Puerto Rico Diary 1: Puerto Rico Para Gringos*

El Meson logo So we’ve just returned from Puerto Rico. Armed with the knowledge of a week in the Commonwealth, I feel fully qualified to offer this travel guide for your time on the Island of Enchantment.

We’d been warned 1,277 times (conservative estimate) about not drinking the water and told to avoid the streets of San Juan after dark, but this advice, however well-intentioned, only goes so far. The following article picks up where the usual advice leaves off, letting you know where you can find those little touches of home throughout the island, so that you can alleviate homesickness, and so you need not be exposed to the local arts and culture, much less the locals themselves. Fear not; you’ll find reminders of home nearly everywhere you go.

McDonald’s: Really, what trip overseas would be complete without a pilgrimage to the Golden Arches? Forget El Morro; San Juan is just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of places that hosts the Temple of Kroc. Billions served? ¡Sí!

Starbucks: Sure, you could find a charming little cafe that’s locally owned and operated, but then you’d miss out on the unique charms of Starbuck’s. Who needs ham, egg and cheese on fresh-baked, still-warm pan de manteca when you can have a cut-rate latte with stale pastries, served up with snooty baristatude, Boricua-stylee?

Church’s Chicken: One could, I’d imagine, suffer through any number of the local variations on chicken, from arroz con pollo, chicken mofongo, or chicken criollo to chicken encebollado, but then you’d be depriving yourself of the culinary wonder that is Church’s Chicken. Besides, I don’t think you can get those Honey-Butter Biscuits just anywhere. It should be noted that wherever there’s a Church’s, a Burger King can’t be far off, sometimes even sharing the same parking lot. And besides, we know you didn’t come all the way to Puerto Rico just to eat KFC (though they generally aren’t far if you just can’t resist)

Subway: I didn’t have the opportunity to watch much television while on vacation, so I’m not sure if Subway has a pasty, rather goofy-looking Jared-doppelganger spokesdoofus pitching their wares on Univision or Telemundo. But no matter; if you speak loudly, clearly, and slowly enough, your Cold Cut Combo should come out just fine. Subway: Comer Fresco!

El Meson: Somehow, a company started 37 years ago in Puerto Rico has managed to survive on the island among so much American competition. Fear not, however; they’ve since undertaken joint ventures with Dunkin’ Donuts, and the location in Yauco shares a building with a Baskin Robbins (which, incidentally, didn’t even look like it had the requisite 31 flavors), which should result in the kind of mass-produced product and diffident service to which you are accustomed.

Finally, Honorable Mention goes to Pollo Tropical. If you ask the locals for a good place to get authentic local food, they will — nearly without exception — direct you to this Miami-based purveyor of faux Cuban food. They even have tostones just like Mom would have made them picked up if she happened to be driving down Route 3 in Clifton.

Of course, you’ll need to do other things on your vacation besides just eating. You can visit any of the numerous Home Depot locations on the island, for instance. There’s a Walgreen’s in seemingly every hamlet with more than fifty people, no shortage of K-Marts, the occasional Payless, multitudes of Radio Shacks, a few Marshalls, and Walmarts galore.

Come to think of it, Walmart deserves its own paragraph. Those price rollbacks that they advertise? Don’t count on them here. Appliances are through-the-roof expensive, and household goods don’t fare much better. Case in point: a set of Corelle dishes that’d retail in the States for $39.95 sells at Walmart for over twice that. $85 dollars. Once we’d collected our jaws from the floor, we were able to return to our primary mission, and the real reason we’d come to Walmart: people watching. I’m pleased to report that Walmart shoppers are the same everywhere. They’re… well, they’re just special. Oh, and if you’re coming from, or returning to, colder climates, be encouraged. Walmart has — in this place where the temperature never dipped below the upper eighties during daylight hours — a lovely selection of winter outerwear.

Enjoy your trip!

*With apologies to Robert Benchley

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