While it has been gratifying to have friends shower us for praise about our vacation-volunteering in Puerto Rico, it is also embarrassing. What we are doing is a mere drop in an ocean of need, nothing compared to the river of help that so many others are offering. And lest I give the wrong impression, Puerto Rico is full up with vacation pleasures: soaking up the sun; white wine in the evening on the patio while reading; jumping in the warm waves; playing volleyball on the beach. Today I had a yoga session by the infinity pool with a lovely woman who gave me a bracelet and told me her story of Hurricane Maria (more later). We are given far more than we give here.
On one evening we take an Uber to Old San Juan, to eat at a popular pizza place: up steep tiled stairs, dark wood tables with light green embroidered cloth under glass. This is old-fashioned, colonial San Juan: simple food, sangria. After we amble down the narrow streets, shocked at how quiet and deserted the town is; so many shops shuttered up, the upper floors completely dark. We had visited Old San Juan when the children were young, and I remember anxiously driving our rental car in tight lanes of traffic, not sure where we would park. Now the square with statues of the Three Kings is utterly empty. Then the tourist shops blazed with light and dangling souvenirs; now the shop where we had once bought a wooden guitar for Sasha has already closed. At one store filled with items from Bali, India, Mexico, the British owner tells me that one of the problems for store owners is the big hotels such as the Sheraton have been taken over by FEMA and companies. “These guys don’t help businesses. They come and eat and drink and then go back to their hotels and watch TV.”
We do, though, chance upon a delightful and lively place: Choco Bar, which sells famous Cortes chocolate. Apparently Puerto Ricans eat chocolate with everything, and especially love to dip slices of cheese until they are gooey. The walls are adorned with the history of cacao and chocolate in the New World, and as well, a video about a school the business created after Hurricane Maria, which emphasizes the arts and expression.
The next day we meet up with Padre Ricky Genera, who is leading various relief efforts. He drives up in his small white car, hearty and welcoming and warm. First we stop to convene in a parking lot with another group from Trinity High School in Lexington, KY, who have raised funds for delivering a very simple water filter, and relatives of our friend Ronnie, who have assembled bags of food, sanitary items, dog food, and toys. We drive in a procession, hazard lights on, to indicate that we are on a mission.
As we head out of the city toward the mountains, he narrates what he can about Maria and the impact. “The eye of the hurricane kept moving around,” he explains. “It sounded like a monster.” He explains how he fixed a well near his mother’s house, so it could be used by about a 120 neighbors. “But it was the elderly who suffered the most, they were so weak,” he said, his voice full. “So many people died but they couldn’t get out. They buried their dead in the backyard.”
We pass battered buildings with blue tarps for roofs, surreal hillsides of skeletal trees, now sprouting green tumorous tufts. In a long low valley that empties to the hazy sea lies a delta of ragged gray coconut palms—exactly where the hurricane hit when it reached land. Nearby are oil refinery tanks, one of them folded down like a dented child’s tambourine. On the side of a roadside traffic circle there’s a stand selling ‘inverters’–a small machine that allows one to use a car’s motor energy for running refrigerators and other appliances in the house. I am struck by the fact that though we pass a few army trucks with potable water, we don’t see many active trucks or reconstruction efforts. Last I’ve read about 60 percent of the island has electricity.
Then we are climbing up the steep roads of Guano, where the small houses hug the roadside. Here there is no electricity. We stop at another priest’s home and clamber out on to the spotless tiled patio. There, the rest of our group gathers, lugging white buckets and a water filter kit that is to be shared among the neighbors. They are eager and happy to hear the instructions and I’m struck that despite the devastation around us, how well-dressed everyone is—one of the women wears a pair of new pressed jeans. We climb further up the mountain side, pausing at a damaged home with a tattered Puerto Rican flag flying from the roof.
We give out bags of food and sanitary supplies, bottles of water, ridged washboards, and little solar lamps. An elderly woman sits on one porch, a walker beside her. After the hurricane she slipped and broke several bones and had to be operated on and yet here she sits, smiling beatifically. Further up the road, we give toys to a small family—when I hand a stuffed animal and book to a girl, her face blossoms open. I notice that despite the tattered shape of the houses, many cars are spotless and well-kept; a shiny Mini-Cooper slides past us at one point. “Cars are everything to them, as it’s what they rely on.” Ricky laughs, “They treat their cars better than their wives.”
Now we go down toward the sea, to Barrio Camino Nuevo, a tiny enclave of fishermen, their houses perched right by the sea. This is where Maria first crashed into the island. It is a small cul de sac, rotting furniture piled up on the side, carapaces of houses with gaping windows opening right to the sea. Some have been completely abandoned. Others have collapsed into the sea. Some of the fishermen have received FEMA aid to rebuild; others are waiting or have simply left. Here we make our way across the mud, tapping on makeshift doors, delivering our bags. Eduardo, his face reddened, waves to us, explaining his dog has been hit by a car. The dog eventually limps out from under a house, and we see it has an open wound on one leg, showing to the bone. The kids with us are horrified. After many phone calls, the dog is loaded onto the back of the pickup truck, to be taken to a vet at a nearby resort.
And yet, in this strange contrast of pleasure and distress, we end the day at the mall to get haircuts. Here the crowds are teeming, shopping, enjoying the magic show on the first floor. The mall has everything—from Tiffany to JC Penny—and it’s decked out for the holidays. The morning after our volunteering I do yoga in front of the pool and the instructor tells me her story of staying in her mother’s tiny house, and how the hurricane felt like air pressure in a plane, but in one’s whole body. At one point, she tried to reach her sons in another room but the winds were so strong she could not push open the door. Outside trees uprooted and fell over her roof, the base and roots forming a protective barrier. She says to me, “All this happens for a reason,” a phrase I will hear again. “We Puerto Ricans have an almost pathological need to be happy.” And it’s true. I’m astonished at the smiles, which seem sincere; the sunny greetings of Buenos Dias, every morning, from everyone.
That evening when we go to Old San Juan for some last gifts, a young woman who sells me a tiny painting affixed with sea glass echoes the same phrase, “All this happens for a reason. ” She adds, “It has changed us. Rinsed us and made us build again.” She gives me that brave smile, but I can see the tears that have sprung to her eyes. The rawness of the past few months is not far from the surface. I must admit this phrase doesn’t sit right with me, as I do not like the self-blame, the fatalism. More I’m drawn to their bluntness, especially when they talk of Trump: “Everyone hates him here,” I am told. “They hate him and when they fly the flag, that’s their defiance.”
Once more the shops in Old San Juan close at six or seven o’clock. When I ask, I’m told that it’s a law because there are no busses running past eight o’clock, so the employees can’t get home. Old San Juan feels more like a museum, whereas when we take an Uber to Jose Enrique, a super popular restaurant, Plaza de Mercado is hopping. People are spilling into the streets, sitting in the various restaurants, standing and chatting by the market. Live music plays in one place, and we have to wait over two hours to be seated for our meal (making one 13-year-old very unhappy).
Back at La Concha droves of tourists coming off cruise ships are arriving, and there is more live music, and parties, often multi-generational: elderly grandparents, carefully dressed, step out of taxis, their adult children, and then grandchildren, some of whom spread their toys on the white lounges. By the time we check out in the afternoon of December 31st, the lobby is being trussed up for a New Year’s Eve celebration, where private tables can cost $3,000. Glossy white chairs, sequined and fake white fur pillows, white drapes–they are ringing in the New Year in style.
Happy New Year Puerto Rico–you deserve it all–glamorous parties, good food and music, clean water–and a better year ahead.
Our own volunteering was truly a drop but my hope is I can add some more drops by providing further information of ways to assist Puerto Rico. One and all should consider vacationing there. The island is ready, waiting, and grateful for the tourism.
And there are many small grassroots efforts and ways to help from afar or on the ground. I’ll be offering a list of links and suggestions in my next post.
Some of these photographs are by Chad L. Waggoner, a world history teacher at Trinity High School, who has been documenting his visits and work in Puerto Rico. Follow him on Facebook or Instagram at Chad L. Waggoner.