The Day of the Iguana by George Merrill


I’m sitting again on a beach on the east coast of Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria struck with full force only five months ago just south of here.

The damage is apparent everywhere. The resort where we have stayed for years has less than a third of the native residents including its regular Yankee snowbirds. Many of the units have suffered significant destruction, some completely boarded up. Many palm trees were felled; others look shorn of their fronds, standing like tall skinny kids with brush cuts. The mountain sides, once hiding homes amidst luxuriant foliage, now reveal the small cement structures that their greenery once embraced.

People with means can get workers to rebuild. They pay in cash. People with little cannot find workers. Local contractors, although desperate for work, know that insurance claims drag on and that if they do a job dependent on insurance they stand a good chance of being stiffed. Many have no insurance. Puerto Rico is in turmoil both for the damage it sustained and the complex economic and infrastructure problems that have plagued the island for years. In a very real sense, Maria was the perfect storm when all the destructive elements converged in one event. The people are remarkably sanguine given the circumstances. They survive. They go on, many still without electricity. Like people familiar with deprivations, when you ask them how it’s going, they smile wanly, shrug, and extending empty hands palms up in resignation, say “you know.” I really don’t.

Where we stay has electricity most of the time. We have water, and access to markets. Even as the island and its inhabitants suffer the ravages of nature’s caprices, and years of political corruption with congressional complicity, the island continues to be exquisitely beautiful, and properly called, “The isle of enchantment.”

I feel uneasy being among people whose lives have been upended, while I’m living at a resort. I am insulated from the deprivations that the people endure daily. In the large markets, lots of locals are milling about shopping as we do at home at a Walmart or Sam’s. They are not dressed in the way I’m accustomed to seeing at home in malls and marketplaces. No one is dressed up. It’s the dress of perpetual summer and limited means.

This is not to say Puerto Ricans take no pride in appearance – there’s a dignity in the way people carry themselves – but there is no mistaking the poverty that limits the choice of luxuries or even amenities available to them. The money is just not there and when it is, it’s in short supply.

I am always surprised when in various encounters with local residents, that they seem easy and friendly. Why shouldn’t they, I guess is the question? I’m projecting my own anger, here. If I were a native Puerto Rican, and saw privileged Yankees where I was shopping and I had to squeeze every penny I had, I would feel resentful of the good fortunes these mainland vacationers enjoy. I would imagine their image of the mainland was not helped when Trump contemptuously threw Scott Towels to a large crowd of people, like tossing bones to dogs. Puerto Ricans were demonstrating for more stateside assistance, not paper towels. They needed power and water, basics. The people were frightened and felt vulnerable.

There’s an old spiritual charge given to those who would seek to love their neighbors: in the Buddhist tradition, we’re encouraged to look for the Buddha in every stranger we meet. In Christian lore, it’s to find the Christ in everyone.

In the town of Humacao, there is a big box supermarket. It reopened shortly after the storm. My wife, Jo and I went shopping there. The market was mobbed.

With a full cart, my wife and I looked for a checkout line. The lines, impossibly long, snaked all over the store. We eventually located the end of one and took our place.

A couple settled in behind us. I would not have noticed except the man and his wife stood so close that one step back and I’d be stepping on the man’s toe. Irritated, I tolerated the intrusion. Finally, when we arrived at checkout I began putting our goods on the conveyer belt. As I was doing this I figured that if I placed one of those metal bars down that separate one party’s purchases from another, he’d give me some space. This way I thought I could get some distance from the couple.

Then I had a good look at the couple. He was short, bald, disheveled. His sweatshirt was riven with holes. He hadn’t shaved recently. His wife was taller, but gaunt, with a tooth missing and gray hair that appeared wild and untended. I felt mild disdain, the kind you have when you’re feeling superior. I didn’t like the feeling I was having. I tried to disown it and then something happened. I was about to meet the Christ and the Buddha.

As I put down the metal bar on the belt, the man looked at me with the kindest smile and thanked me profusely. What I had intended as a distancing maneuver – basically a hostile act – he took as a gesture of kindness. He interpreted my actions as a way of helping him to facilitate his check out while I was going through mine. His wife quickly joined in with thanks and then asked us where we were from, how long we’d be there. She reached out to us with a good heart.

You might say that the couple not only broke the arrow of my snobbery, but detoxified the poison in its tip. It was through the grace of that couple, in that moment, that I was redeemed.

My first reaction was shame. I felt an irrational weepiness then relief as if a burden had been lifted from me and finally a surge of deep gratitude emerged. We went our way.

On a walk one day in Palmas del Mar, I passed under a Cieba tree. On one branch, I saw a large iguana, close to five-foot long. They are common here, harmless, like squirrels are to the states. If your unaccustomed to seeing one, they look scary and can frighten you. This one, comfortably hunkered down on a branch had these words that someone had written boldly on its side with a magic marker.

It read “Dios es amor.”

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.


Letters to Editor

  1. Martha Lostrom says:

    When I lost my job of 16 years nearly two years ago, I felt that in my mid-70s I would find another as rewarding. Time has passed and I feel first hand age discrimination. There is plenty of volunteer work but as I used almost full time of non-paying work, I realized I could not afford to do that. And I have many skills … so I thought of others of age wanting to work and knowing it was not easy, especially if their skills were not as robust as mine. The job lost was with an association of 122 years that dissolved due to inaction by Congress and economic shifts. Age discrimination is not just words on a paper, it is real. As for the folks in Puerto Rico, hope for work is not there. Here I work my way through opportunities but they have none. I still have hope that I can find something, and believe that. They have no hope and I cannot imagine how their situation may change. What the story does for me is to realize I can keep trying and know that there may be something out there. Retirement is not an option for many of us and I learn to live on less – as I should have long before now. Somehow I thought the “good times” would not end but it is happening. Will Puerto Rico have good times again one day?

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