“How high up my nose am I supposed to put this swab in?”, I asked, waving an elongated q-tip that I had pulled out of a sterile packet from the drive-through COVID-19 testing facility at our neighborhood Walgreens in Houston.
“Up until you cant see the cotton end of the swab.”, said the disinterested pharmacist who had taken about 15 minutes to give us our testing kits.
I looked incredulously at the long, nasopharyngeal swab wondering if this would reach past my sinus and puncture my brain. By then, the husband had administered his swab, dunked it into the clear medium in a vial and was halfway through finishing up his paperwork. There was no way out of this one. I closed my eyes and plunged it in.
The husband and I were flying into Puerto Rico that weekend and the latest executive order from the governor mandated all arriving travelers produce a negative COVID-19 test taken in the last 72 hours, irrespective of their vaccination status. We returned our paperwork and samples back to the pharmacist who dourly informed us that test results could take anywhere from 3 – 5 business days to be processed. Our flight to San Juan was in 3 days!
It had been a whole year since either of us had boarded a flight. Working from home remotely had quickly lost its charm. Our days started very early and ended late into the evening….all the while hunched in front of our computers. The 2 of us had converted opposite ends of the house into work spaces. We tried catching up for lunch if our work meetings synced up. The days flew by. We lost track of dates. The only sojourn was the weekend when we left our sterilized environment and drove into the city.
But things could change now. We had both been vaccinated. Moderna for him. Pfizer for me. We watched the COVID-19 case count climb up in India and Brazil. Rumours of the US closing its borders swirled around. We cancelled our plans of flying to India. But the thought of waking up another day and going through the same routine brought an appalling and hopeless sense of ennui. We needed a change of scene.
Puerto Rico had come highly recommended from my sister. The more we read up on the island, the more it fit our bill. It was part of the US. We didn’t require visas. International border closures wouldn’t affect our travel plans. The island followed Atlantic Standard Time, which in summer was in sync with the time in New York and so wouldn’t disrupt our work. The larger cities in Puerto Rico had 5G network and a strong internet connection and could support our video meetings. We decided to test out waters and looked at working out of the island for 2 weeks – short enough to come back if things didn’t go according to plan but long enough for us to drive around the island and get away from Houston.
On the eve of our flight, an email notification lit up my phone screen. Our test results had finally arrived.
After a year of isolation, the scene at the baggage terminal in San Juan gave me palpitations. Hordes of travelers waited impatiently to grab their bags. Personnel in hazmat suits walked around with non-contact thermometers. A long queue snaked across the terminal. Travelers who hadn’t completed their COVID-19 test waited to have their tests taken to avoid the $300 fine being imposed. We exited the airport after showing the QR code that had been generated when we uploaded our test results. A gust of warm, humid air hit our faces. We were finally in Puerto Rico.
Our taxi driver barely spoke English and we didn’t speak Spanish. But after some animated gesturing at our hotel address on Google Maps, we settled back into the car and hoped that he was taking us to the right place – Playa Luquillo ( Lu-kee-yo Beach). On arrival, we checked into our spartan but clean room with a view of the beach. My heart rate slowed down as the salty breeze from the sea whipped our faces. I looked at my phone and noticed that it had only one bar of internet signal strength. This was the perfect place to unwind before we headed to San Juan for the work week. After a quick swim and a late lunch of Bolas de Bacalao Frito (fried cod fish balls) and chorizo empanadas with a hot guava sauce, we sank into our beach chairs, dug our feet into the sand, and watched the sunset with a couple of chilled Medallas (Med-ah-yah), the ubiquitous beer brewed in Puerto Rico.
On Monday morning, we logged into work from San Juan. We had rented a house, 500 meters away from the beach and in the residential neighborhood of Ocean Park in San Juan. Our internet connectivity showed a whopping 80 Mbps download speed. We worked around minor inconveniences and converted a dining table and a dresser into our work spaces for the week. Our AirBnb had a generator which insulated our work schedules from the random power cuts that plagued the island. We scheduled a weekly stop at the Laundromat next door.
Breakfast was a bowl of tropical fruit and an egg sandwich, which we put together every morning from the produce picked up at the Super Mercado on Plaza Loiza. We stepped out for lunch and sampled the fare at the local bakeries and cafes. Our first afternoon, we walked to Berlingeri, a vegan restaurant, tucked away in a corner and relished their flavorful salads, a welcome respite from the fried food that Puerto Rico is known for. Another favorite was Kassalta, a local bakery that offers cafeteria like dining for lunch and popular for their Cuban sandwiches and Quesitos (cream cheese pastry).
In the evenings, we logged off work and rushed to Old San Juan. The most iconic parts of San Juan are the two fortresses – San Felipe Del Morro and San Cristobal – built by the Spanish to protect the city from the invasions of the English, the Dutch and marauding pirates. Every evening was a race against time. We tried wrapping up work meetings by 4PM and rushed to the forts to try and make it before the gates shut at 5PM. When this proved to be unsuccessful, we gave up and promised ourselves we would explore these on the weekends. Squeezing in a guided walking tour of the city at 10AM in the morning proved to be even trickier…..but it was well worth it. An island wide curfew was in place from 10 PM – 5AM because of the pandemic. So we spent the nights on our balcony, watching the waves from a distance.
On the weekends, we rented a car and explored the islands, rainforests and places far removed from the grid.
The 2nd week, we ventured out of San Juan and drove west to the surfer town of Isabela. We had spotted an AirBnb by Montones Beach and a five minute walk to the famed Jobos Beach. Our mornings started with a swim in the ocean. “If we swim North West, we’ll reach Houston”, I joked, enjoying the mild waters of the North Atlantic. We were closer to the equator and the ocean was warmer than it was off the coast of the United States. After a quick shower and a change into our work clothes, we logged onto work calls. The only giveaway sign of us not being in Houston was our sunburnt faces on the Zoom and Teams calls.
There were small hiccups. One morning the power went off right in the middle of our meetings. The apartment in Isabela lacked a generator and we were disconnected from the internet. We switched to the hotspots on our phone and dialed back into our meetings, hoping that electricity would be restored before our phone batteries were depleted. Thankfully, the power outage lasted only 15 minutes. Another time, in the middle of a discussion on supply chain and price fluctuations of alloys, loud blaring music streamed in from outside the apartment. A dedicated, party animal had decided to drive up and down the street blaring loud Spanish music from loudspeakers outfitted on the back of his car. I switched off my camera and had to move to the bedroom, where the music still managed to come in but was faint.
We finally explored Castillo San Felipe del Morro on the last Saturday before we left the island. We picked up the headsets with the audio tour and, at a leisurely pace, explored the hidden pathways and the views from the Garitas (sentry posts) imagining what life would have been like here in the 16th century.
We spent our last night in Old San Juan, in a boutique hotel named Casablanca, where the namesake movie played on loop in the lobby. That evening, we sipped coffee by the Plaza de Armas, a historic courtyard with fountains and sculptures. As we made our way back, we noticed a couple frantically knocking on all the stores that had shut their doors and asking to buy water. The curfew had caught them unprepared and they didn’t have any potable water at their AirBnB. We offered the water supplies that we had purchased for our trip and which we had planned to throw away the next day. As we walked back to our hotel, the couple explained that they were first year medical residents who had flown down from New York for the weekend. Like us, they wanted a breather and a short escape from their routine in the hospital.
We wished them well and laughed at how a curfew in the middle of a pandemic was throwing together strangers from different arcs of life.