Truth and beauty in Puerto Rico

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 6:15pm

Landing in San Juan on New Year’s Eve, I had underestimated how hot and humid the weather would feel against my winter sweater. Having flown from New York with my sister and her boyfriend, where snow and rain had previously showered us, the weather change was a real shock. I would begin the New Year in an environment foreign to me. We celebrated the New Year with champagne, heading to bed early, exhausted from our travels.

The first morning in San Juan, we headed down to the beach, passing by murals and street art adorning the surrounding area. Cars drove by, blasting music in Spanish in the early morning. Above, palm trees draped their arms over the street, providing shade against the sun’s rays.

Walking down the street, we could hear the rolling of waves approaching us. The waves, bright and clear reflected the hues from the sky. We spent the day relaxing by the water’s edge, soaking up the sunlight into our drained, winter-bitten skins. I drifted off to sleep, rays of sunlight poking through my straw hat onto my face as warm reminders of where I was.

Over the next days, we would spend our time in San Juan, soaking up the colors found in the neighborhoods, eating food uncommon to our tongues, and nudging each other when a lizard scurried past.

Driving farther away from known civilization towards the El Yunque National Forest, we quickly became engulfed in a forest of overgrowth. Upon arriving to the El Yunque rainforest, we were asked by our tour guides which hiking route we would like to tackle: a quick hike through the brush, or a hike upstream, testing our balance through the rapids. We quickly agreed to hike and test our limits through the flowing and unforgiving rivers.

The hike through the river allowed us to see the canopies of trees above, and the life that poured out from the forest. The El Yunque Forest is the sole tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System. One of the smallest forests in size and the only U.S. national forest located on an island, it is home to thousands of native plants, including fern and tree species. The Luquillo Mountains found in the forest comprised most of the land – we experienced the magnitude of the steep slopes on our trek back down, as we slid and fell in the mud that had accumulated from previous rainfalls.

We climbed and pushed over rocks, mud, and brush, eventually arriving to the sound of waterfalls and laughter pounding our ears. Water fell from openings in the rocky landscape, cascading down into water holes where hikers rested for the moment. Others jumped and slid down the waterfall, their laughter echoing into the forest when they crashed into the water. Fresh fruit was cut and laid on a leaf from the rainforest, all reaching and grabbing for the savory fruit after a long day of hiking.

We took the weekend to recover from our rain forest hike, only to continue hiking through the historic sites of Old San Juan. Old San Juan, a national U.S. Historic Site through the National Park Service, contained buildings that dated from the 16th century, including fortresses and walls from the old cities. During our walk through the old cities, we passed by cats laid out in the plazas, and plants of diverse species blooming all around us. Iguanas hid from the hot sun on the cliffs above, their eyes watching us intently.

In the town, music flooded the streets, and the sound of religious melodies quietly lured tourists into the cathedrals. Bright and exuberant houses lined the cobbled streets and plazas, as we took a moment and sat in a park surrounded by shade. Pigeons flew by in search of spare food.

Falling asleep to lulls of birds and frogs outside the window, I was not expecting to wake to a world shaking me in its grasp. In the early morning on Jan. 6, I felt my bed and room shaking, my body confused as though I was still dreaming. I drifted back to sleep, unaware I was in the presence of an earthquake. We later found out that day we had an earthquake in San Juan.

The next day, an earthquake struck again in the early morning, this time at various intervals and stronger magnitudes. I woke to my bed and room rustling back and forth; the presence of the earthquake was apparent this time. Looking to charge my phone, I noticed we had no electricity in our apartment. For the next few days, we saved our phone batteries until our flight back home.

On the last night of our stay in Puerto Rico, we sat in a crowded restaurant eating our meal, watching for the first time the news of the earthquakes. On the south side of Puerto Rico, where the earthquakes hit stronger, physical damages were revealed, showing houses and buildings crumbled apart. Families stood outside of their homes, once a place of comfort and solitude now turned to dust and broken stone.

We were very lucky to walk away safe and leave Puerto Rico after the earthquakes. But there are families and individuals who call Puerto Rico their home, who cannot leave the island, and who will feel the lasting impacts stronger than we did.

A U.S. territory often forgotten and ignored, Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria in 2017. Earthquakes have continued to shake the island as of Monday, Jan. 13, with nearly 60,000 people who do not have power from the impacted areas, and lack of water present in areas as well.

To help provide relief and assistance after the earthquakes, here are a few organizations to help those impacted: