Monday, April 30, 2018

Boat People

Pelicans feeding on the southern end of Flamenco Beach.
That's 1975 on the tank. 
On a small island in the middle of the Caribbean, I found myself at home in my skin again. I'm a traveler. It's been two years since I returned to America, and I finally took a short "international" vacation to Puerto Rico.

With fresh water, looming mountains, and arable land as a first stop right smack in the middle of trade winds from Europe, Puerto Rico has migration embedded in the culture. Whoever controlled Puerto Rico dominated commerce in the Caribbean. The Spanish (thanks Christopher!) first colonized the island's people and ruled for 400 years before ceding power back to Puerto Ricans in 1897. Just a year later, the U.S. invaded with Spanish-American War, eventually granting citizenship to residents in 1917.  Of course, this occured just after the first shots of World War 1 were fired from the imposing El Morro fort. Through economic experiments and adversities, Puerto Ricans are united by a fiercely proud culture and identity.  In many conversations I had, people here were undergoing their own migration.

A gumbo limbo tree on an isolated section of beach
between Playa Tamarindo and Playa Menlnes.
Its estimated that over 600,000 people left after the hurricanes. As I arrived at the airport, I encountered a disoriented teenage boy clutching a boarding pass in the baggage claim area. He was directed upstairs for screening, perhaps embarking on his first plane journey alone. A woman, now in the US for over ten years and visiting on a holiday, describes how her 65-year-old grandparents left the island for the first time in their lives in November. Abandoning a damaged home, where they were welcomed by extended family members in Ohio. An Airbnb host told me she lived in the continental US for 40 years before buying a house next to her sister. She invested in a new property on Vieques. Those who remain either have no money to leave or they are fiercely committed to home.

Boats moored in Bahai Ensenada Honda,
on departure from Culebra. 
"When the weather service names a storm," Paul extolled as we puttered around the harbor of Culebra, "You can tie up in the mangroves for protection. Otherwise they are off limits." For people living on boats in the Caribbean, hurricane season is the time when you batten down and hope for the best. I noticed the left thumbnail on his hand had been torn off some time ago, and I wondered how the boat repairs were progressing. He seemed to have a few gigs going on; the boat trip was my small investment in local commerce.

We tooted around a huge luxury yacht with jet skis zipping around, over an unusual colony of cushion sea starts, and past boats of both sail and motor, sinking in abandon. Perhaps left behind by folks who had untied their dingy, headed for shore and never looked back.

I walked most of this route later in the afternoon. 
The trip was so familiar, yet so different. A reminder of what it's like to explore amid people speaking a different language, of unfamiliar customs, of new plants and birds, The glorious sensation of floating in the clear tropical water was a salve to my cold, weather-beaten soul.

With steady work in hand and the beginnings of my third summer in Maine, the trip started a process of considering how to set the stage for what will evolve next. I'm reflecting on thoughts of tiny houses, of a cabana (or two!) as landing spaces in a seasonal migration, or perhaps a boat. There are infinite options, a prospect both thrilling and terrifying. Exploring the Carribean Sea, so accessible to the east coast, seems like a worthy goal for each April.

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