Monday, September 7, 2009

“Here comes the sun, little darling…”

I hum the title song to myself a lot in my town, but I always change the word “sun” to “rain.” And luckily, despite all the horrible things I’d heard about Costa Rican rainy season- like the rain washes away parts of the road or the buses don’t run for part of the year because of the mud- at least in my town I really can “say it’s alright.” Sometimes it’s even better than alright, because as any Costa Rican will tell you it is sooooo rico (yummy!) to sleep when it’s raining. The rain is often so heavy that you don’t want to go outside and you can’t hear anything inside, so you don’t fee guilty about curling up in bed with a book or a mug of tea and then drifting off. Or sometimes you’ll wake up in the middle of the night to hear it and it’s such a great feeling to know you can roll over and sleep for another 6 hours. (By the way, I usually get about 10 hours of sleep a night, which is more than I’ve gotten since infancy, if ever) Also, my site is incredibly hot, but when it starts to rain I actually get cold- goosebumps and everything!! So it’s nice to have a bit of a cool down in the day before I go back to melting.

I know this sounds strange, but the way it rains here is so different from how it rains back home. When it starts, you can almost always hear or see it coming before it’s actually on you. That’s never happened to me in Virginia- it’s just dry one minute with dark clouds, and then it’s raining. But here, you can hear the rush of the rain or see this huge curtain of it heading towards you, and you have time to run. If we’re at home, as soon as we hear the first drops we race outside to bring in the laundry from the line- but it’s always a gamble because sometimes the water will fall lightly for just a couple of minutes, and other times it will pour for half an hour and the sound of it pounding the tin roof is deafening. As you might imagine, that makes it really hard for our clothes to dry and some of the clothes I don’t wear as much are actually starting to mold!! The other annoying thing is that if you’re wearing flip flops and walking through town, they will kick up the mud and you’ll get to your destination with flecks of mud completely covering the back of your legs.

Rainy season is from around July to December in Costa Rica, but depending on where you are it can last even longer, or hardly rain at all. In my town it is now raining almost every day, but usually once in the morning and once in the afternoon- so you can still live your life pretty normally. But to show you the difference throughout the country, one time some of my Peace Corps friends and I went to the beach and a few drops of rain began to fall. Immediately all of the volunteers living in the northern part of the country began to pack up their things and run from the downpour that we were sure was going to hit any second. But the volunteers from Guanacaste, in the north west hot beachy part of the country, just laid back in the sand and blinked up at us lazily. They knew that it would only sprinkle lightly for a few minutes before stopping. All of us from the north sat back down sheepishly and tried not to feel too jealous that it’d only rained a handful of times in Guanacaste while all of our clothes have been moldy for the past month and never seem to completely dry.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Duck, Duck, Ugly!

On one of my first days in town, I went to the school to observe the Kindergarten class. After they sang and mimed their morning prayer, the teacher turned to me and asked if I had any games or activities I wanted to do with them before she started her lesson. I’d been planning to sit unobtrusively in the corner and take notes, so I was caught a bit off guard, but I recovered quickly and got them into a circle so I could teach them “Duck, Duck, Goose!” The one snag in my plan was I didn’t know how to say goose in Spanish, so I improvised and we played “Duck, Duck, Ugly!” You would not believe how entertaining 5 and 6 year olds find this game, or how it has grown in popularity among the older kids too. We’ll spread out into a huge circle on the soccer field, and I think if we didn’t have to go home before it got dark the game would go on for hours. It is so funny to watch two kids running like mad around the circle of their cheering friends- sometimes they get so excited they forget that they’re supposed to be running to their empty spot in the circle and they just keep running around and around until they get exhausted. A couple of weeks ago, some missionaries from Michigan came to my town and taught us the word for goose so we could play correctly, but ugly seems to have stuck. I think it’s just more fun to shout “FEO!” than “GANZO!”

I’ve also taught the kids that hand game called Down by the Banks, Capture the Flag (which we’ve modified to Capture the Sandal out of convenience), and Red Rover. Red Rover can in turns be hilarious and terrifying- like sometimes a kid will get caught in the chain of arms but will just keep pushing and pushing until they bring about 5 people down into the mud with them. And other times one of the little kids is so short that instead of breaking through the chain at chest level, they’ll hit right at their neck and flip over backwards and my Mommy Instincts go haywire and I freak out until they pop back up laughing.

As you might imagine, however, soccer is still King. We play with whatever ball we can get a hold of – sometimes a kid will have one, other times we have to ask the town president or the young men’s team to give us one, and if all else fails there’s always the deflating basketball from the school. We play barefoot and slosh around in the mud and slip and slide everywhere and cheer when someone, usually me, falls flat on their back and gets up covered in mud. I’d avoided playing soccer with the kids for as long as I could because I’m really awful at it. But there’s only so long you can hold out against those cute little faces. And I have to admit I’m pretty glad I caved. They don’t care that I’m terrible- they always rush to be on my team, body slamming me with hugs or clinging to an arm or leg so that they won’t get put on the opposite team. Even though I suck it’s still a lot of fun just running around and shouting, and I think it has definitely helped my image in the town. People see me walk house to house to round up the kids, they hear us laughing and screaming our heads off on the field, and then as the sun sets they see me take them back home. Since I started playing, more people in the town know who I am and tell me all the time how quickly I’m fitting in. As much as I resisted it before, I would now tell anyone trying to integrate into a Costa Rican community that Soccer is the key.

The kids here make me laugh so hard and I think the time I spend with them is the highlight of my service so far. There’s this one little guy who, when he first met me, kept asking me every two minutes what my name was for about an hour. Now every time he sees me he’s very proud to shout, “Hola, Ach-lee!” I’m called Ashley, Ach-lee, Ass-lee, Allie, As-leen, and several other creative variations on my name. When they want to get a rise out of me, they just call me Gringa. Another boy, who is about 6, informed his parents he’s going to catch up to me in age and marry me- hahaha! He’s always giving me mangos or avocados, so I joke with his parents that he’s already maintaining me and I call them Suegro and Suegra- Father and Mother in law. I would definitely say that my happiest moments in my town are with the kids. It feels like every child in the town has adopted me as an older sister. I always feel so energized when we play and it’s a great feeling to get showered in hugs, drawings, and mangos. I am teaching English to the 4th through 6th graders twice a week at school, and even in a formal education setting where I have to set down the law and make sure they’re paying attention and behaving, I feel like we have a great connection.

Friday, May 22, 2009

My New Home

I just got back from visiting the town where I’ll be living for the next two years. It’s in the northern part of Costa Rica, pretty close to the border with Nicaragua and a wildlife preserve called Caño Negro. It’s soooo hot there- sometimes you can’t do anything but sit on the porch and feel sticky- but it’s also really beautiful, with lots of palm trees, flowers, and fields full of cows. There are about 300 people living there and most work with cattle or grow rice, beans and yucca. The town’s on a dirt road and it takes a bumpy hour and a half bus ride to get to internet, grocery stores, the hospital, etc. I will definitely be giving lots of English classes at the elementary school and to adults who want to take advantage of tourism near Caño Negro. I’m not sure what else I’ll be getting involved in yet, but it could be anything from construction projects to aerobics classes with spandex and 80s hits, haha!

I live with a couple in their thirties and their three children. The Dad is a police officer in a town a few hours away, so he’s only home a couple days out of the week. The mom used to teach at the elementary school, but now she stays home to take care of the kids, occasionally goes around town selling clothing and other items, and also helps her parents, who live right down the street from us, with their cattle. I have two brothers, ages 11 and 7, and a 9 year old sister. They are really cute kids and love spending time with me- whether we’re playing a game, swapping Spanish words for English, they’re firing questions at me about the US, or even just staring at me while I call home on the local payphone. When I got to my house for the first time, they were standing on the porch waiting for me and brimming with excitement. They’d hung up balloons, construction paper flowers, and a sign that said “Bienvenidos a esta casa” (welcome to this house) with each S written backwards and a couple of misspelling- aaaaw!

Overall, my living situation is really great- the house is comfortable, there’s a phone, my brothers and sister are awesome, and I don’t live to far from the town center. However, I am going to have to wage a fierce war against the ants that bite my feet every time I go outside- my toes were swollen and I got these crazy welts on my feet that totally freaked out my host family- they gave me all sorts of things to put on them and would not stop worrying about it. Worse than the ants, I noticed that there were little brown blobs on the top of my walls that looked suspiciously like some kind of animal droppings. One morning when my host mom wasn’t around, I asked my little host sister what lived in my room and she cheerfully told me there were “Vampirios”- bats! Greeeeat. After bat poop landed on the back of my neck I decided that was enough! I talked to my host mom and she said they’ve been driving her crazy since they moved in and she can’t get rid of them. But I’m gonna do whatever it takes! There’s got to be some kind of machine that makes a high pitched noise only they can hear, and I’m going to find it somehowand get them out of my room for good! Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!! If any of you have experience with or suggestions for bat removal, I’m allll ears!

Right next to our house is a cow pasture, so when I look out the window I’m usually face to face with a cow or sometimes the grandparent’s horse, which they bring over to eat the grass- he’s a very effective lawn mower. He is also my main source of transportation besides the buses because my family only has motorcycles (which they keep parked in the living room at night) and Peace Corps doesn’t let volunteers in Costa Rica ride or drive them. The first time I went into town (my house is a little ways outside) my host mom plopped me on the horse and sent me off with my little brothers and sisters on their bicycles and the grandparents’ two German Shepherds herding me in the right direction. People were definitely staring at this procession and I couldn’t stop laughing at how ridiculous this must look and at how lucky I was that I’d actually ridden a horse before.

That day, I’d ridden into town to meet with the Development Association, the leaders of the town, but when I arrived the president explained that because of the Turno, nobody could make it. A Turno is a big festival with dancing, food, and bull riding that goes on all weekend. Instead of having the meeting, I helped my host mom clean up and organize the little outdoor bar and we ended up working there most of the day, getting people beers or sodas. It was definitely an interesting way to meet people in the town! The men are the only ones who drink alcohol really- the whole day I only saw one woman having a beer, and she was a grandma who I suspect believes that after all these years she’s earned the right to throw social norms out the window. The way the men got me to take their orders was by hissing at me (which annoying as it is in other situations where it’s used as a cat call, was actually very effective at cutting over the music and talking) or by calling out, “Macha, macha!” Macha or Macho is the word they use to refer to light skinned people with blue or green “cat eyes.” Even though I’ve never bartended before, it was pretty easy because most people just asked for beers. I practically had to crawl into the big coolers to grab them by the end of the night though. I did have one embarrassing moment when a man asked me for a “bombilla” and I brought him a light bulb, the literal translation of the word. He just stared at me for a second and then was like, “No, no, no my love, I want a shot of Johnny Walker!” I also had a minor freak out when this HUGE bug crawled up my leg and I started screaming and jumping around and trying to kick it off- luckily I didn’t crash into any of the stacked crates of beers but everyone was cracking up.

When we left the bar, we walked over to the bull ring and watched men get bucked around- some of them were actually very good and others were too drunk to stay on more than a few seconds. One thing I learned is that, like in Spain, Costa Ricans whistle during bull rides to show disapproval or criticize a bad ride. At first I was confused because I tend to associate whistles with praise, and I couldn’t understand why they were cheering on the bad riders. After the rider fell or jumped off, all the young men standing around the edge of the ring would run in to chase the bull back into the pen or, more often, try to get it to chase them. At one point they set up crates and had two teams that had to try to get the bull to run after them through their “goal posts” to score points. My mommy instincts went crazy whenever someone got too close and had to leap up onto the ring to avoid getting mauled. I also felt pretty bad for the bulls being forced to go through all of that. There was a very entertaining clown- a man dressed in drag with balloons for boobs and a butt who went around doing these ridiculous dances, shaking his knees around like a chicken and chasing after the men- looking for a new boyfriend. At one point the Association president came out to dance with her and everyone was dying with laughter. After a while we went over to the Salon Communal, community hall, and danced for a while. Ticos loooooove them some Cumbia, which I’m still getting the hang of, but I did what I could and the DJ kept announcing my name in the middle of the songs telling everybody to welcome me to the town.

I had several other cattle related adventures during my site visit. First, I’m terrible at milking cows. It’s a lot tougher than it looks and you have to pull sooooo hard on their utters!! My host grandma totally schooled me after I’d bee tugging at this poor cow for like five minutes with no results and then she came over and like a machine filled the entire bucket full of milk in seconds. Later, I went with my host mom to her father’s finca, or pasture, to count the herd. I rode the horse and she took her motorcycle. After we’d counted them, she announced that we had to move them to another pasture and that she would ride on the road and meet me there, and that I should just follow the cows and make sure they got there alright- they knew where to go. I was left alone with the two German Shepherds and no clue where we were supposed to be going or how to make them get there. The dogs started running after them and snapping at their heels to get them moving, and I just sort of trotted along after them repeating what I’d heard my host mom shout “Ho, ho, ho, par’ aca, par’ aca!” I was half trying to keep the cows from moseying off and half trying to keep them from charging me. It was a bit terrifying and I’m sure I looked ridiculous. Eventually we got to the right pasture but half of them went into the pin- which at first I thought was someone’s back yard and I freaked out- and the other half were jerks and went to the wrong field and my host mom had to round them up again. The next day, we repeated this process and I was a lot more bold about chasing them in the right direction, cutting them off when they tried to run away, and I got them all in the pen! I was so proud- I felt like Nicole Kidman in Australia, haha! Probably the most absurd cow related thing though was when my host family took me to see the bull that died a few weeks ago. I thought they just wanted to show it to me, but before I knew it, there was a rope tied to my horse and the skull and they were standing on the skeleton telling me to pull. They basically had me and the horse rip the head of this bull off so they could mount it on their wall. I was riding through the fields dragging this skull behind me- torn between being totally grossed out and laughing at how crazy this all was.

On my last day in town, I went to visit the elementary school. I watched the second and third grade combined class- there were 11 students total and they were so adorable. During their breaks they would run up to me and ask me dozens of questions, hand me drawings they made for me, or get me to play different Costa Rican hand games. I taught them “down by the banks” and they looooved it! I think I will be teaching them English and doing other workshops at the school, which I’m pretty excited about. When I left town the next day I felt really good because I saw all the kids I’d met the day before, my host uncle, the teacher, and several other people I’d met. It was nice to see that I knew quite a few people in the town after less than a week. Now I’m back in San Jose to finish up the last week of training. Next Friday, I will swear in and become an official Peace Corps Volunteer- YAY!!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Karaoke Rockstars!!

As I mentioned earlier, my family and Costa Ricans in general loooove to sing karaoke. Walking through the streets of San Jose, you can find a karaoke bar on every other corner, and it is a staple activity at any town party. At my house we have a microphone, some huge speakers, and probably about15 different DVDs with songs to choose from. Our favorite evening activity is to all squeeze together on the couch, turn the volume up loud enough to broadcast ourselves to the entire mountain, and take turns belting it out for a good hour or more.

No matter how badly we sing, each performance is always met with applause, bravos and other exclamations like “que lindo” or “tiene un voz de oro” (how beautiful or you have a voice of gold). Most of the songs we have are older ones I’ve never heard, so I listen to Daisy and Gabelo rock out. They both have really good voices and karaoke is more like an art form than a pastime for them. Daisy especially likes slow sentimental love songs and Gabelo prefers the more peppy rancheros and drinking songs. I am pretty much limited to singing Juanes or Shakira, but every once in a while I’ll recognize something else.

My favorite karaoke moment was actually the first time we sang together, about 5 days after I’d moved in. We had the music up so loud that we couldn’t hear Gabelo’s son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids all pounding on our front door. By the time I glanced outside and caught their exasperated faces pressed up to the window, they’d been out there for a good 10 minutes. When they came in, Daisy and Ana Luisa, the daughter-in-law, went into the kitchen to get started on dinner. But Giovanni and his sons Alan (9) and Jason (5) plopped down on the couch to join in. The boys didn’t really know any of the songs but were determined to try. While their dad held the microphone and sang, they climbed on top of him and would randomly shout into the microphone whenever they thought they knew the words. Their best trio was a very dramatic song about nostalgia for home where the chorus is this agonizing cry that the boys especially loved to howl out: PUUUERTO LIMOOOOOOOOOOO-OON! Some other memorable performances included a translated version of Imagine which, to my dismay, totally changed the meaning of the song and Eternal Flame. I started Eternal Flame at their request (clearly I should sing it because it’s in English), but when I didn’t know it well enough to finish Giovanni had to take over- you can only imagine how amused I was.

Friday, April 3, 2009

It’s hard to believe that I’ve only been in Costa Rica for three weeks! Training so far has been a pretty intense whirlwind of new people and places to get to know as well as a lot of information to process. My week is divided up between language classes that are held in my training town on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, technical training with the other rural development trainees in a nearby town on Wednesdays, and then Fridays I catch a 6:15 am bus –yikes!- to San Jose for general Peace Corps information sessions with all of the trainees.

I am living in a small, “semi-rural” town that’s about 24 kilometers from San Jose. It’s really beautiful up here and I love walking out of my house every morning to see the sun rising over the mountains. (I’ll try to put pictures up soon!) I live with a retired couple who were both widowed and married each other three years ago. They are very cute and affectionate together, love to sing karaoke, always have family over visiting them, enjoy 80s music videos, and almost religiously watch the telenovela El Ultimo Matrimonio Feliz (The Last Happy Marriage). I have to admit that while at first I resisted watching the novela, and then became distressed by some of the questionable messages it sent, I have now become emotionally invested in it and every night I find myself huddled on the couch with my host parents- our eyes glued to the screen.

There are four other trainees living in my town and we all get along really well. We like to go to each other’s host homes to sing karaoke or have coffee, and it’s amazing to me how welcomed we always are. I used to worry about dropping in unexpectedly to visit someone or inviting one of the trainees to my house without checking with my host parents first. But after seeing how happy people are when you stop by to see them and how eager my host mother was to meet the other trainees, I learned to rethink my understanding of respecting people’s privacy and not imposing on them. A great example of this was when a couple of trainees in my town were invited to come over for “cafecito” (a cup of coffee and light snack in the late afternoon). The whole group of us ended up coming and we spent a good three hours there talking with the family, receiving an extensive a tour of the grandfather’s garden, and setting off left over fireworks.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Training Update

The past couple of days of training have been great because the sessions are starting to focus on Peace Corps’ development strategies and what is expected of us as volunteers. I have a much better grasp of what my life will be like for the next two years and how to integrate myself into my host community. Now that I have a more realistic view of my role as a volunteer, I feel a million times more confident about starting service. I realized that I am a lot more prepared to do community development work than I thought because of my background in anthropology, the work I’ve done with Students Helping Honduras, and even just my personality.

What I consider the most important and effective aspect of our service is that we are not coming to our communities with an agenda nor is it our job to find things to change or improve. And we aren’t expected to be experts on any one thing. Instead, we have certain tools we can use to get the community to express its own wants and needs. After they have identified things they want to do, we are sort of like their personal cheerleaders who egg them on and support and encourage them as much as possible as they work towards achieving their goals. So we don’t have our own personal projects that we’re working on. Instead, we’re helping to get people more involved in their communities and trying to help them realize their full potential as empowered agents of change.

We’ve also been discussing how Americans have a “doing” mindset, i.e.: what do you do for a living or what did you do today? But for the first few months in our community, our goal isn’t to “do” anything. We are outsiders and our job is to get to know people in our community and make personal connections, not jump in and start changing things. On one hand, I know that at first I will have to battle with my own desire to feel productive or reach certain benchmarks, but on the other hand, it’s very exciting to have the time to truly get to know my community and to be a part of something much bigger than myself.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Goooooood Morning!!!!

So I have landed safe and sound in Costa Rica and I have to say, so far it’s as beautiful as everyone has said. On the 45 minute drive from the San Jose airport to our mountain retreat center on the east side of the city, we saw brilliantly colored houses, palm trees, coffee plantations, lots of US fast food chains, and of course the mountains. The retreat center is a bright yellow compound filled with palm trees, birds of paradise and other flowers, neon green parakeets that seem to never stop squawking- but since they’re parakeets I guess it’s pretty cool- and perhaps most wonderful of all, free WiFi!!! We’re all feeling pretty spoiled because of that, since our internet access will probably be scarce after our four days of orientation here end and we head out to our training sites and host families.

All the volunteers are nice and full of energy, but I have to say so far my favorite person is Carmen, the only volunteer in our group who is a bit older. She’s a 60 year old retired massage therapist who has run 57 triathlons and has the best sense of humor. She joined Peace Corps because she was Sgt. Shriver’s massage therapist and he yelled at her to get her citizenship (she’s from Lima, Peru) and join up! At our staging event in Georgetown, she was my roommate, and when we had to wake up at 12:30 am (that’s right…we got about 2 hours of sleep) she made me coffee and managed to get a bell boy to take our luggage down to the lobby in a matter of seconds when she’d been told earlier it would take at least 45 minutes because they were so busy.

The past two days have mostly been “welcome to Peace Corps” and “what are you excited or nervous about” type exercises. We also felt earthquake tremors- but don’t worry because apparently the epicenter was somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean. Also, it was so light that I didn’t even know what it was. I felt my bunk bed shake a bit and one of my roommates from California asked, “Was that an earthquake?” and I was like, “No waaaaay!” Shows what I know… Earthquakes are a problem in Costa Rica, and we’ll probably be getting a lot of training about what to do in a more severe one. A few months ago the country was hit by a pretty bad one, although the infrastructure here is built to withstand the impact and people have said that if it had happened in neighboring Nicaragua, it would have been much worse. Today, after finally getting a good night’s rest, I was up with the sun at 6. This is our first serious day of training. We have our language assessment, the introduction to our assignments (mine is Rural Community development), and our medical session- where I think we’ll be getting all our shots and our malaria pills- joy!!

That’s all for now, but keep those e-mails coming since I’ll be able to write you regularly until Sunday. Lots of love to all!!!