Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Hay que matar un chancho para apreciar el puerco (You have to kill a pig to appreciate pork)

One of my morning rituals, both here in Costa Rica, but as well in the United States, is to wake up with a freshly brewed cup of joe.  Coffee helps me focus and gives me the stimulus to face whatever tasks I have ahead of me for the day.  Although I’ve previously seen the roasting process at a coffee museum in Antigua, Guatemala, I’ve never actually performed any of the work that is necessary to bring the precious bean from the cafetal to my lips until my latest visit to my host family’s house in San Juan Norte in the mountains of the Distrito de Cartago, bordering San José, which in the past 30 years has seen many changes.

Google Earth image of the small town of San Juan Norte
In the 1980s both electricity and asphalt arrived and with both came the ability for youth to be further exposed to the outside world and also have easier means to escape to it.  Young family members now prefer jobs that do not require manual labor, the majority of which are found outside of the region.  Sadly, this is the fate with Don Sergio’s family.  His son Andrés is a high school professor and he doesn’t have any other direct family members who would or could take over the family business.  Sergio turned 54 this year and watching him both pick and lug cajuelas (un canasto = una cajuela) of coffee on his back up the steep inclination where some of his coffee fields lie on the side of the mountain of Guardarrama (opposite the valley of San Juan Norte) induces a pang of sadness knowing that all the amor (for culture, landscape, family and love of that little bean) that Sergio has put into growing and picking coffee since his teenage years will likely have to be sold when he can no longer aguantar the backbreaking, heat-stroke inducing labor.  
“No estoy seguro que sea mejor reír o llorar,” dijo don Sergio.
“Reír es más rico que llorar. Vámonos.” le dije a él y salimos riendo juntos regresando a coger café.
Coffee farm/plantation (cafetal) near San Juan Norte
I was visiting my training host family for Christmas vacation knowing that this would be one of the last times I would be able to spend such quality family time with them.  I could have relaxed the entire time (December 24-27) being fed traditional tamales and all the rich and wonderful food that Doña Miriam so lovingly prepares and serves us without being asked for recompense.  However, my curiosity about café propelled me to ask to accompany Sergio out into the fields the day after Christmas and served to sweep away the Christmas cobwebs of laziness and overeating that had clouded over me over the previous two days.
I woke up at 5:20 am on the 26th and as we were returned from delivering the morning coffee to Sergio’s mother, Sergio noted my morning allergies and strategically mentioned that this year the coffee had a particular plaga which created a fine orange dust which would accumulate under the leaves of the mata and would aggravate my allergies (implied).  Subtly Tico, Sergio was trying to convince me that perhaps I didn’t know what I was in for.  Stubbornly, I refused to take no for an answer so he, I and three peones  (migrant workers from near Perez Zeledón), along with their 12 and 3 year old children (the older one charged with watching the younger one) cramped into in his old Toyota 4-wheel rumbo the other side of the valley.
A canasto (or cajuela) of coffee
Sergio gave the peones instructions on where to pick and brought me to a patch of café arriba which was on flatter ground where I could practice my skills without having to worry about falling off the mountain.  I was given a canasto, which fit loosely around my slender waist, and for which I was to toss the picked coffee. The mata was short and there was a mixture of both maduro and non-maduro café so you had to be  to leave the green beans  (non-maduros), which initially slowed down my work.
After time, I learned to pick with both hands, and through feel and instinct learned to distinguish the non-mature beans from the mature ones by how easily they fell from the branches as I quickly passed my hands over them.  Sergio and I worked mostly quietly, he not more than a calle away from me.  At one point we discussed the meditativeness of the process of picking: “No piensa en nada más que el café” noted  Sergio, “No tiene que pensar en sus problemas.”
We started at approximately 6 am and our first break was around 10 am.  We sat and ate a tamale and drank some coffee (how appropriate) while  producing small talk with the other workers.  Sergio joked to them: “Este hombre no sabes que es un gringo, un camote o mal-parido.” I responded, “Puede ser que soy probablemente una mezcla de las tres cosas.”
Ripe (or maduro) coffee beans (or granos)
We moved down to the terrain that was more inclinado and where the mata was much taller where you would have to bend the plant in order to pick the beans toward the top.  On some of the plants, I was surprised to find them so large, round and plump – almost the size of a grape.  Sergio mentioned that  picking grapes, as they do in California, is a similar process, but that grapes can stand more temperature variation than coffee and that likely the grapes themselves are a little more delicate.
The time passed quickly as we worked through lunch.  The sun beat down heavily and I found myself hiding in the shade to avoid getting too hot.  I had forgotten both hat (all other workers had one) and sunblock, so I was concerned not only of heatstroke, as I could feel my brain cook like a raw egg in the sun and I became slightly nauseous, but also of returning to the house burnt like a lobster.
We finished the day of picking at around 2:30 pm – usually the day ending between three and four pm.  I noted that I probably picked about half as much as Sergio, but also noted that he was both astonished and proud that I was able to keep up as much as I did and last the entire day.  Between five of us, we picked 51 ½ cajuelas during the 6 ½ hours of work.  We loaded the café and delivered the day’s sweat-labor to the nearest recibidor where Sergio was paid approximately 12 dollars a cajuela  (30 minutes to an hour’s work and only half of what was paid the year before).  At this price, Sergio would not even be able to cover the expenses he incurred the past year, much less pay for house expenses.
Learning to pick coffee has been one of my top experiences that I’ve had while in Costa Rica.   I’ve always imagined how difficult it would be to work harvesting, but now I know without a doubt. I also know how little even those that own the land may only gain very little, after expenses, depending on the whims of the agricultural markets. Además, this experience afforded me a unique opportunity to spend some time with my host father, Don Sergio, my dear friend and the man I most admire here in Costa Rica.
My American and Tico Family diuring family visit:
Melinda, Andrés, Miriam, Sergio, Stephen & Michael
photo taken by Betsy Lanning
Asked by Sergio later that evening why I wanted to learn to pick coffee, I responded. “Hay que matar un chancho para apreciar el puerco.”  I lift my cup of coffee this morning, “Un brindis, Don Sergio.  Gracias por compartir su labor y su cariño conmigo.  Estoy infinitamente agradecido.”
Don Sergio and Stephen near San Juan Norte

Friday, December 14, 2012

Appreciation and (the Beginning of) Despedidas

So I actually think I am inspired to write my 2nd ever blog post.  I am a very open, but also a private, person (as those who know me well already know ;)), so most of the time I would rather talk to Stephen or a close, trusted friend instead of write in a blog, but… well, like I said, I’m inspired.  So here goes.

We have been Peace Corps Volunteers now for almost 2 years, in our small community in Talamanca.  I have worked on a number of things, but the projects I am always the most “proud” of and that make me feel like I am learning as much as community members I am with, involve local youth.
Within about a week of being in our community, Stephen and I were teaching English classes (we started with one student, at her kitchen table…and we hadn’t planned on teaching English before then).  We did know English was (is) a huge community need, though, so thought we’d give it a shot.  Almost 2 years later we have the most loyal English classes (3 nights a week…so much for not teaching English!) on the planet.  A handful of these students started in the very first class we had (about a month into site we expanded from the kitchen table to a backyard to have more room), and have been with us ever since (now we teach in the front room of a student’s house/pulperia).

When Stephen and I started a co-ed Chic@s Poderos@s group, we looked to the group of kids in our more advanced English class.  These kids are mostly 11-12 years old.  We figured we had been working with them for such a long time, and, even though we hadn’t been directly teaching them about things like values, drug prevention, machismo, family violence, and so on, we had indirectly been teaching them about ALL of these things, as well as providing a “model” of sorts of a mostly normal, well adjusted, pareja (couple).  And we thought it’d be nice to have a place to more directly talk about these, and other, super important issues.  And our kids had built trust in us.  Most of our kids joined and came to almost every class (which we are most likely continuing in the coming school year). 
These kids are special in so many ways.  They come to these classes and programs AFTER going to classes at school, which they HAVE to go to, during the day.  They take notes in their notebooks, and show up with energy and enthusiasm to learn (not all of the time, of course, as this would be strange).  But the point is they come, week after week, in the evening, to learn with us, teach us (I attribute a lot of my Spanish learning to them, as they aren’t shy about correcting us), share and laugh with us.  We already know this group will be the hardest to say goodbye to.  BUT, we do have about 5 months left, so, although we’ve started the process of reminding kids of our upcoming departure, we still have time left for doing major appreciations and all of that, right?  We don’t have to think about all of that right now?
We had our last Chic@s Poderos@s (youth empowerment) class of this school year about a week ago.  After doing skits at the end of the class (which was focused around family violence), the kids all ran up to us and said they wanted to do one more skit, but with ALL of them in it.  We said that would be great, figuring it would be another skit about family violence. Wrong.  The kids came back to us a few minutes later and proceeded to do a skit about Stephen and myself and our Peace Corps service.  Two kids played “Stephen and Melinda,” while the others played themselves as our students.  They proceeded to show, through their dramatization, their appreciation of and respect for our work with them…. including challenges we have faced as a group, and how we have worked through them and grown from them.  I am surprised I held it together (meaning didn’t actually cry), although I was on the verge for sure.  After their dramatization, they talked about how they appreciate the fact that we came here from another country of our own free will and work every day to help try to make their lives better, regardless of the challenges and struggles, and that we don’t give up on them.  I was (and still am) incredibly moved by this.  Stephen and I didn’t say much after they spoke (couldn’t in some ways, because we were choked up), but just thanked them and shared our appreciations of their time, commitment, respect, and sharing as well (especially since, they, like us, are volunteering to be part of our activities).
This morning Stephen and I attended graduation at our elementary school (our first one, as, at this point last year we hadn’t worked nearly as much with the school).  We were excited and emotional, as many kids we work with were graduating, and one of them was not only graduating, but also moving to San José in a week.  Shortly after the kids took their seats at the front of the room, they asked for the Junta de Educación to walk to the front of the room, with the “special invitados (invitees).”  The directora then beckoned Stephen and myself (with a smile) and said that we were the special invitees.  Stephen and I turned towards each other with shock, as we had no idea we’d be part of the ceremony in any way.  Not only were we introduced to the whole school and community attendees as “special invitees,” but we were asked to help hand out diplomas, and were 2 of only about a few people seated in front of the room next to the Directora.  She gave a speech in which she talked, at length, about Stephen’s and my work in the community, the fact that we are living far from home in a foreign country and culture, volunteering to help others, and how we are examples/role models for not only the children but for other community members as well.  She mentioned our projects, but mostly talked about the caring with which we work with the kids and other community members, and how it has been a blessing for the community and school to have us living and working with and among them.  Stephen and I were speechless, especially since this was followed by the president of the Junta de Educación, who also highlighted our work in the community at length.  Stephen and I were then expected to speak (but of course we didn’t have anything prepared, as we were not expecting to be part of the program).  This, however, was really great.  I found that, maybe due to the recognition, or the emotion surrounding the event, or I’m not sure what, I spoke more confidently and fluidly than usual in front of a TON of people (not my favorite thing normally); I shared our enormous appreciation of the teachers and parents (who really do most of the work), the Directora and the Junta President, and everyone involved in the education, growth and development of these young people.  I spoke about how we have been able to work in our community because of working WITH the children and other community members, and how nothing we’ve done would have been accomplished without their collaboration and support.
All in all it was incredible.  The night with the kids, seeing them share their appreciation, the school today expressing their appreciation (especially the Directora, who, although a super tough cookie at first, over time has grown to be one of the warmest people in the community with Stephen and myself).
I am generally very content and satisfied with the work we do with kids and other community members, but receiving community recognition and support in such a public, warm and loving way… I will never forget it, or our community.  Despite the Peace Corps being one of the most emotionally and otherwise challenging experiences I’ve ever had, it has been, and will continue to be, one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done, and I’m glad I have been patient enough to truly discover and appreciate that.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Highlighting Renewable Energy Alternatives in Talamanca and Helping Costa Rica Become Carbon Neutral by 2021

As Peace Corps volunteers, when Melinda and I first arrived in our site we were tasked with writing a community diagnostic which we would share with our counterpart organizations and community, and which would also serve as a tool to get to know our community, discover our resources and help us integrate.  One of the basic questions asked from both a perspective of understanding seasonal patterns (both socially and economically) and security/disaster preparedness was, "How is the climate of this region?"  Community members responses almost always started like this, "Well, in the past it was much more predictable and there were well-defined rainy seasons and less drastic changes.  Now we have more floods, hotter weather and it rains whenever it wants to."  When you ask long-time residents whether they believe climate change is a real threat, there is a resounding answer, "Absolutely!"
Pierre Lambot of Purasol measuring the roof for the panels

We live on the tropical Caribbean southeast coast which is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. There are two main economic industries in this area: toursism and agriculture.  Additionally, this is an incredibly biodiverse area which includes both Cahuita National Park and the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge as well as sharing the La Amistad International Park with Panama.

Pierre Lambot (Purasol), Harold González (Purasol),
Berny Tencio (Purasol), Jonathan Barrantes Gutiérrez
(Corredor Biológico and Henry installing the solar panel rails

From an agricultural perspective, the two main export crops are bananas and plantains.  Much of the production of both occur near river banks where they can be easily irrigated.  Unfortunately, as a cause of the increased severe weather, there has been increased flooding of these rivers, specifically in the Sixaola River Basin between Bribri and Sixaola on the Panama border, which has damaged the production and has had a major impact on the economic condition of the region.  In addition to commercial production, many families also rely on domestic production of fruits and vegetables to feed their families, especially in more remote areas of the region.  Recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and my counterpart, the Corredor Biológico Talamanca Caribe, co-sponsored a Seed Exchange Fair (Feria de Intercambio de Semillas) in the indigenous Talamanca community of Bambú to encourage farmers to share rare seeds to promote agricultural diversity in the face of climate change and to promote food security initiatives, including the implementation of seedbanks.

Jonathan and Henry installing the
Enphase inverters

From a tourism perspective, the major toursist destinations in Talamanca reside on the coast, including Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and all the beaches south to Manzanillo.  With the prediction that sea levels will rise as a part of global warming because of polar ice melt, these low-lying coastal areas carry significant risk of being consumed by rising ocean waters.  Not only would this cause severe economic costs in terms of tourism, but would also displace residents and workers in these communities.  As far as biodiversity is concerned, many species are vulnerable to even small changes in temperature, including bio-cooling mechanisms to changes in depletion of food sources as a result of severe weather, or the increase of plagues and disease which may follow increases/decreases in weather patterns.  Especially vulnerable are the coral reefs that lie along the coast, with which small temperature variations may have significant effects.

Stephen Lanning (Peace Corps), Jonathan Barrantes Gutiérrez (Corredor
Biológico and Pierre Lambot (Purasol) installing the first panel
As a method to highlight these risks and help mitigate the effects of climate change, I undertook a project alongside my counterpart organization, the Corredor Biológico, to install solar panels in their offices to be used as an education and demonstration center for sustainable renewable energy alternatives and to help bring awareness to the reality of climate change, its possible implications and to encourage the environmentally sustainable techniques and habits which will help the region, and the planet to mitigate the approaching effects of a warming planet.  In fact, Costa Rica is taking a bold step in this direction, as they are attempting to become the first country to become carbon neutral by the year 2021.  However, with continuing economic and infrastructural development in this country, this goal has become increasingly more difficult and will require an increasing effort to not only in adopting renewal energy alternatives, but also in diminishing the energy and resources for which each citizen consumes.

Pierre inspects the work as others continue installation
The Corredor Biológico is an obvious fit for the solar panel installation, being a non-profit, non-governmental organization that can benefit economically from the cost-savings of solar energy production.  However, more importantly is that their organizational mission is to protect the biological corridor (also known as wildlife or green corridor) which aims to conserve and protect the flora and fauna that exist in the area.  As these species rely heavily on the mitigation of climate change, the majority of their work revolves around this field including payment for environmental (ecosystem) services, solid waste management, diversification of agricultural production, reforestation and environmental education, among others projects.  The Corredor Biológico also hosts 1,000+ visitors per year, who can ask questions about the panels (easily visible on the roof as a converastion piece), has 17 member organizations and has 15 schools in their Environmental Education Program, which will further expand the awareness and educational reach of the project.  One particularly important educational piece of the project was to connect the solar panels to a internet tool, which allows interested parties the ability to see the real-time results of energy production and consumption, with graphs displaying trends over time to allow for energy auditing.

Pierre Lambot of Purasol making a presentation on renewable energy
The Corredor Biológico and Peace Corps also sponsored three events to help highlight the project, including an interactive discussion on basic techniques for energy and environmental resource conservation in the office and home, given by Peace Corps Bandera Azul Committee Members and partners at IBM (who are helping in both the financing and implementation of the project), a renewable energy workshop provider by the solar panels providers, Purasol, and a third related project, yet-to-be-determined.

Many thanks need to go out to out in regard to the success of this project.  I'd like to thank Purasol for their tireless work, from the design and endless paperwork to the financing, installation and contributing the renewable energy workshop free of charge.  Thank you Pierre, Arine, Harold and  Berny, as well as others behind the scenes are Purasol for bringing such an important project to life for both the Corredor Biológico and the region of Talamanca.  The project was done on-time and with excellent installation and craftsmanship.  I couldn't be more appreciative of their work and would highly recommend them to anyone who is interested in any of the renewable energy products they offer.

Pierre (Purasol), Berny (Purasol), Stephen (Peace Corps) and Alonso Loiaza (IBM) inspect a work well-done. 

Secondly, I'd like to thank CRUSA and ECPA for their contributions in helping to finance this project.  I would also like to recognize IBM, and especially the work of Alonso Loiaza, Service Level Agreement Analyst, for his efforts in obtaining financing through an internal grant process for employees interested in volunteerism.  I would also like to thank both Alonso and Leonardo Álvarez for their participation in the workshop on environmental resource conservation.

Another picture of the solar panels after installation

There were twelve panels in total with 8 facing
 the front of the office and 4 installed on the other side
Next, I'd like to thank the Corredor Biológico for their assistance in making the project happen including Karla Murillo for her help in revising the grants and especially in checking the grammar as all the grants were written in Spanish (approximately 40 pages each), and Rosa Bustillos Lemaire, Juan Carlos Barrantes, Gustavo Obando and Junior Wilson Rivera for all the countless paperwork requests, and for technical and event planning asistance.  I also appreciate the technical assistance provided by Jonathan Barrantes Gutierrez for helping in both the installation and also other prior maintenance preparation.

I'd also like to acknowledge ICE and their assistance in connecting the panels to their electrical grid, becoming one of the first organizations in our region to be a part of their pilot program "Generacíon Distribuida Para Autoconsumo".

ICE installing the bi-directional meter which allows excess energy
production from the solar panels to be fed back to the ICE electrictal grid
while Juan Carlos Barrantes of the Corredor Biológico looks on
Additionally, I'd like to thank the Peace Corps office for all of their support, including Alvaro Madrigal, Program Training Specialist for the Rural Community Development Program, for his countless reviews of the grant proposals.  I'd also like to thank Steve Dorsey, Peace Corps Country Director, and Moises Leon, Program Director for the Rural Community Development Program, for their enthusiasm for the project and for video-taping the renewable energy workshop and solar panel inauguration.  Additional recognition goes out to Gabriela Arce and Anna Baker, who also helped present the first energy conservation workshop.

The installation of the panels would not have
happened without incredible support from the Peace Corps staff 

Lastly, I'd like to thank my wife, Melinda, for her love, support and tolerance of the long hours sacrificed and for her coordination of volunteers and assistance during the events listed above; but moreover, for also for being courageous enough to join the Peace Corps with me in the first place.  It has been an absolute privilege to work alongside her and share this wonderful journey in Costa Rica.

The solar panels can be seen from the street and will be a conversation piece to talk
about renewable energy and climate change

Friday, November 9, 2012

Talamanca Recycling for Life

Just in case you haven't received notification of this project via other channels (Facebook, email, etc.):

Please consider donating to my and my wife's Peace Corps project to build 50 plastic bottle recycling bins in promotion of the first community-wide, domestic recycling program in the canton of Talamanca, with our counterpart the Corredor Biológico Talamanca Caribe
. Your contribution will go to help purchase the metal wire necessary for the frame of the recycling container and the equipment necessary to cut and bend the wire, as well as the tool to make holes in the bottles and purchase biodegradable signs (decompose in 7-10 years) that demonstrate the materials that can be recycled and how to classify them. A reminder for those living in the United States that your donation is 100% tax deductible. 

Please see the following link for more information on how to contribute. Thank you for your consideration of this very important project.


Thanks as always for your support.  Melinda and I could not do what we are doing without the constant encouragement from family and friends back home.


Mil gracias,


Stephen & Melinda

Monday, November 5, 2012

In Search of Pura Vida

After more than one and a half years of living in Costa Rica, I admit to an ambiguous relationship with the Costa Rican phrase, “pura vida.”  During our first months in site, my wife and I were waiting in an ADI member’s front porch where supposedly their bi-weekly meeting was to be held.  We arrived on-time, wanting to set an example to our counterparts for punctuality, fully knowing that their meetings start between half-an-hour to an hour late, and despite the fact they are scheduled to begin at 5:30 pm on Tuesday nights.  The first member, besides the host, arrived 45 minutes late as we patiently waited for the others.  At 6:30 pm, the members called the Presidenta who replied that she would come, “ahorrita.”  Another member trickled in an hour and a half late, but we still lacked the Presidenta to have a quorum to have an official meeting.  She was called again at an hour and forty-five minutes and she said she was “on her way”.  At two hours, the members decided they couldn’t wait any longer and disbanded the meeting.

Both Melinda and I were newbies when it comes to the disappointment of poorly punctual and disorganized meetings, assuming they actually occur or that you’ve been notified because they have been cancelled.  Don Fabio, the then current ADI treasurer with whom we have had a friendly relationship, saw that both Melinda and I were visually dejected and turned to Melinda and said, “¡Pura vida! ¿Sabes que representa esta frase, verdad?”

Melinda looked at Don Fabio and said, “No, eso no es pura vida.”

According to Wikipedia, the saying “pura vida”, literally means pura = pure and vida = life, but may be more closely translated as "plenty of life", "full of life", "this is living!", "going great", "real living", "Awesome!" or "cool!"; or, per the Spanish Wikipedia entry: “Se utiliza para expresar bienestar en el estado de animo o en acciones.”

I have found myself utilizing the term pura vida with other Ticos as an expected, semi-rhetorical greeting (actually, I’m really having a crappy day, but thanks for asking!) and as a signal of agreement; however, only in the latter of these two uses, do I feel like I don’t come off as a fraud.  Instead of saying pura vida, I’d like to say, “Why pretend – we work together and try to feign mutual respect, but we really don’t LIKE each other.” or, “It would be pura vida, but I’ve got this horrible heat rash on my bum and I can’t itch it, so actually life is kind of excruciating.”
As a PCV in Costa Rica, I already have a hard enough time not feeling like an imposter, with my semi-fluency in Spanish and not being able to hide my obviously gringo characteristics.  I’m almost two years into my own service and I’m challenging my own integration.  I mean, pura vida is supposed to be Costa Rica, right?  Isn’t this phrase at the nucleus of why Costa Rica has been named the Happiest Country on Earth?

I’m not certain Costa Rica is the happiest country on earth – in fact, I have a problem with the whole “happiest country” rating system in its entirety.  I’ve listened to too many quejas of community members who are concerned about lack of fuentes de trabajo, teen drug use, lack of security and the increase in robos where houses must have bars, be locked at all times, or have someone present 24 hours (or hire a guard).  I’ve seen the alcoholism and the lack of educational opportunities and resources (How can children learn if they can’t hear, if they only have class half the time or if they have to walk an hour and a half just to get to the bus to take them to the colegio?).  The majority of these issues are not particularly Costa Rican, many of them shared in many sectors of society in the United States, among other countries.  Ticos are some extremely kind people and I’ve been treated by many as an extension of their family.  I’ve had the privilege to share life experiences in likely the most naturally beautiful place that I will ever have the opportunity to live, but I believe there is a limit to pura vida, as generally believed by most tourists and readers of Internet sound bits.

Despite these misgivings about how to reconcile what I see in certain sectors of my community, I do know that “pura vida” exists.  I feel it when working with Don Carlos, who is a part of the Junta de los Padres del Sexto grado who helped us on a school ceramic floor project.  I see his smile and when he says “pura vida” I can recognize his sincerity and it comes from his heart.  I also know pura vida in my interactions with Don Justo, who is the father of one of the kids in our English class through his unfaltering positive attitude.  I sense pura vida in the interactions I have with Susana, my co-worker’s wife, as she practices her English with us that she’s learned through an INA course recently, and can also be viewed through her relationship with her husband and the intelligent, respectful and well-adjusted child that they are raising together.  Culturally, in general I’ve been able to distinguish another pura vida through the unwavering patience Ticos have when things work out or whether they don’t.  It’s the Spanish equivalent to the French saying “c’est la vie”.

I’ve learned in my two years of service there are very few things that I have control over, and this has allowed me to not only to be a successful PCV, but also to remain sane and to enjoy and value my service, despite the cultural divide, the malentendidos, the isolation and the countless other frustrations that all PCVs face during their service.  I can’t control the working relationship with my counterpart, the fact that the sun is tremendo (I’ve got sweat marks in every imaginable location) or the frustrations with meetings lasting four hours when only one would be sufficient.  However, I can embrace my version of “pura vida” and not always accept it at face value.  I renounce stressing about what I can’t control, stop complaining and embrace reality.  And, when I COS this coming May, I will be infinitely grateful for all the pura vidas that those like Don Carlos, Don Justo and Susana have shared with me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Three Vignettes of Successful Projects

Recently, I was asked by my Program Director to provide three vignettes of success Rural Community Development Projects in our sites.  To give an update on some of the work we've been involved in I've provided a copy of my report to him below.  These projects have come at the expense of much fear and loathing, but in the end Melinda and I feel very proud and accomplished after having perservered to be able to see the results.  Indeed, we are at a stage in our service now where much of the groundwork we've laid over the past year and a half is starting to pay off.  In addition to the projects mentioned below, we've also got two other grants pending, one to replace the ceramic tile in our school and another to help buy materials to support a garden project there as well.  We've also almost finish a World Map mural project at the school, which we've used to teach elementary kids geography (pictures to come in further post).

I hope that you enjoy reading about the work you see below and know that your support of our Peace Corps service has helped make these successes possible, whether it be all of the assistance in our preparations pre-Peace Corps to just reading and following the blog and inspiring others with the positive actions which you perform in your individual lives for your family, friends and community.

Vignette #1:


When Melinda and I first arrived in Hone Creek, we were surprised to find that the Corredor Biológico, my counterpart organization, had not incorporated the Hone Creek Elementary School into its Environmental Education Program.  We asked Karla Murillo, the Program Director, why this was the case and she said that a couple of years back the school was involved in the Program, but that there was a fall-out from an incident where she had planned a school field trip complete with transportation and food, but when the bus showed up to pick up the kids on the day of the event, nobody was at school and she had not been notified.  When she confronted the teacher about it, the teacher said it had never been planned for that day and when brought to the attention of the school principal, the principal sided with the teacher.  Consequently, the Corredor decided to pull its support for environmental education for the school.

Fast-forward a few years into future - Melinda and I have had our first few meetings with the Principal and they have been fairly icy and unwelcoming.  We're not sure we want to work with the school at all and Melinda is concerned as this is the only school in our community and she is a Youth Development volunteer.  We've been told by the Corredor and other parties that the principal is difficult to work with and it is almost impossible to collaborate there.  We think about giving up. 

We finally schedule our first few environmental classes and they appear to go well and the principal warms up to us a bit, but not too much.  Over time, we persist as the principal treats us unpredictably, some days quite bruskly, not having time for us to communicate what we want in another language, which then makes us all the more anxious to communicate with her.  But we keep persisting, continuing with our environmental education classes.

In February of the 2012, we finally receive a donation of recycling bins that I had been working hard on for now more than 4-5 months from Florida Bebidas and we finally begin a nascent effort to recycle in the school.  Melinda and I receive a donation of materials to paint a world map mural on one of the school walls and we sand and re-paint the wall in preparation for the mural.  The school principal is finally starting to see results which we've worked very hard to achieve over our previous year of service and she's finally starting to smile.  She invites us to a parent / teacher meeting where we're able to introduce ourselves to the families of the kids in the school and ask for their support in our projects.  We're also invited to administrative meetings with teachers to present some of our projects.  Doors are starting to open and we're starting to finally feel accepted.

In April we are in the principal's office and she mentions that she's got a meeting with the Corredor Biológico that day.  She didn't explain why so we didn't think much of it at the time.  We scheduled some environmental education classes and went about our day.  Later that week we run into Karla from the Corredor and ask her what the meeting was about and she tells us that they've reincorporated the school back into the Environmental Education Program and we know that this has happened with the effort we've taken to make the bridge between my counterpart organization and the school.  Nobody thanks us for our effort, but it isn't necessary.  We're just happy because the work that we've been performing with the school is leading to sustainable environmental education once again which will hopefully last long after the time we COS.

Vignette #2:


Melinda and I arrived in Hone Creek with the challenge from my counterpart organization, the Corredor Biológico Talamanca Caribe (CBTC), to help them start the first domestic recycling pick-up program in Talamanca and perhaps all of Limón.  As those that have worked in the field of solid waste management well know this task doesn’t come without significant obstacles, especially given that our community has a population of 1,500 and is located in the poorest canton of Costa Rica, according to the United Nations Human Development Index statistics from 2009.

Melinda and I, and our counterpart Karla Murillo, who is in charge of the Environmental Education Department sent out 50 invitations to the neighbors of the CBTC to our first presentation on solid waste management after about 3 months of time integrating in our site.  We ordered snacks and had a coordinated presentation ready, but unfortunately not one community member showed up.  After significant hard work in putting together the invitations and developing the presentation, our expectations were significantly deflated, but not broken. Our counterpart organization and we decided to go back to lick our wounds, go back to the drawing board and reassess our approach.

 Approximately six months later we decided to start a pilot recycling program in one of the streets in Hone Creek.  We coordinated with a local pastor to allow us to use the space in his church for the presentation.  We sent out invitations to everyone who lived on the street, which also happened to be the same one in which Melinda and I live, giving us a better chance to draw attention to our project knowing that the neighbors knew us better than the previous group we invited to our first presentation.

 As the hour arrived to start the discussion, we sat in the church with the first attendee, an 8 year old girl from our English class.  Karla Murillo showed up, but had to leave as she very obviously appeared to be ill and to our dismay we were concerned we would have to do the presentation on our own.  Fifteen minutes passed by and we’d had a couple of others pass by and one elderly lady who decided to stay.  At this time, I decided to take the matter into my own hands and walk house to house dragging people out to attend the meeting, including a neighbor, Don Justo, who quit his work in chopping down bananas to join us in the discussion.  We sent around the attendance sheet and 17 community members were now present, but we were still concerned that we’d be doing the presentation alone; however, as soon as we were about to start, Viejo (Don Cruz, but he prefers solely Viejo), who is in charge of the local recycling center in Patiño, a neighboring community to Hone Creek, showed up to support us and help make consensus on how we would approach the pilot initiative.

The pilot project turned out to be a success, but we changed our strategy from merely having community presentations, to going door-to-door education and bringing awareness to the benefits of recycling and proper solid waste management.  We expanded the project street by street, until we had currently covered the entire center of Hone Creek, approximately 200 houses visited with 33% participating in the project frequently, while another 17% participating inconsistently (a total of 50%).  We’ve also including businesses including one of the Internet cafés, the local Palí and the local banana plantation at the entrance of town.

As a part of our work, we’ve created brochures regarding the reasons why and what can be recycled and a pick-up calendar so people can remember the dates.  As a demonstration of the sustainability of our project, our counterpart organization has used the data of our work in meetings regarding the 5 year Talamanca Municipality Plan to Manage Solid Waste.  We have been asked by the indigenous Bribri community of Shiroles to share our successes and failures so they can replicate the project in their community.  We’ve trained the Junior Red Cross Volunteers and new Peace Corps volunteers in the regions on the education aspect of the project so they can perform the same work in their communities.  There’s still plenty of work to be done, especially inside the Hone Creek School, but we have 9 months left before we close service and this project now has some serious wings and our community is on the verge of flying. 

Vignette #3:


In early 2012, Moises Leon, Program Director of the Rural Community Development Program and Stephen Lanning, Rural Community Development Volunteer in Hone Creek, Talamanca, sat down with Stephen’s counterpart agency representatives, Rosa Bustillos Lemaire (Executive Director) and Juan Carlos Barrantes (Director of the Agroecology Department), of the Corredor Biológico Talamanca Caribe (CBTC) with the idea to install solar panels to highlight the disastrous effects of climate change, promote the use of safe and clear energy alternatives and to encourage the adoption of other conservation practices to moderate the effects of global warming.

After more than 9 months working with his counterpart, Stephen Lanning has facilitated the allocation of funds to support this project from two Peace Corps grant sources, CRUSA and ECPA, which cover the majority of the projects cost of almost $14,300.00, with a third source of funding pending in a collaboration in the project from IBM as a part of their “Building a Smarter Planet” initiative with a tentative start date to install the panels in November 2012.  Purasol, the solar panel provider, has offered to arrange for a 10% discount on the materials and installation, given various community contributions arranged by the CBTC.  The solar panels will also be connected to the ICE energy grid by a two-way meter, and any surplus energy supplied by the CBTC will be sent back to the ICE grid for use by the greater ICE network, with energy credits given to the CBTC to help pay for any energy cost incurred during low solar production periods.  The panels themselves will be connected to a real-time Internet tool which will show the actual energy savings generated by the panels, which will be key in both auditing the energy savings, as well as for an educational tool to be used in classrooms and demonstrations.

As a pre-requisite to the project, the CBTC must attend an energy conservation workshop presented by the Peace Corps office and IBM, as well as provide materials, lodging and manual labor the day of the installation.  Additionally, the CBTC will use its network of 19 member organizations and its 15 member schools in its Environmental Education Program to bring awareness to climate change and encourage other organizations, communities and individuals to take steps, both small and large, to confront one of the substantial issues of our time, with the holistic approach that it will take the initiative of every citizen to mitigate the effects of global warming.  Moreover, the CBTC will promote the project and education on global warming on their website, as well as provide demonstrations and information regarding climate change, alternative energy and solar power to their more than 1,000 annual visitors at their headquarters. 

Sustainability is at the center of the project, given that solar power is one of the most sustainable sources of clean energy.  Additionally, the panels themselves have a lifetime of 20+ years.  Indeed, the CBTC does not see this project as merely the installation of the panels and the saving of funds on electricity expenditures which they can re-direct to other projects, but in the years of education and demonstrations that they will provide regarding climate change, which complement their several other projects regarding global warming including reforestation in the Sixaola and Carbón river basins, promoting seed banks and food security, encouraging sustainable cacao production and the diversity of agricultural production, and their Payment for Environmental Services program ( Pago por Servicios Ambientales – PSA) which reimburses regional farmers for conservation practices which preserve the biological corridor in which plants and animals migrate between the upper Talamancan mountain range to the Talamancan coastline.  Given the sustainable nature of this project and the wide network local, regional and national scope of the project, including the participation of IBM in both financing and collaborating in the project, this project has a tremendous ability to bring awareness to thousands of individuals and organizations regarding climate change.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Our Life Between Two Worlds

My apologies it has taken so long to post another update.  We’ve been busy in site and although with the quiet here you would think I’d have much more time to reflect and do some writing, but the truth is that when I’m not working, I like to slow down and do little to nothing.  I’m not very disciplined when it comes to writing and when I sit down to write I don’t want to think of it as a chore.  So, I just sit and wait for an inspiration to come or something else to stir me to pick up the computer and scribble down a few words.
Anyway, since taking a little over two-week vacation back to the States to see our friends’ (and former Peace Corps volunteers who met while serving in Peru) wedding in Big Sur and to visit our families, and then returning to Costa Rica I’ve had this feeling that I’m somehow living between two very distinct worlds.   The trip was a whirlwind, never leaving us in one place for more than 3 days at a time, which was probably good because we wouldn’t want to feel too settled.  We want to thank our good friends, Charlie and Erika, who hosted us the majority of our stay in the Bay Area, for their incredible generosity and hospitality during our stay.  Erika, the thoughtfulness of putting water on the nightstands near the beds was an incredibly thoughtful gesture, among all the other kind considerations including the multiple trips you and Charlie made taking and picking us up from BART, not to mention the Bay sail which Erika took us on to commemorate our last night in San Francisco.

We also want to thank our families: First to my mother who coordinated renting a houseboat at Lake Shasta and invited all of my family, 15 in total, to spend three days/nights swimming, jet-skiing, fishing, eating and generally spending good, quality family time with each other.  We’d also like to thank Melinda’s family for hosting us, inviting over her brother and family for dinner and for treating us to a movie and ice-cream sandwiches in downtown Sacramento.  All in all, the experiences were overwhelming decadent and made us feel much loved.

We also want to thank our friends Ryan and Ashley for inviting us to their lovely wedding in Big Sur.  We got to know Ryan and Ashley the year before we left San Francisco for the Peace Corps, as Melinda and Ashley worked at the same high school.  With our shared interest in social justice, the environment, stimulating conversation and the coincidence that Ryan and Ashley are former Peace Corps volunteers themselves, we immediately bonded with them and were very honored that they would invite us to their wedding despite the short time which we’ve known each other.  They got married under a stand of redwood trees in one of the most beautiful parts of California and the wedding was a picture perfect representation of them as a couple and we wish them nothing but the best in their marriage together as well as wishing them a safe and wildly fantastic adventure in Nepal and beyond during their year off together (what a honeymoon!).

So, back to being between both worlds…

When we touched down in San Francisco in the evening on June 27th my first observation was how parched the coastal hills were and how the sun was still shining long after it would have gone down in Costa Rica (more or less 6 pm every day).  Going through Customs was also quite an odd experience, the throngs of people, the flat screen TVs with subtitles in French walking visitors through the Customs check process, and not to mention the paperwork in which we were unsure of what address we should list, despite the fact that we were calling ourselves “residents” of the United States.  Given the omission of address we were asked to go through a separate security check, which we were quickly rushed through when the officer noticed that we were Peace Corps volunteers.  Yes, it had been 17 months since we’d last been on US soil and it would take just a little getting used to.

So, I won’t go into a play-for-play of every day while home, but here are images which stood out which reminded me of how different our two worlds are:

-Taking BART in the East Bay looking over stretches of housing, to the Bay and all the way to the San Francisco skyline, all of this input barraging me at breakneck speed as the rush-hour train bolted toward downtown Oakland from MacArthur station with throngs of people packed onboard, listening to music, reading books on their Kindles, playing with their iPhones and/or generally trying to stare in some direction trying to avoid too much eye contact.

-The quarters that came out of the BART ticket vending machine seemed so small.  What is this?  Generally, the change in Costa Rica is much larger a heavier than US change.

-Looking upward in downtown San Francisco Financial District, once again in awe of the skyscrapers which had once been a part of my daily trek to work.

-The choices, whether it be at a coffee shop or in the gourmet grocery store.  Instant gratification on so many levels, but also could be paralyzing to make a selection with so many options.  For example, Melinda and I went through a drive through café with free flavored syrup for the coffee and Melinda asked if they had sugar free alternatives and yes they said that they had “only” 8 options.  It was difficult not to get caught up in the consumerism which we’d done such a good job of shedding in our experience in Costa Rica.  We’ll have to ponder how we’ll maintain this consumer independence when we move back as the urge to spend and consume is so strong, especially after a couple of years of having less choice, which is not such a bad thing.

-We had to remind ourselves that people are generally on-time.  We also found ourselves rushing around to make it to the many appointments, chores, visiting friends/family, etc.  Was this the pace we sustained before our PC journey?

-We found ourselves appreciating the humidity of Costa Rica.  Our lips were chapped and our skin dry.  I also had a ton of allergies which I didn’t have in Costa Rica (strange with all the foliage in CR).

-The roads are so efficient and so flat.  We drove a newly paved stretch near Emeryville in the East Bay and it felt like heaven.

At the end of the day, whether we have one foot in Costa Rica or the other foot in the US, what I realized from our trip is that perhaps the most important element which I will take from my Peace Corps experience is appreciation.  Simply put, when you have less and when you see others have less, you appreciate more.  I believe the yoga practice that Melinda and I have also taken up during our service has also reinforced this sense of appreciation.  We, especially as Americans, have so many things to be thankful for.  There are aspects of living in the States which are far from ideal, equally with living here in Costa Rica.  However, both places offer something different, something unexpected, but sometimes so evidentially essential that you wouldn’t notice it if you hadn’t taken the time to stop, listen and allow yourself the opportunity to feel grateful.

Once again, thanks and much love to our family and friends who’ve supported us along this journey.