Nicole Alvarez

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Photo by Sonja Mongar

THE LAST JUMP –

My preoccupation with the Calvache River suicide comes from the morbid fiction writer in me; a tragic suicide in the name of love and a broken heart. I can’t help but wonder what sort of man stands atop a beautiful waterfall, stretching out his arms and after taking one last big breath, dives headfirst with his shirt billowing out behind him like feathered wings. I imagine his neck cracks on the first impact, breaks his back on the second or third, and if he survives, he probably drowns as he bobs unconscious in the whirlpool.

It happened over twenty years ago. No one cares to remember the exact date or his name, but everyone agrees infidelity and ruptured pride led to his demise. He wasn’t the first, legend claims, which explains how the river’s waterfall earned its name, El Ultimo Brinco, “The Last Jump.”

It’s a thought occupying my mind as I descend to the riverbed, grabbing the wall of a bridge to steady my footing along the steep entrance. I’m vaguely aware of the people around me offering to hold my notebook so I can safely land.

I’m forced back to reality when I hear plastic garbage bags rustling as the cleanup crew we’re filming prepare for the long trek upstream. Today I am part of a documentary team following fourteen volunteers from Rincón as they embark on a mission to protect a river precious to their town. Joey Feliciano, a local Rincón tour guide, dedicated environmentalist and community historian, organized the clean-up event and invited Sea Grant to document their actions. He knows that any coverage of their events could inspire others to join their efforts, so he gladly signs all necessary filming release forms and puts on his best face in hopes of inspiring good hearts and impressionable minds.

Our director, Efrain Figueroa, locks his camera onto his tripod and instructs the audio crew to place the microphones on the boom

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poles. Cristina Olan, a veteran writer for the Sea Grant of Puerto Rico’s magazine Marejada, pulls out her voice recorder and asks our assistant director, Rosemarie Vasquez, if her three-year-old daughter will be all right with the long walk.

The volunteers, half of them kids, slip on latex gloves and pass out plastic bags to my colleagues, Augusto Feliciano and Gema Adrover, two science students and new members of the Sea Grant Science and Journalism project eager to aid in the cleanup or assist with production. Environmental journalists– are a rare breed of politically and socially conscious individuals dedicated to informing the masses of the beauty of our environment and the effects of carelessness and apathy. These are my colleagues for the day.

Then there is me. This is my first environmental anything. I’m the youngest member of the group, not a science major but an English major aspiring to be a journalist. My assignment is to glamorize the work of honest and dedicated people and emphasize the value in preserving our homeland. In this case, it’s a swimming hole in Rincón’s Calvache community that’s been enjoyed for over fifty years. I’m not here to think about the the deaths on this river, but the shallow water below me is uninspiring and so far, I fail to see anything but a graveyard of car parts, beer bottles and outdated home appliances. My morbid imagery is a pleasant distraction.

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“We want to give Rincón a new face,” Feliciano says. In his position, he is used to taking people across town, showing them government buildings and historical sites. Unfortunately, Rincón is more known for its surfing and ocean sporting activities so people are not so interested in the river. As we walk upstream, Feliciano notices a small section of water isolated from the stream, white and bubbly with phosphates from laundry detergents. I can barely imagine women still coming to the river to wash clothes in this day and age much less understand how anyone can be so ignorant and irresponsible about polluting the river. Efrain however, just thinks this is a good place to begin filming an interview so he asks Feliciano to repeat what he just said and tell the camera about his goals for this place.

 

Feliciano explains on camera, potential in this river and its spring.  He thinks if it is well taken care of, it could be just as fun as the ocean for tourists. Looking up at the shady leaves with the sun just peeking out between them, I can see the appeal of the location. It’s not exactly as exciting as the surf and sun, but it’s got a quiet charm for people like myself who enjoy solitude, reflection, the sounds of water flowing and birds chirping.

This river used to be his childhood swimming pool, Feliciano says wistfully. This was where he learned to swim. It was once the

Phosphates accumulation from laundry detergent.

best place for local families to get together and enjoy a picnic on weekends.

After filming the segment, we continue our journey and try to catch up with the rest of the volunteers. I can’t take a step without kicking a shoe or plastic bottle in the shallow waters, and as we move up, the trip becomes a little more dangerous and the stream a little more annoying to navigate through.

I feel a dizzying, lost sensation as I watch my crew flutter around me taking pictures, recording the sound of the stream, and interviewing the men of the group. I feel ill equipped; I don’t even have an audio recorder. Walking along silently, I tag along behind the party from Rincón catching glimpses of the river’s history through their conversation. I mainly hear about the good old days of this river, when shrimp were abundant and kids hunted fabled buried treasure.

“Look, a fish!” One of them yells, “I thought I wouldn’t see any the whole day. There used to be so many…”

They joke and reminisce about how the shrimp and fish thrived here only twenty years ago, and of mangos, papayas and coconuts that could easily be picked along the journey up stream. Watching them, I notice the kids gather the smallest and least harmful bits of trash, their mothers dissuading them from grabbing anything glass. Some trash they just step over. Not much can be done with an entire car engine and wheels lodged in the dirt when all you have is a garbage bag.

Kids help their parents with the clean-up

I busy myself jotting down every shocking display of litter to cross my path: a TV set with rusty antennas sitting on a cliff, propped up by a thick tree trunk; the submerged door of a red Mitsubishi; a plastic toy truck and Coors Light cans piled on the river bank seemingly serving as a floor for some makeshift backyard. I don’t dare to touch any of it lest I have to disinfect myself.

The walk is long and hot in areas with no trees for shade and the ground below me is slippery with moss, but when we take shade under treetops again and the stream strengthens, the beauty of this place finally unfolds. By now, the sneakers I stole from my brother weigh me down because of mud and dirt inside them.  Leaves stick to my legs like temporary tattoos and I soon hold the record for most near falls onto a beds of rocks and for the most distress due to lack of cell phone signal.

In front of me, Rosemarie gasps countless times, pointing to herbs I can’t distinguish and fervently questions one of our chatty interviewees about the various medicinal plants found in the area. She allows her young daughter to walk beside her, encouraging her to feel the chemical free water swish through her legs. Vasquez thanks the trees above her for keeping her cool under the sadistic noon sun and tells her daughter to thank them as well. The girl holds on to her mother’s hands, wary of the slippery moss-covered rocks invisible underwater.

Our entourage finally reaches the end of this up-river adventure after four long hours. Just up ahead is the waterfall, where the

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small volunteer group takes a well-deserved dip in the spring. The edge of the waterfall nestles under the narrow, curved street of the Calvache community built above it. Power cables dangle close by, like pythons. The locals only need walk down a dirt trail large enough for a car to pass to reach the spring.

The kids swim in their everyday clothes and cannonball from the cascade. The parents sit in a little dry patch drinking juice while celebrating a successful cleanup. A small garbage bag is passed around to pick up all the juice cartons, an act that might benefit the spring if only all who visited adopted it. Still, amongst the beauty, the stench. A few weeks ago, perhaps someone had been eating chicken or pernil with yucca. Or maybe a family had wanted to have a barbeque and pool party, but their grill broke down and it was just too much of a hassle to tote it back to the car, so they threw it next to a tree.

Vaya, this shot is perfect,” Efrain says smiling and unaffected by the undertones. He adjusts his cap to shade him from the sun and looks up, enamored with the natural beauty of his surroundings. “We can get the waterfall and the kids laughing as the backdrop for this next interview.” He sets down his video camera over the trickling stream, wedging the legs between a couple of rocks and carefully holds up the delicate cables of the microphones to avoid getting them wet.

The lens is set low enough to edit out the tangled cables and the edge of the asphalt street above yet high enough to miss a glimpse of the beer cans and electronics littered at my feet. I’m lucky to get this pristine shot as the backdrop for my interview with one of the volunteers for the cleanup crew, Rincón’s Director of Culture, a talkative elderly man named Carlos Gonzalez. He has more vitality and thirst for life than a twenty-year-old. He wears ripped latex gloves that have scraped one too many branches. They barely cover his hands. His energy makes me feel old.

El Ultimo Brinco

One of the film crew coaches me from behind the camera before each shot, with the questions I am to ask. I speak into a microphone clipped onto the back of my stretched jeans but I mess up by mumbling “mm-hmm” every five seconds. I’m too nervous to understand what I’m hearing and my attention is dead set on the cherry-colored rug with frayed ends spread out over the rocks behind us in what I conclude to be some gruesomely ironic welcoming.

In my mind, this rug pays its respect to the dying swimming pool of these volunteers. It welcomes the river’s heroes into its most sacred chambers. “Welcome to this natural beauty destroyed by people like you,” is what it says to me. People like me who never lift a finger for any cause except to click on a computer key. The kind of people who are too lazy to vote for anything they might agree with if it involves getting up and standing in the hot midday sun.

Once the scene is filmed and we have discussed the effects on the spring from the controversial dynamiting to collect rock for the construction of the main highway around the island, we are forced to climb up through a hill of dirt to protect our dear video camera. Figueroa climbs up, “1-2-3,” accustomed to the challenge of treacherous trails and walls to capture that one perfect shot for a news story. Everyone else ascends quickly, digging their hands into the earth and using nearby rocks for leverage. It’s here that I realize that I don’t belong with these people. My hands and knees scramble and slip in icky dirt and my feet claw at precarious, wobbly rocks. This is nothing like scaling a wall of those static green and orange colored boulders at an air-conditioned, indoor rock-climbing arena.

Clumsily trailing behind with a pen and notebook in my hands for the last four hours, I have seen children in pairs stick their hands in the dirt and pull out beer cans and plastic Burger King toys while their partners hold white trash bags, ready to catch whatever comes their way. Sometimes they miss a few bottles, running past them while laughing and splashing in the shallow eddies. Their mothers unwrap shower curtains from plants and pick up unmatched shoes and plastic bottles, while fathers exert every muscle to dislodge car engines, doors and chunks of metal from their encrusted seats on the river bank.  All the while, I secretly tell myself I would never go around picking up decaying garbage.  I have been well trained to avoid anything that might make me sick.

Following the machete-hacked trail forged by one of our crew, I really try to embrace the experience. The hot sun and the wild plants, there is some beauty in this untamed thing. There is something exciting in the irregular shape of the spring and the overgrown plants of all sizes. It lacks uniformity. It lacks that human touch obsessed with order and symmetry and even I can see that there is something beautiful in that which is allowed to change and grow uninterrupted by humanity’s plundering ways. When I finally reach the falls, I want to walk into it like a disciple of Christ walking into a lake for blessing and baptism but moving my feet through the water, I feel a shower curtain rod. I try to kick it up and lift it out, adding my two-cents of cleanup duty for the day but it’s stuck under massive amounts of earth and no matter how many kicks it takes, it won’t budge. Behind me, I can smell rotten meat probably crawling with maggots inside its rusty bucket.  On my left a floating egg carton drifts closer to me. Out of the spring, someone digs up part of a floor fan and stuffs the decaying piece of trash where it belongs.

El Ultimo Brinco – from the top of the falls

Was I the only one who noticed the smell? Was I the only person who noticed the yellow Styrofoam container floating near one of the kids? Was I the only person who thought that our trudge up a grimy hill and out of the river along with the rugged jaunt to our cars in the back of a pick-up truck (where at least eight of us experienced the wonder of feeling like anchovies in a can) seemed like we were reenacting a Vietnam war movie?

Back home, the warm shower is not as refreshing as the fresh spring water at my feet hours earlier. Nothing in the weeks to follow was as exhilarating as riding in the back of that pick-up truck and knowing that my mission was accomplished. I can only speculate if that sweaty exodus had been as rewarding for me as it was for those eager volunteer sipping juice at the edge of the spring after a day full of heart-felt community service.

I have informed the masses using my writing skills. I have informed myself in the process about the importance of preserving my home for us all. I have always been conscious of what needs to be done, but lacked initiative. Could I have done more with a trash bag in my hands rather than a notebook and pen? It’s normal for my kind to reflect on the morbid imagery of suicide, but how many people like me want to discuss what type of garbage bags best hold wet trash caked with dirt? We don’t want to. We want chlorine in our pools and eyes. We want every bush to be the same size and in a straight line next to the sidewalk. We don’t want one gross leaf touching our arms when we swim-or an errant Styrofoam box.

When I sit in front of my computer screen looking at the photographs of the kids laughing at the absurd things they found thrown around, of the rays of sun poking through tree branches like in a romantic movie and of the clean spring water, I know I’m going to wish I took a swim with those kids and pushed the Styrofoam aside. Shock value took a back seat and I was moved by a couple of common people with a modest goal to clean their swimming pool.

It’s not a bad feeling.

Marejeda

Photographs used with permission from Marejeda. Copyright – Sea Grant – 2009 – All rights reserved.

 

 

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