Visiting Puerto Rico Six Months Later

Rainbow weather outside of San Juan

I went to Puerto Rico for the first time last month. I was visiting a friend working with the recovery effort down there, which meant that while he was at work I would have the luxury of time. To write, rest, go to the beach, and of course to stare at my hands and feet in amazement every five minutes, marveling at the awe-inspiring sensation of them not being cold.

Only you don’t show up empty-handed, especially when you’re going to an island very recently slammed by a historic storm and which is by all accounts still struggling to make it out of the first phase of the disaster response.

I contacted about a dozen different volunteer organizations before I left to see if there was a way I could pitch in while I was there, and heard back from most of them. Most of the opportunities required more of a time commitment than I had available or had a specific need I couldn’t provide, like fostering rescue dogs or transporting them to the airport where they would be flown to the mainland and their new adoptive homes.

Which was probably ok, since I had to solemnly promise several friends before I left that I would not be returning with a new four-legged member of the family. Or two.

A few days before my trip I got a response to an email I had sent to a synagogue in San Juan asking if they knew of any project I could help with. They’d forwarded it to a group called Puerto Rico Lit, who responded right away.

Which is how an extra suitcase full of donated school supplies ended up coming with me.

Erika Velez was in her home in San Juan watching the news not long after Hurricane Maria had torn across the island when she found herself riveted by an interview with a woman in Barranquitas, who had been unable to feed her children for two days. The roof had been blown straight off her house. Her family had no food, no water, and no gasoline to drive anywhere she might find either.

The woman cried through the entire interview. Then the reporter started crying.

Then Erika started crying. When the report was over, Erika reached for her phone and texted pretty much everyone she knew. She said, “I’m going up to Barranquitas. Who wants to help?”

Within a week she had a list of what she would need. Her plan was to bring enough food to cook a hot meal of chicken and rice for whoever needed it, bottled water, and a host of other supplies like Clorox, milk, bread, Gatorade, cereal, and cookies. She also found volunteers to drive trucks and other 4-wheel drive vehicles up to the town since the roads were practically impassable. Donations came flooding in. Her garage became a staging area.

Since that time almost seven months ago, Erika has made 15 trips meeting specific needs in 28 different areas of the commonwealth. They’ve assisted over 2300 families, hauling over 34,000 lbs. of supplies. They’ve distributed over 11,000 gallons of water. On their trips, they always serve a hot meal first thing when they arrive. They also bring used clothing, canned goods, rice, milk in cartons, snacks, toothpaste and toothbrushes, shampoo, bandages, soap, Tylenol, Lysol, bug spray, diapers, Ensure, pet food, water filters, and solar lamps.

When I arrived to spend an afternoon with her and her mother Nivea filling over 100 backpacks with school supplies for kids in two different towns, she gave me a quick tour of her office and family room which were already stacked with donations for a single family who had lost their entire home in the hurricane. Erika is leading the effort to reconstruct and replace everything for them.

She calls the group that organized around her Puerto Rico Lit. “Lit” was suggested by her teenaged son and his friends because it means something that is alive, cool, full of good energy, special. Which she and her brigade of volunteers already feel their islita is for sure. But also by choosing this name they are holding space for what Puerto Rico can emerge out of this disaster to become. It can be built back better, and she is helping do it one micro project at a time.

LaLaguna Grande in Farjado is one of three bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico. Kayak tours leave from the adjacent coastline at dusk, cross a small bay to the entrance of a mangrove forest, and after a long paddle back through it, enter a shallow lagoon.

If you are lucky as we were to be paddling during a waning crescent moon on that evening’s later tour when it was well past dusk, you might arrive out of the mangroves initially captivated at how the clouds were backlit by the stars, drifting across familiar constellations, steadily hiding and revealing them at their whim.

You might also be lulled into something like reverence for how quiet it was, mesmerized by a lack of sound so entire it felt disrespectful to talk too loudly. Even amongst the sounds of our guide’s presentation and those of several tour groups crisscrossing the lagoon in kayaks, the silence was so lush and so calming I felt enveloped by it and wanted to stay there forever.

But first, you might have noticed something unmistakable about the water.

Onthe surface, there’s a lot about life in San Juan that looks like it has returned to normal. In the neighborhood we stayed in, Miramar, and in others close by, hotels, restaurants, and bars are back in business. Buses are running and stores are open.

Look more closely and something altogether different eerily emerges: the city’s wounds are noticeable. Half the traffic lights don’t work (neither do the crosswalk signals, as I found out my first day when I automatically went to hit the button on one). There is rubble in piles at the edges of most sidewalks and buildings. Collapsed streetlights lie where they fell at strange angles, snapped like bent wire hangers. Hastily logged piles of downed trees and other vegetation lie shoved to one side in gardens and yards. Windows are boarded up everywhere, in both high-rises and single-story buildings. Huge highway signs, crumpled as if they were tin foil, lean over the road as cars speed by underneath, their drivers holding their breath.

Abandoned buildings stand next to their occupied brothers and sisters almost like they are hiding in plain sight hoping you don’t notice. These fall into two categories-the ones that were abandoned antes de la huracán, and those left since Maria. It’s not easy to tell between the two. Sometimes they are boarded up and sometimes not — apartments and entire office buildings left with their windows completely open or blown out, the contents of furniture, file cabinets, or shelves of binders exposed to the elements.

I didn’t take pictures of the wreckage. It felt disrespectful to me, like gawking at a horrible accident you happen to drive by. Or staring at a stranger’s black eye in line at the grocery store. But time and again my brain registered the details of something that didn’t seem right or normal before it had even registered the reason why. The damaged facade of a building, the art school closed indefinitely, the metal roof of a home embedded right where it had slid off, leaning against and barricading the front door. Each time I made a mental note. This piece is damaged, this part is broken, this place is abandoned. But I also bore witness to something else.

Whatever it is that is the opposite of all of this wreckage is also present here.

The bioluminescent organisms that inhabit La Laguna Grande are tiny plankton at the absolute rock bottom of the food chain. I suppose that they were tired of getting eaten constantly by other creatures that were bigger and stupider than they were, so they tried to think of the scariest name possible for themselves, hoping it would ward off predators. “I know!” one of them said (just before it was eaten), “Let’s call ourselves dinoflagellates, which will make the others think we’re like dinosaurs that can whip them to death with our big scary tails!”

Then one day, one of them discovered chemiluminescence, or how to release light energy via a chemical reaction. (The scary name idea might also have still been floating around since the light-emitting pigment they use is called luciferin). Once perfected, significant groups of plankton began to give off light, illuminating others higher up on the food chain who’d previously been in the dark, not noticing how much more tasty and fulfilling than plankton they suddenly looked to each other.

The bioluminescent organisms sat back and watched the feeding frenzy while they glowed with the underwater equivalent of stadium lighting. Survival strategy, sorted.

What makes a person risk being a helper? When people tell me their stories about being clearly guided by their gut, to a person they find themselves unable to explain why they knew what they knew or why they did what they did. But what they do know for sure, and they never waver on this point, is that what they felt intuitively was so strong it could override “common” sense and there was no way to talk them out of it. No matter who is sharing their story with me, they appreciate the luxury of looking back because it is sometimes only from that vantage point where we understand how all the dots were connected. Our stories show how our intuitive decisions compel us toward the highest good for the greatest number, even if we don’t realize how we’re being aligned at the time. Magic happens from such beginnings.

When I asked Erika if she remembered what made her reach for her phone that day she was watching the news, she said she didn’t really know what she was doing, she just had to help. But later, during a PR Lit trip to Cialis, when she asked a woman who lived there how they were doing, the woman called back joyfully, “Estamos vivo (We’re alive)!”. At that moment, Erika understood that the whole point of Puerto Rico Lit had been to help others, out of the simple joy of just being alive. It had been her purpose all along.

Thousands of years after bioluminescence was first observed by humans, our group glided into La Laguna Grande. Because it’s impossible to actually photograph the phenomenon with a phone, our tour guide had cautioned us against bringing them, and that made sense because at first the water looked just like….water. I was happy just being there, so I settled in and let my attention be drawn to the sky, when I heard, “Sooz, stick your hand in the water and splash”. I did.

And the water sparkled.

It looked like it had erupted with metallic confetti. Like millions of tiny fire-flies had learned to swim. Like legions of water fairies were waving their wands up at me in an ecstatic greeting.

Agitating the water with my paddle had a similar effect, even well under the surface. We were encouraged to scoop the water onto our legs to see it up close. Which I did, over and over again.

What was there to do but laugh out loud in delight? What better way to honor this gift, generated from organisms so tiny that I’d never be able to actually see them, but for the way they harnessed light?

How do you describe this call of light from the darkness in the most effervescent way possible, which blesses anyone it touches with a light heart? Reactivates any wish held dormant by fear? Reconsecrates anything I’d doubted was possible, with hope.

Truly, I was lit.

Puerto Rico Lit’s next project is to help the family of a boy badly burned by gasoline when the generator powering their house malfunctioned. Since the family is one of the 40,000 people in the Commonwealth who still have no power, they have been running an extension cord to the neighbor’s generator next door to keep three fans blowing inside the house, which is essential since the boy’s burns will not heal unless he is kept cool. Erika’s goal is to raise the $2,000 needed to buy solar panels that can generate power for the family (and possibly an air conditioner).

Here is Puerto Rico Lit’s fundraising page.

You know what to do, Friends.

Muchísimas Gracias.

~Here is a short video of Puerto Rico Lit’s trip to Utuado.

~And another of Puerto Rico Lit’s trip to Ciales.

~Also check out The Sato Project and Santuario de Animales San Francisco de Asís.

For Bill, whose brilliance flashes so much more often than just occasionally.

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