Defin­ing Re­silience On the Isle of En­chant­ment


You heard about Maria. The Cat­e­gory 4 hur­ri­cane wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and brought the U.S. is­land ter­ri­tory of Puerto Rico to its knees last Septem­ber. She was a mis­tress of de­struc­tion whose 155 mph winds and 30 inches of rain dis­man­tled in­fra­struc­ture and left mil­lions with­out elec­tric­ity or run­ning water for months.

But what about the other Maria? The real Maria? The el­derly woman who shared the storm’s name? The one who ex­pe­ri­enced those vi­o­lent winds and tor­ren­tial rains—and the one who dealt with its im­pact on her home, her is­land, and her peo­ple?

It was only there, at Maria’s house, where I grasped the re­al­ity of this hur­ri­cane that I had heard so much about. Main­stream news re­ports did not match the de­spair I heard from pad­dlers I talked to on the ground. Six months after the storm, the re­solve of this hum­ble name­sake char­ac­ter, and those who came to her aid, made one thing clear: The only way to un­der­stand the is­land’s post-dis­as­ter motto, Puerto Rico se lev­anta, or Puerto Rico rises, was through the lives of the peo­ple ris­ing from the wreck­age.

Maria’s house sits high in the lush green moun­tains over­look­ing the bril­liant blue ocean. From that van­tage, I watched as two pad­dlers from dis­parate back­grounds, Al­bert Lash, a big-wave surfer from Rincón and Fa­ther Kevin Gabriel Gillen, a Do­mini­can friar from New York City, helped this “for­got­ten woman.”

For months, the ‘real Maria,’ a de­vout Catholic with crosses, rosaries and re­li­gious pic­tures adorn­ing her wooden walls, waited help­lessly in a leak­ing house, tee­ter­ing on the edge of its foun­da­tion with no ac­cess to run­ning water or elec­tric­ity. She lived in this state of squalor for six months, un­til Lash and Gillen lit­er­ally an­swered her prayers. Gillen se­cured a do­na­tion, and, after con­nect­ing with Lash through a mu­tual ac­quain­tance, the Rincón lo­cal and the sharp-wit­ted friar put to­gether a team of 10-15 pad­dlers and surfers. They took on Maria’s house armed with ham­mers, saws, con­crete, roof­ing ma­te­ri­als, paint and ex­tra sup­plies.

“It’s a bless­ing,” Lash told me as his crew worked fer­vently around us, the ca­coph­ony of con­struc­tion nearly drown­ing out our con­ver­sa­tion. “This woman had fig­urines of God in­side her house and I think that’s what held it to­gether.”

Lash felt a re­spon­si­bil­ity to help the com­mu­nity where he was born and raised. And it was in this com­mu­nity where he found his own suc­cess. Lash runs Rd.2 Hap­pi­ness, a surf and SUP school with three rental shacks on var­i­ous Rincón beaches. He also re­cently opened a new restau­rant, called El Pa­tio. But his new ven­tures weren’t im­mune to the com­mon hard­ship of the storm: months of no power, no water and the de­struc­tion of his three beach shacks.

“I’m a hu­man be­ing and I like to help,” said Lash. “After go­ing through so many things with this storm, I said, ‘Al­bert, you are go­ing to keep go­ing and this is will make you bet­ter and bet­ter ev­ery day.’”

He’s put that thought into ac­tion, not only re­build­ing two of his own shacks, but also help­ing re­store around 20 homes in the moun­tains, in­clud­ing Maria’s.

“After the storm, she thought no­body would come and help her,” Lash trans­lated as I spoke to Maria. “With these peo­ple here she feels blessed. She can’t even ex­plain and the tears go down her face with how happy she is.”

I quickly dis­cov­ered that Lash’s self­less ac­tion to help those less for­tu­nate was com­mon among many business own­ers in Rincón. But it was not the first time this quin­tes­sen­tial Caribbean surf town perched on the north­west coast of the is­land had sur­prised. In 2014, Rincón won SUP Maga-

in­au­gu­ral Pad­dle Town Bat­tle ahead of much more ob­vi­ous hot­beds of the sport, sig­nal­ing that the com­mu­nity of just over 15,000 was home to some of the most im­pas­sioned standup pad­dlers on earth.

It was here where we spent three nights at Villa Playa Maria, a re­sort that hosts wa­ter­men’s re­treats through­out the year lo­cated right on Rincón’s most fa­mous beach, named— no kid­ding— Maria’s. Once the hur­ri­cane hit, the Villa’s own­ers not only opened their doors to pro­vide lo­cals with ac­cess to their water cis­terns and gen­er­a­tors, but they also set up a Go­fundme ac­count that raised $40,000. Owner Russ Scully used that money to buy 210 water cis­terns and teamed up with water­man and fre­quent vis­i­tor Chuck Pat­ter­son to de­liver them up into the moun­tains to those in need.

Pi­o­neer­ing lo­cal SUP pad­dler Adrian Gar­cia un­der­stands the plight of those liv­ing in the moun­tains bet­ter than any­one. He was raised there, “up­stairs” in the projects, by a mother who was ev­ery­thing to him, but could not read or write.

“When you live in the projects, peo­ple put a stamp on you,” said Gar­cia. “But I found an es­cape in the ocean to shine by my own.”

zine’s With roads blocked, com­mu­ni­ca­tions elim­i­nated and food scarce, he lost 26 pounds and spent over two weeks won­der­ing whether his fam­ily was alive or dead.

As a kid, Gar­cia came down to watch tourists and lo­cals surf­ing at Wilder­ness Beach, a re­mote right-hand reef break sur­rounded by lush jun­gle and towering palm trees in the town of Aguadilla. He be­gan by fetch­ing tourists’ surf­boards from the urchin-cov­ered rocks for small tips, be­fore tak­ing up body­board­ing. He be­gan com­pet­ing around the is­land at 14, and after find­ing suc­cess, got the op­por­tu­nity to com­pete around the world for Puerto Rico.

“It’s beau­ti­ful, man. Ev­ery day I pray to God for the way he saved me and put me in this,” said Gar­cia.

Now 41, Gar­cia leaned against his truck after a three-hour ses­sion at Wilder­ness, his warm smile and gen­uine per­son­al­ity draw­ing sev­eral old friends over to say hello. He was one of the early adopters of standup pad­dling in the re­gion and it was ev­i­dent in the lineup. While I was con­tent to carve across the face of the pris­tine head-high peel­ers, Gar­cia was smash­ing lips and bust­ing airs. But de­spite this deep-rooted love for the ocean, that par­tic­u­lar ses­sion was only his fourth in the past six months.

Gar­cia was in San Juan when Hur­ri­cane Maria dec­i­mated the is­land’s in­fra­struc­ture. With roads blocked, com­mu­ni­ca­tions elim­i­nated and food scarce, Gar­cia lost 26 pounds and spent over two weeks won­der­ing whether his fam­ily on the other side of the is­land was alive or dead. An orthopedic as­sis­tant by trade, he vol­un­teered to help the Na­tion-

Ac­cord­ing to Gar­cia, and re­ports by the Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism and The New York

Times, the true death toll was likely over 1,000. After wit­ness­ing trauma on that scale, Gar­cia could not bring him­self to surf. His con­science would not al­low it. Plus, the storm had wiped out his en­tire quiver of boards.

“As a water­man, surf­ing for four days in six months has changed my life com­pletely,” said Gar­cia. “But I can’t go out for now. I want to sleep know­ing ev­ery­thing is more nor­mal, that ba­bies are not suf­fer­ing.”

Gar­cia is not sure when he will re­turn to the water for good, but on that par­tic­u­lar late April day he rode waves, laughed with old friends and re­vis­ited his home beach, where, for a few mo­ments, ev­ery­thing felt nor­mal. Nor­mal. It’s a word that car­ries with it a con­no­ta­tion of ba­sic, mun­dane and even bor­ing. Yet for the 3.4 mil­lion Amer­i­can cit­i­zens liv­ing on the is­land of Puerto Rico, nor­mal was what they yearned for and worked tire­lessly to achieve. Per­haps no place was this de­sire for nor­malcy more ap­par­ent than Rincón’s Villa Cofresi Ho­tel.

It was Se­m­ana Santa or “Holy Week” dur­ing our visit. Glee­ful screams filled the ho­tel lobby with kids frol­ick­ing by the pool while hearty laugh­ter bel­lowed from adults en­joy­ing cervezas at the bar. The at­mos­phere felt de­cid­edly nor­mal as I chat­ted with the hus­band and wife owner-op­er­a­tor duo, Tito Men­dez and San­dra Caro.

Caro’s par­ents bought the waterfront ho­tel in 1965 and ex­panded it to 12 rooms to host surfers com­pet­ing at the fa­mous 1968 World Surf­ing Cham­pi­onships, the con­test that put Rincón on the map as a surf des­ti­na­tion.

“This was the ho­tel that started ev­ery­thing in Rincón,” said Caro. “The his­tory of Rincón starts here.”

The ho­tel has ex­panded to 120 rooms, ev­ery one

Off de­struc­tion, shore and Rincón’s away from golden Hur­ri­cane sun­sets Maria’s and boun­ti­ful waves are still there for the tak­ing. Top: A team of pad­dlers and surfers brought to­gether by Rincón’s Al­bert Lash work to re­pair the roof of a lo­cal woman, Maria, who shared the same name as the de­struc­tive storm. Bot­tom: Maria poses in­side her hum­ble home along­side a wall of re­li­gious im­ages which Lash be­lieved help keep her house stand­ing in the six months after the storm.

Left: Hus­band and wife duo San­dra Caro and Tito Men­dez own and op­er­ate the Villa Cofresi Ho­tel, home of the fa­mous Rincón Beach­boy SUP race. Un­for­tu­nately, the race had to be can­celled this year after Maria stole the beach in front of their ho­tel.

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