I was recently a part of UD’s first breakout trip to Puerto Rico, specifically the cities of Villalba and Vega Alta. The trip was incredible from start to finish, but one particular event has not left my consciousness.
On the third day of our trip, we went to a man’s house, Jorge, to help clean and fix it up. I imagined doing household chores going into it, but I was drastically underestimating the “chores” we were tasked with completing. The house was abused, unintentionally dilapidated, and seemed quite unfit to withstand another hurricane season in Puerto Rico as bad as the last.
I was asked to clean the bathroom and immediately attacked it with bleach, gloves, and a bandana for a mask. I was asked to carry out a few appliances in disrepair when I faced the penultimate challenge: battling two scorpions as I finished the bathroom (they won; I retreated). The entire time I was making assumptions about this man and how he lived, forgoing any expansive investigation into his story or why the home was in disrepair. This mistake would prove embarrassing later that night.
When the group was reflecting on our day a few hours later, one of our leaders told Jorge’s story. Jorge speaks Spanish, but he is otherwise illiterate. One of my new friends, Royal Smith, explained this illiteracy in a beautiful context; for Jorge, words aren’t as powerful as nature is. One can see this in Jorge’s eyes and his wonderfully charming smile. In recollection, it seems as though his happiness derives from the land he cultivates, not the materiality of our contemporary world. His love of nature has been abused by some manipulative people and, in a particularly sad story, his illiteracy was used against him when he won a $12,000 lottery prize. Jorge ended up only having $800 after being tricked, and with that money he constructed the shelter he calls home.
This man who lives in the mountains does not have a lot in life. Living in nature yields no spectacular economic benefits, and he clearly finds no utility in the spoils of materiality. Instead, he takes great care of crops for his neighbors and does so out of the kindness of his heart. He lives alone but visits his wife as often as he can to support her as she battles health issues. Jorge acts solely for the benefit of others and for the land he cares so much about.
One could learn an incredible amount about the ever-increasing inverse relationship between privilege and gratitude seen in the world, especially here on campus, by understanding this man. His outlook on life is one I wish to hold and his experience with the human condition is one so intimate and tranquil that I find it almost mythic. As Royal said best, this man seeks intellect internally, not externally.
Travelers always tell a tale of some event that reshaped their perception of the world around them. This one is mine.
Cover photo courtesy of Royal Smith.