No. 2 The Murder-light Motel
Arecibo, Puerto Rico
Like the rest of the world, I spent the majority of 2020-2021 in lockdown. Traveling to exotic lands meant entering rooms in my own home that hadn’t been cleaned since the Cretaceous Period.
So, when restrictions loosened enough to leave the house, my family of four—my husband of twenty-five plus years, Tim, and our two kids, Faith and Aidan, 18 and 15 respectively, at the time—headed to Puerto Rico.
My intention was to stay in Old San Juan at a quirky boutique hotel called The Gallery Inn (highly recommended!) that I had read about in Conde Nast, but it was booked on the night we arrived.
Plan B was to drive west to Arecibo for one night in order to be close to our next day’s activity, the Cueva del Indio, a cave used by the indigenous Taino people with ancient carvings and amazing views of the ocean from the cliff tops.
We left the airport in Old San Juan and got off the highway around 10 pm to follow a meandering and increasingly isolated road. There were no streetlights. Small gravel driveways disappeared into thick vegetation on one side. On the other, single story, cinderblock homes were unlit or abandoned after seasons of hurricane devastation. As the road narrowed, barely enough room for two cars to pass, the area felt lonely.
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We slowed down to try to locate the motel. Addresses weren’t prominent, and the road signs consisted only of kilometer markers in the shoulder. A few locals zoomed up to our bumper and then wheeled around and disappeared into the darkness. Their impatience felt almost aggressive. No doubt the feeling that we didn’t belong there was influenced by a long day of travel, the time of night, the unfamiliarity with our location and the remoteness of the place.
Up ahead, alone on the ocean side, sat a squat building perched on the rocky shoreline a few feet from the road. Picture a cinderblock Bates Motel with half as many rooms.
“At least we’re not staying in that place,” Aidan said. We all gave a nervous chuckle in agreement.
A moment later, our friendly Google navigation voice chirped, “You have arrived!”
The car went silent.
“Oh my God,” Faith said.
When Aidan uses my name as an entire sentence unto itself, I know I’m in for it. It’s the teenage version of calling your child by their first, middle and last name when they’ve done something wrong. The subtext is I can’t believe you did/said/chose that.
He used his entire hand to point to the single mercury light defibrillating in front of the motel room doors. “It’s got a murder light, Mom. Like every horror movie ever made.”
“That’s not how it looked in the pictures,” I said. I still hadn’t lived down a place in Oxford, England described as “one step up from a cardboard box in the alley” in a review that I hadn’t read before booking it. I started to wonder if this part of Arecibo was unsafe.
“Where am I supposed to park?” Tim asked. He swung the car around. It just fit on the shoulder between the road and the front wall of the motel. The kids’ expressions said, We’re not seriously getting out, are we?
“I’ll check it out before we unload,” Tim said, twisting the key out of the ignition like he was taking it with him.
“Better leave the key,” I said. The kids and I might need it for a quick getaway. No point in all of us dying.
I gave Tim our room code, and he disappeared into the colonnade that fronted the building. The light flickered on, and he suddenly appeared in an opening. The light went out, and he disappeared again. Each time the light flashed, he reappeared a few feet further on. It gave the impression that he was moving out of sync, beneath the strobe light of a ghostly conveyor belt.
Half a minute later, he came back and said, “It looks fine inside.”
There wasn’t enough room left between the motel wall and the car to open the passenger-side doors, so we piled out the driver’s side.
“Watch out,” Tim said to the kids and pushed them away from the roadside. A single light was approaching fast, like a train in a tunnel. Seconds later, a car flew by. A wall of air and sound knocked us back. “Geez,” Tim said. “He must be going sixty at least.”
We dragged the bags into the passageway that led to our room. Tools littered the walk. Orange extension cords snaked beneath closed, padlocked doors. Like the movie Saw, I thought, and quickly squelched.
Tim was right—don’t tell him I said that—the room was fine. And the bathroom. I encouraged them to go out to the patio, where there was music playing, to see the view and justify my choice of accommodation.
Two women in patio chairs chatted with a man, all in their late twenties, and a child of about ten in the pool. They didn’t look like serial killers.
“Hola,” I said and waved. I swished my hand through the pool water. There were two words I knew from high-school Spanish that might properly describe the temperature—calor or caliente.
“Hace calor,” I said to the kid in the pool, deciding on the word that corresponded to weather, not spiciness. He looked at me quizzically. Maybe I hadn’t said what I intended.
“Hello,” one of the women said. She spoke in accented English which I suspected was better than my accented Spanish. They were from the eastern side of the island taking a weekend break. “Just let us know if you want us to turn the music down.”
I did want them to turn the music down. The song on the boom box was a buoyant instrumental with piercing brass and heavy percussion. I didn’t need any extra stimulation when I was already frazzled. I wanted to listen to the waves and try to unwind. But it was their vacation too. I smiled and thanked her. They’d probably be turning it off soon anyway when the boy went to bed.
“We were in the room you’re in last night,” our new neighbor said. “Partying and swimming until three. But the refrigerator didn’t work and the beds were lumpy so we moved.” She waved to the set of windows next door.
“Great,” I said. “Thanks for letting us know.” Maybe lumpy was a matter of opinion.
We got ready for bed and put out the lights around 12:30 to a jaunty samba beat. Luckily, we travel with noise apps loaded on our phones to help us sleep no matter the circumstances. I put on the sound of falling rain and turned it up. It did little to block out the music. Tim turned his on and positioned the phone close to the window to make a wall of rain between us and the pool. Ten minutes later, Faith put hers on too. The room sounded like we were in a monsoon—with a great salsa party outside.
At one o’clock, I asked the neighbors if they’d mind turning the music down. The boy eyed me suspiciously from the pool. People who go to bed early might be serial killers. The music stopped and the sounds of the waves filled the air. I felt my shoulders relax a fraction.
I got back into bed. The waves shushed, shushed over the rocks beneath our artificial rainstorm. Tim pulled the blanket up over his shoulder and sighed. The kids shifted in their bed and went still.
I drifted along the watery modulations into sleep. In the far distance, a shift in pitch lifted away from the ambient sounds and distinguished itself. A buzz. I swatted at a non-existent insect. Then I recognized the sound of an engine, growing louder. I glanced over at the kids. The curtains by their bed brightened into a polygon of moving light. It was an approaching car that sounded like a freight train bearing down on us. I braced for the car to come through the wall.
“This is the worst,” Faith said. Because the bed was lumpy or because the room was one step up from a cardboard box on the highway, I didn’t know.
In the morning, I slipped out onto the patio into some much-needed sunlight and watched the ocean change from murky black to navy blue. My mood softened in the sunshine and vivid colors and briny air. The motel wasn’t so bad.
The toilet in our room flushed, followed by the bathroom faucet. A few seconds later, I heard a rush of water under my feet and decided that the pipe must run beneath the patio. Then I heard a splash. I peered over the edge of the patio and found an open PVC pipe spilling a happy little waterfall onto the rocks. The trickle zig-zagged past a disintegrating diaper to the slime-covered rocks at the ocean’s edge.
At least it hadn’t been the menacing location I feared it would be the night before. I settled back into my chair and soaked in the sounds of nature: the flush of the toilet as another Connors awoke, the trickle and splash of mystery liquid on sea rocks, and the restless waves.
At checkout time, my neighbor was packing up her car. She asked me how our night was. As we chatted, she suddenly grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me away from the road. A car rocketed past at Mach 2.
“You gotta be careful around here,” she said. “It’s dangerous.”
If you don’t mind the possibility of a pool party quite literally beneath your bedroom window, of getting hit by a car in your sleep, of a little wastewater draining into the sea, or of the permanent smear on your decision-making reputation, the Discovery Inn on Ocean Drive in Arecibo is a solid choice. Where else can you get an ocean-front property from $109 per night?
Our room came equipped with two double beds, Wi-Fi, free parking, TV, a kitchenette with fridge, burner and dishes. Not a good place for a swim but there is a small beach just up the street. And a good location for visiting Cueva-del-Indio. Pack in some food, nearby restaurants were scarce.
The Projects Progress Report
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