WOOF Puerto Rico June 2014: Farming, Skinnydipping & An Invitation To Get Into Life

“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.

machetteIn 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.
IMG_1042We 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?” 

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A few telescopes, some friends, and plenty of stars.

Saturday, June 8th, Solider’s Delight Natural Environment Area:

“That doesn’t look like a swan,” someone in the group mutters aloud.

“Well, you have to have an imagination. Remember, when the Native Americans, Greeks, and Arabs named the stars, they could see them billions at a time; there was no light pollution to inhibit their view,” an astronomer whiz shares with us.

It’s late Saturday night, and some friends and I are at Soldier’s Delight for a stargazing night put on by the Westminster Astronomy Club. Volunteers set up their elaborate telescopes for the community to use the second Saturday evening of each month. And this month, some friends and I decide to not miss out on the opportunity to look up in wide-eyed wonder.

“That’s M21 out there, you see it, to the right?” our instructor, Skip, motions.

“No, but what’s M83?” I ask.

“One of the galaxies.”

“Oh.. it’s also the name of a great band,” I share, feeling some celestial connection of music and stars.

The stars elicit questions a mile long.

What was the transit of Venus all about? What was the most memorable stargazing experience you’ve ever had? What’s the difference between a red dwarf and a brown dwarf?

“How many satellites are in the sky on any given night?” I ask.

“Well, it depends, you might be seeing an in-tact satellite, or a glove falling from a satellite, or just general space junk…” Skip muses.

“Space junk, is that anything like Space Jam?” my friend Rajni asks. We all laugh from the ground, bodies sprawled out on grass and cement in wonder and gratitude.

It’s 10 PM, which segues into 11 PM, but time is put on hold for now, and I try to stay here in this moment, in this solitude, underneath this sky, with these friends that I yearned for when I moved to inner city Baltimore a couple of years ago, lonely, and wondering what the hell I was doing was with my life.

A warm gratitude relaxes my body, like a soothing cup of hot tea, and I lay my head onto the grass. It’s amazing how many satellites you can trace with your finger across the night sky if you sit down long enough to look up.

We take turns looking through high-tech telescopes, pointed at double stars, galaxies, and Saturn. I peer into the lens. Inside, a round, pale yellow circle enclosed by a thick ring stares back, a distant object the size of my pinky fingernail.

“Woah!”

“Wow.”

“Awesome.”

Each phrase becomes a prayer, connecting us to the universe around us, back to a Maker, a Creator, that larger presence that some of us don’t mind calling God.

I find hope, awe, wonder, humility, and faith looking into each telescope lens, scientific tools enabling us to learn and unlearn of a world we cannot understand, of a largeness and vastness that just keeps going and going and going to… where? I don’t know.

But up above our heads gracefully dangle bands of gas that have swirled together to sustain a planet light years away, light from something so far away that we’re merely looking back in time to what it was lightyears ago, a time-space continuum that baffles my mind, like Back to the Future, or traveling back in time, a perpetuity I’m half-scared and half-ecstatic to enter to into, wondering if you were catapult yourself into this space, what time would it actually be?

A few telescopes, some friends, and plenty of stars bring my mind into the past and the present and future all at once. My memories drift back to the night sky of Botswana, Africa in August 2007. My 20 year old self is sleeping under the African sky with a tent full of snoring “macoas” (white people) and crickets. Just on the edge of the horizon, The Southern Cross peers out, playing a peek-a-boo game with sky and Earth. Alas, in winter solstice, that’s all we see of it this night, though hardly a disappointment. There’s stars everywhere, and they shine like the smiles of each child I met over the past two weeks here, some in orphanages, some in villages, some walking back home from school, waving jovially.

I enter back into the stars of the present, my night at Soldier’s Delight with friends, my heart drenched in melancholy for Africa, a pining so emotive, I remind myself of the promise I made to myself: to return to Africa by the time I’m 30, and I re-commit to it with alacrity.

I guess that’s what the stars do to us: awaken our sense of curiosity and wonder, our desire to learn more ponderings of how we got here, and what does it all mean, and this can’t be it, right? A pep talk sans spoken word, just twinkling of molecules daring each of us to dream bigger and surround ourselves with people who will believe in you, who will nurture the restless adventurer inside who never ceases to explore, ready for another question, a brand new musing.

And so tonight it seems there is much to be thankful for. Friends, genuinely good people, the ones I’d been trying to find in this city for the previously lonely past couple years. My life feels rich and full and like it’s about to exciting, because these dreams in my mind refuse to stay quelled as a mere idea, no— they’re ready to leap out into daylight, into air, into existence in movement and dance. I want to see it all unfold. New visas. Plane tickets. A life of making merry and mess and saying what I want to say even if  my voice trembles. I want to experience a love sopping wet with life and adventure, disheveled wet drops pouring over two lovers who view everyday by asking, “How much fun can we create today?” One dream lending itself to another, another one birthing out of the completion of the former.

Alas, we drive home, but my mind is still creating new possibilities. I pay attention to car headlights meeting cement, occasionally glancing to the side to check for deer along the tree-filled roads. My friends and I talk quietly in the car, softly, sleepily, but my mind is somewhere else— Still grappling with the fact that the planet I learned about in middle school science class, drawn in a text book, not only hangs above us in the night sky, but is able to be viewed by our little eyes if only we stop to look. It’s in the sky, right now, as I type, as you read this; it’s so so far way away, appearing like a mere sticker through a 150 power telescope. But it’s out there.

Hope.

It’s out there.

Peace.

It’s out there, again and again, night after night after night after night; these sunsets, these stars, these planets, all hovering above us, never shouting, nor demanding our attention, but exuding a captivating pull, begging us into a story of wonder and awe.

I’m back at the house, eyes closed, trying to fall asleep. All I can see is the ingrained image of Saturn, an image I know will come back to me time and time again as I live out this next week. A soothing image massaging my shoulders, whispering a loving, “Don’t you worry, Child,” to all who ponder its mystery. “I won’t,” I promise back. Tomorrow, maybe, but for right now, I won’t worry. And if I’m lucky, Saturn’s image might come back in and speak that love song of serenity into my soul, into my toes, into my finger, oh I’ll live blown away…

Photo Credit: Wellington Astronomical Society

Thoughts on Solitude.

There was a bird outside my window this morning
Happily chirping its song; its story.
Another one joined in.

I’m not sure what they were saying
But I felt like their language spoke to my soul
Reminding me to go outside today
And spend some time in solitude.

So that’s what I did.
I zipped up my snow boots
And hit the trails
Climbing up powdered white paths
Sparkling like sugar cookies
In the mid-afternoon sun.

I glanced down at footprints of deer
And footprints of other hikers
Wondering what their journeys are like
And how they experience the world around them.

Sometimes I feel guilty going places alone.
Life is short
And people are beautiful, after all.

A couple years ago
I moved back to Baltimore
And within a few months, realized most of my friends had moved home or moved away
And I had a night
Where the few friends I had left
Were all busy
And I felt an immense loneliness come over me.

It was a cold, dark January evening and Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder
can be more than SAD; it can be depressing.
I was so lonely inside; I scared myself.

Have you ever had a moment like that?
Where you’re so caught off guard by what’s going on inside?

I did the one thing that I thought might help.
I called an old friend in New York just to make sure I was alive and breathing.
Luckily she answered.
She was out with friends
And I think she thought I was acting a little melodramatic

But never the less
A few words
From an old friend
On a lonely night
Melted away tears of despondency
And I vowed to never get that lonely ever again.

That was two years ago.
I’m thankful for new friends who’ve touched my heart
and for old ones who’ve stuck it out.

Although as a recovering people-pleaser and conflict avoider,
There are times when it would be much easier to keep inside my shell;
I’ve come to realize that people, community, are absolutely essential to personal growth,
apart from which my soul would deaden bit by bit.

But sometimes I don’t want to talk
And sometimes I need to be alone in my thoughts,
With God
Staring at vast skies like open pages.

I need to lie on my back
Let the grass be my pillow
And take pictures of the sun sinking behind open fields.

And sometimes,
In my calmest of moments,
I need only to be outside and sit there;
Doing nothing particular at all.

So I’ll sit on my front porch
While crickets sing to evening stars
And I’ll stare at the moon
Wondering what the moon sees when it stares at us.

All of this connects me back to the world around me
To God, to people, to the shifting Earth upon which we stand.
And all of this makes me realize
That solitude is an indispensable part of life
For wallflowers and social butterflies alike.

That solitude isn’t selfish
But creates room enough to embrace resonate beauty.
It disrupts the rush, the driving back and forth, the cacophony of sirens blaring through city streets.
It forces me to address the thoughts that keep resurfacing my mind
When it would be easier to keep ignoring them.

It lets me find myself under willow trees
Beside gurgling streams
That sound like the warm water
That will fill up my bathtub tonight.

It helps me find my center
Whether basking in sunshine
Or crunching in leaves,
Whistling along with the birds.

So may it be.

May we find solitude
That fills our souls
So that we are alone, but never really alone.

May we be filled with wonder
That prevents us from ever daring to think we can fully understand
This world, this beauty, the footprints and fingerprints of another.

May the birds’ song serenade you
Open paths guide you
God’s smile shine upon you
And give you peace.

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How do you find solitude? What do you, not do? Where do you go? Where don’t you go? How often do you experience solitude in your life?

When Words are Unnecessary

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I am tired of explaining away my faith. I am tired of defending, “proving,” withholding my true feelings for fear of religious retaliation. I’m tired of watching some people argue their faith, trying to “win people to Christ” with their … Continue reading