The lights turn on, and I hear the lovely voice of a woman saying, “Welcome to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The local time is 2:32 am.” 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 of 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?”
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 3:00 am?
It is just a mid-size open community of well-established people, most of them living there since its development in the ’60s, including my mom. I think the insular mentality commonly found on 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 están malas.” Things are bad he says as he continues, “mas la corrupción.” 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 like the last time I saw it; bright, active (even at 3:00 am 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 3:20 am 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.