Tales of Adventure: Sustainable Service in Puerto Rico

I was never a traditional “spring breaker” during my college days. In fact, I never went on a booze-filled, sun-baked “normal” spring break trip in my life. No, mine were usually much more tame. And yet, that much more adventurous.

I went to London one year, on a spring break study abroad opportunity. To study theater. We saw 9 plays in 7 days. It was magical. The next time I traveled during this time when many other students are letting loose, I went a bit more wild. Jungle style. In the Puerto Rican rainforest.

sustainable service

My school hosted a trip to Patillas, Puerto Rico to participate in a sustainable service trip. Basically, we spent the week volunteering in an extremely remote location at a facility dedicated to sustainable forestry. We were about as far away from the traditional “spring break” as you could possible get.

sustainable service

Yep. This is the place, better known as Eye on the Rainforest. It was established in 1983 on land called Las Casas de la Selva. This would be home for the next 6 days, with the majority of our time being taken up with volunteer work in the form of manual labor.

sustainable service

sustainable service

This would be our digs for our stay. Remind you of summer camp a little bit, doesn’t it? Or at least what I would imagine summer camp to be, since I never went myself. It was comfortable though. And away from the bugs. The minor glitch was the one night when, of course, I had to pee in the middle of the night. I couldn’t figure out how the door latched, so I was convinced we were locked in (there were other members of our groups who were sleeping in tents at another location – we liked to pull pranks on one another). Apparently this wasn’t the case, the door was just a wee bit smarter than me on that occasion. Of course I learned this only after waking the entire cabin with the details of my plight…

sustainable service

Above are the bathrooms – my savior that night. They had been built by the overseers of the property, so the plumbing was all “homemade.” This means the piping was somewhat delicate, and you had to remember NOT to flush the toilet paper. Unless you live in the smaller Greek islands, this is a habit that is deceptively difficult to break. We never clogged the pipes as far as I know, but I’m sure there were clumps of paper farther down the field where the drain fields were located.

sustainable service

sustainable service

puerto-rico-work

So as I mentioned above, we did a bit of work while we were there. Much of our crew was occupied mixing concrete and building a retaining wall to hold soil. Not me. I got the fun job: soldering. Yep, I got to pull that mask over my face and melt metal to metal using that red machine thing pictured above (work photo #2). The photo immediately above is the final result. We would later place a wire mesh over the metal beam structure to make a shelf, which would hold budding plants before they were transplanted to the rainforest itself. Pretty cool, huh? Yeah, I have that skill now. I can melt metal to metal without injuring myself. Or blowing anyone else up in the process.

puerto-rico-dance

It wasn’t all hard work and no fun though. In the evenings, we would all gather around the communal area. There was often music. People who are into this sort of thing often play an instrument. So we would have music, and there would be dancing. This is where I had my first unofficial salsa lessons. I can’t claim to have perfected the moves, but I had a great time trying.

puerto-rico-rainbow

puerto-rico-sunset

One evening we had the special treat of heading to a tiny coastal town for dinner. We had fresh seafood, and all sorts of Puerto Rican specialties whose names I’ve long since forgotten. I have not forgotten, nor will I ever, the amazing sunset that night. Complete with rainbow and all.

puerto-rico-group

This was our group, circa 2006. My final year of college before graduating that May. Our group was joined by another school from Virginia, so it seems that we weren’t the only crazy ones to forego a wild spring break in favor of sweatin’ it out in the rainforest. And you know, I never felt like I was missing out on the “authentic” college experience. In fact, I’d love to do something like that again one day.

If you are at all interested in doing volunteer work in Puerto Rico, check out Eye on the Rainforest. From recent photos on their site, it looks like some of the same people are there running the place as when I was there more than 8 years ago. That says something about a place. Also take a look at Global Works, who my school partnered with to make this happen.  You never know just how rewarding a travel experience like this can be.

  • Sometimes I read one of these posts and feel like I missed out on so many opportunities during college to travel! I never thought to seek out service projects like this… but looking back now, I’m sure they existed! Props to you… it looked like a wonderful experience 🙂

    • I don’t even remember how I stumbled across this trip – I think it was because I had done the spring break trip to London previously and was looking for something that would look good on my resume lol. It ended up being more fun than I could have possibly imagined. So glad I did it!! Now I’m tempted to look for volunteer abroad opportunities available to non-students, although they always seem to be so pricey! 🙂

      • Haha, it’s funny how sometimes the resume-boosters we look for turn out to be exactly what we needed! I’ve looked around for some non-student ones too, but I’ve found the same thing…

        • It’s such a shame! Surely there are places that need volunteers who don’t have to pay thousands of dollars for a week’s stay… but short of joining the Peace Corps I’ve yet to find one. The place I went to in Puerto Rico did accept non-student volunteers I believe, and back then the rate was $10 a day, room and board in exchange for a couple hours work each day. Similar places must exist. I guess a lot of research is involved in finding them, or the knowledge of a local! 🙂

          • I agree! It makes me wonder who is profiting from these insane costs? Why is there even anyone profiting? WWOOFing is a type of volunteering and you work in exchange for room and board! $10 a day seems very very reasonable. I’m sure if you walk up to any organization on site, they would accept an extra pair of hands! 🙂

          • That’s what I would think! I’ve heard of WWOOFing actually, in Australia. It was a popular thing to do. My favorite type of volunteer work has to do with either the environment or animals. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to lend a helping hand again one day! 🙂

          • I would definitely choose to work with animals over other things any day! 🙂

          • I have a friend who started an animal related charity, called Nutmeg Animal Welfare. I’m not sure exactly what it is, and I know he founded it recently. His Twitter handle is @E_Scal – I’ll have to ask him more details! 🙂

          • That’s amazing! I’ll have to check him out—thanks 🙂

  • What an awesomely rewarding experience! I never took part in one as a student, but when I was still teaching, I advised a group partnered up with Engineers Without Borders. They traveled to a village we adopted in Honduras. Another instructor took them – I was in Orlando for my wedding when the trip happened – but they had such a great time. Makes me wish I’d gotten involved earlier on!

    • Well I guess you’re allowed to miss out on a service trip for your wedding day! 😉 Seriously though, there are so many layers involved in putting something like that together, so props to you for being one of the advising factors! I’ve only done this one trip to Puerto Rico, and volunteers with Habitats for Humanity in Orlando, coincidentally. I’d love to do another one though, especially one working with animals. 🙂

      • I’m trying to get linked up with the Habitat for Humanity out here in Oahu. I figure my husband and I restore enough furniture and build enough things for our renovation, we might as well turn a little bit of that into charity work when we can!

        Love the idea of working with animals. There was a ranch near us growing up whose programs were aimed mostly at special needs kids. I helped work with their horses, and my family ended up adopting one of their horses who was just too much for the kids and the program volunteers to handle. He was a sweetheart, but he was easily spooked, so he needed some continuity. We spoiled him like crazy.

        • Awww I love horses! I actually grew up riding – spent about 15 years solid of working with them, training and doing barn work. I loved every minute of it, even though it was super hard work. I’m thinking of finding a barn in New Zealand where hopefully I can get involved again. The furniture idea sounds like a great idea! Any way we can lend a helping hand is good karma in my book! 🙂

  • Thrity Vakil

    Thank you Amy…it was great to revisit that time through your writing…3t

    • Thank you 3t!! It’s amazing how many people love hearing about that trip – it was definitely one of the highlights of my college years. Hope to make it back one of these days! 🙂