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.