Hurricane Maria changed my life in so many ways. Plans A through probably G were effectively f***** when my work, my school, and my home got hit by Irma and Maria in a tropical combo move. A little less than two years later I followed Plan H and joined the Peace Corps. But during that time there was a trauma I didn’t realize I suffered until living alone in Thailand.
Picture it, its my first week in my new house in Thailand and I’m excited as hell. School is about to start; my classroom is ready and my home is coming together. I have a proper kitchen and am no longer subjected to eating whatever my host family gives me. I’m ending the day with my standard bucket shower and I can hear the rain beginning. No problem. In fact, I think “Great it’s hot season anyway, the rain will be good.” I’m probably midway through rinsing my hair when the lights went out.
Flashback. I’m in my home in Puerto Rico. Taking a bucket shower by candle light because my grandpa hasn’t removed the hurricane shutters yet and no light dares to peak in, there’s no light to be found anyways, I’m washing my underwear in the used bathwater because we don’t know when the water will come back and we have a limited supply. Grandpa hasn’t removed the shutters because there are bigger fish to fry. The day was spent trying to collect the pieces of our house that Maria threw and fix our home. A task suitable for Sisyphus. All of the trees are down, they’re blocking a road that serves as a one way in and one way out for some people in the community, we’ve spent all day chipping away at those trees. In my childhood those trees seemed unmovable, constant, but now they lay on the ground, stripped of all leaves, pines, and fronds resembling toothpicks, that’s how Maria treated them anyway. But now we cut at them with machetes, tirelessly. We get our own battle scars in the forms of blisters all over our hands but we can’t stop. No help is coming. Most Puerto Ricans accepted that pretty quickly. Myself and a couple of other younger people climb over them, we are trying to contact the families stuck down there. Their families go as far as they can trying to see if everyone is okay. There’s no communication on the island. All service has been wiped out. My dog slips off one of the fallen trees and breaks his leg. He gets put down later.
But I am in Thailand now, on the floor of my bathroom. Trying to steady my breathing and my senses and cursing the security team for a fault that’s not theirs. I find my phone and fumble for the flashlight then the doorknob and exit. I accept the copious amount of conditioner in my hair. I wrap it up with another towel calling it deep conditioning. I turn off my flashlight to save battery, trusting my sense of touch to guide me through my new unfamiliar house. Just as I accept the fate of no electricity for the night and sit on my bed to panic alone, the fan resumes its normal hum. I sit and cry for a bit.
“You should spend the winter with your mother. It’ll be nice to see the snow again.” My grandpa sits on the marquesina with his homemade liquor and remaining coca cola. He says the words that have been nagging in the back of my head. I couldn’t abandon home, could I? I couldn’t abandon him. But his tone was not a suggesting one. We spent the rest of the evening gazing upon what used to be a forest. I mention “The trees were so big; I didn’t know there were houses over there.” He says “I forgot about them too. Those trees were from the 70’s” It’s empty now.
Forward to Reconnect, a time where everyone can vent about their experiences and commiserate. I put my moment of panic aside, it’s in the back of my mind now. But then there was a random storm. It lasted no more than twenty minutes but the way the wind howled, it brought me home, to when it was pitch black at three in the afternoon. The hurricane shutter on my window was one of the first to go, so I had a front row seat for Maria. But no, no. I am in Pathum Thani at Reconnect. Not on my Island. That door has shut for now. But it didn’t stop me from sitting in my hotel room that night crying while looking at photos of my family and home before Maria. Back when we were celebrating my graduation, I was sipping champagne and laughing about my fellow classmate who brought rum in a camelback to the ceremony. Back when I was working at my family business, calling the regulars, my friends because they were. Taking shots in the blind spots of the cameras, and “accidentally” opening an extra beer and trying to sneak it to the kitchen, they earned it. But I’m not there. I’m in Thailand. But when times are tough, I think of them, I know they are at home rallying for me.
And tonight, I write because Tropical Storm Dorian is coming, and for a moment I wanted to see its path. It’s only a Tropical Storm so that’s nothing. Maria was Cat. 5 and Irma was Cat. 4. But that path was so similar to the war path Maria was on. Going right over my home, Humacao; over my playground, Luquillo, and over my birthplace in Ceiba. Then I panicked. I was taken back two years to when I was in the same spot, more or less, in bed looking at what would become Ground Zero for Maria. Thinking what would become of my Island.
No one in my group understands the trauma that was Maria, so I never really bring it up, plus we have all been through things. But there is a pain that comes with seeing your beloved island destroyed that I don’t believe mainlanders understand. We know a hurricane is coming, but we don’t get an evacuation route. We are sitting ducks and just have to prepare the best we can. However, seeing the things, you took for granted being wiped away, like they were never there in the first place. Normal actions and sights begin to feel hazy and you question if this is how it always looked, is this how it always felt? The absolute feeling of despair when you realize, the water isn’t coming today. The electricity isn’t coming tomorrow. Communication will be down for the foreseeable future. And every day the people you love are leaving the island in a mass exodus. Help didn’t come. Whatever help did come came too late and went to greedy hands outstretched, used for another vacation, beach house, or suit. For a moment Puerto Rico was sitting in a pot. Wall Street Vultures and Politicians hoped that when that pot was stirred Puerto Rico would finally sink, becoming the perfect spot for low-tax gentrification and fancy resorts. But that stirring awakened the island and her people. We took our machetes and pulled ourselves back up. In the past two years, we showed the world what strength is and what true democracy can be. We are Puerto Rico strong. We can make anything happen.
For me personally, whenever people mention “Peace Corps is tough isn’t it?” I proudly say “It’s no harder than Hurricane Maria.” Maria will always serve as my summit for difficulty. That’s the harshest thing I’ve weathered so far. In Thailand I finally got my Puerto Rican stamp of approval, a small tattoo of a coqui, on my shoulder so that even when I am far from home my coqui can whisper to me.
“Soy de aqui.”