It’s Not the Work …

It’s not the work. It’s the work it takes to do the work.

While probably true of most worthwhile endeavors, this statement has been a semi-mantra for me since January began and many changes occurred in my life as a Peace Corps volunteer.

The now buried lead to this post is that I’ve changed sites and therefore jobs. Since June I’ve been in Pocora working alongside a gift of a co-teacher (now friend) in the high school there and with a team working on the National English Festival which was hosted at nearby EARTH University in November. I was also squeezing in time with the national advisors of English and working on the English curriculum reform that’s underway.

As a result of my work on these projects we were able to introduce a new video at the festival that can be used with the new curriculum. Simultaneously, a proposed new volunteer that was to work with the national advisors of Ministerio de Educación Pública de Costa Rica didn’t quite work out. Since the advisors liked my previous work with the curriculum development and my work on the English video and festival, they asked if I could assist in the role left vacant. And that meant a site change from Pocora to near San Jose.

I’m now living with my first host family in a community called San Miguel and three days a week I commute to the MEP office to give input on themes, activities, vocabulary, etc. for the new curriculum. I am also assisting with the next national English Festival, video development, and a proposed new nationwide English campaign.

Being busy feeds my soul, so the fact that this was a hard first week had nothing to do with the amount of work that was accomplished (which was plenty).

The “ouch” is what you have to do to do the work – buses (LOTS of them), walks in heels (which I will be addressing in the future by changing shoes in the office), waiting on a computer that is connected to the Internet and therefore having to use mine and my phone data to connect, coordinating across cultural and language barriers with office mates and, to some extent, generational barriers with other volunteers.

Plus it’s rather expensive to live in the Capitol city. The other two days of the week will fortunately be out of my house so I’ll be saving on bus fares (sometimes taxis when the work goes long and it’s not safe to bus it) and some meals but I still have to pay rent and I hate that I can’t give my very gracious host what she really deserves.

So … this post finds me quite thrilled to be facing new challenges and slightly worn out as well.

Still the work is the thing and, gratefully, the work is rewarding. And, when all else fails to soothe or salve, I have time with friends … like today’s Super Bowl event, my yoga class, and a nice long walk!

Baggage Claim

Traveling isn’t what it used to be. Though I never flew when meals were hot and near restaurant quality, I heard stories of steaks in first class. I’ve seen films. I have had hints of traveling mercies —  like when I once had enough points to be bumped up and enjoy a freshly heated chocolate chip cookie and cold glass of milk before arriving in Seattle. Or the time when the international flight was overbooked and I was greeted in one country by a uniform-clad messenger and told I would be making my way to the next country with actual space between my knees and the seat in front of me (first class again).

But for the most part, travel in my time has been a chore.

When I flew to Costa Rica my new duffle bag gave up before ever leaving the staging hotel and I found myself at 3:30 a.m. trying to duct tape may way to some sense of security as the airport-bound bus was being filled with other volunteers and their two bags — all we were allotted. Though I had made a math class out of discovering if I was carrying too heavy of a load and knew with certainty that I would get a pass, I cringed when I saw my fellow trainees with bags wide open discarding and shifting and trying to cajole the baggage handlers who stood between them and expensive hair products which were destined to soon be in someone’s handbag or trash but weren’t going to San Jose.

And even though I’ve been to more than 20 countries, I still hesitate when filling out the required forms distributed on the plane before landing. I know I don’t have drugs, money, or contraband. I know that I haven’t been frolicking in cow pastures. I know that I’m free of disease and passport ready and yet I still fear that I will have to endure the glower of a customs agent, the frustration of a bored passport control officer.

What I didn’t realize when I made my way through the Costa Rican system, was that I should have left one item at the luggage carrier upon my arrival. That, of course, was my ego. I really have no use for it here. No matter how impressive I might think myself to be, language is the great humbler. I can make my way across country and secure deals and address hotel screw ups but my Spanish stumbles out like some drunken husband timidly fretting what his wife will say when he finally pours himself through the front door after an all nighter. My sentences don’t flow. My words have no rhythm. Even the drunk eventually finds his keys. The key to my language learning has yet to be discovered. I slur, reset, and repeat until both my confidante and I grow weary of the process.

So yes … I helped script and stage manage the National English Festival. Yes I wrote and helped produce a short video that may launch a social media campaign. Yes I taught high schoolers how to spell, present, and have a fun conversation in English. And yes I’m in the middle of launching a new social media presence for Peace Corps Costa Rica (on top of the other campaign) and yes, I have a new position with the national department of education and will be returning to the San Jose area.

But no, I don’t sound like I know what I’m talking about whenever I speak. No I can’t remember which is the word meaning “rule” and which is the one for “present” and I’ve asked close to 20 times. No, I’m not sure what the potential benefactor is offering in his WhatsApp messages to me, what my host mom just said she was putting in front of me for lunch, and exactly how to get to the yoga class that I still have to do with my eyes half open because I’m not sure if we are suppose to be deep breathing while standing or getting a grip on the light within.

At this point, my ego is sufficiently aware of what it is not, what I am not.

And though I’m not a fluent Spanish speaker, I am also not a quitter. So 2016, here we go. The only ticket I have for this phase simply says “mejor” so I will hold fast to the idea that this year, bruised ego and all, I will be better.

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.


Signs you might be living in a rainforest ….

  • IMG_6816Your shoes are green – from mold
  • Your clothes have unidentifiable stains that you learn are from … mold
  • You notice a lizard on your wall while chatting with someone in the states and don’t even think it’s worth mentioning
  • Your room (shared with two others from the same region) was fumigated by hotel staff after you unpack clothes (see above and aforementioned … mold)
  • You are on your fourth umbrella in three months
  • You hear about a volunteer who was told she had lung cancer and later learned it was … mold
  • Make up? What make up?
  • You celebrate coming to San Jose – solely because your clothes are dry for a few minutes
  • You are in site for three months and have already planned a bonfire for when your service date is over and you can burn your clothes (And, no, they wouldn’t be good to share with those “less fortunate”)
  • You have no intention of packing clothes for when you visit the states but you are going to buy a Tote
  • While you might forget your cell phone or even your computer when walking to school, you will not forget your sweat rag and fan
  • Have I mentioned mold?

“A slice of life”

LIFE MuralAfter last week’s “when it rains it pours” posting on Facebook (pictures of my drenched clothes and bags, the result of a torrential downpour on my way to the bus stop), this week I enjoyed our “once in a blue moon” sighting. As you might suspect at this point, I also spent a great deal of time looking at what curriculum writers call our social language — specifically idioms. Continue reading “A slice of life”

Hard Not to Compare

June 2015 Upload 282  IMG_6556

Good, better, best

What’s your favorite ____?

We are a comparative lot, we humans. I’m working on the national curriculum now and though we don’t introduce first graders to those options just yet, I know it will be staring us in the face when we get to somewhere around the fourth grade. As a traveler, I’m often asked the “what was the best” question … or favorite … or asked to say if one locale is better than another.

I usually avoid answering. Continue reading Hard Not to Compare

Thinking about thinking … and talking … and more thinking

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For most of my life, I’ve been about the “doing” of things. Extroverted and perpetually purposeful, I cajole, convince, and counter as much as I communicate. But living (not just visiting) a different culture with a beautifully crafted yet complex (at least for me) language has prompted some changes on my part.

I don’t talk.  Continue reading Thinking about thinking … and talking … and more thinking