As we stepped off the plane and into the hot air of San Juan, Puerto Rico, our minds focused on 1) getting a drink to cool down, and 2) the closest beach. Little did we know just how much Puerto Rico would mean to us by the end of our alternative winter break trip!
We started off bright and early with a historic tour of Old San Juan, led by Lulu and Joseph of NaturEd Puerto Rico. The city was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, which means that all of Old San Juan is protected for its historical and cultural significance. We learned about the indigenous Taíno people of Puerto Rico, who were essentially wiped out by the European conquest of the island. We learned how the port, with its wall and forts, was a significant part of slave trade in the Caribbean and contributed to the general migration of people from the Old to the New World.
Part of our service was helping to maintain Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the largest of the forts, built in the 16th century at the mouth of the Bay overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. This site let the Spanish control everything that entered or exited the port, and protected the city from harm. Our group split into four groups — one picked up trash around El Morro, one filled up water tanks, one helped Lulu with other maintenance, and one worked with La Fondita de Jesus.
La Fondita de Jesus is a nonprofit that works to house and feed homeless people in the city, particularly those with disabilities and drug addictions. We helped them with a community garden and organized one of the thrift shops they own and operate. In the few hours we were with our supervisor Papou, he gave us a sense of hope for a better community and opened our hearts to other people and how their experiences may shape us.
On the third day in Puerto Rico, we hiked in El Yunque Rainforest, the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest System. Historically, the Taíno people lived in the rainforest and saw the vegetation as sacred, so being able to enter that space was a privilege. Hiking the four miles up was no joke, but quite the rush once we reached the peak!
On January 6th, we got to celebrate Three Kings Day, a very festive day where people put on shows, play music and dance, and spend time with their families. It's tradition to make goody bags for children and hand them out on that day, so we went to a park and asked parents if we could give their children goody bags for the holiday. At first, this felt so strange because we are taught to never take candy from strangers, but that day we were the strangers giving out candy! We were able to talk with the locals and take part in the holiday.
We have to say, what captivated us most on this trip is the resilience of the Puerto Rican people. In the face of economic hardship, they remain positive and make sure to enjoy the little things in life. As we walked down the streets of Old San Juan, people sat outside and enjoyed the beautiful day while blasting music and dancing. For us to see that was so eye-opening because we come from a large city, where it is always work, work, work, school and more work. We rarely take the opportunity to enjoy the good things that we have and the people around us, because we allow ourselves to be consumed by material things.
“It was evident that self pity was not something they allowed in their lives, which is something we have to learn and utilize in our lives."
— Our friend, Katie Viscardi, also on the trip.
This trip was a wonderful opportunity to meet other Wagner students, to learn and take part in a different culture, and to recognize the need to always be caring and compassionate.
Brandon and Hadeel