What started as a chance to wear my latest in resort and vacation wardrobe, which were feeling seriously neglected in my closet, ended up becoming so much more -- and by accident no less.
As a black man, one of the last places I thought I'd find some roots was in Puerto Rico. But I did.
I'm still a relatively new flier. I've had two turbulence scares on two of the five flights that I've taken thus far. But for the most part, flights for me have been easy. That's why it wasn't a struggle to fly to Puerto Rico this summer for a quick trip.
Ever the consummate fashion editor -- this trip was an opportunity to try out several new looks that were perfect for vacations. When I landed, I knew I had to get to the hotel quick enough for an outfit change and then some exploring before dinner with people in my group.
I approached the front desk of the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino and was struck by the lobby. Most chain hotels are typical and predictable but there was something unique and authentic about this particular Marriott. It was the decor. Everything was consistent with San Juan and it captured the beauty of the area, while providing mainstream service.
Essentially, the hotel presented the best of both worlds.
I've been trained to think with a fashion eye, and I find inspiration everywhere. Walking to the elevator, I was confronted by beautiful images and scenery that screamed, fashion editorial location. The marriage of hospitality and fashion was evident with color and design that was right on trend only by coincidence, which made it even better.
My room -- an ocean front view of the beach that doubles as the hotel's backyard. It was a writer's room with a patio that had tables and chairs. Fantasies of writing something brilliant and beautiful took up most of my thoughts while there. At night, the room seemed to change with lighting bouncing off of the ocean to fill the space with a romantic glow. I hated leaving each morning and I loved coming back each evening.
There was an itinerary neatly organized and set forth by our group leaders. The list of things to do was emailed before I arrived which gave me time to put together looks and edit my wardrobe for strategic placement and optimal packing.
For most of the trip, we were with a tour guide -- a distinguished looking man we called Felix. I'd heard horror stories about people getting lost, guides not knowing what they were talking about, and people missing important sights as a result. That wasn't the case with Felix.
But I still ended up deviating from the itinerary.
I can't swim. I never could. And right there in the middle of the itinerary it read, kayaking at Torrecilla Lagoon.
"Never to return again" -- that would be the ending of each story that was told of my demise that faithful day that I decided to chance it and get in the water. No more Prada, Hermes, September issues of my favorite magazines, and True Blood on HBO GO. I told our group leader, "I think I'll pass."
But Felix noticed my outfit. Or more specifically, he noticed my medallion -- a fabulous wooden cutout of Africa on a string of wooden beads, in all black -- just how I like it. He said, "I know where to take him."
So he did.
We wound up in Loiza -- a tiny area with a rotund history.
The town was founded in the 1692. Nigerian slaves from the Yoruba tribe were placed there and still hold one of the highest percentages of black residents in Puerto Rico today. What I found to be haunting was the proximity of the beach. I imaged being brought to Loiza, and then watching each day while working as a slave as others came to the island only to do the same. Films, as graphic and truthful as some try to be, still don't do the experience justice. Being there and imaging the tragedy of it all can be just as painful as watching an adaptation on film.
Some descendants of those slaves still reside in Loiza -- in fact, according to Felix, most do.
I could see remnants of plantations that once existed now scattered with shacks that are converted into eateries. Lines of at least 20 people took up most of the area that didn't include road. These shacks apparently do a lot of business.
Roads of sights paired with my own imagination transported me to a time long ago where survival was the only thing that mattered.
Four years ago, before he became president, Barack Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia where he called slavery, "America's original sin." And no matter how films and plays projected it -- the truth is, being there is altogether different.
During sightseeing, I visited some of my favorite boutiques. It was welcoming to see that style is style in any language. But what was most interesting was the reception I received when walking into the stores. It was a warm feeling of inclusion that I hadn't always felt elsewhere. I can say that I've seen a man of color become president -- and then get reelected. That said it still isn't surprising that I can walk into some high-end stores and be greeted with aggressive stares and the occasional following. Unless I introduce myself and mention what I do in fashion, this is almost always the case.
But not in San Juan.
Right after my tour with Felix, this is probably the best thing that happened.