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.
Today is Sunday, July 14, 2019, and I am back in San Juan finishing up my weekend break after completing my second week of volunteering with All Hands and Hearts (AHAH). I am excited to update you on all that has happened since my last entry as it has been a very eventful last 7 seven days for me. Rather than go on in a long narrative, I will choose a few highlights to discuss in depth.
Life on Base-My communal living adventures have continued, although I have been able to adjust to life living on the Yabucoa base camp. For starters, I was able to string together 5 straight days of 6+ hours of sleep. This has mostly been due to a combination of exhaustion and the fact that I finally have a functioning fan. Despite the improvements, some challenges remain. First, I finally felt the pain of trying to do laundry with only ONE washer and dryer for 70+ people. It took three days to get to clothes washed. Ironically, there is a laundromat within walking distance but it closes at 4pm (I usually don’t return to base until 330). Another issue is food rationing. While the organization provides food, many of the people on base (i.e. younger college kids) have never lived in a communal environment. As a result, they all pile their plates with food without consideration for those behind them. After 2 days of being left on the short end of the chow line, I’ve basically resorted to paying for my own dinners. On a positive note, AHAH does an excellent job in ensuring that the base is well-maintained and most of the volunteers have done their part as well.
Life in the Field- Last week was jam-packed with work. I started with the same team that I had been on my initial week and finished complete renovation of my first house. We started by chipping and power-washing the roofing which could either be fun or exhausting depending on the weather. We also made cement to cant the edges of the roof and plug any miscellaneous holes. Finally, we applied two coats of fresh sealant to prevent leaks during heavy rainfall. With the roof finished, our team turned to the inside of the house which we had to conduct sanitation. The sanitation process consisted of plastic wrapping furniture, taking the panels out of the ceiling, and scrubbing/scrapping mold throughout the house. We did this all while wearing one of the chemical suits like Walter White wore in Breaking Bad while he cooked meth. The combination of the hot and stuffy suit, unknown objects flying in your face, and the inability to see at times made sanitation pretty unpleasant. However, this is probably one of the more important tasks that AHAH performs as mold can have adverse effects on the homeowner’s health. After finishing up that house, my team went to work on another house way up in the mountains. This was one of the more perplexing moments of my service because this residence was more of a compound as opposed to a single house as the homeowners were extremely well-off. It almost felt like we were coming to do cosmetic roofing work as opposed to disaster recovery. From my understanding, the income level of the homeowners is not considered when prioritizing who gets their house worked on which I think is a shame. I only got to work on that house for two days before I went to another team and did sanitation on another house. The third house was significantly more challenging than the first house because the owner was not very hygienic. Despite how uncomfortable those “sani-suits” can get, I was definitely glad to have been wearing it.
Driving in Puerto Rico- Puerto Rico may be a U.S. territory but U.S. driving laws and etiquette definitely don’t apply on the roads. I finally experienced this first-hand when I became an “official” AHAH driver. Because most of the volunteers are younger, the organization needs drivers as you have to be over 25 years old to drive an organization vehicle. It took them a week to run my license and give me the driving test. Ironically, my test was the first time that they didn’t just allow for the cursory certification drive around the neighborhood. Instead, I had to drive a more “realistic” route that we would use to drive to work sites. This meant driving up and down mountains where roads had no dividing lines, cars routinely took sharp curves at 60 mph, and most of the route didn’t have protection guardrails to prevent vehicles from tumbling off to the side. Driving in Puerto Rico is literally the Wild West except for there are no sheriffs. While I am now able to use the organization vehicles in my off-time, I am now on a different work team because of the needs of the organization.
Personal Update- This week I did two more job interviews (while at the work site) and was actually given a tentative offer for one. Given that I have three other “tentative” offers on the table, this really isn’t an indication of what’s in store for my immediate future as the time frame for the federal government background process can be unpredictable. Right now, I plan on doing two more weeks on my current project and taking a few weeks for a personal vacation. Ideally, I would like to do another stint for 2 weeks in August but there isn’t a guarantee that I will get a spot due to the popularity of the program. Hopefully by next week I will have more clarification on my immediate future.
I am planning on staying on the base camp next weekend and taking a day trip to El Yunque National Rain Forest which means I might not be able to make another entry for a few weeks depending on my internet connection. Regardless, I will provide an update as soon as I am able.
AHAH Volunteer Fundraising Page; https://give.allhandsandhearts.org/fundraiser/2182253