After a full month and 1/2 out of the country, I have learned many lessons, but there are some that stand out more than others:
1. I am not as tough as I thought, but I am braver and more open than I could have imagined. People, myself included, are able to adapt to anything.
2. It is best to accept a difficult situation in a Zen manner, step by step, and realize that there is much good to be found in moments where you are unable to control your surroundings.
3. People are all pretty similar, good, and kind. Cultural difference is a state of mind that can easily be bridged through Humanizing. However, the language barrier is so thick that is might as well be physical. Learning foreign languages will get you far.
4. The American lifestyle is disgustingly excessive.
5. Hot water, fresh food, and education are things that should never be taken for granted.
I am currently writing from Playa Potrero, Costa Rica. A tiny beach village set amongst dirt roads and scattered tiendas that all carry the same dirty plastic dishware and even dirtier vegetables. It is about 25 miles to the closest gas station, and only 2 or 3 buses a day come all the way into town. There is one school that serves 120 students in 3 small rooms for 3 hours a day, but only until 6th grade. The closest High School is over an hour bus ride, each way. Today, I met a 13 year old whose education ended about 3 years ago. It’s no wonder the area has a 40% unemployment rate. Sadly, behind the beautiful beaches and quaint casitas, Playa Potrero is quite the dismal situation in many ways. But, the nonprofit we are working for here, Abriendo Mentes, is doing everything they can to offer educational services to village children and adults alike in an attempt to pull the area out of its impoverished past and create the possibility of a brighter, more educated, future. But, before I get to the deep, learning experience crap, let me tell you about all the good stuff.
We spent our first week in Costa Rica living with a family, in a large house atop a hill overlooking a breathtaking view of the pacific ocean. What seemed too good to be true at first, turned out to be, well, too good to be true within in about 5 or 6 hours of arriving.
We first noticed there was a problem with the house when we went to turn on the AC unit in the bedroom the first night, and of course, it wouldn’t turn on. That alone wouldn’t have been much of a problem at all, in a month of travel it was the first AC unit we have encountered, and while it would have been a welcome luxury, it is still just that, a luxury. And luxury is something I am certainly learning to do without. The problem came when after inspecting the unit for about, hmm 2 seconds, we discovered a hoard of termites leaking out the bottom and making their way all over the room. To our further delight, the AC unit was conveniently embedded into the wall directly next to our bed. Thus, we found a pile of termites on the ground about a half foot away from where we were supposedly going to be resting our heads the next 5 nights. Disgusting.
We immediately attacked the floor, walls, and AC with bug spray and tape until we were satisfied with our level of extermination. There were definitely still a few stragglers, but we seemed to have eliminated the bulk of the problem for the time being, so we thought. We settled down in bed to try and watch a movie, but we quickly found ourselves swatting termites off our legs and grabbing them off our faces every 30 seconds or so. When I turned around and saw a line of them marching down the headboard, I determined that enough was enough. I have slept in some questionable places the past month, but at that point I was officially grossed out.
Luckily, the downstairs apartment we were staying in had a second bedroom, so we decided to give the other one a shot. Again, we settled down, turned on the movie, and immediately were swatting termites. Ugh, a mere few hours swatting flying ants off your body in bed like that will give you a serious complex, never mind 5 nights! At this point it was late, and we didn’t have a lot of options, so Jonathan got out the bug spray and we pretty much covered ourselves and the walls in it and then proceeded to huddle into our sleeping bag bunkers to avoid the bug bombardment.
At some point in the midst of this we saw something rather large crawling out from underneath the closet. At first I thought it may be a giant cockroach, which I am pretty used to after dealing with the South Carolina “palmetto bugs”, but upon closer inspection I realized that we were not alone with the termites. Joining the party that evening was a huge, scaly, sharp-clawed, scorpion.
Anyway, the first night was a little rough, but truthfully it was nothing a large can of raid and a shoe couldn’t fix. And we were able to skate through the rest of the week with little more than the occasional bug sighting.
Since, I was pretty much out of commission for the first 4-5 days we were here (i.e. I was covered literally from forehead to toes and everywhere in between in a red, blistery, itchy concoction from hell PLUS I picked up a cold with a nasty cough), we spent the majority of our time resting, taking large doses of absurdly strong steroids and anti-histamines, and playing with our adopted street puppy, “Rio”, and homestay sister “Fio”. And as the rash cleared, we began exploring the local beaches, trying our hands – or feet – at surfing, exploring nearby cities, and enjoying the Costa Rican “Pura Vida”.
After a week of being laid out with my horrific rash experience, and then another few days of being zonked out on strong steroids and anti-histamines, I am back to my old self and able to jump into the role I intended for myself in this little village.
Today was the first day I attended the English classes at Abriendo Mentes (AM), and I was greeted by 15 or so eager, smiling faces, each with their own heartbreaking story. I spent a couple hours teaching 10-year-olds the parts of the body and working on math problems, while simultaneously learning from Meradith and Drew (the directors of the program) the back stories on many of the students and the current issues facing the community.
Most of the kids that attend classes at AM are just about as poor as you can imagine. The parents either don’t work, or work very low paying jobs, and most families have about 6-10 children plus extended family members all living under one very small roof. The majority of adults in the village are completely illiterate and don’t have more than a 2nd or 3rd grade education, and according to them, they “are doing just fine”. As a result, there is a lot of apathy in the community surrounding education, and kids rarely get to continue their school past the 6th grade, if they even make it that far.
Because the public school in town is underfunded, understaffed, and generally under-appreciated, the teachers have become incredibly apathetic, and the education the kids receieve there is lackluster at best. Drew told me that he and Meradith have tried time and time again to form a relationship with the school Principal so that they can teach English, art, and computer classes, but thus far the administration has been completely resistant to working with them. It is so bad, that the public school was gifted a set of computers a few years back, and because they refused to find someone to teach a computer class the useless boxes are now sitting dormant in a closet. This is happening mostly because the administrative staff are old, tired, government workers that are fed up with the system themselves and unable to see the merits of incorporating new methods into their current, failing institutional structure. But problems like this are why villages like Potrero are so hopelessly stuck in poverty.
There was one kid in particular that I was teaching one-on-one for a while this afternoon, and later Drew told me that his family recently moved to Potrero from Nicaragua for a construction job. Apparently, the administration at the public school won’t even let him and his sister attend classes, even though Costa Rican law says that all children under 13 must legally attend school whether they are citizens or not. To my understanding, this is a recurring problem. So these two kids just hang out in Potrero all day, with no supervision because their parents are at work, and make due with the hour or so of schooling they can muster at AM.
It was all pretty tough to stomach, but today, I remembered why I came here.
While the majority of my time working with the organization will be spent doing “back-end work”, i.e. writing grant proposals, formulating a development plan, researching the community, and doing all their blogging and newsletter writing, I will be able to spend a good amount of time teaching the kids and integrating myself into the community consciousness. I have also started a conversation with the President of the Potrero Association, and I am hoping to kick off an organic community garden project, so I will keep you posted as things develop with that.
Alas, amidst the overwhelming problems I have a strong feeling that we are in for a beautiful 3 months here in Playa Potrero. We have puppies, sunshine, beaches, and loads of international community development work to do; what more can an idealistic wanderlustful passion driven twenty-something woman ask for?