Postcard From Puerto Rico

By Chad Olcott

It’s not particularly remarkable to most people in the US during this frigid holiday week, but the temperature here in sunny Brunswick is all of 1 degree at 11 AM this morning. By any standard, it is not warm – and the forecast holds no relief at all for the foreseeable future. As such, in addition to presenting a good opportunity for long underwear and absurd amounts of hot tea, it’s an awfully good day to think warm thoughts and share a bit about my recent trip down to Puerto Rico.

One degree and climbing up to 4, thank you very much!

As many of you know, we have run our Caribbean Service trip to Puerto Rico for a long time – in fact, 2018 will be the ninth consecutive summer we’ll have worked among bougainvillea and swaying palms. After Hurricanes Irma and Maria rolled through in September, and after reading many breathless media accounts of conditions on the island, we were eager to get a sense of what things are really like on Puerto Rico and our beloved Vieques, off the eastern coast. So – I drew the short straw and had to fly from the frozen tarmac in Maine to spend the better part of a week in PR in mid-December.

What I found was an island in a significantly better place than I had anticipated. The big towns and cities are well into recovery, filled with communities of people working incredibly hard, and individuals who – to a one – say that they feel closer to their families and neighbors than they ever have before. After my visits to our work sites and accommodations, I am entirely confident that we can run trips in Puerto Rico next summer that match, or even exceed, the standards to which we’ve run our trip in the past. This is with regard to every aspect of our Caribbean program – risk management, water access and quality, emergency medical care, transportation, and accommodations.

Frankly, in many ways, there has never been a better time to run this trip. We are committed to our Caribbean Service trips and committed to helping our Puerto Rican partners in whatever substantive ways that we can. Here are some snapshots of my time on the island:

Utuado, Puerto Rico. Greenery at Hacienda Verde – our home in the hills above Utuado. Utuado was perhaps the most surprising place I visited. After hearing that the power remained out and showed no signs of coming back on, I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a clean central square filled with decorated Christmas trees, stores and restaurants filled, and electricity and clean water throughout the town. I was told that power was still out in many surrounding towns and villages, but it was truly a bit like walking into bizarro world to see how far along the recovery was compared with what I was expecting. Power and clean water are up and running at Hacienda Verde, too.
Ghosts of Apogee groups past at Hacienda Verde – credit to Will and Lucy’s groups, circa 2014.
A neighborhood outside of San Juan – as seen from the plane to Vieques. The blue dots are houses in need of new roofs.
Greenery returning to the slopes of El Yunque.
Esperanza, Vieques. The walls of the lovely Malecon were washed away by Maria. For those of you who have been there, you’ll be relieved to know that Duffy’s is operating – and I may or may not have confirmed that they’re still serving their Duffy’s Punch (they are…).
The waterfront in Esperanza, Vieques. Battered palms coming back to life.
Esperanza, Vieques. The roads are clear, but there are huge piles of hurricane debris in several areas.
Isabel II, Vieques. You’ll see “se levanta” all over Puerto Rico right now as a testament to the recovery effort.
Isabel II, Vieques. This is the hitherto lovely place our groups stayed last summer on Vieques. It’s roof is gone – so we’re moving on to new digs on the island in 2018.
Isabel II, Vieques. The view from the aforementioned new digs on Vieques. Not shabby.
Isabel II, Vieques. More Apogee handiwork – this time outside of the Reach For Success headquarters and the work of Emma and Matthew’s groups last summer. Explorar indeed!

There is undoubtedly a lot of work to be done in the years to come – work that will hopefully make Puerto Rico more prepared for the next storm. As you can see from the pictures above, it’s the human infrastructure that needs the most work. What these pictures don’t show adequately is how quickly the natural world is recovering. I have been returning to Vieques every year for almost ten years, and I have never seen it so green. The flowers and trees are overflowing with life all over the island. And, if it isn’t too much of a stretch, I think the people are, too. Reading accounts in the papers up here, one gets the sense that Puerto Ricans are resigned to their fate – instead, I found an island buzzing with activity and filled with those who are dedicated to improving life for all Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rico is not resigned, it is resilient. Se levanta!