“Life Begins at the End of your Comfort Zone”

As someone who has been swimming nearly their whole life, there is absolutely nothing I love more than being in the water. For me, the water is my comfort zone. I know I am a strong swimmer. When I heard we were going snorkeling, I could not have been more excited. I love aquatic animals and fish, and more importantly, I love to swim.

To my dismay, Dr. Rodriguez informed us all that the snorkeling was cancelled because of the high surfs. While I was disappointed, I knew that things happen, and I was excited to hear we might go to the beach instead. The next day plans had changed and we were informed that we were going ziplining. Although I hate admitting it, heights aren’t exactly my favorite, so when Dr. Rodriguez told us that we would be ziplining, I began to grow anxious.

A million thoughts rushed through my brain. I was so scared, that I even considered using my stomach flu illness as an excuse as to why I couldn’t zipline through the rainforest. However, I quickly realized that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and that I could not let my fears take over and miss seeing the rain forest from a bird’s eye view.

When we first geared up, I surprisingly was very calm, but I suppose some of the people around me could sense my fear so many people started joking around with me trying to scare me. The man putting on my harness even asked me, “Is this your first time?” when I said yes, he followed jokingly with “Me too, I am learning with you guys.” What really got my stomach in a knot was when he said “Hopefully heights aren’t a problem for you, because each line gets higher from the ground.”

After that, the lady proceeded to give us all these instructions on how to break, and what to do if we didn’t make it to the end of the line. This increased my fears even more. At that moment, nothing seemed more terrifying than not making the end of the line and dangling in the air. I followed directions carefully, and went on the first line. To my surprise, I was not scared at all. I loved being in the air. As the lines progressed, they did get higher, but I enjoyed them, except one.

When we first arrived to the site, there was a huge red structure with a nearly vertical ladder and a platform. I remember talking to Emily and Emma saying “There is no way I am climbing up that.” Being experienced zipliners, they assured me that I would not have to climb up to that platform and that you simply just zipline to platform to platform and the ladder was just there for precautionary measures. After the fourth line, the man running the even looked at me and said, “alright go to the ladder and climb all the way up.” Because I enjoyed ziplining so much, I forced myself to conquer my fear. When I got on the ladder, my legs instantly felt like jello. Even members of our group who weren’t usually afraid of heights were scared on the latter. To make matters worse, when I was half way up the ladder, it began to pour rain. The steps became slippery, and I looked down by accident. I took a moment and a deep breathe, and with the encouragement of peers, I made it up the ladder. I was so proud of myself. From then on, the views were absolutely breathe-taking, and I felt like I was soaring above the clouds. Zipliing for me was one of the best experiences of my life, and gave me a sense of adrenaline that I craved for me.

The Crew before taking on the ziplines!

If I didn’t face my fear, I would never have had this amazing experience. This was a large lessons I learned throughout my time in Puerto Rico. In order to experience the world, you have to go out and try new things. Rarely are things ever learned in your comfort zone. Never in a million years would I have thought I would get up on a platform and jump on it into the depths of the rainforest, but if I hadn’t I would have never known what it was like to fly. Often times, traveling abroad scares a lot of people. People always fear the unknown, and dwell on possible things that could happen to them. Traveling to Puerto Rico has given me a further desire to travel the world and do things that scare me. I can confidently say that I am definitely over my fear of heights, and I hope to zipline again wherever I end up in this world. I learned that life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

History Repeats Itself

A member of a labor union shouts slogans while holding a Puerto Rico flag during a protest in San Juan September 11, 2015. Reuters/Alvin Baez

People protesting for equal funding in education

Puerto Rico has a long a rich history. What Puerto Rico is today all began with the settlement of the Ortoriod people between 3,000 and 2,000 BCE. At this time, other tribes also populated the island. At the time of Christopher Columbus’ arrival, the dominant culture were the Tainos people. However, their numbers became dangerously low because of disease the Europeans brought over.

From the early days of exploration, Puerto Rico was a large part of the Spanish Empire. It served as a military post during many wars between Spain and other European Countries. Throughout the 19th century, Puerto Rico and Cuba were the last two Spanish colonies in the new world.

In 1898 during the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was invaded and became a possession of the United States.  Later, the Foraker act of 1900, which established a civil government, and the Jones Act of 1917, which made Puerto Ricans United States citizens was enacted.

Similarly, the United States was formed through colonization. Illinois specifically became a state in 1818, and is now considered one of the most powerful states in the United. However, both Illinois and Puerto Rico face their fair share of problems. Specifically, Puerto Rico and Illinois both suffer major economic problems. The island of Puerto Rico is over 72 million dollars in debt, and they have missed key bond payments. The effects of this financial crisis can be seen all over the Island, especially in healthcare and education. To make matters worse, the United States congress is not helping at all. This has made the cost of living in Puerto Rico skyrocket. While in Puerto Rico, we learned that many of their agricultural products are imported.  While Puerto Rico was once used and an agricultural wonderland, it is not agriculturally sufficient, creating food security problems. Many of the problems Puerto Rico faces have roots within the detrimental effects of European colonialism.

Just like Puerto Rico, Illinois has numerous budget problems. For example, Illinois has not passed a budget. Illinois has major problems funding education and healthcare. However, Illinois receives help from the federal government, while Puerto Rico does not have those same perks. However, Puerto Rico has a larger tourist industry than Illinois, but Illinois has a large metropolitan city.

Both Puerto Rico and Illinois are often headline horror stories in news outlets primarily because of their financial standings. History has a great deal to do with that. It appears that Illinois and Puerto Rico have regressed as far as the state of the nation is concerned. Puerto Rico had a prime period when they were agriculturally sufficient and they had major exports. We learned a lot about this from a sociologist from the University of Puerto Rico. She talked about the major agricultural/food crisis the island was facing.

As of now, the best thing that can be done is advocating for the issue. For Puerto Rico, a lot of their problems would be solved if they received more support from the federal government, or they became a state. In Illinois people all over the state advocate for issues they care about to their state legislatures. Ultimately, a great solution would be better allocated funds for education. It is difficult to get out of a financial crisis, and Illinois and Puerto Rico have a long way to go. As of now, their quality of life is good compared to developing countries, however, the cost of living in Illinois and Puerto Rico continues to be a reoccurring problem. These problems can be solved with a systems thinking approach, and hopefully one day the political and financial scandals in both Illinois and Puerto Rico will be solved.

Discovering Diversity

The United States of America is home to a multifold of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and cultures. The cultural diversity of the U.S is something in which their citizens pride themselves in. Being born and raised on the Southside of Chicago, I have had the opportunity to be exposed to a plethora of different cultures. Over the course of this trip, I have noticed that my exposure to cultural diversity is not the same as the citizens of Puerto Rico, hence my world view is much different.

Geographically speaking, the United States is obviously much larger than Puerto Rico. Therefore, the population is much higher and the each region of the country adapts their own culture. I think it is important to note that everyone experiences cultural diversity in different ways in the United States. For example, I grew up in one of the largest and most diverse cities in the country. My high school was filled with people with differing races, religious beliefs, and world views. In contrast, some of my peers who are traveling abroad with us grew up in small towns, where there was a distinct and overwhelming uniform cultural identity. I think it is arguable that a Puerto Rican’s exposure to cultural diversity does not greatly differ from one side of the island to another. I do, however, believe that Puerto Ricans (in some areas) are exposed to more international tourists.

As agricultural and biological engineers, American agriculture is a huge part of our identity, especially in the Midwest. Because my family owns a home in rural Wisconsin, I have been exposed to some aspects of rural life. As an American, when I think of a “rural” area, I primarily think of large areas of farmland covered with corn and soybeans, maybe even some livestock in the surrounding areas. I quickly noticed that “rural America” was not exactly like rural Puerto. In Puerto Rico like most places, most of the population resides in urban areas. However, the majority of their farmland in which I would consider “rural” resided in the mountains. It is evident that the United States rural cultural identity differed very much from Puerto Rico.

More commonly, cultural identity is associated with race and country of origin. While on the Island, I noticed that although everyone lived in Puerto Rican, some did not appear as if they came from Puerto Rican or Hispanic descent, yet they appeared to be natives to the Island. From research I discovered that Non-Hispanic cultural diversity in Puerto Rico and the basic foundation of Puerto Rican culture began with the mixture of Spanish, Taino, and African culture in the 16th century. It was in the early 19th century that Puerto Rican culture became more diversified with the arrival of hundreds of families from Non-Hispanic countries like Germany, Ireland, Corsica, and France. This came about because of the concessions made by the Real Cedula de Gracias de 1815 which allowed European Catholics to settle in the island with land allotments in the interior of the island with the intent that they would pay taxes in support of the Catholic Church.  There are also many people with non-Hispanic last names because European immigrants settled in Puerto Rico and intermarried with native Puerto Ricans.

Painting showing Puerto Rico’s cultural diversity

Racial and Cultural Diversity in my home city (Chicago)

Much of the cultural diversity in Puerto Rico was sparked by the Catholic Church, making most of the people of the Island Catholic as opposed to the United States where there are many different religions. As an American, it is evident that my worldview is slightly broader than someone from Puerto Rico. Aside from a few exceptions, Puerto Rico has a very distinct national culture, as opposed to the United States where it is more of a mixed, unconventional culture

Puerto Rico- A place of Color and Catholicism

Over the years, I have been extremely fortunate to have traveled all over the world. From Lithuania, to China, to India, to France, and now Puerto Rico, I have been exposed to a plethora of people with different backgrounds. Despite the different cultures people have, I have noticed that people all over are more alike than different.  One thing I found extremely interesting about Puerto Rico was the culture. Everything about Puerto Rican culture was very distinct. They have specific foods, dancing, music, and everything else. It was extremely interesting to see how Puerto Ricans were able to maintain their culture while adapting to the culture of countries that influenced them. This was very evident from Old San Juan. You saw Spanish architecture, but American and Puerto Rican music filled the streets. The atmosphere in Puerto Rico was nothing like I had experienced before. Puerto Rico had a strong sense of community, and the constant dancing, upbeat music, and colors truly exemplified just how active the area is.

Discovering a culture different than mine forced me to reflect on my own culture. I always felt as if I never really belonged to a culture, and because American “culture” is really just a mixing pot of other cultures, I always envied those who had very specific culture traditions they followed in their home. However, in Old San Juan and in Cabo Rajo, I realized that my family has a very distinct culture, and we do practice several traditions in our homes. My mom is Lithuanian and Croatian, while my father is mainly Irish. However, because I was born and raised in a predominately Irish neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago, I see my Irish culture is more evident. However, both my mother and father are very strong Catholics.

Growing up with mostly Catholics, the Catholic traditions we practiced never seemed unique to me. It wasn’t until coming to college that truly made me realize how much being catholic was a part of my identity. For example, while in Puerto Rico, the surrounding village near our apartment celebrated three kings day. Some of my peers on the trip weren’t really aware about that holiday, while I knew all about it because it was celebrated in our home. While I did notice some differences between my culture and the culture of Puerto Rico, the strong Catholic faith I saw here made me feel at home. In fact, I think the Catholic faith is stronger here than in America. Every grocery store we went into had religious candles, and the church was the center of San Juan. I also noticed that many places had chapels attached, just like the fort we visited. I found myself taking pictures of the local churches and even some remains of St. Pius and sending them to my family. Just like St. Barnabas Church in the Beverly Community (My hometown Church), Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan defined the community. Despite being 2,000 miles away from home, I found a connection to Puerto Rican culture and found myself feeling at home.

However, there were some differences I noticed between Puerto Rican and the United States culture. In Puerto Rico, I noticed an extremely friendly and family oriented atmosphere. Every morning while I strolled down the streets of Cabo Rojo, random construction workers would smile and say good morning. Our group also was greeted by a lady who yelled “Happy New Year!” out her car as we walked to the beach. Everything about Puerto Rico was extremely lively and colorful. People always seemed to have a smile on their face, and they were willing to help with whatever we needed. Everyone was so open to share their culture and let us become a part of it- from the tour guide at the sugar cane farm, to the farmer at the coffee plantation. Despite all Puerto Rico has been through, they still welcome tourists with open arms. Our questions were answered no matter how silly they seemed, and despite the small kitchens in Puerto Rico, restaurants were always willing to accommodate our small group.

Ultimately I believe traveling abroad has made me realize a lot about myself and my cultural identity. There are so many aspects to a culture that I didn’t quite realize before coming on this trip. Although Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States, it has a rich history and culture that differs from the environment I am used to. Puerto Rico is an interesting blend of Latin American and American culture. Traveling abroad with the University of Illinois has helped me foster a new found respect for Latin American culture. I now realize that I am nothing but a mere spec of all the cultures and ethnicities that is what we know as the world today.


Church in Old San Juan