We walked down the steep, ruddy path, masks on despite being in open air. It was at the request of the landowner in whose yard we had literally parked the bus. He lives at the edge of the El Yunque rainforest and with the National Park still closed (or restricted) for group travel, we had to find another way.
We made our way down the embankment and through the foliage, following the sound of the river, though we could not see it. Upon rounding the turn, the view opened into a picturesque landscape of the river cascading blissfully down soft carved rocks and pooling languidly below.
The students oohhed and ahhed at the sight of the river and followed its origin back up the rocky outcrop. Our guide was already in the water, shirt and mask strewn to the side, beckoning us to follow. The water is not so cold, he called. He crossed the river in one of the pools and emerged on the other side, starting to carefully pick his way up the rocky embankment. The rocks were smooth and slippery. He had warned us to wear socks for grip. The students looked skeptical. The whole outcropping looked manmade, like something from a themed water park. He climbed to the top of the chute. He jubilantly yelled, “you only need to keep your arms UP!”
Then he sat down in the rushing water, giving in to nature’s twisting, rocky waterslide and let the river take him for a ride into the awaiting pool below. The kids watched, bewildered and uncertain at such an exuberant display of freedom! Their eyes lit up and soon they were scrambling the rocks to try it themselves, throwing the thoughts of pandemic conformity aside. They were watersliding in a river in Puerto Rico! They were hooked!
In January of 2020, I was in Puerto Rico, co-chairing a conference for the student travel industry and talking about resiliency. It seems ironic now. The conference itself was a labor of love and dedication, an announcement to the world that Puerto Rico was open for tourism business despite years of recovery from Hurricane Maria, Irma and others and an opportunity to meet collectively as industry leaders in a beautiful destination.
The educational sessions focused on overcoming adversity, navigating chaos, focusing on the human connection in times of uncertainty. The travel industry always navigates with the “what ifs” of disaster and challenges. Puerto Rico provided a backdrop to view their unique challenges. Tourism had been picking up in PR and the island was abuzz. The conference was a hit and we all walked away with a sense of empowerment that we were prepared and more certain than ever that travel was always the answer and the best education. January 2020.
That was my last work-related trip for just 6 weeks later, Covid 19 began to decimate the travel industry as we knew it. It seems poignant and yet strange that after almost 16 months, my first trip with a group should be back in Puerto Rico, traveling the entire graduating senior class of a small private school from Texas. 16 months of uncertainty. 16 months of wondering if my job would survive. 16 months of wondering if we would all survive and now I was standing in the middle of the rainforest in Puerto Rico.
In January 2020, the entire conference theme was Resilience and Leadership. Making sense of chaos and overcoming adversity. It is often understood that in our line of work in the travel industry, it is not IF something goes awry on a trip, it is WHEN. No one could predict how much those words, that study of resiliency and the word “pivot” would become engrained in our brains. The conference location was specifically selected for this theme because the people of Puerto Rico, take chaos in stride. The island territory has seen more than its share of disaster and chaos in its history. Hurricanes, corruption, violence, changing governance, poverty, importation tax, supply chain interruption and now disease. But the people of Puerto Rico, they simply keep living, connecting, honoring and preserving their unique culture.
I thought about what it took for this small group from Texas, to make this trip a reality. The traditional destination for the seniors from this school is typically a trip to NYC and DC. The previous year’ s trip was canceled of course, but when the light began to break on pandemic rates going down and vaccination rates going up, we began to plan. Where could they go? NYC and DC at the time, were not yet fully open, so I suggested we pivot. We’ll go someplace new, with lots of fresh air and a lesson or two to teach us about resilience. Puerto Rico!
To travel to Puerto Rico during the pandemic was not without its challenges. The US territory offers the ease of traveling to a culturally diverse, island destination without the need for a passport, but the pandemic created different logistical hoops. At the time of travel, entry regulations for all travelers included mandatory PCR tests regardless of vaccination status, government health forms, health screenings at all entrances to any indoor facility, curfews and mandatory mask use at all times. The mandates were strictly enforced and warning of fines for not adhering to the rules were clearly posted.
The level of response from everyone we encountered on the island, was impressive and yet the feeling of being welcome was clearly apparent. The downside to the masks? You couldn’t see the exchange of smiles from the people of Puerto Rico to our students but we felt the warmth in the culture.
Back on the bus, the subject of the hurricane comes up again. Our guide pointing out structures that sustained damage, or talking about the lasting impact on the community. This time, he talked about himself. “Did you lose power?” one student asked. “Yes”, he says matter of fact and almost casually. “We had no power for 7 months.” “7 months?! What did you do?” they asked. He simply replied, “We just lived day to day. There was no power, but we had the sun during the day and we played games, talked. What can you do?”
What can you do? When life throws a hurricane in your path and a pandemic in your future, what can you do? The rainforest was still closed to groups on the day that we tried to visit, so we pivoted. The river waterslide wasn’t on the itinerary. It was a secret spot known by the locals. If there is one thing I have learned from the people in Puerto Rico, it is that if you are going to live on an island, pick one with a great natural waterslide and keep your hands up as you ride down!
This blog was written by Melissa Ardales of Group Travel Network.