“Crap,” I thought, “I’m going to be stuck completely alone in a place that’s 100% unknown to me with people of a completely different culture and a completely different language.” Commence phase one: the why-is-the-world-against-me-I’m-all-alone-what-do-I-do phase. My flights had gotten messed up and everyone else on the class trip was boarding the plane to Puerto Rico that left three hours earlier than the plane my boarding pass had me boarding onto. This also meant that I would arrive in Puerto Rico too late to catch the last ferry of the day to go to our final destination for the first half of our course: Culebra.
After everyone else had left and a fifteen minute mini-panic attack had finished, I went into the let’s-just-laugh-at-my-life-right-now phase because let’s face it – this was totally my luck. Joke was on me; so much for that cheap plane ticket that I thought I got a really good deal on and so much for budgeting my money just perfectly. Then came phase three, but probably my favorite and most useful of the three. It was the life-is-an-adventure-and-you-gotta-take-it-as-it-comes phase. And this was just going to be just that – another adventure; one that no one else on the trip got to experience. And it was going to be fun.
At about this point, Kelly, one of the instructors, called me with a plan. She basically said, “Get on your plane to Puerto Rico, get your luggage, grab a taxi, go to this hotel, explore Old San Juan, and Carlos Diez (our host during our time in Culebra) will be by to pick you up in the morning.” Another great thing about this new adventure: I didn’t even have to think much about it. Kelly was wonderful enough to have all the connections and suggestions for what would be easiest, cheapest, and still the most enjoyable. So I did just that. Everything went smoothly, I checked into my hotel, settled in, and went out to explore the town of Old San Juan. And boy was I on a mission. I power-walked through everything. I only had a few hours before the sun went down, but I was determined to see it all. I was going to make the most out of this detour. After a couple of blisters, a full belly, and about 50 new iPhone pictures later, I was settled back into my room to await Carlos’s rescuing the next morning. He was to pick me up at 10:30 am.
My phone rings at 9:51 am. “Hey Becah, I’m running a little behind in the office. I’ll be there around 11:30 or 12. But don’t worry, we’ll still make it to Culebra in plenty of time and the turtles will still be there!” Okay – no big deal. This just gave me a little bit more exploring time; time to go out and grab a coffee and people watch for another hour or so. So I do just that and go back to check-out of my room and wait in the lobby of hotel. My phone rings again at 11:46 am. Carlos had to pick his daughter up from school and would be around to pick me up at about 1:30. Well, make that 2:00. Eh, maybe 2:10. So I hung out around the hotel and waited when my phone rang again at 2:08 pm. Attempting to decipher Carlos’s quick-speaking and accent-filled English, I was able to get out “woman picking you up,” “white SUV,” “have to drop my daughter off at home,” and “you’ll meet up with me later.” It was enough to piece together and figure out what was going on so I waited outside of the hotel. Right when I was beginning to think that I had understood wrong, my phone rang again. 2:28 pm. Carlos would be picking me up now. Ah! Was I ever going to be picked up at this rate? But not five minutes later, Carlos was pulling up in his big blue pick-up truck (a questionable choice of vehicle for the narrow streets of Old San Juan). “Yeah, we work on a little bit different time here on the islands. Island time – no hurry,” Carlos said with a smile as I got in the truck. Hm, you don’t say? Relief set in. I was finally on my way back to my classmates. Little did I know the grand finale of the adventure still lay ahead.
Carlos was great, along with his two colleagues – Nilda and the boat captain – that would be joining us in Culebra during the upcoming week. They would be showing us around the island, teaching us how to monitor sea turtle populations through capture and release and tagging while explaining why conservation and protection of these species was so important. The car ride to the boat was mainly spent listening. The three spoke in Spanish and while having taken a couple of Spanish classes, they spoke entirely too fast for me to keep up and process what was being said. I was only able to pick out certain words that I recognized. It was fun though to try and figure out what the conversation was. They did a good job at keeping me up-to-date whenever something was funny and they were all laughing and I was sitting there awkwardly smiling along.
I quickly learned that Carlos was a busy, working man; always on the go. His colleagues joked that he never stopped to eat and that he ran on fumes. Coffee was his fuel. Carlos said that, “Eating takes up a lot of time. It gets in the way and pushes things back when I could be completing more tasks.” His colleagues just rolled their eyes and smiled. They had been working together for twenty or so years and the relationship between them all was amusing to watch. Luckily, he allowed us to stop for a bite to eat after some pestering from his colleagues.
After a stop for food and a delay at the dock to help get another boat out of the water, we were finally on the boat heading for Culebra. By this time, the sun was setting and Nilda was joking, “So much for stopping at those cays to snorkel, huh?” Carlos had mentioned doing so in the car ride over. This was back when it was daylight and before delay after delay moved our departure time back farther and farther. It was supposed to be about an hour boat ride. But again, take note; this was back when it was daylight. As the sun set, it quickly grew darker and we were out in the middle of the water surrounded by blackness. As we got further, the water got choppier, and the ride got more “exciting”. The little boat jumped up and down with the waves and without any light to see the waves coming, there was no bracing yourself for them. As some points, there was a second of brief absolute silence when the boat had just come off a wave and was in mid-air – and then it would drop a couple of feet and crash back into the water. All four of us were crammed into a small cabin on the boat that was probably only comfortable enough for two people. Ocean spray was splashing way up over our heads as the boat dropped with each wave. My stomach started churning and my head started pounding not that long into the trip. This was the longest hour of my life. I was looking around and didn’t see land anywhere. We were probably only halfway there. How in the world has it only been a half hour?! Was I gonna get seasick? Is this what seasickness felt like?
It was a good bit into the boat ride that I realized the captain seemed to using nothing but a compass and a couple of light houses. I had taken note that you could literally see nothing more than a few feet from the boat and was thinking, “How on Earth does this man know where he is going?” As if Carlos read my mind he said, “Look how good he is, huh!? No GPS – just the stars and this compass. He’s navigating by the stars just like the old days!” I later learned that the boat captain was one of the best boat operators in the Puerto Rican government, and had made the crossing from Fajardo to Culebra many times. After what seemed like forever of up and down, up and down – Carlos finally said, “Look, see that red light ahead? That’s the bay we are going into.” And no wonder it had felt like the longest hour ever – Carlos said we had been on the boat for two hours. We finally pulled up to the dock. Thank the lord. I was finally where I needed to be and with people I knew. And only with what seemed like an eternity later.
While this whole delay seemed like a huge inconvenience at first, it really was nothing short of a great opportunity. I got to gain some experience in traveling alone (even if it was only for one day with a handful of people checking in on me), meet some interesting people (both at a restaurant in Old San Juan and Carlos and his colleagues), and get a little bit of insight into the Puerto Rican culture. And I think that aspect is largely important in travel courses like this one. Not only do you go to new places to learn about new things there, but also to experience new cultures, new languages, and new people. So far, this island has been absolutely beautiful in every aspect and I cannot wait to see what the rest of the trip has in store for me.