[My wife Andrea and I are enjoying our 12th annual February sojourn in Isabela, PR. We’d had some reservations about coming this year. We knew that the island was still in recovery mode from two strong hurricanes last September. But our friends here urged us to come, and we’re both very glad we did. Here’s a taste of what our first week was like.]
February 6, 2018. There was something unusual about our morning flight to San Juan from BWI. There were almost a dozen young mothers travelling without partners with toddlers and infants in tow. Andrea and I shared a row with a young Puerto Rican woman and her two small boys, ages 2 and 4. There were similar configurations of mothers and children in the rows immediately in front and behind us as well. It was not a particularly restful flight. The little boys in our aisle were charming yet a bit rambunctious, and increasingly restless. The infant in the row behind us cried loudly for long periods. I admired the equanimity of the mothers in the face of our four-hour flight. When we finally touched down, spontaneous cheering and applause erupted from many of the Puerto Rican passengers. In all our 12 years of travelling here, we’d never witnessed such an overflow of feeling. These were people happy to be home. Many of them, we surmised, were returning after extended stays in the States as temporary refugees from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
February 8. After spending a couple of days exploring our rented condo and its environs on the wild Atlantic in Isabela, we decided to take a ride down the coast highway to visit some of our favorites beaches. We had seen some downed trees and many downed electric poles and non-functioning traffic lights on our 2-hour drive west from the airport in San Juan. But the devastation we witnessed today was a scale of magnitude higher.
Our first stop was the Poza de Teodoro – a dramatic outcropping of limestone “montones” about 50 yards offshore, creating a tidal pool that is wonderful for snorkeling, and for waders of all ages. Next to the Poza are a string of wide open, “undeveloped” beaches where the Atlantic daily crashes in with menacing intensity. These “Middle Beaches” are a surfer’s paradise and we could spot a few of them in the distance. So far so good, except for a few downed palm trees and some noticeable erosion to the protecting dunes.
Our second stop was at Montones Beach near the Villas del Mar Hau, consisting of about a dozen charming, beach-front cottages and the area’s finest restaurant, Olas y Arenas. Andrea and I had stayed at the Villas on our first venture to PR twelve years earlier and still carried fond memories of our time there. We found it strange that the gate to the Villas was open, and after stopping to watch two iguanas battling in the driveway, we drove through the property, parking in a lot near the restaurant. It seemed eerily devoid of humans for mid-day. But the sound of power saws whined nearby. Walking down a wood ramp towards the ocean, we were shocked to see that the “Olas y Arena” open-sided pavilion-restaurant had been reduced to its bare flooring. The pretty blue cottage next to it, the one where we’d had stayed, was also stripped to bare flooring.
We saw a young workman nearby who seemed happy to talk with us in his adequate English. He said that many of the other cottages had also been damaged and that the Villas had been closed since Hurricane Maria struck the island the previous September. He was happy to have work in the restoration, as he’d amassed debt from paying $25 per day for gasoline for the generator he’d needed for his home. He spoke of initial food and water shortages, of no “energia” and spotty phone service, he and his family eating canned spaghetti and beans for weeks on end.
We continued west to Jobos Beach, the epicenter of Isabela’s surfing community, replete with small hotels, restaurants and bars. The immense, horseshoe-shaped beach, with protective montones on its east side, still impressed us with its sheer majesty, even with significant erosion to the beach itself. It was appalling to see the acres of downed trees and brush felled on the oppose side of the coast road. We were told that the salt water from the hurricane surge had undermined the trees’ root structures. There was a lot of evident property destruction as well, and downed wires and poles with some replacements installed above them. Electric and cable-TV workers were at work along the roadside, making for a difficult traffic flow on the narrow 2-lane coast road.
February 10. We got out early this Saturday morning. Our first stop, the small farmer’s market near Ramey. We’ve made it a point to shop and hang out there some on most of our trips. It had rained earlier, but the sun soon emerged, and the farmers were laying out their produce and other products as we arrived.
The first persons we connected with were a middle-aged couple with a table full of leafy greens – kale, lettuce and spinach. The man sported a “UCONN” t-shirt and I enquired of his connection to it. He was from the States but had been living in PR for many years after his Dad had decided to build a home here back in the 1960’s. He introduced his lovely wife from Mayaguez. They were both proud of their healthy greens and vibrant red radishes. Maria had devastated their garden back in September, but the tropical climate and their loving attention had clearly brought it back to life. After making our purchase, we asked the man where we might get a good cup of coffee and he pointed across the way to where a young man was setting up his coffee stand from the back of a coffee-colored panel truck.
We greeted the handsome, dark-skinned barrister and asked about his enterprise as he completed his set up. His father had started this business (“Papamim Café) as an extension of their small coffee farm in the hills around the town of San Sebastian. This enterprising young Puerto Rican spoke with the jaunty self-confidence of someone who takes pride in what he does for his livelihood. We ordered two cappuccinos and he began the process of brewing the requisite expresso and frothing the hot milk. As a finishing touch, he used cake decorating tools to draw exquisite mandalas in the froth at the top of each cup. The cappuccino was the best I’ve ever had.
Our next stop was the beekeeper’s table. We’ve become fans of the local Puerto Rican honeys. Andrea asked each proprietor at the market how they had fared during and after hurricane Maria. This man’s response was the most typical: “I lost everything.” But now his hives were coming back, mostly with the more aggressive African bees that were proliferating on the island. “They’re not monsters”, he insisted. “You can learn to work with and around their aggressiveness” he said. The sample he offered tasted superb. And he said that the African bees were actually helping the remaining native bees by destroying the mites that had been wreaking havoc on the native populations.
The last farmer we encountered had a variety of attractive fruits and vegetables: pineapples, plantains, green leaf lettuce and tomatoes. He was a tall, hefty, middle-aged Puerto Rican “soltero” (bachelor) who had a tale of woe about Maria that surpassed any we had heard so far. His little farmhouse and garden plots had been devastated by a surging river just outside the town of Anasco. The flooding river water had covered his property with a layer of silt and sometimes thick mud. He’d built a second house on his land for his sister and had moved in with her while he was rebuilding his own roof which Maria had completely lifted off. He had lost all his furnishings as well – furniture, bed, appliances and had already spent over $18K in repairs and replacement, with no FEMA compensation yet in site. You could see the suffering in his eyes and hear it in his voice. But here he was with his first crops from the year-long growing season of the tropics. He had a steady stream of customers and we were happy to contribute to his renewal.
February 11. I woke up early and took a solo walk out the front gate of our condo complex and onto the beach. The Atlantic was whipped up to a fury with white spume spraying up off the shoreline boulders as the waves crashed in. The shoreline required some careful footwork to navigate across the jagged limestone boulders for a few hundred yards before reaching a magnificent open beach. It was a relief to remove my sandals and take in the open expanse of fine sand. In the distance, I spotted two people out in the ferocious surf, another watching intently from shore. I walked towards them along the shore and saw that the two in the water were riding what looked like boogie boards. They were out about 50 yards where the whitecaps were starting to break. I saw one and then the other maneuver their boards along the lip of a breaking wave, just like surfers. One of them seemed to be kneeling atop the board before going under in a whirlpool of spumy white surf.
After watching in amazement for a while, I approached the third man who was also gazing out intently from the shoreline. I asked him in English if the two were in fact riding boogie boards and he confirmed that they were. He proceeded to explain how difficult it was to ride the boards when northerly winds accelerated the waves’ size and forward momentum. He had decided not to venture out that morning himself but kept a close eye on his two friends. He started telling me about the complex wind patterns affecting the waves along the island’s northwest coast. This beach, he said, was avoided by surfers because of the waves’ consistent intensity. But boogie boarders were evidently more daring in their appetite for monster surf. The two offshore both got some remarkably good rides before coming in and giving us fist bumps. They spoke to their friend excitedly in Spanish about the wind and wave conditions before removing their wetsuits and heading back to their vehicle.
The third man went on to tell me about the fraternity of those who rode their boogie boards within the larger culture of traditional surfing that predominates along this coast. He had switched from surfing to boarding many years ago, preferring the closer immediacy to the currents and waves. He said that the more highly competitive culture of surfing often led to an aggressiveness in taking the best waves; whereas the culture of boarding was more friendly and collaborative.
He introduced himself as Xavier and said he was from San Juan but had been living on the northwest coast for decades. He was 40 and had a wife and 11-year-old son living with him near the Ramey airport in close-by Aguadilla. He had moved there after his previous rented house, on the cliffs overlooking Jobos Beach, had been damaged by Hurricane Maria. He spoke about the night when Maria hit with such devastating intensity as it moved across Puerto Rico from east to west. A friend of Xavier’s worked at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Aguadilla and reported measuring sustained winds of 170 miles per hour.
Xavier was honest about the challenges facing him and his fellow Puerto Ricans as they went about the daily tasks of rebuilding their beloved island. He spoke of thievery and looting in San Juan and other parts of the island, but also of the ways in which many people had been joining forces to help one another move forward. He preferred staying in Puerto Rico now, even with its challenges, rather than starting over again in the States.