I Will Survive: The Unhungover Swim and Disco Karaoke

Sunday, January 1, 2017: Rincón, Puerto Rico

On New Years’ Day, 2017, I was brimming with fresh start ambition. As a consequence, I almost drowned.

Summary of the Below Verbosity

  • Rincón Farmers’ Market: The Rincón pueblo (downtown plaza) has a farmers’ market every Sunday – including New Years’ Day! While you can’t expect to find sandwich stands, pizza trucks and smoothie vendors like you might at a big-city “farmers’ market,” the market does have your standard local produce and some baked goods
  • La Rincoeña: Located on the plaza, this little cafetería is a good spot to get food and coffee, especially if you came to the Sunday farmers’ market hoping to purchase food that someone had already cooked for you. I had a revoltillo, a can of guava nectar, and coffee
  • 413 Surfer Spot: This hidden gem (that I found on the internet) is just south of Lazy Parrot on 413. It’s an outdoors, roadside bar, with a small kitchen in the back of the stand. They open around 5:30, but don’t seem to have rigidily adhered-to hours – when I called, I mistook the owner telling me she was at that moment in the process of opening for just saying she was open now. The menu is limited but packed with treats – I had coconut fish nuggets, seaweed salad, and batata (sweet potato) fries. A retiree picking up takeout said that the Big Surfer Burger was the best meal on the island
  • Coconut Ice Cream: The ice cream here was pretty good, not my ideal consistency for ice cream but fine. I don’t think all the ice cream has coconut hints but cannot confirm. It’s open lateish, which makes it a key spot for dessert in sleepy Rincón, and tucked in by Harbor restaurant/bar
  • Balneario de Rincón: The public beach is a good place to relax or sunbathe, as it’s not among the main surfing beaches. It’s easy to reach (only a couple of turns off of 413), has ample parking, and is surrounded by a few shops, restaurants, etc.
Tourist Attractions
  • El Faro de Punta Higuero: The local lighthouse in Rincón is situated in a nice park and has great views of the coast and the sunset. You can’t go inside, and there is minimal information posted about the lighthouse. However, you can get a good picture of Rincón culture with direct sightlines to surfers finishing up their day and to the tents dotting the beach
Sporting-Type Activities
  • The Hangover Swim: A 1.1 mile swim along the coast on New Years’ Day, hosted by Rincón Ride. A decent-sized group comes out early in the morning to “start the year off right.” I started mine with failure, disappointment, shame, multiple cramps, and a brief but serious contemplation of my mortality. Kayaks and paddleboards are allowed, so if you are not a strong swimmer accustomed to what is a apparently a solid distance, I’d bring one of those naturally floating objects. Online information about it (like many things in Rincón) is scarce, but the Rincón Ride Facebook page should have reliable info in the days leading up to the event
  • Bohío Beach Bar: A nice beachside bar; you actually step onto its deck from the beach. It’s located at the Villa Cofresi hotel. I only walked through it because it hosted the Hangover Swim afterparty, and consequently I sped through with my head hung in shame, but it had a very nice vibe
  • Harbor Restaurant: An outdoor bar at Sunset Village. It is a Puerto Rican spot and has live music at night
  • Bar at Balneario de Rincón: An open-air bar located in the parking lot of the Balneario, not much more than a tent with a couple of tables and a counter selling a few drinks. They had karaoke the Sunday I was there, and I was told they have it at least every weekend night. It’s a local spot – you will not find it packed with transplants like many of the area’s other bars, and you won’t hear English spoken. Internet  documentation of this establishment seems to be non-existent, but I would say park at the Balneario parking and turn left when you see approximately this frame

Notes and Photos

Weeks before I went to Puerto Rico’s West Coast, a Google search of “what to do for New Years in Rincon” suggested something that was not at all the “dance here, hear a live band there, set off fireworks somewhere else” I was seeking: a 1.1 mile swim along the beach to start off your morning after New Years’ Eve. The event was dubbed, “The Hangover Swim.” I have an almost paralyzing need to experience everything that sounds remotely interesting when I travel, so I set my sights on this adventure. I did nothing to prepare besides setting my sights and splashing at the beach earlier in the week.

New Years’ Eve Saturday was fun but not particularly wild, or particularly late. I woke up on Sunday a little tired, a bit hungry, and slightly dehydrated, but at least I wasn’t hungover. I could seize the day and swim. However, I was late. I woke up Chantel, and we got in the car and hurtled to the beach. Scant official info was published, but via a Facebook page, we identified an approximate starting location. That page suggested that particpants should show up at the Balneario; they could swim, paddleboard, or kayak; the course would end at Villa Cofresi; it was a great way to start the new year. We had no equipment but surmised a low probability of a well-organized equipment rental at the starting point, and so came to an agreement: she wasn’t foolish enough to participate; if we got to the beach and the swim hadn’t left, I would take the plunge; she would meet me at Villa Cofresi.

We pulled into the parking lot and I ran onto the beach. A crowd had just splashed into the water. Its members wore swimsuits, swim caps, goggles, and determined visages; at first glance, none of the Hangover Swimmers looked hungover. My first (and only) advantage dissipated. I dithered and prepped my excuse: the swim had begun. But it hadn’t really left yet, so my everreliable friend said to just do it. I handed her the car keys, my phone, my wallet, and my glasses, and with that I sprinted into the sea.

My first challenge was to catch up with a swim (not technically a race) that had started already. That hurdle was, ultimately, the only one I overcame. By the time I reached the crowd, I was severely winded. The remainder of my brief stint in the Hangover Swim was characterized by a severe overestimation of my swimming abilities. My calculus had been as follows: I can swim, I am in good shape, if hungover beach bums can swim 1.1 miles, I certainly can, too.

Rincón’s beach bums are the types that surf incessantly, go to spin class on the beach, go to yoga class on the beach and consume smoothies and açaí bowls. The subset that takes on a swimming challenge at 9am on New Years Day is at the fitter end of an already fit spectrum. They live on the beach and have swam more than once in the past month.

I caught up and, with much exertion, swam ahead of a few stragglers in order to alleviate the pressure of being in dead last. Without goggles, my eyes burned. With influid, arhytmic cranial rotations to gulp air, I coughed on salt water. I maintained my position but floundered. Soon, the stragglers overtook me. I was in last place.

The designated lifeguards rowed confidently on standup paddleboards, shepherding the throng of swimmers. I was relieved when one approached me. Water lapped over my ears and perhaps clogged them, but I heard the exclamation that I was going the wrong way. Silly me, I thought, I’m pressing on straight ahead when everyone is turning in to the finish line.

In fact, I had charted a meandering path back towards shore and was being prodded back on course, which continued straight ahead. I was not doing well, visibly so. The man on one paddleboard had little sympathy; the woman on the other offered to let me hang on the edge of her board for a bit. The assumption was that a quick breather would restore the strength I needed to push on to the finish. “How far is the finish?” I gasped. She estimated that we had completed no more than ten percent of the race. I assessed my odds and turned in.

That trip to shore was the toughest swim of my life. The unsympathetic man on the paddleboard escorted me the whole way, but while his company minimized my chances of drowning, the guilt surging through me for diverting him from his course on account my Icarusian aquatic hubris made completing each stroke even more stressful. I questioned whether that pride had made me delay my already rapid surrender too long and whether my next stroke would fail, my legs would quit, my lungs would fill with water, and my body would listlessly roll belly up to be dragged to shore by this disdainful paddleboarding lifeguard. When my toes scraped shallow water, I said something resembling a prayer.

Reaching damp land did not end my troubles. I had surrendered my means of transportation and my ability to call Chantel for a ride or even look up directions, to pay someone else for a ride, and to see clearly. And I had traveled only .11 of the 1.1 miles in the water. The turbulent swim had taken a severe toll on my body. Walking had become an unfathomable burden. And I could not give up or rest: I had no choice but to find and reach Villa Cofresi. I guessed that it must sit along the beach in the direction of the swim, so I began to walk that way.

During the walk, my leg cramped. I wanted to sit, but sitting temporarily would delay the opportunity to sit permanently. I wanted water but had none. I scanned the shore for swimmers but my eyes could not distinguish details. I wanted to ask for directions but encountered few beachgoers and was too embarrassed and disoriented to chat with those I passed. I fought through the leg cramp and, after some time, caught up with the swim. Further demoralization came from the realization that I could not keep pace with most of the swimmers even while walking parallel to them on land. I assumed the paddleboarders could see my cramped body hobbling along the shore and laughed at me. Soon, I encountered a huge pile of rocks blocking my path on the beach and extending into the shallow water. I had no shoes to shield my soles, and I had no confidence that I would survive diving back into medium-depth water to circumvent the rocks. In a defeated, crouched, four-limbed stance I staggered across the rocks, placing a hand on the next big handhold before lunging ungracefully to the next foothold. Hitting sand after an agonizing journey across the rocks, I stumbled along the final stretch of beach. I reached Villa Cofresi and found Chantel waiting for me on a lounge chair.

I sat with her and revealed my failure while catching my breath. Tired but gleeful Hangover Swimmers paraded out of the water; organizers draped medals around their necks. When the group coalesced for a celebratory picture, I darted up the stairs and through Bohío Beach Bar before someone errantly tried to stick a medal on me. We headed to the town’s Farmers’ Market and La Rincoeña for a recovery meal. The remainder of the day was spent on the beach, where I drifted into and out of a restless slumber.

In the evening, we made an attempt to catch the sunset. Clouds covered the horizon offshore from El Faro de Punta Higuero, but plenty of people milled about anyways, enjoying the peaceful setting, the glow above the crowds, and the surfers catching a few final waves. From there, we got dinner at tiny 413 Surfer Spot, which has uncomplicated ambience and menu. A former teacher sat at the bar next to us to await his takeout order. He espouses a common outlook on the evolution of Rincón: first a tourist and then a transplant himself, he resents the crowding and cluttering that tourists and transplants (after him) have wrought in his adopted home. He fell in love with the place when visiting, bought a vacation home on the cheap in the late eighties or early nineties and became a permanent resident after retiring from teaching. He now seems disaffected grumbling that home prices have skyrocketed; there are too many people here; the bargoers leave trash on his street. He name-dropped the owner of Pool Bar, which is a popular bar near his house and the owner of which is 100% a personal acquaintance, multiple times while relaying a conversation in which he told the Pool Bar owner, whom he knows personally, that the guy had to get the trash that people are leaving on the street under control. This teacher likes to surf, does not like crowds, and does not like that the crowds have discovered the undiscovered paradise he discovered or the trash those crowds leave on his street after leaving Pool Bar, the owner of which he knows by name and well enough to complain to him about the trash. He seemed still mournful when positing that 413 Surfer Spot’s Big Surfer Burger is the best meal on the island. His explanation underwhelmed: I asked why it was the best meal on the island, and he said, essentially, that it is a large cut of meat. He left; we ate.

Setting up camp: Not a bad place to live in a tent, though it’s no school bus

On New Years’ Eve, extensive asking around and internet research brought us plenty of surf culture and standard Rincón bars, but we failed to identify places that felt more broadly Puerto Rican. Unresearched coincidince on this night brought better luck. After finding Coconut Ice Cream open for a relatively late dessert, we heard music behind the shop and went to investigate. At the Harbor bar, a sizable crowd stood under and near a tent, singing along to every song performed by some variety of Latin band. (I admittedly struggle to differentiate salsa from other similar forms of music.) We stayed to listen and tried to parrot a few words of choruses here and there. From Harbor, we started to drive home. Along 413, we passed a gathering of people, amidst some dim lights, who appeared to be engaged in revelry. I swung the car around and pulled into what I did not recognize at the time as the same Balneario parking lot in which I had started the morning’s collapse.

We walked directly into a lively karaoke night, sung entirely in Spanish. Perhaps fifty people stood and sat under a couple of tents, in the grass, and in the parking lot. A stand with a wooden awning attached sold beers; a large man managed sound equipment, a projector projecting lyrics, and a table with two song binders. The cracked concrete performance area occasionally doubled as a dance floor (pictured below, without me on it). We stood on the periphery and observed the goings-on. In the shadows, we met a middle-aged man and woman. I chatted with them, doing my best to stick to Spanish. He made very clear that she and he are friends, not spouses or anything similar. He was the opposite of the retired schoolteacher: He was born in Rincón, raised in Rincón, has lived in Rincón all his life, and still thinks it is the best place on earth. Anytime our conversation hit a lull, he raised his fist to shoulder height, looked at me, happily requesting reciprocation, and said, proudly and somberly, “Rincón!” I always did reply in kind. He made sure to drag over some extended family member of his, who he was proud to inform me had at one time lived in New York. He and his friend who was definitely not his spouse bought us drinks (me waters, Chantel a beer), poured her a bit of local liquor (that they may have brought from home), and welcomed us effusively, over and over, to the bar, to Rincón, to Puerto Rico.

The singing varied in quality. The dancing was consistently bad. Two clearly inebriated older men took turns and sometimes joined forces, dancing near and sometimes against or behind karaokeists. To me, they seemed like creepy old dudes, grinding up unsolicited on strangers, but everyone treated their antics as harmless or even endearing. For particularly popular numbers, a crowd would swarm the dance floor, surrounding the performer, swaying, dancing, and singing along ecstatically. After some time, I persuaded Chantel that we could not happen upon this rambunctious, very local karaoke night without performing ourselves. I have seen her crush Michael Jackson numbers back in Chicago before, and conveniently, the bar’s list offered several of those.

The karaoke list had maybe ten or twelve categories. All of the English songs were lumped in one: Disco. It included the BeeGees, and also included but was not limited to: U2, Rihanna, Phil Collins, and Guns ‘N’ Roses. Chantel and I made our selections and performed, respectively, the first and second (and last) songs in English that night.

The joint was jumping for “Thriller.” Chantel was belting out the lyrics with precision, stepping, spinning, playfully stiff-arming her adoring fans when they invaded the space she needed to dance. They filled the floor, sang along, and cheered.

The joint was not jumping for “I Will Survive.” Perhaps I lack stage presence. Perhaps my vocal range differs too substantially from Gloria Gaynor’s. After the Jacksonian excitement of the previous number, the bar felt distinctly deflated as I wagged my finger and instructed listeners to go on now and walk out that door. Only one audience member seemed to enjoy the performance: a dude who danced sort of near me, but thankfully not quite on me. I tried to capture the momentum and offered him the mic several times for lines of the chorus. He always declined and continued dancing. I ended the tale of regaining one’s strength and independence after a breakup to lukewarm applause. We hung out with our new friends for a few more songs, met some of their other friends, and went back to the beach house (lower case).

At first I was afraid. I was petrified.

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