January 19, 2020
I decided to use my non-refundable ticket and come to Puerto Rico without my friends. I love and value this weekend with my forever girlfriends and have been looking forward to it so am bummed out about being here without them. I understood their concerns about travel here after the earthquake reports, but after reading about the damage and aftermath I wasn’t worried about safety. The flights were flying and people were still coming on vacation. But it seemed a lonely prospect to come on my own. I’m not even a beach person. We had decided on this location as a way to support the tourist economy after the hurricane. And I do believe in that rationale. I strongly feel the best way to support local economies is to go on vacation there. So, sticking by that, and having a ticket in my hand, I looked for a volunteer opportunity, one I could slide into easily and do for only five days. World Central Kitchen popped up.
World Central Kitchen is an NGO that feeds people. I can get behind that. They are functioning in many locations now: our southern border, Colombia, and other areas hit by natural disasters. It’s easy to sign up; they have a great website, and you can work as much or as little as you’d like.
So I booked a cheap airb&b in Ponce and boarded my flight. It was packed with people coming on vacation, bachelorette parties, and honeymooners, as well as people coming home to visit. No one seemed too worried. When I picked up my rental car the woman asked where I was staying. I told her Ponce and she said, “You know they had an earthquake there, right?” I said, “Yes, but the place I’m staying told me they had no damage.” I asked her if she’d felt it and she said, “Not really.” So off I went into San Juan rush hour traffic trying to find my way out of town.
GPS was working and the roads seemed fine. Some pot holes, but not bad. The biggest problem with the roads is the white lines are so faded you can’t see them. Lane changing was a bit iffy. It was dark by the time I got to Ponce and the neighborhood I was directed to was, how should I put it? Low rent, perhaps? I tried to be conscious of being judgmental but wasn’t sure I wanted to get out of the car. Actually, that’s not true. I did not want to get out of the car. I could NOT find the house. The numbers made no sense, the GPS said I’d arrived but when I got up the guts to ask some of the people hanging around outside they didn’t know where the house was either. Well, they didn’t say that. They sent for some teenager who could speak a little English since my Spanish is nonexistent, and he didn’t know. After an hour and a half of me driving in circles I turned into a Walmart (gag me) parking lot which was lit up like Las Vegas, googled hotels nearby, saw one called “Solace By The Sea” and, close to tears, thought that was a good name and went there.
Down dark roads I went not looking like anything was nearby and I came to a dead end with a faded sign with the letters SOL dimly lit. I was about to turn around when I looked more closely and saw “ACE by the SEA” unlit. This was the hotel! There were traffic cones blocking the entrance so I thought it wasn’t open but a security guard came out of a dingy shelter and moved one of the cones so I could pass. She asked if I was a guest. I told her I hoped to be and she waved me through. There were three cars in a parking lot for two hundred or so. This, as seedy as it was, was a million times better than the neighborhood I’d just been in. I went to the glass entrance, which was locked. When I pulled on the door, the reception person came around to open it. I asked, “Are you closed?” He said, “No, but we only have FEMA people staying here. The staff haven’t been coming to work since most of them had damage to their homes. The restaurant isn’t open.” This was a blow since I wanted a drink badly. And I was starving. But was more desperate for a room. I asked if I could stay there as I couldn’t find the place I’d reserved and he said yes. Thank God. He said the water was potable, and since I had no intention of driving again that night to find a place to eat, decided I’d just fast until the next day. The place was run down and deserted but pretty much like places we’d stayed in Malawi so I was fine. He said the internet was working but I couldn’t log on. And there was no water at the drinking fountain. So I was walking back to the front desk to ask about this and I saw a man walking toward me with an armload of water bottles. We greeted each other and I asked if he was with FEMA. He said no, he was a crisis counselor working for another organization. He’d been there for a day already and handed me one of the water bottles. Seriously, some kind of angel. The kindest, most comforting voice. We chatted, he asked why I was there, etc. etc. etc. He said he’d not eaten and asked if I wanted to go get supper with him. Yes!!! So we got organized, found a restaurant online that was nearby and off we went. He drove his car but we navigated with my phone since his GPS wasn’t working. AT&T is apparently the way to go here.
I swear this guy was Clarence the Angel. He is fluent in Spanish since studying philosophy in Spain for three years, intrepid, warm and friendly; the perfect companion for the evening. The place we found was a tiny local restaurant, one I wouldn’t have ventured into alone at night. It was great. Food was fabulous and he insisted on paying since I was volunteering and he was getting paid. And they had beer. Couldn’t have been better.
He works for an organization that sends counselors to crisis situations. Businesses contract with them to come and counsel their employees. He’d spent that day at AT&T so I guess they have their act together. Made me happy I use them. He said he’d been a bit scared with the aftershocks (a 4.3 that morning) so completely understands how traumatized people are. They all feel something bigger is coming. He left for home yesterday morning, but what a sweet little gift it was to meet him.
That night a tremor at 3 am woke me up. It didn’t last long but I could see how unsettling this is for people. Another came at 5 am. None of these have caused more damage and I’m not freaked by them but I also didn’t have my house collapse. It makes me think of the Greek (or was it Roman?) myth of the benevolent maternal underworld reminding us of her power and strength. We can’t control this so we need to learn to live in harmony with it. Embrace it.
After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, white toast, and strong coffee, (they did manage to get an employee to come in and make breakfast) I said goodbye to my new friend and went off to find my apartment in the daylight. I found it and rather wished I hadn’t. But it’s all paid for and I’ll only be here to sleep so I’ll see how it goes. Last night wasn’t too bad. The fact that it has no windows is a bit hard for me. The air con works, but it is like a prison cell. I found the World Kitchen headquarters and immediately went to work helping make a thousand ham and cheese sandwiches. I thought that was impressive but they said the day before they made six thousand. In the afternoon we chopped tomatoes and mushrooms, washed tons of locally grown lettuce, and assembled cob salads. It’s fun! I met great people from all over. A group who work at an insurance company in San Juan contacted a medical team and gave them my contact info so I might get to do some work with them. We’ll see. Anything not to stay in this apartment. I miss my friends though. A group of young women from Boston, just graduated from college, here on vacation, spent the afternoon yesterday helping make the salads. It’s been wonderful to see and satisfying to report.
Ok, off I go to see what’s cooking today.
Love to all,