Birder's Eye View

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Service Learning in Puerto Rico: Day 1

It’s 3 o’clock in the morning, Saturday, March 26th, as our plane lands on a small runway in the pitch darkness. Tired and groggy from traveling all night, I haul my backpack and sleeping bag out from the overhead compartment and file out of the plane onto the tarmac with 11 other students. We are in Ponce, Puerto Rico, for a spring break service trip.

Let me just start by saying, service trips are not for the faint of heart. After snagging a couple hours’ sleep crammed into 2 hotel rooms, we were awoken by our trip leader (a fellow student) at 7:30am and told that our bus had arrived. And by “bus” I mean the sketchiest looking, beat-up, stripped-down 12-passenger van you can imagine, packed tightly with 14 people total (the 12 of us, plus the driver and a guide)! Two people had to sit on the floor for the 2 hour ride up windy mountain roads into the rural interior of the island.

Never having been to Puerto Rico, I was really somewhat surprised. The area where we were, at least, seemed extremely poor and rundown, especially as we left the main city. I couldn't believe we were in a territory of the United States — it felt like we were in some developing country. Abandoned cars and houses crumbled on the roadside, while stray dogs and chickens wandered about.

View from the mountain
The drive into the mountains was spectacular though. My ears popped as we climbed higher and higher into the jungle, the humid air whipping through my hair from the open windows, wafting in smells of cooking food, exhaust fumes, and rich, organic aromas. It was also slightly terrifying. Although most of the roads were 2-way, there was only 1 lane, so the driver would honk before careening around a blind turn on the edge of a cliff, or veer off to the side to avoid head-on collisions. Definitely a good way to get an adrenaline rush at 8 o’clock in the morning!

After stopping at a local supermarket in Utuado to buy our week’s worth of groceries, we drove about another half hour up a mountain and finally made it to our destination, a local Hacienda.

The Hacienda
The Hacienda was a series of 3 buildings on a plot of several hundred acres of preserve land. We were assigned one of the guest houses, which basically consisted of a bunch of bedrooms with triple-high bunk beds, a couple little bathrooms, and a tiny kitchen, with a gorgeous back porch overlooking the mountains. After settling in, our guide took us on a hike down one of the short trails and explained a little about Puerto Rico and Hacienda Verde.
Poisonous flower

Our guide was an indigenous Puerto Rican with a flamboyant personality and an obvious passion for his culture. He took us up the mountain, showed us and banana and coffee groves, and the coops where they raise chickens and pigs for food. He explained some of the things we should be careful of, as well: local drug dealers, a poisonous flower (see above), thorny plants, and apparently a virus spread by rats that gets on the bananas that could kill a man in 24 hours (this really freaked me out for the first few days!).
Hiking into the jungle

Tropical tree ferns

Chicken coops
Yellow-shouldered Blackbird

Afternoon thunderstorms

Scaly-headed Pigeon?
On our first day, the bird diversity there was overwhelming to me. All day long, exotic chirps, tweets, songs, calls, and whistles echoed throughout the mountains. Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds would hop right up onto the front porch of the guest house and rustle among the banana trees, while White-winged Doves and pigeons (Scaly-headed?) perched on the power lines that provided limited electricity to the house. There were also tons of hummingbirds, which I was never able to photograph!

Overall, our first day was really fantastic. It was a great time to learn about the area, and to adjust to the change in culture and environment. It was clear that this was bound to be an incredible week!

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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  • Love the update; gorgeous Yellow-shouldered Blackbird! It's a pretty drastic change to visit bits of the Old South, desert towns (NM, AZ, CA) and corners of the US that time - and politicians - have forgotten. Rural south Texas might as well be Mexico in some spots.

    Anywhoo, enough rambling, happy (and safe!) travels!

    By Blogger heidi, At April 7, 2011 at 5:30 PM  

  • Indeed, those were very different birds from what I'm used to!

    And yeah, it is very surprising sometimes to see places in our own country (even within our own borders) that just seem so foreign!

    By Blogger Andrea, At April 12, 2011 at 6:30 PM  

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