Monday, November 7, 2011

happy to be. here. now.

Not to long ago I was having a lazy afternoon drinking coffee with a friend a her flower shop when a customer walks to buy some flowers.  As he picks out his purchase we start up a conversation about his work in youth leadership in the community.  We go back and forth sharing what we do in community, realizing some great potential for collaboration between his and my work.  We exchange numbers and e-mails to continue to talk about my involvement in an upcoming youth leadership conference he is planning to take place later this month.

Sometimes great connections just fall right into our lap, then later lead to other connections.  A few weeks after I met the man in the flower shop I was contacted by a local journalist asking if he could do a piece on my work in Sabanillas and Sabanas and my perspective as a foreigner of this area.  I accepted, glad to have the opportunity to share with a greater audience the presence of Peace Corps in Costa Rica.  

As I start to reflect on my past year here certain things come to mind.  I am grateful for the the lifelong friendships I have formed along with the love, affection, generosity, and hospitality I have received from those around me. (A huge HUG to Rafa and Mile, Zaida and Daniel, Kattia and Guiselle).  I've learned to not be obsessively results driven, to chill out, to take time to drink coffee and sit on the porch just because.  I've enjoyed the mix of generations that happens here.  I spend my free time with people of all ages from child to great grandmother.  From each person I walk away inspired in a different way. 

Time and time again, I been inspired by how visionary Costa Ricans are.  They are always thinking of how to improve and develop their current situation. And, they are super handy. They can fix anything around the house. They use the natural materials around them (wood, bamboo, recycled materials) for everything.  My curtain rods and napkin holder are made out of local bamboo by my landlord.  The milk in my frig is from the cow I milked this morning.  The chicken in my freezer was raised by my next door neighbor.  The cheese I ate today came from the community next to mine. The pigs are fed by sugar cane that grows next to the stable and left overs from the local restaurant.  The water for the farm animals comes from a natural creek.  Life here is more organic, more natural. We life off the land around us and we produce less waste.

I am an addict to the traditional Gallo Pinto (rice and bean dish) in the morning, accompanied with a homemade tortilla, a fried egg, and a little avocado.  With that said,  I must admit whenever I go into the city I find the American restaurant open.  

I've faced challenges in the Education system.  In particular, a lack to resources such as a projector, photo copier, text books, or other teaching materials.  A lack of motivation from teachers has been a problem as well as way too many days when classes are canceled for one reason or another.  I've also had great successes professionally.  Several of my students have passed the final, daunting English exam after literally years of failing.  I've seen professional growth in some of the teachers I work with and a huge increase in students motivation to speak English.

I couldn't be more glad that I have another year here.  In fact,  I wish it was longer.  Who knows the future...


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Six Month Mark

Right after training I had the overwhelming image in my head of a great white canvas.  Being provided with brushes, oils, paints, and a multitude of other resources, I was to design this canvas in the way in which I saw fit.  Throughout the many years I spent in school and in my first job at the law firm I was told exactly what to do and how to do it to succeed.  This was the first time in my life I had the freedom to create. A freedom that was daunting.  Throughout the first couple months of service I was just getting my face out there (getting to know the community, the educational system, the strengths, the needs, and the dreams of the community members).  I started a multi-level English community class as way to get my feet wet for the school year started in February.

As the school year started I had two main issues:  The first was exploring how to balance my time between three institutions: two elementary schools and one high school.  The second was learning how to teach an English class. Although I had learned many theories behind teaching (student-centered learning, the think-pair-share method, communicative activities, the importance of seating arrangements, the whole shebang of non-formal education (aka the Peace Corps model)), I had yet to really put those ideas into practice. This all resulted in very very lengthy planning sessions. My saving grace during my first couple months in site was the soccer field. Getting some exercise, interacting with other young people, and having fun were crucial to my sanity during the transition into my new life in Sabanillas de Acosta, San Jose, Costa Rica. After playing soccer we would go hang out at an abandoned cabin and eat ice pops or walk to the top the mountain and start a campfire. Looking back on my first three months it was so beneficial to be able to connect with these kids and get to know them outside of the classroom before they became my elementary and high school English students.  

Months four, five, and six I really saw some things start to kick off.  I started a grant writing process with one of the elementary schools to get money to fund a typical dance group and a choir in the elementary school.  The beauty in this project was that it was fully supported by the community as the idea originally came from the principal of the elementary school.  I´m pumped about the kids having an opportunity for self-expression and character development.  Plus, extra-curricular activities around here are slim to none.  

I lead five ladies in my town in their first yoga session. Started walking on a more or less regular basis with some of the women in my town.  Had a live Skype session with my first and second grade classes and my wonderful mothers class.  Exchanged e-mails, videos, and PowerPoint presentations with two other teachers back in the States. Tutored a guy in his 20´s so that he could retake his English exam to get his equivalent of a GED (and he passed!).  My Dad and GRANDMA came to visit me for wonderful week of being pampered.  

And! One of the most exciting news to share is that my high school Spanish teacher, Sr. Yutzy is in Costa Rica right now with ten of his students!!!!  They are coming to my site next Friday to spend a day in one of my Elementary schools playing games, sharing culture, making art, and cooking cheese empanadas.    

Peace Corps is always telling volunteers that we have to be patient.  It takes time to see results.  Which despite all of these praises, is VERY true.  These six months have been full of high highs and low lows.  And through all of it I continue to strive to be here now.  To not idealize the past or day dream about the future but live each day in the present and to more than ever be true to who I am.      

I often ask myself, why did I decide to be a Peace Corps volunteer?  Was it to get out of being a townie? Yes.  Was it to see more of the amazing world we live in? Yes. Was it to improve my Spanish? Yes. Was it for personal, interpersonal, and spiritual growth? Yes. Was it to help others? YES!  But as is often true in life, sometimes you learn later on why you ended up where you are.  I´m here for the ride.  To experience life and all the beauty and tragedy that comes with it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Makes a Tico a Tico?

I been noticing little things about Ticos that make them unique and entertaining:  You always know when a Tico is around because you can smell their perfume from a mile away. Ask any CR volunteer and they will agree.  They have a slight obsession with cleanliness and are surprised when I don't shower every day. The smells here in general are pretty overwhelming and repulsive.  Be it too much perfume, the daily burning of trash (including plastic, eek!), the gasoline-like smelling stuff they clean the floors with everyday, or the pollution.  It's a common occurrence to see me poking my head out my bedroom window to breathe-in fresh air or notice me holding my breathe at different times throughout the day. 

Ticos always have multiple bars of soap in the shower because sharing soap is just "too personal."  Don't walk around the house without shoes on...anytime..ever or you'll get sick (or so they tell me).  Beware of giving out your cell phone number.  One must be prepared to receive daily sentimental fowards about love, friendship, and the trials of life. And they might get upset if you don't respond promptly. On that same vein, if you want to make friends, just start watching one of the overly dramatic soap operas that all on all of the 7 channels available.  My best friend here, Yancy, LOVES them.  Want a mid-day snack?  Do it the Tico way and just eat halls (you know those cough drops?)  And lastly, if you want to meet up up with a Tico at 6, tell them 5 and maybe they'll make it on time.

Training is now over and I am in my site where I'll be for the next two years.  About 2.5 hours southwest of San Jose, Sabanillas is deep in the beautiful mountains. The landscape here goes without words.  The roads aren't paved and the rainy season every year is hard on them, so if you decide to visit (which I hope you do) get ready for an extra bumpy ride.  Four buses pass by my site every day, two going to the city at 5:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. and two returning at 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.  This lack of frequent public transportation has attributed to my newfound ability to wake up at 4:45 a.m. and fall back asleep on a yellow school bus that has my body jolting up and down.

I'm living with a precious older couple, Dona Tuna and Angel. They have TWELVE children together, many of whom live in the houses surrounding ours.  Angel has 3 other children with another "amante" meaning he has a total of 15 children. Quite the carbon footprint, eh? Dona Tuna is quite famous here for her cooking abilities, particularly her tortillas which everyone has informed me are making me more robust and according to them more attractive.  I disagree entirely.  Every morning I wake up to the sound of her flattening tortillas with her palm.  She boils the corn and then grinds it, adds a little salt, flattens them, and then cooks the tortillas over the wood-fire stove.  All of my food is cooked over the wood-fire stove.   

Since I've been in site, a little less than two months, I have been tutoring some students here in English who failed their class last year.  They each had the opportunity to take an exam in early February that would determine if they would have to retake the class to move on to the next level.  Erika, a 13 year old girl who lives down the street asked me consistently every week to work with her.  She texted me as soon as she found out the results of the test that SHE PASSED!!  I haven't heard from all the students but I know of at least two others that passed as well!  Summer break has come to an end and classes started up on Thursday.  I'll be working in two elementary schools with about 35 students each and one high school with 200 students.  It's great to know that the work I'll be doing here could have potentially life changing effects.  With the ability to speak English, the odds of getting a good job spike.  Thanks for reading and I hope to write again soon.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Newsflash: Beware of Landslides

It's been an almost nonstop downpour since Wednesday night.  I was hanging out with my host family when the electricity went out.  We told stories in the dark while Mile (host mom) went to look for flashlights.  I got a phone call that night that were are in stage one of Peace Corps Emergency Action Plan (EAP).  This means stay alert, watch the news, and continue daily plans as usual.  The next morning we were still without electricity and continued to be without for the majority of the day. Classes were canceled. We heard that there were landslides all around the country.  Many of which were blocking roads and had destroyed houses.  

Behind my house lives my cousin, Paula.  There was a landslide in front of her house that covered her driveway and poured onto the street.  The family spent the day shoveling the land off the road.  Later we found out that many people were without water, the phones weren't working in much of the country, and the flooding was getting so bad in some places that the roads had literally turned into muddy and dangerous rivers that wash away anything and everything in its way.  The Cruz Roja (Red Cross) has found 20 people dead and they are still looking for four more.  The rain continues to pour but we hope the worst is over.  The rain should be stopping after today.

Later that day (yesterday) I got news from another trainee in my community that class was canceled for Friday as there is no way for our Spanish teachers to get from San Jose to our communities.  The roads are still blocked.  We are also now in Stage Two of the EAP.  This means that we can't leave our communities and should pack a bag incase we have two move to Stage 3.  Stage 3 is when we would be evacuated from our sites and move to a "consolidation point" with all the volunteers in our region.  Classes have already been canceled for Monday as well so we have quite a bit of free time on our hands.  

Other than the landslides things here have been good.  We our Peace Corp Volunteer (PCV) visit last weekend which basically is a time to visit a volunteer who is already serving and see what his or her life is life.  At one point on the seven hour bus ride the bus began to get really full with people jammed through out the aisle.  A women with an around six month old baby said something to me which I didn't fully understand.  I assumed she wanted my seat to hold her baby.  But as I went to stand up she motioned for me to sit down and instead just handed me her baby.  So here I am in some unknown part of the country carrying some woman's baby.  Oh how I wish I had a picture of that.

I went to the north western part of the country to a place called Guatuso.  It was incredibly hot and humid.  Due to the change in temperature my feet and hands started to swell.  They were so swollen that an older male friend of the girl I stayed with commented on them which was actually pretty embarrassing.  Also, her apartment didn't have any windows and therefor no natural sunlight or breeze.  By the end of the four days, I was ready to get back to my training site (to say the least).  To add insult to injury, the bus I took from San Jose to my house broke down.  So we had to wait for an hour for another bus to come and pick us up.  It was quite the adventure.

A funny cultural difference here: when you're walking down the street people say "Adios" as they pass someone.  It's funny to say bye to greet someone but I've grown accustomed to it. 

All and all I have no complaints.  I have a great family to live with, good food, internet, and hot water.  It's also been great to have four other volunteers living in my training community.  Dinner's ready so I need to wrap this up for now.  Pura Vida.    

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sooo last night I went to a family bingo game/party. There were only maybe 50 family members there, all yelling at each other, cooking tons of food, the boys were break dancing and the two little girls choreographed a dance that they performed. I have videos of both that I'm going to put up on Facebook. When I won and yelled BINGO the whoooole room erupted into a cheer. I threw my hands up in victory and went to retrieve my prize (a really tacky valentines day mug with stale candy). The cool thing about this gathering is that it was to raise money for the grandparents. Everyone had to pay a couple dollars for the bingo card and for food. I think they make about $65.

A funny thing that happened last night: My host mom, Mile (short for Milena), always talks about her mom and I never heard anything about her dad. Even when we got to the moms house and Mile introduced me to all 500 family members I only met her mom but never saw her dad. So naturally, I assumed he was dead. Later on last night after a round of bingo, I was talking with Paula, you have to say it PAH-OO-LA, about the family. And I'm like soo, how did Mile's dad die? And she like what? And I'm like did he die? She's like, Nicole, He's not dead!!!! So we bust out laughing and I explain to them why I thought he was dead. Just then Mile's dad walks into the room, coming home from work. Luckily they didn't tell him my mistake.

One of the biggest problems they face here is teen pregnancy. 50% of the births are from women under the age of 18. Now that's crazy. You see a lot of young women (and men) who drop out of high school. By law, they only have to go to school until they are 14. Maybe of these women are single mothers. They don't teach sexual education in the schools. Why not? There is no separation of Church and State, the country is officially a Catholic country. So the Church (and the parents and supporters) will not allow them to teach about contraceptives, STD, or the risks of pregnancy. It seems like contraceptives are not socially acceptable.

While many of the Costa Rican population is aware of the environmental challenges they face, it has been hard to turn this knowledge into action. This is especially true when it comes to the problem of trash. People litter all the time. And even if they don't litter they have run out of places to put the trash. People either bury it or burn it. The country has not invested in trash management and in some placed the trash only comes once and month, if it comes at all.

Another big problem is deforestation. A lot of the forests have been destroyed and turned into a fields for crops to grow. Deforestation is not only a problem because it ruins that habitat in which many animals and plants live but it also pollutes the water. The wetlands are turned into banana plantations and all the the chemicals that are sprayed on the bananas to make them perfectly yellow with no bruises runs down into the watersheds. We, gringos, won't buy the bananas if they have any discoloration on them. The one thing they have going for them is that 24% of Costa Rica is declared protected land. This number is increasing as owners of private property are declaring their land as a protected area as well.

Recycling does happen in some places but often the lack of infrastructure gets in the way. While they might recycle in some places, the cost of gathering the recycled goods and getting them to the recycling center makes the recycling pointless.

Lastly, maybe your sitting here wondering really, what is the Peace Corps anyways. Well, since you asked...

It's government funded program that offers professional services to countries that ask for it. While many programs offer money or goods to other countries, Peace Corps offers people. The goal is to empower people to make their own lives better. In my work here I'm going to be assisting English teachers in the public school system. Why not teach? We want to make a sustainable change in country. By helping the teachers learn and teach English better they can keep on teaching after the two years of service are over. Furthermore, they can teach other teachers what they have learned. Each program in PC is structured in this way. So that whatever program that is started by a volunteer can continue after the volunteer leaves.

That's all I have for now. I miss my family and friends.

Monday, October 11, 2010

PC Training: Week One

My chair started rocking, tipping from side to side and front to back. On the table, the silverware started chattering. “Do you feel that?” says Derek, a previous PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer). With a look of wonder in my eyes, I shake my head yes and say, “What is it”? As he says, “It’s an earthquake,” I grab other volunteers arm in awe and feel the earth shake below me.

Although it only lasted 10 seconds, those few moments were a powerful sign of the adventure that has only just begun.

Orientation at the beautiful retreat center, which felt more like summer camp than PC, has sweetly come to an end. After a week of getting to know the staff and the other volunteers and preparing for training, I am ready to get away from the security of our fellow gringo friends (and hot showers) and enter my community where I will be living for the next 10 weeks.

I’m living with a Melina and Rafael Hernandez Castro AKA Meli and Rafa. They have two kids, Margaret, 13 and Brandon, 8. My new nickname is Niki! They have a nice (bigger than most) house that they have been building for years. My room is upstairs away from everything else so I have a lot of privacy. Although they don’t have hot water, they do have internet which is a huge plus since the community doesn’t have an internet cafĂ©.

We live in the mountains filled with vegetation, animals of all kinds, and lots of rivers. Today I went exploring with some locals here and not only saw a beautiful waterfall but also tried probably 10 new kinds of fruits, saw a huge lizard, two frogs, a very scary insect and all kinds of birds. The biodiversity is phenomenal.

The biggest transition is my schedule. It gets dark around 5:30 this time of year so I go to bed around 9:00 p.m. We have breakfast at 6:00 a.m. and have to be on the bus at 7:00 a.m. I love it here! Tomorrow we start the first day of training.