Monday, May 23, 2011


After a wonderful trip to Colombia with my mom, I am finally home. It is weird/nice to know that this time, it’s not just for a visit. I don’t have to stuff my face with as much good food and take as many hot showers as possible in the next few days, because this is my life again for real.

I am feeling surprisingly happy and calm about the transition and being here. Maybe it’s because I’m still in the “honeymoon phase,” as they called it at our COS conference, when everyone is really excited to see me and it is such a novelty that I’m home, but I’ll take it. Some of the best things about being home so far include: variety of food options, not having to change my clothes three times a day because I’m sweating so much, hot showers, comfortable beds, getting to run/bike to the ocean on flat terrain, iPhones, and of course just hanging out at home with my family.

Some of the things I already miss about Costa Rica are: greeting all my neighbors when I walk down the street, speaking Spanish, not looking in the mirror before walking out the door and not caring, playdates with my PCV friends, hiking in the rainforest, the sound of the river outside my apartment and the Thursday farmer’s market.

The weirdest difference I’ve noticed between Costa Rica and the USA since I’ve been home: the quarters here seem really small compared to colones!

Anyways I am still processing my experience and what it meant to me, and it feels impossible to put down on paper or turn into an elevator speech when people ask, “How was the Peace Corps?”, although that is what I am having to do. One thing I wanted to mention is that I remember at my going away party (which I just watched on dvd with dad and Lynne last night for a recap), I felt so lucky to be so loved by so many people in Quebradas, and how hard that was going to be to leave. But I am also incredibly lucky to get to come home to so many people that love me and missed me and truly wanted to be part of and understand my experience in Costa Rica. I had TWENTY-FIVE visitors in two years, which seems like it must be some kind of record, and I think they all deserve a shout-out, in order of appearance: Dan(x4), dad(x3), Lynne(x2), Liza(x2, one being an extended stay), mom(x2), Caitlin, Ali, Joanie and Kimi, Aunt Didi, Uncle David and Alec, Nate, Claire and Eric, Katie Mckinstry, Andrew and Maddie, Aunt Carrie, Lisie, Jackie and Jared, Aunt Boo and Uncle Danny, and Ashley. You guys rock and it means so much to me that you all made the trip down.

Now I am starting to get excited about what’s ahead. After doing some more traveling to visit friends and family on the east coast and Italy (rough life, I know), I am going to spend six weeks straight in LA, the most I have been here since I left for college. I am hoping to find some volunteer project in which I can practice my Spanish, take some salsa dancing and cooking classes, join a soccer team, see lots of movies, and get my life generally organized.

And after much stress and internal and external debate, I finally decided that I will be doing my MBA at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, which starts on August 1. I am really excited to move up to northern California and to meet lots of new people excited about new ideas. I think my experience in Costa Rica will serve me un montón in my studies and future professional pursuits.

I am not going to keep blogging for now, as the main reason was to keep in touch with people at home and let you all know what I was up to without flooding your inboxes with mass emails. But thanks again for following my adventures. I have a feeling there will be more to come…

Friday, May 13, 2011

The End

Well, I am officially a Peace Corps alum. Twenty-six months lived, 48 books read, five new countries visited, four pairs of tennis shoes destroyed, three very different living situations aguantar-ed, two dog bites survived, one community adopted as my own, and countless friendships formed.

The past two weeks have been emotionally exhausting but wonderful. I truly could not have asked for a better way to say goodbye than the cafecitos, family dinners, celebrations and heartfelt gifts I received in my last days as a Volunteer in Quebradas.

Me and the ladies of ASOFEQUE

A few of the community organizations that I worked most closely with planned their own small activities to see me off. With the artisan group, AQUA, we had homemade tortillas and coffee in don Roger’s rancho, and all the women began to reflect on their love lives and marriages and offer me advice for what not to do. The women’s group, ASOFEQUE, organized a gathering at the president’s home and we ate nachos and gossiped and they gave me a really nice Costa Rican cookbook to try out on my family and friends at home. Rice for breakfast, anyone?

Lots of love from the Scouts

The Scouts activity was really special. They organized a campfire and about 35 kids showed up and some of their parents and all of the leaders. We sang songs and played games and they dedicated some very nice words to me and then we ate lots of sugary food and I got lots of gigantic hugs. Being adored unconditionally by most children under 12 is something I am definitely going to miss.

Good food with good friends

I also had some really nice meals with individual families and friends. The three Scouts dirigentes, José, Yajaira and Luis Carlos, who had also become my closest friends in Quebradas, surprised me and took me up to this beautiful cabina up a hidden road and made me dinner and we danced and laughed a lot. I had a final post-church lunch with my original host family, who hadn’t invited me over for a meal since I moved out, but better late than never. I had a lovely cafecito with the very humble don Jesús, the only employee at FUDEBIOL, and his wife and son, whose home it was my first time visiting. One family had me over to make pizza, and another made me arroz con pollo, which I had mentioned was my favorite dish in Costa Rica.

Most people I have ever fit in my apartment

I invited all the teenage girls in Quebradas who I had worked with on the community newspaper and butterfly garden over to my apartment for an afternoon of brownie-making and silliness. We listened to music and I gave them a bunch of my clothes and they all got hyper and giggly off the chocolate and took over 100 pictures and we all had a great time. I also had a nice meet up with Luis, Vinyela and Derek, the CED team from the Peace Corps office, who were passing through San Isidro and it was our final goodbye since they were not going to be in the office when I officially COS-ed. They were pretty ideal bosses, in that they never really intruded on our business but were there if we needed help/resources, and they are all great people. And I had one last big night out at the Hotel del Sur in San Isidro for my friend Glenda’s birthday. We literally danced from 10pm to 2am without stopping except when cumbia came on, which I still can’t figure out.

The PZ crew (one member who "got caught in a rainstorm" is conspicuously missing...)

Me and two weirdo distance runners

My second-to-last weekend in Quebradas, we had a little goodbye dinner for the volunteers around Pérez Zeledón at the best restaurant in town, El Gato Sin Dueño. There was a delicious buffet and fun live music and it was a nice way to say goodbye to some of the people who have made my last two years much more enjoyable by offering a nearby social outlet and opportunity to vent/speak English. The next morning Angelo and I ran in a 10K, which don Roger had offered to “sponsor” me for after my big win in the Carrera del Agua. He paid my entry fee and made us t-shirts with MORFOrmas, the name of his business, displayed prominently on the front and back. I ended up winning first in my category again (50mil!) but losing to the same woman as in the last race. It was fun to see a lot of the same people there and get to know the quirky running sub-culture of Southern Costa Rica (see above man in Indian headdress).

On Thursday and Friday of last week, I went down to La Lucha de Sabalito, right by the Panamanian border, to visit Angelo for his 25th birthday. We went to this really beautiful hacienda just outside his community, where we saw an amazing sunrise and hiked to a beautiful waterfall (I may or may not have fallen off the side of the trail on the way back and seriously frightened our guide). Evening celebrations included lots of pork, tequila, beer, music and cake at the local bar.

100 kilos about to become chicharrones

Saturday morning I headed back to Quebradas super early for an important appointment I had with some farmers to slaughter a pig. For my final goodbye celebration, I had told community members that I would buy a pig and invite everyone to eat it, which always makes for a good party. So don Gilberth introduced me to some guys in the business and we negotiated a purchase at 1,100 colones per kilo, including the full preparation of the pig so it would be delivered ready to cook.

Well, it was as gruesome as everybody said it would be, and I don’t think I will continue to eat pork when I get back to the states, but I felt like it was a cultural experience I should have before I left and am glad I did…kind of. I did not partake in any of the process but was an active observer and was reminded a little of middle school biology class as I got to know all the inside parts of the animal, up close.

Don Jorge and don Luis presenting my gift

That afternoon was the final FUDEBIOL asamblea, which is their big annual meeting that all the socios are invited to. Unfortunately, they kind of dropped the ball this year and forgot to send out invitations until the last minute, and then only via email, and Ticos really like their printed, hand-signed invitations, so not many people showed up. They felt bad because they had planned something special for me, but I thought it ended up being nicer because it was an intimate group and we just sat and talked for a while and everyone said nice things about the contributions I’d made to the organization and the community and I gave them some constructive feedback on my experience working with them. At the end they presented me with a certificate that welcomed me into the Orden del Sargento, which is apparently a very big honor that very few people have received in the 20 years that FUDEBIOL has existed. They also presented me with a really special gift. They had taken a picture of the biological reserve and given it to a famous artist in San Isidro and he reproduced it on a huge canvas. It is really beautiful and well-done and even has the giant ICE satellite that I helped them get included in the painting to represent my mark on the organization. I told them it would be a wonderful reminder of my “office” for the past two years in Costa Rica.

Me and the Jiménez girls

Denis and Naomy clad with all the medals I have accumulated over the past two years

Saturday night I had a big dinner with the Jiménez Calvo family: Yajaira, Glenda, Maruja, Luis, Naomy, Denis and Valeria. They were the neighbors of my old host family and ended up becoming some of my closest friends and the people I felt the most comfortable with and had the most fun with. The women are all entrepreneurial, with their jam business and jewelry/greeting cards, and they really take advantage of the opportunities and resources that are available to them more than most people I observed in Costa Rica. And they really did treat me like family, inviting me to every baby shower, wedding, bachelorette party and other family celebrations. And all the kids are SUPER cute.

Car parade outside my apartment

Sunday morning at 9am I heard honking outside my apartment and opened my door to a line of cars ready to take me in a procession up to our Salón Comunal. The first car was an open jeep decorated with hydrangeas and balloons and I had the seat of honor. We drove up honking and waving at every house we passed and then got to the Salón, where other community members were waiting to greet me, and even more were in the kitchen cooking. The tables were set up with lovely centerpieces, and the Talibanes, the famous local band that makes or breaks a party in Quebradas, were waiting with their instruments.

Seven community leaders in one place for the first time in my two years in Quebradas

Once more guests arrived and everyone started settling down, seven leaders from the different community groups I had worked with – FUDEBIOL, Guías y Scouts, ECC Quebradas, AQUA, AMOSA, Escuela Quebradas y la Asociasión de Desarrollo – had me come up and sit with them in front of everyone, and each made a small presentation thanking me for my contributions to their organization and gave me a gift. Then all seven of them came up together and don Luis Fallas, the president of FUDEBIOL, my official counterpart and the first person I met from Quebradas, made a heartfelt closing speech about the enormous mark I had left on the community and how not only would I always be welcome here, but that Quebradas belonged to me as much as it did to everyone else in that room. As a symbol of this ownership, they presented me with the “key to Quebradas,” a beautifully designed acrylic key with my name and the date engraved on it. Then I had to make a speech, and I somehow managed to choke back my tears and hold it together. What moved me more than anything was that this was the first time in my two years in Quebradas that I had seen all the community leaders achieve something together, and it was in my honor. Improving communication and coordination among community organizations was one of my main goals over the past two years, and I guess I did prove to be a unifying force, though I hope (and told them) that if they can plan an awesome party together, they can keep up the good work for other more lasting community initiatives. I said the greatest gift to me would be to keep going with the projects I helped start, and I do believe they took that to heart.

Tending to the chicharrones

Don Roger trying to feed my pig tongue

Then the fun part began, and everyone enjoyed my pig and the yucca, plantains and chimichurri that accompanied it. The Talibanes started playing and soon enough all my fun over-40 female friends were on the dance floor, and even my older, more serious male counterparts, Gilberth, Jorge, Luis and Roger, came out for a spin. Everyone was in good spirits and it ended up just being a really fun party. I remember looking around and thinking how weird it was that I didn’t know any of these people two years ago, and now I feel such a connection to them and it was amazing how loved and appreciated they made me feel.

Two years in five bags...not bad for a girl

I said most of my goodbyes there and then went home to finish packing. I had given away a LOT of stuff to other Peace Corps Volunteers and community members, but I somehow still had three over brimming suitcases full of stuff, which ultimately turned into four once I added in my new gifts. My neighbor Sirleny helped me jam everything in and zip everything up, which was much appreciated. That afternoon I went into town and met Angelo, who had offered to come keep me company my last night in my depressingly empty apartment and help me lug my suitcases to San José the next morning. His calming presence definitely helped keep me from freaking out in my final hours, which was much appreciated. We brought back pizza, the perfect food for a kitchen that has no remaining utensils, and then I took some ice cream over to the Jiménez family to share and say my final goodbye.

Breakfast with neighbors

The next morning the other family who I am closest to and who are practically my neighbors, Lila, Sirleny, Luis Carlos and Keneth, made me a huge amazing Tico breakfast with all the fixings: gallo pinto, homemade tortillas, fried plantains, fresh cheese and natilla, avocado, tamal asado, coffee, and even a little bit of leftover pig. Don Jorge and don Gilberth joined us, and then we loaded my suitcases into the back of Gilberth’s pick-up truck and headed down to the bus station. Saying goodbye to Lila, Sirleny and Luis was hard because they have been such good friends and always invite me over and bring me food and worry about me and it was sad to see how sad they were that I was leaving.

Then I took my last trip over the Mountain of Death as a Peace Corps Volunteer, one regular aspect of my life in Costa Rica that I will not miss. My trusty taxi driver Carlos picked us up at MUSOC and took us to Hotel Aranjuez, where Mark, Chamisa and Adrienne were also staying. Angelo treated me to a cocktail at the Grand Hotel Costa Rica, a historic landmark and former marquee destination across from the National Theater, which was fun/kind of classy. Later we met up with the others for dinner and bowling. I bowled a career high of 120, but Angelo of course had to come back and beat me in the last frame.

What will I miss more, the friends or the breakfast?

And this is one of the more agreeable faces I made...

The next morning we enjoyed what the Aranjuez does best, an extensive buffet breakfast in their pleasant garden area. And my friends witnessed and thoroughly photographed a historic moment in my life: I ate (half) a banana. I had to keep a promise I had made, and it seemed appropriate before leaving Costa Rica, but those of you who know me best know what a BIG deal that is. And it was gross!

Then came my final goodbyes with Chamisa and Angelo, two very important people who it was sad to think about not getting to see and talk to all the time, as they will both be staying in Costa Rica for another year, si Dios quiere. Chamisa has been an amazing friend and fun neighbor to have near San Isidro for the past two years. And those of you who have done some close reading of my blog may have noticed that Angelo became a major presence in my life over the past few months. I have had so much fun traveling, exploring, cooking, competing and just hanging out with him, which made it tough to say goodbye. But I know I will be back to visit them (and Brigitte!) and everyone in Quebradas next year, so as I have said many times in the past few days, it wasn’t really an adios, just an hasta luego.

Then Adrienne and I ventured off for our day of culture in San José, which included a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Sabana park, a lunchtime interpretive dance show at the National Theater, and then (by far the best part) lunch at a cute artsy restaurant where we shared panini, homemade pesto pasta, and amazing chocolate. Then we hugged and parted ways, being CED girls and therefore not that into emotional goodbyes. Adrienne has been my rock over the past two years, providing an escape and a laugh whenever I needed it, and we probably had more sleepovers than I have had with anyone since fifth grade (though we both refuse to cuddle). I feel so lucky that we got placed near each other and I got to know her and her beautiful, fun community at the base of Chirripo. Also, she has now saved my travel plans from absolute disaster twice, first by getting my passport to me in time for my Thanksgiving trip home, and again on Tuesday when I spacily left my credit card and ID at the lunch place. For that alone, I am forever indebted…

That afternoon I went to the Peace Corps office to start getting my final signatures on my COS papers and had coffee with Luis Jiménez from FINCA, the microfinance organization I worked with. It was cool to hear about his plans and dreams for the growth and development of the organization and to think about working on similar projects back home in the future, using my ties and experience with FINCA as a jumping off point. I think he will be a great connection to have if I do decide to pursue microfinance.

That evening Mark and I were the only ones left, and it turned out the Hotel Christina where we were supposed to stay that offers a Peace Corps discount had overbooked so they transferred us to a fancy four-star boutique hotel next door for no change in price, which was kind of cool. We had a nice dinner and reflected a little on our past 26 months, having started out together in Tarbaca, and we also got excited about moving back to California and eating In ‘N Out burgers. I know I’ll see him again soon, so our 4am groggy goodbye before he left for the airport was not too tearful.

My final orders of business were back in the Peace Corps office. I had my language placement exam and scored advanced high, which I was happy about, having come in to Peace Corps at intermediate mid. I feel like my Spanish plateau-ed many months ago, but it is good to leave knowing I have a strong command of the language. Now I just have to figure out how to keep it up!

I had one last goodbye with Carlos the taxi driver when he dropped me off at the airport, but he gave me his number and email and assured me he would be there to pick me up the next time I come visit. Then me and my four bags got on a plane to Panama City, where I met my mom en route to Colombia. We will be spending a week traveling around here before heading back to LA.

My head is still spinning with all the meaningful events of the past couple weeks, so I think I will blog once more when I get home and have had some time to digest before signing off. For now, I just want to make sure I get down all the important details and to try to capture the mix of emotions I am feeling as I close the door on what I know has been one of the most significant chapters of my life, although I think down the line I will appreciate more why and how. I am so glad my time here ended on such a high note, with projects, friendships and fun, but I must also remember there were some low points as well, and if I ever do forget I know there are a few blogposts I can refer to to back that up.

So for now, I just want to thank all you dutiful readers for following my adventures, sending notes of support and motivation and bearing with me through heaping amounts of text (I think this one might take the prize). It has been really fun to keep this blog, for myself and for a small but interested audience of family and friends. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

And now it is finally time to say: Peace out, Costa Rica…

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why wasn't Peace Corps always this fun?

Beautiful beach, beautiful people

Un atardecer Chireña

Fueled up for the ride

Nice crater!

Getting silly in Tarbaca

My audience losing interest fast

Does this waterfall make me look fat?

Very Important People

It has been an awesome last few weeks, namely because the work:fun ratio has shifted significantly in favor of fun. It kind of feels like the last month of college, except with better weather and more beach time.

My one main order of business was the first national Peace Corps/FINCA conference, which was hosted in San Cristobal Norte, the cold, cozy mountain town where I attended my last two FINCA trainings and always stay with the same nice host family. There were about 60 people there, volunteers and their local counterparts, and it was an intensive two days of sharing experiences, passing on knowledge, and learning how to grow and strengthen our Community Credit Enterprises. I brought Guadalupe, our ECC secretary, and although I found it sometimes aggravating to sit through these sessions that I had heard before when I am already kind of checked out, I'm really glad she got to have the experience and bring her excitement back to Quebradas to get people motivated with new ideas.

Then the real fun began. Saturday night I cam back to San Isidro for a Malpaís concert. They are one of the biggest bands in Costa Rica and were actually really fun performers and had some download-worthy songs. Plus, we had VIP tickets on the floor of the local gymnasium...

The next week entailed a trip to Nauyaca Fallas, a pretty cool set of waterfalls on the road to Dominical, a dinner party with some neighbors (I made thai peanut pasta and Betty Crocker cake, the latter being way more of a hit), nachos and gossip at my hairdresser's house, a final site visit from Vinyela from the PC office, and karaoke night with my over-30 single lady friends. They made me sing Selena, but I think the pity applause I received after ensures that won't happen again.

Then on Friday I got on a bus to San José and headed to Tarbaca, where I met up with Mark and Brigitte and later Liz, Elena and Davie from Tico 20 and we had a fun dinner and night out dancing with Grandpa Gerardo and family. I hadn't been back to visit for a year, but it is so wonderful how warm and excited to see us they always are, and I truly believe it when they say I always have a place to stay there. Although my host family situation during training was not ideal, I feel so lucky I got to be a part of the greater Tarbaca family.

The next day I met up with my friends Diego and Marcos who are students in San José and we took a day trip to Irazú volcano in Cartago, which was a beautiful drive and has a really cool looking crater with a bright aqua lagoon in the middle. That night was my third and final VAC dinner, which was changed to VAC-tail hour this year because there are too many volunteers in the country (almost 200!) to organize food, so we just had drinks at this cool loft space/art gallery/bar called Steinvorth which was super fun/weird feeling like an old senior girl around all these new, young eager faces I didn't recognize. Also, as I once learned in college but chose not to remember, pre-dinner drinks on an empty stomach is never a good idea for me, and I unfortunately didn't make it out dancing post-dinner, nor did I get to say many formal goodbyes to the people I wouldn't see again, but it was fun while it lasted.

I spent the next day exploring Heredia, another part of the Central Valley area I hadn't visited. It seemed much more liveable and family-friendly than San José, and it is definitely the most architecturally and culturally interesting city I have visited in Costa Rica. I had a nice lunch at the home of Luis Fallas, the president of FUDEBIOL, and his family, and then I met up with Angelo and his friend Kregg who was visiting from the states at Saprissa stadium for their quarter-final game against San Carlos. It was much more of a scene than the Guerreros game I had gone to in San Isidro, fireworks and glitter included. And it was pretty good soccer to watch.

The next morning we were picked up at our hostel by David Gómez, former Peace Corps safety and security officer, who just started his own business called Costa Rica on a Bike (CROAB). He does private bike tours all over the country, equipment, food and good company included. Our journey started at the top of the Cerro de la Muerte with a giant Tico breakfast at the well-known diner Chespiritos. We then started our ride down into the Zona de los Santos, a cluster of sleepy mountain towns that are known for producing the best coffee in the country. Things started to get tough as we made our way up out of the valley, but the roads were good and the view was beautiful and we were rewarded with snacks at the end. Then there was a loooooong bumpy downhill as we cycled out towards the coast, which hurt my hands more than anything else from having to constantly grip the breaks. After one minor flat tire that was soon resolved by a Tico with a compressor for his motorcycle, we took a refreshing dip in a nearby swimming hole and then continued on the last leg of the journey to Quepos.

We made it feeling pretty good, but then of course the option was posed to ride all the way up one last gigantic hill to Manuel Antonio for sunset, and being arguably the two most competitive Peace Corps Volunteers, Angelo and I went for it. Kregg intelligently followed behind in the support car. We made it pretty far amidst traffic and honking until our legs/bikes would take us no further up the seemingly never-ending hill. After about a quarter mile of pushing our bikes up on rubbery legs, it did indeed end and we cruised down to the beach as the sun was setting. It made the butt, hand, back, neck and leg pain I would be feeling for the next few days totally worth it. After a victory swim in the ocean, we all got in the car back to Quepos, where we had some very satisfying casados and tried not to pass out in our food.

The next morning after Bagelman's breakfast (it was the closest I could get to celebrating Passover), Angelo, Chase and I got on a bus to Puntarenas, where we met up with Brigitte and got on a tiny lancha to Isla de Chira, where Mark has been hiding out for the past two years. I complain about my bus ride over the Mountain of Death to get to San José, but his commute entails a choppy boat ride. My respect for him only grew from there after experiencing the oppressive heat and dust on the island and realizing how different our daily lives have been since we parted ways after Tarbaca. His is more what I imagined Peace Corps might look like, while I live a 20 minute bus ride from McDonald's, but I have no complaints.

We spent the next two days exploring the island by bike, foot and boat. We went out with some local fishermen and collectively succeeded in catching some fish, though I contributed nothing to the pot. The highlight of the visit was definitely our evening boat ride with Juan Carlos, Mark's ECC counterpart who I had met at the conference the previous week. He invited us out and then of course his motor wasn't working and we thought it was going to be a bust, but somehow they figured it out and we were off boating through mangrove swamps and out to Yucca island, which is basically a floating mountain. We scrambled to the top of for an amazing view of what I think I can safely say was my favorite Costa Rican sunset. We then stopped by a beach where a family of enterprising Ticos had set up a chinamo for Semana Santa and sold us cold beers. Then we boated right up to a lovely seafood restaurant overlooking the water and ate mounds of garlic shrimp, ceviche and clams by candlelight. It felt like a pretty special only in Peace Corps moment, and the evening continued in that direction.

We boated back through the mangroves under the stars, completely trusting Juan Carlos' sworn memorization of the route since there were no lights around. Because of the tides we couldn't dock the boat and had to trek through slippery swamp mud to get back to land. We arrived back to Juan Carlos' home relatively unscathed, though Mark stepped on some thorny plant that he spent the next few days trying to pick out of his toes.

The next morning we were off at 6am on a private boat to the Nicoya Peninsula for the grand finale, a beach house we had rented for 25 volunteers in Santa Teresa, which is on the eastern tip of the peninsula, to celebrate Semana Santa and the end of (most of our) service. It was a great space, right on the beach with four colorful bungalows, a common area equipped with a full kitchen, couches and tables, a ping pong table, fooz ball, a yoga dojo, and hammocks galore. It was in the middle of a cute surfer town with a big extranjero population and lots of good restaurants. We spent the next couple days drinking, eating, playing games, swimming, reminiscing, drinking and eating. Highlights included: a fiercely competitive beach soccer game in which I almost lost my right foot, group yoga session, group barbecue that included chicken, hot dogs, veggies, guac and frozen watermelon, my first and only ping pong win against Angelo, and amazing playlists day and night. We ended the trip with a dance party on the beach, which seemed only appropriate.

After one more evening of vegging out in San José, I'm not back in Quebradas for my last two weeks. I feel good about the PCV goodbyes I've had so far, especially because I am confident I will see the people I care most about again soon. That's harder to say with the people of Quebradas, but I am looking forward to a low-key last couple weeks and quality time with the people who have been the biggest part of my life over the last two years. I have a feeling that will entail a lot of cafecitos, bread, rice and beans, but I think i can handle it now knowing there is an end in site.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Me AGUAnté!*

My 5 seconds of fame

Finishing with a smile

The salida next to Parque Central

Pre-race in Pérez (you can't fully appreciate it here, but Henley is clad entirely in Nike Women's apparel)

Cappuccinos with the Scouts


Relieved survivors of a swim through crocodile-infested water

Drake with Jake

The survivors of what started as a 25-person English class

It has been an action-packed couple weeks, both work and fun. The rest of Ashley’s visit was great and included Tica pedicures, English class party, day trip to Dominical, lots of good cooking, a tour of the Thursday feria, and then a bus to San José where we met her brother, Colin, and parted ways the next day, the two of them to travel up north to La Fortuna and me to the dentist. And then the lab to get blood taken. And then the Peace Corps doctor. And then a micro-finance training session for Tico 21. Not as awesome, but all stuff I had to get done before COS-ing and things got better from there.

Friday night Brigitte and I went to her old host mom from Tarbaca, Jacky’s house for dinner and a sleepover with her and her two daughters Stephanie and Melanie, which was a blast since I hadn’t seen any of them for a loooooong time. They are crazy and energetic as ever, and we spent most of the night on Jacky’s cozy couch watching Miss Costa Rica.

The next morning I got up super early and took a bus all the way down to Palmar Norte, where I met Angelo and David and we were picked up by Jake in a turquoise Jeep. Yes, this is Jake Elliot from my early blogposts in Tarbaca. He lived with Mark on Gerardo’s compound and was a great friend but unfortunately left Peace Corps after a month of service. However, he came back to Costa Rica and has been working at a cool lodge called Poor Man’s Paradise in Drake’s Bay, which is on the northern end of the Osa Peninsula. He has been trying to get us to come visit for a while, and I’m so glad we were finally able to.

We picked up Chamisa and her mom in Sierpe and then took a cool boat ride down the river through lots of Mangroves to the town of Drake’s Bay, where we picked up Mark and Chase, and then our eclectic group of seven (plus Jake and some other tourists) made our way down to Poor Man’s Paradise, a beautiful spot right on the beach with cabins on stilts hidden in the rainforest and hammocks galore.

We spent the weekend swimming, tanning, eating, drinking, taking a hike with a crazy tour guide who convinced us to swim in an alligator-infested river and then left us to fend for ourselves coming back from a waterfall (we later found her passed out on the beach), spear-fishing and enjoying beautiful sunsets and evening bonfires. I wish we could have stayed longer, but it was a worthwhile trip and so nice to catch up with Jake and see him in his element there. He was a very good host and seems to have found a good life for himself there, though we still miss him and constantly wonder how much more interesting things would be if he were still a part of Tico 19.

Last week was spent preparing, both mentally and physically, for a big weekend in Quebradas. On Friday night we had our quarterly ECC asamblea. Our president officially resigned and we elected a new president and vice president to the board of directors. The behind-the-scenes build up to the resignation and reelection was a bit stressful, but I feel good about the end results, and most importantly the turnout at the meeting and the support the ECC is gaining from community members.

Friday night Adrienne and I went with some friends in San Isidro to the National University college night at a discoteca in town. It was a stoplight dance, meaning you dress in red, yellow or green according to your availability. Just like when I was in college, I think I was the only one to take the theme seriously and showed up in a green dress, red top underneath, and yellow sandals to send mixed signals. Nobody seemed to get it/care, but it was fun to check out the local college scene and try to fit in.

Saturday morning I took the Scouts to an organic coffee processor on the Cerro de la Muerte. They gave us an interesting tour that ended with cappuccinos and iced coffee for all in a beautiful wooden cafeteria overlooking all of San Isidro. This was definitely the most exciting part, and we ended up walking all the way home down the mountain hyped up on caffeine.
That afternoon was the annual Scouts assembly for our group. There was even more drama leading up to the elections for this meeting, as our president and treasurer had both resigned in December and we have kind of been struggling to keep the group together since then. There was an okay turnout, but I was pretty worried there wasn’t going to be anyone willing to fill their spaces. But amazingly, when the time came, people began to step up and say things about the importance of strengthening this group for the future of the community and volunteer to be a part of it. There was some shifting around of current positions and inventing of new ones, but we ended up with a very strong and motivated board of directors and others interested in helping out as dirigentes working with the kids, which is more than I could have hoped for.

So both of these meetings provided me with some closure around the two projects I helped start up and have devoted most of my time to in the past year. There have been various points along the way when I felt so frustrated and disillusioned by the politics of the groups that I lost motivation and didn’t even care if the groups continued on or not, but I am so glad that I am leaving at a point where both groups have been strengthened and decided to carry on not because I am pushing it or they feel like they owe me something but because the community recognizes their value. To me, the most important part of my job was getting them to that point, and I have to trust that they can take it from here.

Saturday night Angelo and Henley came over and we made a big carbo-loading meal of pasta and garlic bread in preparation for the all uphill 12K I had somehow convinced them to run with me on Sunday from the central park in San Isidro all the way up to FUDEBIOL. It was the first annual Carrera del Agua, organized by the Pérez Zeledón Sports Committee, as part of the continuing celebrations around International Water Day. My counterparts were very excited that they had chosen FUDEBIOL to end the race, as it would provide another opportunity to do publicity for all the new amenities at the reserve and would begin what will hopefully be an annual tradition with lots of new visitors. They also told me from the beginning that I had to run it and I had to win, seeing as I run 45 minutes a few times a week so it would be easy enough to complete an entirely uphill 12K race.
But anyone who knows my running style knows that I am much happier on flat surfaces, and I pretty much could not have designed a more hellish race for myself at that distance. Not only was it full of unrelenting hills, but it started at 9am, which is already peak sun time.

Anyways there were about 100 people in the race, and I ran into a lot of people I recognized from running in Quebradas. As soon as the gun went off I of course jetted ahead of Angelo and Henley, even though I had asked them to help set an even pace and told myself not to get overly excited early on, as it would make for a long, slow death at the end. But I kept spotting the few women who were in the race and then wanting to pass them, so off I went.

About 35 minutes into the run, when I thought the uphill would never end and the sun couldn’t get any hotter, we finally got a long downhill in the shade and then turned back onto the main road in the center of Quebradas. All of a sudden I heard all these people shouting my name, and for the next 500 meters or so I felt like a celebrity as everyone was cheering for me, and I even mustered a smile. The last 2.5 kilomters up to FUDEBIOL were the worst of all, but I was reenergized by the cheering and knowing I was close-ish to the end of my pain. Henley caught up to me and pulled me along for a while, and he finished just ahead of me and Angelo just behind, which was pretty cool despite us not running much of the race together.

Lightheaded and nauseous, I was greeted with big hugs from my counterparts and cameras and microphones from the local news channels. Apparently I was the second woman to finish, and everyone wanted to know how to spell my name, which takes more breath to explain in Spanish than one might imagine. I didn’t finish in a particularly fast time and it wasn’t a very competitive field, but nobody there really knew that and they were all just very excited that I was the second woman and first in my age group. I got to go on stage to accept my award, which was 70 thousand colones (about $140!) and a certificate for a free lab test at the local health clinic…hmmmmm.

I was mostly relieved that I hadn’t let down my counterparts or totally hit a wall halfway through the race, as I have known to do from time to time. It was really cool to have so many people cheering for me and to feel like they were proud of me for representing Quebradas and being a strong woman. It was also really nice to have my Peace Corps friends there to run with and enjoy the post-race meal and festivities. And tonight I have invited everyone in town to Bar Pelos for a celebratory drink with my newfound cash flow…

*Copyright Angelo Coclanis, bi-lingual pun-master

Monday, March 21, 2011

Feria del Agua, super-sized

Last andaribel ride of the day

Water-ballooning with the Scouts

Our very intimidating women's soccer team

The ladies of AJAQ (Alianza de Jóvenes Ambientalistas de Quebradas)

Lamb or sheep? You tell me...

Dancing in the dark

Ribbon-cutting ceremony

This weekend was the culmination of many of my projects in Quebradas, and definitely a high point in my Peace Corps service. I think the experience is best represented by the fact that I wore three different uniforms in one day, as pictured above.
The excitement began on Friday night, when I met Ashley Campbell at the bus station in San Isidro. As promised, she was able to make time in her crazy med school schedule to come visit me before I left, and it was so great to give her a hug after a year and a half without seeing each other.

After a delicious meal at El Gato Sin Dueño (the best restaurant in San Isidro which I am sad to report is closing in June), I mentally prepared her for what was going to be a whirlwind weekend, and even more so for her in a foreign language.
On Saturday morning we went up with two Scouts’ mothers to Gilberth’s house, where he handed us giant raw legs of sheep and pig to chop up into pieces and marinate for the kebabs we were going to be selling on Sunday. Luckily, the mothers knew what they were doing and took charge, and Ashley and I stuck to the vegetables and the marinade.

We then headed over to FUDEBIOL, where at 11am there was a formal inauguration of three big new projects, two of which I helped fund. The mayor of San Isidro and local assemblywoman were there, as well as representatives from other organizations that had helped fund projects with FUDEBIOL, and all the former presidents of the foundation. They did a little presentation and the Junta members of FUDEBIOL said really nice things about all my contributions to the organization and presented me with a certificate, and the mayor recognized my accomplishments in his speech as well, which was pretty cool. Then we went outside for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the renovated office, the solar panels and the andaribel, a new installation which is kind of like a zipline except you sit down and have to peddle your way across the rainforest. I got to cut the ribbon for the solar panels, and everyone was really interested in the project and curious as to how it worked.

After a big lunch at FUDEBIOL, we got a ride back down to Quebradas, where I had to make an appearance at our development association’s annual assembly. Although I have hardly worked with them and they have never seemed very open to working with me, they insisted that I be there, so I knew they were planning something. After starting an hour late and sitting through all the formalities, they finally said they had someone special they wanted to recognize this year and called me up and actually apologized for not being more willing to work with me because now they saw how many contributions I had made in the community and they wished they had taken more advantage. Unfortunate that it took them this long to figure it out, but it was a really nice gesture, especially coming from a culture that does not like to acknowledge conflict or mistakes. They then presented me with a box of Costa Rican kitch: a Pura Vida t-shirt, a hot pink beach bag that says Costa Rica, and a magnet in the shape of a flip flop. Amazing.

THEN, we started making our way back up to FUDEBIOL, along with new additions Nisha and David from Tico 20, who came up for the weekend festivities. Luckily we were able to hitch a ride and had time to put on our party dresses before the evening’s event, a full moon concert in the woods, began. We settled into the albergue where we would be spending the night and then came down for our welcome cocktail, where we made Adrienne and Jostin and my friend José, who were all my guests for the evening. The concert began at around 6:30 with some classical pieces by high school students from the school of music in San Isidro. After a short intermission, “El Big Band” from the National University came on the stage and played some fun rock and roll and tropical music, which was really upbeat and even got some of us dancing on the grass by the end. At around 7:20, they called us all out from under the tents where we were sitting because the moon was beginning to rise above the trees, and they turned all the lights off on stage and started playing some jazz pieces. As we all stood there watching the full moon rise, the musicians came out into the crowd and serenaded us. I don’t think I have ever consciously watched the moon rise before, but it was pretty cool to do surrounded by nature, music and friends.

The celebration continued later that evening with a barbeque at Gilberth’s house. The menu included polenta, bleu cheese and caramel popcorn hors d’ oeuvres, followed by meat, meat and more meat. All the members of the FUDEBIOL Junta were there with their families, and everyone was in good spirits after the very successful evening. An in-depth conversation ensued about the difference between lamb and sheep (or cordero and oveja in Spanish) as we tried to figure out what we were actually eating. Conclusion: I’d rather not think about it. Then I broke a wine glass and we decided it was time for the gringos to go home.
Sunday morning started with a brisk hike through the FUDEBIOL trails with David, Nisha and Ashley, and then it was time to work as people were already starting to arrive for the Feria del Agua. I put on my first uniform, newly printed t-shirts that had our names on the front and the AJAQ logo and slogan on the back for the environmental youth group that was in charge of giving tours of the butterfly garden all day. They did a great job of getting organized and had even written down some talking points beforehand to help them on the tour.

After running back and forth for the first few hours between AJAQ, the Scouts mothers selling kebabs, and the Empresa de Crédito group selling snowcones, I suited up in my Scouts gear for our water-themed games, which included a water balloon toss that degenerated into everyone throwing balloons at each other. It got a little crazy, but a good time was had by all. After shoveling my face with my almuerzo campesino lunch, I changed into my final uniform of the day for our women’s soccer game and then stopped by the renewable energy charla that Purasol was giving before heading to the field. I was really excited to see that all day people were stopping by the solar panels and asking about them and seemed really fascinated by the technology. A nine-year old boy even asked how much the solar water heated cost because he was hoping to bring one home with him!
We had enough girls show up to the soccer game this time to have two subs, which is a huge success in itself. Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone who likes/knows how to play goalie, and we got beat pretty bad, but everyone seemed to have fun and I scored two goals and Ashley played some solid defense, so no complaints.

Finally, it was time to change into regular clothes and pack up and help clean up and say goodbye to everyone. Ashley and I snuck in to be the last people of the afternoon to get to ride the andaribel, which was a fun way to end an exhausting but exhilarating weekend. We got a ride down from FUDEBIOL with Pierre and Arine, the Belgian and Dutch couple from Purasol, along with their baby, two students from the National University, don Jesús, and a solar water heater. It was a tight fit, but resulted in a dinner invitation for Indonesian food and wine at their house in San Isidro on Wednesday night, so again, no complaints.

So that’s the play-by-play of Feria del Agua weekend, which is something I have been working up to in various ways for a long time, and was a really fun and satisfying way to see a lot of my projects come to a head. Ashley commented about how cool it was just to see that everyone there knows me and relies on me to get things organized and asks me questions about what’s going on, and although that sometimes drives me crazy, it also is the best part. I feel like such an integral part of this community at this point, and I will probably never again know my neighbors so well and love them so much.
I’m so glad I got to share this weekend with great friends, old and new alike, and I am already penciling in the date to come back and visit for spring break next year!

Thursday, March 17, 2011


The modern version of tree-hugging

Team Purasol

A Herculean effort to install

Already blending in with nature

The ICE team giving their seal of approval

I am THRILLED to report that just in the nick of time, the Quebradas Biological Center has three highly-functional solar panels planted in its verdant gardens. The installation process only took two weeks longer than expected, which isn’t so bad by Costa Rican standards. And most importantly, they are ready for their big debut at the Feria del Agua this weekend.
Three representatives from ICE, the national energy and telecommunications company, came to FUDEBIOL yesterday and officially approved the project and switched on the panels, thereby connecting them to the national electricity grid. We are only the eighth project in the country, and the first in Pérez Zeledón, to fulfill the requirements to participate in the ICE pilot renewable energy project.
I just wanted to thank everyone again who donated to the project. It could never have happened without your support. I feel pretty proud of this achievement and excited about the possibilities it will open up for FUDEBIOL and hopefully other interested environmental organizations or environmentally-minded individuals in the future. For me, this moment was, well…electric.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Two-Year Mark

Team Chirripo

Happy birthday Howard!

Plastic bag leg-warmers: eco-chic

Mujeres poderosas

The San Francisco DeWitts arrive to Quebradas

Friday, March 11 marked my two years living in Costa Rica, with only two months to go until my Close of Service date. The occasion was celebrated in due fashion, with a group trip up Chirripo, which I had also summitted at my one-year in country anniversary.
After much back-and-forth trying to set the dates and make a reservation, we were able to assemble a dream team for the trip: Adrienne, Mark, Howard, Angelo (a guest star from Tico 20), Adrienne’s friend Veronica and her boyfriend Jostin, a key player who used to work as a porter there and got us an under-the-table reservation that only cost us a bottle of whiskey for the park ranger.
We started hiking a little before 6am on Tuesday morning and got to the albergue at 3400 meters by noon, enjoyed some coffee and snacks and then Angelo, Mark and I set out to explore another trail to a peak 3.1 kilometers away. When we had gone just far enough to not want to turn back, it started to pour rain, thunder and eventually sleet and hail on us. After multiple stops for cover under nearby trees and debate about which way to turn, we decided to go for it and made it to the top, soaked to the bone. Needless to say, there was no rewarding view awaiting us, but we thought everyone would be very impressed when we got back to the albergue.
Turned out, nobody really cared and we were stuck with a bunch of wet clothes and only the possibility of freezing cold jet-stream of water showers before us. Fortunately, just by saying we knew Jostin got us the in to use the staff drying machine, so all was not lost.
That evening we celebrated Howard’s birthday with boxed wine and Disney princess hats and passed out early in anticipation of our 3:30am wakeup time and general exhaustion. The next morning we started our hike a little before 4am, equipped with flashlights, many layers of clothing, and plastic bags over our socks to insulate our feet from our wet shoes. The stars at that hour were amazing, and we were hiking up to the summit of Chirripo right as the sun rose. It was breathtaking, literally (the last 100 meters or so are pretty straight up) and figuratively.
It was a clear and crisp morning, although a layer of clouds below prevented us from seeing both oceans. We could, however, see mountains and volcanoes popping through the cloud layer, and a full moon, courtesy of Angelo. We passed around a bottle of champagne in continued celebration of Howard’s birthday and took lots of pictures until we realized how cold we were and hurried back down the mountain.
We made it back down to San Gerardo that afternoon and after taking long, relatively warmer showers, had a very satisfying steak dinner at Bazooka’s, the American restaurant in San Isidro. Chirripo still remains one of my favorite places in Costa Rica the second time around, and it was so much fun to share the experience with some of my favorite people.

Meanwhile, back in Quebradas, things are busy as ever getting ready for the Feria del Agua, the annual event at FUDEBIOL that is going to be bigger and better than ever this year and entails the inauguration of many new projects, including the office renovation and renewable energy projects I helped fund. My main charge has been coordinating the programming and food sales with the community groups who will be participating as well as selling tickets and helping with publicity. If any of you are free next weekend, there’s still space!
On Friday, I had another very early morning, catching a 5am bus to San José with Karla, an 8th grade girl in Quebradas, and her mother, for a Peace Corps sponsored conference called Voces Valorosas in honor of International Women’s Day. The conference was for girls who had submitted entries to a publication that the Peace Corps Women in Development/Gender in Development Committee puts together and been selected to be published. I had encouraged Karla to submit because she has always liked to do creative pieces for our community newspaper and is super-motivated and intelligent. When she was selected, it took a bit of convincing to get her father to let her and her mother come to the conference, but they somehow managed and we had a great time. There was a great panel of female professionals in different fields and separate workshops for the girls and the moms about gender roles and careers and opportunities for women. It was a great way for young girls to meet other smart, motivated young girls from all around the country and find out about resources available to them. Although I could hardly keep my eyes open by the end of the day, Karla and her mom were giddy with excitement the whole trip home, which of course made it worth it.
Yesterday I learned more than I ever needed to know about butterflies during a charla that I helped organize for our youth group that is working on the butterfly garden project and planning to give tours at the Feria del Agua (most fun fact: they can’t bite their food, only suck it up through this coiled tube inside their heads). Then I played in a women’s soccer game that Adrienne joined me for in Morazán, and none other than Uncle Danny and Aunt Boo showed up to cheer us on for the second half. They had been traveling up north for the past five days and were ending their trip with a visit down south.
I spent the night with them at Monte Azul, where we were spoiled as always by actually hot showers and delicious food. The next morning we came back to Quebradas and I gave them the tour, starting at my apartment and making our way up to FUDEBIOL, stopping to talk to the artisan group that was painting a new rock, buy some jam from jam ladies and take lots of pictures of the India Dormida. After a picnic lunch and tour of the grounds, we were invited to don Gilberth’s finca for cafecito on his balcony overlooking all of San Isidro, a lovely end to an active day.
As I am starting to ponder how I am going to manage to get all the possessions I have accumulated over two years into two suitcases when I pack up in May, I sent Danny and Boo home with an eclectic assortment of goods I do not anticipate needing in the next two months, including my hand-welded menorah, alpaca sweater, broken computer and Peruvian ceramic bowl. It was great to see them and weird/exciting that I could say ‘see you soon’ when we said goodbye and mean it.
But the end still feels distant, as there is so much work to be done and fun to be had between now and then. Of course I wouldn’t have it any other way.