With the recent crisis facing Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, I can’t help but feel devastated. I have spent the last week weeping every day as the situation seems to continue getting worse for 3.5 million Boricuas without food, water, and electricity, which has led to desperation and even death. It is always tragic when a disaster like this strikes, but this one hits home for me. I was raised among Puerto Rican culture and have visited the island countless times. So truly Puerto Rico is simply a part of who I am. Even after all my travels, I proudly call it my favorite place on earth.
As I remained glued to news stories and accounts from loved ones on Puerto Rico, I was also haunted by the vivid memories I have from how the island once was.
I remember walking the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan on my way to drink Sangria and dance salsa all night. I remember driving the streets I know like the back of my hand around my little neighborhood in Santurce, flying up Calle Loiza blasting reggaeton on my way to chow down on some mofongo at Bebos Cafe. I remember getting lost in the mountains on my way to a wedding reception in Cidra, and enjoying every minute. Or traveling the windy roads of Guavate in search of famous lechoneras I had seen on Food Network. I remember the time I drove the entire island in a week to see caves in Arecibo where native Tainos would hold tribal ceremonies, legendary beaches in Aguadilla, the incredible Cabo Rojo lighthouse, and the historic streets of Ponce. During that trip, I remember crying as I saw the little towns and farms that make up the Puerto Rican countryside, where people would smile and wave at me, a total stranger, as I drove by, which totally restored my faith in humanity. I remember taking the ferry from Fajardo to the small island of Culebra to spend the entire day on a very isolated and secluded beach called Playa Flamenco, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life. I remember several day trips to Luquillo beach and eating at my favorite restaurant there. I remember a local friend taking me on a hike in El Yunque rainforest where we swam in a river. I remember feeling like I stepped back in time each time I visited the historic forts in Old San Juan, which protected the Spanish colonies centuries ago. And these are just a few of my most profound memories that are ingrained into my being.
Now the images coming out of Puerto Rico are unrecognizable to me. How can the island I know and love so much be so badly destroyed? Even worse, how can the people I love so dearly face such a humanitarian crisis with a very inadequate response from our government? I usually refrain from political talk on my blog, but I have truly been in a state of depression and feeling totally helpless as I witnessed this catastrophe from my new home in California. Puerto Rico is part of America. How can this be?!
My worst fear is that the island will never be the same again. I know that the spirit of Puerto Ricans can NEVER be broken but rebuilding the island will be a real challenge. Even before this tragedy, the American territory already faced so many hardships from the terrible state of their economy. Now that agriculture and other industries have been virtually wiped out, how will Puerto Ricans get back to normal? Will many of them flee the island as refugees? Will tourism ever bounce back? Only time will tell. For now, I try to remain optimistic and hopeful. But mostly, I send my heartfelt prayers and love to la Isla del Encanto from afar.
Lesson Learned from Tragedies Like this: Travel ASAP
One thing this terrible tragedy has proven is how important it is to travel. Now. Not later, not soon, not one day, not eventually. NOW.
Natural disasters are unpredictable and can strike anywhere at any moment. There is nowhere on earth exempt from the fury of Mother Nature, which is only intensified by human-caused climate change. However, natural causes are not the only threat. War and political unrest can erupt at any moment as well, which will directly impact your ability to travel to certain places. We simply cannot be sure that cities on our bucket list will be around forever, or that we can comfortably take our time putting off travel for later.
Consider all the terrorist attacks in Europe the last few years. When I went backpacking through European countries in 2014, it seemed much safer than it is now. Among the uncertainty in Europe, Barcelona, another one of my favorite cities, is now facing turmoil as Catalonia is pushing for independence. And then there’s South Korea. Tensions with its North Korean neighbor have been hostile for decades, but when I visited in 2016, there wasn’t much popping off. However, with the increase in missile testing and insult-trading between leaders, many expect that war is now imminent so it may not be the best place to visit at the moment. These are just a few examples of how things can change in just a few years to alter your travel plans and destination options.
Had I not went to Puerto Rico all those times, I would have missed out on witnessing the beauty of the island and the incredible memories I made there, which will stick with me for life. If the island is never quite the same as it used to be, at least I can say I got to experience the real Puerto Rico. People kept telling me I was crazy to spend that week driving around the island on my own, and they’d always ask me why I kept going back to Puerto Rico time and time again when I had already visited before and had other places on my list to go see. But I am glad I did not listen and that I went for my gut feeling to keep visiting and exploring this amazing island. I fell in love with Puerto Rico and nothing could stop me from following my heart and its desires. It is one of the only places on earth that I have visited so far that felt like home, as if my soul had been there before and belonged there. So I ignored the questions and comments I heard, and went back so many times I lost count. Now that I am looking back, I am very glad I did.
My intentions in sharing these personal accounts are that it may be a wake up call to my readers that the places you yearn to see may not be around forever. If something in your spirit is calling you to visit somewhere and see a sight you’ve always dreamt of seeing, go as soon as possible. Plan a trip and make it happen. We truly do not have the luxury of taking our time to visit the places we want to see the most. Since the world is constantly changing, they may not be around forever or be the same as they once were.
Next time I return to Puerto Rico (which I will for sure someday) I know it will look and feel different. I know that some places I love may no longer be there, and that due to this significant disaster, the population will change significantly. But I am forever grateful that I at least got to see and enjoy the island when it was thriving and gain such a deep appreciation for it. I will never forget the fun times I had there enjoying the food, the people, the music, the beaches, the sightseeing, the history, and most of all, one of the most treasured cultures on this earth.
To donate towards helping Puerto Ricans in need, please visit unitedforpuertorico.com. Any little bit, whether $5 or $20, will help make a difference. Gracias.