San Juan

This entry is part 10 of 20 in the series Cruising with Teens

Millennium was already docked by the time we woke up. San Juan spread out before us through the windows, partially blocked by HAL’s Maasdam, which was tied to a nearby pier.

Paul brought a pot of coffee, and we lounged in the living room watching the sights. Kris wore one of the Celebrity bathrobes, a garment that would serve nicely as winter outerwear in New Hampshire. I wore a pair of shorts. The sun was shining so brightly through the window that I thought it might be wise to put on some sunscreen. A bead of sweat trickled from my brow.

“Let’s make sure to leave a breakfast order tonight. We should get up early and watch the arrival at St. Thomas,” I said to Kris. We had yet to eat in the cabin, which seemed a shame given the nice dining area.

“Ooo, good idea. I love to eat breakfast in my bathrobe.”

“You do? I wouldn’t be able to eat in one of those bathrobes. The sleeves are too heavy. I don’t think I could raise my fork to my mouth. Aren’t you roasting?”

“It’s perfect. You just don’t understand…”

True. There are some mysteries in life that defy any explanation.

I took a shower –- a cold one -– and dressed to go topside for breakfast. I only had to put the finishing touches on my remaining hair before being ready to go. I looked everywhere for my favorite hairbrush, but couldn’t find it.

“Where’s my hairbrush?” I called out to Kris.

“In the cabinet under the sink,” she replied.

I opened the cabinet and sure enough, there it was — all by itself, except for an extra roll of toilet paper. The bathroom was so big, everything else was arranged on the counter and shelves. Neat and accessible.

Curiosity got the best of me. “Just wondering –- why did you put my hairbrush in the cabinet?”

“Because it looks like something you’d find in a barn. I didn’t want anyone to see it.”

“A barn?? That brush has served me for 25 years. It’s a genuine Fuller. My mother gave me that brush.”

“Don’t you think it’s time for a new one?”

I examined it carefully. The black finish on the handle still showed in some places, next to bare wood. At least half the bristles were still there, and the others were structurally sound.

“No way.”

At 9:00 we climbed up to the breakfast buffet and loaded up some trays. We were caught red-handed trying to carry them ourselves, so we ended up marching to the outdoor table area with a caravan of waiters. A table in the shade sat empty, just waiting for our arrival.

As we sat, I heard a familiar voice. “Kris…Kris…Chestah.” We turned together to take in a remarkable sight. Wells and Dan sat at a nearby table eating breakfast with two women who were probably thrice their age and then some. I didn’t expect to see them for at least another hour, when we were due for an immigration check. We waved and went back to eating.

A little while later, the boys joined us. Their tablemates stopped by for a quick introduction.

“We hear these nice gentlemen belong to you.”

“That’s right,” I admitted. “I hope they behaved themselves.”

“It was a pleasure to speak with them. They’re fine young men.”

The women departed, and we finished up our breakfast while the boys had more coffee.

“Where did you meet those ladies?” asked Kris.

“There were no empty tables, so we just sat down with them.”

“They didn’t mind?”

“We asked, and they said it was ok. They were really nice. They’re sisters. One is from Canada, and the other is from Oklahoma or North Carolina – someplace like that.”

“So you guys don’t have any trouble meeting people?” Kris still seemed concerned that Wells and Dan might be bored.

“Heck no. We talk to everybody. We met this guy and his wife from Texas. They were really funny…”

We heard stories about all sorts of people. The boys even characterized the types of people who frequented the various public spaces around the ship. They had the whole social structure mapped out.

We were scheduled for immigration inspection at 10:15, but an announcement about 15 minutes before that called for all uninspected passengers to proceed to the Celebrity Theater. I sent the boys back to their room for the inspection memos, while I went to get the various forms of identification (which I held for everyone – peace of mind). We met in the hallway by the elevators.

“Where are your inspection papers?” I asked.

Wells produced a ball of paper from his pocket and thrust it in my direction. It looked like a giant spitball.

“Argh! What happened to them? These are important.”

“We don’t know how that happened,” replied Dan.

“Straighten them out and do it quickly. The whole ship is going to be waiting for us. This is serious business. Make sure the bar code at the top is flat. ”

The boys worked on restoring their documents while we rode the elevator to deck 4 and walked forward on the port side. We quickly looped through the theater and encountered a line leading to two immigration officials who were standing in the starboard exit. Ahead of us, someone turned around and said, “Take the guy on the left. He’s easier.”

I looked at the boys’ papers – a hopeless mess. We inched forward, and I nudged Wells and Dan to the left. “You guys go that way. We’ll wait for you.”

The line on the left was moving twice as fast as the one on the right. I watched as each boy presented his crumpled paper and ID. The agent looked amused, and asked some questions that I could not hear. Meanwhile, the agent on our side was giving an elderly woman the third degree. Apparently her identification was insufficient and the agent asked her all kinds of probing questions. Finally, he let her go and motioned to Kris. She breezed through, as did I. Passports work wonders.

The boys were waiting patiently outside the theater.

“So, what do we do now?” asked Dan.

“We wait,” I said.

“Then what?”

“Then they’ll announce when everybody has cleared immigration and we can get off the ship. I thought we’d walk around the city for a while, and then we’ll go to the beach. OK?”

“That’s cool.”

A large number of people failed to keep their appointments for the immigration check, judging by the number of announcements necessary to track them down. Finally, the ‘all clear’ call was given.

After making our way through the terminal on the dock, the first bit of Old San Juan we encountered was a Subway sandwich shop. I was surprised that the boys made no motion toward it -– must have taken quite a bit of willpower.

Kris examined a tourist booklet. “Here, let’s do this walking tour.”

We walked down the waterfront to the first landmark, and then turned according to the directions toward the next point of interest. We should have encountered a statue, according to the tour book.

“I don’t see any statue,” said Kris.

“Me either,” I said. Knowing that Kris has a certain weakness when it comes to reading maps, I asked to see the booklet. Squinting from the sun and in an attempt to focus, I examined the map for a moment. “Forget it, I don’t have my glasses. I can’t see this thing. Let’s just walk toward the fort.”

“How can we find it if you can’t see the map?” Kris asked.

“The fort is at the top. Just keep going up…”

I knew that in addition to being at the top of the hill, the fort was also on the opposite side of town, so we first walked parallel with the waterfront along one of the less traveled streets. Up ahead, I spied an oasis of trees in a little park perched on the edge of the city. It was built atop part of the old city wall, and afforded a nice view of the harbor and Millennium below. The park was breezy and pleasant, complete with pigeons and a homeless man sleeping peacefully on a bench.

Time for an experiment in photo technology — below is a thumbnail of a photo taken from the park. Actually, it is 8 pictures stitched together into a panorama. If you click the thumbnail version, a new window will pop up with a special panoramic viewer where you can (if the technology cooperates) scroll through a high-resolution version of the ‘big picture’. Let me know if it works for you…

We left the park and returned to the hot city streets. I headed us in the general direction of the fort, zigzagging here and there until we came to the top. The fort stood in the distance across a broad expanse of lawn.

A man selling water stood at the corner, a perfect spot to capture people like us -– hot and thirsty tourists who walked instead of taking a cab to the fort. He only charged $1 a bottle. He could have demanded more. I’m sure the market would bear it.

I gave everyone a chance to opt out. “Want to keep going? Should we go in to the fort?” All were willing.

As we walked the last quarter mile across the lawn, Dan pulled out his cell phone and started making calls. He didn’t actually reach anyone, but left a message for his parents.

“Any idea how much it will cost to use that thing down here?” I asked.

“Nah. I’m not worried about it.”

We paid the admission and explored Castillo de San Felipe del Morro. I thought we’d be there for half an hour, but almost 90 minutes later we forced ourselves to leave without seeing half of it. A short video shown in a cave-like theater presented the fascinating history of the fort, and the air-conditioned space provided a welcome relief. Otherwise, there were enough tunnels, dungeons, ramps, stairs, cisterns, cannons, turrets and beautiful views to keep us busy and interested.

After leaving del Morro we decided to split up for a while, with a plan to meet at 2:30 for a quick trip to the beach. The boys went back into town to explore, while Kris and I returned to the ship for lunch. We decided to eat in the dining room, and were seated at a table for 12. It was one of just a few tables in use. Everyone else was already ordering dessert, so we soon found ourselves alone at the table.

“Well, that’s a disappointment,” said Kris. “I wanted to meet and talk to some new people. I hope they seat someone else with us. Why do you think they put us at this table?”

I looked around. There was not a single patron remaining in the restaurant, except of course, us.

“I think you’re just going to be stuck with me.”

Service was pretty good. The staff-to-customer ratio was 10 to 1.

The boys were prompt, and we were off the ship by 2:35. Kris engaged them in small talk. “So, what did you guys do?”

“We went to a little café for lunch,” Wells began. “It was all locals, and they looked at us funny.”

“What do you mean?”

“I dunno. They kept looking at us. They all had black marks on their foreheads.”

“It’s Ash Wednesday,” said Kris.

I jumped in. “Maybe they were looking at you because you didn’t have a mark on you foreheads. Maybe you looked like trouble.”

“The food was really good, though,” said Dan.

“What did you have?”


“Both of you?”

They nodded.

“Then what?”

“We went to a Rasta shop. Dan got a t-shirt.”

Dan proudly pointed at the Bob Marley shirt he was wearing.

“Hey mon, you’ll see some real Rastas tomorrow.”

The first time we left the ship that day, there had been a little information kiosk dispensing advice and information. The kiosk now stood empty, so we were on our own. We went outside and placed ourselves at the mercy of the taxi industry. A man was acting as dispatcher.

“We want to go to the beach.” Since we were dressed for swimming and loaded down with towels, he probably guessed that on his own. “How much?”

“Ten dollar,” he replied, signaling the first cab in line. He spoke to the driver in Spanish while we piled in. I got in the front seat.

The cab was a full-sized Mercury Marquis, white with dark tinted windows. It was running on 3 of its 8 cylinders judging by the vibration in my butt. Just as well, because without a muffler the noise would have been worse if all cylinders were firing.

“Go to beach, yes,” said the driver. It didn’t sound like a question -– it was more like he was reminding himself of what he was supposed to be doing.

“How much?” I asked, just to be sure we were in total agreement.

“Ten dollar.” Perfect.

The driver rolled up his window and we took off loudly. The air-conditioner was blowing hot air at top velocity, and after a couple of minutes I rolled my window down for some relief. The driver did the same.

We bumped our way along city streets for a few minutes. The car was in serious danger of collapsing in a heap. When we came to a short bridge, the driver pointed to the left.

“Beach,” he said.

I glanced over the side of the bridge, and sure enough there was a small crescent shaped beach fronting a tiny bay. It looked pleasant enough, but its location right next to the bridge choked with traffic was hardly ideal.

“How about a hotel beach? I asked.

The driver looked at me like I was from Mars.

“Hotel? You go hotel? Weech hotel you go?”

“A hotel where we can use the beach.”

“Beach!” He pointed at the little beach. I could see the exhaust fumes wafting over it.

“Not that beach. Can’t we just go to one of the hotels?”

“Hotel? You go to beach or hotel?”

“A beach at a hotel. A beach with a bar.”


Traffic moved slowly across the bridge and onto a road lined with big hotels. I looked to the back seat for some help. “Didn’t anybody take Spanish in school?” They all looked at me like I was from Mars, too.

I tried again. “We want to go to a nice beach,” I said in measured words.

“Ahhh! Ocean beach!” exclaimed the driver.

“Yes, ocean beach.” I heard murmurs of agreement from the crowd in the back. Now we were getting somewhere.

“Ocean beach,” repeated the driver.

“Nice ocean beach?” I asked. I didn’t dare ask about the bar. Or waverunners, or lounge chairs. Parasailing was too risky to bring up, too.

“Ocean beach. Fourteen dollar.”

Desperate to get this over with, I was ready to agree to almost anything.

“OK. Ocean beach. Fourteen dollars. Let’s go.”

The driver continued down the road, passing dozens of spectacular beach-front hotels. Soon the road strayed away from the water and into city neighborhoods. The driver had a lot of strange habits. He would blow the horn impatiently in heavy traffic for no reason that I could fathom, and then creep along at 5 MPH on open stretches of road.

We drove for several minutes like this. I assumed that the four extra dollars would have taken us a few blocks beyond the original beach destination, but we had now traveled at least 3 times as far as the $10 segment of the trip took us. The little voices in my head became active.

”Are you sure he said $14?”

“Pretty sure”

“Maybe he said $40”

“Maybe. Then we must be there – almost.”

“Kris is probably not enjoying this.”

“ I know. The boys probably think it’s pretty funny, though.”

“I think he’s taking us to the airport.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

The cab was moving down a wide-open residential boulevard at about 5 MPH when we came to a stop sign. Ahead of us was a vacant lot. A big sign pointed traffic to the right. It was adorned with a big image of a jet airplane.

The driver suddenly gunned the engine while steering sharply to the left. Ahead of us lay the ocean, and I though we were going to drive right into it. The car reached about 60 MPH on the short road, and the driver braked hard to make the right turn at the end on to a road bordering a beach. He came to a stop.

“Ocean beach. $14.”

I still wasn’t absolutely sure if he said 14 or 40, so I handed him a twenty and waited for a reaction. He pulled a wad of cash and started peeling off singles.

I was so relieved to be at the beach and to be alive that I said, “Give me one.”

“One dollar?”


He complied.

I looked around. To our left, a nice beach and beautiful water. To the right, a parking lot filled with cars and a treed area that looked like a park. There were only 4 or 5 people on the beach, so the parking lot was obviously for some other purpose. There was no traffic.

“Do taxies come by here?” I asked the driver.

“Taxi every hour,” he replied.

“A different taxi?”

“Si, taxi come every hour.”

I got out of the car and joined Kris and the boys on the sidewalk. They had all bailed out as soon as the car stopped.

Kris did not look terribly happy. “Do you think we’re safe here?” she asked.

The answer to that question was visible through the trees a moment later. Two police cars sat idling, and the officers were conversing through open windows. My first thought was that this must be a high crime area. Then I noticed that the cars were sitting in front of a police station.

“Yeah, I think we’re fine.”

The beach was wide and looked like it had just been raked clean. A steady wind was blowing off the water, moderating the afternoon sun. The boys headed straight into the water, and I soon followed. The temperature was perfect, and there was just enough surf to make it interesting. Kris sat on the beach reading a book.

We stayed in the water for an hour or more. Relatively little traffic traveled the street. A couple of mothers arrived with small children. The crowd at the beach never exceeded 10 people.

It was nearing 5:00 when we packed up. I had not seen a single taxi. We sat on a low wall bordering the road while I considered the options. There weren’t many.

As if on queue, a white taxi rounded the corner and headed our way. I waved him down.

Inside the car was quiet and cool, and extremely neat. The driver was pleasant, and within four blocks he had us on a superhighway for a quick ride back to the ship. He threaded through rush hour traffic smoothly and serenely. I noticed a picture of a little girl on the dashboard.

“Your daughter?”

“Si. She is six years old.”

The Millennium was a welcome site. I handed the driver $25, and told everyone to take their sand with them. The driver smiled and said “No problem. Thank you.” I’m sure he had to spend some extra time with the vacuum after transporting us.

As night fell, I ventured out with my camera. I wanted to play with all the buttons and see what they did. Here are some samples:


For sail away, I used the video camera to tape our passing of the city and of the fort, which is lit at night to spectacular effect. I am still looking for the tape – if it came out, I’ll post a segment some day. (Video now available: click here)

Dinner that night was fun, as always. We kept the sommelier busy, and Kent tried to talk the people at the next table into buying him a bottle. Somehow they resisted the temptation.

Tomorrow would mark our return to St. Thomas, 24 years after we moved away. We planned to meet our friend Frank at his video production studio, located right on the dock at Havensite. Beyond that, anything was possible.

I addressed the boys after dinner. “Gentlemen, I suggest you get some rest tonight. Tomorrow will probably be a busy day, and it starts early. Be in our cabin at 8:30, and eat before you come.”

Kris and I went through our $20 casino allotment in record time, and headed for bed.

“Well, that was quite an adventure. I was worried for a while, but that beach was fine,” said Kris.

“Sophisticated travelers like us always find a way. I couldn’t help but think of the taxi scene from Trains, Planes and Automobiles.”

I was in bed when Kris called out from the bathroom. “Hey, I can’t find my face crème. Have you seen it?”

“What does it look like?”

“It’s a green jar with a gold top. It was right here.”

I counted to five before responding.

“Oh, that. It’s in the cabinet under the sink…next to my hairbrush.”

Extra: San Juan 3D Photo Gallery (PC/Broadband only — requires simple installation of viewer plugin. You must grant permission for this. It is safe!)


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