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.
Today is July 2, 2019 and it is a beautiful summer day in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It also 95 degrees outside which is why I am in the air conditioned confines of a Starbucks coffee shop right off the beach in San Juan’s tourist zone. As a result of me giving up my seat on my original flight (and earning $500 in airline credit), I did not arrive to San Juan until 10:30 pm last night. Upon my arrival, I noticed that the airport was fairly busy for the time of night. As I have written before, one of my least favorite things about traveling is my initial arrival into an unfamiliar place (particularly an airport or bus station). Due to the unfamiliarity of the location, you are more susceptible to be taken advantage of as far as transportation purposes. While Puerto Rico does have an extensive Uber network, the Uber drivers are not allowed to operate out of the Luiz Munoz Marin International Airport which forces travelers to overpay for a taxi. Normally in such a situation, I would happily take the public bus. However, because I arrived so late, I had no choice but to take an airport taxi which cost me more than double an Uber fare.
Because it is not really advisable to travel outside the San Juan metropolitan area after 7pm, I was forced to book a room at a local hostel/hotel. Given that I had no intention of staying more than a few hours, I booked the cheapest place I could find that had decent reviews. I settled for paying $16 to stay in the dorm room of a place called Casa Santurce. Despite the decent reviews, the hostel ended up being a dump located in a so-so neighborhood. Of the numerous issues, the most glaring were the fact that the room smelled like old feet, the shower barely worked, and the air conditioning was non-existent. The only thing that allowed me to sleep was the fact that I had gotten there so late and that I was extremely exhausted. Nevertheless, I woke up and left as soon as it seemed practical to do so.
Under normal circumstances, I would just head straight to Yabucoa. However, as I was on the plane yesterday, I received an email asking to do a telephonic interview with a U.S. government agency later in the morning. Thus, I decided to stay in San Juan until after the interview in order to be able to fully focus on the volunteer project once I arrive in Yabucoa. On a side note, I literally sat on my couch the whole month of June waiting for perspective employers to call me with little luck. Ironically, four different people have reached out to me about job opportunities since I left to go to the airport which I find to be both refreshing and annoying. Because I left the hostel at 730 am, I found myself having to burn a few hours of time. Luckily, there was a Wal-Mart Supercenter within walking distance which allowed me to buy a few things that I would need for the project including work boots and several pairs of socks. In total, I ended up spending about $60 on supplies. Thankfully, I was close enough to walk to the Starbucks where I am currently located. As a result, I was able to utilize my spare time to work on this website and am now preparing to receive the interview phone call in about 20 minutes. Once I am done with this interview, I will use an Uber to get to the base camp and officially begin this project. I probably won’t be able to blog for a few days but I will definitely do so once I have settled in Yabucoa. See you soon.
Stop me if you’ve read this before……I am currently sitting in an airport patiently waiting for a budget airline to shuttle me to an exotic place in the Caribbean with only the contents of my travel backpack to last me for an undetermined period of time. If such a situation sounds familiar to followers of my travels its because it is a situation that I have found myself in twice in the last year and a half. In April 2018, I was sitting in the Fort Lauderdale Airport on my way to the Dominican Republic not knowing when I would start my new job while I found myself in similar circumstances 6 months ago on my way to Panama because I was prohibited from working the job which brought me back from the Dominican Republic. After leaving that job, I am now in a similar period of transition as I wait for my next opportunity to materialize. However, this time I was more prepared and have decided to do something a little different than from my past travels.
It is July 1, 2019 and I am in the Baltimore-Washington International Airport waiting to board my flight to Atlanta, GA. While some may think of Atlanta as an exotic locale, it is not exotic enough for me to write about on this site. From Atlanta, my final destination will be San Juan, Puerto Rico. For those that are unaware, Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States as a territorial possession and does not count toward my goal of world travel. However, this trip has a special purpose. In the fall of 2017, two successive hurricanes (Irma and Maria) devastated the tiny island of Puerto Rico leaving much of the population without power, potable water, and in some cases, a home. Further complicating the matter was the fact that, while Puerto Rico is part of the United States, it is not a U.S. state which has significantly hampered the governmental response to the disaster. However, many non-profit organizations have stepped in to provide disaster relief to severely affected areas. Rather than use my time tourist traveling, I have decided to become a residential volunteer through an organization called All Heart All Hands (AHAH).
AHAH is a non-profit disaster relief organization which has projects throughout the United States (i.e. Texas, Oklahoma) and around the world (i.e. Nepal, Mozambique). The organization has completed multiple projects in Puerto Rico with the current project set up in Yabucoa, located about 65 km south of San Juan. This current project focuses on rebuilding houses for individuals who had their property damaged by the hurricanes. I have decided to undertake this opportunity because, I have always told myself I need to give back to those less fortunate and see this as the perfect opportunity to do so. This program provides food and lodging for residential volunteers meaning that my only major expense would be getting to and from the campsite. This explains why I am waiting to go to Atlanta. I originally bought a direct flight to San Juan through Spirit Airlines. However, in true airline fashion, my 9 AM flight was overbooked. After originally turning down a $250 flight voucher, I was offered a $500 flight voucher to give up my seat. Given that all I have is time on my hands these days, I took the offer. As a result, I will not get to San Juan until 10 PM after spending 5 hours in the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. On the positive side, I have enough Spirit credit to book my return flight as well as an additional one-way flight.
A question that I have been asked regularly since I decided to do this is “when I’m coming back?” I honestly don’t have the answer to that question. This could be a 2-week experience or a 2-month one, it all depends on the opportunity that I am coming back for. One thing that I do know is I am going to treat this my full-time job and enjoy the experience along the way. I will also start a blog highlighting my involvement in this project which will be accompanied by photos and videos of Puerto Rico. I hope you enjoy following along.