This essay is Part 2 of La Playa: Beach Stories, Latin-style, showcased this week on the Tiki Tiki.
By Kali Amanda Browne
I remember one time when my madrina and her husband planned a beach outing to Cerro Gordo in Puerto Rico. Her kids were coming, her two sisters and their kids. Then my grandmother added us to the joint, and a couple of the neighbors decided to join us as well.
By the time all was said and done, we had a caravan of almost 15 cars – and somehow managed to pick up a few more as we stopped at the gas station (for gas and extra bags of ice), and then at the panaderia and la lechonera.
It wasn’t someone’s birthday or even a holiday. This was just a summer outing to the beach: a simple family affair.
I told some friends about this and their reaction was priceless. For them, all Americanos, a beach outing meant a small cooler with sodas and a few cheese sandwiches, and a few bags of chips on the side. I grimaced, desperately pitying them their sad lives.
When I shared my memory of this particular outing, their mouths hung open and although sounds came out none of it could be classified as words.
Setting Up La Comida
As my cousins set up chairs, a few hamacas, and cleared a space in the shade for everyone, the women set up the food.
Once we were settled in, the men and the women divided the chores.
The tiny lechón we’d ordered, already on a spit, slow cooked on a pit in the sand the men had quickly put together when we arrived. A small barbacoa cooked marinated pieces of chicken. The men handled this.
We’d brought a caldero with arroz con gandules. Someone prepared a fresh salad on site; nothing fancy, just lettuce, tomato and a few avocados. There were containers with potato and macaroni salads, and a jar of guineitos en escabeche.
Coolers had a dizzying array of soft drinks that could easy stock any corner bodega — grape and orange soda, the big three brands, and a bottle or two of seltzer, juices and maybe a Yoo-Hoo or two. There was beer for the adults and always, somewhere hidden from the prying eyes of the women, a caneca of rum, (because it is a known fact that turning a spit or a chicken leg, in the heat, is thirsty work).
Did we bring sandwiches and chips? Of course, we did. Those were snacks for the kids to tie us over until the food was ready. These usually consisted of two kinds of sandwiches: white bread with potted meat or cheese cut in quarters. For chips we were given a variety of salty treats. The fresh bread bought as we embarked on our trek to the coast had been consumed on the ride to the beach.
We also brought bags of fruit, some of them picked on the road on the way to the beach. Mangoes, guavas, quenepas (mamoncillo), tamarinds, and those tiny and super sweet bananas…
Swimming and Laughing
As the men set up the space, and the women put out the food, the kids jumped up and down until an adult supervised the taking off of the clothes and two adults were designated as official escorts. Then the kids spent as long as we were allowed carousing in the water. A new guard would come in to relieve the first shift, but the kids rarely left the water (unless extremely hungry or thirsty), because coming back required another volunteer adult. Usually by the third shift, we were all reigned in to eat lunch.
This was usually at the point the sun was right on top of us and after lunch, the kids and several adults took naps. Siestas at the beach! The others would sit around telling stories and jokes and the occasional gossip (las cosas que no se dicen al frente de la gente).
After that two hour break, the kids went back to the water and the women started to clean up the space. The men, who’d been hitting the rum for a few hours, would always pick this time to turn up the radio and insist on dancing. The young lovebirds took the opportunity to go for a little nature hike and the boys would climb the rocks to see if they could glance any sharks in the distance.
Just How We Do the Beach
It took me years to realize how much work this was for the women, which is probably why we did not go to the beach every weekend despite living in a tropical paradise. They loved it because it gave the family a chance to be together and it wasn’t a funeral. Their biggest concern was for the kids. Los niños had their day in the sun and our total exhaustion mixed with intermittent giggles on the ride back home made them happy.
That’s not the typical story my gringo friends have about their beach outings. There’s nothing atypical about mine. That’s just the way we did it. Always! I thought that’s what it was for everybody. Who knew?!
Kali Amanda Browne was born in New York City, came of age in Puerto Rico and has lived her entire adult life in Brooklyn, NY. She is a writer, food enthusiast, devoted daughter, marketing specialist, technology analyst, big mouth with a daemon tongue and super geek with pagan tendencies.