"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo



Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Post-Apocalyptic


I've had a hard time just naming this post. Several of you asked me to keep you updated about PR after my Apocalypse post. And that is here, but it is also about so much more.

Contrary to what seemed to be the case with my workout posts, there isn't a second of the day when I'm not thinking about the island. I wake up and check the news before getting out of bed. I post daily about the island on my Facebook. If you really want to know what's happening, just check there. Most of my PR news posts are deliberately public so they can be re-shared: you don't even have to be my friend in order to read them. For my own sanity there is only so much of my social media that I want to dedicate to the island, which is why I haven't written more here until now.

These are Coke cans. They say #FuerzaPuertoRico
"Be strong Puerto Rico!"
Photo sent by my mom when she was grocery shopping.
The summary is that things are mostly the same. My family is healthy and well-fed. They have access to drinking water, even if the price has been jacked 3x 7 times (!!!) what it costs here in the US.

At the CVS pharmacy in Hato Rey, PR. Photo posted on Puerto Rico Maria Updates on 11/5/17.
Remember this for later. 
Phone signal is significantly better. I can reach my mom just about anytime, anywhere now. I can talk to her again during my morning commute to work. She is finally able to send photos and texts, and receive long texts from me...previously I could only send one line of text at a time.

My mom excitedly sent me this pic one morning with the accompanying text: "Look! Your aunt's new "washing machine" arrived! Plastic is so much better than wood for washing."  Her excitement was genuine and made me want to cry.
Me: "Jesus Christ you guys are back in the 19th century."
Mom: "For real."
For the record: my mom owns a really nice GE stacked, heavy duty, front load washer and dryer set. Because Puerto Rico isn't a third world country! But these machines are completely useless without electricity.
Jobs are still questionable for my family: with the enormous exodus of Puerto Ricans leaving the island for the States, there aren't many students left for them to teach. Over 140,000 Puerto Ricans have already left the island to move to the mainland in order to continue making ends meet. A handful of businesses and homes now have electricity but it doesn't last long: it comes in spurts before shutting off once more: only 15% of the island currently has power. Light is this uncatchable bird that lands where it pleases, then flies away before you can get used to its presence. My family are not part of these lucky few that get to enjoy electricity for a few hours a day.

From my Aunt Lucy: "Your uncle's and my birthday party last night!"
Followed by this one: "Look! If you take the photo with flash it looks like we have electricity! *laughing emoji*"
You have to appreciate their sense of humor. I know exactly how utterly exhausted they are of this medieval bullshit they are going through.
The family of one of my mom's child students lost everything: their house, their cars, everything. The parents are doctors and, since the passing of the storm, have been living in the hospital they work at. The little girl goes home to a hospital bed. She is not going to art lessons with my mom on Saturdays, not because she doesn't have anything...but because she is helping her parents take supplies to the interior of the island to help other people who have even less. The best part of this anecdote? This little girl is doing this by choice. Art is her favorite thing ever, but she is giving up on it at the moment so that she can help others. Even though she has nothing herself.

Generators are constantly breaking down now because they aren't made to be turned on for so long. This involves having to ship the parts to the island and having them repaired by auto mechanics...who also need generators for their electrical equipment. Puerto Ricans are getting really good at fixing generators themselves. My mom, my uncle and his wife included.

Three of the warrior women of my family: my aunt Mary in the background on the left, my mom on the left sitting on the floor, and my uncle's wife Sari on the right, working on fixing one of their baby generators while sitting on the floor of the outdoor terrace. (Note the destruction in the background)

The same terrace pre-storm. This photo was taken only 11 days before Hurricane Maria hit PR.
Since the majority of the island still remains without electricity, just driving around to do basic things like run errands is a fucking mission because there are no functioning traffic lights. Now, driving in Puerto Rico on a good day was already by no means an endeavor for the faint of heart. If you've never driven in places like New York, driving in Puerto Rico will seem downright suicidal. Actually, Puerto Rican drivers make New York drivers seem tame by comparison. #thisiswhyigotmydriverslicenseat19 No electricity now means you're only safe if you're driving an Army tank on the streets. You have to give yourself an extra 30 minutes to get anywhere at any time because there are endless traffic jams everywhere because no traffic lights.

The San Juan metropolitan area lies in darkness after Maria. Post-apocalyptic ftw.
Photo from here.
My mom avoids long trips and plans her errand runs around roads without major intersections and using routes where she only has to do right-hand turns (easier than left-hand turns where everyone else has right of way, just like in the US.) People don't think about that. It means every small daily thing turns into an everloving mission.

The memes coming out of PR, both in English and Spanish, related to post-Hurricane Maria are one of the few things keeping us laughing about the entire situation.


They might still drive like maniacs but people are being amazingly courteous, more so than they ever were pre-storm. Police officers help direct traffic where they can, but it means standing for hours in the humidity and heat of the sun in uniform. Pedestrians and drivers bring them water. And food. And sometimes ice, which is a true luxury on the island right now.

Who does that? Puerto Ricans post-Maria do.

This is actually a police officer in civilian clothes, a woman, who has been directing traffic near my mom's neighborhood. My mom was relieved to see them being allowed to wear regular (aka not broiling hot) clothes every once in a while.

USPS can still take up to 3 weeks, Fedex and UPS are delaying about a week to 10 business days. Many of you had offered to ship supplies: I did not give a "go" to this simply because mail is so freaking unreliable. I will be forever touched by the many offers to help, but if you really want to make a difference, I would prefer you all contact Efrain Vega de Varona, a Puerto Rican engineer based out of Los Angeles, California, who is making weekly flights to the island to distribute supplies in person to the people that need it the most in the interior; he posts about his missions with his Pirate Command Center on a nearly daily basis. He has done more for those in need than either the island or the mainland governments. You can read more about him here. He is a modern day Robin Hood and I absolutely adore him for everything he has done and continues to do for our people. He responds promptly to texts via Facebook Messenger: he is always looking for volunteers, donations and help.

Another pic from my mom. Flashlights and battery-operated fans are luxury items. After a 3-week delivery wait, the fans I ordered for my mom and the aunts on Amazon finally arrived at their house. Shanna sent them the two flashlights in this photo. Not shown: the headlamp that Shanna also sent, that my Aunt Lucy strapped to her head and didn't take off for the rest of the evening on the night it arrived: because now she could both see and use her hands at the same time in the dark.
Note: this photo was taken in daylight. PR houses traditionally have tons of windows and open floor plans to allow for maximum natural light during the day.

Healthcare on an island that used to prepare its doctors better than the mainland does, continues to be mostly nonexistent, first because of lack of power at most major hospitals, but also because so many doctors have left the island after the storm. Hundreds of people have died after the hurricane from lack of power, lack of medical supplies, of food, of potable water. The death toll is currently estimated at 900, and it gets higher every day.

A double amputee that needed medical help. He had also survived  the San Felipe storm in 1928, which was as bad back then as Maria is now.  Efrain Vega de Varona heard about this man's needs at 3:00 pm...and by 6:00 pm that same day they had what you see in the next pic:
A generator to run this man's oxygen machine with. The guy with the beard in the photo is Efrain himself.
See what I mean about him? He's a freaking hero.
There is a leptospirosis outbreak from people drinking unprocessed tap water or water from creeks and streams...because without water you die much quicker than without food. Lepto is treatable with antibiotics and supportive care but it is killing those it affects because there are no antibiotics nor supportive care to be given. So people drink contaminated water to survive, but then get to die anyway because of the same water that is supposed to help them live. Some of Carlos's physician coworkers were able to take leave of absence to go volunteer on the island and the stories they came back with are more hair-raising than anything on the news...refrigerated meat trucks being used to haul human carcasses out of the mountains, for starters. 

To you that has never visited this land, this is meaningless. To you, it is the story of yet another third world country that won't be able to recover from a natural disaster. Like Haiti in 2004, where 2,400 people died from the resulting floods caused by two straight weeks of rain. Carlos was working in Haiti shortly after that event, filming a documentary on the missionaries stationed there. He got to see in person the human bodies being carted off by construction trucks to be buried en masse...with bulldozers. Of course that was not featured on the news back then, but it was life-altering enough for Carlos to make him give up on film for a career in nursing instead.

Haiti floods in 2004.
The thing is, unlike Haiti, Puerto Rico was not a third world country to begin with. It was a 21st century country with enormous malls, cable TV and dish network in English, satellite radio, 5 star hotels and restaurants, luxury vehicles, golf courses, world-class surfing, running water you could drink from the faucet, AC at home and at work, paved streets that were better lit than any here on the mainland (this was my first pet peeve when moving here: why do Americans keep roads so DARK?!), 5-lane highways and rush hours and WiFi and paved roads with functioning traffic lights and hot showers and Dr. Pepper and Whole Foods and Walmart and McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks and and and.

All the things you would find in Puerto Rico, just like you would here!
Except this is how we pronounce them with our Spanglish! *insert laughing emoji*
Some details were different, but in the grand scheme of things you could find the majority of anything you would normally find here on the mainland. Why? Because we're a fucking US territory. We belong to the US because the US invaded usInvasion is, by definitionan instance of invading a country or region with an armed force; an unwelcome intrusion into another's domain.

El Conquistador Hotel & Casino, a Waldorf Astoria hotel in Fajardo, PR. It was pretty much destroyed by the hurricane.
Let me repeat that again: Puerto Rico didn't ask to be a part of the mainland. It was invaded.



Which is what makes this abandonment that much more painful.

So Imma talk about more taboo things on my blog because apparently that's what I do now. Let's talk about politics, because if it weren't for politics, my people would not be where they are at now. Not talking about politics doesn't make their repercussions go away. It just makes those repercussions worse, especially to those affected by said repercussions.

Old San Juan, bathed in perpetual darkness after Maria.
Photo from here.

Old San Juan pre-Maria. Yup, THIS is how well Puerto Ricans illuminate their cities!
And why the darkness at night right now is even more distressing.
I was laughed at by a former friend for "being paranoid" when this president won the election and I wanted to talk about politics because I was freaking out day in and day out over the news, especially the anti-Hispanic attacks that were initially fairly rampant.

"Why are you afraid?" she asked, "You're a US citizen!"

"That doesn't matter! I'm still Latina! It doesn't matter that I'm a citizen when the President hates everyone who speaks Spanish as a first language and is encouraging this type of behavior!" was my response.

I was afraid we would be punished for being stereotypically brown, for learning first a language other than English. This fear was pervasive in the Latin community where we currently live: in the grocery store, at the gym, I heard other Spanish speakers talking in hushed tones about their concerns over the presidency. I have Brazilian, Peruvian, Colombian, Cuban, Dominican and Venezuelan friends on Facebook, as well as Puerto Ricans, all of them legal citizens either by birthright or because they went through the whole citizenship process, and all of them were concernedThey continue to be concerned. This really isn't some paranoid dream of my own creation, it is a reality for a huge number of us in the States: citizenship makes no difference when you're seen as an "other." This is not a matter of citizenship, it is a matter of ethnicity and cultural background.

One of the most famous pieces of graffiti work in PR, located in Old San Juan.
So my original worst nightmare post-elections was that all Latinos in the US would be rounded up and put in cages where we would be beaten and tortured slowly to death. This wasn't just me transposing WWII history to the present. No: this was me pointing out something that has been happening in Arizona for over a decade. Did you know Latinos are that hated in some parts of this country? I did! It was so super fun to see our president pardon the man that started what are known as the Arpaio Concentration Camps! You do realize that means the president is endorsing this type of behavior, right? In some places it doesn't matter that Puerto Ricans are citizens. Even with solid evidence of our birthright citizenship, we can still be detained and threatened by Immigration. <-That story is old news, but it has been circling through the PR community on Facebook for the last 7 years. It was a Big Deal when it happened and it still is, because shit like that continues to happen: family, friends, and friends' family members have all had it happen to them, where they get detained by Immigration or TSA because they look too Spanish or too Latino or too Muslim. (A lot of Puerto Ricans look more Middle Eastern than Latino because some of our Spanish ancestry comes straight from the Moors.)  There is a reason why ALL Puerto Ricans are recommended they travel to the mainland with their US passports on their persons. We don't need to do this because we are citizens, but it is recommended because we are so affected by racial profiling.

After initially moving to the US, I carried my passport with me for my first 3 months living in Tampa, FL. I actually did need to pull it out more than once during that time to prove my citizenship: my accent, which was much more pronounced back then, combined with my island-tanned skin and my Spanish last name, were enough to consistently get me racially profiled, especially while living in a red state in a world led by another anti-Latino Republican president at the time.


I never would have experienced any of this if I had not left the island. It only became a reality when I moved here. Most Anglo-type Americans won't experience this type of situation in the flesh unless they look like they are of a different ethnicity because they happen to tan in the sun, or if they visit/move to a country where Americans are not highly regarded.

My other big concern with the new administration was how it would affect island politics and corruption, because there really is a connection: Puerto Ricans never do well with Republican governments on the mainland, especially when the statehood party (PNP or Partido Nuevo Progresista) is governing the island like it is now.

None of these explanations were valid to that one friend. I just got an eye roll, which only increased my anxiety at the time: if a close friend couldn't see the perils, then in my mind no one else could.


My point is that, given all of these political facts, it is not surprising that my people are literally being left to die by the current president on our now useless island. Not being surprised doesn't make it any better.

And this is how not talking about politics can have very real consequences for an entire race of people. If you are not speaking out against something (and I'm not talking about Facebook here, I mean speaking out in a way that makes a difference, like calling your state representative), you are condoning it with your silence. You might not agree with me on this view, but in the end it's just like watching a man harass a woman in public and not doing anything to defend her. #metoo *shrug*

Speaking of people that are okay with the harassment of women...What the hell kind of miserable excuse of a human being, never mind one that is supposed to be the leader of the free world, throws rolls of paper towels at a group of people that have lost everything????!!
In case you missed it, you can read about the President's epic visit to Puerto Rico post-Maria right here
Thankfully, it would turn out that most of the people that surround us here do see the unfairness of it all, are outraged by it, are speaking out against it and are willing to help in any way they can...but I'll get to that in a minute.

Right now for the Puerto Rican diaspora on the mainland, it is miserable to think of all we have here that we can't make available to our loved ones there. Starting with the simple power of being able to flip a switch in your house and have there be light. This article does a fantastic job explaining the way us Puerto Rican mainlanders feel; I featured it on my personal Facebook a while back.

Light on the pool trampoline at my uncle's house. Just like my brother and I when we lived there after hurricanes, my uncle now takes his work outside to the trampoline, where you can sit in the cooler air close to the water of the swimming pool.
The island itself, however, is growing back and healing, completely unaffected by the struggles of its inhabitants. It is an inspiration to its residents, though. #puertoricoselevanta

Beat that view. This is the view of the mountains from the second floor balcony of the house I grew up in, and it was the view from my bedroom window every day for 18 years. I never closed the curtains...I think you can understand why. This is the house where my uncle currently lives; this photo was posted by him 50 days after the passing of Hurricane Maria, showing that my mountains are green again.
One of my favorite stories from my mom is this: that in the absence of power and television and computers, sunsets are the time of day when Puerto Ricans bid adieu to busyness and movement and settle down for the evening. They stop to watch the sun set.

Sunset as seen from the house I grew up in.
Photo by my uncle after Maria.
Darkness is only real indoors, because without the glow of city lights to outshine them, the stars outside twinkle that much brighter at night. My mom's students come to class talking about how pretty the stars were last night.

A home powered by a generator in the beach town of Hatillo, under a glorious night sky. You couldn't capture it with regular cameras, but this too was our night sky view from our house at night after hurricanes.
Photo from here.

A full moon seen from my uncle's house, post-Maria.
Whereas dawn signifies the return of the light and the start of a new day, a new struggle, a new adventure, a new way to make a difference in any way you can.

Sunrise to the east of the house I grew up in.
Photo by my uncle post Maria.
Without technology to distract them, the storm has brought about a beautiful thing: people are looking up at the sky. They are looking at one another. They are moving to help one another out. They are sharing the little they have. Including hope.

"Well, at least we can see the stars."
Illustration of PR's current situation by Monica Paola Rodriguez

Contrary to what the president said, Puerto Ricans are not a lazy people. There are tons of photos as proof on the internet if you google pics of "Puerto Ricans cleaning up after Maria." But here's a few close to home, that are close to me, personally, so you can see my world through my eyes:

Community residents cleaning up the streets by themselves.
Best example of laziness ever.
Photo from my mom.
Community residents chopping a giant tree into smaller, easier to move pieces so they could clear the street.
Photo from my mom.
Same people removing another enormous tree from the road.
So lazy!
Photo from my mom.


My uncle tore his shoulder while removing debris. Because he's so lazy.


My aunt Sari struggling to fix the chainsaw herself so they could continue cutting trees at their house.


My aunt Sari with the fixed chainsaw.
Yeah, we're super lazy people. 
The problem with hope is that you can't make a living out of it. And since no significant dent is being made in the island's recovery so long after the hurricane because we "threw the US budget out of whack", more and more Puerto Ricans are coming here, to the mainland to start over where they do have the power to vote in the presidential elections. Because, since they are US citizens by birthright, all they have to do is get their state of choice's driver's license and register to vote. No visas, no green cards, no other paperwork required. Because literally all we have to do to move to the mainland is get on a plane.

You can't build a wall to keep us out.
And so many Americans, outraged over the situation at hand and their inability to change the government and its decisions, are moving to help out in any way they can.

And this leads me to the story I want to tell you about, of how a hurricane has helped to bring not just all of us islanders closer together, but Americans as well.

But first, let me tell you a little about how I got here, so you can understand perspective because my story is different from that of the average Puerto Rican that ends up moving to the US.

--------------------

I was originally born on the mainland. On a military base in Oklahoma of all places, daughter to a Cuban dad that served in the Army as a medic and a Puerto Rican mother with a Bachelor's degree in Spanish. I learned to speak Spanish first and learned to read English first; I still prefer to read and write in English over Spanish (which is why the blog is in English) but I can be 100% eloquent in written Spanish because I can switch my brain completely from one language to the other. We spent the summers on the island with my mother's family up until I was 7 years old. The island was both my haven and my heaven on earth, and I yearned for us to just stay there. I got that the summer I turned 8, when my dad decided he wanted a divorce and left my mother, my brother and myself stranded in PR. Thankfully we were all welcome at my grandmother's house, and that's where I lived for the following 18 years. I had a career and a life and a future on the island and I never had any intention whatsoever of leaving it behind. I was one of those Puerto Ricans that said she would never be a "vende-patria" (a sellout) by moving to the US. Being a sellout was a thing of shame: it meant you had given up on your country to try to find a means to live elsewhere. It meant you were a quitter.

And then I was made to choose: the man I had fiercely loved for 7 years and the opportunity to start a new life with him (you can read more about our story in detail here. It's a pretty good story), or potentially stay single for the rest of my life in the country I loved. After 7 years choosing guys based solely on how much they reminded me of Carlos, it would have been stupid to think I would be happy with anyone else other than him. So I did what everyone tells you to not do, and gave up everything I had laid out for myself...for a guy. I legit did what Bella does for Edward in Twilight, which is actually the one reason why I secretly love that story so much. Because I very much knew that it was What You're Not Supposed To Do, it was one of the most terrifying decisions I have ever made, and in the process I asked the Universe for a sign. I didn't get a sign...I got signs in plural, piled one on top of the other on top of the other, that this was what I was meant to do. Had it been any other guy, my family would probably have been reluctant to see me make such an enormous leap of a life change for him, both literally and figuratively, but they had known him since he was a kid and were nuts about him too so I was leaving with their blessing on top of everything else. That doesn't happen every day.

And so in 2004, I very reluctantly moved to the continental US only because the love of my life lived here. And in doing so I made what ultimately ended up being one of the best decisions I had ever made up to that point...this story would have never happened if it hadn't been for that one choice. I left the island, not because I wanted better pay and better job opportunities (this is the main reason why Puerto Ricans leave. Obviously I would get those things too in time) but because the one person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with lived on the mainland. Because of this detail, I don't consider myself a "vende-patria" but I'm sure I'm still seen that way by my compatriots that don't know the story. It is one of the things that has turned me into the bulldozer I am today: I might have left my land, but no one gets to call me a quitter. Why? Because I am Puerto Rican.



One of the distinguishing characteristics of my culture and my people is that we don't do anything halfway. If we're going to be good at something, we're going to be fucking fantastic at it. If we're going to drive like lunatics, we're going to drive like bats out of hell. If we're going to be crazy, you're going to want to run and hide.



When we're angry, we'll blow up like volcanoes. When we love you, we will love you so much and so hard that we would die for you if it came to that. When we don't agree with you, we will tell you to your face even if it means you'll stop liking us. If we care about you, we will give our opinion and advice even if you don't want to hear it. When we are happy, you have to lasso us to bring us back down to earth. When we decide to half-ass something, by golly we'll screw it up until it's unrecognizable. We celebrate everything: US holidays, Spanish holidays and Puerto Rican holidays, and we celebrate them with dancing and food and alcohol (and the beach if the weather is good) until we forget what exactly it is that we are celebrating. We are alive, and that in itself is worth celebrating, even after a fucking hurricane that destroyed everything we know, followed by the actions of a president that seems bent on decimating us once and for all. Not even that can take our passion away.


Beyonce's remix of J. Balvin's and Willy William's "Mi Gente." I adore this song. I heard it for the first time shortly after Maria during a training session on the Pitbull station Trainer created for me. I involuntarily started repping to the beat of the music, which had amused him at the time.  I thought at the time, "Mi gente...my people. This song is about my people!" I later learned Beyonce made this remix and donated all proceeds of the single's sales to Mexico, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands relief efforts. 
The lyrics are in Spanish in the video above; here is the translation to my favorite parts:

"If the rhythm makes you move your head to the beat, then we're starting as we should
My music doesn't discriminate against nobody, so let's begin

Everyone moves to my music
I carry partying in my genes
I am the queen of the boys
My people won't stop, nobody here wants to leave

If the rhythm is in your head
Now let go and move your feet
I love the beat of the bass
We're taking this up a notch

All of my people move
I carry partying in my genes
I am the queen of the boys
My music has them dancing strongly and this is how they dance
------
And where are my people? (Yeah, yeah, yeah)
Mais fais bouger la tete? (Yeah, yeah, yeah)
And where are my people? (Yeah, yeah, yeah)
Say yeah, yeah, yeah
One, two, three, let's go
(Ay yeah yeah yeah)

Corner to corner, there we go (from there we go)
The world is big but I have it in my hands
It's tough here, but ok, let's go
And with time we'll keep climbing on up

We keep breaking the floor here
This party has no end
Bottles up, yes
My people are unstoppable, nobody wants to leave."
It is about my people...but it is also about all of us, Caribbean, South American, Central American, North American, dancing together to the beat.

Appropriate :)


There are no happy mediums for the average Puerto Rican. Being this way obviously has its drawbacks...


...but it is what makes us unstoppable when we put our minds to something, because WE DON'T QUIT. #YoNoMeQuito

One of Carlos's physician work peeps had always liked Carlos's humor, bluntness and work ethic. This doctor was one of several that flew out to the island to help out after Maria and upon returning, went up to my husband and said with a huge grin, "Now I understand why you are the way you are!"

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, I have never been prouder to be Puerto Rican.

Despite some of the prejudice and ignorance about Latinos in general that we experienced while living there, I loved Tampa, where we originally lived...and ironically hated South Florida, where we were surrounded by an enormous Latin community. The Latin aspect of South Florida is a ton of fun whereas the American aspect of it sometimes left a lot to be desired. As noted before on the blog, I have never seen so much anger and so much insanity in one place. In fact, the original intent of this blog was for it to be a venting outlet for the amount of crazy we were living down there. Here is an example from the blog's first 2 months of existence. And this really did happen while we lived there. Don't get me wrong: we made lifelong friends while living in Florida, people that I hold dearly close to my heart that I consider family even though we are not related by blood. But when it came to boarding horses and working in both the veterinary and medical fields, it was quite challenging precisely because of said crazy. It was very hard to walk alone into an exam room to go over a treatment plan when you didn't know how the client was going to react over the cost of treatment, especially after receiving very real death threats from clients over estimates that they could not afford. I worked at high-end specialty hospitals in the city, guys. This wasn't the ghetto. That kind of experience changes the way you interact with people, period.

When we declared that we were ready to leave South FL, the Universe responded again...we didn't know where we would go, only that we wanted to GET OUT OF FLORIDA. And so the Washington DC area chose us. My experience living in this region for the last 6 years has been like night and day from living in the southernmost state. I had pretty much given up on this country as a whole by the time we finally left Fort Lauderdale and the Miami region and didn't really have high hopes for the place we were now moving to. But Maryland has shown us over and over again how truly wonderful Americans can be, even more so now after these elections. To my own surprise, I rapidly came to adore the MD/DC/Northern VA region with an unexpected and unparalleled ferocity.

So much good has come from us living here...

These two dorks
And this mare
Who allowed this adventure to happen


And this one
And this one too
(photo by Mike Turner)
And I discovered this sport
And fell in love with it
(photo by Becky Pearman)

And I met so many other amazing people throughout this country thanks to writing about endurance.

And I met you thanks to our adventures since moving to this state, because without moving here, none of this would have happened.


And I got burned out by endurance, but that's okay.


Because we can still have fun without competing.


And not competing also brought with it opportunities to meet more beautiful people.


And it allowed me to discover this sport

And this strength.
And in leaving Florida, we found this town
And the opportunity to dance again


And we experienced fall


And fog
And snow!


And riding in it.
And the opportunity to visit places like this one
And this girl
And these flowers



And these mountains
And this land

   
And these people

I love everything about living here to the point that, 6 years later, I'm still in complete awe over the fact that this place chose us. Despite insisting on never wanting to leave the island, there was always a tiny part of me that wondered, "But supposing you did have to go, where would you want to end up? What would you want that place to be like?"

And I envisioned a place with seasons and just enough snow in the wintertime to still consider it fun, and humid violently green summers hot enough to make me miss cold weather, and mountains to remind me of home, with the ocean within less than a day's drive, surrounded by good people that are fair and kind and human.  

I didn't think such a place existed. 

But it does! 

We found it in Maryland. 

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On to my story.

Alice is a lifelong friend of mine from the island. I've known her since we were in middle school. Interestingly, like me, she was one of the other chubby girls in my class who also got into fitness when she was in college...but then chose to make her entire career out of it. She has been tremendously successful: she started out working at regular gyms as trainer and class instructor and nowadays she is an independent personal trainer with her own business that caters to high end and celebrity clients on the island. She has never lost her humility nor her Zen: it is her desire to help others that has taken her this far. Alice's partner, Ana, is a civil lawyer with a master's degree in translation. She is also a passionate equal rights advocate and animal rights activist. Both of them are driven, successful professionals and stellar human beings. They have both traveled to the US and abroad to Europe; they are 100% fluent in English with the most awesome Sofia Vergara accents. And they both love craft beers.

Alice and Ana celebrating the end of dry law while waiting in one of the many, many, many lines to get anything done in Puerto Rico post hurricane.
Alice had reached out to me during the first 30 days after Maria, asking questions about the DC region and how had my relocation from the island to the mainland worked. Just like me until Carlos returned to my life, neither her nor her partner had ever seriously thought about leaving PR before. As noted above, they were both very successful in their careers on the island and had no reason to leave prior. But when you take away basic needs like electricity and the ability to find food and water and it looks like your land is never going to return to its pre-storm normal, well...you would consider leaving too if you had the means to do so. Though of course, being both Latinas and gay meant that they had more concerns than the average white American about this administration and the negative attitudes it promotes among its followers against both groups.

I had a world of good things to say about our experience here, enough so that once I started talking about it, it was hard to get me to stop!

It wasn't long before Alice and Ana had bought what initially were one-way plane tickets to D.C. Because initially, they were that panicked. As the date of the trip neared, things got a bit better on the island and the girls switched their tickets to round-trip: they were going to do the more reasonable thing and come scope the area out and see what job opportunities for them looked like in the region.

They came for a week. Shanna was wonderful and was able to accommodate them in her spare bedroom for the duration of their stay. Basically from the moment Alice and Ana landed, the doors started opening up for them: a friend heard they were arriving in DC and a meet-up at a local vineyard was arranged, where Ana was able to get her first set of leads on jobs in the area. I was at work when they sent me a photo of their adventure, and I couldn't help laughing.

Shanna and the girls, three people that prior only had me in common, hit it off right away like I had known they would.
In a way, Shanna was the preview for the girls of all the awesome that would be coming their way on this trip.
I love that girl. <3
The rest of the week would be a blur of similar opportunities.

I had asked Trainer about job openings in the area for Alice, since he is so involved in the local fitness community and has lived here for most of his life. Once I explained who I was asking for, he had fantastic advice that he was excited to give, so I arranged a direct meeting between him and Alice so he could provide some guidance.

Two of the gyms he recommended had openings. We took Alice to check the first one out, and she walked out with a job interview for the next day. She went to the job interview...and was given an offer! The day after, she walked into the second gym, spoke with one of the employees...and was taken straight to the hiring manager, which meant she got to skip like 3 steps of the interviewing process.

Sometimes when something is meant for you, the Universe just screams loud and clear.

We showed them downtown Frederick and some of our favorite hangouts.

Cafe Nola is always a must whenever anyone is visiting us! I joke that it's our grown-up version of the Saddle Club's ice cream shop. Except that instead of ice cream sundaes, we go in for brunch (they serve brunch all day) and coffee or drinks.  One of the bartenders has been wearing a cap with a Puerto Rico flag ever since the passing of the hurricane. Little details like that make my heart sing.
Showing them Carroll Creek
Halloween is Carlos's and my anniversary date. I've never looked like a superhero before. But after carving out a superhero body for myself this year ;), it was a ton of fun to play dress-up for the occasion.


We went to the White Rabbit Gastropub, a new restaurant/bar that opened up in town. (Their Instagram account is where they really advertise and where they really shine. I follow them just to stay in the loop of what they're up to!) It's supposed to be very Alice in Wonderland...and they totally owned the vibe. This used to be a tiny burger place with modern decor, and you could never tell to see it now. It was SOOOOOO COOOOOL!!! They have 42 craft beers on tap (this made Alice and Maria very happy, and we each ordered different flights so we could try as many as possible), and every Tuesday they feature a local rare beer. The food is to die for too...so good, in fact, that we forgot to take pics!

There were so many people dressed up for Halloween. All adults in our age bracket or older, and all totally rocking it. I loved this couple sitting next to us! She was a witch and I think he was an elegant zombie. Our town has a Steampunk Festival once a year. So seeing people dressed up in costume so nonchalantly is not that surprising...but it never gets old for us!
13 years together. It feels like both yesterday and forever. Carlos had dressed as a hippie. *lol*


Shanna was a witch PE teacher!
Alice and Ana were Puerto Ricans suffering from the cold. *lol* Of course they arrived the first week we had really cold weather (days in the 40s-50s, nights in the 30s), which was an even more dramatic change for them after living for a month and a half in constant sweltering heat and humidity with the lack of electricity on the island.


We had such a great time.
Afterwards we hit up Bushwaller's, our favorite Irish pub, for more drinks. I wanted my snakebite! It was karaoke night and while none of us sang, Alice and I got up to dance. We were the only two people dancing. And that should not be surprising after everything I've told you about our culture so far. ;)  #boricuahastaenlaluna
Ana called us "Las Chicas Musculo" (The Muscle Girls) Hahaha...
Ana and Alice dancing side-by-side with mock poker faces when we were getting ready to leave. 
We took Alice and Ana to check out apartment complexes in the area. At one particular location, the leasing office agent was so excited to hear the girls were from the island. She asked intelligent questions about the situation over there and went out of her way to make them feel welcome, to the point that Ana turned to me and whispered in Spanish, "Is she for real? Or is this how leasing office staff always are?"

I looked at the animated, enthusiastic way the woman was talking to Alice and couldn't help grinning. "She has a bubbly personality for sure, but yes, this is for real. She is making an effort for you guys. She genuinely wants you to feel welcome. It's super sweet of her." I was so moved by her that Carlos and I later said we would have moved there ourselves!

While looking at the model apartment, the lights went out for an instant: they have a motion sensor and we had been standing around, just talking, for too long. Alice and Ana went abruptly quiet at the same time that I realized the effect the sudden dimming of the lights had just had on them: PTSD. It was like someone had zapped the joy and energy out of both of them. I was distraught to see with my own eyes the magnitude the effect of lack of power had on them, because it was right in front of me now: the effect that not having electricity for 50 days in a 21st century country will have on you. It was like someone had suddenly snatched the figurative rug from underneath both their feet and mine.

The leasing office agent had the sensitivity to realize the effect of what had just happened on the girls. She quickly waved a hand and the lights came back on, and Ana and Alice both sighed involuntarily in relief. The woman apologetically explained about the motion sensors and Alice and Ana explained their reactions, but they didn't have to: the agent had known why they had reacted the way they did. This ability to put yourself in another person's shoes is the definition of empathy. And this woman's empathy touched all of us in that moment: because she got it.

It is no surprise that this particular apartment complex would end up being at the top of Alice's and Ana's list thanks to the kindness of this leasing office agent.

We swung by Wegmans one afternoon because I needed to buy a few grocery items and the girls wanted to see regular day-to-day cost of living. They went as gaga over Wegmans as I still do, and were absolutely amazed by the prices...in a good way. In Puerto Rico there is currently an 11.5% sales tax, which is the highest in the US.  Add to that the price gouging after the storm...standing in Wegmans with me, they went through the same frustration I do every time I go to the grocery store since Maria: they wanted to send cases of supplies back to the island. Like water. Because a gallon jug of drinking water here in the US is $2 or less. It's currently 3x that on the island. It's illegal to price gouge after storms, just like it is here, but who's enforcing the rules? No one. So it happens regardless.

Alice and Ana wanted to know how expensive truly expensive grocery stores were. "You're standing in one right now," I said. I clarified, "It's considered expensive because they have so many specialty items that will cost more no matter where you go. But I find better deals here than at most other chain grocery stores in the area, which is why I always come here; you just have to know what to look for. For everyday ordinary things, Aldi, Walmart and Target have the lowest prices."

They were shocked anyway though. "Seriously??? THIS is expensive???" They looked at the vegetarian items that were several dollars more in PR, at some of their favorite organic brands that are prohibitive back on the island but they are fortunate to be able to afford, and were blown away by how much less everything was here.

Rent in PR is 3x less than in the MD/VA/DC region. But everything else on the island is at least double the cost. And wages in PR, even for upper middle class people like Alice and Ana, are half what they are in this particular region of the States.

"The Universe is speaking to you guys," I said to Alice with a grin.

"I know," Alice said. "I hear it. There's a lot we have to discuss when we get back." She believes in the same things I do.

We went to Nola one more time because why not. We were there for hours.

Alice and Ana would forget Shanna's first spoken language (emphasis on spoken) is English and would sometimes automatically switch to Spanish when addressing me. Shanna, however, understands enough conversational Spanish that she was still able to follow along with pretty much everything we were saying, PR slang and all. Carlos caught one of these moments here in this photo. I've mentioned it before: Shanna is also bilingual. Her first language isn't English either. It's sign language, because most of her family is deaf. Conversation was about our experiences being Latinos in the US; differences between living in FL, VA and MD, which are the scope of Carlos's and my personal experiences; the perils of travelling even as a US citizen (Ana has been stopped by TSA herself in the past for having a heavy accent and it was a terrifying experience); how we thought the current administration would affect the perception of race and otherness and what had really happened so far (it's actually made a lot of Americans protective of immigrant groups, which is beautiful to me); the fact that this president did NOT win the popular vote (something that I am CONSTANTLY clarifying among my PR friends, because the outsider point of view is that the US majority wanted this man leading the country and it's not true); the differences in language and how so many words don't translate to English, both from Spanish and sign language. Fascinating conversation all the way around.
Cheesin' :)
While sitting here, Ana received news of a friend's relative that had just died due to health complications from the lack of electricity.
I hosted dinner at our tiny apartment for Alice's and Ana's last night in town. They are both vegetarian, so I made this Moroccan butternut squash & chickpea tagine/stew by mixing this recipe (I skipped the cauliflower) with this one (I subbed currants for the raisins. Just cuz. And used vegetable bouillon to make the broth to cook everything in.) It came out absolutely amazing, if I say so myself. It was a new concoction for me and even I was impressed! :) 

Except for the photo of Lily and me on the left of this picture, the blown-up photo of Carlos & me that Liz took of us last year (behind Carlos here), and one Sidney poster in the living room, 100%  of the art on the walls of our apartment is by Puerto Rican artists.
It was a fantastic visit. The girls spent most of their solo free time buying items for friends and family that were either scarce or impossible to find on the island. Some of this stuff was being taken in extra bags that the girls had brought just for this purpose, but a lot of it was going to be shipped via USPS before they returned home.

Alice messaged me the next morning from the airport because she was so overwhelmed: her and Ana had stopped by the post office prior to ship their supplies. Shipping was going to be $200, which the girls were expecting and were prepared for. But when people in line heard that the package was going to Puerto Rico, they spoke up and offered to pay for their shipping. I still get goosebumps talking about it. It is so beautiful to see people, Americans specifically, wanting so badly to do any little thing they can to help our island. It moved me to happy tears when Alice messaged me. Alice and Ana had had no words to show their gratitude over this onslaught of caring.

"I think you can understand now why I love this place so much," I said to Alice. "It's because of the people. They are incredible like that. Maryland definitely gave you guys a red-carpet welcome!" And because of this state, they were getting to see the best that the people of this country can be.

"I can't wait to return!" She was already planning on buying her plane tickets upon arriving home. She had lined up another few working interviews by the end of the week!

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My uncle came to visit for a few days a couple of weeks later. He came with his wife, the aunt whose updates I consistently repost on my personal Facebook. My uncle and Sari met long after I left the island and got married in May of this year when both Carlos and I were in the middle of switching jobs, so we sadly weren't able to go.

Sari and my uncle Rafa at their wedding.
Peas in a pod, these two.
(If you think my family is cool, yes: yes they are!)
Sari and I had hit it off thanks to Facebook around the time my uncle came to visit last year. We had become fast friends that were brought even closer by the storm, especially given that she was my #1 source of information on the status of my family post-Maria. If you've read her updates that I reposted, you already know that she is yet another warrior woman from the island.

This time around, my uncle and Sari stayed with his college friend, Jo, who has lived in DC for the past several decades. Jo is also Puerto Rican and had reached out to me not long after the storm. We commiserated over our mutual feelings of helplessness, vented over the decisions this administration has made regarding help for the island, and then distracted one another by talking about cats (she is also a former dog person turned cat lover and has two kitties of her own.)

It was love at first sight for me with Jo. She is awesome.
It baffles me to think that this moment right here would never have happened without Hurricane Maria.
It was great to get to meet both Jo and Sari in person for the first time, to talk to family in my own language with my own accent and slang, to talk about subjects that are normal for us but would freak others out (like my great-grandfather's spirit hanging out in my grandfather's cottage after the storm and showing up in photos...), to be wildly inappropriate at the table (we're all 12...lololol Also, no one has a dirtier mind than a Puerto Rican woman...and it was 3 of us together + my uncle. Just sayin'...), and to be reminded yet again of who I am and where I come from and why I am the way that I am. It is because of this island, because of these people, because of the blood that runs in my veins and the genes that my cells carry.

We're not related by blood but you can't tell!
My uncle had us in constant stitches, exaggerating his relief at being in modern civilization again.
"Look! The lights come on if I flip a switch!"
"You guys!! I just went to the restroom and was able to flush the toilet!"
"Two words: HOT WATER. From the tap!!!"
"OMG! ALL of the light posts have cables on them! I'd forgotten what that looked like."
"*Gasp* A functioning traffic light! What did red mean again?" Thankfully he wasn't driving...

<3
This photo that I took would not have happened without the storm.
What they are forced to live through is a tragedy. Yet they are still able to laugh about it. The running joke at the restaurant table was that my uncle was bent on decorating for Christmas and Sari refused. What's the highlight of Christmas decorating? Lights! But you can't have lights without electricity.

Old San Juan dressed up for Christmas pre-Maria.


Plaza de Armas in Old San Juan, also decorated for Christmas.
Also from an era pre-Maria.
My uncle wanted to decorate for the irony (my sarcasm and poke-the-bear syndrome aren't just qualities that have rubbed off from Carlos...there's a genetic component there too...) and my aunt didn't want to because she found the whole idea depressing. So I told my uncle about outdoor solar Christmas lights and how Carlos and I used to have them on our townhouse's kitchen bay window in South Florida year-round because we're into pretty little white lights regardless of season. My uncle's entire face lit up at the thought. Sari was like, "Don't encourage him!" I turned to my uncle and said in a stage whisper, "They sell them at Target! They fit easily in a carry-on!" I then turned to Sari, "They also sell those water filters you're looking for." *Big angelical grin* Everyone laughed. Jo acquiesced, "We can go to Target after here. There's one by my house." Sari was grinning as she admitted defeat.


But the part that I really want to tell you guys about is our waiter. 

He picked up on the Spanish and even though we switched back to English for him, he did his best to converse with us in our language. It was incredibly sweet and he did a great job. It came up that my aunt and uncle were visiting from Puerto Rico, and his reaction was the same as the leasing office agent's with Alice and Ana: he expressed how sorry he was for the situation the island was in, and how he wished the US could do more. Of course politics came into the conversation because as explained above, the main problem with Puerto Rico's extraordinarily slow recovery from this hurricane is the direct result of current politics. 

We were all touched that he cared. We were all touched that he tried to speak in our language with us. But we were most touched that he was informed, something which continues to impress me about this region after living in a state (Florida!) where so many people didn't even realize that Puerto Rico was a US territory.

When he brought the bill, he made a point of welcoming my aunt and uncle, of saying that he hoped things got better, and that they returned soon. 

And this is why Nola continues to have our business. And why I love this town and this state so much that I could burst with it. 

But I'm not done!

As we were walking to the parking lot, we passed Frederick's map store. My uncle stopped dead in his tracks. "Maps!" he exclaimed. My Uncle Rafa is a historian and has done extensive research on the barrios of Puerto Rico and the origin of their names. 

"Wanna go?" I asked. I had been in there before with Shanna and the little store was a wonder to anyone with a passion for maps. Jim Tam, the owner, has maps dating from as far back as the 17th century.

"YES!" He was like a little kid being offered to go into a candy store.

"Don't let him be in there forever!" Sari said jokingly. She knows her husband. Her and Jo were going to check out one of the cute kitchenware stores nearby. 

"I won't!" I promised with a laugh.

We walked into the store and my uncle asked about maps of the Antilles or the Caribbean and the store owner showed us the appropriate section. My uncle sifted through the maps while I peeked over his shoulder, curious about what specifically he was looking for, as I knew it would be interesting: he wanted a pre-1898 map of PR, when certain barrios had different names and others didn't even exist yet. 

Jim, the store owner, who knows everything you could ever possibly know about maps anywhere (he's a fascinating person to talk to if you have time) overheard us speaking in Spanish. 

"You're looking for a map of Puerto Rico?" he asked.

"Yes," my uncle said, and explained what he was hoping to find.

"Puerto Rico is right over here," Jim indicated with a smile. In the same section as the rest of the United States, as it should be. My uncle and I looked at one another and grinned. Habit, I tell you: we are that used to Americans not knowing!

As it would turn out, Rafa was able to find exactly what he was looking for and arranged to have it shipped to him on the island so he wouldn't have to worry about the antique map on the plane ride home. 

Sari and Jo came in as Rafa was paying and teased him about buying something, but he was too excited to bother with retorting at them. 

They dropped me off at home afterwards and continued on their merry way to Target and solar Christmas lights. They had a grand time hanging out in the DC area and taking a break from the medieval situation on the island. 

On November 20, 2017, they returned home to this:

Flooding. Epic flooding from the rain. Town mayors are still dragging their feet about the clean-up of gutters and drainage ducts, and this is the end result: flooding in places that never used to flood prior to the storm.
My aunt Sari's words:

"61 days without power:
Yesterday we almost drowned my van in the flooding that took over the highway and in the evening had to fight off a gazillion little bugs that entered our kitchen and would not stop attacking us- they were not killable, and I tried pretty much everything except setting them on fire.

As I showered, little slivers of ice slammed against my skin and I was left breathless.
[Not literal ice. But no power = no hot water, remember?]

I need my power back! I need my normal and real life back!!!

Amazing welcoming from our third world country.🙄

My heart broke for them. And I could do nothing.

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So in some ways things are better. And in other ways things are exactly the same. Yes, everything is moving forward on the island in terms of recovery but it is so goddamn unacceptably slow. And this...this devastating slowness that is literally killing us, is because of people that don't know where we are on the map and/or simply don't care. 


And this is why it is so beautiful to find people that do know where we are, that do know who we are, that see us, that see what is happening, that are outraged. Even if they can't do anything to help the situation, just knowing that there are Americans out there listening and spreading the word and speaking up is an enormous wave of relief for us. Because it shows that you care. 

And for that, that is what I am most grateful for this Thanksgiving. For living in this place where I am surrounded by people that ask, "What can we do??" That say, "I am so sorry." That know what's going on. That give feedback on my 8 billion PR posts, even if it's just to click on the sad face or the "like" button or to share on their own pages or to celebrate when I post about something good that has happened lately. It might seem like such a small thing, but it makes such a big difference. Because it shows that you care. And that makes us feel safe. And it gives us more hope than that which we could muster on our own.

The sign says, "I'm rooting for you Puerto Rico!"
Yes, post hurricane Maria, I have never been prouder of calling myself Puerto Rican. 

But wait!

Last year, at the end of the November recap in my Year End Review, I had asked, "Can we all just continue loving one another in 2017? Please?" 

It was the caption under this photo.
Photograph by Liz Stout
And you know what? I got my wish! I got it! 

And so this is why also post hurricane Maria, I have also never been happier to live here, in this country, surrounded by the love of you all. For that, I am forever grateful. 

I love you all. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo by my uncle, posted tonight, with the caption,
"An impatient moon says goodbye to the sunset. One of the small marvels that the blackout has given us."