“Jail or attend and graduate from our Pinellas Marine Institute (PMI). You decide.” That was basically the admissions process 30 years ago when present day rainforest guide Robin Phillips taught 14-18 year old three-time felons who populated the Institute; an institute whose mission continues to this day on getting juvenile offenders back on track through a differentiated experiential program. Robin would spend six years at the Institute educating and counseling troubled adolescent students before life’s twists and turns landed him and his wife in a two-bedroom wooden house at the south entrance of Puerto Rico’s magnificent El Yunque Rainforest. I met Robin two weeks ago while vacationing with my family and in-laws in Puerto Rico, and just had to share my impressions of this fascinating educator and life-long learner.
It was five days till New Years Eve when our waitress overheard the morning planning for our rainforest trip going on over breakfast and suggested we do a tour with Robin Phillips. “People say his tour is the best. You eat all these different kinds of plants from the forest, and he’s a professor who knows everything about El Yunque. Google him.” Wow, that sounded good to me, but our plans were to do the Northern Entrance to El Yunque (which happened to get approximately 3,000 visitors a day vs. 100 at the south entrance). I did the research and googled Robin Phillips. From his site I read the following:
GUIDED EDUCATIONAL RAINFOREST DAY HIKE Learn the ecology, history and natural wonders of this land while easy hiking, about 4 hours on this 6-8 hour tour. We pass through Sierra palm rainforest, encountering 4 rivers and several beautiful viewpoints. Tour, with consideration of group interest will include ecology, plants, animals, herbal, medicinal, history, and local folklore information. English or Espanol.
Follow the track of a 75-year-old mountain Railroad built by 2000 boys over a period of 4 years to bring electricity to the area by connecting 4 rivers to a 1929 turbine generator still in use today. Learn the secrets of Puerto Rico’s lost animals and native people, why we receive one of the world’s largest rainfalls and have the cleanest air and water on the planet.
Visit one of the most beautiful and remote waterfalls in Puerto Rico where the old growth forest offers a peek into the jungles of past times. Weather permitting, scale the rock falls and ascend to a secluded jungle pool for a swim. Drink water naturally distilled from the Gulf Stream just a few hours earlier.
I was sold and convinced the crew, including my wife’s parents, that this would be a good day. The hike would be “easy” with no bugs, a lovely swimming hole, pristine water, and a personalized tour. Later I would learn that “easy hiking” in Robin Phillips’ personal dictionary is a ten miles jaunt. Ignorance is bliss, however, and the nine of us embarked the following morning to the Phillips’ residence for our tour.
We arrived at Robin’s home after a short 45 minute drive that included scenic vistas and narrow, serpentine mountain roads. We parked ahead of Robin’s driveway which literally rose up the mountain at a 60 degree incline (good thing his wife, Sita, had recently powerwashed the drive or we wouldn’t have been able to scale its previously slimy surface to use the facilities). Robin met us at the road with a smile and walked us up to his humble abode to meet his wife and see the bathroom. There was a lot of stuff littered about the grounds of his perched concrete home, and three things stuck with me from that visit: 1) Eating juicy, sweet grapefruits picked right off the walkway of Robin’s home; 2) Sita showing us photos her son had taken of an owl ; and 3) sliding down a pole off the second floor to get back to ground level. I like unique people. I love their creativity, their brilliance, their curiosity, and their energy. Robin and his family were truly one of a kind.
We’d literally been there ten minutes and were treated like friends. Seriously, I had no idea what to expect from our tour guide and his family. I didn’t know what kind of operation they ran, how they interacted with their guests, etc… What I learned was they loved their vocation. Sita did the bookings and logistical work, and Robin did the maintenance and tours. They enjoyed their guests, many of which include students and professors from different colleges and universities. They also have a passion for the rainforest and the history of the region. Regardless how the day would proceed, I was hooked.
Robin Phillips is a lean, wiry man with greying hair. I guessed late 50s, but he surprised me by being 66 years old. He says his vegan lifestyle and clean, clear rainforest water are like fountains of youth for him. I’ll add the 10-20 miles of hiking he does with the 600 yearly visitors he takes into the forest to that tonic. Robin Phillips is also an informational maven, and his passion for the forest ecology and history were evident throughout the day. We learned a lot from Robin, and we ate many different and unusual rainforest treats throughout the hike. My daughter is in a foraging club at college, and she was truly loving all the foraging going on with Robin that day. We ate fern fiddleheads, rainforest blueberries, nettle berries, Chayote squash (tastes like carrot), Heliconia (tastes like cucumber), Baquinia plant (cures kidney stones), star fruit, mango, and many other things I either can’t spell or remember.
By day’s end, we were exhausted. Kudos to Jeanette and Dennie, my mother and father in law for trekking ten miles with their children and grand children through rain showers, muddy spots, and occasional up and downhill sections. Kudos to my family and extended family for daringly eating things they’d never seen or heard of before, and kudos to Robin and his family for a truly memorable hike through El Yunque National Forest. We learned so much from our time with Robin, and I personally was thankful to have a more authentic rainforest experience than one found at a “tourist friendly” location. Robin gave us what he had given his students 30 years ago, a differentiated experiential program that would reside in our memories for many years to come. And so it goes, Once an educator, always an educator.