I had a childhood best friend. As kids, he and I spent long days with Legos at each other's houses, or exploring the forests and fields behind my house, caught up in our own imaginations. But then my family moved, and we eventually grew apart and lost touch as the years passed. It's not a unique story by any means. I'm sure many of my readers have almost identical memories. But after many years, I had the opportunity to meet him again. I was eager to see my old best friend - but my excitement was dampened in equal portion by uncertainty and hesitation.
You see, during our years apart, my friend had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I unbelievingly listened to tales of which mental institution he was now assigned to, or how his mental disorder disqualified him from his lifelong ambitions. Those stories were alarming. Now that I was about to see him again, I was unsure who this person was anymore. I was beyond excited to see him, of course, but what would I see? He had been through a lot. Would the changes in his life make him unrecognizable or unlovable to me? It was an unnerving sensation, a bittersweet and frightening apprehension that's very difficult to describe.
In the recent months as my field trip approached, people would ask me, "Are you excited to go back to Puerto Rico?" I found that a difficult question to answer. Sometimes I'd answer yes, and sometimes I'd answer no. The truth was that it felt strikingly similar to going to meet my childhood friend again. I felt that same dizzying mix of anticipation and dread. How much of what I loved would still be there? How much has changed forever? What has been lost? I'm happy to report that when I met my old friend, I was delighted and relieved to find him very much the same as he always had been. We were still friends, and his problems were just that - just problems to work through. Absolutely nothing about his history of mental issues had any impact on our relationship.
Mountain roads are treacherous at the best of times, and official signage and addresses are laughable. Thus, official reckoning of the number of homes currently without power, around 7%, is probably inaccurate. Locals reckon the number closer to 30%. For weeks following Maria, the island suffered widespread flooding and a lack of resources, the problems only compounded by government inaction. Official estimates of damage (which are fairly conservative) are upwards of ninety billion dollars.
Even on the western end of the island, which was spared the worst of the storm, downed power lines, fallen trees, and telephone wires leaning crazily over the roads are a common sight, months after Maria. Every once in a while, shockingly huge piles of wood, concrete, and rubble will appear on the side of the road or on an empty lot in the city - evidence of the sheer scale of the cleanup and the ongoing struggle to deal with the aftermath.
After we arrived in Puerto Rico, once we finally got our luggage and once the power came back on (it goes out intermittently), one of David's priorities was to touch base with one of his old friends, Jerry. I met Jerry last year. He's a transplanted Californian who has made his way in Puerto Rico by alternating between running a delicious food stand called The Wok and carpentry work. His gregarious nature and roll-with-the-punches attitude suit his chosen island lifestyle. We stood in his backyard, his several adopted dogs galumphing about our feet while he proudly displayed his 15-odd laying hens that made it through Hurricane Maria. His chickens clucked and fretted at pieces of straw in their enclosure. Jerry offered us all a beer and leaned against the fence. Many people left Puerto Rico after the storm, he explained. Those that remained had to help each other out.
"Those guys over there are really great," Jerry gestured at his neighbor's house, "Power was out for what, three months? They offered to run an extension cord to us from their generator." Stories of how neighborhoods would pull together to help each other out by sharing working telephones, power, or even clean water are common. One of Jerry's dogs, a velvety pit bull with doe-like eyes, kept sidling up to me for ear scratches. Jerry chuckled. "Mooch here just showed up here after Maria. She gets along so well we decided to keep her around. Better here than wandering the streets, right?" He shrugged good-naturedly and raised his beer. "Everybody helps out where they can."
Jerry's sentiment struck me as a distinct Puerto Ricanism. The country is no stranger to hardship (I use the term country intentionally), and its people seem to know that in order to pull through, we must all acknowledge the hardship of others and help where we can.
James, another friend of my professor, shows us a handwritten water quality advisory that he posted on the window of a local bar in Rincón. When the government responded with inaction to dangerous water quality fluctuations, James exerted his considerable expertise by running bacteria and contaminant tests on various sources of water. The advisory shows the levels of water quality at each source and lists a few places to get free potable water. Water is pretty much back to normal now, but it hasn't been like that for long.
Ok, my rambling about Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico's response might seem tangential, considering that I'm here participating in a fascinating research initiative on birdsong. However, my attitude toward my research and the insights I gain about these birds are set on the backdrop of Puerto Rico. The state of the island influences me greatly, and I hope to bring some attention to it.
My Adelaide's Warblers are still here, and they've shown greater resilience than I could have hoped for. Out of the 20-odd birds that I worked with last year, only one seems to be missing. The rest are doing what they always do: singing their little faces off in the tops of scrubby trees. Their territorial boundaries have shifted here and there, but for the most part they're right where I'd expect them to be. Our research this season addresses the question of how they might be doing things we might not expect, but I'll write more on that later.
So many years ago, I met a friend after being apart and I was relieved to find him the same person I knew. Now that I'm back in Puerto Rico, I'm afraid that this reunion isn't quite so simple. The state of the island is infinitely layered with its population, economics, wildlife, culture, and ecology. One cannot simply pass judgement on a complicated situation like this. That said, I'm glad to be here. In the microcosmic world of these little birds, hardship is met with resilience and seems to be rewarded with survival. I can see the same effort being made by the people of Puerto Rico, and I hope that they, too, can flourish.
Though I don't travel by airplane often, I'm no stranger to it. Although airports can be sometimes confusing, I've always relished the experience of being in an airplane. Flying in an impossible contraption of human ingenuity, pushing through the skies at unfathomable speed; I've always enjoyed it. Every lift-off has always stirred in me a combination of apprehension and awe.
Now, however, I have descended through the circles of air travel hell. What should have been a little over a day of hopping flights turned into a three-day nightmare of flight delays, cancellations, lost luggage, and clueless staff. I have crossed the Stygian gulf of inept bureaucracy. That cheerful Peter of the past, so full of wonder and delight, is no more. I am now a husk, shambling about in a days-old stench, with only bitterness in my heart. On March 2, we began our descent.
The First Circle of Hell: Ice
It was too good to be true, really. Three flights with ample layovers each time to collect our thoughts and find our gate, with a final flight that skipped the eastern metropolis of San Juan altogether, bringing us to the west side of the island, dropping us neatly at the doorstep of our fieldwork. We were fools to have hoped.
Canada sent us off in form, with blizzards and some of the worst road conditions I have seen. Yet as we arrived safely at the Calgary airport, it seemed for a brief moment that snow delays were merely a hiccup that we avoided. Fresh-faced and bright-eyed, we sat in our airplane, waiting for it to lift us to the skies and onward to Puerto Rico. Our sunny forest of singing birds awaited us. A bell sounded overhead. There was an announcement from the captain.
The Second Circle of Hell: False Hope
A stereotypical captain's voice sounded overhead, "Uhhhhh sorry folks but it seems we've blown a circuit and lost our flight lights. We're… gonna have to delay or cancel the flight to fix them but uhhh… prepare yourself for the worst." The bell that sounded was a funeral bell. His announcement, an obituary.
Unsure of our destiny now, we waited on that plane for three hours. The recycled air became heavy. Through fogging windows we watched technicians scurry about aimlessly and ground crews load our luggage, then unload it, and then load it again. Our ample layover time quickly eroded to unsalvageable.
Three hours later we took off, unsure of what would await us in Denver.
T he Third Circle of Hell: No Answer
12:45am. Denver. We probably saw the disappearing taillights of our connecting flight as we descended. We still had hope we could make it to New Jersey in time for the last leg of our journey. Poor fools we were then. Beaten but not broken. But there were no flights to catch. All that awaited us in Denver was a hotel room and four or five hours of sleep.
David and I bunked down in a room together. The lights turned off. After a moment I gathered what hope I had and asked into the darkness,
"We'll make to Puerto Rico, right David?"
I knew he was awake. There was no answer.
The Fourth Circle of Hell: Loss of Dignity
Houston awaited us next, not New Jersey, with another set of check points and hotels. Yet by bending the very fabric of physics and time, our luggage had somehow made it to Jersey without us. In Houston, all I carried with me were the clothes on my back, one bag, and my waning sense of dignity. Clutching our bundles of tattered boarding passes, we were herded through security again and again, stripped of our shoes, our bags searched, our bodies scanned. What remained of our humanity was ignored. The eyes of the travelers in that place - oh, I wish I could forget. Glazed, past feeling, we were like animals in a slaughterhouse. Would it end? Could it ever end?
Ok, enough theatrics. Yes, the travel to Puerto Rico was indescribably painful. It was unfortunate to the point of hilarity. However, it's awfully hard to mourn your lot in life when you can see the surf crashing on the shores as the plane lands, as you feel the wet hot air when it opens its doors, and as you hear the bustle of San Juan's bright streets. Yes, my luggage didn't arrive for another three days after we landed. Yes, we almost immediately lost power to the house we are staying in for another three days. Yes, my cell phone company cancelled my service because I chose the wrong travel package. In any other place in the world, I would be livid. Any one of those things would leave me fuming for weeks. But there's just something about this place - falling asleep with the all the windows open to the sounds of insects and frogs, picking your way through the methodological unpredictability that is Puerto Rican traffic, the ridiculous explosion of plant life on every inch of dirt - the wonderful blend of it all has a way of sneaking into your skull and lifting your spirits.
I remember last year when David and I exited the plane, I noticed his mood improve considerably, even though the process of travel (his own personal nightmare) hadn't ended yet. This year, I caught myself humming and tapping my fingers, grinning about nothing in particular as we waited for a local flight to take us across the island. It's just nice to be back.
My birds, too, seem to be in high spirits. From what I've seen of their territories in the refuge, They have weathered their own recent helping of bad luck particularly well. Hurricane Maria has left significant damage on many parts of the island. The Adelaide's Warbler population in Cabo Rojo is singing and fighting and eating bugs just as they were before, with the individual males that I know almost completely the way I left them. Some of their trees look a little chewed up and spit out, but from the way these birds engage in their world and converse with each other, you couldn't tell the difference.
Since this trip has begun, the universe has done nothing but lob wrenches at our plans. The power just came back on after three days of candle lit dinners of uncooked food. My luggage, containing all my life-preserving diabetes medication, was lost to the world for days, untraceable by a truckload of hapless customer service representatives. Yet since arriving on the island, not a single thing has broken my good mood. Hopefully this rash of bad luck is over, but even if it isn't - life happens. We recover, and we continue on the way we always do. This is Puerto Rico.