November and December were really eventful months for us! I have to backtrack to September so that what happened in November makes sense_
Boricua and I had anxiously followed all the news about Huracán María. In fact, we had been watching hurricane Irma too, for both family in Florida and Puerto Rico, two weeks earlier. When María happened, we lived by our phones, trying to get in touch with all our family as soon as we could. Up until the day before, we were talking with Boricua's parents and sisters, talking about being prepared. His dad is pretty intense about being ready for hurricanes and THANK GOODNESS. We're talking food, gas, generators, light, boarded windows and THEN SOME. The kind of preparation that you do months and years in advance so that you're not left high and dry the week before the hurricane and the supermarket shelves are empty. Still, though, this was a big one. Being in London we had to go to bed while we knew they were still getting ready. We knew where individual families would be and with whom.
We were STRESSED. I don't know how Boricua survived at work that week, especially those couple days when we hadn't heard ANY news out of Caguas. I remember feeling angry that the world seemed to go on and yet I knew that millions of people were going through a Category 5 hurricane. It was right where the eye of the storm passed, and while the eye went through Caguas, we were in the middle of our work day. I didn't get much work done. I was on Twitter, since that seemed to be where the most recent updates were coming from. At home that evening, it was eyes and ears peeled. We left messages and hoped for phone calls. We heard from Boricua's second oldest sister first, in Trujillo Alto, wind howling and things banging outside. #gratefulforconcretehomes. I think it was a little after the time the eye was making landfall near Humacao.
Somehow, Boricua's little sister got some sort of text message out after the eye had passed. I think it didn't have anything in it or something along those lines, but we hung onto that. In the meantime, we stayed in communication with his sister in Trujillo Alto. I think about a day passed and she still hadn't heard from the family in Caguas so they did what any one would in that situation, they got in their truck and they navigated the roughly 16 miles through destroyed infrastructure and fallen trees to go check on their family!
When she finally got service (by driving to the top of a mountain with her dad), Jesús' little sister sent us this video she made in iMovie...
Once they were able to get phone service again, we heard from them that they found mom, dad, little sister and other siblings and nieces/nephews in good condition. They didn't however, make it to a certain urbanización where Jesús' other sister lives in the valley of Caguas. I was worried about them - together with a few other people I found on Twitter who were looking for family in that neighborhood. I had seen Instagram and Twitter footage of the flooding there, it was up to people's chests and they were holding their dogs in the air as they tried to reach higher ground. We didn't find out they were okay for another few agonizing days.
The hardest part for Boricua was not being able to be there, to know something that terrible was heading for his family and there wasn't much he could do about it. Since he's already in the business of imports, as soon as he could he was shipping things they needed like antennae extensions for better cell service (or even service at all) and generators that had long since been all bought up in Florida and Puerto Rico. A fellow boricua was in London staying with us and her sister was in an area that was in danger of being swept away due to flooding, post-hurricane. It was very weird to be doing the touristy London things together while all the while on the back of our minds was Puerto Rico.
I kept tabs on what would be done by the NGO I work for, and soon enough I heard wind of STAs (Short Term Assignments) that I could apply for, so I did! One for M&E (Monitoring and Evaluation) and one as a Program Specialist. I applied for and came up short for the M&E position so then applied to be a Program Specialist. I got it! They were a long couple weeks of going to work and doing normal life, then applying at night, then interviewing, then waiting to hear back, as I knew they would need me to start early November. Do I pack? Do I wait? Finally, just a few days before the start date, I got the go-ahead and I packed up for about 2 1/2 months away, and an experience that in many ways would be more like camping due to the lack of electricity. Said goodbye to my baby, and showed up.
It's funny how life is, one week I was eagerly visiting Parliament with some policy experts from our NGO and going ice skating, and the next week doing distributions in tropical heat.
I will probably write elsewhere about my experience in Puerto Rico as an NGO worker, so suffice it to say that it was hard work and my heart broke over and over, but it felt so good to be doing something concrete to help, to get up in the morning and NOT be on the computer, and to try and document the experiences of the people we were with. I was living first in the office (which was an Airbnb, then various other Airbnbs with team members and by myself). Early mornings and late nights, no time to cook or for much else. I loved it!
That being said, I really really really missed Boricua. So much so that I made him promise to never let me do an STA without him again. Like, a hardcore promise, a talk-me-out-of-it if I go crazy and decide to go somewhere without him again promise. I can live without electricity, and do a lot of other things, but don't ask me to be without Boricua. So he finally came a little over a month into my assignment to spend the Christmas holidays. It was great because I was there, most of his family live there, so we just spent time together. We had been there last Christmas and our reader may know that in this relationship we have to take turns visiting family, in a very careful way. I've got more than a few parental units in different states and more grandparents than I could have dreamed of (which I love, by the way). So it was a very special two-Christmases-in-a-row Christmas. Boricua so kindly offered to try and get us to see my side of the family somehow over the holidays but given the circumstances, Puerto Rico is where we wanted to be.
Half the island without electricity but I could still get a Frosty de Nutella. Our app of choice for long distance, Couple. Yes, that is a thumbkiss.
When Boricua came he helped with some distributions, which was really nice.
This is a northwest town we passed through when catching up with some old friends.
Visiting his parents' new home, which is a floor they added on top of their old home his brother and family live!
On our way to a distribution.
Over the break we tried to spend as much time with our nieces and nephews and Boricua's little sister as possible, and did a few fun things on our own_
This is when we got to see El Gran Combo live with some work friends in Viejo San Juan!
This is when we rented some paddle boards in la laguna del Condado, and found manatís! It's kind of awkward but I started the video at the point where we first saw one.
La Cueva del Indio
Me amongst some petroglyphs.
One memory that I will definitely hold dear is the chance we had to bring more supplies to families in need. There is someone in Puerto Rico with the position in the church of Jesus Christ to organize the welfare efforts. The members of the church had been taken care of with boxes of food and supplies, and I know of at least one woman who lost her home that was able to get help from the ward and bishop. In the Caguas ward one Sunday, he mentioned that there were still hundreds of boxes, and that we should take them to our neighbors and those we knew who still needed help. That got my attention! Boricua and I were able to borrow his brother-in-law's truck and we loaded it up with boxes. We took them to people I met in distributions (with permission from my NGO of course - I did this as a private individual) whom I remembered had really been struggling. Some of the community members I met along the way, one in particular from Juncos, were able to help me find these people's homes. We also took a set of boxes to the west side of the island as the ward leaders there knew of families who could use the supplies.
After Christmas, Boricua left and it was so sad because he missed Reyes Magos! I had a few more weeks of work left in my short term assignment before I had to return to my job in London. Here is a joyful Reyes Magos celebration I got to join in on at a coworker's home_
On top of the boxes, our family and friends were incredibly generous when I suggested through social media that instead of getting us a Christmas present, they might send money that we could turn over to people I had met in the distributions who still needed help. I was able to distribute to a few people I had met personally who were really struggling, and get the rest through the help of my sister-in-law to a community leader I met in Punta Santiago, a town where the water level rose to the light switches in houses. She had a certain family in mind. One person in particular we were able to help with some cash (not a lot, but something) was the community leader in Juncos. This woman lost her entire home and their family lost their jobs due to the hurricane, but she was out working with us every day. She was living in a random community building at the time we were working together, storing beds away in a little closet every day.