Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Not Much Tea in Puerto Rico

Recently I took a one week long trip to Puerto Rico. The trip was rather spontaneous; one of my friends approached me with an offer to stay in her hotel, paid for by her employer, while she was there on a business trip. When I checked idly for flights, I was surprised that even last-minute flights, direct from Philly, were very cheap. And since Puerto Rico is a US Territory, there is no need for visas, passports, and the like. I couldn't pass up this opportunity.

Having grown up in Lancaster, PA, a small city where Puerto Ricans are the largest ethnic group (outnumbering each of whites, blacks, and Asians), I've acquired an odd familiarity with and affinity for Puerto Rican culture, for someone who has zero hispanic heritage in my own family. When left to my own devices, the music I most often put on my playlist is Puerto Rican salsa, and, to me, Puerto Ricans sound like they have no accent, whereas Mexicans, Spaniards, and other Spanish-speaking people from Latin America all sound to me like they have some strange sort of accent.

I want to write about this trip here on this blog, but it's a bit of a struggle, because I did not do much in Puerto Rico relating to tea. But when I started thinking about that, that in itself is interesting.

Going mostly without tea:

The first cup of true tea (not herbal) which I had in Puerto Rico was a cup of the London Cuppa, served with breakfast in Hotel Belgica, a quirky hotel in Ponce, a city on Puerto Rico's southern coast. I would recommend this hotel wholeheartedly; it was very reasonably priced, and located conveniently on the town square. Unlike many of the hotels in San Juan, it was not a tourist trap; some of the hotel staff spoke no English. But the rooms were clean and the building was beautiful and a prime example of the unique architecture you can find about Ponce.

I didn't drink much tea in Puerto Rico, but I found, I didn't miss it very much, mainly because it was so hot. I did, however, have a very nice iced herbal concoction, involving ginger and lemongrass. In Puerto Rico, herbal teas, especially iced ones, seemed a little more popular and widespread, but only slightly so.

Pictured above is the town square in Ponce, in the morning, when it was quietest. This square came alive in the evening, filled up with people doing all sorts of activities. One thing that struck me on my trip was how friendly and approachable Puerto Ricans were, and how caring they were towards each other, their families, and to me. With my minimal Spanish and the fact that most Puerto Ricans speak at least some English, I found it easy to communicate with almost everyone. And people I talked to were immensely positive, helpful, and open. I found little of the closed-off attitude that seems to be the default in much of the U.S. and especially in the bigger cities of the east coast. I never got the sense that anyone was judging anyone else or trying to impress. It seemed everyone I talked to at length talked about their families a lot, and many expressed a deep caring for Puerto Rico, and for their families and communities.

A lot of little things went wrong on the trip; random things we had hoped to depend on were often closed, broken, under construction, or just not present at all. But there was always someone willing to help out. Once I got used to the slight unpredictability, and got more comfortable talking to random people, I realized that the unpredictable points were small and most of the important things worked out very nicely on the trip.

My experience with the people made me want to go back again some time soon.

Hot, Humid Climates and Tea:

The climate in Puerto Rico is solidly tropical, fairly uniformly hot and humid. Temperatures are relatively constant year-round and from day-to-day, and, especially in San Juan, on the humid, northeast part of the Island, there is much less variation in temperature between day and night than I am used to in the U.S. Temperatures ranged from about 87F (30C) during the peak of the day to around 77F (25C) at night.

In San Juan, pictured above, it seemed like there was water everywhere, even when it was not raining. I saw numerous rainbows like this one pictured here. I got used to being rather sweaty while walking around in the near constant 70% humidity. It rained every day, at unpredictable times (apparently, May is a rainy month on much of the island), although the rain only took up a small portion of the day. Umbrellas are a lot less useful than I thought they would be...when it starts to rain, the wind typically picks up, making umbrellas unwieldly. And it's often more pleasant to just let it rain on you...you're already wet from the humidity, and the rain doesn't seem to get you much more wet.

Tea in hot weather?

Here in the U.S. I like to drink hot tea even in very hot weather. But what is "hot"? During the heat of the day, in July and August, it often gets much hotter than the 87F (30C) highs I encountered daily in Puerto Rico. But it tends to cool off a lot more at night, and during much of the year, it's much cooler.

I've heard that coffee is much more popular than tea in Puerto Rico, and I saw a lot of coffee for sale and on menus, but I did not see many people actually drinking coffee. I saw a lot of people drinking water, beer, smoothies, and various cold sugary drinks.

People think of South China and Taiwan, where hot tea is popular and widely consumed, as being tropical and humid, but these regions are actually much cooler than Puerto Rico. Taipei, for instance, has more well-defined seasons, with night-time lows in winter averaging 55F(13C), a good 22F(13C) cooler than San Juan's "winter" night-time lows. See Taipei's Weather Averages compared to San Juan's averages to see for yourself. I can understand why people might not want to consume many hot beverages in this climate. San Juan's temperatures are more similar to areas much farther south than China's southernmost point, like Southern Vietnam or points in the Philippines. Do people consume many hot beverages in these solidly tropical areas? I don't know, and I'd be curious to hear from people who have traveled in these areas.


  1. I thought I heard that drinking hot tea cools you down? Don't they drink hot coffee in Africa all day?