“It’s so beautiful here,” I said into the phone as I sat overlooking a harbor in southern Puerto Rico. My legs were slung over the edge of a stone wall near the water’s edge.
“Where even are you?” my friend Chelsea asked. I had flown to San Juan for her upcoming wedding and had arrived to the island a few days early to explore and relax before the festivities.
“I don’t know, some town called Ponce that I picked out the map.”
She was laughing on the other end of the phone. “You’re insane.”
Little did we know that the insanity of my excursion hadn’t even started. The road trip from the island’s capital was the product of a spontaneous online reservation that I had made the night before from the rickety mattress that took up over 90 percent of the room I'd rented in San Juan.
I had the found the place on AirBnB a couple of days before I flew from California and it was deliciously cheap, especially compared to the neighboring hostels and hotels that catered to international backpackers and eager vacationers. I'd soon learn why I paid so little when I landed at the airport and headed into the old city to pick up the key from my host, Raul.
Meet me at the Burger King, read his text message. You know which one
To me, the last part of the text seemed like it should have included some kind of punctuation, but it didn’t. An exclamation mark would have left the impression that Raul was simply thrilled to know that both he and I knew the precise location of our approaching rendezvous; whereas, a period would have given the notion that he and I, perhaps in an alternate universe, were a couple of old friends with a history of fast food meet-ups and whopper-sized memories.
“You know the Burger King, Shane. The one we always meet at.” Raul and I, laughing, would do our secret handshake, slide into our go-to booth in our go-to Puerto Rican Burger King, and share a 42-piece chicken nugget meal and a 96 oz. vanilla milkshake.
Disregarding alternate realities, this was real life. The thing is, even if Raul had ended his text message with a quintessential question mark, effectively leaving the door open for me to seek further guidance, I still would have responded with “see you there!”
Connect me to the dot of whatever stereotype you want, but yes, I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to ask for directions. It’s not just refusing to ask for help when I’m navigating a city. I don’t even like to ask for help when I’m shopping at Walgreens.
“And did you find everything okay today, sir?” asks the checkout woman who’s always smiling, but never with her eyes.
She nods, satisfied with the store’s seemingly flawless layout.
I lock eyes with her. “But that sure is one hell of a place to hide those Q-tips, don’t you think?” I say as I turn to walk out of the pharmacy, two and a half hours after having entered.
Raul was the type of host who wanted to put his best foot forward. Even though he was thirty minutes late for our key exchange, he was quick to make sure that I felt right at home when we got to his place. “Look, everything’s clean,” he said, spritzing a nearby wall and half of my pillow with Clorox spray. “What more do you want?”
I'd never really planned on spending much time in my room in San Juan, so I embraced the sparse furnishings and Peace Corps-esque vibes with open arms. Chelsea’s wedding was in a few days and I wanted to take some time to see the island before guests started to arrive. Plus, I was desperate of some quality me-time outside of San Francisco: I needed a road trip.
When it comes to driving, the first thing that you should know is that people describe me as a very confident passenger. “Passenger?” you say. Yes, I self-edit these. Passenger.
I’ve never technically owned a car, and whereas I have a driver’s license, I don’t get behind the wheel more than a couple of times a year. I do, however, easily have over 10,000 hours of experience as a vehicular passenger. With this mastery comes a certain level of, for lack of better words, backseat driving.
My years spent lifeguarding in high school have left my eyes constantly scanning for danger, and my many close calls involving cars and trucks in rural Cameroon have ingrained within me that danger is everywhere. Therefore, I see it as my personal duty (mission, and honor) as the passenger to make the driver aware of how I see the road (sidewalks, and airspace) through my eyes.
“TURN LEFT!” “WATCH OUT FOR THAT BIKE!” “HOLY SHIT!!!”
But something happens when I shift over a seat and lock my arms into the ‘ole ten and two position. I turn right instead of left, I undoubtedly don’t watch out for that cyclist, and my expletives become equally more targeted and succinct. If someone were to ask me to describe myself on the road, I’d pluck alarmist, hyper-aware, and narcoleptic out of my cerebral dictionary. Whether I’m in the driver’s seat or in the backseat, that’s just who I am.
Of course, none of this crossed my millennial, instant gratification thought process as I sat in San Juan and clicked “confirm” on the car rental website. A few hours later, I jumped into my Kia, hit the gas, shifted into drive, hit the gas, released the emergency brake, hit the gas, and I was on my way.
Far behind me were the tour buses full of geriatrics wearing bucket hats and knee socks and the city streets congested with sluggish traffic and suffocating buildings. I winded my way along the coast, taking my time to enjoy the sunshine and the scenery.
It must have been nearly 5pm when I rolled into Ponce. It’d been a lovely day. I’d stopped for a hike in the rainforest, I’d spent some time at the beach, and I’d pulverized an ill-placed iguana into the pavement with my car: adventure embraced me at every bend in the road.
“How are you gonna get back,” asked Chelsea. “The freeway?”
“Nah,” I said, eying an approaching yacht from my harborside perch. “I’m gonna shoot straight up through the middle of the island and loop back to San Juan that way.”
“Oooookay, text when you get back.”
I glanced down at my phone as I hung up. A notification had just popped up telling me that my battery was below 20 percent. I didn’t think much of it, figuring I would be able to charge it in the car. I bid my farewell to the ocean and turned around to take a look at the island’s hilly interior – rolling green mountains punctuated with the first rays of the setting sun.
As I opened my car door and reached for my day bag, I could feel it coming: the flashback.
There I was, navigating the single square foot of floor space of Raul's AirBn, packing my bag for the day. I'd placed a heavy emphasis on snacks – no surprises there. I had my pizza-flavored Pringles, deli pretzels, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an apple, a banana, a container of trail mix, a single cheese stick, and three old-fashioned glazed donuts wrapped in foil and brought with me from San Francisco. I barely had room for a towel and sunscreen, let alone my phone charger.
My phone charger.
I could see it sitting there on the pillow, 100 some miles in my morning. I glared back at that moment of foolishness as much as I squinted into those green mountains with concern. I could have easily retraced my steps and gotten onto the freeway, following the signs to San Juan. But no, no. This wouldn’t be that straightforward.
I jumped back into the driver’s seat of my Kia, hit the gas, shifted into reverse, hit the gas, released the emergency brake, hit the gas, and I was once again on my way.
“Challenge accepted,” I said to Google Maps after it told me that the route I had chosen would take two hours.
“Faster route available” it retorted.
As my Kia, Google Maps, and I began to wind our way up in elevation, the road became narrower and narrower, and as we curved our way along, the sun cast long shadows over the wrinkled valleys below. It was this golden blue sky, streaked with wisps of clouds and silhouetted by the topographical chisel of textured vegetation that made me pull over. I couldn’t resist taking a photo. And another. And another.
By this point, my phone’s battery was plummeting towards single digit percentiles and I was nowhere near San Juan. I studied the map in my hand for a couple of minutes, trying to memorize the route, opening myself up to the possibility that my phone would die. I couldn’t count the number of switchbacks that awaited me, but I could do my best to remember turnoffs and towns between me and my destination. We had a long way to go.
Day faded into night. The road was barely wide enough for two cars going in opposite directions to pass. A canopy of trees formed a tunnel above me, and my Kia’s headlights struggled to carve out a path forward. Tucked back from the road, television sets twinkled in houses like the illuminated eyes of wild animals in the forest.
I don’t know when or how it happened, but at some point I realized that I was seeing scenery that I had already passed: a familiar fork in the road, the same vacant plot of land, that phallic tree stump. Yes, I had seen all of this before. “What the…no, Google Maps, why?!?”
Wanting to get home to its charger in San Juan, the cowardly app had staged a mutiny and changed our route. The damage was done.
This realization evoked a steady stream of expletives from my mouth. I turned left. Then right. Then left again. I slammed on my brakes. Resetting my destination in Google Maps, I again ordered my dimming phone to lead me through the hellish black hills ahead.
Six percent battery remained.
The ordeal had left a bitter taste in my mouth and I happily devoured a donut as I waited for Google Maps to draw a rotund “U” in front of me. I was, again, meant to follow. I felt like Frodo being led into the heart of Mordor by a tech-savvy Golem who had missed his last software update. Regardless, I stuck to the magic blue road that spanned out in front of me on my screen.
Within minutes, however, the magic blue road turned into a magic blue path, and then all of a sudden, I was driving on grass (and not the magic green kind, if I may add). The shocks in my Kia began to jostle up and down with an identifiable “we weren’t designed for this” groan. Google Maps let out a maniacal cackle.
This was how I was going to die. Not in Cameroon at the hands of a Nigerian jihadist or in Australia in the jaws of a saltwater crocodile, but in some random field in the literal middle of Puerto Rico.
Just as suddenly as the road had shifted to grass, it turned back to pavement. My excitement was short-lived. I’d stumbled upon a dead-end; a wire fence was strung up across the road, blocking my way. A single house sat to my left, unlit and nestled away from the road.
That’s when what I can only assume was a hellhound began barking. Light flooded out of the house. Someone screamed. It was me.
I thrust the car into reverse, sending up a shower of sparks as I made my escape. Perhaps I could have asked the owner of said hellhound for directions to San Juan, but for all I knew, I was about to be chopped up into plantain-sized morsels and left in a chest freezer. “Not today, death!”
I glanced outside at my filthy Kia. Yes. You need to replace the shocks and brakes. Don’t look too closely at the underside of the rear bumper. Actually, don’t look under the front bumper either. And for what it’s worth, that’s a sweat stain on the driver’s seat, not urine. “Nope, none,” I told him.
“Wow, you drove over 250 miles today,” he said. “Where’d all you go?”
From the beaches of paradise to the brink of Hell. “Ponce and back,” I said.
“Oh.” He looked confused as he attempted to crunch the numbers in his head, the mileage not adding up. “Did you find everything okay?”
“Eventually,” I said. I always do.