I never thought about visiting, Puerto Rico, before I received a phone call one day in January 2018. I was asked if I would be willing to relocate, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to assist with a very large FEMA project. In fact, the project would be the largest in FEMA’s history. I knew Hurricanes Irma and Maria absolutely devastated the small US Territory island. I, also, knew I could earn a good deal of money in a short amount of time. What I didn’t know, and was not prepared for, was the life-changing adventure I was about to embark on. The job, it turned out, would only be a small part of our experience in Puerto Rico.
The call came on a Monday. The gentleman, that called me, told me I had to report, to Puerto Rico, the following week. Although I’ve previously traveled, for work, I was far from prepared for a year-long deployment, in Puerto Rico. I, also, didn’t know when I would return home. My potential new employer had no details regarding my role or responsibilities. He only, vaguely, knew what his own role would be on this undertaking. The only information, he could offer, was that I would be working at least 60 hours per week and offered a fair hourly wage.
I was reluctant to take the job because I was awaiting a response from another interview. I really wanted that job. However, my wife and I discussed, at length, the pros and cons of this opportunity and decided I should take it. In fact, My wife told me that she would divorce me if I didn’t take it. Was she joking? In any case, I wasn’t going to test her. The experience, in Puerto Rico, would definitely be a good opportunity.
I packed my bags with a week’s worth of clothing, an Amazon Fire 8 HD Tablet and an Amazon Fire Stick for entertainment. Three days later, i kissed my wife goodbye and, nervously, boarded a flight for San Juan, Puerto Rico and the experience of a lifetime. I had no idea what I would be doing or if I would even survive the year without my wife being there with me. I threw caution to the wind and took that leap of faith.
My Arrival in San Juan
I landed, in San Juan, at about 9 pm local time. I could feel the intense humidity as I got off the plane and headed to the baggage claim area. The last fresh air, I inhaled, was in Colorado. The temperatures were below zero so the warmth was a welcomed sensation. Feeling a bit overwhelmed, I realized that a lot of the signs were in Spanish. I struggled to translate the signs that directed travelers to baggage claim and the rental car shuttles.
The language was definitely a shock to my system. I’ve never traveled anywhere, that wasn’t primarily English, and I forgot what I little learned in high school. I located the rental car shuttle, loaded my suitcase and boarded the shuttle to Charlie’s Rental Car. The driver proclaimed something, in Spanish, to which I meekly replied, “no hablo Espanol”. To my delight, the driver happily repeated, in English, “Do you have a reservation with Charlie’s Car Rental?” I replied that I did. After loading another passenger, we were off to the rental car office.
Upon reaching the rental car counter, I realized the agent was clearly fluent in English. He definitely made me feel a little more at ease; however, I didn’t feel that way for long. I placed my suitcase, in the trunk, then turned on the engine and pulled into traffic. As soon as pulled into traffic, I felt overwhelmed again. The highway lanes were very narrow, full of potholes, and all the street signs were in Spanish. I, quickly, felt like I made a huge mistake in coming to Puerto Rico. I was in a strange place, all alone and without my wife. What have I gotten myself into? Is this what my experience, in Puerto Rico, is going to be like?
My GPS directed me onto a tiny side street where there was an oncoming vehicle. The driver didn’t appear to even notice that there were mere inches between our vehicles. The street, clearly, was only made for one-way traffic at best. After shrugging off the encounter, I continued to follow the GPS to my hotel.
Finally, I made it to the street where my hotel was located. The already, terrifyingly, narrow streets became narrower and the decrepit old buildings appeared to be from some third-world country. The houses, packed along the street, were within a few feet of each other and there were chickens everywhere!
The neighborhood, where the hotel was located, was one of the scariest looking places I have ever visited. I, increasingly, became more uncomfortable because there were no large buildings even, remotely, resembling a hotel. The traffic signals and street lights didn’t appear to be working, so the streets were eerily dark. The buildings, along the streets, looked like prisons with bars and gates blocking every driveway, door, and window. I don’t think my wife picked a very safe location.
The Fun Begins!
Finally, I reached my destination! The hotel appeared to be a two-story house; not your typical hotel. It, also, appeared to surrounded by a 10-foot wall, razor wire and an iron gate. I parked along the dark street, got out of my car and, tentatively, approached the gate. I attempted to open the gate; however, it was locked. Frustrated and exhausted, I began searching for a phone number on the email my wife sent me. I needed to be up early, in the morning, so I was in no mood to deal with this situation.
Suddenly, I heard a man call out, “Can I help you?” from the side of the building. I replied that I have a reservation for tonight and he responded, “Ah, you must be Chad” and he quickly unlocked and opened the huge gate. “Right this way to your room” he said, as he grabbed my luggage and began walking toward the building. The building more resembled a large house than a hotel. The hotel room was just a basic bedroom and it had a tiny bathroom and an odd-looking tile shower, but it was clean.
After a nearly sleepless night, I stumbled into the shower and turned on the water. I did what would seem normal and turned the hot and cold water knobs to turn on the water. I kept adjusting the knobs, trying to get the water to warm up. However, there was no hot water and the tepid water was trickling from some weird appliance, connected to the shower head, and it was connected to an electrical outlet above the shower. Who knew there was such a thing as shower head water heaters? The water heater didn’t work, obviously, and the water coming, from the shower head, was as slow as an old man’s urine stream from an enlarged prostate. This wasn’t a good start, as I was far from home and in a strange place! How am I going to survive a year-long assignment?
After getting ready for work, I walked to the rental car and, considering the neighborhood, I was in, I was relieved the car was still there. I got in, the car, and searched for the nearest gas station. I, desperately, needed some coffee and a pack of cigarettes. Fortunately, I found a station less than a mile away. The tiny convenience store was run down and dirty but it would have to do. Once inside the building, I looked around for the coffee station. They had nothing remotely resembling coffee, so, I bought a pack of smokes. After correcting the clerk twice about the brand of cigarettes, I wanted, I set off without any coffee. I passed two more stations, on the way to the office, but still no coffee. Thankfully, I found the industrial complex the GPS directed me to.
The building appeared to be a factory but I didn’t see anyone else there. I parked and waited hoping someone else would show up. Suddenly, I heard a tall gentleman say, “Hi!” and he told me his name. He was, obviously, a non-local and he asked if I was with the same company and, with that, we both began searching for the office we would spend our next year in.
Settling In! Or was I?
After several weeks and a few different hotel rooms, I settled into my new role and helped set up the largest STEP program FEMA ever funded. As I stated earlier, in this story, the job was only a small part of my adventure in Puerto Rico. Sure, the drivers were insane (think of the video games Frogger or Mario Cart and you’re experiencing driving in Puerto Rico), the roads have never-ending potholes, the neighborhoods resemble some of the most dangerous in Chicago and the language barrier was uncomfortable. However, after the initial culture shock and feeling like I made a huge mistake, Puerto Rico actually started to grow on me. Then something magical happened and life became so much better.
My wife and I had daily conversations and we were making plans for her to visit in a few months. She asked me something, however, that surprised me. She asked me if this job was something she could do. I told her, “absolutely” and that she would do a better job than me. With that, she sent in her resume and a couple weeks later she was offered the same opportunity. We were both in shock but excited at the same time! My wife asked her current supervisor if she could take a six-month leave of absence; however, her request was denied.
After 23 good years, with the Federal government, she made the decision to leave her position. In her words, she quit her f%#king job! I knew that was a huge deal, for her, because she is the poster girl of stability. She left her stable world for a world of uncertainty. The disaster industry is feast or famine, but she took a chance and packed up the house to experience Puerto Rico with me. Little did we know, it would be an adventure we would never forget!
Our Love of Puerto Rico and Her People!
The job, although very financially rewarding for us both, was never the best part of our journey. Instead, it ended up being the beginning of a whole new love affair, with not only the island, but the people of Puerto Rico. At one point, I was managing a team of 132 people and almost all of them are local employees. The most rewarding part of being their team leader was that each of them viewed me as family and even when I had to be tough on them, they never stopped loving me and referred to me as “the best boss ever”.
Having lived and worked, in Puerto Rico, we have experienced the island and gotten to kno its people far better than most travelers ever will. We have been invited to weddings, funerals, family gatherings, parties, and we’ve laughed and cried with people that, a year ago, were foreign to us. We gained a very large family. Yes, Puerto Rico is a US territory, but the local people are far from ordinary US citizens. Their culture is so much warmer and friendlier than any state we have lived in or visited. Puerto Ricans have been through one of our country’s largest natural disasters and they never lost their strength or pride. They’ve banded together, like the tight knit family they are, and they’ve held their heads high, have risen from the shes and love even harder
Life in Puerto Rico!
What have we experienced while here? Family. Comradery. Happiness. Most of all, FUN! These are the things that Puerto Ricans value when determining a successfully lived life and they truly Live, Laugh and Love. When you are a close friend to a Puerto Rican, you are family and what do they celebrate? EVERYTHING!
Christmas isn’t just a 1-day holiday, in Puerto Rico, it’s a 2-month party and what a party it is! We’ve learned that everything is a reason to celebrate here. Made it through a rough day at work? Let’s go celebrate! Just cleaned the house? Let’s celebrate! You get the picture. I think the most unusual tradition, we’ve seen, are the Friday morning groups of people who sit at the local Puma station (in their lawn chairs) drinking Medalla and playing Reggaeton! Every day, in Puerto Rico, is a party! Did we mention the food? Oh My!! Every party MUST have tons of food! We’ve, definitely, gained weight while here.
What Should a Traveler or Someone, Moving to PR, Expect?
As Gringos, we found many things to be difficult on the island. Communicating, getting a fair deal on a place to live, finding things to do, that are not in any travel brochure, and getting to know the people. I mean, really getting to know the island’s people. If you stay close to the more popular vacation areas (Condado, Dorado and Rincon), things are much more “Americanized” and modern. Nearly everybody you encounter speaks English. The amenities are much closer to what a mainlander would expect.
The price of truly learning about Puerto Rico? Stepping out of your comfort zone. Learning some Spanish. Talking to the locals. Eating at a roadside Pincho stand. Touring the small mountain towns and fishing villages. No, you won’t find many pincho stand owners, small town residents, or non-tourist attractions that speak English. Many of them will be very standoffish to Gringos. It will be challenging to even fill your tank with gas (pay at the pump doesn’t appear to exist on the island). The rewards of doing all this, however? Priceless. You will learn to enjoy the warm embrace from a complete stranger.
If you are lucky enough to make a true friend, here, you will gain a family member. You will learn some of the local secret places to go and enjoy nature without having to deal with the crowds. The best part of Puerto Rico, you will fall in love with not only an island, but its people.
In The End…
We came to the island to complete a year-long assignment. Our assignment is over, now, and we hope to be on this beautiful island for a very long time. We have seen much of the natural beauty of Puerto Rico, including the tourist destinations. How many can say they have slept on the beach in the dead of winter, snorkeled some of the most pristine Caribbean waters, jumped from waterfalls, visited the only US tropical rain forest and watched professional surfers catch some massive swells? How many can say they took a private boat ride to the famed Flamenco Beach, a long weekend to St Thomas, USVI, fed the wild horses, of Vieques, from their bare hands and witnessed sea turtles hatching and making their way to the sea? We have done all this, in one short year, and we still have so much more to see and do.
Of all the things we have experienced, during this past year, none of it compares to the new family we now have in Puerto Rico. They’ve shown us how strong their spirit is and how in love with life they are. Helping them, in their time of need, has been a blessing to us and they have shown their gratitude with their love. In the words of one of our friends, who is battling cancer while also caring for a terminally ill sibling. “Things are things, places are places, but people? People are life!”