10 Years in Puerto Rico

At a birthday party for a 2-year-old taken in December 2007

In November 2007, Paul and I made the decision to give up on corporate America, leave Southern California and buy a farm in Puerto Rico. I'll never forget the time and place we made the decision.

(Although we're both from the East Coast—Paul is from Washington, D.C. and I was raised in New York City—we had been living about 65 miles north of Los Angeles at the time we made this decision.)

Breast cancer walk 2007, me hamming it up

I had just finished walking 60 miles over a three-day period to raise money for the Susan G. Komen foundation. I was very proud of myself, having raised over $10,000 on my own—well, because about $4,000 came from Amgen employees (where we both had been working), they matched every dollar donated by Amgen staff members.

Paul and I have always been square pegs in round holes, so quitting our corporate jobs, giving up the middle class lifestyle we were raised in so we could be self-sustaining farmers in Puerto Rico made perfect sense—to us. Our friends and family thought we'd lost our minds but in truth, it was the sanest either of us had ever been.

Yes, we did move to Puerto Rico. We also bought a farm, but who we would become during our 10-year journey we couldn't have predicted.

My beautiful niece Cleo. She was 5 in this photo. We haven't seen her in the ten years we've lived here.

We spent five months in upstate New York (April 14, 2008 to September 17, 2008), where we actually considered moving. My middle brother and his family live there, and it's within a seven-hour drive to Paul's family. All too quickly I was reminded why I moved 3,000 miles away from my family. We just have different lifestyles. I'll leave it at that.

We arrived to Puerto Rico on September 17, 2008. I was 41 and Paul had turned 46 four days earlier. We rented a house in Utuado (in Barrio Sabana Grande) for 18 months. In that time we got two dogs: Gigi and Yum Yum. They were four months old when we adopted them.

Gigi and Yum Yum at four months old.

We couldn't stop taking photos of them! We'd never owned dogs prior—always cats.

Yum Yum!

Gigi to my left and Yum Yum

Gigi and Yum Yum can't wait for Sekou's tender morsels to land in the litter box.

Just two more, I promise!

Paul and his two girls.

And speaking of Sekou (who came from California)

We also looked for a farm to buy. We found one within six months. With 18 acres, it was more than enough to plant what we needed to live off the rest of our lives. It was perfect but it needed to have the house expanded from 500 square feet to 1500 square feet. That took seven months.

This is what the house looked like when we bought it.

And we got a cool visitor to our new house the day got the deed to the farm and the keys to house.

Paul and a census taker the day we took possession of the property.

How on earth did the U.S. Census know we had just taken possession of this house? It's always been that question we couldn't answer. Hmmmm.

We didn't hire an architect. I created the design myself. It was pretty simple, so the builders had to do the hard part.

Layout of house before construction.

What we wanted the house to look like when construction was done.

The only difference between the house now and this plan is we added a storage area behind the bedroom. It's 6 by 10. It would become our closet/storage area/safe room.

And construction began!

Construction begins!

More construction photos:

The driveway.

What was once the living room and kitchen.

The island and kitchen sink being constructed of concrete and cement.

And the new house started taking shape!

This is the new house created. Obviously more work followed.

In June 2009 (shortly after we began construction), my oldest brother's ex-wife came to visit with her new boyfriend. (We kept her in the divorce.) We couldn't have been happier to see her with a much nicer guy. 🙂

From left to right:
Alba and Leo (whose house we rented for 18 months), Nelson Maldonado, me, Paul, Maria and in the center is Elisa Ocasio. She and her husband, Nelson, own El Balcón.

During their visit, we went spelunking at the Camuy Caverns. I just like saying that word.

Spelunking at Camuy Caverns.

El Balcón ten years ago.

We moved in to our new farmhouse on December 31, 2009.

Having sunk all of our money into buying the farm and expanding the house, we were broke! We had $40 in the checking account—thankfully we didn't owe anything on our house or cars.

Front of house now.

Completely broke, I knew freelancing was the only option. We didn't move to Puerto Rico to take office jobs, besides our Spanish wasn't strong enough. Although I had done marketing, administrative and project management while in the corporate world, I believed the apple hadn't fallen from the tree, and like my parents, I had a writer dying to come out.

I started doing ghostwriting in March 2010, and by June I was too busy to manage the work on my own. I hired first one writer, then two and eventually five or six, and this is how Coquí Prose, my content marketing agency, was born.

From 2009 thru 2011, Paul and I worked our asses off! He was in the farm cleaning and planting. I was behind the desk ghostwriting books and articles, as well as managing my business. I frequently worked 17-hour days.

Here are a couple of things that happened in 2011.

Is it good luck if a bat flies into your home?

At a wedding in 2011.

A dozen eggs! Our first!

By 2012, we were hitting our stride. That year I ghostwrote a guide for Americans wanting live off the grid in Belize. It was the turning point in my ghostwriting "career" because it taught me I could write a 200-page book.

My "cousin" Carolyn came to visit us for a week. Her family, along with another ex-pat family, lived in Lagos, Nigeria during the same time we did (1960 to 1967 or 1968). That's a long time to know folks, hence the cousin reference.

We got our toes done. 🙂

Pedicure with Carolyn!

The farm was taking shape. We met a man named Sadhu who owns Govardhan Gardens. We bought a bunch of tropical fruit trees from him as well as bamboo (good for goats and humans to eat, for a living fence and construction) and some goats.

Amani and Mayani were five months old when we bought them from Sadhu.

Just before we got Amani and Mayani, we had a visit from Paul's sister, Sylvia, and her son Mason.

Sylvia and Mason with Paul and me in front of what used to be our favorite restaurant, FuFu.

Ravi arrived in August 2012.

I think this photo with our friend and neighbor Olga was taken in 2012.

Olga is "la locita, la jefa del barrio." This means, the little crazy one, the boss of the neighborhood. We love Olga to pieces.

Speaking of Olga, her nephew Miguel used to ask us why Utuado? Unless you're from Puerto Rico or have family from here, nobody knows Utuado.

He speculates whether we're in the federal witness protection program.

It's all in jest. I doubt Miguel really believes that. 🙂

Here are Paul and me with my one of my oldest friends, Steve Reed. We worked together at CBS in the late 1980s.

With Steve and George, who got married four years ago.

We mated Ravi, our sire, with Amani as soon as he arrived. She gave birth in March 2013. It was the most amazing thing we've ever witnessed.

Amani giving birth in March 2013

Goatita is out!

Goatita and Green girl (we never got to name her) are out.

Goatita nursing.

Yum Yum and Gigi are fascinated. Hector slept.

How did that goat get in the house?

Two weeks later, Goatita's sister died from tetanus. It was heartbreaking. Goatita was raised by Gigi and Yum Yum.

When we took the dogs for walks, Goatita would accompany us.

And one day we went from having two dogs to five. It was crazy. People dropped off dogs and cats to our farm all the time. Funny how right after we got a camera in front of the gate and in other more hidden areas three years ago, the drop-offs ceased.

L to R: Sumi, Zaina, Marcos, Yum Yum and Gigi (before we got Bolo San).

Zaina is one of those dogs who showed up one day. She's a sweetie.

Ziana with Bolo San, but we're jumping ahead of ourselves.

And then Héctor died. 🙁 This was the last photo we have of him.

Héctor showed up one day three years earlier and left as mysteriously. We never knew what happened.

Here he was shortly after he arrived to Mayani Farms.

Between 2013 and 2014 we were again keeping busy on the farm and me behind the desk.

Well, I did sustain this beautiful injury. I fell on a tree stump and it went several inches inside my thigh, missing my femoral artery by just a few inches. I got 23 stitches, mostly inside my thigh.

Birthday present 2014

Ravi in his improved pen

See? Even the cats like the goats' pen!

The farm in 2014.

Rambutan.

And because of all this growth on what we used to call La Finca Ratliff, we decided to name our farm Mayani Farms, after one of our two starter goats.

Keyna and me at the fort in Viejo San Juan May 2015

In 2015 we had a few visits. Keyna is the niece of a woman who used to work for me. Having just graduated from high school, Keyna's grandmother, Mary Ann Dickerson, took her on a Caribbean cruise.

And a month later I got to meet longtime friend Minh Thu in person! She came with her mother, Kim.

Minh Thu, her mother Kim and me, also at the fort in Viejo San Juan.

In September 2015, I published my first book, Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collidealong with co-author Bryony Sutherland. It's an anthology of essays by Biracial and Multiracial people or parents of mixed-race kids.

It was my first non-ghostwritten book. I was really proud of myself.

Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide

I got to meet my co-author in person, along with Cynthia Sass (cousin of one of my childhood friends. Bryony and I were presenters at the Mixed Remixed festival.

Bryony is to my immediate right. Cynthia is wearing a black and white shirt.

We're having dinner with two other women but not before we got to go on a high-speed cheese, I mean chaise, with Cynthia who's a cop.

 

Columbus day visit with Hector. This time he brought his cousin and sister.

For the last six years, Héctor, Wendy and their daughters have been visiting us on Mayani Farms. The Columbus day 2016 visit Wendy had to work, so he brought his sister Yineza (sunglasses) and her boyfriend Alex. Hector and Yineza's cousin Karla (whom we named our newest goat after). Paul's sister, Sylvia, returned for a two-week visit.

Karla holds her namesake goddaughter, Karla Amapola.

Other visits from Hector, Wendy and the family:

Héctor and Ravi

Héctor and Ravi

Héctor and Ravi

Zamarys is surrounded!

Cristal and Damarys

At the end of 2016 I turned 50! Paul threw me a party and we invited a few people (not many, so please don't feel like we left you off the list. I didn't want to make too big a deal out of it).

50? Seriously?

Me with my very first client AimeeJo (with glasses), her wife Vanessa is on my other side and Steve, who's like a big brother, is in there smiling.

Two weeks later we brought home Bolo San.

I know. You're in love with him. Wait till you see what he looks like now.

He weighs over 90 pounds.

Thanks to our good friend Tina (who's a vet tech), we got to take a vacation. We went to the next island over, St. Thomas, to visit friends of ours. Their farm was destroyed in Irma and their house was severely damaged in both Irma and Maria, two weeks later.

In 2017, Paul and I took our very first vacation together in nine years. We went to St. Thomas.

I also got my medical marijuana card and got off Vicodin for the first time in 25 years!

With Cristal and Zamarys the day I picked up my medical marijuana card. It was a big day! July 2017.

Of course two months later everyone who lives on Puerto Rico had their lives change when on September 20, 2017 Hurricane Maria destroyed our beloved island.

There are so many images I could post from Maria, but I think this one says it all.

The real number of Puerto Rican casualties of Hurricane Maria.

Here is an article I wrote about Utuado a year after Maria. The Spanish version will be published this week.

While we were cleaning up from Maria, I developed Cubital Tunnel Syndrome, which means the ulnar nerve is either trapped and pinched, or it's moving around (called subluxation). I had the latter, which is the worse of the two. I couldn't get in to see a surgeon until December and by the time I did, he wasn't sure he could save my hand or if it would remain deformed even after surgery.

My deformed hand. I couldn't sleep with the neuropathy 24/7.

After the surgery, which was a success, I underwent a few months of intensive physical therapy to regain strength in my hand. I had lost 95 percent strength in my left hand, wish is my dominant hand.

We rang in the New Year with new friends, Mikey and Sheila and Sheila's sister Christal.

Me with Christal and Sheila. There were no photos taken of Paul and Mikey, who stood outside the entire time and chatted.

Paul and me with Héctor and Wendy.

We celebrated a successful surgery by going to San Juan twice to see our friends Héctor and Wendy. One of those visits we saw the Legendary Phil Collins in concert. It was unforgettable for us personally and Puerto Rico as well. It was the first concert held in the coliseum since Maria. He had some beautiful sentiments to share with us.

To celebrate getting use of my hand back fully, in July I wrote and published Sarah's Tips for Preparedness: Minimizing the Impact of a Natural Disaster. It's also available in Spanish. It is based on Paul's and my collective experiences preparing for a Maria the last nine years.

100 percent of the proceeds benefit two non-profits on Puerto Rico.

I think Paul and I can some up our ten years in Puerto Rico with a few words:

  • Farm
  • Writing
  • Animals
  • Hurricane Maria
  • Friends and lots of them
  • Joan
  • Tina
  • Peter and Enid
  • Sheila
  • Mikey
  • Héctor and Wendy and their kids: Cristal, Damarys and Zamarys
  • Caro & Javier
  • Christal
  • Our awesome vet, Hector
  • Olga, Mickey and their brothers and sisters, kids and grandkids
  • Susan (and her late husband, Peter: 1961-2018)
  • Charlie
  • Marsha
  • John
  • The whole de Leon clan
  • Veeta
  • Extreme highs, followed by extreme lows

We love Puerto Rico and we'll never leave! Te amo, Puerto Rico!

Oh before I close this stream of consciousness, I'd like to post a photo of El Balcón del Recuerdo, which just reopened after being hit hard by Maria.

Utuado

El Balcón del Recuerdo in Barrio Don Alonso reopened on August 25th. This was huge for our barrio for El Balcón to reopen. It's been around for years. Even Maria couldn't take it out completely. 
Photo credit: Elisa Ocasio.