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Puerto Rico, Revived

By Ramona Ausubel

Dec 6, 2019

From the January/February 2020 issue

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During a recent trip to Puerto Rico, writer Ramona Ausubel discovered a remarkable spirit of resilience and hope.

Photo by Rose Marie Cromwell

During a recent trip to Puerto Rico, writer Ramona Ausubel discovered a remarkable spirit of resilience and hope.

As residents of the Caribbean island rebuild in the wake of two devastating hurricanes, the commitment to community—and each other—is stronger than ever.

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My guide, Alex Camacho, and I snaked up past the edge of town into farmland, the mountains a huge green wall in the distance. It was a beautiful Caribbean day, sunny with a few dark clouds that would either drench us or pass quietly by. We were going into El Yunque, on the eastern side of Puerto Rico, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. national forest system. 

Alex is in his early 30s, with long curly hair and a quick smile. He said, “Welcome to my backyard,” motioning toward our destination. “I come here in the early morning or evening when no one is here, and it is the most peaceful place in the whole world. It’s my therapy.” 

I wanted to ask him about the hurricanes that devastated this island in September 2017, just over two years ago. I was surprised by how good everything looked—at least to my outsider’s eyes. 

“Were you here during Irma and Maria?” I asked.

His voice, so far, had been warm, but it changed temperature now. “It was terrible, terrible. The only luck is that the storm came during the day, so we were awake and could see.” He described watching the door to his home fly open in the wind; a neighbor ran over to help him force it closed to keep the house from being flooded.

“We ate one meal a day, but we ate it together,” he said. “[Hurricane] Maria gave us that. She gave us our community.” 

Alex told me that before the storms he didn’t really know his neighbors. After, they were together all the time, gathered around whatever food anyone had or appreciating the moments when there was gas for the generator. There was no communication with the outside world—no cell phone service for weeks, no internet, no electricity—plus long lines for gas. Alex’s mother lives in Ohio, and for three weeks she thought he was dead because he could not tell her otherwise. 

“We ate one meal a day, but we ate it together,” he said. “[Hurricane] Maria gave us that. She gave us our community.” 

The mountains ahead were coming into focus, and I could see the shapes of individual trees. “The morning after the storm, I looked out at my forest and I cried,” Alex said. “There were no leaves. No birds. Everything was brown and ugly. But three months later, it was green again. It was the first thing to come back.”

El Yunque is home to 150 species of ferns and 240 species of trees, 88 of which are endemic or rare. It gets an average of 200 inches of rain per year and the temperature hovers around 73 degrees every day. A tropical forest’s job is to grow and grow, and these are the ideal conditions for it. 

The word “hurricane” is widely believed to come from Puerto Rico’s indigenous Taíno language. Huracán means “god of the storm.” Hurricanes are part of Puerto Rico and always have been, but Maria was the worst hurricane to hit the island in nearly a century. Where trees in less hurricane-prone areas are easily uprooted in a storm, the trees here have evolved to sacrifice their crowns in order to stay rooted. A high percentage of the trees in this forest remain upright, though bare as toothpicks. And on the ground below them lay seeds that had been dormant until now because they require more light than the thick canopy usually provides. These tiny seeds wait for the moment after a hurricane when sunlight streams in, and then they come suddenly to life. They are the beginning of the understory, the beginning of the renewal.

A Puerto Rican flag hangs in colorful Old San Juan.

When we reached a dirt parking lot, we left the car and began to hike up a muddy path, climbing stairs carved into the steep hillside. There were palms, ferns, orchids, vines with fat, leathery leaves. I ran my hands over a feathery fern leaf and admired a bright-orange lobster claw flower. After leaping rock to rock to cross our first river, I decided to cool my feet off in the second and waded through the cold, calf-high current. We kept walking until we came to an impossibly perfect emerald pool with a waterfall on one end. The surface glistened. I undressed to my swimsuit and laid my sweaty clothes on a rock to dry. 

The water was cold, but I dived in and stayed under as long as I could, listening to the churn of the falls and the pop of bubbles. When I surfaced, the world was all birdsong. I floated on my back and looked up at the canopy, sunlit and bright, every single leaf recently born, every trunk having stood its ground through ferocious wind and rain. Two tiny blue butterflies dipped and rose. It was peaceful, but I knew peace was not the same as stillness—right then, as I floated, every plant in the forest was working quickly, turning sunlight into sugar into growth. Into life. 

On a Saturday afternoon I wandered around the artsy Santurce neighborhood in San Juan. There were walls covered with intricate graffiti. Fried-food stands and bars spilled out onto the sidewalks. The placita, the town plaza, was full of day drinkers and families sitting on benches watching the world go by. Two workers carried pieces of a stage, preparing for the evening’s dancing. I went into a green market, and the smell of mango was like a sweet wave. Several stands were brimming with the ripe globes, plus plantains, bananas, citrus, pineapples, guavas, and avocados as big as melons. I put my face close to the fruit and took a deep breath. I heard someone laughing and looked up to see the fruit seller smiling at me. 

Freshly chopped avocados, pineapples, and mangoes are sold on the street in Isabel Segunda, on the island of Vieques.

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“Lo siento,” I said. “Pero que delicioso.” I’m sorry, but how delicious. My Spanish exists but it always comes out a little odd. I asked him where the fruit was from. He pointed to the mangoes and said proudly, “Puertorriqueños.” The mangoes were from Puerto Rico, but the same word means Puerto Ricans themselves. I bought two and put them in my backpack, if only to sniff them later. 

Locally grown anything matters here. Puerto Rico, though tropical, wet, and good for agriculture, imports around 85 percent of its food. During Spanish rule, the island was used for large colonial plantations of crops such as sugarcane, not food. After the Spanish American War in 1898, when Puerto Rico became part of the United States, people moved from the countryside into the cities for factory jobs, and industrialization continued during the 20th century. Today, stores like Walmart and Costco, rather than the rich Caribbean soil, are the primary source of food for Puerto Ricans. 

After Hurricane Maria, San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, estimated that the island had one week’s worth of food. It took several days for the first FEMA ship to reach the island, and when it did, there were few trucks to distribute the goods, because the roads were choked with debris and gas was in short supply. Cruz Soto said later, “I hate to say anything positive about Maria. But what the hurricane did was force us to look at the realities of life here and how our dependency on the outside weakens our ability to ensure our people are taken care of. Maria made it evident that we need agricultural sovereignty.” 

Outside, on the placita, I ordered a mojito. The drink was sour and bright and the sun hot. I sat myself on a bench to enjoy both. A troop of little girls played on four giant avocado sculptures while their mothers drank beer and teased each other. It was a good day in a good place, life being lived. 

I walked over to a small building that looked like a family home and had no sign. This, the internet told me, was one of the best restaurants in Puerto Rico. 

At 6:30 the hostess opened the doors of José Enrique, revealing a room entirely without fine dining accoutrements. It had simple wooden tables and chairs, no tablecloths, and a menu on a whiteboard that the servers carried around to each table. 

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Before Hurricane Maria, chef José Enrique Montes had been nominated for a James Beard Award and championed local ingredients prepared the local way. Then the storm hit, and he had a stocked pantry and a generator. He opened the kitchen up to friends and family, serving sancocho, a soup made of meat, root vegetables, and tubers.

Two days later, celebrity chef José Andrés showed up and the two Josés gathered chefs and volunteers and, by making use of the food in restaurant freezers, pantries, and store shelves, served 3,000 meals in a day. Then 7,000, then 14,000, then 20,000. 

At dinner the night I visited, the fried crab was crisp and softened by slices of avocado, and the steak with beans and rice was smoky and rich, all comfort. I wished I had a second stomach for yellowtail and pork belly. Everyone else in the restaurant seemed to be on a date, but the bartender took it upon herself to be my dinner company. At the end of the meal she brought me a glass of rum. “This rum comes from before Maria,” she said. “Aged 10 years in charred oak barrels.” It tasted woody and went down easy. I felt it warm my throat. “Cheers,” I said. “To life.” 

Enrique recently moved his eponymous restaurant closer to the beach. His commitment to his island’s food remains the same. 

Fishmonger Tomás Mulero sells lobster at pescaderia, in the town of Isabel Segunda, on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

Across Puerto Rico, cooking local ingredients was always admirable, but now, farming and food sovereignty feel revolutionary. After Hurricane Maria, activists sent volunteers to farms across the island—80 percent of the crop value in Puerto Rico was destroyed—to help rebuild structures, clear debris, install rainwater catchment systems, till the soil, and deliver seeds. Backyard, urban, and school farms and local markets began popping up all over. 

Earlier in the day before my dinner, I had stumbled into the Saturday market in Old San Juan, where children drank from chilled coconuts and their parents filled bags with greens and fruit. Two old men sat in the shade and caught up on the week’s gossip. A young couple, arm in arm, tore off pieces from a loaf of sweet bread. This is one part of the dream—a closed loop in which the land takes care of the people and the people take care of the land. Over and over I heard the phrase, Puerto Rico se levanta. Puerto Rico rises up. Feeding itself is one way. 

Beneath the boat there were streaks of light. I put my hand under the warm water and it looked like I was wearing magician’s gloves. I made a fist, and when I popped it open, sparks flew out.

After I had wandered the city and floated in the jungle, I took a ferry across an eight-mile stretch of sea to the small island of Vieques. There are plenty of reasons to go—dozens of beaches, free-roaming horses—but I had come for a glow-in-the-dark bay. 

Many habituated horses in the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge roam freely through the island of Vieques.

By evening it was almost cool out and very dark—the moon was just a sliver of white as I climbed into a kayak with a clear bottom and began to paddle out into Mosquito Bay.  

At first the lights in the water were dim, like sea foam in moonlight, but as I got out to the middle of the bay, each paddle stroke turned the water bright green-blue. It was not just a distant glow. Beneath the boat there were streaks of light. I put my hand under the warm water and it looked like I was wearing magician’s gloves. I made a fist, and when I popped it open, sparks flew out. When I brought my hand back into the air my palms were dotted with stars for a brief, incredible moment. It was magic. 

It’s also biology—a Goldilocks bowl of porridge for dinoflagellates, microscopic phytoplankton that light up when moved. Several conditions need to be just right to turn a bay into an underwater aurora borealis: warm, shallow water, perfect salinity, and a narrow opening into the ocean so the plankton don’t wash out to sea. In this ideal spot, each gallon of water contains millions of microorganisms.

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The last ingredient in the porridge is the red mangrove. I paddled to the edge of the bay, which is ringed by these scrubby trees, uniquely adapted to conditions that would kill most any other terrestrial plant. They filter out salt, their stilt-like roots allow them to get oxygen despite salty soil and twice-daily tidal submersions, and their seeds are viable for a year. In the pale light of a new moon, their roots looked like spider legs. In addition to acting as a nursery for all sorts of creatures—manatees, fish, reptiles, crustaceans, and birds—the mangrove roots (and decaying leaves) emit tannins high in vitamin B12, on which dinoflagellates happen to thrive. 

After Hurricane Maria, Mosquito Bay went dark. It had been doused with rainwater, upsetting the salinity. The mangroves were leafless and barely alive, and wind had washed away the glowing plankton. 

Though the magic was gone, this place had provided important protection for the island. Mangroves act as a buffer in storms by absorbing floodwaters, reducing wave action, and preventing erosion. If a mangrove forest doesn’t absorb a storm first, then the wind and water will pass inland to natural systems and human structures not built to withstand the unmitigated force. They’re an incubator of magic sea-light and protector of coastal habitats.

A few weeks after Hurricane Maria, the living system of Mosquito Bay was coming back into balance. When locals went out in their kayaks, their oars left a trail of very dim blue-green light. 

Puerto Rico has more than 270 miles of coastline, making it a paradise for visitors who want to play in the surf or relax on the sand.

By the time I floated across that water, the glow was as bright as ever before. I stopped paddling and looked up at the stars, those other magical lights. Above: huge celestial bodies, so far away their fire is reduced to pins of white. And below? Suddenly the water exploded with the shapes of fish. Dozens and dozens of bright arcs, zipping under and around my boat. I couldn’t see the creatures themselves, only their miraculous halos. They looked conjured more than material, as if they were a school of spirits. But the real explanation is no less wondrous—nature and all her miraculous inventions. 

The next day I drove out to one of the wild beaches on Vieques’s vast wildlife refuge. I had the white crescent all to myself. I plunked my towel and backpack beneath a palm tree. Someone had created a little wind chime of coral and hung it on a tree branch. It made a low, lovely music. 

I walked to the far end of the beach, where I came upon hundreds and hundreds of tiny mangrove shoots. A few leaves each, faces toward the sun, reaching. I knelt down. “Hi, guys,” I said out loud. I was alone and could talk to plants without embarrassment. They seemed like emerging superheroes, a thick blanket of green preparing to shield this island from the next storm. Baby mangroves here save the world, I thought. I gave a few leaves a high five. They shimmied in the breeze. 

United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, and American Airlines all fly direct from the mainland United States to Puerto Rico.

There is plenty to say about what has been lost. Everyone I spoke to became somber when talking about Hurricane Maria. The pain of those dark months, cut off from the world, the death toll unreported, food scarce, hospitals without power or supplies. But a taxi driver told me that the time before the storms feels like it belongs to a different world. “We will never be the same island,” he said. “We learned how much we could live without, and we learned how strong we are.” 

Just a few months after my visit, thousands of protesters took to the streets in San Juan to demand the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló after leaked group chats between him and his aides showed what many felt to be disdain for the public. Rosselló resigned, and after a tumultuous couple of weeks, former secretary of justice Wanda Vázquez Garced took the helm. 

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As I sat on the beach, I could not know what the summer would bring. But when I was back home and saw the protests, I was not surprised by the energy, the communal power. I had seen that spirit: two teenaged boys trying to wrangle a semi-wild horse on Vieques, one of them finally astride, hollering; a table full of old women laughing loudly over breakfast pastries in a café in San Juan, lit by sunlight through a stained glass window; a family of five fishing from their dinghy in the mangroves, the children hanging over the lip of the boat; the lights in the water of Mosquito Bay and the lights in the sky above; the forest growing in every way it knows how. 

It was getting toward lunch but I didn’t want to leave this perfect beach, this absolutely peaceful dot on the planet. How lucky I felt to be sitting there. And then I remembered! My puertorriqueños! The mangoes I had purchased in the market in Santurce were in my backpack. 

I peeled them with my teeth. The juice poured down my chin, my hands and wrists, down to my elbows. The fruits were firm and orange and majestically sweet. I was bathed in sticky sweetness. I was bathed in this gorgeous, resilient place. Puerto Rico se levanta, I thought. I raised the mango seed in a toast. 

>>Plan your trip with AFAR’s Guide to Puerto Rico 

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