La Isla Te Esta Llamando (Part 2 of 3)

Part 1:

It wasn’t quite night and a touch far from morning as we laid in cots that adorned the former classroom turned home. The heat, as unyielding as it was, seemed to be in constant competition with the scrupulous mosquito for the award of most annoying sleep partner. My eyes had opened and scanned the room, trying to focus in the darkness. Beyond the sea of cots and previous days sweat drenched clothes hanging by open windows, one could make out the hints of this building’s former life. From whiteboards to books, the school was home and refuge for so many, but thinly veiled was the need for this school to be a school once again. I hoped as we all did, that soon some semblance of normalcy could return to this place. From a gaze upward it can be seen that the ceiling fans have stopped, meaning the generator was out again. Whether it was the lack of moving air or the mosquito attack that stirred me from rest I’ll never know. I made my way out of the rack, grabbed my flashlight, a can of Deet, and headed out toward the bathrooms. I had crossed the ocean of snores that were all too familiar, and grinned at how long ago such a thing alone would have kept me up all night. Howbeit now it’s a comforting sound of hard working people getting a well earned reward of rest. I had made my way out of the room and onto the second floor catwalk. Within view and subtly marking out my destination was the trash can which we’d fill with sea water at bath time in order to have something to flush toilets.

In the bathroom mirror I can barely make out my image. As my eyes struggled to focus, my mind drifted and shuffled through sights and sounds of recent memory like a spinning picture lantern.  The heart wrenching sounds of a young mother yelling out to our convoy, pleading for baby formula. An image of an elderly man walking down a mountain road with machete in hand, smiling and saying what took you guys so long. The taste of bacalaitos a grateful couple gave us for helping to clear the road, and tend to a neighbor in medical need. The aroma of coffee or rather a cortado made with caring eyes and a warm smile that could be found everywhere. My eyes had finally found their focus and surveyed my reflection in wonder. Am I making grandpa proud? After witnessing the strength and resilience of these Ricans, am I even worthy to count myself among them? Why isn’t there more help out here, it’s been a month? When I get to him, what state will Tio Justo be in?

Before getting too lost in questions I lacked answers for, I sobered myself up by spraying the latest layer of Deet upon arms the rainforest spent the day punishing with scratches and scrapes. The sweet sting of the Deet was enough to get me fully awake and determined to seek out a cup of coffee and get started on the day’s objectives. The daily routine for the team I was on was simple, clear roads and provide help. We had medical teams setting up clinics in remote areas and putting in some hard and noble work. The operational or run and gun team spent our days clearing roads of debris which was mostly fallen trees and incredibly tough jungle vines, in order to allow critical services like water trucks, sanitation, and ambulances to get through into distant communities. We used saws, ropes, machetes, and brute force to get the areas free and clear. We had a couple of medics on the team which allowed us to remain nimble and provide much needed help as we moved through a jungle that did not want us messing with it. Navigation was at times a challenge in which we indulged in the long extinct practice from the pre-GPS era, of asking people for directions and looking at printed maps. Add to that having me as a interpreter and it was almost a miracle we got to our destinations at all.

From Charcas in Quebradillas, to San Sebastian to Don Alonso in Utuado, and back to and through the jungles of Isabela we traveled. Some times our team was on their own, and other times with local law enforcement as a friendly escort. At times they could be spotted yelling from a distance some words of encouragement, as we sweated it out using a manual pole saw akin to a butter knife taped to a stick, to cut our way into the barrios. It was in one such barrio called Corea or as it’s known now, Galateo Alto in Isabela, where I discovered that decades earlier my grandma had frequented that area. Grandma, as a young teenager who dropped out of school to tend to her family and younger siblings. She would travel the now two and a half hour car ride, over 11 transit hops from Coamo to earn some money as a nanny. Coamo was where I would eventually go in order to find my great uncle. However for now we were all tied up with the mission at hand and I hadn’t yet acquired a resource to make the trip which seemed a world away. The lack of communications with a side of here say made it difficult to even determine a safe route in which to get out that far and back, but not impossible. Ever still, the tale of the road to Coamo is for another day.

Joke as I might about the local cops they were a blessing. They were able to scout ahead and find out who needed help with everything from a tree leaning in on a home precariously, to some of the elderly who were not able to make it to a clinic. Our travels were at times challenging but always and without a doubt fulfilling and moving. To call it the daily routine was half a joke since it was never routine. Each day was like a lifetime of experience and emotion in just a few hours. I remember a woman in hysterics asking me to speak to her father and convince him to go to the hospital. At the same time a medic friend being pulled to another place to calm a couple of autistic children down, who were having trouble coming to terms with the sudden interruption in routine the storm had left. I recall the somewhat panicked look of a sanitation truck driver we happened upon.  His truck was stuck due to the windshield becoming impaled with a tree hanging from power lines. Then his relief as we got out of our jeep and told him not to worry, we’d get him out.

I remember feeling exhausted on one day in particular, when we were guided in by the police to pizza spot just on the border of Isabela and San Sebastian for lunch. As was the new normal, many shops and restaurants had no power, but the world kept spinning. We walked into the darkened restaurant and put in our order for pizza, and grabbed a few hot sodas and waited outside. As we waited we noticed a crowd across the street at another darkened store patiently waiting. A gregarious older man sat near us waiting as well, and as he noticed we were out of town, he started to reminisce to me about New York where he had spent some time in his younger years. Eventually we got around to what everyone was gathered up for across the street. They had heard that there may be a water truck coming through and it had been three hours from the time it was expected to arrive. Three hours and everyone showed no sounds of anger or impatience. Three hours on the hope of some potable water would arrive, and after hearing that I can’t say I ever felt exhausted again during my time on the island.

Our days of adventures, life lessons,  and in my case some espanol skill building would wind down with our return to the school to offload, debrief, and relax. At times I’d talk to some of the refugees, joke with the kids, or some of the school staff that were going above and beyond and coming in to cook for the people at the camp. They even hooked me up by sharing some Pasteles with me one evening. Whether we were just having a conversation, or running around trying to figure out how to get the generator going again, the feeling of community and one of being truly connected is one I won’t forget. In today’s world it can be hard to grasp what being connected really means when you have mobile phones and the internet in your way.

As the sun began to lay low upon the horizon making it not quite night and very far from morning, it was beach bath time. However on one night in particular, there was a rumor of having running water at the school. Rumor had turned to truth and with more excitement than one should have, I graciously awaited my turn to hit the showers. The amount of exuberance over running water and flushing toilets was beyond uncanny. When it was my turn I made my way down and into the shower room that housed a couple of toilets, and three showers of which only two were working. I had gotten into an unoccupied stall, and started to happily relish in the cold water and soap. Not long into the shower I heard my neighbor begin to sing. One of the many area residents displaced, he was taking refuge at the school and also enjoying the infrequent availability of running water. The song was an old church hymn that I knew because my grandparents would sing it when I was a child. I can see grandpa sitting in the living room as grandma putters around singing. Soon after she starts he joins. They are proud with an unwavering feeling that everything will work out as it should. They sing this seemingly simple song which speaks of the light and of guides and of rising up again. However it was all in the way it was sung. The strength, the fortitude, and heart reverberated within that room. An epoch of hope, faith, and triumph through the hardest of times. That was the only time I cried while on that trip. The sweet and powerful sound washed away my barriers as the water washed away the grime. In retrospect it almost seems a crime that I have gained so much more from the beautiful island than it will have gained from me. Nevertheless la isla del encanto se levanta.


…labors and dangers…



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