Birder's Eye View

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Service Learning in Puerto Rico: Part 3

While the first couple days of our trip were pretty laid back, the real work began on Monday when our site host arrived to put us to work. As all of our days would begin from then on, we rose with the sunrise and hiked up the steep mountain trail. Before we began that day, our host showed us some of the other trails and told us about the preserve and the work we would be doing. He showed us the plantains and coffee groves, and the sacred trees of the forest. Unfortunately I forgot most of the names of the plants he showed us, as they were mostly in Spanish.
Most sacred tree in the forest
One of the most interesting plants were the sacred trees in the old growth forest near the top of the mountains. They had a thick, gooey sap that smelled like Vicks vapor rub, and were used medicinally for the same purposes (to help with colds and to clear sinuses). You could see healed-over scratches in the tree’s bark where people had harvested some of the sap. After showing us all this, he had us all stop for a moment and pray to it; he felt a great affinity and spiritual connection to this part of the forest.
View from the mountain
We hiked back partway down the mountain and split off into different work groups. Some students stayed on the mountain to help the site host’s worker dig drainage trenches on the trail while the rest of us went down to clean out the guest houses on the plantation.
Giant cane toad (and Nana the white fluffy dog)
It wasn’t at all glamorous work. Unfortunately, the site had fallen into some state of disrepair over the past few months, largely due to lack of upkeep and probably not enough people to help, so the task before as was tremendous. We had to scrub the walls and stairs free of mildew (thanks to that warm, moist rainforest climate!), haul away rusted farm equipment and car parts, and generally organize the plantation complex.

There was also a small organic garden next to the main house that we recovered, clearing away weeds and harvesting ripe vegetables. We found peppers, tomatoes, and even ginger root flourishing in the overgrown weeds.
Awesome caterpillar 
Once we got to the inside of the main guest house, it got even worse — The kitchen and library rooms needed to be organized, gutted, scrubbed, dusted, and otherwise scoured from top to bottom. It took us the majority of the week to get it all done, but the end result was quite an improvement.

Even though the work was exhausting, messy, and not always fun, that was exactly the reason we needed to be there volunteering. The fact that we were able to help out, even in a small way made the trip that much more fulfilling.
Puerto Rican Stripe-headed Tanager
So that was how we spent most of our week: up to our elbows in dirt or dust or any number of other unpleasant things, but having a great time doing it (for the most part!).

The last couple days of our trip would be a little more exciting… so stay tuned!

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