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thankful

I started to choke up watching the news last night.

I would say that this just means it’s official, I have become my mother – except for the fact that it wasn’t a human interest story. It wasn’t even something personal that hit me close to home. It was coverage of the attacks along the Gaza border, which I really have no connection to.

I think it had to do with Leidy.

Leidy’s new to our first grade class. She has big cheeks like me and long black hair that she almost always wears in pigtails.  I don’t think I have ever seen her without a big smile on her face or her cousin Wendy. They always show up an hour early to class and usually wait in my house, asking me questions or playing Uno.

Today Leidy asked me if I knew why her daddy didn’t come from Nicaragua with her. I didn’t. It’s because he died she told me. Then she asked if I knew why she lives with her seven cousins. I didn’t. It’s because her mom had to stay and work she told me, but she calls every night.

You don’t know Leidy, but that doesn’t make her any less real or diminish the injustice of her story. And that’s all I could think about watching the news. So many more sad stories being written that we will never even know about.

I know it’s Thanksgiving and that I am really not supposed to be such a downer, but that’s actually want this is all about.

You see, this year what I am most thankful for is the kindness of strangers. For the people in my community who have embraced me, invited me into their homes, and shared their lives with me. For the volunteers who, although we just met, accepted, included, and supported me.  Without every single one of them my time here would have been impossible.

It’s a rare moment in your life when every person most important to you on a day to day basis was, only a short time ago, a far away stranger. It makes you see the world differently.

Mark Twain has told us that ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness,’ I would like to say it’s lethal to indifference too. Suddenly, every story and every face becomes a potential friend, ally, or neighbor filled with love and advice – even the stray dogs. No, especially the stray dogs.

I know not everyone has the possibility of putting their life on hold for two years to pick a machete and live in a developing country, but maybe you can take a second to get to know a stranger where you are. Maybe you can volunteer, even just for an afternoon, in order to open up your life to something new and different.

I realize it sounds cheesy (and I know I am an idealist) but if we each made an effort to do this, to know each other’s stories, there would be so many fewer strangers left. And maybe the news wouldn’t be so sad anymore.

I want to thank everyone who has donated to my computer lab project – we are so close!!! I am a little embarrassed to not have sent out individual thank you cards just yet but the Peace Corps has a policy of not releasing the information of who has donated until all the money is in so I honestly don’t know who to send them to at the moment. Silly bureaucracy.  But I do appreciate you!

bridging the gap

Over the last year and a half I have had friends and family ask what I need, how they can help me in my work or life and up until now I haven’t had a good answer. Well that has all changed big time. Right now I need everyone’s help in making my current project a reality: building a computer lab for my community school.

Why is it so important to me that the kids in my community have access to computer classes?

A fellow Peace Corps volunteer recently informed me that HP is the biggest non-governmental employer in Costa Rica and it is just one example of the numerous tech based industries that are springing up across the small country. In almost any developed area basic computer skills are a necessity if you want to find a job.

In my community most kids will never touch a computer until well into high school. As you can imagine that puts them at a great disadvantage, first in their education and eventually in their ability to be employed. It also forms a physical barrier between the world they live in and the vast, interconnected global community that has sprung up around them.

Right now my town is small, relatively poor, and isolated by an inadequately maintained road. Most families live with several generations in the same house and kids will go on to take over the farm that their fathers are currently working. While it sounds (and can be) idealistic it is also fraught with fundamental problems like hunger, abuse, and ignorance.

In the next year that road is being paved and the lifestyle in my community will change dramatically. The people who live here will be thrust into the 21nd century weather they feel ready or not.

I am not saying that I want my students, who have become my friends and family in this country, to leave el Higuerón and take on a soul sucking career at an office somewhere in the city.  However, neither do I want them to be resigned to physical labor in the countryside because they never had the opportunity to learn the skills they need for today’s job market.

For me, building this computer lab represents giving them the option to choose how they want to live their life.  Am I putting too much faith in a set of 18 computers? Of course I am – but the process has to start somewhere.

So please help me! We have already secured a donation for the computer equipment and most of the funds to build the actual facility but are short just around $5,000.  Any amount you can donate ($10, $25, $50…) would make a huge difference for us. You can donate easily and directly through my project link on the Peace Corps website HERE. It is tax detectable and every penny goes directly to the project where it is overseen by yours truly.

Make it my early Christmas and birthday present!

These are words of wisdom from my 9 year old nephew who came (along with my sister, her daughter, my aunt and my cousin) to spend 12 days with me in Costa Rica.

Aside from being the most fun I have had in a long, long time it was a great opportunity for reflection, and I feel like Ty really summed it up. Traveling changes you – and what bigger trip is there than two years in the Peace Corps? So I am using their visit as an excuse to try to restart this whole blogging experiment.

The trip started with 4 days in my community. To my delight, it kicked off (pun intended) with the kids joining a game of pick up soccer with locals before we had even unpacked the car. There is something almost magical about a group of children who don’t share a common language or cultural background enjoying a mutual pastime – they make it look simple enough for grownups.

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Those became the two themes of the time spent in my site: futbol and seeing my service through new eyes. No one asked me why we hadn’t started asphalting the road if we have the money secured or how come I couldn’t get a grant to rebuild the community center and why hadn’t I started a small, eco-friendly, female owned, organic, carbon neutral business – aren’t I a development volunteer after all?

In fact, none of the questions that keep me up at night seemed to bother my family at all. Instead they made themselves part of the community: my sister, a talented artist, designed a mural which students joined us in painting on our remodeled health center. My beautiful niece and cousin made all the boys too nervous to talk when guest teaching an English class. Sarah and Haley even sat through an almost two hour meeting of my senior citizen’s group (complete with ranchero music and poetry) despite not understanding 90% of what was being said.  They ate rice and beans, played with my poorly trained dogs, ooh-ed and ahh-ed over local wildlife and helped me take the bugs outside instead of smushing them.

It was a good reminder of how much I take for granted, the multitude of ways in which my perception of normal has changed over the last 15 months.

And then I got to enjoy Costa Rica as a tourist. Let me tell you, this is a great place to vacation! We headed to the beach during turtle season where my dad treated us to a week in a picturesque beach house set on a hill above the ocean.

For those who don’t know, I spent the first 16 years of my life dreaming of being a marine biologist so getting the chance to see (and swim with!) sea turtles was… well, there aren’t words for it. Costa Rica is one of the few places in the world where the Olive Ridley Sea Turtles still nest in mass and as a community organizer it was good for my soul to see how the entire town comes together to protect these ‘parrots of the sea’.

Even better was the time spent with family I haven’t seen in far too long: playing cards, swimming, collecting seashells.  My travels may be changing me but some things will always be the same.

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lucky

I’m sitting at the dusty and dirty bus stop in Canas, willing myself to stop crying, when a little old women sits down next to me and starts a conversation.

She is deeply wrinkled. I don’t mean crinkled with crow’s feet and frown lines, I mean she looks like someone took her skin, scrunched into a little tiny ball and then slipped it over her slight frame wrinkled. She begins to tell me about when she first arrived in the north of the country, thirty years ago, when there was no running water or electricity, no roads or bridges. Even though she’s actually talking about the 80’s it adds to her ancient aura.

Her accent is so thick I can understand only about 60% of what she says but I smile along to the rest, constantly wiping my nose and dabbing at my eyes.

How did I end up here, at this crummy bus stop being pitied by a true campesina?

My parents came to visit.

No, that’s not quite right. I had an amazing week and was gifted more things than can fit in my tiny room because my parents came to visit. I was whimpering in a bus stop because they eventually had to leave – and I reverted to a kindergartener on her first day of school.

As tough as it was saying goodbye to my mom and dad having them in country was nothing short of magical.

My dad, who is 100% man, rented an all-terrain SUV to brave the roads in Costa Rica. And thank god he did. They arrived the day that ended two weeks of rain in the country – and therefore the day that should have begun reparations for all the washed out roads. It didn’t.

We ventured to the coffee laden hills above San Jose to visit and my host family from training. Liz, my tica-mom, cooked us a lunch so elaborate that she had to bring her next door neighbor in for reinforcements. As if that wasn’t enough she had also hand-painted not just my parents but my two sisters souvenirs from Costa Rica. These people have reinvented the word hospitality.

They also got the opportunity to meet Abuelo Loco who kept shouting at them that I was his girlfriend, unaware that increased volume did not help them understand Spanish, luckily. Despite the fact that he is already in his late seventies he was dirty from riding his horse over to work in the coffee field that morning. I guess I could go worse as far as gene pools go.

Heading north to my town my parents got to live like volunteers for a few days in my modest home enjoying the cold showers and abundance of indoor insects. They patiently attended mass at our Catholic church. It incidentally was the longest of all time, which I am sure was even more enjoyable when you can’t understand a word of it.

Equally as patiently they participated in my English class, received a tour of my town and visited various houses. I say patiently not because my town isn’t beautiful and fascinating, it is (come visit!) but because they had to sit around while I did my best to translate everything.

My dad also waged war on the centipedes in my house. He lost.

I trekked them along a grueling but breathtaking hike to see Rio Celeste, a river that runs an aquamarinish blue color not far from where I live. It’s said to be the only of its kind in the world. Unfortunately I forgot that it is more like 4 hours (not two) and maybe got us lost once or twice. Though we did eventually find the hot springs and did not get bit by either of the snakes I saw, so all in all I’d say it was a success.

If you’ve already started skimming this blog, don’t worry, I’m not going to chronicle every minute of my parents visit just a few more highlights.

We headed to Monteverde which is a private ecological reserve and the country’s (world’s?) only cloud forest. We got to see sloths, monkeys, tarantulas, hummingbirds, frogs and so, so much more (come visit!).

For me our guides were perhaps the most amazing part of it all. They were incredibly knowledgeable and friendly, answering any question I had and even testing me on my Spanish – all the while imitating bird calls and pointing out jumping ants.

They were also the first people to explain the meaning of my town’s name, El Higueron. Up until this point I had only been told that it was a ‘tree without a heart’ and that all of them had been cut down in our area. Well, it turns out it is a Strangler Fig – maybe my pueblo is a little too aptly named? –a beautiful tree that grows around another tree, killing the host and leaving what appears to be a hollow tree in its place. A tree without a heart, if you will.

Anyways, that cleared up a lot for me.

From Monteverde we traveled on a breathtaking ferry and some heart stopping roads to the beach of Montezuma where we saw more monkeys, really close this time, some old hippies, too close as always and one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

We also met Carlos. If you don’t know my mother (you should, she’s amazing) you needunderstand that she makes friends we everyone. She’ll just walk up and introduce herself, whether or not you speak English. Carlos is a restaurant owner whodoes speak English, is almost as friendly as my mother and happened to be on the ferry the next day. By the end of the boat ride he had comforted us all on our pending separation and promised my parents to take care of me in Costa Rica, never mind that I could fly to America almost as quickly as I could get to the beach he lives on.

Not much later we come to the beginning of this post where my parents had to leave me and I reverted to a six year old version of myself blubbering in public. Not because I don’t truly love my life in Costa Rica, but because having them be a part of it for even a short time made the whole experience that much richer and better – it’s just plain hard to go back to the simpler version without them.

I left out the hours of driving we submitted ourselves to and the numerous ways my parents spoiled me throughout the week – let’s just say it was better than Christmas – but hopefully I conveyed a little bit of how amazing of a time it was (come visit!).

ps if you haven’t heard from me in a while it probably has something to do with my computer breaking (thank you mom and dad for the new one!) and then my internet going out. Sorry! I should become a real person again soon.

getting started

It’s been a little slow trying to get things moving here – think swimming in a pool of molasses – and I was also having this reoccurring dream (nightmare?) that I was in Costa Rica preparing for the ‘real Peace Corps’ – which is of course located somewhere else much more difficult. Subtext of my subconscious: I felt guilty about having a hard time in what in many ways really is paradise, which only compounded my stress levels making things more difficult, which caused me to feel more guilty, and so on… Umph.

This is what happens when you’re raised Catholic.

Enough of all that. I’m coming up on my seventh month in Costa Rica and forth month in my town of El Higuerón. Other than attending birthday parties, baby showers and making tamales with old women I’ve actually began a few little projects – for those of you who are wondering what on earth I am doing with my life (and it’s ok if you were, sometimes I do too).

My one ‘completed’ project was a BINGO fundraiser put on with the Health Committee. We raised enough money to put two new doors on our health center, which were installed last week, but I did not win any of the prizes in the BINGO. So, you know, mixed results.

I’m still tagging along to all the meetings with our local development association trying to the road into my town paved. There is really no way to express how fundamental this would be to the community’s development. It would increase everything from access to healthcare and employment to being able to have our trash collected so people would stop burning it. We are coming up short about $30,000 for $600,000 budget (not bad) so if anyone out there has some extra change they want to throw our way…

I am also working with the local school to start an environmental education and recycling program that looks promising. It’s partly selfish: I just can’t bring myself to bury or burn plastic bottles.

Three teenage girls from the town have agreed to team up with me to start a group for girls aged 8-12 called Chicas Poderosas, or Powerful Girls, that includes a series of 11 workshops where we discuss themes from self esteem to nutrition to planning for the future. This is probably what I am most excited about as there are literally no recreational activities for young girls in our town and, not surprisingly, we struggle with high rates of teen pregnancy.

I’ve been tacked onto the sports committee which is looking for funding sources to put lights on the soccer field and I have been trying to support the women’s group getting a small factory built where they can produce their ice cream products but it is starting to remind me a little too much of working with a sorority. And not the good parts.

There are also my English classes, which continue to happen every week but it’s anyone’s guess who learns more – me or the students.

It’s rainy season so most things have started to mold (including my jeans, shoes and new puppy who has some kind of fungus I’m trying to treat) and grow like crazy. Sometimes I feel like I’m really living in Jumanji only without the lion or Robin Williams.

The wildlife we do have here never ceases to amaze me: I saw a sloth cross the street with on a telephone wire with its baby on its belly, it was straight out of planet earth, and I temporarily had a pet lizard in my room. How did I know it was my pet lizard and not one of the hundreds of others scampering around our house? I put a spot of hot pink nail polish on its back. I think I have a future in animal tracking.

I also have to share with the world that I took a five hour bus to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers play live in San Jose. Just that.

So that’s the cliffnotes version of my life right now. I’m not exactly saving the world, but I could be doing worse.

a day in the life

One of my best friends asked me what I actually do here every day and I realized that some of you might find this interesting. Because I am still in my first three months at site my days don´t vary much so here is a basic breakdown:

7:00 am – Wake up to chickens, monkeys and a three year (usually) crying.

7:30 am – Go for a run on our road/obstacle course. Dodge large rocks, cow pies and angry dogs. Try not to twist my ankle. I am proud to say that I have only fallen once and it was only because a herd of cattle got in my way.

8:30 am – Cold shower from a broken tube in our wall. I’ll be honest, cold showers are what I most dreaded about joining the Peace Corps, they used to make me cry, but now I relish them. Sometimes I take three a day. On a more somber note Phil my froggy friend has long since disappeared. I suspect Vivi or my shampoo to be the culprit.

9:00 am – (Notice that I am ready for the day in under thirty minutes) Coffee and breakfast. The most common breakfast here is gallo pinto which is basically the black beans and rice from yesterday fried up with some cilantro, chile, and tomato. It’s actually delicious and keeps you full all morning. However, after finding a cockroach in mine one day I usually try to opt for tortillas with eggs or empanadas filled with beans or cheese.

9:30 am – In general there are three things I do with my mornings: laundry, go to Upala, or visit the school.

  • Laundry is by far my least favorite as it is a whole morning activity of washing, rinsing, hanging, etc and I never feel like my clothes are truly clean. Also, it leaves my hands super dry and I’m already down one great sundress because of my complete ineptitude in almost all tico household chores.
  • If I need to go to the bank, grocery store, print, or deal with the municipalidad I take a 45 minute bus to Upala which is our nearest ‘big city.’ I think the city center is about 7,000 people. Inevitably wherever I go they will stare at me and then tell me I am in the wrong office and send me to another just so I can walk around the city in circles sweating until I end up where I was in the first place.
  • I spend a lot of time hanging out at the school here because we have a really great school director who loves me for some reason and the teachers are very welcoming. Plus the kids always hug me a lot and I love hugs. We usually talk about what projects I could do with the school or they ask me questions about English.

12:00 pm – Lunch time! I’ve slowly been moving our household away from the dependence on rice and beans to more variety of vegetables – and lots of fresh eggs. Yum!

1:00 pm – My afternoons involve teaching English, visiting houses, conducting interviews, attending committing meetings, listening to gossip and trying to convince my hosts that I really cannot eat anymore, but thank you very much for the coffee, tortilla, egg, juice, sweet bread, arroz con leche, cookies and fruit. It was all very delicious.

6:00 pm – I usually try to be home about this time because it is completely dark by 6:30 and everyone in town starts to worry about me if they see me out after dark.

7:00 pm – Dinner! Usually the same as lunch.

7:30 pm – I watch Nicaraguan news and soap operas with my family because the only channels our antenna picks up are Nicaraguan, if that gives you any idea of our geography. It really makes no difference to me, though I think they are more dramatic.

8:30 pm – I try and work on my diagnostic at least an hour everyday and then read until I go to bed. If Viviana’s 37 year old boyfriend comes over I put on my headphones so I can’t hear them passionately making out on the couch and maybe take a Benadryl to go to sleep faster.

And that’s it!

Life here is a little different than the suburbs of Gresham or downtown DC and I went through a pretty serious rough patch – change is always hard and this has been a BIG change – but overall I would consider myself happy.

I learn something new every day and am constantly having experiences that I could have never dreamed up. Mostly I am learning about myself, confronting my shortcomings and discovering new strengths. It’s an eye opening, if sometimes challenging, process.

happy fathers day

No matter where I am in the world when people learn that I come from a family of three girls the response is inevitably “oh, you’re poor father!” and I generally agree. My sisters and I weren’t exactly a cakewalk and anyone who has lived through three teenage girls deserves a medal of honor – which goes for both my parents.

Whenever I’m having this conversation in my mind I always see the image of the first time I had my heart broken. I was in high school and my mom was out of town visiting family. My poor dad was alone with me and had to hold his sobbing, fully grown daughter and try to explain to her that the world was not ending and yes, she would love again. Like I said: no cakewalk.

That being said, as I look back on the photo montage of my life I can’t help but notice that they really sealed their own fate. For instance, if I had not always had such a committed, loving relationship as a model I probably wouldn’t have such unrealistically high expectations for the men in my life or be heartbroken every time a relationship doesn’t end in a 35 year marriage.

The next slide is of them tearfully hugging me goodbye after I decided to attend what was not only the most expensive university in the country but the furthest from home. Who’s fault is it really that I was raised hearing the phrase “You can do anything you put your mind to” every day?

Or what about this whole Peace Corps thing? I know it’s tough to have your youngest daughter living in the middle of nowhere Central America but who encouraged me to follow my sense of adventure? Brought me to the middle of the desert and the bottom of the ocean? Who consistently reminded me of the importance of giving back to the world?

Sure, I’ve cost them a few gray hairs (or hairs in general, sorry dad!) and I probably would have done some damage to their blood pressure if they weren’t so freakishly healthy, but it’s really all their own doing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wouldn’t be here without them.

I wouldn’t be anywhere without them and anything I accomplish is only possible because of them.

Happy Father’s Day mom and dad. I love you.

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