Mangroves stretch above my head. Their thin branches create dappled webs of moonlight and darkness as I drift down a narrow canal in a kayak. The moon is bright and full, glowing like a lighthouse beacon every time there’s a gap in the trees. I dip my hand into the water and thousands of neon, blue stars dance along my fingertips. They come alive in tiny flashes and then die out almost immediately.
It’s my last night in Puerto Rico and I’m paddling through the bioluminescent bay at Fajardo — where the water is filled with micro-organisms that light up in response to touch. I’ve seen pictures of the bay before, on Instagram. I knew it was going to be cool, but it’s somehow more trippy than I’d imagined. I’m mesmerized by the bursts of light rippling from my kayak. I breathe in the salty air, tinged with the briny smell of seaweed, and sigh happily.
Ten days earlier.
I step off an airplane in San Juan. I haven’t been in P.R. since I was 17. I’m excited — a week and a half of exploration lies in front of me. Still, I don’t know exactly what to expect. News reports since Hurricane Maria have been bleak. And in the year months since the tragedy, I’ve felt a mixture of sadness over how the locals have suffered and rage at how our government handled recovery.
I’m half-Puerto Rican. My father was born in San Juan and my family is from Naguabo. They moved to Brooklyn when my dad was a kid. We visited Puerto Rico every few years growing up, but I’m still left feeling like a bad Puerto Rican. Or at least one who is disconnected one from my heritage. I don’t speak Spanish and I was raised in the Midwest, far away from my Puerto Rican cousins, aunts, and uncles.
Since the hurricane hit, I’d felt a longing to go back to the island. Last fall, I wrote an article about millennial Puerto Ricans returning to visit. My call to the diaspora of Puerto Rico was simple — we may not feel ownership of the island, having grown up on the mainland, but if we’re not looking out for Puerto Rico, who will?
I argued that is the year, the summer, to visit the island nation and bring our tourism dollars there. It’s an easy way to do good while also drinking dozens upon dozens of Pina Coladas. So as LA’s unseasonably cold winter gave way to spring, I decided to heed my own advice and book a ticket.