Looking back on my nineteenth birthday, I knew it would not take much to surpass all the fun spent in a kansas parking lot lugging heavy computers and other ancient or broken electronics onto pallets to be recycled in the pouring rain and 50 mph winds. My 2016-2017 year was dedicated to AmeriCorps NCCC, a national service program which really pushed me to my limits, taught me so much about myself and the world and also seemed to compromise my personal well-being on a regular basis. (Another story for another time).
I consider this birthday in AmeriCorps to be the most memorable in a number of ways. Beyond all the misery and sopping wet sneakers and hiding in out houses to shield myself from the aggressive storm, I was fortunate enough to have some incredible friends who baked me a cake and hung silly minion decorations in our nasty communal kitchen and then brought me out for mexican food, a pretty ambitious birthday celebration for a group of people making under $2 an hour.
This year, (now that I am free), I knew I was due for some good karma on my birthday. As it turns out, the same people who went out of their way for me on an otherwise shitty day last year happened to be deployed to San Juan, Puerto Rico for disaster work in their second year of AmeriCorps. Although I swore that I would not be caught dead in any AmeriCorps setting ever again on my birthday, I thought it would be pretty cool to take a trip to Puerto Rico and see what they were up to. Plus, after some funky weather and way too much time spent in a landlocked state, I just really needed to be on the beach.
Soaring above the island, I was devastated to see the tarped homes and buildings, admiring the strength of those who had faced the tragedy of hurricane Maria. The disaster clearly had a major impact on Puerto Rican residents beyond any information I had seen in the news prior to my visit. In the first couple of days, I was fortunate enough to see what the AmeriCorps teams and homeowners had come together to achieve, visiting sites where dedicated volunteers skillfully repaired roofs under a beaming sun. My second day in Puerto Rico came as a surprise, as I even got to participate in some disaster work with the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team. It was wild to see the bad bitches from my team last year revving up their chainsaws and going in on the trees which had landed on a roof. I stood quietly in the corner and jumped in to clear the brush when they were finished.
The evenings leading up to my birthday were spent walking along the beach at sunset and eating vegan pizza with the AmeriCorps crew. I felt so welcomed by the team and was hype to be spending my birthday with some of my favorite people as well as a handful of strangers who soon became friends. On the morning of my birthday, we all geared up for a hot, sticky ferry ride and a gorgeous day in Culebra, where we spent the afternoon cruising around the island in a golf cart, diving into some terrifying waves, analyzing sea creatures, and collecting colorful rocks. Upon our return, those who had hung back for the day greeted us with some vegan birthday brownies. It was all such a wonderful surprise.
But the surprises did not end there.
It was Monday morning that we ventured into El Yunque National Forest, keeping our eyes open for an obscure and secluded destination known as Hippie’s Waterfall. We pulled the rental car up a steep hill and parked, climbing higher into the mountains, surrounded by a thick patch of trees and the sweet sound of nature. I kid you not, this may be the most beautiful place I have ever laid my eyes on.
After about an hour of cliff jumping and swimming, we climbed out of the watering hole to find that our backpack was gone.
I suppose I could go on and on about who’s fault this really was, and whether or not we should have left our backpack by that specific rock, and why we weren’t paying attention to our unfamiliar surroundings, etc. But these things do happen. My first instinct was to cry, knowing that the backpack contained a wallet, phone, camera, keys… essentially all of our valuables inside. The local people surrounding the watering hole gave us some clues as to who might’ve taken it, and helped us look all around the area to see if it had been left behind somewhere. With little hope in finding our backpack, I sat down on a rock and tried not to think about the things we had lost.
I was most hung up on the stolen camera, a recent purchase which wasn’t cheap and meant a lot to me in all my travels. I thought about how much it would cost to buy a new one and how I had lost a good portion of my photos which hadn’t been downloaded to my computer yet. I looked ahead towards the waterfall which spilled over the rocks glistening silver in the sun. I could not even capture the magic which stood before me.
It was not an epiphany or a powerful insight which changed my mindset about what had happened, but rather, the gentle touch of a person sitting beside me, someone who matters more than any material object in my possession. I began to think of the loss as just a camera- A means for me to capture all of the wild and incredible moments which pass me by. But I still have eyes to rest upon these scenes. And hands to climb things and make things and hold things. I still have words to tell stories of these experiences.
A nice lady nearby let us borrow her phone to call for help, as our car keys had been stolen too. It wasn’t long before we were kids again, climbing the rocks and trying to fight the current as we swam upstream, waiting for someone to come to our rescue. My stomach began to growl, reminding me I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and although I was pretty much emotionally past the loss of my camera, I was pretty pissed that the thief hadn’t left us our snacks. I had a flashback to a time in my childhood when my Dad claimed that if he were ever stranded on an island and could only have one thing with him, he would choose peanut butter. I never understood why until this very moment. I’m not saying that peanut butter would’ve solved all my problems, but it would’ve solved a vast majority.
After a few hours of trying to ignore my hunger as well as a poorly timed rain shower, we spotted our heroes moving towards us in the forest. In just a few moments we were dramatically embracing and then climbing into the back of the truck to begin a long evening of driving. First to the police station, then another police station, then to their living quarters in San Juan, then back to the waterfall to get the rental car, then back to San Juan. It seemed like a bit of an inconvenience, but to be honest, we got to spend several hours listening to Janelle Monae’s album and talking about our future plans of traveling through the Darién Gap on foot, and eating tropical fruits while naked (probably what we would have been doing anyway).
In the days following my Puerto Rico trip, I have hardly thought about my camera at all. Instead, I am dwelling on the memories made on such a beautiful island, missing the sand beneath my feet and the company of some lovely (gay af) friends who made my birthday so special and memorable.
A note to my parents: I am serious about the Darién Gap & naked fruit eating.