Thursday, March 29 – We woke this morning with mixed feelings – ready to go home, but sad to leave the people and island that have treated us so well this week. We have planted more than trees in Puerto Rico — we have sown a part of our hearts here as well.

We packed up the vans, but with much less than what we brought. Not only had we donated the dozens of backpacks and countless supplies that you all sent with us, but we also left behind many of the supplies that had sustained us on our trip for one of our local contacts to use in her work: duffle bags, ice chests, work gloves, kitchen supplies, air mattresses, etc. We then made the long voyage back to San Juan.

But we were not done here quite yet. The final part of our mission took us past the airport and into historic Old San Juan. Down the centuries-old, brick-paved streets our caravan wove until we reached the very gateway to the Caribbean – the protectorate of San Juan Bay, the 16th century old Spanish fort San Felipe del Morro. It was absolutely breathtaking!

Off to the left as we approached was the port, the perfect deep water port, once meant for Spanish galleons ready to haul gold and other riches back to the Spanish throne, now the perfect port of call for cruise ships from all over the world. Ahead of us was the fort, which completely dominates the landscape, and which protected Spain’s claims in the Caribbean for nearly 400 years. To the right was our destination – the Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi.

Yes, we had business at the cemetery that has served Old San Juan since the mid-1800s. You see, this trip has been quite personal for all of us, but it has been a bit more so to one of the backpackers. Isabella Evens has roots on this island. She is Puerto Rican and has family buried here in the shadow of the fort. Here, blanketed by the mist of the Caribbean waves, rests two generations of Isabella’s family. After we helped her locate their graves, the rest of the group stepped back and allowed her to have her moments of reflection and connection. Our journey was now complete.

With a few hours still before our flight, there was a little time for shopping, sight-seeing, and lunch in Old San Juan. It is a spectacular place to visit! But alas, the airport called! Rental car drop-off, USDA inspection, baggage check, TSA security – all went smoothly and we arrived at our gate with time to spare.

On the long flight back to LA, we all took stock and reflected. Some of us wondered when we could return to Puerto Rico to further our work. Others dreamed of the other places we’d bring our “Backpacks Full of Hope.” Others still considered how we could learn to live a little simpler, without all of our material trappings. Some of us slept – a little. But we all felt proud of what we had accomplished, and forever connected to the Enchanted Island and her people.

As we got further and further away, the words that echoed louder and louder in this blogger’s head were those of Jorge, the caretaker of the house that served as our base for the week:

“For months after Maria, life on Puerto Rico stopped as we all pitched in to help each other. But it’s been six months now and life has to go on. The people that were helping have gone back to their regular jobs. But there are still so many people that need help. We need outsiders like you to help replace those who can no longer do the work. Our island now depends on groups like yours. Please come back. And tell your friends to come, too.”

We will be back, Jorge. And we will bring friends and family with us. You can count on it.

And what about you? Can Puerto Rico count on you? We are already starting to plan our next trip. Will you backpack with us next time? Please email to RSVP for details on our next planning meeting in May. See you there!