It has been about 50 years since I was in Puerto Rico. I was maybe 14 years old. My sister’s husband was stationed in Puerto Rico in the Air Force.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the people there, and the Puerto Rican friends (who still have family there) that my wife and I have met over the years.
My visit to the island had its moments, good and bad. We arrived in San Juan. On the flight from Miami we had been given a meal. There were grapes in the fruit salad. By the time we landed, my eyes were swollen shut. That was when we discovered that I was allergic to grapes. Everything else in the meal was something that I ate all of the time. Each time after that trip, grapes caused a variety of bad reactions, until I had completely illuminated them from my diet.
Of course, that was the only day that my brother-in-law had time to show us San Juan. We didn’t get out of the car, but he drove around the city. Everyone else got to see El Morro and the other sites of the city. I sat in the back seat wondering whether I would ever see again. I had never had this kind of reaction to an allergy before. Yet, the others in the car didn’t seem to be concerned, and they weren’t going to let my infirmity spoil their vacation.
My parents had seen a most-impressive tree in Puerto Rico. It is the Royal Poinciana or Flamboyant Tree (the featured image). The seed pods look like the seed pods of a mimosa tree, but much larger. The leaves are also similar. The red flowers are totally different. My Dad cut a seed pod open and shoved seeds into hiding places in my tiny carry-on suitcase, really an over-sized briefcase. My parents didn’t have to lie going through customs; their Boy Scout son had to lie. Yes, I became a smuggler. At the time, the tree was not found in the continental US, but now has been grown successfully in the Florida Keys, if it survived hurricane Irma. We divided the seeds between us and our cousins in Florida. We got two trees, but they eventually died, even with covering one in plastic during the frost one year. My cousins had one tree grow for several years, until a frost reached their home. It never bloomed. The trees must cross pollinate. I thought of these trees with reports that the trees had lost their leaves, except for a few palm trees. I’ve seen only one flamboyant tree since then, on my second trip to India. It seems to be common around the world in tropical and some subtropical climates.
During our vacation, we stayed with my sister, who was renting a house off-base. She’d fry bananas (actually, huge plantains) and we met their landlady, Mrs. Lopez Lopez. While we were there, we took day trips. Once we went into the mountains to a lake where my brother-in-law had gone fishing, just to get an idea of the beauty of the island’s inland areas. On the beach, we saw a blow hole where at high tide, the surf would create geysers. And we visited Arecibo, Mayaguez, and we drove through Aguadilla Pueblo. Arecibo was growing, but not that big at the time. Mayaguez was an old city, marking one of Christopher Columbus stops in his travels. Mayaguez was a town of museums and culture. Aguadilla wasn’t like either of those towns. There, we met the poor of the island.
This was 50 years ago. The slums of Aguadilla may have improved, but what I saw was shocking. The steep slopes were covered with shacks made of sign boards or plywood side walls, the mountain formed the third side. Some had a front wall, others did not. The floor was partly the mountain and the rest was the tin roof of the neighbor beneath. It was this way all the way up the mountain.
When I heard of Irma and then Maria, I thought of Aguadilla. Were those people in better housing now? Were there shelters for the poor of that area? I have heard of many shelters on the island, but are there shelters in the areas that are mostly flimsy shacks and no substantial structures? My prayers are with them during their recovery.