La Isla Te Esta Llamando (Part 1 of 3)

As I look back, it was one of many beautiful sunsets on a calm and tranquil beach. If pressed to tell you what day it was, for the life of me I couldn’t. I can’t even say if any of us could. We had wrapped up another hard but fulfilling day and it was bath time. The environment we were in did not lend itself to the pleasantries many of us take for granted. However you can’t commit to making a difference in the world without a little sacrifice. Admittedly though, cleaning up on a tropical beach at sunset is far from a sacrifice. We had rolled up to the sea shore in style. A convoy of mini vans and Jeeps full of smelly and tired people in high spirits and tireless drive. Quite a sight to behold, but surely from a safe distance, cause as I said we smelled pretty ripe. We dipped into the ocean blue where we’d relax and swap stories of the day’s adventures. Every so often I could be seen simply floating in the soothing yet turbulent salt water, drifting, and lost in thought under the setting sun.

Just a blink ago, I was on my way back home from a rotation in the disaster stricken areas of Houston as part of a disaster response. Hurricane Harvey had done immense damage to Texas, and I was among the folks honored to be given a chance to help. I was even so fortunate as to have been given command of one of the Houston area bases. Quite the challenge and even more a surprise, however this season had more than its share of surprises. I remember being on my way home when I received word asking if I’d be able to go to Mexico in response to an earthquake that ravaged Mexico City. Reluctantly I had to pass since I had already been away from my office job for way too long and I had no vacation left. Riddled with guilt I had made my way back home and right back into the office job. I had stepped into work and barely shaken the guilt when word came in that Hurricane Maria happened across the Caribbean, crippling many islands and areas, more personally the island of Puerto-Rico. The island from where my grandparents and father came. The island was decimated and left devoid of potable water, electricity, and communications.

I had spent weeks sending money, monitoring Zello communications, speaking with other folks about organizing and going out to the island, and searching on people finders. It’s a point of pride and humility to be asked, “When are you going?” when a disaster strikes. It is a whole other level when grandma asks, “Can you go find your uncle?”. My great uncle and his family in Coamo had 3 gallons of water before the hurricane hit, then nothing, no word. Like so many others, a complete black out. Weeks of silence, despair, grief, and anger had gone by, and all punctuated with helplessness. Then when it seemed I had donated as much time and money from afar as possible, I got a phone call from one of my favorite disaster response organizations. My eighteenth call into action within the disaster space. A coming of age of sorts. A call I would not leave unanswered, the call to go to Puerto-Rico and help. A chance to find my uncle and make a difference in a place I had waited my entire life to set foot upon, to see, to embrace.

Luckily I had accrued enough vacation in my time in waiting to allow me to go into the hole. Well lucky for my employers at least, seeing as I had a mission that aligned to my purpose. Such a thing is hard to veer away from. In short order I was on my way to the island with no return ticket or idea what the mission would be, but I met a few friends I’d spend some of my toughest and best of days with helping folks on the way. We landed in the dead of night to an airport without power in San Juan. Given that curfew was in effect our team was extracted pretty quick and we were off in convoy style away from San Juan and into the island. There was a feeling of exhilaration as I made landfall that surpassed any curiosity as to where I was going or what would I be doing. I only knew that I had come home and was ready to do whatever my people needed for as long as these old bones would hold out.

Wrested from my drifting thoughts by a kind, “Hey Melo?” from voices on the beach. It was now dark on the enchanting beach of Isabela and time to head back to the home base. The ragged few of us still taking in the cleansing waters finished our beverages and headed back to land. Our home was a school turned refugee camp that was running on sporadic generator power. It was humbling and inspirational to share space and conversation with some of the displaced families of the area. Admittedly life is change but this change had come in an instant, and in the face of a nation that didn’t seem to care, and despite this, the Puerto-Rican people were resilient beyond imagine. This wave of unabashed vicissitudes thrust upon a people that had sustained more than any people should suffer, left many of us speechless, yet laser focused on what needed to be done. I only hope that some day posterity will show that perhaps I have a fraction of such fortitude and brilliant resilience as my fellow Taino brothers and sisters.

Incredibly odd sounding to put to words, nevertheless there was comfort in being uncomfortable. The lack of communication with the outside world, the absence of potable water, and unstable power were nothing to pay any fuss or mind to unless you had a solution. Far and away this was one of the rare areas I had ever seen in which everyone tackled every obstacle with true zeal and vigor. Everything once taken for granted simply had additional steps. For instance if you were looking to use the facilities, you’d have to ensure you had or could procure a bucket or two filled with water in order to gravity flush the toilet, a trash bag to hold toilet paper, some sanitizer, and some mosquito spray if you’re a skeeter magnet like I am. If it’s morning time and you’re looking to brush your teeth, you have to be aware of the amount of bottled water on hand and the amount of people that will need said water. In short take one bottle of water and use it wisely and sparingly, not to start washing hands, clearing the golden pipes with extended gargles, or watering plants. Besides the wonderful tropical humidity provided ample amounts of sweat that could have been harvested for the latter. A buddy of mine in Bayamon had a daily routine that started with a walk around the neighborhood in search of a shop that had bottled water, then followed by machete work on debris covered areas. As difficult as some things seemed, there was an idyllic feel to settling into a routine that brought you and the community together as a family, in a way that I had never seen before. Needless to say the daily routine was easy to get used to, but hard to break from once you were away from the island. It’s as if it still calls to you. From the hot coffee in the brisk 30 degree Celsius mornings, to sucking down a tepid Coca-Cola when desperate for caffeine, out to the conversations and good work you did, and lastly from everything in between the sweet and jubilant feel of the evening sunset baths.

…labors and dangers…


Part 2:

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