How Love in Action Heals the Heart.
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Puerto Rico
2015

It might seem odd that in order to find the most amazing stories of inspiration and transformation, I feel compelled to travel far and wide. After all, there are tales of beautiful, positive change in our own country. For instance, there are as many as 1.5 million registered nonprofit organizations in the US alone. Volunteering opportunities abound, here too. In the midst of a chaotic society, there is no shortage of goodness or compassionate ideas to make the world a better place. I, however, am drawn to an “all around the world” tour of positive transformation. I dig deeper when I encounter new cultures, and go beyond adventurous or culinary tours. Despite the fact that I absolutely love art, museums, and archaeology (that is my background, after all), and although I am an absolute foodie, I am more fascinated by the real lives of those I meet and how I can help to alleviate suffering. This usually takes me to places far away from where good are sold to tourists and far away from surface conversations and where tourists typically drop their foreign currency whether on exhilarating safaris at Amboseli National Park in Kenya, a resort on Lake Malawi, or an incredible dining experience at a five-star restaurant in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

What the vast majority of tourists do not experience is the real life behind the facade of the typical travel destinations. Prepackaged tours are great, do not get me wrong. I have been on a gazillion of those. However, for the most part we only get so much information and time to go beyond what is on the surface during those experiences. We do not see that sometimes behind a smile of circumstance from a local seller, there exists a person just like us dealing with situations we can not imagine. Someone whose needs are basically the same as ours. Someone who has experienced joy and loss, just like us.

It might seem odd that in order to find the most amazing stories of inspiration and transformation, I feel compelled to travel far and wide. After all, there are tales of beautiful, positive change in our own country. For instance, there are as many as 1.5 million registered nonprofit organizations in the US alone. Volunteering opportunities abound, here too. In the midst of a chaotic society, there is no shortage of goodness or compassionate ideas to make the world a better place. I, however, am drawn to an “all around the world” tour of positive transformation. I dig deeper when I encounter new cultures, and go beyond adventurous or culinary tours. Despite the fact that I absolutely love art, museums, and archaeology (that is my background, after all), and although I am an absolute foodie, I am more fascinated by the real lives of those I meet and how I can help to alleviate suffering. This usually takes me to places far away from where good are sold to tourists and far away from surface conversations and where tourists typically drop their foreign currency whether on exhilarating safaris at Amboseli National Park in Kenya, a resort on Lake Malawi, or an incredible dining experience at a five-star restaurant in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

What the vast majority of tourists do not experience is the real life behind the facade of the typical travel destinations. Prepackaged tours are great, do not get me wrong. I have been on a gazillion of those. However, for the most part we only get so much information and time to go beyond what is on the surface during those experiences. We do not see that sometimes behind a smile of circumstance from a local seller, there exists a person just like us dealing with situations we can not imagine. Someone whose needs are basically the same as ours. Someone who has experienced joy and loss, just like us. 

I am advocating opening up our hearts to everyone we encounter, especially in a new country, to try to optimize our time with them by showing that a smile can go a million miles? We might make someone’s day, by just smiling and trying to assimilate and understand their culture. This doesn’t mean being naive and falling prey to shrewd, manipulative vendors––it’s a way to stay open-minded, open-hearted, and open in general to all and everything that happens to us everyday. To not just go around with blinders on to those around us, because we never know who we will encounter, and we will never know what kind of real struggles the people we meet are going through. 

It’s no surprise that travelers to Puerto Rico have no idea that the country is still trying to recover from hurricane Maria, which hit the island on September 20, 2017, creating a huge humanitarian crisis that still reverberates to this day. “The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) announced that it had finally reconnected all 1.5 million customers to the power grid 11 months after the hurricane hit, ending the largest blackout in US history and the second-largest blackout in the world.  “It took 11 months to restore power to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. A similar crisis could happen again.” 

Excerpted from: 

https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/8/15/17692414/puerto-rico-power-electricity-restored hurricane-maria 

A delightful nonprofit photography workshop hosted by the Momenta group in San Juan, Puerto Rico, offered me the opportunity not just to hone my photography skills, but also to work with fabulous individuals who, despite their circumstances, relentlessly and imaginatively work for the betterment of the animals on the island, by sterilizing and vaccinating, as well as exporting them to the US. In the aftermath of hurricane Maria (September 2017), the infrastructure of Puerto Rico has suffered tremendous, unimaginable, and devastating losses.

With their signature loving and joyful spirit, those islanders dedicated to their causes have not lost their hope, and incredibly haven’t allowed their circumstances to extinguish their fire either. 

An excerpt in the NY Times, dated September 20, 2019 read: 

The giant protests are gone now from the streets of Puerto Rico, much like the old governor they ousted in what came to be known as La revoluccion de verano, the summer revolution. What remains, besides flag murals and graffiti slogans, are more modest gatherings asking a more complicated question: What do Puerto Ricans want their future to look like? 

We want another Puerto Rico, said Jennifer Mota Castillo, 33, one of about 120 people who attended a recent people’s assembly at a public square in San Juan, the capital. And we don’t want this to fall again into the hands of the government, which has failed us year after year. 

Their hopes are as diverse as this island of 3.2 million people: finding adequate housing for tens of thousands of Hurricane Maria survivors still living under leaky tarps; protecting neighborhoods from new zoning that would allow big commercial developers to come in; and supporting local growers to reduce the reliance on imported food, which became scarce after the storm. One has to dream, said Prixda Santos, 66, who is working to turn an abandoned school into a community center in the municipality of Cidra. If we don’t dream, we are badly off.

During my workshop week, I had the pleasure to work with not one, but four nonprofits. This tremendous opportunity allowed me to photograph the environment in which these wonderful people operate, the animals they care for, and all the beautiful volunteers who spend a considerable amount of their time, money, and other resources to help improve the dramatic situation of the stray animals. Because of my interest in storytelling, I also had the opportunity to interview the founders, co-founders, as well as the volunteers working at these organizations. 

Integrating the photography with the storytelling proved to be a priceless, multi-sensory experience that has had a lasting impact on me, as well as my fellow photographers, who flew in from all over the world to document the situation on the island. Most people think two years after two Category 5 Hurricanes nearly leveled Puerto Rico, that the island and its people are out of danger, or back in “decent” shape. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

While hundreds of tourists fill the cramped streets of Old San Juan, an unlikely visitor pushed through the crowd. A stray pit bull glances up at passersby, hoping for affection or a scrap of food. Stray animals have always been a problem in Puerto Rico, but Hurricane Maria exacerbated it. 

“It is estimated that while 130,000 people fled their damaged homes for the mainland, they not only left behind their belongings, but also their pets. The Humane Society of Puerto Rico estimates that the stray population has spiked with up to half a million stray dogs and 1 million cats.” 

https://www.commmedia.psu.edu/news/story/stray-animal-population-booming-in-post-hurricane-puerto-rico

The workshop proved significant to me from the beginning. One of the first few slides in the orientation was entitled “Blazing your own trail,” and I immediately thought of my son, Blaise. I felt as if he was sitting right next to me, and I immediately smiled as goose bumps raced over me. Again, there he is! I thought. I knew I was on the right path. I knew that this was all part of that bigger plan that had been in store for me all along. Yes, I am blazing my own trail, I said to myself. 

And the new adventure of photography had begun. Although my passion for photography started eons ago, I had never had the possibility to work as a nonprofit photographer, and as soon as I saw the opportunity, I jumped in, in my usual way, full of curiosity and not knowing what it would entail exactly. I only knew that I was extremely drawn to capture transformative moments on camera. I was intrigued by those who worked day and night to improve the lives of others, including animals. Even while I was in Africa, I dreamed of photographing the reality there, and comparing it to what we have back in the States. Seizing the fleeting moment and comparing it to another fleeting one. That brought me to the realization that fleeting moments are everywhere, and that we interpret this as being separate. But it’s all part of a big entity, a wholeness and an interconnectedness. 

As soon as I arrived in Puerto Rico, I headed for the car rental counter, checked out a small SUV, and set my GPS to our hotel in Old San Juan. Despite having three different gps systems, I immediately realized that none of them worked, and it literally took me at least an hour to go from the airport to the downtown area, something normal human beings equipped with a functioning device or even a map would’ve probably accomplished in twenty minutes.

I ended up in the most obscure places, and found myself circling the same areas countless times. I just felt like laughing. I was exhausted from the eight-hour trip, hungry, and confused. How can three GPS systems not work?!? The streets were so oddly configured that I began to see triple, and it was quite a challenge just to stay awake! Well, in the end, one of the GPS actually kicked into gear. It happened two blocks away from my destination. How did I find it? I guess circling can be beneficial sometimes. 

It’s an odd feeling, to be in Puerto Rico. It is true that it is part of the US, but it still definitely retains a Caribbean island feel that is hard to put into words. The road signs are in Spanish, and yet Kmart and Walgreens abound everywhere. It has a tremendously rich Latin American heritage; however, the Enchanted Isle also boasts West African rhythms and an amazing cuisine, a mixture of influences, from Spanish to the local indigenous Taino. 

While the metropolitan areas of San Juan, Carolina or Ponce all offer major resorts and lots of shopping districts resembling the US cities, the rural areas are a completely different state of affairs. With a poverty rate of 44.9%––nearly double the poverty rate in Mississippi, the most impoverished of the fifty states (so says the US Census Bureau)––it’s no surprise that a huge concentration of Puerto Rican unemployed and uneducated people are concentrated in the countryside, the mountains, and in small rural communities. What strikes me the most is that typically a lack of education goes hand in hand with large populations of stray animals––as I discovered in Sicily. 

Animals are considered objects. Sentiments like these are common–– I’m moving to another home, well I don’t have room for Ringo. Let’s leave him in the street, someone will take him. Let’s not pay for his medication now that he’s old. Let’s kill him. No thinking twice, there. It is what it is, people do what they know. If they knew better, they would do better. The stories that I’ve collected from these nonprofits speak for themselves. 

Stray animals are highly visible, and also highly invisible. It’s just a matter of what the human mind makes of it, and their frame of reference is generally dictated by convenience and not by compassion or even a decency. But the good news is that those who work behind the scenes to prevent more overpopulation of animals are everywhere in Puerto Rico. They carry on, even not knowing if they will make it through the following month. They carry on, hoping that another generous tourist from a cruise ship contributes to their organization once more. They carry on, knowing that even in their darkness, they are able to glow in their unique way. 

And, once more, especially in this Era of Corona, that’s what the world needs the most. More light, more hope, more people who keep getting back up after having been knocked down every day countless times. Those are the heroes that nobody knows about. As maddening as it is, the tourist who leaves the cruise ship docked in San Juan for a 3-hour shopping adventure does not know about the poverty on the island, nor knows that there are people like Bonnie Lukas or Kellie Stobie who, for years and years, have dedicated their lives to incessantly saving so many animals not only from a poor life, but also from certain death. These are the people who barely have a social life anymore, if none at all. Staying up all night to be by the side of a horse, a beautiful horse who is now dying. Or not being able to sleep at night because their bedroom is chock-full of rescue cats and the adjacent rooms are full to the brim with crates and barking dogs. 

How intrigued I was when I photographed the cats on Paseo del Morro right outside the Old San Juan center, just as a huge cruise liner was just docking at the port. I was in the midst of photographing these beautiful volunteers feeding many stray cats at the various stations, some of them with one eye, some with three legs, mostly poor spending their own money to feed them, and here were hundreds of oblivious passengers getting ready to shop til they drop, board their ship, then sail away again, never knowing that a photo of starving cats was taken as they sailed into the harbor.