“Why I made this trip? A question of spirit!” -By Matt Aitchinson

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I found this beautiful story on Facebook and I want to share it with all of you. Here it goes:

This concludes my trip to Puerto Rico, one of the most incredible trips of my life. It sang a more somber tune than excursions I've taken in the past, but its impact on me personally will last forever. I regrettably have not volunteered much in my life, but this venture made more sense than any vacation I've ever taken.

Many people at home asked me, as well as many who I met down here, "why?" A fair question. I'm as white as they come, with no roots, friends (I'm happy to say now that I have many friends here), or family in Puerto Rico. My Spanish is piss-poor at its best, and I never studied or knew much about Latino cultures in school or beforehand.

I struggled to articulate the "why" behind my trip, even to myself. I lost track of how many times I was asked "why," and wasn't able to come up with what I considered an acceptable answer. I second-guessed my decision to go until I made my first contact with someone in need. But, when I heard of Hurricane Maria, I simply knew that I had to go and help. As usual, my plan was spontaneous and poorly thought out, but at the end of the trip I ended up leaving having made a difference on both myself and the island--the prior more than the latter.

It took me until the end of my trip to truly explain why I came here. And now that I've been through it, it's crystal-clear: I came here because I am inspired by the Puerto Rican people, and I'll explain what that means in three stories from my trip this week that sum it up perfectly.

First, the tale of the grocery line party. Without an organization to take me on, I had to find my own way to make an impact. I reached out on social media and found a great deal of people who were missing loved ones, or had loved ones who needed help. I was desperately trying to find supplies to deliver to those I had promised. I found myself in an hours-long line of cars at a grocery store with nothing but the hope that they would sell me one case of bottled water. This is indicative of how dire the situation is, the tap water is undrinkable and bottled water is coming in so slowly that distribution is severely limited. Most of the time there is no bottled water at the grocery store, and most foods are scarce.

While sitting in this line, I heard a familiar cacophony; the car behind me started blaring salsa music, which from my extensive research can only be played at maximum volume. I turned around and the women in the car were dancing. The surrounding people started honking their horns to join in, laughing and shouting happily at each other. Maria, one of the strongest hurricanes in recorded history, had just decimated their infrastructure, jobs, and their food and water supply. They looked desperation straight in the face, and in one of the most dire times of their lives--they PARTIED. They were determined to make the best of their situation, regardless of what that situation was. This is a mantra I try to live by, but I simply cannot compare to Puerto Ricans. If a 185mph hurricane can't destroy their spirit, nothing will.

The second story is the meeting of Eduardo. One of the personal missions I had taken on brought me to an assisted care facility in Ponce, a stunningly beautiful city in Southwestern Puerto Rico. A woman named Bonnie reached out to me because she had not heard from her friend Eduardo since Maria and was concerned for his safety. The facility's management would not give me his information since I was not his family. Dejected, I left the center and on my way out a stout older man said "I will take you to Eduardo." I followed him to Eduardo's apartment. After some understandable concern on his part, Eduardo let me into his apartment once I explained his friend had sent me.

Despite my poor Spanish and his poor English, we managed to communicate. Eduardo was short, balding, and suffered from several medical complications that landed him in the facility, including two tumors the size of cantaloupes (which, to my chagrin, he showed me with little hesitation) and a heart condition. Life had not been terribly generous to Eduardo, yet he was a warm, virtuous man. One of the purposes of my visit was to offer him food and water, which I attempted to do in Spanish, something to the effect of "Tu tienes la comida y agua?" I still have no idea if that makes any sense.

Eduardo sadly told me, "No food. No food. Have water and juice." He opened his refrigerator to show me a few bottles of water and cans of juice. He said, "water and juice?" I tried to ask if he wanted more. "Mas?" He replied, "no mas, is all I have. Water or juice?" We went back and forth a couple more times before it finally dawned on me: he was offering me a drink.

I was astounded at Eduardo's generosity. My offer of food and water had been interpreted as a request. He was in bad medical shape, had no food and hardly any water, and was willing to part with a large percentage of his limited resources to a total stranger, who, for some inexplicable reason, had ended up in his apartment. Through a series of grunts, gestures, and short English and Spanish phrases, I finally managed to successfully communicate my intentions. His face lit up with tears of excitement. He grabbed the biggest bag he could, went down to my car and filled it with bottled water, bananas, canned foods, and other supplies, the entire time asking various iterations of the question that became too familiar. "Why?" I didn't know then, but I know now. It was because he offered me a drink. I will never forget Eduardo's generosity.

My third and final tale is of the Coliseum. This story encompasses many, many individuals and though it seems criminal to even distill down to highlights, for the sake of brevity it needs to be done. After two days of driving around the island, finding supplies and delivering them to those in need, and the most terrifying flat tire of my life in the middle of nowhere, I finally conceded my efforts would be more impactful if I joined an organization, as riveting as my vigilante missions were.

I lost count of the volunteer inquiries I sent to government and nonprofit organizations prior to my trip and found it remarkably difficult to work for free. The Red Cross, who was nowhere to be found on the island, told me they had too many volunteers. FEMA, who had annexed the local convention center and was doing very little in the first place, failed to respond. President Trump didn't even retweet my offers to cook the paper towels he threw at people. Finally, on Thursday night, World Central Kitchens invited me to come to the San Juan Coliseum to aid in their food and water distribution efforts, and I worked there all day Friday and Saturday, cooking and putting together meals for distribution throughout Puerto Rico.

When I showed up to the Coliseum on Friday morning, I expected missionaries, federal workers, and others like me (three very different categories, mind you). I found few of the aforementioned; what I found was other Puerto Ricans. They were a hundred strong. Young, old, male, female, able-bodied, feeble. From San Juan to Humacao to Vieques to Mayaguez, they had volunteered to help those in need.

As I did not possess the linguistic ability to participate in anything else, I had to contribute to tasks already in place. One of the first men I encountered introduced himself as Pito Cornflakes. He spoke no English, but you know charisma and leadership when you see them; they are scarcely communicated through language. His effusive nature instilled a sense of drive throughout the Coliseum. When he sensed a lull in enthusiasm, he led the group in chants and cheers, most frequently "Vamo Arriba, Puerto Rico!" When the Bombas showed up, he stole one of their drums and led them in patriotic song. At times it felt like I was at a futbol match--and all too truly, after enough people stopped to take a picture with him, I ended up finding out through my new friend, hard worker, and excellent dive photographer Enrique, that Pito Cornflakes was a celebrity volunteer, a famous Puerto Rican soccer coach, notorious for telling those who showed subpar stamina that they needed to eat more Cornflakes. Pito found out early that I was there to give my all, and lobbied to keep me in his cabinet. We spoke only through body language and Pito occasionally asking a bystander what I assume translates to "tell this pale idiot to..." and the resulting orders, but we worked together seamlessly.

At the Coliseum, I was floored when I met a man whose house was destroyed in Maria, who was volunteering for "those less fortunate," as he so bafflingly put it. I worked with Amado (who we called Brasil), who had lost his job as a barista after Maria but still volunteered. I worked with the nomadic J, who with a cooler-than-Snoop exterior was there purely through the love in his heart, and so many more. I worked with the chefs, the pastors, the mechanics, the bartenders, the unemployed, who were there for their people and appeared so much larger than themselves.

Many Puerto Ricans this week told me they were lucky to have me. I respectfully disagree. I am lucky to have them. Yes, I made an impact. But the Boricuas have given me far more than I could ever give back. Thank you, Puerto Rico, for everything you have done for me.

Vamo Arriba, Puerto Rico!
-Matt Aitchinson is a best selling author & lives in Portland, Oregon 

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