Alternative Spring Break
This Spring Break I participated in a program we have here at UVA called Alternative Spring Break, which essentially organizes week-long, student-led service trips that take place in many locations all over the US and even some international sites. I applied last fall because it seemed like a good way to do something meaningful with my break, get to know a new community, and experience something new. So, early in the morning on March 5th, I boarded a plane with 11 other UVA students to volunteer in Puerto Rico for the week. Going in, I really had no expectations, but I loved every minute of our trip, and learned so much about Puerto Rico.
When we landed in San Juan on the first day, we were picked up by our volunteer coordinator, Hector – an older man originally from Cuba who moved around the US before coming to live in Puerto Rico. Hector was honestly a huge part of why our trip was so successful and interesting. He organized everything for us, drove us from place to place, and answered all of our billions of questions about the island territory. He’s a chatty, hilarious, and genuine guy. Also, his wife made us homemade Caribbean dinners every night consisting of rice, beans, plantains, and either chicken, pork, or beef – muy rico! We stayed in El Faro, the lighthouse located inside of Las Cabezas de San Juan – the nature reserve we were working in for the week located in the northeast corner of the island where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. It was honestly so cool living there. Not only were the views incredibly breathtaking, but the lighthouse is actually a museum too with a lot of history. We stayed in 2 rooms with 3 triple layer bunk beds each wrapped in mosquito nets. We took outdoor showers, enjoyed the temperate weather and wind (no AC!), and had wild chickens running around outside every morning. Our living conditions were so ideal and natural.
We started every morning with strong Puerto Rican coffee and tropical jams like guava, mango, and pineapple. The first morning there, we had our orientation with the organization we volunteered with called Para la Naturaleza. They manage many nature reserves around the island, including Las Cabezas de San Juan. We learned a lot about the history of the lighthouse and the ecosystems of the area, got to hold a starfish and a sea cucumber, saw bioluminescent organisms, and visited the rocky coast, the mangrove forest, and the bioluminescent lagoon that are all protected within the reserve. In the afternoon, we worked on the reserve, uprooting an invasive species of plants, and had some free time to go to the beach.
We had some quality conversations with Hector and some of the workers there about the political status of the island and the economy. All the people I talked to agreed that Puerto Rican independence is unfeasible because of the culture of dependence that has been created over the years due to its relationship with the US. They are concerned about the lack of incentives here for working, and believe that Puerto Rico should become a state to foster a stronger sense of responsibility; however, it’s hard to imagine that Puerto Rico will ever become a state or completely independent. Although it has its own distinct culture, the island is so intertwined with the US. Be it from the road signs, to the American businesses here, to the national parks, to the former military base, or even more significantly to the citizenship of its residents or the currency, Puerto Rico is significantly tied to the US, making its political status a complicated issue when taking all the different factors into account.
The next day we spent at Las Margaritas Boys & Girls Club of Puerto Rico. The director, Jose, gave us a tour of the facilities and told us all about the mission and the programs and work they do there with the kids to help develop and motivate them. He was so inspiring and passionate, and I feel that the place is really making a difference in the kids’ lives in getting them to the next level. It was cool how the employees really cared about the kids and the community. Jose told us about the Toyota leadership program they have there to help kids get in to college, and about two brothers from Guatemala who have no parents, but who come to the club every day. They also have a pizzeria there that teaches the kids how to run a business and gives them real work experience. I think the best thing Jose told us was that the kids there don’t need pity, but rather motivation and good examples to look up to. While we were there, we cleaned a storage room before the kids arrived in the afternoon, and then got to interact with and play with the kids there. It was probably one of my favorite days of the trip.
The next day was recreational; we visited El Yunque Rainforest in the morning, and the former US Naval Base at Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba in the afternoon to swim in the harbor. The rainforest was really cool; seeing it in the rain made it feel so authentic, even though it limited our swimming in the waterfall. It was so lush, green, and alive. The naval base was fun to swim at; we jumped off the pier into the water, and even saw dolphins! But it was also strange to see so much abandoned infrastructure, and the effects closing a base can have on the surrounding community.
Next we spent the day volunteering at Las Cabezas de San Juan again. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, the water seemed bluer, and everything seemed so much happier after a few rainy days. In the morning we again uprooted more of the invasive species of plants, planted new native trees, and soiled planters for new gardens. In the afternoon, we picked up trash from a beach. It was one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, but all the trash that washes up there was so sad to see. It really put littering into perspective for me on how detrimental it can be. We picked up several hundred pounds of trash. On another note, all the people we worked with from Para la Naturaleza were so genuine and interesting to talk to. They are passionate about what they do and so thankful for even the seemingly little things we did to help them.
The next day’s work was really fun. Half of us planted trees in the nursery they have there and mixed new soil, and the other half built a picnic table from recycled wood. I really loved planting the trees, and especially chatting with the workers there, who are so interesting, fun, and relaxed. I talked to an older woman named Lola for almost an hour just listening to stories about her life, and one worker named Marical started singing for us. After we finished working in the afternoon, the workers took us to a beach, which was just such a hilarious experience because all the workers were just chilling there with us and having a good time. One of the workers, Ron, brought a machete and climbed a palm tree to cut down coconuts for us to eat. After the beach, we hiked back up to the lighthouse.
The next day we spent on a catamaran named the Spread Eagle. We sailed for 45 minutes to a nearby island where we got off the boat to swim, chill on the beach, and snorkel. There were some private boats nearby celebrating someone’s birthday with a band on the boat, so we laid on some rocks for awhile just listening to the Spanish music. I’ve never done something like sailing on a catamaran before, but it was so amazing. The sun was bright all day, the wind and water felt so good, and it was relaxing just having the day to talk to everyone. I saw some fish and a starfish while snorkeling, and the entire experience was so surreal and the views were incredible. At night when it was dark out, we went on a kayaking tour through the mangroves to the bioluminescent lagoon, which was really cool because you could actually see the organisms glowing in the dark like sparkles. However, there were so many kayaks in the channel that sometimes people would run into each other or the mangroves and create a lot of chaos since it was pitch black outside and the only thing you could see were the blue lights of the kayaks in front of you.
Our last day there was actually my 20th birthday! Our flight didn’t leave until 7pm, so we spent the morning and the majority of the afternoon in Old San Juan, which is beautiful. It felt so Caribbean but also had the typical Spanish style colonial architecture that I love with bright colors, cobble stone streets, and cute balconies. In the morning we visited El Morro, the Spanish fortress that used to defend the city, which was very impressive and had cool views of the sea. For lunch, we ate at a restaurant that served mofongo – mashed plantains. While at lunch, all the waiters came over and played Caribbean drums while singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. For the rest of the afternoon we wandered the city, buying souvenirs and getting coffee before Hector took us to the airport. All in all, celebrating my 20th birthday in Old San Juan and on a plane was pretty awesome, but leaving Puerto Rico was so sad. We really bonded as a group over the week and fell in love with the island, and the experiences and people we met there really changed my perspective on a lot of issues and made me think about things in different ways.