Old San Juan

The lights turn on, and I hear the lovely voice of a woman saying, “Welcome to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The local time is 2:32am.”  I look out through the window of the Airbus A320 only to see a dark runway, half blurred by the heavy rain.  Not the weather I’m looking for.  I wait patiently on my seat as the front 18 rows of tired and over-packed passengers make their slow way out through the narrow cabin door.

Once out of the plane, I rush my way through the half lit terminal, carrying only my blue Gregory backpack.  The only visible signs of life are those of the airport’s maintenance crew.  This is my welcoming party.

I skip baggage claim and arrive at the informal taxi stand –just a couple taxi drivers chatting while standing next to each other on the drop-off curb outside the terminal.  I immediately feel the hot and humid air touching my skin.  This I expected; the tropical climate condition Puerto Rico is well known for –365 days a year.

“Pa’ donde va?” Where to, a taxi driver shouts to me, grabbing my attention and steering me away from his competition.

“To Valle Arriba in Carolina. How much is it?”

“$20 pesos”

Twenty dollars seem fine to me so I quickly hop in his white Ford taxi van.  I look towards the back seats and see that it easily fits 6 to 8 more passengers.  But who else will want to go to Valle Arriba at 3:00am?  It is just a mid size open community of well established people, most of them living there since its development in the 60’s, including my mom.  I think the insular mentality commonly found in this island makes it easy for people to settle for life in a single place.  But not me.

We get on the Baldorioty Expressway and I start to feel the increasing speed of the van.  The taxi driver seems comfortable with the half empty expressway.  I don’t feel comfortable with the rain.  But I don’t mind enough to tell him to slowdown.  Instead, I look outside the window and start to see some familiar buildings.  Caribbean Cinemas movie theatre –out of business.  Tartak Furniture store – out of business.  Font’s Tower – Unfinished.

“I expected this building to be finished by now.” I tell the taxi driver.

“Tu sabes, las cosas estan malas.” Things are bad he says as he continues, “mas la corrupcion.” Add to that corruption.

I knew the economy was bad, but I didn’t expect it to be this rough.  I wonder, how different will my neighborhood look?

I look through the fogged windshield, wipers distracting my tired eyes, and see we are on Monserrate Ave. –the main commercial avenue of my neighborhood.  Surprisingly, it looks better than what I expected.  It looks almost exactly as the last time I saw it; bright, active (even at 3:00am on weekends), landscaped, and well kept.

“Ahora donde?” Where to now? says the disoriented driver, breaking the daydream bubble I immersed myself into as I tried to understand and mentally reconstruct the past three years of this neighborhood.  I can’t believe I’ve been an expat for three years.

“Turn left please. The fourth house to the left.”

I get off the van, pay the driver, and walk up the few tiled steps that lead into the porch.  Once there, I remember that I no longer have keys to my own home.  The house where I grew up and still conserves my bedroom almost intact and shelters many memories of my childhood.  The place where I played hide and seek with all my neighbors and where I impeded my mom from utilizing the family room because I had used the entire space building a huge Lego city.

I immediately take out my iPhone and dial my mom so she can open the door and welcome me home.  Her 3:20am groggy voice answers the phone but it quickly turns into excitement.  I’m glad my mom is excited that I’m back home, even if it’s just temporary.  But I just don’t know if I’ll feel like I’m back home, or just a visitor in my own home.

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  1. says

    Well, hope you do a post to let us know – curious. We feel really strange when we go back to our home town (we’ve not been back for two years now). Everything that was familiar has either changed or even if it hasn’t, it somehow looks and feels different.

    • says

      I see you know exactly that feeling of going back and even when things might be the same, they somewhat feel different. It is strange. I don’t know if it is a sense of detachment, the development of an expat life, or the process of getting used to it again. Only time will tell.

  2. says

    This is a really well-written post Norbert. I hope you are enjoying your time home with your family. It usually comes with many mixed emotions and as it’s only a temporary stay it should mostly be just exciting emotions while you rediscover and reconnect.
    I understand what you say about the strangeness of no longer having a key to your home. It somehow feels as if your past is locking you out because you moved on without it.

    • says

      Thank you Caz! My time in Puerto Rico has been wonderful. I’ve reconnected with old friends and had an early Christmas with family. 😀

      The mixed emotions are there. Am I going back home? Am I visiting my mom’s home? Is my home in New York? Is this just a “transition” feeling? I definitely still feel a connection with Puerto Rico since I go regularly and keep close to my family, but it feels like it was my home (like you said, I moved on without it), while New York feels like my current comfort zone, my home.

      • says

        Yep! Transition feeling and you working out how to let go. Letting go is a huge huge thing to do and it comes with so many mixed emotions. But, it is so important. The best way is to let it go with lots of appreciation, take all the good things from it and use that in an empowering way for the new thing that comes your way. It gets easier. New York is your home now as it’s where you want to be and Puerto Rico will always be one of your homes but it is just a touch-base-and-reconnect-for-a-short-time home

        • says

          Caz, I couldn’t have said it any better! It is a transition and detachment process. New York is now my home. This is something I reaffirm when I travel to Puerto Rico because once I return back to NYC, I feel that relief of being back home. But still, like you said, PR will always be there for reconnection.

  3. says

    Aw, what a sweet homecoming! I’ve only been to San Juan, Puerto Rico once, but I immediately knew where “back home” was by your photo. There is something very beautiful and distinctive about it there.

  4. says

    It is weird, isn’t it? I feel this way every time I return to cities in the US where I have either lived or spent a lot of time. Going back to New York during the GFC was particularly bizarre – to see so many shops closed and speak to my friends about how the economic downturn was affecting the city and their businesses. You go away and you change and the places change…

    Hope you have a wonderful time with your family!

    • says

      Super weird!! I think you hit the nail on the head with “you go away and you change and the places change”. It is definite that when you grow away from home, once you go back things will never look the same, since you have a different mentality and see a different perspective.

      Thanks!! This visit has been wonderful! :)

  5. says

    Superbly written article. This could be a short film even, or an ad – then you walk through the door, and……

    If you are with your Mom now, have a great stay, and check out those photos on your bedroom wall!

    • says

      Thank you so much John! That is inevitable… Every time I go back home I spend time looking at album pictures and wall photos. It’s a great way to reconnect and re-enjoy things.

  6. says

    Beautiful post and so close to my heart. I relate to how you feel. I just went a couple of weeks ago, for Thanksgiving, and even though I go back every year it still feels strange. I don’t know, like everything is small. But it’s always refreshing to see your family and friends, and find the person you were and deep down still are.
    Have fun, enjoy it all, and recharge your batteries for new travels!

    • says

      Thank you for stoping by Lymaris. You’ve said it beautifully. Going back home is an interesting process of rediscovering the person you were that is still hidden somewhere deep inside you.

      Have fun in your travels!!

  7. Spencer says

    It always takes me a while to get over the fit of depression at returning to my hometown after travelling but I always console myself with the memories of my trip and the excitement of my next adventure!

  8. eat-laugh-love-anon says

    What a lovely post!
    I always find going home quite emotional – the joy at reuniting with family and friends, the sadness over who is not there and the knowledge that I’ll be leaving again soon.
    Last time I went home I was eight months pregnant. I left again with a nine-week-old and next time we go home she’ll be 18 months old! Have a baby really opens your eyes to how quickly time flies.

    I hope you’re having a lovely time with your Mum, Norbert.

    • says

      Thanks Anon. All of the above are part of the melting pot of feelings that come out when you go back home. Now that you have a baby, I bet things must feel completely different.

  9. says

    I felt I got out of the taxi , walked up those stars, waited for you to get you ph out, and hugged your mum also….
    Good piece Norbert. Always nice to go home to mum.

  10. says

    Great post and I agree it is strange. When I returned home after living in S.Korea and Thailand for 2 1/2 years it took me almost a year to feel like I was really home again. I hope you have an easier time adjusting. Keep us posted!

    • says

      I wonder how I might feel when I know I’m returning for good (if it actually happens). Probably I’ll have these same feelings at first while I adjust to a new life that is weaved in a past.

  11. says

    Wow what a powerful post. When I return home (haven´t lived there for 10 years) I often feel like a visitor for the first few days but then it starts to feel more like where I belong.

    • says

      Thanks Ayngelina! Exactly! That’s how I feel, like a visitor. But yes, after a few days I start feeling more at home. I guess it’s a natural process of adjusting.

  12. says

    What a wonderful post. I’ve gone back home often over the years, and each time I have different feelings. I can feel all happy, warm and cozy, or a little sad, or like an outsider. Maybe it all has more to do with the time more than the place itself. But I always discover something about the place — either something I forgot about or something brand new.

    Have a very happy Christmas with your family and friends!

    • says

      I agree, the time has an effect on it too. There are times where I’ve felt different because my “personal environment” is different so I absorb and rediscover things differently.
      Thanks! You too have a happy Christmas, Cathy!!

  13. says

    I’ve had this feeling before, it feels like home but at the same time feels like you are staring at your past. An interesting place to be… the good part about returning home is that you always find a little part of yourself that loves it and kind of never left.

    • says

      It’s interesting that every time I go back I take some time to look at pictures, albums, and reconnect with friends that are part of the past I created there. Like you said, it is finding that little part of us that loves the place and that never left.

  14. says

    Hope to see you post about how your homecoming is. I’m going home on holiday in 10 days after living abroad for about 6 months, so I’d love to see what your experience is like at home so I can have even just a vague idea of what it’s like. Disfrutate. :-)

  15. says

    I feel what you mean. Every time I come back home I feel like it’s not really my home anymore. Then the comparisons begin ,”oh I ate such good food when I was in…”, then I’m left feeling like I need to get out and get on the road again. I get the post depression blues easily! When I saw your picture I knew it could be one of two places: Cartagena, or my beautiful PR. My family is from the Island and I return many times as well, but my heart loves living out of my backpack! Enjoy being back en tu Isla del encanto!!

    • says

      Hey Mica, thanks for stopping by! It is inevitable to start doing those comparisons. When we go back, we return with more experiences and often times a different mentality. So we question things at home and try to relate them to our life outside it. It’s interesting how traveling and being an expat changes our way of seeing things back at home. It is a different perspective.

      So nice to see a travel blogger with boricua background! 😉

  16. says

    I left home nearly 20 years ago and haven’t looked back. Like you, I had a key to my parents’ house but don’t have it any more. However, I know what you mean about going home to the parents – it feels strange now.

    • says

      It is somewhat of a mixed emotion. On one side you feel great because you’re “back”, but at the same time you feel strange because things are not how they used to be.

  17. says

    Wow you arrived there so late. I always wanted to know some one from Puerto Rico so if I ever go visit again. I can have a friend who can “speak Spanish and used to live there” possibly meet up there. Maybe next yr we’ll visit this beautiful place at the same time. I bet I’ll feel like a visitor when I go visit Taiwan later (almost 19 years since I last visit my homeland). However, it’s your homeland so ofcourse you’re back home :). Have a great time there!

    • says

      Ha! Yes, I usually take the red eye flight to PR. It tends to be cheaper and it’s one less day I have to take out of work. Wow! It would be interesting to see how you react to Taiwan after 19 years as an Expat. And sure, whenever you go to PR, let me know!! :)

  18. says

    Great post – you’ve done a great job of capturing the oddness of returning home after a long absence. I visited my home town this summer for the first time in a year. It was strange, driving into the city, I barely recognized it. It was familiar yet completely strange and foreign to me. I’ve never felt so disoriented in my life.

    • says

      Thanks Amy! Yes, it is so odd and disorienting! The other day I was driving to a friend’s house and he literally had to explain to me step by step how to get there. Funny thing is, I had already driven through those roads hundreds of times while I lived in PR. I couldn’t believe how lost I felt!

  19. says

    Very interesting post. I’ve only been gone from home for an extended period of time once, and that was on our year-long RTW. The feelings arriving home were very weird, and they remained that way for months. For us, the main thing we noticed after only being gone a year was that everything seemed the same. Sure, someone may have had a baby or gotten married, but by and large, everyone we knew was living the exact same life, and we felt as though we had changed immensely. Even though we’ve been back for over a year now, I still feel like we just don’t fit here as well anymore. It’s an odd feeling as I’ve called this city home for almost my entire life.

    I’ll be curious to see your thoughts after being home for a while. Great post!

    • says

      Thanks Adam. Not only we feel like we have changed, but others (friends, family) see it too. As time passes things feel more comfortable and “in-place”, but still, that feeling of returning to NY pops up every once in a while.

    • says

      It’s such a weird feeling, right? It still feels like a vacations, but at least we have that place we call “home” and are always received with open arms.

    • says

      Thanks Marcia! It’s a strange feeling, but for some reason we crave it every once in a while. I guess home will always have that little place in our heart, even if it is unfamiliar to what it was before.


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