It's not going to happen.)

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