Directions to anywhere in Puerto Rico used to be about landmarks rather than road signs (today, GPS has erased a bit of the charm of stopping to ask the locals about where you were and where you needed to go). Couple that with a unique philosophy about driving rules to make getting around a separate challenge from anything else you might face as a tourist in a primarily Spanish-speaking country. That philosophy seems to be just this: if it’s physically possible to do, well, then… do it! This leads to the game of Stoplight Chicken I mentioned earlier. Motorcyclists ride the dotted lines between slow or stopped cars on the Autopista. The worst thing I’ve seen is the driving on the shoulders during rush hour to gain a minute or two. All’s fair in love and traffic.
The landmark that takes you to El Barrio Los Quemados is a McDonald’s. There is no street name. It’s “the intersection with the shopping center on the left and the McDonald’s on the right.” There is a cross with flowers that marks an unfortunate traffic fatality that has been there for as long as I can remember. That McDonald’s is no longer running, a casualty of the Two Sisters. It is privately owned and suffered major flooding that damaged a lot of machinery. The owners bought all the rights to the business but also the problems which they can’t afford to fix right now. They come in and clean but buying the requisite machinery to sell hamburgers will just have to wait.
The ceaselessly winding road to Mami and Papi’s has obviously changed. It’s certainly clear enough and without obstruction. What I mean is that the once lush trees and bushes are now either gone or bare or making a well-concerted effort at coming back. The trees that survived are twisted and look like a Bonsai nightmare or a scene from The Shining.
Somehow, the local stores on main, larger roads that survived are up and running. In fact, one of the supermarkets was very well-stocked with merchandise and newer items like battery-powered lights that plug into a wall socket (just for convenience of location) and flags or hats and t-shirts with slogans of hope printed on them. Several smaller stores have generators or plantas that run on gasoline. Good for them… but I have to say my heart hurts for the people of the various barrios who still, after 100 days, have no power. I do see the newer poles but no one working on them.
I make no judgement without firsthand knowledge for I know not at what point San Lorenzo is regarding the infrastructural triage that has been decided. I do believe, however, that those that who have been without power for over three months couldn’t care less. It has to feel like dangling from a ledge while a professor delivers a lecture regarding hemp, nylon, and cotton ropes instead of just extending a hand.
Let’s also be clear on another point people need to understand: FEMA has done about as much as it can to help the people in these hilly barrios. My mother informed me and showed me the several boxes of supplies and foods delivered by mainland FEMA workers. They spoke in accented Spanish and did their best to assess and contribute where the needs were greatest. My parents were given water by the case and essentials to eat as well as cleaning supplies so that residents could enjoy the dignity that a clean house brings. If electricity came in boxes I’m sure they would have handed those out, as well. Knowing those barrios as I do, you’ll have to take my word that going from house to house is a painstaking and arduous process that one does for reasons larger than a paycheck. Those people care about those they are trying to help.