I love to travel but I'm not a big fan of resorts. Not my thing. I just say no to "destination" anything that resembles pre-packaged paradise. But even in this New England non-Winter, who can say no to an invitation to tag along to sunny Puerto Rico in February? Not me. Oh. We'll be staying at a convention center/casino? No problema. I can be flexible. How bad can it be?
It's bad. Beer-swilling-bachelor-party-boys-up-all-night-so-that-the-elevators-smell-like-a-brewery-in-the-morning bad. Dozens of gymnastic-competing-pre-teen-girls-who-make-Toddlers in Tiaras-seem-benign bad. Coppertone-boomer-babies-disco-dancing-in-the-lobby-'til-4-am bad. Cultural anthropology gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Gua. Gua. Guagua. Think you hear me crying? Think again.
I am crying, but tears of joy. Hector, the lovely, chatty and knowledgeable gentleman who brings me my coffee has the remedy for my forlorn spirit. Guaguas (pronounced wah wah). The Puerto Rican equivalent of the food truck.
"Seek them out in Old San Juan," he suggests, "And don't miss La Bombonera, a local diner famous for its dulces. Just walk around. You'll love it." As far as Hector is concerned, mofongo, a local dish made from mashed plantains and stuffed with seafood, vegetables or meat, and a pastry from La Bombonera will wipe my mind free of the nightmarish images of the past 24 hours.
I hop into a cab, happy to breathe air clear of cigar smoke and cheap perfume. I practice my rusty Spanish, asking the cabbie, "How're things in Puerto Rico?" Like everywhere else, things aren't too good. Unemployment is at a record 17%. Tourism is off, meaning everything else is off. When I tell him I'm interested in the guaguas, he tells me that in this economy, they proliferate. And not just the shiny, perfectly art-directed versions, either.
Every van, minivan, or conveyance with a sliding side door has been converted into a mobile food stall. Outfitted with burners, portable grills, refrigeration and offering up some of the best home cooking mom has to offer, they roll up roadside for sharing, convenience and profit. The cabbie tells me guaguas are so popular that last weekend, a local sports stadium hosted a guagua convention. It was a big hit.
Guaguas serve deep-fried, carbo-loaded fare. Once you get by that (and believe me, you can) your palate will be treated to a delectable combination of beef, pork, seafood, veggies, fruits, and spices.
As I'm deciding what to order, two folks waiting with me get into a friendly but heated debate about what my choice should be. It's decided I should order the alcapurrias, although they whisper to me, the one at the Chevy van down the street is superior. ¿Quizás mañana? There's always tomorrow.
My next stop is dessert and apparently, La Bombonera is the place to be. Retro is too new a word for La Bombonera. It's so old, it's a throwback to its bad self. Part pastry shop, part diner, it's full of locals having a merienda, a little mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
Having no idea whatsoever what to order, I do what any prepossessing woman who saw When Harry Met Sally would do: I say, "I'll have what she's having." "She" turns out to be a woman named Myrna, who spent five years in the early '70s in Cambridge while her husband studied nuclear engineering at MIT. You can't make this stuff up.
Myrna advises me that what I'm eating is called a Mallorca. Lightly egg-y, sweet and airy, it is heaven on Earth, made only the more delectable by a quick grilling in butter and a sprinkling of confectioner's sugar. A side of dark roast coffee served with steaming milk creates a buzz that brings the heart attack one step closer. Myrna tells me that next time I can order it with ham, egg and/or cheese.
Guilt (and a fear of Type II Diabetes) tells me there will not be a next time. Gua. Gua.