Lets San Juan and see where it leads us

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The woman sitting next to me leaned over to look out the airplane window at the ocean below. Some of her relatives had yet to rebuild their roofs, and Diana had come to lend a hand. The rest of the time? If I was serious about finding out what island life was like, she said as we touched down, I should do the same. In the hurricane's wake, two narratives about the island have taken root.

In one telling, Puerto Rico is slowly clambering back to normalcy, rebuilding homes and infrastructure and entire towns, still reeling from loss. In another, tragedy and disaster spurred community building and new ways of doing business, and the Puerto Rico that has emerged since is more vibrant and creative, clinging to joy more tightly than ever, having seen how quickly it can slip away.

I'd come to find out which side of the story felt closest to the truth. Sunlight blazed through the waves as they crested, capped in white, then crashed and spread foam across the pier. During Maria, those waves had reached the hotel, drowning its landscaping in salt water, pulling beach chairs out to sea, and filling the pools with fish, crabs, and sand. But as I wandered the grounds, it was as if the hurricane had never happened. Guests lounged about—in the windswept beachfront cabanas, in netted hammocks slung between palms, in the half-in, half-out lounge seats around the pools—while koi and swans swam laps in the shimmering pond and a peacock made its rounds.

Puerto Rico a joyful place: a quality hard-won through the resistance of its people. The breeze was warm and ocean-licked, and colonial architecture struck my eye in bright pastels. Patches of city walls shone with the gloss of touch-up paint, half-covering graffiti reading "4,"—a that has become a sort of political rallying cry.

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The official death toll after Hurricane Maria was declared, implausibly, to be just A Harvard study put the closer to 4, Since then, additional studies have placed the count around 3, but 4, has lodged itself in the public imagination as a symbol of the ills the island has long suffered at the hands of colonialism, corruption, and mismanagement. She had a passion for supporting local businesses, and, well, eating—interests that inspired her to found her food tour company, Flavors of San Juan. The coffee was rich and fruity, the perfect accompaniment to a croissant stuffed with provolone and Black Forest ham and slathered in sweet guava butter.

The community was trying to get through a hardship together. Mofongo, I found, made me happy. The dish, which has roots in West Africa, features fried plantains, garlic, oil, and pork rinds, all mashed with a mortar and pestle and shaped into a dome. My favorite was at the cozy Casita Miramar, where piles of the stuff encircled a small cluster of shrimp, and garlic oil soaked through every bite. No matter what of the week it is, Puerto Ricans are out dancing. The space has bars nested within bars.

The first, with a checkerboard floor and velvety chairs, feels hip and upscale; down the hall, Latin trap music plays overhead, and with the peeling paint on the walls, the feel is thrillingly grungy; another hall le to a salsa room; a little farther and you're in a full-fledged nightclub. I was there on a Monday night.

No matter—a piece band was playing Puerto Rican salsa, and the diverse crowd of regulars and tourists gave it their all on the dance floor. As with so many conversations on the island, talk soon turned to Maria. In the dark, pierced by colored lights, my arms went up, my hips swayed, and I lost myself. I had plans to visit El Yunquethe 28,acre national forest about 30 miles from San Juan, but then, as can happen, our collective attention shifted to the weather.

Hurricane Dorian was tearing an erratic path toward the island. Every TV screen I glanced at seemed to be flashing the same graphic—a neon-green swirl, red and yellow at its center, making its way across the sea. Puerto Ricans were advised not to panic, but businesses were shuttered, and everyone was out gathering supplies.

El Yunque, still on the mend after Maria shredded its canopy and damaged up to 60 percent of its tall trees, was closed because of the impending storm, so instead I ventured to the jungle just outside the park's perimeter. There, the earth on the path glittered—gold dust, explained my guide, Guillermo Rodriguez. The weather was sunny, the skies were clear. A storm seemed unimaginable. As we dried off after our swim, I mentioned a story I'd heard a few days earlier outside the ruins of the colonial fort. I had met a tall forest guard named Norman Rutherford, who told me about the Puerto Rican parrot.

There used to be around cotorras —the only parrot species native to the island—living in El Yunque, he explained, but after Maria, biologists could for only two. It had been Rutherford's job to escort scientists into the jungle to search for surviving birds. He told me how he'd watched biologists place fake nests in the trees, trying to coax the pair to mate.

But cotorras mate for life. If the two remaining parrots had lost their mates, what were the chances of rebuilding the population? I asked Guillermo Rodriguez whether he had seen any parrots. He shook his head sadly. Perhaps they had flown to nearby islands, he said. As I stared into the sunlit foliage, he described the birds: emerald green, with a bright red forehead stripe, their eyes ringed in white. I imagined in that moment what it must have been like: the two parrots, finding perches in a ravaged forest, looking down at an unrecognizable place.

Back in San Juan, the news of Hurricane Dorian fluctuated—ominous Lets San Juan and see where it leads us moment, nothing to fear the next. I went out to take in some art in Santurce, a hip neighborhood that was transforming from an auto-shop center to a gallery hub, but with the storm on the way, this cultural center was eerily deserted. I wandered along Lets San Juan and see where it leads us quiet alleys, looking at the murals and street art that are hallmarks of that part of town.

I spent what felt like hours gawking up at a mural by Dominican artist Evaristo Angurria—on a wall painted black, two women, one blue-skinned, the other purple-skinned, embrace. It was beautiful—joyful. High up on a lamppost, a can of spray paint had been hung like a planter, sprouting with ivy. I watched an old man struggle with a pack of bottled water. As he got close, I asked, "How far till you're home? You need help? He smiled. It brings back everything that's happened before. Condado Vanderbilt is tucked away in a ritzy area northwest of Santurce. Everything in the hotel, from its heavy curtains to its marble-floored lobby, speaks of old-world glamour.

From my balcony, I could see the beach. The sand was blond and sun-kissed, but on the horizon, the skies were purple and bruised. While the reports wavered, I thought about what it meant to live on an island, an etching of high land surrounded by water. San Juan's culinary scene has been quietly exploding for years, but in the weeks and months after Maria, the chefs and restaurateurs of the city seemed to emerge even more impassioned than before.

Sincea generation of chefs who gained experience in overseas kitchens have been returning, creating new restaurants that draw on their global influences and Puerto Rican roots.

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Here the farm-to-table movement is not only environmentally intentioned; it is an opportunity to create culinary and agricultural independence. One of the most famed and early adopters was chef Jose Enriquewhose namesake San Juan restaurant has used locally grown foods, nurtured relationships with farmers, elevated traditional dishes to high cuisine, and done its best to divest from imports since the early days.

Cuevas spent years working at high-end restaurants around the world. When he returned to the island inhe was surprised to find that some of San Juan's fine-dining spots relied on canned ingredients. Cuevas works with farmers on updating their methods. I asked whether he came to see food differently after Maria. In terms of the importance of self-sustenance, yes.

That's the thinking with a lot of the farmers—we need to change the way we do things, because we need to be able to sustain ourselves and not rely on outside support. Agricultural investment and farm-to-table sourcing are admirable enough even if the kitchen is nothing to sing about, but it helps that the food at is damn near perfect. Cubes of frozen watermelon, somehow creamy, went undercover in what at first looked like a regular beet salad.

Cod came wallowing in a green eddy of sauce and was capped with a delicate wing of fried yucca, making the whole dish look like it had been plucked out of the deep sea. By the end of it all, I felt like my soul had all but left my body. Back in my room, I watched Dorian make its way across the sea. The horizon was a gradient of color—baby blue to black to baby blue again. My phone lit up with messages from everyone I'd met in my time in Puerto Rico.

Did I have everything I needed? Did I need help? Was I worried? I felt taken care of. With the lights off, I watched the rain patter against the glass and thought of the parrots in El Yunque. I wondered if they'd found shelter, or at least each other.

Hurricane Dorian bypassed Puerto Rico that night and landed instead in the Bahamas, with winds reaching mph.

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As I made my way to the airport, the sun was out and people were wandering the streets again. I had been gazing out at the water and sucking on a paleta when an older gentleman walked up, propped one foot on the railing, and lit a cigarette. I nodded and greeted him.

When I told him yes, he motioned for me to come over. He pointed down, where a street ran below the wall, and, as if sharing a secret, whispered, "Me too. That's my car with the surfboard on top. The man said he was Puerto Rican, but considered himself a tourist. I realized I'd never seen my own country—can you imagine, an old man like me?

He swept his hand toward the waves below. It's a force to be feared, but I love it. What did he think, then, of the effort to rebuild? Had he found a sense of peace? He told me: "I know that we have each other, and nothing lasts, except the ocean. San Juan is a major hub for airlines in the Caribbean.

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