Sunday, January 31, 2010

A cup of coffee and a newspaper… purse?

This past weekend I had the pleasure of hosting fellow Tico 19 RCDer and friend, Georgina Garcia, in Ortega as part of a Technical Assistance Request. Georgina has been working with her women’s group in La Angostura de San Isidro in the Zona Sur making arts and crafts out of newspaper. Baskets, bags, even sombreros- as soon as I learned of her skills, I suggested to my women’s group and my artesanas that we invite her to give the taller in our community. Our Grupo de Artesanas Uniendo Esperanzas were extremely supportive of the idea as they are looking to diversify their product line and are eager to learn how to work with newspaper to attract a broader audience. They currently work with natural resources such as jicaro, jobo, semillas, and tejidos to produce jewelry, key chains, and souvenirs. The Mujeres Activas were similarly thrilled at the opportunity to participate in the course as they are an organized group of 20-30 women without any sustainable source of income. Their sole purpose is to organize activities around Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Christmas. The idea behind inviting the women to participate in the taller was that it might stick as an idea for a small business venture to finance minor purchases such as Christmas tree lights, invitations, and decorations. Their activities are currently funded by raffles and bake sales.

In order to ensure the sustainability of the project, I decided to promote the teaching of teachers by asking the participants to sign a contract agreeing to teach at least one member of the community the skills they had acquired as a result of the taller. As soon as the contract is signed by the community member (new student), indicating that the participant has complied with the teaching of teachers component of the taller, they will receive a certificate from Peace Corps with the name of the taller, the hours completed, the teacher’s name, and the date. In addition, I asked each participant to indicate their interest in receiving Gestion Empresarial classes to learn basic concepts of business, administration, marketing, and accounting. The idea here is that the participants would continue producing purses or baskets and start a small business- either independently or jointly.

We worked from 1-5pm on Sunday, breaking for refrigerio, and all day on Monday from 9am-5pm, breaking for lunch and refrigerio. Each participant was asked to purchase their own materials, which totaled between 2 and 3 mil colones depending on the availability of scissors, clothes pins, and curtain rods in their houses. In addition, the refrigerios and lunch were a collaborative effort.

I’ll leave you with 5 frustrations/struggles and 5 highlights/success stories but, whether or not the participants left with a new purse to show off in Santa Cruz, I will never forget the feeling of satisfaction, pride, and joy that overcame me, in a town that “no quiere nada”, at the sight of 15 women, rods and newspaper in hand, baseball caps puesto, boarding the bus to head down to the Evangelical Church to begin a two-day taller that required faith, patience, and muchas ganas.

5 frustrations/struggles:

1) Getting together with the Mujeres Activas and Artesanas just 10 days before the taller to discuss details of food, location, and schedule and watching the hands go up with excuses about why they couldn’t participate and complaints about the intensive schedule.
2) Watching the Mujeres Activas and Artesanas set up at different tables despite the fact that the President of the Artesanas and I had already discussed the fact that this taller would be a good opportunity open up Uniendo Esperanzas to new members as they are experiencing an increasing demand for their product and a decreasing supply due to the lack of commitment among their members to work.
3) Losing the attention of the majority of the group when a domestic dispute broke out at a nearby house. “Rubber necking” takes on new meaning in rural Costa Rica.
4) Hearing them call Georgina over like a dog “tsstsstsstss, niña” when she was clearly attending to the needs of another person.
5) Combating the negativity when we hit some hurdles putting together our purses. “Qué pereza” and “ya me voy” until Georgina and I stepped in to fix a few bad weaves.

5 highlights/ success stories:

1) Seeing Elvira help some of the women get their baskets started and Luisa making pajillas for others who were short of the 40 required to start the bag activity.
2) Seeing the look on Georgina’s face Monday morning when all but two or three women walked in having done their homework with their 40 pajillas rolled to perfection eager to make the most of the day.
3) Hearing discussion of the various uses of the baskets- for tortillas, for eggs, for mail and magazines.
4) “Vamos guilas, a planchar!”, said Enilda, referring to the flattening of the newspaper rolls.
5) Seeing one of the ADI members return from a meeting with her newspaper purse on her shoulder- unpainted, unfinished.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Just a spoon full of... crocodile fat? Christmas in Ortega de Santa Cruz, Guanacaste

It all began with a tree lighting on December 20th… a tree lighting and so much more! The event is a 7 or 8 year tradition of the Grupo de Mujeres Activas. They go door to door asking for support and organize raffles and bake sales with the goal of raising enough money to completely saturate an ordinary tree (well, a Guanacaste tree) with lights- colored, white, big, small, blinking, single strands, icicles. Let me tell you, this tree had personality! To top it off, it had a huge star outlined in lights perched on top and a nativity scene nestled in the center. Every year they dedicate the tree to a community member who flips the switch- kind of like Rockefeller Center, but without the countdown.

I helped the Mujeres Activas cut 500 pieces of a bread made with milk and bag 300 or so portions of Checheme, which is a warm drink made with corn and tapa dulce. In addition, in the spirit of Christmas and trying new things, I agreed to dance baile típico (typical dance) with a few other women in the parade that was to precede the tree lighting. Go big or go home, right? We’re talking putting on a big, heavy, full length, RED, YELLOW, and GREEN skirt- the kind you get to dance with! The ensemble also came with a white blouse with stitching to match the skirt. With no previous instruction, I skipped with my skirt all through Ortega and had a BLAST! The school girls danced típico as well; the school choir sang and played the marimba; and the mujeres had also arranged for a marching band from a nearby town to come and keep the beat. I gave this tradition an A+.

Next came Christmas Eve, which felt more like New Year’s Eve to me. If I had not gone to mass, I would not have known it was December 24th. Well the afternoon actually felt like any other day. (This was the first Christmas I had spent in shorts and sandals sweating = weird.) Anyway, when I asked my host mother if she wanted to go to mass with me she told me that it was probably not a good idea considering she had already drank three Smirnoff’s. Yes, this was the atmosphere in Ortega on Christmas Eve. Apparently my host mother was not the only one who had had her three Smirnoff’s, because the one Catholic Church in my town of over 1,000 people (which I had imagined would be busting at the seams) in a Catholic country was maybe 60% full. While the priest continued to talk about the holiness of the day, I kept thinking about the three Smirnoff’s… Christmas in Ortega. Following mass, seven months into my service in Ortega, I finally conquered my fear of the disco and danced like no one was watching for a good three hours. (Hey- it was Christmas Eve, right?) I was one of the first ones to enter- those of you who are fortunate enough to have dances in your town or near your town have I´m sure scratched your heads at the fact that there are often more spectators than there are people dancing at these events; and, the most confusing part is that the spectators are often more dolled up than the dancers themselves! I decided that the audience was only going to grow- as was my anticipation and anxiety- so I paid my 1,500 colones and hit the dance floor hard with my friend, Danilo. (After seven months of reluctantly sharing my living space with Danilo, who is a friend of my host brother, who came over every day from 8am-3pm to blast reggaeton and watch soccer games, we have developed an unlikely friendship.)

I left the dance a little after 11pm to shower and change to attend a rezo at midnight, which is tradition in Ortega on Christmas Eve, with a sizable group on a woman´s front porch in front of a beautifully lit nativity scene. We then ate arroz con pollo and drank more chicheme. The week prior to Christmas the nativity scene had been passed from house to house before reaching its final destination on Christmas Eve. I gave this tradition an A + as well- 20 or 30 kids walked through town with liras (like a hand-held xylophone, if you haven´t seen them in your towns) and Santa hats carrying the nativity scene to a pre-determined house asking for a place to stay for the night just like Mary and Joseph did just before Jesus was born.

Last but not least came New Year´s Eve. So where I think it´s safe to generalize that in the United States the majority spend Christmas among family and go out for New Year’s to drink and dance with friends, in Ortega at least, I got the impression that things were al reves. I spent New Year’s with my good friend Cindy, who is the English teacher in our school, and her family in Santa Cruz. Her mother has a beautiful ranch-style home just outside the center of Santa Cruz, where we welcomed in the New Year with Aunts, Uncles, Nieces, Nephews, Cousins, Children, Spouses, and Friends. The main course- lomito relleno, which is stuffed pork loin… and we’re talking STUFFED- with hardboiled egg, bacon, ham, onions, peppers, and potatoes. The secret ingredient... it was cooked in COCA COLA! Then, at midnight, after having set off a sparkler and a firework (yes, one, which is exactly what we did for the fourth of July- set off one single firework, which, of course, is extremely anticlimactic), it is tradition to pack a bag and start running! Why? To guarantee a travel-filled year! And the next day I went to San Jose… Looks like Ticos might actually know what´s up with this one. I´m not yet convinced about rolling the fat of an armadilo, a crocodile, or a pig in newspaper and rubbing it on my chest to combat my asthma...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


So last night as I was falling asleep worrying about whether or not I should have asked for a beer at the birthday party, my tico uncle was shot and killed in his home in San Jose by burglars. His death comes on the heels of the death of my tico grandmother, who passed away just days before my arrival in May. When I saw my tico mom and tico aunts, uncles, and grandfather this morning, not only did the events of last night seem trivial, but I received instant confirmation that not only have I been accepted as part of the family, but I have accepted them as part of my family. I spent the whole day with them at my grandfather’s house, as it is customary in my community (and I think in Costa Rica) to accompany the grieving family until the body is retrieved and buried. I chopped vegetables, I tried to chop wood, I served coffee; but, most importantly, I was there. When my grandfather told me that he wished it had been him who had been killed, I told him that he wasn’t ready yet and that, besides, we were only just beginning to get to know each other. He responded, “I want to go”, to which I said “but I don’t want you to go.” Then, later this evening, with a house full of people, he called for my tico mom to make sure that she had gotten me dinner. Community members will fill the hallways, backyard, sideyards, front porch, and street when the body arrives later tonight, at which point a prayer will be said and the family will be left alone. The body will be buried tomorrow and for the next nine days at 4pm community members and family members will gather at my tico grandfather’s house to say the rosary. For the next 12 months, on the anniversary of his death, friends and loved ones will gather to say the rosary at the same hour. While I have focused many of my posts on obstacles and weaknesses (to use FODA terminology), it is an opportune time to share the opportunities and strengths that boast the community of Ortega- the most noteworthy being the solidarity of its members. I went to a beautiful baby shower yesterday for a woman named Elena who will give birth next month. Although the room was stark, and many women had undoubtedly had to scrounge together enough money to buy diapers to give to Elena and her husband in anticipation of the birth of their new baby, we laughed playing musical chairs and “panzona” (literally means “big stomach” and is played by estimating the amount of toilet paper it will take to reach completely around the “big stomach”). And although I’m sure Don Elbin is tired from not having slept last night at the news of his son’s death, he will not tire of the companionship that he has consistently enjoyed for the 83 years that he has lived in Ortega. And I feel blessed to have the opportunity to share in it for the next 23 months.

What ISN'T Integration

So I am sitting here on a Saturday night at 8pm feeling like I’m a freshman in college again. (Piper, this one’s for you, girl.) Margaret and Erin, I put the “say yes” policy into effect this evening, and accompanied my host mother to the birthday party of a 17 year old second cousin, maybe? I should have known based on the way the mothers of the 17 year olds behave, that the party was going to be a flashback to Hoffman and Lorillard. Oh, I forgot to mention that the night started off with my mother telling me that she and my host father have noticed that I’m getting fat. It’s funny how ticos can be so indirect about so many things, yet have no problem telling you to your face that you’re fat.

Anyway, I went to the party and there they were- the four bottles of cacique, the cooler of ice, and the bottle of Squirt. The guilas were sitting around staring at the floor pounding back drinks. Knowing it would be difficult to make it to the one hour requisite of the “say yes” policy, I went to the kitchen and asked for a beer. Even that felt weird. Flashback Ohio driver’s license at MaxFish. No, wait, I’m 24, I can have one beer. Nevertheless, I shouldn’t have done it. I gave in to peer pressure from non-peers.

Step in to my shoes for a moment- I am in a foreign country, by myself, and my host mother is drinking with the guilas like a guila. There goes my wing woman. Not to mention, I quickly noticed one guy make eyes at another, glance in my direction, and look back at the guy with a suspicious grin. Translation= ha, mae, ask her to dance! “Ahorita,” I said to the instigator, which can mean anywhere from “one second” to “in three hours” to “next month.” After excusing myself to get some air, I decided I was fully entitled to exaggerate the headache I had had all day and announce my departure.

As soon as I walked through the door, my cousin “Mancha” (which means stain, which is a reference to the huge birthmark he has on his stomach) grabbed my hand and started twirling me around. He’s safe, so I played along. At least they saw me dance, I thought. I have earned my exit. Mom, don’t read this part, but my bad habits from six years solo in New York City manifested themselves in my insistence that I could walk home by myself. Unfortunately, when I want to leave, I want to leave. Lesson learned: the “say yes” policy has an addendum for a reason. Integration is not worth compromising personal safety and security. Going to a baby shower is integrating; going to a baptism is integrating; going to a soccer game is integrating; going to a 17 year old’s birthday party to get drunk, stoned, and dance is not integrating.

Glad we got the cleared up. On another note, I have learned a tough lesson about the community of Ortega, which has been confirmed by personal experience and hearsay. They start many things for curiosity’s sake, but rarely finish them. After four meetings of my two Centro Cultural classes, 5/16 students have already missed at least two classes. After three solid months of aerobics, the class has come to a screeching halt. What’s my plan of action? One, take control of my own schedule. If my students are going to pick and choose their schedule, I am going to make mine. I plan to stick with the same two Centro Cultural classes, but I am going to meet with them once a week for three hours instead of twice a week for two hours. This will free up time to commit to giving three aerobics classes a week, which is something I want as much for me as for the other ladies. I remain hopeful that another teacher steps up again but, in the meantime, I can play aerobics instructor.

Other projects for 2009-2010 include:
* improving communication, collaboration, and unification among organized groups by facilitating monthly meetings, reinstating the community newspaper, and initiating a voter registration campaign in anticipation of the November election for members of the development association.
* supporting organized groups of women so that they succeed and progress and, hopefully, create job opportunities in the community. This would include: working with the group of craftswomen to promote their work, creating an informational brochure with basic English words and phrases for groups and individuals who are involved in tourism, and proposing the reorganization of the group of “active women” around a cause- i.e. suggesting they become active!
* reforming the comité tutelar, which is a group that fights to protect the rights of children and adolescents. My goal is to give information sessions to interested members of the community so that when it comes time to rename its members, the newly formed group is educated and motivated. I also hope to take one of the development association’s projects- a multi-use recreational space- and “sign it over” to the comité tutelar, as the intended audience is youth.
* promoting community service in children and youth through the institution of programs such as Boy and Girl Scouts, Powerful Boys and Girls (programs designed by Peace Corps volunteers), and a mentoring/ Big Brothers/ Big Sisters program.
* educating community members about Recycling, Reducing, and Reusing, instituting a recycling program (this depends on whether or not the Municipality approves our request for trash collection. I was told when I asked at a recent lecture that Ortega was “difficult” because of its distance from Santa Cruz and the condition of its roads.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Promoting Global Peace and Friendship

I feel like I am too comfortable here in my site. Like it’s too easy. I went running yesterday with two women my age at the plaza. I make myself breakfast every morning- an American breakfast, really, of cereal and coffee. I can ride my bike at my leisure. I can laugh and cry with different members of my community. I can have girl talk. I can go to sweaty dance parties (sober). I could put on black pumps, a dress from Forever 21, do my hair, do my make up, and put on perfume and leave my house on a Saturday night without question. I can watch a movie, listen to the radio, read a book, play a board game, paint my nails, draw, write, nap; I can even spend the night at the school English teacher’s house…

In order to feel like I’m too comfortable or that life is too easy, I would have to be comparing my experience to someone else’s. I really did come into the Peace Corps with no expectations, so I was neither disappointed nor excited when I first arrived at my site. I had nothing to compare it to. Now, however, getting together with other RCD volunteers, it is hard not to think about what it might be like or could be like if my site were smaller, more rural, rainier, less developed, less organized, less fiestera (fiesta = party, fiestera = one who likes to party). In this regard, I actually think it is more a matter of being in Guanacaste than of being in Ortega.

Is it a bad thing to be comfortable in the Peace Corps? I guess it would be one’s ideal situation. But do people join the Peace Corps to be comfortable, or because they want a personal challenge; they want to test their limits. It really is a mind game. We came to Costa Rica, already a little befuddled, honestly, but certain that there must be a reason why Peace Corps has been in Costa Rica on and off (off once due to analysis of the Human Development Indicator, which was thought to be high) since 1963. But, again, what was the reason we were looking for- something out of a Peace Corps television advertisement like hunger, poverty, education, health.

I have just made the deposit for the Centro Cultural books I will request for my two English classes of 10 and 6 students, which begin on September 7th. The majority of the students who paid the $15 for the student workbook and textbook are involved in the tourist industry and have high hopes of being able to better serve their American customers. Two of the students are high school aged, one student is in his twenties and works on a farm, 13/16 are women, two students received scholarships from a business owner in town, and at least 10 students were not able to register- the majority of whom were not able to pay the $15.

I will be giving two Centro Cultural classes twice a week for two hours a day. In addition, I will continue giving my test prep class one night a week for 1 ½ hours for two dedicated high school students. Finally, I hope to give an advanced conversation class one afternoon a week for six students who are either currently studying English at the university level, or who have had considerable English in the past and want to brush up on their pronunciation and build confidence. In addition to English, I hope to continue with bi-weekly FODAs (strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, threats)- one would be exclusively for members of the Development Association, while the other would be open to committee members and community members.
In writing this blog, I am reminding myself that I am here to work, want to work, and am working despite the fact that I also happen to be enjoying myself.

That brings me to the other reason I wanted to write this blog. I wanted to tell you about the surprise birthday party that my community threw for me on Sunday. The funny thing is, while it wasn’t really a surprise, I was extremely confused when I walked into the Salon Comunal with my host mother and was not greeted with a “Happy Birthday”, “Surprise”, or any other expression that one would expect to receive on their birthday. At the same time, there were balloons, tables, chairs, cake, presents, people… If you remember a previous blog entry I wrote about some confusion around a birthday party the aerobics group was planning to throw on August 23rd, you will understand that that was their intention. I had told myself all along that there must be another member of the group who was born on August 23rd and, when I found out she was turning 26, I knew it must be Frania. Anyway, long story longer, I later found out that Frania celebrated had already celebrated her birthday earlier that month. Hence the confusion.

Anyway, the ladies asked me to stand next to Frania in front of the cake when they sang her “Happy Birthday” and when they got to “Happy Birthday to…” they said “KATHRYN” and threw confetti and said “SURPRISE!” Again, while I had had suspicions, they still managed to surprise me and threw me a beautiful birthday party. As one woman told me after, “although it was humble, we put a lot of love into it.” I told her I felt it, which I really did. The aerobics women had collaborated with the women’s group, of which my host mother is a member, and made pasteles, sausage, chips and dip, and rice pudding. They tried to set up karaoke which, unfortunately, did not happen; but, what did happen was a whole lot of dancing. It was a blast! They kept asking me if I was tired, but I told them that it was imperative for the birthday girl to dance on her birthday. We even did the Middle School thing, where we got in a circle and each person had to dance in the middle. My favorite person to dance with is undoubtedly my Aunt, whose nickname is “Tita”. As she said yesterday, “I kept Kathryn company all night dancing because we’re friends. And friends stick together.” (Or something like that.) The funniest part is probably the fact that my host mother had decided she would drink for me on my birthday “since I don’t drink.” (I decided on day one, by the way, that it was a sticky situation to mix drinking with work, even though my personal life and social life are wrapped up in my work. )

Finally, when my host mother told me that I was probably going to receive quite a few articles of clothing for my birthday, I felt extremely uncomfortable. I talked about it with my host mother beforehand, who assured me that this was customary; that people loved giving gifts; that it came straight from the heart; and that it had nothing to do with the fact that I was an American or a volunteer. There is a feeling of solidarity in the community of Ortega, which was actually expressed several times as a strength of the community in the FODA that I held several weeks ago. More than that, I think the women here with whom I have developed a relationship want nothing more than for me to feel loved and supported while I am away from my family. Several weeks ago when we had a Mother’s Day party with the aerobics women, they said a prayer specifically for my mom “wherever she may be.”

Mom, while I know it was hard for me and probably hard for you to talk on the phone for a mere five minutes on my birthday; and while I know you were upset that I didn’t have anything to open from you when I woke up; I also know that you would have been so happy to have seen the love that the women put into my birthday party on Sunday. As I told the women in my thank you notes, I know that I’m not alone in Ortega. I am among friends. It is always helpful to step back and remember that one of the primary goals of the Peace Corps is to promote peace and friendship. Being too comfortable or feeling like life is too easy is a result of having made real friends in my community. This is what I came here for.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dia de Madre a la Guaro

I hate to write about dancing again, but it feeds into a bigger issue, which is that everything I do is apparently cause for laughter or chisme (gossip). Today, I was excited to wake up with a tentative plan for the afternoon- helping my host mother make pasteles (basically fried dough filled with some sort of rice mixture) for the school bake sale. (My host mother is one of the cooks at the school.) Anyway, if I do something well it’s funny and if I do something badly it’s funny too. I started off rolling out the dough in less than perfect circles. Then, when I switched to stuffing the pasteles with the rice mixture, it was “take a picture and send it to her novio!” When I finished this task, I asked for another (this is my strategy for getting through the next two years- stay busy). One cook then turned to my host mother to ask, “can she chop?” My host mother responds, “yes, she chops for me.” This indirectness drives me loca. More than once, I have been in a situation where someone has asked someone else for my name or some other piece of information about me when I am sitting right next to them. “My name is Kathryn,” I always jump in curtly.

But back to dancing. So I just faced another impromptu, unplanned, unanticipated Friday night dance and thought I would be safe sitting at the door selling food. Nope. I can’t even tap my foot without being called out. They laugh. They point. “Are you going to dance?” “We’ll see,” I always say. I buy food at the bake sale and I get laughs. “Your teeth are going to fall out,” someone said when I ordered a fried dough-type pastry. I felt like saying, “I don’t put four heaping cucharaditas in my coffee twice a day.”

I think the real reason that I am uncomfortable with the dancing scene here is because it goes hand in hand with the guaro (general term for hard liquor) scene. Adults and young adults alike get giddy like guilas (general term for any child, but also used to refer to groups of guys or groups of girls) on Christmas Eve when faced with the possibility of drinking guaro. I was invited to a Mothers’ Day (Mothers’ Day in Costa Rica falls on the 15th of August) party on Thursday for the mothers of the sixth graders, who will graduate in December. Upon arrival, I realized thay this was just another excuse to drink guaro, as is every holiday, party, birthday. “Get close ladies,” the host said, “so we can drink guaro!” Giggles followed. The best part was that the “guaro” they were referring to was the Costa Rican equivalent to a bottle of Andre champagne (flash back New Year’s at Moots). After a cheers, they sipped their shot of “guaro”, meanwhile making comments about where they would crash later that afternoon; joking about someone having finished theirs before everyone else. When they brought out bottles of Pepsi and Ginger Ale, instead of frescos of tamarindo, moro, or limon, I should have known something was up. In the center of the table appeared a smaller Pepsi bottle filled with a questionable liquid (flash back parties in the tri-bar). “Who wants guaro?” Did I mention it’s 3pm and we’re celebrating Mothers’ Day?

Back to work- so I am still not over the fact that I singlehandedly got nearly 40 people to attend my FODA last week. When I say singlehandedly I must admit I am a little bitter and proud at the same time. I am bitter because it should not have been an independent effort. I made invitations and distributed them to all of the committee leaders in my town, as well as made and hung posters in the pulperias advertising the event. Days before, I visited the committee leaders and other friends to remind them of the date and time. I bought the fresco and galletas and arrived early to assemble five tables and set up 30 chairs. Meanwhile, I was thinking to myself, am I not a stranger in this town and in this country? How is it that I am here setting up for an event that I will facilitate in Spanish in a community that has no real alliance to me? I might have written before about the laziness/apathy factor, which I was strongly considering when I was in the store debating whether or not to buy refrigerio for 30, knowing full well that if it rained that night I was going to be eating cookies and drinking fruit punch for weeks.

Perhaps I did not give myself enough credit. Or perhaps I did not give my community enough credit. The majority of the people I invited, from friends to neighbors to committee leaders, showed up- and not on “tico time” (this is typically ½ hour late). Representatives from the following committees were present: the Catholic Church, sports, crafts, emergency, roads, health, women, children’s rights, aerobics, development, and nutrition. It is also noteworthy that poor communication, egoism, and lack of unity are among the greatest problems faced by the community of Ortega. As such, I was extremely pleased to see both friends and foes seated around the same tables. (This was after I had to ask them to come and sit with the group.) It was even more striking to see them participate in (and enjoy) an icebreaker I insisted on doing.
While I was upset to have had to have asked for feedback from my counterpart group- I am still unsure as to whether or not they understand that the activity and my work here is intended to be supportive of their initiative, which is community development-, I received nothing but positive commentary from all of the attendees. The hard part comes next week, when I will get them together again to analyze their needs, wants, and obstacles so that we can rank them according to feasibility, cost-effectiveness, time and resources needed, and utility. My goal is to keep the discussion going as long as possible- I would like to continue with biweekly meetings because it is a unique opportunity to get many of the major players in town in the same place at the same time. Fast forward two years and this would certainly be a major success, as organizational development is one of our principal goals as Rural Community Development volunteers.

Friday, August 7, 2009

La Negrita

Yesterday was the Day of the Virgen of Los Angeles in Costa Rica. Many people walk miles to make a promise to the Virgen either in Cartago or, in my case, in Los Angeles, which is just outside of Santa Barbara in Guanacaste. During training, we participated in a scavenger hunt in Cartago, and my group was tasked with learning the story of the Virgen of Los Angeles and the meaning behind the holy water. It’s a pretty cool story- there was a girl that discovered a doll in the forest but, when she returned to the spot the next day, the doll was gone. This continued to happen- one day it was there, the next day it was gone- and the girl finally went to speak to the priest. The priest concluded that this could only be explained by a miracle- an act of God.

Anyway, they built the church in Cartago in the exact spot where the doll appeared. The Virgen of Los Angeles is associated with miracles. For this reason, many of the people who make pilgrimages to visit La Negrita, as the Virgen is called, are asking for a miracle. They collect the holy water with buckets, as they believe that it has the power to heal. (When we were in Cartago, we witnessed people bathing themselves with the water.) Many approach la Negrita on their knees, inching forward from the entrance of the church to the altar.

When I heard that there would be a romeria (also called a caminata- caminar = to walk) from Ortega to Los Angeles, I decided I would participate, as it is a local tradition and I am trying to integrate into my community. I was told that we would meet at the church at 4am; although, I had spoken with others who wanted to leave at 1am or 2am in an effort to avoid the many guilas (general term for girls and boys) who go to vacilar (to joke around). Anyway, when I arrived, I was disappointed to see that there was only one other person waiting. Fortunately, I knew her from aerobics. She wanted to get going, so we set off, just the two of us, for burrolandia (the land of burros) sans foco (flashlight). I tried to make conversation, figuring it would be a much longer walk in silence, but was confronted with one word answers. Maybe she’s praying, I thought, as many recite the rosary as they make their promise to la Negrita. I don’t want to be that person that sits next to you on the plane or bus and asks filler questions while you’re trying to read or listen to music. Luckily, shortly after we left, we ran into two other women I knew, so I stopped stressing about making conversation.

Four hours later, and about 15 miles, we arrived in Santa Barbara, greeted with food vendors selling pastels de arroz con pollo or arroz con carne (rice with chicken, rice with meat) and frescos de zanahoria, frutas, y horchata (carrots, fruit, and something that tastes like chocolate milk). While we rested in the center of town, the guilas arrived from Ortega on bikes, and we headed toward the church. They processed with La Negrita from the church to a beautiful outdoor altar, where they would say mass later that morning. With a pounding headache from the sun and dehydration and throbbing pain in all of my joints, I decided to make my promise to the Virgen and head back to the bus stop. I definitely pulled a Tara O’Brien waiting in line to touch the representation of the Virgen, thinking as I inched closer, H1N1… I ended up touching it in the most obscure place I could find- one of the stars dangling in the back. Ha, I do the same thing in public bathrooms- trying to touch a really high or really low part of the door. Anyway, it was a memorable experience and I decided that I’m going to train for next year’s romeria so that I can return on foot as well. (I hitched a ride back to my town with the girl from aerobics.) Hitching a ride, by the way, is basically the same in Spanish- “ride”, but roll the “r.” Ticos use the thumb too, but they hold it out sideways…

One other tradition on the Day of the Virgen of Los Angeles is to host the rosary for community members. There were prayers at at least four houses- at 2pm, 3pm, 4pm, and 5pm. Those that host the rosary do so as their promise to the Virgen and prepare chicheme (drink made from corn) and comidita (could be arroz con pollo, arroz con carne) expecting to feed at least 100 people. While many participate in the rosary, I would estimate that more than half of the people that go to the rezo (prayer) go to socialize and eat. I heard more than a few people complaining of a stomach ache yesterday because they had gone to all four rezos.

To change the subject, you might be interested in knowing that I’m taking a class through UNED, which means something like the “distance learning university.” The class is 20 hours (five Saturdays for four hours) and has to do with project planning. My work counterpart is also enrolled, as well as a member of our Comité Tutelar, which is a community organization that has to do with children’s rights. The material has a lot to do with community development and sustainability, so it fits well with my project assignment in Ortega. The other “students” are community leaders as well.

Four random cultural notes to leave you with:

Sunscreen- this is a completely novel concept apparently because, over the course of a day, I am told more than a few times that I am really sweating. Even if it weren’t suntan lotion, OF COURSE I’M SWEATING! YOU ARE SWEATING TOO, I want to say sometimes.

Gorda- the word “fat” is thrown around way too often, in my opinion. “Isn’t she fat,” I am frequently asked. They can hear you, I panic. They’re sitting right next to me. My response? “They’re beautiful.”

Brava- so the word “brava” is used in a million and one different contexts. The literal translation is something like “angry” or “furious.” The following things can be described as “brava”: women, waves, the sun, dogs, and people who are eating.

Ahorita- this has thrown many of us PCVs off since day one. “Ahora”, which we were taught to have meant “now” in Spanish 101, can mean anywhere from “in a few minutes” to “3+ hours from now.” For example, yesterday, when I was waiting for the bus back to my town, I was told that the bus was coming “ahorita.” It was 920am and the bus was due to arrive at 1130am. That’s not “now”, I thought, that’s FOREVER from now!