It wasn’t more than five minutes after greeting me with his electric smile at the airport that Douglas White of Enchanted Pearl Tours Puerto Rico nearly had me in tears. The kind that make you realize not to take your life and all of its wonderful circumstances—no matter how small or large—for granted.
For White, that includes a house in the mountains of Toa Alta, about 20 miles west of San Juan, where he lives with his wife and two teenage sons—so high they can watch the cruise ships passing by and so quiet that the only things they hear at night are the “Coqui” calls of the eponymous local frog. The others? The basic necessities: power, water and food.
He could never have prepared himself for the surreal experiences that ensued after Hurricane Maria last fall.
“One day you have everything you need and the next day you’re putting a plastic tube into a mountainside to tap water,” he said. “We ended up being without power for three months and without water for a month and a half.”
Fast forward six months and he’s now recollecting his experience of being forced into survival mode with his family, rationing chicken and pasta pouches from boxes that U.S. soldiers dropped to each house via helicopter, thinking it was terrible at first and after a week realizing it “tasted like caviar”; waiting in line for hours at the gas station only to be told they had run out and to have to return the following day; not making a cent for months; and when he was at his wit’s end, talking to his family about getting on a plane for the mainland.
“My oldest son said, ‘Hey dad, can we hold out a little bit longer because I would like to finish my high school here,’” White said. “That broke my heart. So I said okay, no problem, I will continue collecting water from the mountain and doing the same thing for you.”
While they stayed, living as his grandfather said “like I had 60 years ago, taking your clothes to the river to wash them and finding your own water,” a lot of his son’s friends left.
“I never thought I would live to experience something like that,” he said. “But we made it. And now my son just got accepted to Iowa State, so he’ll be going there next year.”
One of the things he’s most thankful for?
Being back full swing in the industry he’s loved since starting his tour company 15 years ago.
“Now tourism is coming back to the island, there are a lot of big meetings coming for the next high season, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that,” he said.
Not your everyday airport transfer, I thought, as White dropped me off at my hotel. Meetings really do mean business, and they clearly support lives.
“Lori! It’s been a pleasure,” he said, flashing that giant, contagious smile as he bid me farewell. “Welcome to Puerto Rico."