First Person

How do you roast a turkey when there’s no electricity for your oven?

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A sign in the San Juan airport welcomes visitors to paradise, a message that stands in stark and ironic contrast to the island's post-Hurricane Maria condition. Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam

The only thing saving Puerto Ricans these days—when only half the island has power—is their sense of humor.

Coco McCabe, senior writer and editor at Oxfam, reports from San Juan.

Flying through a pea soup sky low over San Juan, the crowd seemed to hold its breath before bursting into applause as the plane finally touched the tarmac. Rain streamed down the windows. The ride had been a little bumpy, but in terms of anxiety, it was nothing, I’m sure, compared to what the families of many people on the flight have been enduring since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, obliterating life as they knew it.

Still, here we were—in paradise. At least that’s what the wall-sized sign near the baggage carousel said: a bathing beauty, bigger than life, lounged on a beach by a turquoise sea. On the next wall down, in tiers of blue, sky met ocean met shimmering pool, all soaked in a bright Caribbean sun.

Outside, things looked a little different. Traffic inched through the gloom of a wet dusk, stalled by uncertainty at crossings where street lights no longer work. Roofless buildings opened to the sky. Palm fronds, piled high along with other storm detritus, narrowed the city streets. And when night fell, the generators roared—a welcome sound, I suspect, for those lucky enough to have lights and air conditioning powered by them. Since Maria slammed into this island two long months ago, many people have been in a netherworld of suspended time without electricity of any sort—unable to cook, refrigerate food, run a washing machine, or even be sure their water is safe.

“Oh my god, you don’t even know what day it is,” said Karen Schneck Malaret, who is working as an interpreter with aid groups that have come to the island to help. But, looking up at a clear sky the other night, she suddenly knew exactly what time it was: almost Christmas. There, dancing with the other stars, was Orion’s Belt, or the Three Kings, a sign that Christmas, a beloved season here celebrated from the day after Thanksgiving right through to February, was on its way.

And with it, of course, have come the jokes, said Schneck Malaret, because the only thing saving Puerto Ricans these days is their sense of humor. With the island’s power grid in a sorry and highly unreliable state, what do islanders equate the sporadic electricity they sometimes get? A Christmas tree: it blinks on, and it blinks off.

But the jokes belie the hard work. Take laundry, for instance. The only way Schneck Malaret can get it done is by hand, in her yard, scrubbing it in a tub. And she’s by no means alone: Sales of the old-fashioned ribbed washboards are climbing, she notes. Stacey Santiago, a student at the University of Puerto Rico, says the simple devices are in so much demand they now cost about $20. Luckily, she has a neighbor kind enough to share his. In the meantime, she’s relying on juice from the university to keep the rest of her life functioning: She’s been charging her flashlight, computer, phone, and even her toothbrush on campus. Power has been restored to only about 50 percent of the island.

“It has been trying to continue under this false normalcy,” she said. “It’s very insensitive to personal needs not being able to cook or having to study with a flashlight or candle. And your food all rots. All the time. It will last two days unless it’s canned—and you get tired of frigging tuna all the time.”

Some of these trials might be set aside for a day, though, as families gather for Thanksgiving—even if they’re not exactly sure what they will eat. In paradise, how do you roast a big old turkey when there’s no electricity for your oven? People are joking about that, too, says Schneck Malaret.

The answer? Iguanas: They’re all over the island and they could make a tasty shish kebob.

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