'Do these people know each other?,' I asked myself every time I took the bus. But it seemed unlikely that they all knew each other in a city of 400,000 people. As my Spanish progressed, I came to realize that they didn't know each other, rather making friendly conversation with each other was just part of Puerto Rican culture.
I witnessed acts of kindness from strangers at every turn of my head - little girls or older women would assist a woman doing her grocery shopping alone with a fussy baby by carrying shopping bags or making the baby laugh, a stranger would pay the $.50 bus fare for a fellow bus taker that didn't have quarters, and younger individuals would help frail old men and ladies cross the busy streets - classic. Strangers were so familiar with each other, you'd think all of Puerto Rico was just one happy family. They accepted me unquestioningly into their community.
Bee-bopping down the street every day, I was greeted by strangers constantly. "Buen dia", they would say. When I rented a car to explore the island and got horribly lost, gas station attendants consulted with me over Google maps while paying customers either waited patiently behind me or offered to help themselves. The owner of the apartment I stayed in made me Puerto Rican food and took me on a weekend trip on her days off, refusing my offer of gas money. For her, being overly hospitable - in my opinion - was just the right thing to do.
I began to feel a bit unworthy of the kindness of those strangers. Overly sensitive and all too aware of the natural goodness of Puerto Ricans, I started looking for ways to be nice in return. I hurriedly gave up my seat on the bus to an old man or woman, I smiled and greeted strangers on the street, I chatted in rudimentary Spanish about the unreliability of bus #5 with old ladies at the bus stop, and I shared my umbrella countless times during the many sudden rain showers. After having spent two years in Paris, where Parisians are famous for their frigidness and dislike of American tourists, I got a warm, fuzzy feeling from being so welcome in Puerto Rico.
I am now no longer in Puerto Rico, as I returned home to work at the South Bend School District administering the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, but I learned a lot from Puerto Ricans about kindness and caring for strangers. Remembering how they inspired me to be kinder to others, I hope that I can pay it forward here in Pacific County.