If you one would have interviewed me this time last year, I wouldn’t bet my 6-month old running shoes that this summer would have played out like it has. As I sit in the Orlando International Airport waiting to embark on my next adventure, I think it is appropriate to reflect on what a great month and a half it has been in Puerto Rico. As I said before, most of my travel life recently has been dedicated to my goal to see the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. While I did not travel to Puerto Rico further that goal, I still found it to be an enlightening experience which will always have a special place in my travel lore. This posting is to discuss some of my favorite experiences during my time in Puerto Rico.
Repairing Communities-My primary goal in going to Puerto Rico was to contribute to the recovery and rehabilitation of those effected by Hurricane Maria. I couldn’t have picked a better organization to work with than All Hands and Hearts. During my time in Yabucoa, I was able to directly contribute to the repair and rebuilding of 7 houses. While that might not seem like a high number, it usually takes between 1-2 weeks to finish a house from start to finish. The work wasn’t easy, as we worked 7 hours a day on a 5 day work week in 90+ degree heat. The most interesting story occurred during my last house when we had to take the homeowners ceiling completely out of her kitchen. As we were taking panels off, chucks of 50-year old concrete were raining down on us as roaches scattered everywhere. I specifically remember the homeowner bringing us her last can of raid so we could spray the roaches like it was a game of whack-a-mole. Despite physical and mental difficulty of some tasks, there was something about that work that was way more fulfilling for me than sitting in a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned cubicle.
The Gratitude of an Island-Throughout my time in Puerto Rico, many people expressed appreciation for our efforts down in Yabucoa. From Uber drivers in San Juan to the older ladies who would cook dinner for the volunteer team on a daily basis, I could see both direct and indirect effects that our work was having on the people of Puerto Rico. The most touching demonstration of this came from the homeowners themselves. During the workday, the homeowners (most who were struggling to get by) would offer us what little they had from fresh Parcha juice to sandwiches for lunch. On one occasion, the family of a homeowner invited us to dinner after the project was completed and each living relative that lived on the island showed up to thank our team. While I definitely don’t do volunteer work for outward recognition, I still appreciate the since of gratitude that was shown not only in the Yabucoan community but throughout Puerto Rico as a whole.
Driving in Puerto Rico-If you thought this post was going to be rainbows and lollipops, here is the first dose of reality about being in Puerto Rico- the driving sucks and the condition of the roads are that of a developing country. I honestly wouldn’t wish driving in Puerto Rico on my worst enemy. As someone who no longer owns a car and had not driven on a regular basis in over a year and a half, I ended up being one of three people out of volunteers that could drive. This meant I got a daily diet of getting the finger by old ladies and being honked at for stopping at stop signs. In addition, people would rather hit you than have their car go over a pothole. If I survived that, I got to drive up the mountains composed of one-way roads and no guardrails. It honestly baffles me how a place that has inherent American infrastructure and where having a car is vital (especially traveling outside of San Juan) can have such poor road conditions.
Democracy at its Finest-I may or may not have been in Old San Juan to witness firsthand one of the fundamental demonstrations of a democratic society. For those that aren’t aware, the Puerto Rican government has been notoriously corrupt and the damage of Hurricane Maria only provided more opportunity for politicians and island administrators to line their pockets. The third day that I was on the island, 5 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials were arrested by the FBI for misappropriation of funds and accepting bribes for contracting Hurricane Maria rebuild projects out to certain companies. Ironically, most of the houses that we worked on down in Yabucoa had been worked on by FEMA contractors AFTER the hurricane. If you thought that was bad, a week later, the islands governor Ricardo Rosello got caught making fun of handicapped people, homosexuals, and victims of Hurricane Maria in a WhatsApp chat group with senior members of his cabinet. The Puerto Rican people had reached their breaking point, and literally blocked the highways into San Juan calling for “Ricky Renuncia” (Ricky Resign) in protest. They continued to protest when Ricky finally did resign but tried to handpick his successor who only lasted 8 days. Puerto Rico just swore its 3rd govern in the last 10 days and talk amongst the locals is that they still aren’t happy. Who knows what the future holds but it definitely was interesting to see democracy up close and personal.
Tourism-From the waterfalls of El Yunque National Rainforest to the cobble stone streets of Old San Juan, there are so many fascinating things to do and see and Puerto Rico even as the island continues to recovery from Hurricane Maria. There are also two islands (Culebra and Vieques) right of the coast which are world-renown for their beaches and beauty. As I wrote above, having a car is vital for any trip outside of the San Juan metropolitan area. Even in modern San Juan’s main tourism corridor (Condado to Isla Verde) the tourist density pales in comparison to Miami’s South Beach making it a fairly pleasant place to stay. There are also various restaurants, clubs, and casinos spread throughout the city that kept me both fed and entertained during my time in San Juan. While more expensive and less authentic (as far as Spanish cultural experience) than the neighboring Dominican Republic, the American influence on the island will provide some comfort (and accessibility) to those who don’t speak Spanish or don’t have a passport.