From the second you step off the plane in a new place to the minute you leave, you’re collecting memories through your senses. And it’s these memories that connect you to a place long after you leave.
One day you’ll be walking down a random street and an aroma will swirl around bringing you back to that bakery you loved in Belgium. Or you’ll hear a song that transports you to the backseat of a cab you once took through Mexico City at midnight.
The power of the senses to bring you through a memory all the way across the world is remarkable, yet you hardly think about those things when you experience them in the present. It’s the connection to a distant place or time that triggers a reaction.
The sounds and smells aren’t always pleasant either.
Take the truck with loud speakers mounted to the roof announcing an upcoming concert, for instance, that circled our block in San Juan several times a day for a week. Here it is passing by while I’m on a conference call for work:
But there’s also the salsa music. It wafted up through the humid night air and into our apartment windows every weekend.
One night, I went out to chase that sound and found myself in La Placita at 7 o’clock on a Friday night. It’s a gathering place, for all of San Juan it seems. Maria, the girl who took me here, says, “We might run into my father,” indicating that young and old alike come together. They talk, laugh, eat, drink, and dance.
The square is closed off to traffic and people walk freely through the streets with their beverages. Live salsa bands play in a number of bars but it’s more than music you hear in La Placita. It’s the sound of a city gathering, an island coming together. It’s hard to tell who is a friend to Maria and who is a stranger because she greets everyone with the same smile.
From where I stand, Puerto Rico sounds like a big reunion. You don’t necessarily remember everyone, or how you’re related, but you consider everyone to be family. This is what it sounds like:
But these sounds—the truck mounted with megaphones or the crowds in La Placita—they’re not necessarily the sounds that define the island. What I wanted to know is what sound Puerto Ricans think about when they are away from home. What sound carries them back through their memories and plops them smack dab in the middle of the island once again, no matter how far away they’ve roamed.
So I asked Maria:
We went to the rainforest shortly after and heard the coquí for ourselves. I closed my eyes and listened to the rain falling on palms, the birds calling out, and the coquí casting its spell.
And even though it was the salsa music and traffic we heard most days while our time in the rainforest was brief, it’s still the sound of the coquí I’ll think about when I’m lying in bed in a faraway place thinking of Puerto Rico.