I miss …

Guapiles Regional English Festival 065I miss … me.

Certainly, I also miss my family, friends and … air conditioning but there are days when the longing that is deepest within me is for … me.

The me I am when I’m sure of my language choice and know that the story I’m telling will resonate with my audience, especially when the punchline (or insight or whatever) is timed just right.

The me I am when leaving the theater/gallery/etc. , knowing that the next hour or so will be spent around a table consuming perfect bites of deliciousness to go with cold white wine and conversations that will dissect each aspect of the presentation and tie its themes to any number of real life scenarios.

The me that collects the stories of others and then plans the kind of gathering that with a simple question placed at just the right spot will create a domino effect of connections and revelations.

The me that not so confidently walks into a gathering but soon finds my footing and discovers that the person at the the bar might be a great person for the person at the buffet line to get to know.

At times I feel like a facsimile of me — closer even to a caricature that doesn’t even have the depth of 3D.

And then I get a reminder weekend …

And I “perform” the readers theater piece I drafted that includes Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” and talk of how “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” and I put on my best Southern drawl and have volunteers play the game of what does a Southerner really mean when she says …

And I buy a pizza from the place in town that does crust with olive oil tinged crispiness for the volunteer who lives among the indigenous folks and only speaks English when she’s teaching or talking to her counterpart because she can’t even get good cell service to call out. And we sip the still not cold and still not great wine and savor each bite and suddenly “perfect bite” seems somewhere within my palate’s reach.

And I ask a friend who knows the owner of a restaurant to get the ok for a crowd of volunteers to sit on its patio for a couple of hours as we attempt to complete a complicated report due next week.

And I join those same friends on a walk to discover a new restaurant — The Crepery and we actually get real crepes and some icy basil and lemonade concoction that is the cure for the steamy rain that is falling.

And I make my way to a salon I haven’t been to before, and I stumble through an introduction, and I chat with the 10 year old who doesn’t seem to mind that my Spanish doesn’t allow me to understand him easily and I laugh as he entertains me with his toy top and makes sure I have the wifi password.

And I take a couple of hours to listen to a volunteer who will depart in a few months and coach him  through questions regarding his vision, his mental models, those things he wants to measure success by and more.

And then I remember …

Oh yeah … this … is … me.

A journey of a 1,000 steps …

IMG_7316As I cricked my neck to look upward, ever upward it seemed, I decide that the tears threatening to burst forth would just have to wait. I needed clear eyesight to maneuver – in the darkness — up the precariously placed “steps” leading to the gate. The 20-pound pack on my back with the week’s worth of clothes and my computer had already expanded in my mind to become a bigger burden than I’d imagined when I proudly zipped it up that morning, content in the belief that the continuing but goodhearted ridicule I was taking for always having so many chunches would have no justification this time.

I was at that point in the trek that, though close, I let my mind go to the question “what if I just stopped, right now? Sat down and didn’t move for hours?” Of course, my host who was several concrete blocks ahead of me might notice, and, in all likelihood I would be crossing some cultural boundary that I am usually so attentive to. So I just let it be known that I was fine, I could do it, yet, since my arthritic hip has a mind of its own, I might be a while.

The journey of a thousand miles may begin with the first step but when your FitBit tells you you are well past the 10,000 step mark for the day and there’s still that backpack weighing on you, being “all about the journey” loses something in reality. And, at the moment, my reality was an uphill battle.

I guess I’m at that stage of my volunteer commitment where the “Are you serious?” factor is rather high. (They actually map out “stages” so we will know the misery or ecstasy we are currently feeling is “normal” or not.)

Perhaps I should provide examples …

  • I told my host-for-the-week that I was coming from the suburb that (turns out) is directly beside her suburb. I learned the proximity only after I rode a bus for 25 min to downtown San Jose, walked to her office, walked from her office back to the bus stop area I had just come from and to another bus stop a bit away from that one, and rode a bus an hour back in the same direction I’d come (this time through 5:00 traffic).
  • I’m with yet another new host because the work I’m doing on curriculum planning is considered a secondary project for me by Peace Corps – so they won’t pay for travel or a hotel. The national educational organization I’m working with has no budget for volunteers who are assisting them so they don’t pay for travel or a hotel either. They do, however, find me rooms I can stay in that are in the houses of their staff members. This is the second time I’ve taken advantage of that provision.
  • The room I’m in at the moment was supposed to be an option for me and another volunteer to share. Had she not decided to stay home this week we would … shall I say … have been VERY close by the end of the week. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful. But this is one small room with a very, very, very firm mattress.
  • I was just told the conference that I agreed to co-plan/lead in January has been changed to another conference topic (one I have no experience with). And it wasn’t changed by the organizers. It was changed by the person who asked me to work with her … but on a completely different topic … and hadn’t mentioned the change to me at all.

And these would be examples from only the last two days.

I share these tidbits not to evoke pity or concern. I simply want those who are following my experience here to know that while surrounded by breathtaking beauty, experiencing thrills ranging from mountaintops to waterfalls, and meeting the kind of inspirational people books are (or at least should be) written about, the reality is that every so often I’m

  • Tired
  • Frustrated
  • Amazed at the ability of humans to screw up brilliant ideas with virtual mudslides of red tape
  • Really wishing for something that once just seemed normal but would now seem like an extravagance of extravagance (i.e. a comfy bed in a room with air conditioning and a cold glass of good wine with a few mouthwatering tapas to accompany it)

I’m rolling with the punches though so there’s no need to fret. I recently read a great piece on the roller coaster ride of emotional highs and lows in a “typical” Peace Corps day and it pretty much nailed it. Wake up to sun pouring through your pane-less window and think how beautiful … freeze in the shower and think I gotta get outta here … start walking to school and see the volcano in the distance and think how amazing that I live here … be completely covered in sweat and you haven’t walked 50 feet and think when is the next plane to the states … meet a student who acknowledges you and seems excited to see  you and think how much of an impact you can have … then said student corrects your Spanish or laughs at you and you think I could be making real money at a place with a copier that works …

You get the idea. I don’t know that I’ve had that much intensity in just the span of a couple of hours but I’m coming close and I certainly understand the writer’s sentiments.

So here’s to the next step of the “toughest job” I’m supposed “to ever love.”

Remembering Me

Working the photo ops, writing the speeches, following up with press releases to all the volunteers' hometown papers -- yep, it was like old home week in my memory banks!
Working the photo ops, writing the speeches, following up with press releases to all the volunteers’ hometown papers — yep, it was like old home week in my memory banks!

In the midst of a sea of “new” it’s often comforting to remember “me” — who I was(am) prior to choosing a radical corner to turn. Such was the case this week when I had the opportunity to put on my best attire (though it did need airing out due to previously posted problem with mold) and do a bit of event planning.

The new Ambassador finally was approved this summer and he and his family (of four kids and rabbi wife) made it to Costa Rica a couple of months ago. The first trip he made outside of the capitol was to our province — Limon. I happened to be with the Response Volunteer (shorter stint than what I’m doing, much better Spanish, and really focused work on training) when the call came in asking what we might do in our area to help him get a glimpse of our work. Since the story of his arrival had just been featured in the national press and he had highlighted his desire to help improve English, it was a win/win for his stop in Guapiles to feature elements to the new National English Festival that will be held here in November. Nothing says “photo op” like politicians and children! And, having already seen how festive the teachers make even the local-only-the-students-and-other-teachers-will-see institutional level competitions, I knew we would have plenty of “atmosphere” to throw up as backdrops.

After saying yes and pitching our idea to his people at the Embassy, we had a plan — 90 min of samples from the Spelling Bee, Impromptu Speech and Readers Theater elements of the Festival all set in one of the loveliest Guapiles elementary schools. Of course, in standard event planning mode, the 90 min became one hour, the time changed 2-3 times, and we were asked to write all the comments for all the speakers (of which there were many because … hey! … it’s an event!)

When the large dark SUV rolled into the schoolyard the little girls were poised in their best folklorico stances, the 1st-6th graders lined the sidewalk waving the flags of both countries while welcoming Ambassador Fitzgerald Haney and his entourage in two languages, and the smile that never left his face beamed. I suspected that as that father of four — all apparently under 12 years of age — he was going to delight in what the children would do. I got that one right!

First he met with the Peace Corps volunteers and our Country Director. Again, I had written a few questions for us to use during the Q&A (the other vols had the chance but in the busyness of everyday didn’t submit in time) and it was cool to hear my words coming out of their mouths and even better when his response was “Wow! That’s a great question!”

We found out how he plans to achieve his support of English — Peace Corps is definitely a part of the strategy — and how he plans to continue to encourage U.S. businesses here to financially support the efforts that will produce the quality English speakers they need. Then we were off to the presentation in the gym that had grown from what we had originally timed out to include dance, a presentation of art and lots more photos!

New Ambassador S. Fitzgerald Haney takes part in mock Spelling Bee in recent visit to Guapiles.
New Ambassador S. Fitzgerald Haney takes part in mock Spelling Bee in recent visit to Guapiles.

I suspected I liked him when he was honest with our small group. I knew he was pretty much what I had guessed he’d be when he readily agreed to take part in the mock Spelling Bee. And when he used the speech I wrote as is, well, he had me.

Several days later, I was talking with a friend going through some leadership transitions herself, and we used the term “remembering me.” I am not simply what I do, but that is a part of me. And when I switched to teaching mode and was humbled (every day) with my lack of language acquisition to the point of ragged conversations with those I wish to learn more from, I sometimes forget that I am capable of many things, competent in many areas, and have a career of successes behind me. This week I was reminded that I may not be GREAT at anything but I’m consistently good at what I do — maybe even GREAT at being consistently good. And that … as my dear friend says … pleases me.