Liralen Li (liralen) wrote,
Liralen Li

Starting Again

I keep trying to write up the Puerto Rico trip and I keep tripping over the feeling that doing it linearly doesn't do it justice.  At all.  But it's what I'm so used to writing, so I keep trying and then deleting it again.

It actually started when Jet was six, and John went off to Biloxi with people from our United Church of Christ church (UCC Longmont) to help with reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina and I joined him in following years.  But that was a long long time ago, and you all already know about our crazy left-wing denomination that does what that radical Jesus of Nazareth said despite Roman rule. Those crazy things about taking care of the poor and the hungry, about defending the powerless, and loving other people like oneself; and what Micah said, before Jesus, about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

But that's thousands of years ago.

Maybe it really started when Carol said, "What are we going to do about Puerto Rico?" And got the whole ball rolling with another member of our church who is a travel agent and the UCC Disaster Relief National organization sending donations to a little tiny local group on the island trying to help those in need.

But for me, I think, it started on Thanksgiving, when Lori Beth invited us over for a salmon dinner, instead of the turkey one after John and I had been serving turkey dinners all day.  At dinner, Lori Beth's daughter, Kaleia, heard John and I talk about the fact that we were planning to go to Puerto Rico and she said, "I think I'd like to go.  I made enough money to be able to go, and I have the time..."

And she went out of her comfort zone, and she came with us.  All 19 of us.  Our pastor Sarah and her wife, Beth, came. There was John and I with Jet, John's brother Walt with Cathie.  There were other members of the church and friends of those members, two from the East Coast, who were Sarah and Beth's good friends from there. and then there was Kaleia, who only knew us, but that was enough it seems.  In the speech she gave to our congregation afterward, she said that it was enough, since we seemed to know everyone. *laughs*

I think it really started for me with Kaleia deciding to come, because up until that point I hadn't wanted to think about the trip.  I was burnt out.  We'd just done a trip to Seattle for Christmas (the link there goes to all the pictures, and we'd been there mostly to visit with Isabel, but also got Walt, Cathie, and then David, Mary, Emily, Roche, and Roche's fiance as well and had a big Christmas all together, and even went back to our old UCC church for a visit... we also got to go to Junebaby with friends and I had the most amazing grilled onigiri I've ever had and then DOUGH ZONE... ahem), Jet had just come back home from Japan, and I wanted to really catch up with him.

But when the day came, we went. And starting with a redeye to Miami actually worked well, I slept to Miami, slept part of the way down to San Juan, and then, since I'd signed up to be a driver, took proud ownership of the 15-passenger Ford Transport we called "Moby" for the rest of the trip.  And then I took everyone to the beach, to our camp in the rain forest, and then proceeded to take everyone everywhere for the rest of the week.

It was basically the same van John and I had driven to and from Miami for Jet's band competition and performance at a bowl game down there.  So I had no worries with handling the huge thing. The problem was that it was more than a two hour drive to and from the sites we were working on, and, on Wednesday, it was another half hour further to the second work site, so we were spending upwards of six hours in commute time, bathroom stops, and the like.  So we were leaving the camp at 6 am, and getting back around 9 or even 10 pm with showers still to do before going to bed.  The first Monday I looked back to see nearly everyone asleep in the van, and the other two minivans had two drivers, who switched off morning and night drives.  By Tuesday, I ended up napping in the van while everyone else started work, and while I got a lot less construction done, I had no problems staying awake for the drive home, and that was important.

Our camp was an old church camp in the rain forest.  The hurricane had blown down all the power lines, and they still all lay by the rutted and rotted blacktop track up to the buildings. The plumbing was old and kludged together, and so leaky that they had to turn the water off while we were away, and the "showers" trickled water down against the wall, so to get clean, we had to mash ourselves up against the tile to get any of the water.  The bunks were meshes of springs with a single mattress on them, and some had bed bugs. The kitchen had refrigerators on a generator, but the voltage was low enough and the amount of food we shoveled into them was big enough that the freezer was just enough to make our water cold, and the food wasn't really cold, so we had to get food a bit more often.

The work we were doing was good, though.  Angel was an older man, living alone in a house where he had to pick up and move his mattress every day so it wouldn't get soaked with the rains that came and leaked through his ruined roof.  The house next door to his was utterly gutted, and the people had just gone away after the storm. You should watch the video in the previous entry, as most of the pictures are of his house and the work we did on it.  The interesting thing was that on the first day, Hector, the work lead, said, "That the fastest any group has put the first nail into a roof, ever."


Comparison is the thief of all joy.  So we won't compare against every other volunteer group that tried to help this organization out.  Suffice it to say, the volunteer coordinator, Jose tried to tell us that we should quit at 1pm and actually enjoy ourselves a little while we were there... and that didn't go over that well with us.  We were there to work.  And by God, we were going to work.

 We finished Angel's roof in less than two days.  The ladies saw his toilet and decided to buy him a new one, and that came with a free sink, so in those went.  The stairs and railing around his house were rotting, so all of those went and were replaced, if not with Longmont Code approved railings (six inch centers required so much wood that Hector's eyes went wide at the request, so we ended up with 8 inch centers) at least they were far more sturdy, less steep, and entirely refooted on cinder block footings.  By the third day, the extra work on the stairs could only occupy two-thirds of us, and the other third went to another house in Ponce.

It was two stories, with a steeper roof, and it was in a really bad neighborhood, where Nina said that we shouldn't leave bags where they could be seen as the windows would be broken out of the car for them.  I slept in the van and figured that would guard it well enough, and it worked out pretty well.  We had the younger crew there, who were less afraid of the heights, and we had Walt, who was a safety engineer for decades, and who was there mostly to make sure no one did anything stupid out of ignorance.  It worked.  Eventhough there were tremendous thundershowers the first day, and it made everyone scramble off the roof when it went slick with water. Everyone made it safely home every day.  A few bumps and bruises from smacked thumbs under hammers, as nailing tin to a roof isn't easy, but no one fell off a roof, especially on the bad side of it.

On the plus side, we got rainbows nearly every day.  The first day, Monday, we drove through downpours so dense the wipers wouldn't make a dent and the locals all slowed down to get through.  But every day after that it rained for some of the driving time, and I did okay. Seattle is a great teacher about driving in the rain.

The drive changed over time, as Jose, the volunteer coordinator, got more confident about our abilities to follow him on the roads there.  The native roads weren't particularly wide, and traffic was less... structured... I guess, than it is in the US, and so much of the island had been without power, that they have a completely different way of going through intersections with no lights.  Here in Colorado, people get a little confused, but they usually treat it like a four-way stop.

In Puerto Rico, when we came into a truly busy intersection, everyone kept trying to go the way they wanted to go and when there was room, they'd just insert themselves.  I had to kind of go on blind faith, and just nose Moby into every possible opening I could see, and we got through okay.  And that was when Jose suggested that we go via the coastline route instead of the overland route, as there was always less traffic, and on the way home we could find lots of interesting, beachside restaurants.

So that was the way we started to go every day and back home every evening.  It was pretty narrow, there was no middle line, and the outside edge ran along cliff edges.  When there were also gas tanker trucks running the same route to save time, it got kind of interestings.  Especially meeting them coming the other way, when we were both pretty big.  The interesting thing was that they and I would not stop or slow down when it was just us, but when there was a third car on the road, both of us would carefully give each other way until it just worked.  Flexible drivers.  It was nice, and I got used to ignoring the occasional gasp from the back of the van.

On Thursday, a third of our crew went to the beach because there was no more work.  I got priority on Thursday for construction work, so I went to Angel's house to help finish the stairs.  John took the extra half hour drive for the smaller crew on the Ponce house.  So on Friday, we all headed for the beach and the rain forest.  The full album of pictures can be found at this link.  There was a lot we got to see. The videos were mostly for the sound of the rain...

On Friday we also took the whole morning to try and fix the plumbing for the camp.  Jeff (our technical lead, he's a general contractor who really knows what he's doing and can direct everyone else really well), John, and Walt were the ones trying to do the main fixing, and Sarah and I were running things up and down the hill, and the reason we were doing that was that the whole slope was a slick slide of mud.  It was pouring rain nearly the whole time, and we all got soaked to the skin.  It was raining so much and it was so ridiculous at the mid-point, when the joint just wouldn't seal, that I kind of gave up.  I just turned my face up to the rain and basked in the falling of the water.

We don't get a lot of that in Colorado.  And I missed it from Seattle, and it felt so good to just stop and be completely present.  John celebrated every time the water had to be turned on to test things by running down the super slick hill, hitting the moss and rain covered sidewalks with a sliding skid, and then sticking his landings. He got so much laughter, it was great, and Karina got a good pictures series of him doing it in the video.

After the second try at the join, it was better than before, but still leaked; John decided to come away with a bunch of us and we all went to the beach.  Jeff and Walt stayed. The camp crew needed to pressure wash out part of the building, and in the midst of it, split open the plumbing again, a bit further up... and so Walt and Jeff replaced the whole thing before coming out to join us on the beach.

That was fun.  And then we drove up into the rain forest, El Yunque National Forest, and we got to explore, and at the tower up there, the ranger there asked us if we had any questions, and we, being UCC folks, started peppering him with questions about the effects of the hurricane, the local populations of parrots, and all kinds of other things. He was so pleased that we were actually interested, that he answered everything, even when we asked him if he was getting paid with the government shutdown (he wasn't).  He was there for the love of the forest and his job.  That was really cool.  Go ahead and look in the collection for all the amazing waterfalls and views. *laughs*

It all worked out well.  That night we went to a BBQ place, and then went back to the camp and took warm showers that actually showered, due to Jeff and Walt's work, and it was amazing.

And a few days later, we were back home, in the snow, and temperatures in the teens. As grateful as I was to be in my own bed and in my own house, I caught an eye infection, a cold, and then cut the heck out of my thumb, so much so I had to get stitches to even get it to stop bleeding.  Not fun.  Aand we then had to jump right into our next adventure, that of getting our house ready to show to sell, as we have a new house being built right across town. Okay, and getting involved in the local restorative justice program.

*laughs*  Yeah.  Cliffhangers.  I'll tell you more about all of that in the next entry.
Tags: accomplishments, adventure, creation, grateful, present, rain, travel

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