From New York to San Juan, with Our Bags Filled

On a highway exit ramp near Cayey. (Photo by Maite Junco)

Maite Junco, editor of Voices of NY from 2012-13, recently traveled with her wife Wanda from NYC to Puerto Rico to transport goods to relatives and friends. Here is Maite’s account of the five-day visit (leer en español):

Day 1

On arrival we entered a fully powered Luis Muñoz Marín airport, with passengers having drinks, buying duty free and waiting in the cool air-conditioned halls. Normalcy was short-lived. At the baggage claim, anxious travelers and American soldiers in fatigues wait for chain saws, containers to transport fuel, military duffle bags and overpacked luggage. A couple with four pieces opened one to check that all was still there. A large battery, half the size of a car one, peeked out. “All of this is food and batteries for mi mamá in Orocovis,” said the woman.

As we head out of the airport, traffic comes to a full stop. Vice President Pence is in town. We are stuck there for at least an hour, walking on the asphalt, watching a series of massive gray U.S. Air Force planes land and taking in the blasting horns and complaints of an exhausted citizenry. A driver is heard calling to the car behind, “You got cups?” Soon after, in the hot humid afternoon, drinks are being mixed. Welcome to the Caribbean. To Macondo. To a city and a country in ruins and chaos. And a people determined to make lemonade.

At the airport, bags full of donations from passengers. (Photo by Maite Junco)

We rush to our small apartment in Ocean Park before the generator, which only powers the elevator and the hallway lights, is scheduled to be shut off at 7:30 p.m. after its hour and a half of evening use. We don’t want to climb five stories with our own overpacked luggage. In darkness, with head flashlights, we sort out the varied requests for our families and friends, deliveries for relatives of friends, and general donations: battery-operated radios (they proved a big hit), hundreds of batteries of all sizes, insect repellent, a camping gas stove, baby formula, water purifying tablets, Imodium, Pepto, gloves, power bars, a solar-powered cell phone charger, rechargeable solar-powered batteries, envelopes with cash and thoughtful notes.

Not since I made my first trip to Havana in 1995 have so many people reached out to ask that we take stuff to family. That first night we step out into a city of 400,000 people in complete darkness. No street lights, no traffic lights, only the sporadic business with a generator is illuminated. The sight is overwhelming. The destruction is palpable but we won’t be able to truly see it until daylight. We do a bit of a tour de force in darkness. We deliver an envelope for a friend in Santurce. We have to yell like lunatics in front of the building until a neighbor hears us. We bring the gas stove to Carolina, where Wanda’s mom has not been able to cook since Maria hit on Sept. 20, attempt other unsuccessful deliveries and visit my mom in Río Piedras.

Day 2

We wake up at my brother’s who has a generator he runs at night. We are grateful for the good night’s sleep and the cup of hot coffee. True luxuries in this new Puerto Rico. Following the guidance of my sister-in-law Margarita we start the day with a drop-off at the Boys and Girls Club in the Las Margaritas public housing in Santurce beyond Barrio Obrero. The morning drive starts to reveal the level of destruction. Trees are downed everywhere, young trees, old trees, gigantic trees. Many are already chopped and piled on sidewalks and along roadsides across the city, others are just laying where Maria left them – strewn with zinc panels, downed power lines and other debris.

A house in Guaynabo. (Photo by Maite Junco)

The man who runs the Boys and Girls Club sweats in the dark indoor basketball court turned donation center as he explains the extent of the flooding, the number of homes that suffered damage in this very poor part of San Juan and he says that they are already seeing an outbreak of conjunctivitis in the surrounding communities. He needs more donations. He mentions hand sanitizer, insect repellent, drops for conjunctivitis.

Later that night we stop at our usual milk and beer place, To Go, in Calle Loíza. Someone is walking out with a bag of ice. Wanda and our friend Inge jump out to get in line and score two bags each. “I have not seen ice since before Maria,” says Inge who carries her two bags up five flights in her lightless building. We stop by Betty’s in University Gardens to bring a radio and some batteries but the ice quickly becomes the main attraction. With Betty, her husband Daniel, two of their children, and a girlfriend, we hang out outside under the stars, joking and laughing, remembering the opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Outside the house where the author’s mother lives in Río Piedras, the debris from the fallen oak piled in front. (Photo by Wanda Lopez)

From there we head to Vivian in El Monte in Hato Rey. She is the only person I knew with power from the grid. Not anymore. A failure in a San Juan power plant turned the two iconic crescent-shaped buildings dark again. That night we decide to sleep at our place in Ocean Park. The streets are desolate, the building parking gate, like all others electric ones, is wide open. Where there are normally 30 cars there are now five at most. We don’t have a spot but park there anyway and walk up the dark stairs. A massive generator powers a large fancy building across the street. The noise is deafening, day and night. We try to sleep, melting in the heat and engulfed in noise.

Day 3

By day 3 we are in awe of everyone around us. They have been on the hustle for 19 days. Some of them even longer, if you count the days since Hurricane Irma that left 1 million people without power. In Urbanización Baldrich, a small park we love is a mesh of dead, leafless trees. A father manages to find a working swing, and is pushing his young son amid the destruction. Next door, men play tennis surrounded by tilted light poles. People seem determined to find a sense of normalcy. On Expreso Las Americas, a woman has found a spot on the grassy area next to the highway. She is sitting next to her car on a folding chair under the shade of what’s left of a grand tree, enjoying the rare phone signal.

In the Baldrich neighborhood of Hato Rey. (Photo by Maite Junco)

We take a drive south of San Juan to Cayey, and as we start heading toward Caguas on the highway the destruction becomes grand in scale. Miles and miles of desolation – everything that was green and lush and tropical is dry and brown and spooky; it looks like the whole campo has been burned. We are speechless, overwhelmed, teary. We start driving up the mountains in Guavate, on narrow roads, now down to a single lane in parts, the force of the wind is shocking. You can see through what was once deep forest. It feels haunted, hellish. But when you get closer, the trees are sprouting new, tiny leaves. Nature is determined to make a comeback. A friend explains the phenomenon is called stress growth. The trees need the leaves to make chlorophyll or they won’t make it. I don’t know about the science but the little bright green buds give me hope.

Downed power pole in Carolina. (Photo by Maite Junco)

Hope and music are also in the air as in the middle of such grim surroundings we encounter hundreds of Boricuas who have come out on this Sunday afternoon to enjoy the pernil, roast pork on a spit, with family and friends at one of the many lechoneras in Guavate. Here and everywhere we hear people telling the stories of how they fared during Maria. Their own stories and the ones they have heard. The old woman who spent hours under a wet mattress as her place flew away around her on the island of Vieques, the eight hours holding on to sliding doors or windows that were caving in with frames, the quick dive in Levittown to get to the insulin before the fridge was swallowed by the rising waters.

And then the stories of the aftermath – dead goats and animals washed down the rivers showing up on the beaches, the dead wild horses decomposing in Vieques where there’s no fuel for the trucks to move them. And the more hopeful creatures, a group of macaws (there’s a colony in Guaynabo) that a resident found huddled, beaten and injured in his patio. Next day he called a vet, six of the seven survived.

Day 4

On day 4 we are flying back to NYC, it’s Columbus Day. We drive to Carolina to see Wanda’s parents. It takes us an hour instead of 20 minutes along the much despised Avenida 65 de Infantería, more so now that all the traffic lights are out. Some P.R. police officers have showed up to direct traffic, it is not helping. Along the road, power lines are down on both sides. In four days, we have seen dozens if not hundreds of them down, yet only a few workers from the energy company fixing them. We stop by my mother’s, parcel out what provisions we have left and head to the airport with four empty suitcases.

Passengers in wheelchairs, waiting to board a flight out of Puerto Rico. (Photo by Maite Junco)

There, we encounter one of the saddest moments of our visit. The JetBlue terminal is full of elderly and very sick travelers whose families obviously want to get them to a safer place. A very sick woman who seems in her 40s, carrying two IV bags, holds on to a relative as she slowly makes her way into the terminal. Dozens of seniors looking stunned sit in wheelchairs waiting, at least one has an oxygen tank. We meet my friend Beatriz. Her daughter, Laura, is on the plane with us, or so we think. She is leaving to take her GRE test in the states as the one she was taking in Puerto Rico was cancelled. We check the kiosks: “Your flight is cancelled.” The JetBlue agent mentions that only flights with an “80” in the number are going to operate this month.

Laura heads out on her 80-something flight at 4 p.m., our non-80 4:01 p.m. flight is bagged. We are lucky and are booked on a flight the following day. While we wait for Laura to depart, Beatriz tells a now very common story. Beatriz and her boyfriend have six adult children between them. Five of them have left or are in the process of leaving the island for good. Life as we know it here has changed, she says, as she watches Laura get through the metal detectors.

We use the extra afternoon and night to visit Old San Juan. Outside the historic El Convento Hotel, men with U.S. Coast Guard T-shirts walk past one of its giant colonial doors, now broken and lying on its side. The old city is dark, lonely, covered in a drizzle. There’s not a tourist in sight. La Taberna Lúpulo, a bar on San Sebastian Street, is open. A generator tentatively powers a large beer fridge, a string of overhead lights and a boombox. The real cold beers are in a cooler filled with ice. A few dazed locals, American military personnel, and a journalist share the space for a few rounds. Time stands still in this popular hangout.

Old San Juan (Photo by Maite Junco)

Later in Calle Loíza, Panuchos is one of a handful of places open in what was a bustling street with dozens of businesses. Calle Loíza’s renaissance had been featured in The New York Times not too long ago. Tonight those days seem far away. Panuchos is serving a limited menu but the beers are abundant and cold. The place is packed with locals and two dozen registered nurses from the U.S. helping in the recovery effort. One tells Wanda that they will be based on the island for 21 days but lack basic supplies and medications to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney failure and asthma.

Day 5

We are back at the airport by 10 a.m. for a noon flight. JetBlue workers with We Stand With Orlando T-shirts check us in. We are reminded of all the shitty things that have happened recently. The airport that received us fully powered a few days ago is now only partially illuminated. We later learn there has been a failure in a power plant and the airport is working with generators again. On the plane sitting next to me is a retired American woman who lives in Vieques, also leaving. She lives off tourism and there won’t be any work for a while. She’s on the brink of tears for the three and a half hour flight, recalling brutal stories from Vieques, one of the hardest hit and most isolated places in Puerto Rico.

*****

We have been back in New York for four days but our hearts are in Puerto Rico, in our beloved San Juan, with our families and friends and so many who know they fared better than most and have been rolling up their sleeves and helping others despite a lack of the most basic comforts. We found Puerto Ricans united, organized amid the chaos and solidarios, but also tired, isolated by poor communications and perplexed by the absurdity of Washington. The recovery will be long, and like so many here and there we have high hopes that the Puerto Rico that emerges is more sustainable, greener, and more open to good ideas no matter what political ideology they come from. I pledge to be a part of it for the long haul. I hope you do too.

Maite Junco is currently a senior advisor at the NYC Department of Education. She traveled to Puerto Rico in a personal capacity and these are her own views.

2 Comments

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