Every time I come across the smell of carne guisada, my mind runs immediately back to my childhood, and some of the most vivid memories of my early life pop up, arousing a feeling of nostalgic joy. I was six years old when my parents announced that me, together with my sisters Ashley and Kayla, would have visited our great-grandparents in Puerto Rico during the summer holidays. Abuela, our grandmother, would have accompanied us.
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The three following months were full of excitement, planning, and daydreams. Besides the official programming, led unequivocally by mom and grandmother, there was a lot of underground conspiracy among the three of us: one of our main concerns was how to smuggle a couple of puppets in the suitcase, and we spent hours fantasizing about adventurous meeting with the animals of the forest.
When the day of departure finally arrived, I realized that what I had always pretended to ignore would have become a reality for the following two weeks: mom would not have come with us! However, there was no time to recriminate, cry, or play up, as grandma took the lead, and in a blink of an eye, we found ourselves safely anchored to the seats of the aircraft. It was my first flight, and when the plane started to roll I was terrified, but during the take-off, grandma held my hand tight, and everything went right.
When the aircraft reached the optimal navigation altitude, it was pure bliss: Ashley, Kayla and I huddled on the window trying to guess where we were flying over. We were a bit loud too, and I suspect that the old couple sitting in front of got annoyed because of our chattering, screaming, and singing. After some hours, we landed safely at the international airport of Saint Juan, where our great-grandparents were waiting for us.
It was the first time I met with “Mima” and “Pipa,” and the impact was simply overwhelming. Granma and Mima could not stop hugging and crying; Pipa kept on shaking his head and smiling while he made us twirl through the air. For a moment, I felt even a bit embarrassed, but the whole airport was full of kids whirling in the air, and people were hugging, crying, and smiling all around us. I will never forget that first warm and chaotic picture of a country that I would have soon learned to love. Finally, Mima looked at us and said: “Bienvenidos a Puerto Rico, niñas.” The holiday had officially begun.
Our great-grandparents lived in a small village at about two hours by bus from the city, not so far from Guayanilla, a renowned seaside resort. The news of our arrival had already spread, and the whole village had gathered to welcome us, bringing cakes, candies, and fresh fruit juices. Indeed, it looked a Caribbean ideal of paradise, at least until grandma shouted that it was time for us to have a bath and some rest after the flight and the bus trip. Besides playing with the other kids and exploring the village, the days were marked by several farming activities, and we helped to take care of the garden and the animals. I loved to feed the chickens: it was a noisy and chaotic task, and the chickens were a bit clumsy and ridiculous.
At home, it was a lot of chattering between Mima and grandma, while Pipa was silent for most of the time. When he spoke, it was always to say something funny, though not always appreciated by Mima, who never missed a chance to reproach him. However, it looked as they were playing a used game, and the affection that united them was evident. My sisters and I discovered that we had flocks of first, second, and even third cousins. You might say that the village was a large family. I made friend with Ivelisse, the daughter of a second cousin of grandma. Together, we rode horses and went to the seaside almost every day. We are still in touch, and Ivelisse visited me two years ago.
Perhaps, the most exciting day of the whole holiday was the trip to El Yunque National Forest. El Yunque is a vast rain forest in the northeast of Puerto Rico. It took some hours by bus to reach the park, but the experience was rewarding from every perspective. The vegetation was luxuriant, and I could feel the energy coming from the depth of the forest. We could hear several verses of animals, and we were so lucky to see a couple of curious green parrots peeping from a tree. The goal of the visit was a waterfall in the middle of the forest, the Coca waterfall. Breathtaking is the only word I can use to describe the magnificence, the magic, and the dramatic beauty of that spot. Even today, if I close my eyes, I can still see the Coca waterfall in all its greatness, hear the pouring water, and the power of Mother Nature.
However, all things must pass, and our two-week holidays came to an end, and on one sunny day we made our way back to Saint Juan and flew back home. That trip to Puerto Rico was my first long journey, moreover without parents. I will always regard that small village near Guayanilla as a second home, where my sisters and I spent many happy days, pampered by the warmth of the ocean, the reassuring smell of the horses, and the unconditioned love of Mima and Pipa.