Coconuts for Puerto Rico!

Ash with coconut ash in el yunque

I had the privilege of attending the Region 3 NAI Conference a couple of weeks ago in Puerto Rico! What a great place to go for my first NAI Conference ever! It was definitely a crazy experience from meeting Perky the rat to drinking “agua coco” (coconut water) straight from a coconut! What really stood out to me though was the passion and like-mindedness of every individual at the conference. Meeting people that were as passionate (a.k.a. nerdy) about nature as me was a wonderful thing. I think I now know that there are many benefits to attending an NAI conference.
Between networking, learning how to speak Spanish, and attending talks, I got to enjoy the culture of Puerto Rico. This was a huge benefit because it got me out of my normal bubble at the South Carolina Aquarium and into a brand new culture and way of life. I have always loved travelling because of the new perspective it gives you. It’s hard to remember how big the world is sometimes and how different other people may do things. Being able to see how someone does something similar to you in a different way really opens your eyes to the endless possibilities of creative thinking.
One of my favorite days in Puerto Rico was spent at the Humacao Nature Reserve. It was a full day filled with hiking, kayaking, and biking in a beautiful, scenic area full of wildlife that I wouldn’t normally see. Despite my sunburn and blisters, this day taught me so much. I ended up spending most of it with the locals that were speaking Spanish in circles around me. They were so kind to me though, and taught me how to open a coconut, why the river was pink, and why seeing a black necked stilt was just not another bird, but SUPER cool! When the day was all done, the local artisan handed me a gift.. a bracelet with a Coqui weaved into it. Even though the lady and I could not speak to each other because of a language barrier, I saw the warmth and kind heart that she was offering me. That day, I not only was introduced to the beautiful wildlife and scenery, but also the kindness and helpfulness of the locals.
I found the NAI conference to be very helpful for my professional growth. There were many benefits, as mentioned above, from meeting great new friends from all over the Sunny Southeast to tasting Coconut water. I think the overall theme of the conference was connecting interpretation to the community. In Puerto Rico, the sense of community is very important. They all work very hard to welcome the community (even outsiders from South Carolina) and educate the public about what their various interpretive sites are doing. This is what really stood out to me and something that I will definitely bring back with me to the South Carolina Aquarium. Overall, it was a very beneficial conference that I will never forget!!! 

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