I enjoyed the movie Sliding Doors. It made me think. If you haven’t seen it, it portrays how someone’s life can change dramatically, by chance. Something as simple as missing a train can alter your world. The movie offers two potential endings. In one, Helen Quilley boards her train just as the doors are sliding shut. Then we see a very different version after she misses the train by a few seconds.
Owner of Old San Juan’s Monastery Art Suites, Elena Mezentseva, had a Sliding Doors moment too. I’m sitting in the foyer of her incredible, art-filled boutique hotel in the 500-year old historic city because of a split second decision that changed her life.
I’m glancing around the spacious reception area waiting for Elena to finish chatting to another guest. This is an unusual hotel. It is full of powerful, colourful art and I love it. When did you last check in to your accommodation and, before you’d unpacked, took pictures to send to friends at home? And there’s something to discover around every corner.
Elena isn’t just smiling – she’s beaming. And it’s not a painted-on hotel receptionist smile. It is clear to see that she loves her hotel, her job. Maybe she loves her life.
Elena has been watching me admire the hotel décor. “It’s something else, huh?” she says delivering her words in perfect English, like someone who has lived in America, but with a slightly European accent. Is it Bulgarian? Hungarian? I ask her how she ended up running such a beautiful, nine-room hotel in this gorgeous UNESCO listed city. She tells me her story. And it’s worthy of a Hollywood movie screenplay.
Elena grew up in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. One of her friends had tried to gain US residency using the green card lottery. Apparently, each year 50,000 people from countries that are not well represented in the United States are granted permission to live and work in America.
Elena’s friend had tried and failed to ‘win’ on ten different occasions and she wanted Elena to try with her in an eleventh attempt. “I wasn’t really interested,” Elena told me, “but my friend said it was free and only took a few minutes to apply online.”
What beginners luck! Elena was successful. Her friend wasn’t. At first, Elena said she was uncertain whether to leave for the land of opportunity. But her mum convinced her that she’d have a better future in the States.
Wow. As she spoke I was trying to work up the movie title. Silk Road to San Juan? No, not good enough.
When she got into America, Elena applied for nearly every hotel front desk job she could find. “I was prepared to go anywhere, except Alaska,” she said. She was hired by a massive hotel chain in Atlanta and often worked fourteen-hour shifts in order to soak up as much industry knowledge as she could.
Elena said she liked Georgia but didn’t get to see much of it. “For two years I woke up, showered, went to work and went home,” she said. But everything changed when she took a short break to Puerto Rico with a hotel colleague who came from the island. “I fell in love with the place,” Elena said, “and I knew I wanted a hotel here.”
She set about making her dream a reality but the real estate provided a reality check. San Juan property prices are high and to buy sought-after hotel premises within the ancient walls can cost millions of dollars. Luckily she found a hotel owner who wanted to retire and was prepared to enter a rent-to-buy arrangement. “Now I work longer hours but I get to listen to people and that’s what I love,” Elena says. “I get to share stories.”
“People stay here for two or three days but they become friends, almost like family.” I’d seen how Elena loved to chat with her customers, offering advice and recommendations to ensure they had a great stay. I believed her. “My guests are different to people who stay in large hotels. They are curious about the hotel and the city,” she says.
I ask Elena how her life has changed since she’s been in Puerto Rico, apart from working even longer hours, that is. “I’ve made more friends in three months than I did in thirty years.” She smiles. “It’s like I am six again, making friends all the time.”
I could see how the small, walkable old city, crammed with owner operated enterprises could be friendly. “In Old San Juan there are lots of small businesses,” says Elena. “You introduce yourself to the barman in a restaurant and you discover that he’s the owner and his wife is the chef. They have something to share. I have something to share. People work together.”
Our conversation breaks off again as more guests arrive. My eyes wander around this wonderful property. The building is grand, built in the 1890s to strict guidelines by the San Juan Masonic Lodge who wanted it as their headquarters. Elena had told me she was drawn to the building because of its “positive energy.” But it was the use of bold colour, paintings and art work that make it unlike anywhere else I have stayed. Elena inherited the hotel with the design, by Puerto Rican artist Carlos Mercado, already in place.
The walls and woodwork are painted different shades of grey but there’s plenty of colour splashing around in every room, corner and corridor. Facing the reception table is a teal-cushioned sofa with a red padded backrest, a work of art in itself featuring imagery of the Greek gods. It’s finished with an ornate red, wooden carving along the top. Buddha statues and sculptures on plinths break up the wide atrium space.
Elena is still chatting away, so I walk down a corridor leading away from the reception desk to some more guest rooms. It isn’t your normal hotel passage. It’s beautifully decorated with fourteen low-hanging, copper-framed lights of different shapes and sizes. Along the same walkway there are full-length shuttered doors on one side painted in lime, yellow and orange.
Across the other side of reception I wander down a corridor of mirrors, which open to an amazing ballroom. The impressive, shiny, black and white chequered floor catches my eye first. Elena had told me that the shape and size of every tile had been cut precisely because it was significant for the Masonic lodge. Again, there’s more bold colour in this vast space – with sunlight streaming rainbows of light through the stained glass windows. And the lilac walls set off the decadent purple chandelier in the centre. I’ve never seen one of those before!
I wander back upstairs to fetch my phone and I realise that the suite is similarly impressive. My room, number 6, is reached by climbing a solid stone staircase. It’s more than a hotel room – a mini apartment of three rooms with a large living area complete with a kitchen, fridge, colourful sofas and plenty of unique wall art. A shuttered door links to the bedroom, which has a flat screen with Apple TV. And the windows of both rooms open out to a balcony. It’s great for people watching so I take a strong, Puerto Rican coffee that I brewed in the kitchen out onto the balcony to watch the world go by.
The hotel feels very safe and secure. People can’t just wander up off the street – there’s an entry buzzer for admission. And staying in such distinctive and centrally-located accommodation really does enhance my impression of the city. Would I have viewed San Juan differently if I had stayed in a faceless chain hotel outside the Old City’s walls? After all, I was about to book a room in one of those when I lost my internet connection. When I went back online, and restarted my search, I’d found Monastery Art Suites. By chance maybe? Was that my Sliding Doors moment of luck?
Back downstairs in the atrium, I gaze at the most unusual aspect of the art filling this space. There’s a series of white umbrellas hung upside down from the skylights. Elena finishes assisting her guests and comes over, smiling again. “I want people to stand underneath and make a wish,” she said, leading me to the centre of the room.
I did what she said. And I don’t think I need Elena’s good fortune, the luck of a lottery winner, to make sure that will happen.
Monastery Art Suites is in the centre of Old San Juan at 250 Del Cristo Street. From the hotel you can walk to all the best bars and restaurants, while many historic sites are just minutes away. There’s also a free trolley bus service around the Old Town, which stops nearby. Rooms are available from around $199 per night. Book at www.monasteryartsuites.com.