The last time I wrote an entry, I was sitting in a coffee shop in San Juan about to head to base camp in Yabucoa to begin my work on the disaster relief project with All Hands All Hearts (AHAH). I am currently back in San Juan 5 days later relaxing in a hotel after an eventful week. This blog post will be used to “fill in the gaps” and talk about my initial impressions of life in Yabucoa, the work I’ve done on the project, and life in general. So now lets go back to Tuesday morning……
Arrival at AHAH Base Camp- After completing my last blog post, I had to hang around Starbucks and do an hour-long telephone interview with a government agency in Washington DC which went as well as expected. Once that was over, I called an Uber and took off for Yabucoa. The cost of the Uber would prove to be the most painful part of my trip thus far as it was $80 to go about 65 km. The steep cost was due to the lack of efficient inter-island transportation throughout Puerto Rico since most people have cars. The drive was pleasant as it was mid-day and there was no traffic. However, we did get temporarily lost because AHAH gave me coordinates instead of an address which confused the Uber driver. Eventually, I did arrive at the camp and there was a staff member waiting for me. I also arrived at a great time because 90% of the people were out in the field which allowed me get a comprehensive tour of the facility without the pandemonium of 65 people running around doing various things. Ironically, I was informed during the orientation tour that most of the stuff I had bought at Wal-Mart (including boots) was available free via donations from former volunteers. The settling in process went fairly well and I was able to immediately start helping out with base chores.
Life on Base Camp- There are currently 65 people that live on base which was converted to living quarters from an old elementary school. For those who don’t know, I was in the U.S. Army. Having lived in austere conditions for extensive periods of time, the conditions at this base are actually pretty decent in my opinion. I have a bed to sleep in and the ability to shower twice a day. While the Wi-Fi isn’t really great and my bunk can get fairly hot at night, those are first-world problems. The organization also provides food and a kitchen to make breakfast and lunch with local residents cooking a hot dinner during the work week for the volunteers. There is also a great mix of volunteers and AHAH staff at the base camp. I’ve met everyone from fellow military veterans to a group of college kids on a study abroad program. Many of the staff where former residential volunteers who now work for the program in full-time capacity.
Yabucoa- Yabucoa is a small town that is spread out fairly wide. The AHAH base camp is located outside the central area but is an easy 5-10 minute drive from anywhere in the town. There are a few convenient stores (called colmados) which have basic food, toiletries, and alcohol. The neighborhood is pretty rough as far as drug and gang presence. However, there is a handshake agreement between AHAH and the local jefes not to mess with the volunteers given the work that the organization does for the community so I feel safe enough to walk outside the camp by myself. I usually walk to the pizzeria down the street which has decent pizza. It also gets converted to an ad-hoc dance club at night with music being played through the YouTube app on the owner’s phone. My favorite place about Yabucoa thus far is a place called “the Rock”. It is located on top of about a quarter-mile hike which basically is at a 25% incline. Not only is the view of the valley magnificent, but I get both a workout and the best phone service in the vicinity because of the elevation change.
Working- Even though the weather has been in the mid-to-upper 90s, I find that working has been satisfying and rewarding. Right now, I am on a team of 5 people that are redoing a roof top for a home in neighboring Humacao. This house belongs to an older lady who lives with her adult son. Due to my Spanish proficiency, I have gotten to know them fairly well and they are very nice people. The son works for the city of Yabucoa while the mother tends to a fairly extensive fruit garden with more than 15 types of fruit. The first few days consisted of power washing the roof to remove the old cement and sealant. Using a power-washer proved to be extremely fun but also exhausting. Our group also made cement from scratch and sealed various holes to prevent water from leaking through the house. The work is fairly dangerous whether it is the possibility of getting hurt with the tools or falling off a latter which happened to someone in another group. We did not work on the 4th of July but I did hang back on base to help reorganize the storage Conex.
I can see the difference that AHAH has made throughout the local community through my short time here in Puerto Rico. Fortunately, the organization found out this week that they will be funded through March 2020 which means over 400 families will benefit from the assistance that the organization provides. I will also be making a fund-raising page so that you can donate to their efforts throughout my time here. Right now, I am heading to the beach but I will continue to update you on the great work we are doing for the people of Puerto Rico.