Monday, May 17, 2010

Saying Goodbye

I am writing this final blog from my home in New York. It feels strange to write this anywhere other than my kitchen table with its view of my mango tree. It also feels strange for it to be almost mid-day and not be sweating.

The last week of my Peace Corps service was illuminating. Goodbye after goodbye, I learned what my presence in my site really meant for those with whom I had contact. The first such instance occurred at my despedida (goodbye party) at the girls’ albergue. On a weekday afternoon, I sat down in the home and spoke with the girls and the tias about my departure. The girls were baffled by the fact that I would be traveling in a plane (“does it hurt? Isn’t it scary? Will you crash?”) They then, one by one, handed me cards and letters thanking me for taking care of them. After the cards and kisses, the spunky Tia Ruth gave me a picture frame and a card. Then the girls surprised me with a giant tres leches cake.

After eating a big slice of cake, and chatting with the girls, I got up to go. After saying my goodbyes, Tia Zobieda approached me. A stark contrast to the loud and grabby Tia Ruth, Zobieda is taciturn to the point of awkwardness. Casey and I used to call her "The Turtle" because she rarely spoke or moved in our presence. She was always kind, just shy.

As I went to say goodbye to Zobieda, she pulled me aside and thanked me for my work in the albergue. For the first time in the two years in which I worked there, she opened up. She held me close and told me that my work with the girls had really given her a chance to breathe. My classes and workshops were great, she told me. “Vamos a hacer mucha falta de usted, David,” she said. We will miss you very much, David.

I was quite touched by Zobeida’s words. A struggle that I constantly had to deal with throughout my service was the feeling that nobody appreciated my work. It made me question the value of my presence in my site. Because of this, a simple “thank you” affected me deeply.

That Sunday, I had my despedida at the children’s albergue. It was a bright, hot afternoon. I had my new friend Nick with me; he was the volunteer who would be replacing me at the albergues. His new site was a kilometer or so down the road from me.

Walking into the green albergue is always an inspiring experience. I approach the gate and yell “UPE!” which is Spanish for “knock-knock.” There is then a chorus of shouts; “DAVID! DAVID!” A clamoring of footsteps is then heard, and finally a dozen kids crash against the gate and give me high-fives. After we were welcomed in the traditional manner, the kids led us to the back porch where Nick and I were immediately given heaping plates of arroz con pollo. After introducing Nick to the tias and children, we feasted.

This party was quite different from the girls’ party. Most of the children are quite young or mentally disabled, so they couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the fact that I was leaving for good. So I made sure that they got to know Nick, while I got sentimental with the tias over yet another cake. At one point, I looked out into the yard to see the kids playing soccer with Nick, and smiled. My little guys would be cared for. Before leaving, the tias gave me presents and said tearful goodbyes. They told me that I always have a home here and that I am welcome back anytime.

After putting Nick on a bus back to his new site, I walked home. On my way, I stopped and said goodbye to my neighborhood acquaintances. I walked to my gym, and said goodbye to Jorge and Luis Carlos. We exchanged information, and they told me that I always have a home here and that I am welcome back anytime.

I popped into my green grocer and told him that I was leaving. He looked shocked, and then disappeared into the back room. When he came back, he presented me with two ripe avocados. We shook hands firmly, and then he said to me that I always have a home here and that I am welcome back anytime.

I then went to my barber shop and told him that I was leaving. He told me that I was a good guy, and not to worry about balding. We shook hands firmly, and then he said to me that I always have a home here and that I am welcome back anytime.

I then said goodbye to my video store friend, Yaco. His wife made a big fuss, and took a lot of pictures. He gave me a handful of DVDs and told me to come back soon. We shook hands firmly, and then he said to me that I always have a home here and that I am welcome back anytime.

The bike repair guy and I then said goodbye. I think that he appreciates me because I always shook his hand as I passed his shop even though they were usually dirty. After a few words, we shook hands firmly, and then he said to me that I always have a home here and that I am welcome back anytime.

I then walked down my street in the ghetto project called Jireth (I could never previously reveal the name of my site due to security concerns). I passed by my neighbors and waved to them until I came to the house of my admirer. She was sitting on her porch, swaying in her rocking chair. I went up to her, and told her that I would be leaving in a few days. She got up and hugged me, and told me that it was nice to have me around. As I turned to leave, she said “I’m sad that you are leaving,” I smiled. “But if you want, stop by my house before you leave for a quickie.”

That night, Yessenia had a despedida dinner for me. She and her warm husband, Coca, thanked me for my service. It was strange for me to be thanked so much, because these were the first sentiments of thanks that I had received in my time in country. Coca, Yessenia and I passed my last night in Puntarenas drinking beers, getting sentimental and talking about the past two years. When I left, I did not feel sad. Yessenia is a true friend and I know that I will be seeing her soon.

The next day, I made my way to San Jose. That afternoon, I had lunch with Mama Ligia, my training host mother. After eating a hearty lunch of Olla de Carne, I wandered around my former training community of Patarra. I said goodbye to Lucila, Casey’s training host mom. I then went to Marjory’s house (where Julie stayed). I spent an hour or so discussing the future with Marjory (who can only be described as “salt of the earth”) and her family. After more teary goodbyes, I got on a bus and headed back to San Jose.

After a few hours at the Peace Corps office spent signing papers and doing exit interviews, I was no longer an active Peace Corps volunteer. I received certificates proving my service, and language fluency. What struck me most though was my Description of Service: a two page long document signed by the country director outlining my main accomplishments as a volunteer. As I read through each bullet on the paper, I grew proud. It had been two long years of hard work, and I was done. I realized that I had accomplished my goals here, and could leave feeling satisfied and without regrets. And leave, I did.

Yesterday, I boarded my flight home feeling quite anxious. I wasn’t worried about anything in particular, yet found myself grinding my teeth. Then we took off, and I felt sad. The land was so beautiful, and I was leaving it. The mountains, so richly covered in green rainforest; the water so blue and clean. As we headed north, we flew over the Poas volcano. I looked directly into the crater and saw the turquoise water shimmering in the sun while sulphury plumes of smoke burst forth from the surface. The land is so alive, I thought as we passed over the border into Nicaraguan airspace. I am going to miss Costa Rica, a land bursting with life.

I slept a few hours. As we made our descent, the New York skyline came into view, and my mood changed. Costa Rica is alive with volcanoes and rainforests and monkeys, but New York is alive with a different kind of energy. I can’t say that one is better than the other, they are both awesome. On the ride home from the airport, we passed through my favorite neighborhoods on a perfect, sunny Sunday afternoon. And as I saw the streets, so full of life, and the beautiful women in short skirts, I knew that I would be okay.

I am thankful to the Peace Corps for giving me the opportunity to see another kind of land and life. I am grateful to the Tico people for introducing me to their culture. I would like to thank my parents, my brother and sister-in-law, my family and close friends for their support over the past two years and three months. Lastly, I would like to thank my fellow PCVs for getting me through. You know who you are.

Thanks for reading, and pura vida!

Dave Larkin

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What I will miss about Costa Rica

What I will miss about Costa Rica (in no particular order):

1. The Sun
Every morning, I wake up to a brilliant sun. Even in the depths of the rainy season, the morning hours welcome rays that burn off the remnants of the previous night’s rain. These rays bring with it a heat that makes sleeping past eight impossible. I never get that rainy day gloom that makes you want to stay in bed all day. I always hop out, look to the sun, and start my day.

2. The Two Crackheads on my Corner
Ever hear of a crackhead with a heart of gold? Well, they exist. Every morning, on my way to the track for my daily run, I pass a lovely crackhead couple. They always chat with me, and remark what a beautiful morning it is. They never hassle me for money; they just want to get to know their local gringo. The woman always tells me to run some laps for her. They tell me “God bless you,” and I tell them the same.

3. Yessenia
My neighbor Yessenia is the most put together person in my entire site. She makes sure that her kids go to school and do their homework, an aberration here. She is a known leader in the community; people look up to her. When we dine together, I do no get the usual Tico conversation about the weather. Yessenia has educated herself. We often find ourselves talking about women’s rights in Costa Rica, Tico politics, and education. She is the only person in my site that I trust.

4. Travel
Whenever I meet tourists on my travels in Costa Rica, I feel sorry for them. Even on a long vacation, there is no possible way to see all the wonders that Costa Rica has to offer. I am thankful that I have had two years to explore the country. I’ve been all over, from the super touristy to the remote sites of fellow volunteers. I’ve had the privilege to get used to cloud forests and howler monkeys. I’m terribly afraid that I am going to return to the beaches of the Northeast to find myself thinking “you call this a beach?” Something tells me I’ll be back.

5. My Gym
When I first arrived, I started working out at a gym owned by a guy named Choppa. Choppa is about five foot five and two hundred pounds. The measurements of his biceps may rival that of most people’s waists. If anyone saw him running anywhere, one could wonder if he wasn’t out looking for his neck. He is huge, as if he had jumped out of a weightlifting magazine. He is a good natured fellow, prone to doing irresponsible things like slapping me in the belly as I bench pressed. I liked going to his gym, but then one day (strangely the day after I made my monthly payment) he closed down shop.

I was then forced to join a different gym which turned out to be better. Jorge’s gym is closer to my house and nicer. Jorge is quite different from Choppa; physical trainer certificates hang above his desk. He creates custom workout plans for his members. He is lean and outgoing, and doesn’t make crude jokes or unsavory comments to the women of the gym like Choppa did. Also at the gym is Luis Carlos, my favorite. Luis Carlos is super friendly, and makes a point to say hello to and check in on all of the members. Usually, I don’t like to be interrupted during my workout. However, I don’t mind when Luis Carlos wanders over to shoot the shit with me. He is learning English and likes to practice with me.

After my workout, I usually spend a few minutes hanging out with the two. It is hard to find people my age that are cool and fun to be around, which is what makes seeing Jorge and Luis Carlos so enjoyable. Therefore, going to the gym has been more of a social experience than part of a routine.

6. My Porch
The best part of my house is the big front porch. After I wake up, I usually sit out there on my rocking chair with a glass of juice and toast and watch the day unfold. In the evenings, I like to sit in the same spot and watch the sky grow pink behind my neighbors’ houses. Behind the house across the street from me is an average palm tree. There is nothing special about the tree. But as the sun goes down, the palm fronds form beautiful comb-shaped silhouettes which sway and click in the breeze. Farther behind the palm, to the south, a giant oak tree hides the horizon. From the oak, hundreds of birds sing as the clouds reflect the rich colors of the sunset. Most evenings, I sit in my rocker and take the scene in until the darkness comes and washes it all away.

7. Other PCVs
My friend Max closed service just a few months after I began mine. Shortly before leaving, he said “the best part of Peace Corps is Peace Corps Volunteers.” I couldn’t agree more. I have made several friends who I know that I will be close with for the rest of my life. I have also met some PCVs who are not so great, but for the most part, PCVs are good people. The only problem with the PCVs in Costa Rica is the severe lack of hot Jewish women with proclivities for short, balding men.

8. Solitude
When my host family moved away, leaving me with the house for my second year, it was the first time in my life that I lived alone. I’ve always had roommates or house-mates. At first, I was a bit worried because I am a social person. However, it only took a few days for me to realize how sublime life alone can be.

The transition was stark: I went from a loud host family crammed into a small house without a hint of privacy to having my own little haven. At first, I celebrated the freedom by making lavish dinners for myself and drinking glasses of wine every evening. But then I got used to having my own house and fell into a smooth rhythm. Doing laundry, going to work, cleaning up. Never before was I in charge of everything, and I liked it.

Most important was the line that my house drew in the sand: work is out there, leisure time is in here. When living with a host family, one is on the clock twenty-four hours a day. A volunteer is obligated to speak Spanish, learn about customs, and help out around the house, all of which can be exhausting. Living on my own allowed me to end the workday once I got home in the evening. And once alone, after a day of screaming children, the solitude was delicious.

9. Puntarenas
Puntarenas is authentic. It is the most Tico city that I’ve seen in Costa Rica. You would never find anything written in English. Whenever I see gringos walking around, I ask them in my head “are you lost?” Even though the heat here in “the Puerto” is known to be the worst in the country, nobody here has air conditioning. The Puerto has baked its traditions into the small spit of land that it occupies. The spirit of the Puerto remains strong year after year. Fishermen haul fish from the waters off its shores, and chefs brine it to make ceviche, the flavor of the Puerto.

Sundays in the Puerto help me to see the beautiful side of a Tico culture that I often find myself at odds with. Upon stepping off the bus, I notice that the center of the city is deserted. Shops are closed, the streets are empty. The desolation reminds me that it is okay that I am not working, and that it is okay to relax. As I walk south toward the beach, I sense a vibration, a hum of activity. By the time I smell the salt air, the streets are more crowded. As I step onto the “Paseo de las Touristas,” the transition is complete and I am mobbed with people. Vendors are set up every ten feet selling everything from snow-cones to carne asada to beach sandals. Across the street from the ocean walk is a row of restaurants offering fresh seafood. Lines of shower stalls fill some lots, mostly for the people enjoying the beach before heading back to San Jose.

What I like most about the Puntarenas beach is that the people are all Ticos. Most of them are from the area, but many are from San Jose and the central valley. For most Ticos, this is the beach. Before touristy beach towns sprouted up all along the central pacific coast, Puntarenas was the only real option. And the San Jose Ticos have been faithful. They come back to the Puerto for the traditions like salsa dancing on the beach and the pescado frito. Puntarenas is a Tico beach.

As I walk along the beach on a Sunday afternoon, I see Ticos at their best. Families bring tents and tables and chairs and set up camp. They heave giant pots of homemade arroz con pollo onto their tables and eat as a family after playing in the surf or lying in the sand. Babies stumble around naked as fathers teach them how to navigate the hot sand. Raisin-skinned old ladies sit together under the shade of the coconut trees looking out onto the surf. Couples kiss unabashedly; husbands slap their wives scantily clad asses. And I sit on the seawall drinking cold coconut water, taking it all in.

10. Chepe Despiches
For my lack of a desire to incriminate myself, I’ll keep this portion short. Allow me to explain, “Chepe” is a nickname for Jose. Therefore, “Chepe” is also a nickname for San Jose. “Despiche” is Spanish for “shit-show.” So as you can imagine, Chepe Despiches are weekends in which the lonely, bored volunteer leaves his or her site to go a little crazy. In our sites, everyone knows us, and we volunteers must be on our best behavior. However, we are anonymous in San Jose. We can let loose, which is exactly what we usually do.

I always feel excited as my bus pulls into San Jose, and always incredibly relieved as it pulls out. The partying is always great, with an extra buzz of excitement because we can speak English and see friends whom we have not seen for long stretches of time. But it never feels good to wake up in San Jose, a city of grime. So while the despiches are fun and necessary, it always feels good to get on that bus and back to my site.

11. The Albergues
The albergues have been the keystone of my work here in Costa Rica. I love the kids. I have grown into a family member for most of them, Tio David. While many of the kids come and go, there have been a few who are long-term residents. There are only two who I have known during my entire service, and I feel especially attached to them. However, I hope that I have been able to make the traumatic experience that is life in an albergue a more positive one for the many children who I’ve known for only a handful of weeks or months. I will miss the albergues more than anything else in Costa Rica.

12. Catcalls
I will probably never again get them. But I like them. It lets me know that, no matter what I feel about my appearance, somebody out there finds me attractive, even if that person weighs more than I do and has no teeth.

13. Fireflies
When I turn the lights off at night, and lay awake in bed, I am never alone. Fireflies hover over me, floating across my room. My eyes follow them for as long as they can before closing and trailing off into sleep.

14. Eating My Site
In my back yard there is a dead lemon tree, a live mango tree and a chili pepper plant. During my first year of service, my host mom would pick lemons off the (then live) tree and make lemonade with them. At the beginning of the rainy season, my mango tree bears fruit. There is something amazing about eating a purple, ripe mango that you have seen grow from the size of a pea to the size of your fist. And to cook anything spiced with a fresh hot pepper from the yard adds a special something to the dish.

There are countless more things that I will miss about Costa Rica and my Peace Corps experience. I am thinking about including them all in a book that I may or may not write using material from this blog.

I know that I said this last week, but this could be my last blog entry. If it is, thank you for reading it. If you have any questions, you can email me at


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Three Showers

It has now been two years, two months and two weeks since I left New York for the Peace Corps. Just to write that sentence gives me pause. Has it really been that long? At times, my service seems like it has passed in the blink of an eye. Other times, I wonder if the Peace Corps hasn’t tricked us and secretly kept us here for seven years in stead of two.

A lot has happened during these years. When I left, George W. Bush still had a whole year in office ahead of him. The Yankees still hadn’t started their final season at the old Yankee Stadium. The economy was booming. The Michigan Wolverines had just beaten Tim Tebow and Florida in the Capital One Bowl. Things sure have changed.

I have about two more weeks left. As I approach May 16th, 2010, the last day of my service, I vacillate between two thoughts: “I will miss this place,” and “get me out of here.” I think a lot about what I will miss, and what I am looking forward to in my new life in NYC. But before getting too nostalgic, I decided last week to take one last trip across the Nicoya Gulf to one of my favorite places in Costa Rica: Montezuma.

Montezuma is a small, heady beach town at the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. My friend Meaghan lives just outside of Montezuma in a small town called Cobano, so we often find ourselves meeting for beach weekends. Throughout my service, Montezuma has become comfortably familiar; I find myself saying hello to acquaintances whenever I walk down the main street. The town always seems available to me; each time that I leave, I feel that I will return. However, it dawned on me the other day that I only had one more chance to get out there. So last weekend, I called up Meaghan and told her to meet me there for the weekend.

After a hot, sweaty trip across the gulf and the peninsula, I stepped off the bus and found myself facing the endless Pacific Ocean. The smell of the salt calmed my nerves. I remembered why I needed one last taste of pure, clean Tico beach. Unlike Puntarenas, the sand is silky and wildlife abounds. I left the beach and met Meaghan on the corner where I gave her a swampy hug. We then walked uphill to where our hotel was tucked into the mountain.

Luna Llena is a beautiful half-hostel, half-bed and breakfast. The porch smelled richly of incense and was tastefully decorated. The German woman who runs the place exudes the spirit of “Pura Vida,” which is especially prominent in the town some call Monta-fuma. She gave us keys to our spartan room, and then pointed out the hotel’s best asset: the view. Beyond the porch stretched a slope of mango and palm trees falling into the village and ocean. We put or bags in our rooms and then sat for a while catching up and watching the waves crash below us.

I then took the best shower of my life. The shower that I selected was a free-standing structure at the edge of the compound. Two walls faced the rest of the hotel, while two were made of windows that overlooked the forest and ocean. The water was cold, which I relished as it relieved my overheating skin. I looked out past the trees into the setting sun and was glad that I had decided to make one last trip. As the rippling sea turned purple, I realized that this weekend was about more than seeing a nice beach, but about saying goodbye. The goodbye is not just for the village of Montezuma, but to the natural Costa Rica that I have grown so fond of. I looked out the window again to find a family of howler monkeys munching mangoes not twenty feet from where I was bathing.

That night, Meaghan and I had dinner at my favorite place in Montezuma: El Sano Banano. El Sano Banano is also a hotel where I have stayed several times with family and friends from back home. Behind the hotel, Meaghan and I dined on fresh seafood that was undoubtedly caught earlier that day in local waters. This was the very patio where my mother had an interesting experience with a hungry blue jay, and where my college buddies and I nursed hangovers. The memories were all around me. With only days remaining before my departure, I felt the need to point them out.

The next morning, I took my second nature shower. I saw the early morning sun dance across the face of the Pacific while listening to the morning birds. The shock of the cold water woke me up and felt great. I wondered if I would ever take cold showers back home. I once read that taking cold showers helps prevent depression. However, I quickly realized that on a winter’s day, cold showers would probably do more to depress me than cheer me up.

After a bit of breakfast, Meaghan and I hiked through the morning heat to perhaps my favorite place in Costa Rica: the Montezuma waterfalls. They look as if they were peeled off postcards. Surrounded by forest, the cool pools are like oasis. The first waterfall stands at about seventy five feet tall, pouring water over jagged rocks. Meaghan and I took a dip in the first pool to cool off, and then continued climbing to the second waterfall. It is the second waterfall that holds the fondest memories for me. I remember my college buddies and I gathering enough courage to stand at the edge of the falls, look down forty feet into the pool below and jump. It is a place that, as one tourist told me over a year ago, is “fucking paradise!”

I stood at the edge once more. To stand at the lip never fails to put butterflies in my stomach. As I pushed off, I recognized the metaphor in my act. I was taking the plunge: jumping into something new, leaving the past behind. As I sailed through the air, my mind emptied of all of these thoughts. My mind was clear, empty of all the apprehension that I feel regarding the closing of my service. For one second, there was no vacillation. No premature nostalgia. Just the feeling of weightlessness as my body hurled past the falling water, then splash.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing on the late afternoon beach. As I lay in the sand, I thought about the weekends spent in the library that this fall would inevitably bring. While I am really looking forward to law school, I especially appreciated the beach at that moment. God only knows the next time I’ll be able to just hop on a bus for the weekend and wind up on a tropical beach.

That night, I took my third and final shower. Sand fell off my body and gathered in the corners of the basin. So much of my life in Costa Rica revolves around sand, sunscreen, heat, sweat, open air houses and being outdoors. I thought about the enclosed showers I’ll be taking back home in the enclosed homes. Everything here is open: houses, doors, windows, families. Ticos live truly open lives. While this has oftentimes frustrated me and denied me of the privacy that I, as an American, need, it has taught me something. Ticos are open and happy. So as I stepped out of my open shower, I thought about my future in New York. I’ll be studying, working, and probably stressing way more than necessary. With all that going on, I should probably refrain from closing myself off. I’m going to try and be more open.

I am now back in my site, where the apprehension and goodbyes continue. Yesterday, I watched Casey say goodbye to the Albergue kids, then said goodbye to him myself. It really is ending. Knowing that only a handful of days separate me from my flight out, I’ve continued to take note of and appreciate the meaning in the little things, the way I did in Montezuma.

This very well may be the last blog that I write from Costa Rica. Knowing this, I must acknowledge the joy that writing the blog has provided me. I hope that you, my readers, have gotten something out of it as well. See you all when I get home.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Throughout my two years here in Peace Corps Costa Rica, there have been two students whose potential has caught my attention. Juan* is one of the elementary school dropouts in my “Aula Abierta” class. Jordy is the bright star of the “green” albergue for younger children. Both kids never cease to impress me with the quickness in which they process my lessons and themes. My observation of their intelligence leaves me feeling both hopeful and apprehensive. Both of these children are going to need a significant amount of support and guidance if they are to realize their potential.

The other kids in Aula Abierta call Juan “Gordo.” Juan embraces the nickname and sometimes even introduces himself as “Gordo” to new teachers and students. However, the dub is a misnomer. Juan may have a bit of a pot belly, but is hardly fat. He is a gifted soccer player, and carries himself with grace and poise. His face is round, but handsome. Juan is confident to the point of cockiness, but has his anxieties. The adoption of “Gordo” hints at such self-consciousness. While Juan participates in his fair share of horseplay in the classroom, he respects it. He listens intently to my lessons and the thoughts of his classmates. It is as if there are two Juans hidden under that thick skin: “Gordo:” the class clown, and Juan: the genius.

To say that Juan comes from a troubled family is an understatement. On my fourth day in my site, I went for a run along the ocean-hugging road known as “La Costanera.” Not long into my run, I was accosted by seven young men on bicycles. They stopped me, put a .22 to my chest, and took my money. Several months later, Juan told me an interesting story. As he was walking along the beach with his uncle at the Puntarenas carnivals, his uncle spotted me in the crowd with the albergue children in tow. He pointed me out to Juan and told him about the time he and his buddies held me up for the equivalent of four dollars. The uncle laughed, but Juan didn’t. His family had attacked a teacher for whom he had shown nothing but respect.

Juan’s grandmother sells drugs. His mother sells drugs. It is not such a shocker that in his mid-teens, Juan is selling. One may look at this child and consider him a goner. But he still comes to school. When I arrived in the Aula Abierta classroom in May of 2008, he was there. During the academic year of 2009, he was there. However, as the year wore on, he would start showing up less and less. During the last months of the semester, he was nowhere to be found. But each year, including this one, he turns up again. Sitting at his desk with a smile and an open notebook, he puts “Gordo” aside and reveals the real Juan.

Juan lights up the classroom. He shows great enthusiasm for the English language, and learns faster than anybody else. Every now and then, he annoys me by asking me to translate all words pertaining to the smoking of marijuana. But for the most part, Juan pays attention, participates, and helps me keep the other students in check. When we are working on a new concept in English, I observe the wheels turning in his head. I see that English comes easy to him. In a country like Costa Rica in which English equals a career, his potential is limitless.

I once heard Warren Buffet explain why he was a liberal. He told his audience that being born is like a lottery. One can get lucky and be born into a comfortable, supportive family, or be unlucky and be born to a disadvantaged family. He explained that he got to where he is today by winning that lottery. How easy it could have been for him to be born into poverty! It was therefore his responsibility to do what he could to help those who were not as fortunate as he.

His explanation struck a cord in me. Where would I be if I was born into a family where the cards were stacked against me? A family in the South Bronx? A township in South Africa? I surely would not have received the quality education that I was lucky enough to get. With this concept of the “birth lottery” in my head, I often wonder: what would happen if Juan was born into a family as educated and supportive as mine?

The thought of Juan in a clean home, doing homework with his father is too much for me. With his charisma and critical mind, I imagine how he would whoop ass in a college classroom. When I bring myself back to reality, I realize that in all likelihood, this will not happen. I do what I can to provide him with skills he can use to pull himself out of Jireth. He has the mind, he has the attitude. But the “crabs in a bucket” syndrome runs deep here. All I can do is maximize the time I have with him, hope for the best, and let him go.

Jordy is very different from Juan, but shares the same challenges. Those who don’t know Juan call him a “vaga” (bum), and are legitimately afraid of the drug dealer. However, Jordy comes off as a well-bred, wholesome kid. People say hello to him on the street because he and his little brother, Bairón, are outgoing and well-known in the community. Like Juan, Jordy is extremely intelligent. I see it when we study for tests together. The “ah-ha!” moment comes all too quickly for Jordy. Jordy is also incredibly perceptive. With his deadly combination of book and street smarts, his potential is overwhelming.

Juan’s family may be a band of unsavory characters, but at least he had one. Jordy and Bairón are wards of the state. The only thing that we know about his parents is that they were refugees from Nicaragua. Bairón has severe mental disabilities, which imply a lack of proper prenatal care. Despite the fact that their parents were incapable of caring for them, Jordy and Bairón are amazingly functional.

Jordy has beaten the odds and has been thriving in the albergue. This may be because the tias in the albergue do a good job of caring for the children. He is fed and clothed. The tias make sure that he goes to school every day and does his homework at night. It is not unusual to have a kid enter the albergue with egregious signs of abuse: lacerations, burns, bruises, dental and nutritional problems. However, after a few months in the albergue, these children usually fill out and appear healthy again.

However, an orphanage is not enough to provide Jordy with the life he needs. Jordy comes off as a normal kid, but much lies beneath the surface. He has a complex mind that has been evolving. Jordy is one of the few children at the albergue who I have known for my entire service. Over the past two years, I have watched him learn and grow. What I have recently observed worries me.

At the precarious age of twelve, Jordy is changing both mentally and physically. His muscles are becoming defined; his face is taking on a more mature expression. He is still excelling in school, but adopting a different attitude. He is talking back to the tias, bossing around his brother and the other smaller children in the albergue. I often find him disciplining Bairón, and have to explain to him that I am the adult and that discipline is my job. But this logic is not followed by Jordy who is, in fact, becoming an adult. When I first met Jordy, he was happy being a child. But new hormones are pumping through his veins; I can tell that his coming of age will be at odds with albergue living.

Adolescence is arguably the most fragile time of a person’s life. I remember how difficult it was for me to get through. Everything gets turned upside down. Suddenly those who got bad grades were the coolest. Hanging out with and being accepted by one’s peers becomes priority one. For me, it felt like I was walking on a tightrope: a future of trouble was one wrong step away.

In elementary school, I was a good kid. I got straight As in school, did what my parents asked. However, things got a bit shaky in the eighth grade. I got in trouble at school. My grades were no longer that string of pearly As. But my parents and brother were there to keep me moving along that tightrope. My family was then, and still is, my advocate. They spoke to me about the changes that I was going through, and helped me deal with the tremendous drama that was life as an adolescent. They were the safety net under that line. The problems we dealt with helped build me as a person, and made me the man I am today. I am pretty sure that I turned out okay.

The invaluable support that a family provides at such a turning point in one’s life is what Jordy is missing. Sure, a tia can get one through such childhood dilemmas as losing teeth or wetting the bed. But the complexity of adolescent issues requires a real family. Jordy knows this, and has become angry. What gets me is that compared to the mess that accompanies adolescence in most people, Jordy would be easy. He listens. He wants to do well, and makes good decisions. That anger and uncertainty in him could easily be mollified by a competent parent.

I do what I can to help Jordy in this transition. We take walks, and talk about the issues in his life. When he gets into a rage, I take him to the park to throw the Frisbee around. The repetition calms him, and eventually cheers him up. Once his nerves are cooled, he always opens up.

The role I play helps, but is not enough. It tears me apart. Sometimes I contemplate adopting the brothers. But that dream quickly evaporates as I consider the sea of debt I am going to be in over the coming years. And how, exactly, am I going to raise two Tico boys in New York, without any income while getting my JD? Bairón calls me Papa. A twinge of pain goes through my heart as I correct him. “Tio, Bairón,” I say. “Soy su Tio.

My role in the lives of Juan and Jordy are exactly what my job description requires of a volunteer in the Children, Youth and Families program. I am happy to play such a part, but can’t help but wonder if my work will yield results. The two boys are walking the tightrope, and I don’t know how much my efforts will do to keep them steady. For them, the stakes are higher than they were for me; I had a safety net.

As I prepare to leave Costa Rica for good, I hold onto the hope that my involvement in the lives of my students will make a positive impact, no matter how small. I did not come here expecting to “save” my community or the children in it. Juan may continue selling drugs. He may become addicted to drugs. Jordy may fall in with the wrong crowd and damage his academic record. However, if something that I did helps either of them to choose a healthier path, then I have succeeded. The hard part about leaving is that I will never know. But something tells me that the real Juan and the bright Jordy will be all right. And it is that intuition that makes it possible for me to prepare to say goodbye and close my Peace Corps service in Costa Rica.

*The names of people mentioned in this post have been changed for their protection.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Hiking Corcovado

Last week, my girlfriend Elizabeth took a short break from her life as a Teach for America member in Miami, and came to visit me. Elizabeth (everyone calls her “Z”), comes from an outdoorsy family, which is just like mine, if you consider the sculpture gardens of museums outdoors. Since I have discovered an affinity for the great outdoors during my time here in Costa Rica, Z and I decided to take our five days together and hike across Costa Rica’s largest and most remote national park: Corcovado.

Every time Z arrives in Costa Rica, I feel as if a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. She is classically beautiful and very intelligent. She works in the Miami-Dade public school system as a geography and civics teacher in a “D” middle school. The neighborhood in which she works is unsavory, and the children can be difficult. Z grapples with the same problems that I do as a Peace Corps volunteer. With so much in common (we both went to Michigan, have similar work, have an unhealthy obsession with fine foods and wines), it was only a matter of time before we came together. For the first time in years, I have found myself in love.

With Z in my arms, we boarded our small Nature Air plane headed for Puerto Jimenez. Normally, I am quite frugal here in Costa Rica. However, the bus ride to Puerto Jimenez lasts ten uncomfortable hours, whereas the flight lasts forty-five short minutes. So Z and I splurged and bought ourselves two extra days of vacation by winging our way south toward the desolate Osa Peninsula of the south Pacific coast. I peered down as we flew, admiring the blond mountains of the central valley, the Cathedral point peninsula of Manuel Antonio, the unique “whale’s tail” spit at Bahia Ballena, and finally the untouched wilderness of the Osa. Staring down at Corcovado as our tiny plane descended, I whispered to Z, “there’s nobody there.” I was right.

The heat smacked us in the face as we deplaned. It was welcoming for me; the weather of Jimenez is comparable to that of Puntarenas. This was Z’s first time in the overbearing Costa Rican heat. We were both glad that we had an air-conditioned room waiting for us at the fantastic Cabinas Jimenez.

We strolled through the small town, passing marisquerias, sodas and the promenade that lines the shores of the Gulfo Dulce. Immediately, I knew that Puerto Jimenez would be very different from the towns I know on the central Pacific. It was calm, safe, and clean.

That night, we took it easy. We had a short meeting with our guide, Rodolfo, at the tour company’s office. Pointing to the map, he showed us our route, and mentioned animals that we may see along the way. Rodolfo was a handsome Tico, who was clearly very experienced. After thanking the genial Rodolfo, we went to a restaurant where we ate fish that was clearly caught that day. Back in the room, we got our packs ready, and went to sleep.

When the alarm went off a bit after four in the morning, I jumped up and got myself ready. Z looked at me like I was crazy and caught a few more minutes of sleep. After coating myself in a film of sunscreen and bug spray, I was ready for the adventure to begin. Little did I know that what was coming my way would wipe the boyish smile off my face.

Rodolfo and his driver picked us up in a white, four-door pickup at five-thirty. I didn’t really give much thought to him when he said that my pack was a bit heavy as he tossed it in the back of the truck. I told him that it was the two big bottles of water that I had packed. “Uh-huh,” he said.

We drove on a newly paved road that was evidence of the growing popularity of the Osa. We stopped for breakfast at a little shack of a soda. As Z and I put away fried eggs, gallo pinto, coffee and avocado halves, I chatted it up with the proprietors and Rodolfo. I was giddy.

After a few kilometers, we pulled off the paved road and left civilization. At one point, we stopped and Rodolfo pointed out a pair of toucans eating their breakfast in the trees. The toucans were fun to look at. Their bodies are small, yet their beaks are huge. It is a wonder that they can fly with those neon colored things hanging off of their faces. Rodolfo then pointed to the other side of the road, where several scarlet macaws were playing in the branches. For those who are unfamiliar with scarlet macaws, think big parrots, but with deep red, blue and yellow feathers. The colors are so strikingly beautiful that it looks as if someone had painted them on. After watching them fly around, we got back in the truck and kept driving toward the park entrance.

A few kilometers further, we came to a river that split the road in two. “Shit,” I thought. “The road is out. What are we going to do?” My heart missed a few beats when I realized that the driver was not slowing down, but speeding up. With a few bumps, he flew the truck into the river, and drove right through it. After this happened a couple of times, I learned that the roads in those parts simply went through rivers if they weren’t deeper than two feet. So through the rivers we went until we reached the wooden structures of the Los Patos ranger station: the entrance to Corcovado National Park.

The driver waved to Rodolfo, Z and I, and drove off, leaving us with forty-five kilometers of hiking ahead of us. Each of us sprayed liberal amounts of high-deet bug spray onto our limbs and began our hike. The first day of hiking was through primary rainforest, which meant that it had never been touched by humans. With the lush foliage walling either side of the trail, we made our way up and down the hills. My hands immediately began to swell, and my arms started to tingle from all of the poisonous deet I had applied. Up and down we went, and before I knew it, I had sweat through every item of clothing on my body. Worried about dehydration, I took big gulps from my bottle.

Rodolfo led us through the paths effortlessly. He wore a small backpack and a tiny water bottle. Z walked behind him, and I behind her. As difficult as it was, we kept up with Rodolfo, who had the manner of a boy taking a light walk though the woods. We clipped away the kilometers at a rapid pace, which made both Z and I incredibly tired. I biffed it a few times, rolling my ankle on the omnipresent tree roots.

Regardless of the pace, I was happy. I kept thinking about how lucky I was to get to see such a beautiful place. My mind wandered to pure places. I thought about God, and how only he could create such beautiful birds and trees and animals. My mind was floating; I was high on the rainforest.

After a few hours, we stopped at a river to take a break. Z and I took several swigs from my bottles, while Rodolfo sat on the bank, smiling at the sun. We already looked worked, yet Rodolfo had not even broken a sweat. He took a small sip from his bottle and looked at me.

“You sweat a lot, eh?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “That’s why I packed extra water. I sweat so much that I get dehydrated quickly”

“What do you mean extra water?”

It was at this point, that Z and I realized that Rodolfo did not have the two big bottles of water that he told us he would bring. The smile on my face fell away. Z and I gave each other looks that said “oh, fuck.” Rodolfo picked up on this and said “this river water is fresh. It is safe to drink.” I looked up at Z who gave me a sharp, warning glare.

“I’ve already had Giardia once,” she said. “You go ahead if you want to.”

I stopped drinking my water and put the bottle away. Dehydration is one thing, parasites are another. We stood up to continue the hike.

“How much ground did we cover?” I asked

“About five kilometers,” Rodolfo responded. “We have about nineteen more to go.” I frowned at Z. “But the rest of the hike is flat.” I smiled at Z. “So we are going to have to pick up the pace!” I grimaced.

So we left the riverbank, and hiked so fast that I felt like I was running. At this point, I was already exhausted and began the long process of keeping my mind off of the immense amount of ground that we had to cover. At first, it was exciting; I imagined that I was Daniel Day Lewis in the climax of The Last of the Mohicans. The music started playing in my head, and for a while, it worked. After a bit, I fell out of the role that my head had created for myself. Somehow, “Old MacDonald had a Farm” crept into my head because Rodolfo had mentioned something about pigs. This played in my head for a good while, until I realized what was happening and made it stop. I can assure you, at this point, I was feeling the beginning stages of dehydration.

I switched the song in my head to "Fugee-La" by The Fugees, and that raised my spirits for a moment. Then I became so miserable, that I wanted to punch my past-self for floating on air at the beginning of the hike. I began to thing of all the possible ways that the hike could be worse: if I was in Nam, and Charlie was behind those giant trees; if someone was chasing me with a knife; if I didn’t have Z there with me; if I was lost; if I had a hangnail on my toe; if I had the flu. This is what ran through my mind as my body rapidly leaked water that I didn’t have to replace it.

As we hiked the final kilometers of our journey, things got pretty bad. I, of course, did not tell this to Z or Rodolfo, because I am a man. However, I do remember us stopping and Rodolfo pointing out a unique tree. I looked at the tree and it slowly began to morph into different sizes and shapes as if I was on acid. “That’s a nice tree, Rodolfo,” I slurred. “Now, let’s go.”

With a kilometer or so to go, I found myself more stumbling than walking. By this time, I had developed an unbearable chafed rash between my legs, and my hiking shoes had cut into my ankles, drawing blood. Rodolfo stopped us, went into the jungle, and came back holding two lemons. He cut one in half and handed Z and I some lemon. I looked at him with total confusion. Would the lemon quench my thirst? Are the liquids enough to make an impact? I sucked juice from the lemon and looked back at Rodolfo with pure anger. The lemon was sour as hell and only made me thirsty. At this point, I was not sure what was going on.

After twenty-four kilometers of hiking, we emerged from the jungle into a clearing. Across a great green lawn was the Sirena ranger’s station. Z and I heaved off our packs, took off our mud-soaked shoes, and sat down on comfortable Adirondack chairs. Rodolfo brought us each a giant bottle of water, which we promptly downed. Several people were sitting on the porch of the compound, and looked at us with interest. These were all people who had arrived by boat or plane. A couple of them began asking us questions which I answered in a language that was not entirely English. Z and I kissed, and sat for a while regaining our strength. Rodolfo came over and informed us that we had done the 24 kilometers in six and a half hours: half an hour short of his record.

The Sirena ranger’s station is a surreal place. Surrounded by untamed rainforest for dozens of miles in every direction, the compound is completely isolated. About three-hundred meters down a grass landing strip from the beach, all supplies and materials are brought by boat and plane. The place was an oasis for us, a hallucination.

After catching our breaths on the porch, Rodolfo showed us around the grounds. We would be staying in a tent which was in a shared, screened-in room. There was a dining hall, a few dorm rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom with showers. He told us to shower, and then check each other’s whole bodies for ticks. I looked at Z and gave her a wanton look. We smiled for the first time in hours.

After peeling ticks off of our bodies, we suited up again for our late afternoon hike to the beach. Feeling rejuvenated by the water and shower, I was chatty again. We were on our way to the mouth of the Sirena river. After a paltry kilometer’s walk through the woods, we emerged onto the most deserted beach that I have ever seen. For miles, there were no people, houses, buildings, or any sign of civilization. We realized just how remote Sirena was.

My whole life, I have been obsessed with sharks. I did projects on them in elementary school; Shark Week is a holy time for me. Therefore, my excitement grew as we strolled along the beach toward the river mouth known to be the best shark watching spot in Costa Rica. This was the moment that I was waiting for.

The sun inched its way toward the horizon, seeming to hover over the blue ocean. We gazed out at the spot where the river meets the ocean, looking for fins. Suddenly, there they were: big bull sharks. They looked black with the sun behind them. Sporadically, one would pop its dorsal and tail fin out of the water, revealing its size. Stalking the shallow waters for fish popping out of the river, the sharks always can be found at Boca Sirena. After years of studying sharks, I finally saw one in the wild. It was exhilarating.

After a bit of shark-watching, Rodolfo took us away from the ocean to the banks of the Sirena River. Z and I stepped up and felt very glad to be on the south bank; on the opposite side lounged three giant crocodiles. One lay with his mouth open, exposing rows of large, white, razor-sharp teeth. Two of them seemed very relaxed, but one was walking around. As we watched them sun themselves, we grew as tired as they must have been. As the sun sank lower and lower, we abandoned the beach and made our way back to the station.

After a surprisingly good dinner in the dining hall, Z and I crawled into our tent. We curled up together and asked Rodolfo what time it was. 6:55. We spent the rest of the evening telling each other stories of how we met, which surely induced the vomiting of everyone else in the room. That night, we slept like logs.

Once again, we were awake at four, and hiking by a bit after five. This time, I had no illusions about what I was getting into. We had nineteen kilometers to hike, half of which was on the sandy beach. The cuts on my ankles made every step feel as if someone was cutting my Achilles tendon with a razor. My inner thighs were on fire from the rash, which made me walk bow-legged. My shoulders felt like they were being stabbed with daggers because my pack was so heavy. I was not a happy camper.

For someone who generally likes long walks on the beach, I was miserable. Every step was difficult because the sand gave so much. I found myself winded before we even ate breakfast. I admired Z for making it look easy as she glided across the deserted beaches. Rodolfo still had not released a bead of sweat, which made me hate him a little. Soaked with sweat, I took it one step at a time: “mule consciousness” as my father calls it.

While grueling and painful, the hike was exciting. Right away, we saw the rare Tapir running on the beach and bathing in a river. We saw monkeys, pisotes, anteaters, toucans, scarlet macaws and many interesting trees. The beach itself was both beautiful and haunting. At dawn, the beach looked smoky and mysterious. Shedding trees loomed over the sand and off of the bluffs and headlands. We were the only ones for many miles, swallowed by the massive park.

This time, I did not think about Vietnam or The Fugees. The pain of the hike was all-encompassing. It made it impossible to think about the beauty around me. Because of this, I collapsed in joy when we reached a resort at the exit of the park. Z, Rodolfo and I drank water, and relaxed after crossing the park’s south boundary. I slept in a hammock for half an hour before realizing that we still had three more kilometers more to hike on the beach to our rendezvous point with the white pick up. Feeling a bit revitalized by sleep, I strapped on my sandals and joined Z for the last leg of the journey.

These were the worst moments of my life. I had to stop frequently and rest. Z was a saint and walked with me. I was ready to kill Rodolfo for no reason other than the fact that he still hadn’t broken a sweat. By the time we reached the truck, I was considering the possibility that Rodolfo was a robot. I still ponder this sometimes.

The two hour ride from the town of Carate back to Puerto Jimenez was just pure. Z and I had done it: 45 kilometers in a matter of hours. When it came time to get out of the truck, neither of us could walk; our muscles had seized up. After falling into our rooms, we showered, checked for ticks and went to sleep.

It is only a few days since I returned from Corcovado, and my body still aches a bit. Looking back on it, I am very proud. Was it miserable? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. Would I do it again? No.

I am glad that I had an opportunity to see a place that people rarely get to see. I am thrilled that I was able to do it with someone that I care about. As for our tour guide, I am still a bit angry that he never broke a sweat. Overall, Corcovado was an amazing experience. As I begin to close my Peace Corps service over the following months, I cherish these experiences. Before I know it, I will be back in New York, dreaming about sharks and tapirs and crocodiles. Until then, I will just have to take advantage of the fact that I am living the Tico adventure.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ticos: A People of Contradictions

Ticos are a mysterious people. Just when I think that I’ve got them pinned down, they surprise me with new behavior. I am finishing my second year in country, and am yet to fully understand them. I try not to make generalizations about Ticos, but have found it to be impossible. When an individual is integrated so completely into a culture, one cannot help but pick up on patterns. As I begin to close my service here in Costa Rica, I have found Ticos to have a fantastic culture. However, it is one riddled with contradictions that have made Ticos difficult to understand.

The most prominent contradiction that I have observed relates to the way women are treated in Tico culture. Having seen the detrimental effects of the “machista” way of life on women here, I have grown to appreciate the equal opportunities women are granted in the United States. The machista culture instills in the minds of young girls and women the idea that they are not deserving of all the educational, professional and cultural opportunities that males are entitled to. I know that this is not unique to Latino culture, or that of any other country. However, it is difficult for me to see my brightest female students hindered by teenage pregnancy, abusive male figureheads and a status quo that expects them to stay in the home.

I discovered the detrimental effects of sexism in Tico life early on in my service, and let it embitter me. I resented Ticos for being so shortsighted and obtuse in their perspective. But then I began to notice a glaring difference between a public, macro treatment of women, and the private, micro attitude that I had initially observed. What first caught my attention was the large amount of professional women that I work with. Granted, I am working in institutions of education and social work; however, I saw that women were not only included in the workplace, they oftentimes ran it. I noticed that the directors of most of the schools in the area were women. The director of the Puntarenas PANI office is a woman, as are most of her subordinates. What really piqued my attention took place this past June, when a woman named Laura Chinchilla won the leading party’s primary to become the current frontrunner for next month’s presidential elections. If trends continue, the next Tico president will be a woman! How does that happen in a culture that has been traditionally machista?

The only sense that I have been able to make of such a discrepancy is that I have been living in the most impoverished population of Costa Rica. When I meet wealthier families in Escazu, I don’t see teenage pregnancy or stay at home wives. So is wealth the golden ticket? Does the amount of opportunity for women increase with the size of the family bank account?

In short, yes. In my opinion (and I do not think that I am the first to say it), the more money one’s family has, the higher their level of education. With education comes open mindedness and a pattern of planning. This means that a teenage girl knows to use condoms, because her parents have spoken with her about them. This means that a young girl will do her homework because her father in helping her because he has the time to, and wants her to live a life of continued wealth. Don’t get me wrong, there are outliers: wealthy denigrated women and poor empowered ones. However, my observation has been that the poorer the population, the less opportunity there is for girls and women.

The strangest contradictions that I observe in Tico culture stem from the Catholic Church. For all intents and purposes, Ticos are Catholic. It is the proud national religion; most people go to church on Sundays with great joy and enthusiasm. What has made me scratch my head is that Catholicism is so ingrained in the culture, yet much behavior of Ticos does not reflect Catholic values. For example, it is illegal to get an abortion in Costa Rica. This is a clear reflection of the Catholic way of life on Tico public policy. However, prostitution is legal here. Not only is it legal, but it is unregulated. I may be wrong, but I think that such a policy stands in stark contrast to Catholic values. I am yet to understand the thought process that brought such a contradiction to be.

I once had a hilarious conversation with a fellow teacher at the school. She was hosting an American student studying abroad in Puntarenas. Having observed the study abroad students, she snapped her fingers and said to me “los estudiantes gringos son muy PROMISCUOUS!” She told me of how she had seen the study abroad students dancing in the bars and having sex on the beach. She snapped her fingers again when she told me about the giant bulk box of condoms she had found in her guest’s room. I told her that it was true, American college students do like their casual sex. I told her though that after college, we Americans usually calm down a bit and eventually start families. She furrowed her brow and said “huh! You Americans have a lot of sex, then get married, then have children. Us Ticos, we do it the other way around!” I laughed until I got stitches in my sides.

After I caught my breath, I realized that she wasn’t kidding. Most Ticos do have sex and children out of wedlock. Most couples that I know don’t even get married, they simply cohabitate, which eventually becomes a “Union Libre.” What puzzles me is that such a Catholic people could create such a pattern. Could it be that my American conception of Catholic law is different from the Tico paradigm? Is this okay by Tico Catholic standards? In a country that finds the church valuable enough to influence its laws, how is it that basic rules of marriage are sidestepped? I do not make judgment on the Tico family structure; I wonder why the contradiction exists.

Costa Rica is considered by the entire world to be an environmentally friendly nation. All foreigners who visit these shores expect Costa Rica to surpass the green initiatives of their countries. They expect recycling, clean air, clean water and the preservation of all of the wildlife that their native countries have already purged by their eco-unfriendly ways. For the most part, their expectations are met because they are usually escorted to the tourist villages that dot the Costa Rican map. They usually interact with Ticos who are in the tourism industry, and other tourists. What most visitors do not see is the average Tico town.

In the average Tico town, littering is not unusual or discouraged. I have seen people on the beaches of Puntarenas bring bags of trash from their homes, and heave them into the ocean. My town does not recycle. Following Tico tradition, many Ticos burn their trash. In the past, this was the only way to get rid of it. So even though my town gets trash pick-up twice a week, people still burn huge piles of plastic and chemicals, releasing untold amounts of carcinogens into the air.

I am not trying to tarnish the Ticos’ green reputation. They do have an unusually small carbon footprint and are successful conservationists. I just noticed that there is a discord between the policies of Costa Rica and the behavior of its people.

One of Costa Rica’s green policies is unrivaled in its dedication to preserve its unique biodiversity: its national park system. As I mentioned in a previous blog, about a quarter of all Costa Rican land is protected. The Costa Rican government is wise in protecting such land; it is this land that tourists fly thousands of miles to see. However, two trends are likely to threaten the protected and unprotected natural beauty of Costa Rica: development and population booms.

Costa Rica is a small country with a small population. About four million people live in Costa Rica and about three million of those live in the densely populated Central Valley. This means that Costa Rica can afford to devote a quarter of its land to preservation. When there are few people who depend on that land for farming or developing, fencing it off is easy. A fellow volunteer once asked me the million dollar question: what happens in a few years when the population doubles?

Costa Rica is a very different country now as opposed to twenty years ago. It is becoming developed and more crowded. Thousands of foreign expatriates live here and tens of thousands of tourists visit each year. In the past several years, the country has been infused with tourist money which it has used to develop itself. With new roads, new hotels and even new towns, more land is being cleared. The writing on the wall says that Costa Rica has only just begun to grow.

So if the population keeps growing at such an exponential rate, how long will Costa Rica be able to keep its eco-friendly stamp? I do not know. However, I do know that one simple product can alleviate the problem: the condom. Families here are huge. The size of the families here has little to do with the church or the country’s obsession with babies; it is the absence of family planning.

Planned pregnancies here are rare; most happen because of a lack of knowledge regarding contraception. This phenomenon can be changed via education. A case-in-point is the role of the condom in America. My generation may be the first to come to expect condom use. In college, if two people were having sex, it was assumed that they were using condoms or birth control pills. My parents’ generation was not the same way. The generation before? Forget about it.

I feel that when I teach condom use in my community, its benefits are twofold: protecting people from unwanted pregnancy and disease, and protecting the environment. If Costa Rica can plan pregnancies, it can remain a small country. If it can remain a small country, its natural beauty should remain safe. If the population continues to burgeon, who knows what will happen to the protected areas?

Ticos are full of contradictions. But what people are not? I am from a country that is “fighting war for peace.” France prides itself on its lack of dirty coal energy, yet has several of its nuclear plants on its border, upwind of Germany. So I guess Ticos are fairly normal in their culture of contradictions. I just thought that it may be a good idea to acknowledge them in order to learn from them.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Throughout the Peace Corps experience, the importance of sustainability in projects is drilled into the head of every volunteer. Because we volunteers offer our sites no financial backing for their development, we can only offer our ideas and hard work. The goal is that the results of our work will not fade when we leave our sites. Rather a lasting impact is expected of us; we are expected to plant a seed that the site then cultivates. To simplify: “you give a man a fish; you feed him for a day. You teach him how to fish, you feed him for life.”

To consistently create sustainable projects in one’s site is easier said than done. A volunteer cannot simply create the perfect sustainable project in his or her head and implement it. The volunteer must first consult with counterparts, and tailor projects to their needs. I have had many creative, sustainable project proposals shot down by my school’s director. I have been told by some of my counterparts exactly what they need; these requests are often for unsustainable work. So I have had to find a balance between catering to the desires of the institutions in which I work and working on projects that I feel could be sustainable.

A major problem that many of my colleagues in the Children, Youth and Families program encounter is that sustainability is not easy to measure in educational work. Who knows if what you teach has a lasting impact on the community? How can you tell if the community will take ownership over the information that you share? For most volunteers, you just have to put your work out there and hope that the information catches on somewhere and takes off after you leave.

I am a rare volunteer who has been lucky enough to see sustainability in action. The other day, I was approached by Xinia, the teacher at the school who facilitates the Chicas Super Poderosas group with me. She invited me to a workshop that she was putting on for a small group of students. I happily accepted and did not think much of it.

The next day, I walked into a classroom filled with children laying on mats. I smiled; the kids looked like they were excited about any workshop that involved laying down. As Xinia made her way through the lesson, I became filled with pride. What had me so excited was that the workshop was a variation on one of the lessons we gave during the Chicas Super Poderosas program. It was as if she had torn a page from the manual.

I had always planned on speaking with Xinia about continuing Chicas Super Poderosas after I leave. However, she beat me to the punch by putting on the workshop. Afterwards, we spoke about the coming end of the school year and the Chicas program. We agreed that we would start a new Chicas group the following school year in February. I reminded her that I would be ending my service before the program would end. She told me not to worry, that she would continue it. I beamed.

As I went to leave the school that day, I passed by the small classrooms and then paused. In a poetic moment, I took in what I had just experienced and took note of a group of small fruit trees lining the walkway. A year and a half ago, I had planted the trees as saplings. Now they had taken the form of small trees which would hopefully bear fruit long after I’m gone. I know that the metaphor may be a bit cheesy, but it is valid. I had planted a tree, both real and metaphorical, and now know that they will be there after I’m gone. My hope is that years from now, Chicas Super Poderosas can be identified as a part of the culture of the school just as the trees are part of its landscape.