“Ok, so I”ll send you my flight information and see you on the 17th!” I replied as I hung up the phone, shocked and excited. I just confirmed a week long stay at Luquillo Sanctuary Farm in Puerto Rico through a program called WWOOF– Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. In exchange for a half a day’s work on a family’s farm, WWOOFers receive free room and board at one of thousands of farming sites across the world. This farm is a small, developing farm in Puerto Rico along the foothills of the El Yunque Rainforest. The opportunity sounded like Heaven, along with a whole lot of anxiety provoking unknowns. What if the people I stayed with weren’t who they said they were? Was this safe? But the predictable life depleted of risks leaves us believing that strangers are scary, that safety is quintessential as we choke on our own comforts.
So I flew into San Juan on June 17 not knowing why I had come on this journey, but positive that it would help me learn to embrace life in all of its fullness. The host farmer picked me up from the airport, luggageless as my bags had been loaded onto another flight, and brought me to the campground where I’d stay for the week. I was greeted by three other WWOOFers from Texas and Czech Republic. Nothing but the backpack on my back, they showed me a tent I could sleep in temporarily and gave me some sheets. Just go with it, I told myself, and fell asleep in a stranger’s tent, lying beneath cocqui frogs and insomniaic bulls that groaned all night long.
In conversations over digging farming beds and mowing the lawn with machette knives throughout the week, I learned much about Puerto Rico. The US provides an estimated $6.7 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, mostly in provision of food stamps and subsidized housing, while the US receives almost $58 from Puerto Rico through imports and manufacturing. “Instead of growing our own produce, much of the food is shipped into the island from other countries because it’s cheaper,” my host farmer shared. It was a startling wake up call to the reality of the pitfalls of capitalism and untapped resources. On our daily walks to the beach, we pass mango tree after mango tree and simply reach up to chomp on fresh fruit. Sure enough, when we went to the grocery store, our carrots were from Georgia and fruit from Central America. We could eat local. But there simply lacks farming infrastructure and political will.
That’s where farms like Luqillo are slowly changing this. Part of Luqillo’s mission is to be a non-profit organic educational farm for children, teaching them hands-on skills. On Saturdays, kids from the neighborhood come to work on the farm. That’s when I met Gabriel, a sweet 12 year old, who, when it was time to fill our buckets with the dug up grass from the rows we picked, turned it into a contest raced us up to the top of the hill, winning time afer time again. It’s awesome to think about how these kids might grow up differently from those around them. Grow up different because their hands have touched the grounds of where their food was birthed. They are closer to the Earth and will respect it. They will be leaders after tasting a bit of what life can be when you live outside the status quo for your town.
After a wonderful week of farming and climbing through the El Yunque Rainforest, we capped off the week of farming with a trip to Culebra, a small island East of mainland Puerto Rico, my eyes meeting vast aqua waters for the first time. Mountainous cliffs lining the countours beckon you to dive in. My friends shared their snorkling masks, which opened up a whole new world of wonder, discovery. A rich reminder that there is EVEN so much more out there than we can fathom.
Traveling opens your eyes to new people, new cultures, new landscapes. And now, it opened me to life beneath the water. The coral reefs right there below. Fish of many hues and sizes darting in and out of caverns. I’ve always known there’s a huge whole world above us- being the night sky filled with billions of stars, most of which are imperceptible to human eyes. And now, to be reminded of entire ecosystems below the surface of the water, I am blown away into wonder and grandeur and mystery. As the sun sank below palm trees, we built a fire on the beach and ran streaking into the water skinny dipping. It was everything I thought it would be, minus my second jellyfish sting of the night.
As we took the ferry back to mainland Puerto Rico, I chatted with Lena, a student in microbiology at the University of Puerto Rico. “It’s amazing because here I am on this one part of the island, in one school, and there’s all this out there,” she shared in awe. I told her that’s how I feel when I look up at the stars. Together, the stars and waters below sing of a world that feels even bigger.
We are invited into a life that tells us to look up, look around, look below. A life that takes the attention away from worries or our own selfishness because so many beautiful places exist without the contribution of human hands. Rainforests. Coral reefs. They will continue making beautiful and we will be here to awe, wonder, and appreciate hopefully with hearts that treat the Earth with the kindness its placid ways deserve.
I can’t believe I’d ever think to miss out on trips like this because I was afraid. Afraid to stay with people I never met before. Afraid to try something so unknown. But never again.
All of this has left me in love with the world, lusting after all the places that I will never get to taste, see, or touch simply because the world is huge- reminded like they sang in the Lion King that there is “more to be seen than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.”
It pains me because I will always want more. I will always want to see more, to keep needing to press the zoom-out button on my worldview lens because it keeps expanding. But instead of loathing that it’s all too much, I celebrate that tonight. I celebrate the opportunity we have to do some of that seeing and doing while we still have breath in our lungs. Because we have been invited to get into life.
Get into the kind of life that loves this world, all of it, the things you cannot see under ocean waters when you fly over them.
Get into a life that looks up regularly. For inspiration. For perspective. For no other reason than to use the eyes you’ve been given.
Get into a kind of life that loves people– loves to get mouths and hearts talking about the things that really matter to each one.
Get into loving God, your creator, whatever that name is to what/whom you attribute the great celestial connection of earth and land and people and connection. I am finding God is out here everywhere, especially in laughter, showing me the light at the end of the tunnel to all of my unfounded fears. I watch this God and this world take away my fears like carbon dioxide as I release the poisons that trap and breathe in the invitation to this new kind of life.
Because the adventure is calling in whispers and shouts across the sky, “Will you get into life?”
Very cool to see your perspective visiting as part of Woof. First of all thanks to linking to my blog post and more importantly sharing your thoughts on the Island.
As a vegan and environmentalist it is always great to see the perspective of those who visit us and that perspective to be very similar to to a few here on the Island that want to improve the infrastructure.
Raul, thanks for creating your post- it was informative and helpful for someone like me living in the contiguous 48 states to understand the economics of territories like Puerto Rico. Grateful for the kindness of the warm folks I met on the Island and to be able to visit a place of much beauty.
Keep up your awesome activism!
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You should know that your words are inspiring. I’m from Puerto Rico and I can tell that you have a real perspective of what and who we are. I’m glad that you decided to “get into life”, don’t ever walk away from it and thanks for the motivation.
Thank you, Koralis! Your words mean so much. Here’s to “getting into life—” Melissa