Contentment, before COVID
Photo Essay: Lessons I learned in Puerto Rico that made NYC quarantine feel natural
People, like plants, love to put down roots. When we travel, up rooted, our eyes are open to the magic of every new place, the intricacies of its people, new ways in which we can live our own lives. When we stay in one place for too long, we can’t help but root, settle into the comfort of accumulated things and habits. The daily same-ness of our environment lulls us until our traveler’s eye slowly, sleepily softens, shuts. We forget that staying awake to daily life is the most joyful way to be, that to be unattached to our habits is to live freely.
I was home in New York after three months of back-to-back international travel, reveling in the stability of living at home for a full January. Rooting happened covertly, quickly, as it does for everyone who loves home life as I do. I have the rare luxury of living in a truly magical apartment in downtown Manhattan, a two-storied, double-balconied bohemian palace where I live with my paisley-patterned cushions, many dozen plants, hundreds of books, notebooks, sketchbooks. There are five sweet little reading nooks; including my favorites: the kitchen counter, and the bathtub. My electric guitar hangs over my downstairs yoga space, the acoustic waits upstairs, bedside, for candlelit serenades to myself, because it’s just me living here, just me hoping, praying, wishing my way through monthly rent payments.
Home life is a total oasis and when I step out into the East Village, I find myself in another world of riches. Nothing is predictable and everything is exciting, especially in January, with New York’s New Year’s energy pulsing with things to do and have and be. The energy almost outweighs the weather. Almost.
The night before my February flight to Puerto Rico, out came my blue suede duffel, my bikinis and sundresses, my shiver of excitement for hot sun on bare skin, so soon. I stacked up all the things I would absolutely need to take with me: incense, several books, notebooks, drawing paper, writing paper, cooking spices, my little Martin guitar and the lineup of natural oils that I love on my skin.
My so-called necessities quickly overwhelmed my weekender bag. I sat on my apartment floor, half-packed and fully conflicted. I refused myself a larger bag, on ingrained principles of carrying on and traveling light. And I couldn’t imagine being happy without everything I loved at home. What would I have to leave behind? I talked myself through late night hours of indecisive agony, telling myself that this would all be here when I returned in ten days. (Ten days! Ten days without my guitar? And back into the mental cycle.) If I could have tapped my heels three times to uproot my entire apartment and land on the beach, I would have.
Where I landed with my carry-on, my little wooden flute, and no guitar, was the perfect airbnb. Tiny, with one wall of sliding glass doors, every sparse detail of the studio visible from the garden entrance. It had the look of a pint-sized blank canvas. My unpacking fully colored the space; I had managed to bring an entire studio’s worth of possessions. Scarves that I brought for my hair became the decorative accents; my few shirts, shorts, and dozen bikinis neatly stacked onto the four closet shelves; bangles and hoop earrings took the night stands. Books and notebooks went on the small wooden table in the room and my cork backpack hung from one of the two chairs. Spices (whole cardamom, cinnamon sticks, organic turmeric powder, good flake salt) and snacks (six bars of 85% dark chocolate) easily filled the single kitchen cabinet.
I planned to cook my meals, keeping with my Ayurvedic practices, and I was skeptical of what could be done with so little. The fridge was mini. Two electric burners, a sink large enough to sit a bowl but too small for a plate, and in between, barely a bit of a counter. One large knife, an itty bitty cutting board, and a stainless steel soup pot completed my available resources. Never had I lived with a kitchen so small. Still, I set out to buy groceries with excitement.
Buying groceries when traveling is always a unique delight. There is no reason to stock up and every reason to stalk the right-here-right-now appetite. And I knew where to go. I visited this neighborhood often and loved the organic grocery store that was about a half hour’s walk from my little beach side airbnb. Still accustomed to New York City, it was late in the evening when I set out for Fresh Mart, which, I learned at 9:10pm, closes at 9pm.
Forlorn, I waited at the door. Shouldn’t Puerto Rico have island hours? A flexible grace period for travelers who love bulk bins and will only eat bananas if they are organic, dirty dozen list be damned? No. Cerrado. I turned and walked, for the first time, to the 24-hour, enormous SuperMax, where neon lights herald low, low prices.
Being health conscious in the US trains us to be wary of low-priced products, which are often edible but not quite what I would consider food. Processed, packaged, prepared: all of these things had disappeared from my diet nearly a decade ago. But without other choices, my canvas tote bag and I walked into SuperMax.
It was bustling at 9:30pm. There was an acai bar inside, where a slim, tanned older woman blended smoothies and sprinkled granola on gorgeous bowls. Just a few feet away was a long counter, a proper cafeteria that served clearly homemade Puerto Rican favorites. The seating long tables filled with affectionate couples and groups of friends, pulled me back to high school memories while nearby, elderly locals sat close together, absorbed in chess matches that could have been in progress for hours or years. Wizened by a lifetime of sun and storms, they played with a patience that reflected island ease and a solid faith that SuperMax would never close. This was not a grocery store, I realized. This was a place to be.
The produce section was prolific, though mostly not organic. Planning to get to Fresh Mart before lunch the following day, and with such a small fridge at home, I carried just a few things to the register. I was beginning to feel the freedoms of needing less, of being open to new experiences where I least expected them.
There was plenty of time for reflection: lines move very slowly in Puerto Rico. The women ahead of me were buying groceries for their families. Irked to see everything in plastic bags, I thought of how beautiful the environment is here, that the system needs to change. My tired thoughts wove around environmental activism as I half-watched how carefully the women were paying. One by one, each counted out small bills, nickels, pennies. Rarely do we see cash in the city these days, my mind wandered on, until one woman took a particularly long time. She worried through her purse, looking for more money, knit eyebrows occasionally lifting towards her plastic bags, clearly thinking of what she could afford and what she could not.
I should have paid her bill. I could have easily handed my credit card to the cashier. Would that have offended her? I don’t know. I was the only non-native in line, and I felt bound-up by language in many ways. By the time I pulled my wallet from my tote, the woman found the small bill she was searching for and handed it to the cashier, looking relieved, and apologetic, both. When it came my turn to pay, my bill came to less than ten dollars. I was the only one in line shopping for only myself and the only one who charged my expenses.
My heart felt a little broken. And in that opening was a new clarity.
The one thing I didn’t realize I had packed was my preconceived notions. Without conscious awareness of it, I had held myself to a standard I thought to be above the large supermarkets and corner bodegas, where things were not so beautifully arranged to display the labeled-organic products I could afford to value.
I did not return to Fresh Mart for many days. I chose to return to SuperMax, and explore the little neighborhood bodegas. Eating “conventional” produce was a radical departure from the lifestyle I created when I first started shopping at Whole Foods fourteen years ago. When I did return to Fresh Mart, it was just because I was very close by and in the mood for a banana. I realized, with shock, that the produce in Fresh Mart was, well, not as fresh as what I had been buying on the streets. I didn’t want to buy anything other than the single banana and as I stood in line, I heard everyone speaking English. The people in line ahead of me all paid with plastic. They were buying snacks, packaged little things, nothing that would be cooked for a family dinner.
It was the first time I considered myself an anomaly in a grocery store. I shopped and cooked on principle, not out of convenience or necessity. At Fresh Mart, the produce sat on shelves while the packaged, organic products sold well to people who could afford to eat out regularly. At SuperMax, and in the bodegas, I was in the minority of those who cared to and could afford to pay more for an organic label. But, I was in good company of people buying fresh produce to cook daily, which meant that the produce was flying off of shelves and counters. I was bringing home what had been brought in that day.
The undoing of my resistance to the non-organic was the pathway into the local culture, where money was limited but time stretched on in plentitude. I rooted into the easy pace of life exemplified by the chess players and the old men who would set up a chair outside their favorite bodega to while away the day, sipping on a beer, chatting with anyone who walked by. When going to buy fruit, fresh coconuts, and local vegetables, I did not just pay the bill and leave.
I learned the names and lives of the shop owners, who treated me as a child, partly because they spoke no English and my Spanish placed me squarely at the level of simpleton, but mostly because of the warmth and generosity of the people themselves. They adopted me. They taught me, through gestures, new words, and Youtube videos, how to cook plantains and yuca in the local ways. They were curious about my life, my yoga, and were impressed by my plant-based diet, excited to tell me of their own health journeys. I felt the liberty of being neither better nor worse than anyone around me, neither superior for my environmentally-informed choices nor inferior for living in a gated community of beach-side mansions while spending time with the shopkeepers who sold single cigarettes to the construction workers who passed through like family. It was a simple life.
The tiny kitchen, with its mini fridge and all my possessions visible in a single sweeping glance, all highlighted how little it took to feel content. Every object and action held meaning. It felt like abundance, but really, it was a life of “just enough”, a release from the city cycles of wanting and getting, denial and indulgence. Fewer things meant fewer things to do, fewer decisions to make, and an abundance of energy.
Like the locals, I let time stretch out without clocks. The first light of dawn would sweep in through the glass wall of my studio, an irresistible invitation to walk two minutes to the beach, watch the mood of the water. It mattered that I chose, every time I unlocked the gate separating my pint sized studio from the small streete it faced, that I had a choice. I either turned right and walked the minute to the sandy and surf, or turned left and walked two minute through quiet neighborhood and the main street that led me to the bodegas, fruit stands nestled between nightclubs, and if I walked on past the small restaurants and tattoo shop, I would arrive at SuperMax. Unlike city living, where leaving the apartment drops you into stores and restaurants right away, I could go out to the water without seeing neon signs or advertisements. When I needed to buy something, I would purposefully bring my canvas tote and a little cash to town, leaving my credit card and city-style-shopping-habits in my duffel.
Our desires have power like the ocean, wants pushing us towards the never-ending getting, the possession of something new granting a momentary reprieve as the want-wave recedes, only to swell again, push again, pull again, the rhythm that paces our every action. Rarely do we find ourselves in the stillness of contentment. Human nature is to want.
That choice, whether to turn right to nature, or left to town, gave me a much needed sensory reprieve plus the assurance that I could have what I wanted, when I chose to go for it. I found that when I did have a want, it was clear to me, and usually just a single item: an orange, a gift for a friend, a cold coconut. I would buy as much as I thought I needed, taking the time, always, to talk with the people and savor the experience of purchasing what I needed. I felt sensitive, and open, to people as well as the immensity of nature surrounding us all.
Needing less is having more. My studio became just a small space to visit between long stretches of time outside, a small haven for holding me in stillness from the winds. Sometimes I wanted or needed that, the being indoors. Mostly, though, I felt drawn to the open expanse of space, of time the stretched on without measurement. My life was set by the pacing of the sun, the large sweeps of movement that know no minutes. That freedom was the greatest undoing of my city life, the reprieve from things to do and have and be.
What I did with that freedom was breathe. I filled my body with the open air, welcomed the thin layer of sand-and-salt onto my skin. I was surrounded by immensity, and I was content.