One of the first things you learn when you work in the corporate world is that money for corporations is completely different from money for you and me. An expenditure that seems insane at an individual level somehow makes perfect sense when it’s couched in the language of budgets and “investments,” and sums of money with eye-catching numbers of zeros are pocket change when it comes to drawing up your average global conglomerate’s annual report.
All of which goes some way, perhaps, toward explaining why I’m sitting in a hotel in Newark at 6 AM, waiting for a flight to Puerto Rico. This weekend, alcohol mega-brand and Batista-era throwback Bacardí is flying precisely 1,862 people to San Juan for an event that goes by the name of Bacardí Triangle, which is basically a four-day shindig with a musical wing headlined by Kendrick Lamar, Calvin Harris, and Ellie Goulding. Unfeasibly, I have been invited to be one of the lucky 1,862, for reasons I don’t profess to understand but am also not remotely interested in questioning, because, y’know, shit, free trip to Puerto Rico!
One of the other things they’ll tell you in the worlds of suits and capitalism, of course, is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and so it goes with this trip. You can think of it as a sort of colossal exercise in paying for “free” publicity — the general idea is that everyone is there to have a whale of a time, get suitably shitfaced, and tweet about how great Bacardí is. As such, there’s a curious mixture of people awaiting our flight to Puerto Rico: frantic publicists, bleary-eyed journalists, excited-looking contest winners, and assorted entertainment industry hangers-on.
Part of the deal is that you get flown out to Puerto Rico in a private jet, which sounds very impressive but, well, turns out to be a charter flight from something called Miami Air. Once we’re on the plane, free Bacardí cocktails are duly dispensed, a camp counselor type takes the cabin announcement phone thingy from a hostess to announce that we are all going to Have Fun, and a “cocktail journalist” sitting behind us, who apparently goes by the name “Prairie Rose,” announces her intentions for the coming weekend. “It is,” she says in the sort of sing-song voice that characterizes PR types the world over, “all about the selfies.”
I’ve never been to Puerto Rico, and I’m excited at the prospect of driving through Old San Juan. Disappointingly, this doesn’t happen: we’re whisked by bus straight onto the highway, although there’s still some fascinating staring-out-the-window to be done — it’s so green here! And so tropical! And the food at the little roadside fried chicken places looks amazing! And wait, what on earth is Museo Histórico de la Biblia, and why is there a dinosaur standing next to Jesus on the roadside sign?!
Sadly, there’s no stopping en route. Instead, we proceed straight to the hotel, where we’re met by a cadre of professionally jaunty party girls dispensing Bacardí cocktails. We are filmed as we descend from the bus. There is a DJ. As we will learn over the course of the weekend, there is always a DJ. And dear god, the hotel. Calling this place a “hotel” is like calling the Pacific Ocean “a body of water.” It is in fact the El Conquistador resort (named after noted party animal and mass killer Christopher Columbus!), and if it weren’t privately owned it would have to be called “a small town.” There are 23 restaurants and innumerable swimming pools. There is a golf course and a private marina. The bathroom of our “suite” is roughly the size of my Brooklyn apartment. This, presumably, is what it is like to be a rich person.
After we check in, we are issued wristbands that entitle us to six free Bacardí cocktails a day (three before 7pm, three after). In our room is a bottle of, yes, Bacardí. Such booze! According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, if everyone on this trip drinks all their allotted drinks and also takes home their complimentary bottle, something like 2,310 liters (about 610 gallons) of rum will get consumed over the next three days. My liver starts to twitch nervously.
The next morning we get invited to an “exclusive media brunch,” wherein a Bacardí rep talks about his company’s historical fondness for “throwing cool parties.” His version of how this festival came to pass is that a bunch of people were sitting around in the Bacardí offices, discussing how “the new generation don’t want possessions… they want experience,” and decided to hold a free-for-all in Puerto Rico. We’re reminded of the official event hashtag.
Despite being scheduled to play a DJ set, Kendrick is not marked present — Kendrick Lamar will not DJ your media brunch, kids — but Ellie Goulding shows up to answer questions, which all goes fine until a plucky journalist from Brazil asks her, “So, what do you think about this feminist thing that is going on in the celebrity world?” Goulding shoots a look to the side of the stage, where her manager is doing everything short of making throat-cutting gestures and scribbling “DO NOT ANSWER THIS QUESTION” on a placard. Goulding says that she has “very strong opinions,” but declines to elaborate on what those opinions may be. Ellie Goulding: proudly neither a feminist nor a non-feminist!
Lest I start to sound grinchy, it should be said again that there are a whole lot of worse things in the world than sitting by a pool drinking free rum out of a fucking pineapple. We spend most of the afternoon doing exactly this, and we’re well-refreshed indeed by the time evening comes around, bringing with it the “Black Magic Halloween Pool Party.” This is held at the hotel’s private water park (yes, of course it has a private water park), and is clearly something that our fellow guests have invested a lot of time and effort into planning for — the costumes are extravagant and flamboyant. There’s sexy bacon! Sexy hot dog! Sexy Transformer! Sexy bewildered music journalist! Sexy cirrhosis of the liver! Sexy angel on the verge of chundering exuberantly!
It’s all a bit much, to be honest, and I’m starting to feel a bit under-dressed as not-especially-sexy cat, being as my costume consists of some cat ears, some makeup, and, um, that’s it. We retreat to the backstage area and befriend a couple of Puerto Rican kids who worked on constructing the stages for the event. They’re friendly and genuinely lovely, to an almost humbling extent, and decide to toast our newfound friendship by cracking open a bottle of… Bacardí!
The next morning, we awake with suitably brutal hangovers and vanished dreams of venturing out of the hotel complex to actually explore San Juan or visit the Bible Museum. Instead, we end up cowering by the pool until it’s time to go to the Private Island™ to see Kendrick Lamar. As we walk down to the marina, we discover that someone appears to have punctuated their experience the night before by taking a shit on the stairs.
Getting to the Private Island turns out to be a shitshow, although hey, I’m glad it’s not me trying to work out how to get nearly 2,000 people across a three-mile stretch of the Caribbean with two fishing boats and a medium-sized ferry. It’s dark by the time we arrive, and while the island’s Private status is rather undermined by the large marina and the distinct lack of privacy, it’s still a lovely setting for a party. The (triangular) stage is set up on the beach, which is covered in sand that has clearly been shipped in for the occasion. There are fire-dancers and a drum circle, because of course there are. Ellie Goulding plays a set that’s as competent and functional as a Toyota Prius. Dinner is eaten.
To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced that Kendrick’s gonna show, especially given his non-appearance yesterday. But hey, he actually goes on early, and he’s fucking great! I’ve not seen him live before, and he’s a far more extroverted and charismatic performer than one might expect from the creator of the claustrophobic, downbeat good kid, m.A.A.d city. He seems genuinely pleased to be here, too, explaining that it’s his first time in Puerto Rico and that it’s also his DJ’s birthday — the latter is celebrated with a cake that ends up mostly in the birthday boy’s triumphant Afro. It’s all good fun. Even Lamar’s decidedly uncharacteristic single “i” works well in this setting, acting less as a song-length non sequitur and more as a good-time party jam. At some point, we see our Puerto Rican friend from the night before. He’s beaming beatifically and hugging everyone in sight. “Tonight,” he confides proudly as he embraces me, “is the first time I take molly!”
It has to be said that the majority of the crowd is significantly less excited at seeing Lamar than I am. The rapper himself seems largely unfazed by this, save for the occasional exhortation for people to “increase the energy,” but you get the sense that songs about alcoholism and violence are lost on a crowd that’s basically here to party. (Still, there’s a pleasing irony in watching a bunch of drunk people at an alcohol-sponsored party sing along enthusiastically to “Swimming Pools (Drank).”) Perhaps the people here are all waiting for Calvin Harris, but given that it took us about three hours to get here and the prospects of either sleeping on the beach or queuing until 4 AM to get back aren’t especially appealing, we jump on the first boat back to the resort. (We do have to wait an extra half hour while Lamar’s comically huge entourage piles onto two separate boats.)
The morning brings more Bacardí cocktails, which no one seems to want. It’s at this point that you might start questioning the entire strategy here — I hear several queasy-looking folks declare at this point that if they never drink Bacardí again, it’ll be too soon, and if I’m honest, I probably won’t be staring a mojito down in a hurry, either. The island of Puerto Rico comes out of the weekend significantly better — it’s gorgeous, and I’d be very much interested in coming back without staying at the strange rich-person theme park that is the El Conquistadór Golf Resort and Multi-Pool Extravaganza.
All in all, though, it’s the sort of experience at which you have to just kind of shake your head and giggle, because it makes no sense. Bacardí Triangle? Sure, why not?