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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.