Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Best Daylight Savings Day Ever

Last Sunday as most folks were turning their watches forward an hour in honor of Daylight Savings Time, I was gazing at my own clock in attempts of calculating just exactly what the time was in Zambia. I briefly pondered whether or not they too would be turning their clocks ahead on the African continent and immediately felt foolish at what the twenty-four year old version of myself would have thought of me even having to wonder such a thing.

Thank goodness for technology. Having finally caved in to the IPhone that my dad generously handed down to me after he upgraded a few months ago, I have been able to reap some of the benefits of its intelligence. For one, I realized yesterday morning that I could simply go onto my phone’s clock, search for Lusaka, and voila!, I knew that on March 12 at 9:00 in the morning it would be 5:00 in the evening in my old home of Fiwila, Mkushi Province, Zambia, Africa.

It was important for me to know this because at 17:00 hours (how they would be referring to 5:00 PM in Fiwila), I had a phone date scheduled with my dear Zambian sister and friend, Paxina. Once again I must thank technology for giving me the ability to organize this call, let alone place it. In the past I had settled for the bright pink air mail envelopes and colorful international stamps as the only means of maintaining contact with my cherished village of Fiwila. Now, thanks to Gmail, smart phones, Skype and, most importantly, the cell phone tower recently constructed near Fiwila, I have the ability to hear the voices and nature sounds of my beloved African village as I stare out my apartment window at a parking lot full of cars in the mile high city of Denver, CO, USA.

So, last Sunday morning, most likely around 8:15 am or so, after figuring out I had forty-five minutes to pass before placing what I regarded as an extremely important phone call, I patiently made myself a breakfast of porridge (a meal I ate frequently in my Peace Corps days) and shuffled back and forth in my barefoot feet on the kitchen floor. I stared at my refrigerator, where I had lovingly pegged a photograph Paxina had sent me of herself in her school uniform, most likely taken long before I had even met her. The photograph overlapped a stark white page of copy paper with the following characters etched out in wobbly black pen for the first line, lead
pencil in the second line repeating itself:


I stared at my refrigerator and imagined myself on the phone with Paxina, me telling my friend that I had hung these items up on my refrigerator. I came back to reality and decided against doing so. Surely she knew what a refrigerator was but would she understand that I had my own? Even if she did, surely she would not understand the pride that is involved with choosing which photographs and child artwork to decorate it with.

My stomach did a few somersaults. I nostalgically thought about the fact that nearly two years had passed since I had last heard Paxina’s voice. I selfishly and enviously wondered whether the Peace Corps Volunteer Natalie that currently lives in Fiwila has become Paxina’s favorite American friend. I invested hope that the most simple and innocent friendship of my life still had somewhat of an equally important value to my friend.

I passed the next thirty minutes talking to my computer screen in frustration as I impatiently tried to navigate the Skype website. At one point I interrupted my stress with a deep breath, calmly reminding myself that Zamtime did in fact exist in the place where I was calling and Paxina would most likely still answer even if I was fifteen minutes late to our date together. It would in fact be much too American of me to call precisely at 17:00 hours.

Finally, the clock and my credit card information on Skype were both synchronized with one another and it was time for the call. After dialing, a familiar and joyous Zampop song performed for me through the speakers in my computer. The seconds that I waited seemed to be minutes until a familiar voice picked up.

“Halo?” Paxina shouted over the Atlantic ocean to me.

The tone of my voice seemed to suddenly increase its pitch by two octaves as I questioned, “Paxina? Hello! Can you hear me?” The corners of my lips turned up to my ears.

“Halo, Ba Rachel…?”

I heard gusts of wind as we repeated this dialogue back and forth a few times over before I decided to give a gamble to using the Skype app on my IPhone rather than my desktop computer. I worried that the connection was poor on the Zambian side. Thank goodness when I called back the connection was clearer.

“I am very happy to speak with you Ba Rachel,” Paxina proceeded to tell me, her intonation rising in a sing song voice as she enunciated the word “very” and decrescendoed back down to finish out the sentence.

My smile stretched at hearing Paxina’s thick Zambian English accent and I naturally modeled this in my own speech back. There were occasional awkward breaks in dialogue as both of us had to ask for the other to repeat what we had just asked. In all other aspects, however, I might as well have been sitting on a stool under the thatch roof of her insaka, gazing at the open air fire as she prepared nshima for our
dinner in the twilight. At one point in our conversation I affectionately asked if she was getting ready to prepare nshima.

“Yes!” She said in somewhat of a surprised voice. “So you don’t
eat nshima in America?” she asked me laughing.

I told her in the simplest English I could muster about searching in Mexican markets for maize meal and eating the occasional nshima dinner with other friends who understood Africa. She seemed genuinely surprised when I informed her it was morning in the place from which I was talking to her.

“Shoo—ah”? She giggled.

My proudest moment of the chat was when she enthusiastically reported to me about passing grade twelve and applying to nursing school. She had just returned from interviews for the program she hoped to be accepted to and had another trip planned at the end of the month for a second interview at a different school. She nervously exclaimed that in one of the programs there had been hundreds of applicants for a mere twelve spots. I tried my best to soak up all the details about the interview process and when she would know if she had been accepted into any of the programs, noting to myself that I would be doing my best to fund raise for a scholarship back in the States in order for her to finish school.

I asked about various family members of my host family as I listened to sounds of laughter of children playing in the background. I learned that Paxina’s daughter Priscovia was in the first grade and that Bambuya, my host mother, was sleeping in another shelter due to her house having been destroyed by the wind. My body breathed a sigh of relief as I inquired about the well being of my host brother Godwin’s widow, Bana Go, and her five children (Godwin’s death during my Peace Corps service affects me greatly to this day). The smile in Paxina’s voice sparkled as she told me they were all doing well.

I tried my best to dig some Bemba language out from the back of my brain and clumsily mustered a “Ndemifuluka” from my lips.

“Oh you miss us? We miss you too Ba Rachel.”

“Si” I said back, quickly substituting the Spanish that automatically came out of my mouth to an “Ehhhh. Ndemifuluka sana sana,” emphasizing the sincere and genuine truth that I missed her, her family, and community members very very much.

It was not too long after that in which an automated Skype message rudely cut off our conversation, telling me I did not have enough balance left to complete the call. I considered adding more money to be able to call back and tell Paxina my proper goodbyes. In the end, I decided my sore and tender heart did not have enough endurance left to say a goodbye yet again.

I nursed the nostalgia and African homesickness throughout the rest of the day. I practiced the piano and felt strange imagining what my Zambian family would think if they could see me in that moment. I dusted the African chitenge fabrics out of my closet and admired the beautiful prints of the fabrics. I used my finger to trace the designs etched into the wooden spoons that sit perched on my stove. Paxina had given me those spoons as a goodbye gift, or rather what Zambians refer to as a rememberance gift. I once again stared at the photo hung on my refrigerator. I smiled and felt grateful.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rocky Mountain High

"No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow." - Lin Yutang

When was the last time you walked barefoot on a carpeted floor, truly allowing your toes to sink into the warmth and comfort the weaves of the fabric have to offer?

If your answer is anything other than today, I offer you the following assignment: find any kind of carpet- be it textured, shag, burber, or an intricately designed Afghan rug and really dig your toes down deep. Plod around for a few moments and feel grateful that you have access to such privileged comfort and luxury.

This is my attempt to give you a shallow glimpse of how I've been perceiving life back home these last three weeks since returning from my most recent stint in Costa Rica. I am pleasantly baffled at how content I am to be back here in my home of Colorado. I am amazed that more time has passed here than I actually spent abroad and I am still feeling the effects of whatever drug Costa Rica put in my body that has allowed my awareness to open up to everything lovely about my home.

Please do not misunderstand me and think that I'm implying my trip was anything but beautiful, or that I hated my life in Colorado before leaving. Neither of these is the case. However, since getting that first Costa Rica stamp in my passport ten years ago, my spirit has been a wandering and restless one. Coming up on the two year anniversary of me arriving back Stateside after being away for two years in Zambia was also leaving me questioning whether it wasn't time to pick up and leave again.

Costa Rica, this time around, seems to have done something to pacify my nomadic cravings. Maybe I'm getting old. I'd like to think otherwise though and suspect that one day in the future I'll be ready to pack my suitcase again in search of that next adventure overseas (Lately I've been fantasizing about Thailand, India, Nepal).

But that is the future. Right now, I am suddenly awake to the fact that there is plenty of adventure right here in the community and life I have nurtured and worked so hard to appreciate these last few years. I plan on sticking around for a little while longer to see what more is left to unfold.

What are some of the qualities, be them minuscule or significant, that you love about the place that you call home? I'll share just a few of mine. (Apologies that my long battle with culture shock after Peace Corps delayed this list for a while).

  • Friends here that have become my family and love me unconditionally. One most wonderful aspects of my trip was learning that such friends of mine remain scattered throughout the world. Reconnecting with my Costa Rican family only left me feeling even more grateful for all of my loved ones back home.

  • Whole Foods. Well not the price, but the idea. I love that living in Denver gives me access to practically any type of food I so desire. Healthy or unhealthy. And that I don't have to apologize for being a semi-vegetarian.

  • Four seasons. Don't get me wrong, basking under the Costa Rican sunshine on a white sand beach in front of a turquoise sea is pretty darn amazing. Even more so when you imagine the blizzards occurring in other parts of the world. However, I've also recently appreciated the fun buzz of the clinic I work at closing for a snow day and the delight of knowing I get to brave the roads in my Subaru to head back home and curl up with a blanket, cup of tea and a good book. Skiing is pretty fun as well (and an adventure that does not require a passport).

  • My meditation time and space. For various reasons, I find that when my typical Colorado routine is broken, it is incredibly difficult to meditate. Meditation has been making me feel even more alive and vibrant lately, so I'll welcome monotony if it allows me the chance to sincerely check in with myself in this way every day.

  • Yoga classes. One of the perfect aspects of yoga is it can be done in any place but I am thrilled that have a plethora of teachers to choose from in the Denver area to further and deepen my practice.

  • Piano! Piano! Piano! I don't think I would trade my travels for anything but do mourn the sacrifice I have made these last ten years regarding my finesse to play this instrument with grace. I have recently resolved to regain this talent.

  • My parents. And that they live close by. My Mom can take care of me when I am sick as well as rescue me when I lock myself out of my apartment with no keys, shoes, coat or cell phone.

  • Comfort. (Have you sunk your toes into that carpet yet?) For a long time I wanted to be a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer snob and declare that I didn't need an Iphone or a dishwasher. I've been learning lately it is okay to appreciate such luxuries in moderation and balance. And it is ALWAYS okay to revel in a hot shower. I also recently discovered a handy dandy meditation app that helps me time, log and journal about my meditation with ease.

  • Colorado microbrews. Let's face it. Cheap lagers in developing countries really just aren't that tasty.

  • Colorado clothing culture. It is nice to get dressed up in skinny jeans, dangly earrings and high heels every once in a while but I am a mountain girl at heart and truly appreciate that I can wear jeans, a t-shirt and flip flops practically anywhere in this State and feel like I fit in.

  • Public libraries with easy access. Enough said.

I'll keep throwing some more ramblings out there but feel like mentioning that those which follow all follow under the paralleled category of strategies I've conjured up to still live as a world citizen even in the comfort of home. As well as seek that zest out of life that makes traveling so addictive.

  • Spanish! I get to speak this at my job all day long. Thank goodness for that.

  • Friends from other cultures at work. Who would have thought that after a year of resistance at my job I would suddenly release that in exchange for gratitude that I get to work alongside inspirational people that teach me new aspects of their culture every day. As well as allow me to reminisce whenever I desire about my Costa Rican roots.

  • New food. I can cook international fare whenever I'd like. Or head to any of the restaurants here in Denver to try something new. There is even a place in Aurora that serves nshima.
  • Music. Not just the piano which I have already mentioned. Summer concert series at Red Rocks. Small Bluegrass bands at Cervantes. A small quartet of violinists at the New Belgium Brewery. Good for the soul.

  • Adventure!!!! Talk about a state that offers the opportunity to live a life less ordinary. I've always been a fan of the outdoors but am hoping to get further engrossed in some new activities here- get over my white water rafting fear for example, try to afford a road bike and then actually ride it, take a weekend long backpacking trip. The possibilities are endless.

Those that know me well may be amazed to hear all of this optimism about sticking around Colorado for a little while longer, not to mention my snippets about the wonderful aspects of my job (I'm usually complaining about mountains of emotional suffering or secondary trauma). To anyone out there that feels stuck in a rut, if you are willing and able, travel. Go anywhere. Especially if it is to see long lost friends and family in order to remind yourself of where you have come from and be proud of how far you have come. It is one of the best medicines I have found.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Eight Strategies for Culture Shock

You do not have to live in a Zambian mud hut or find yourself to be the only gringa in a crowd full of thousands of Ticos to experience culture shock, or a sense of surprise that you have found yourself in a certain corner of the world (even if this corner of the world happens to be at home). We all know that culture is everywhere and regardless of whether one has traveled abroad they have experienced a world view different from their own. Culture weaves its way into age groups, work environments, family dynamics, recreational activities, the online world, etc. etc. In the last ten days, I've been a foreigner in Costa Rica, then a foreigner among foreigners because I speak Spanish and have lived with the locals. I've also made interesting observations on the lifestyle of backpacker travelers, surfers and the beach community of Santa Teresa, CR. I realize that this trip of mine to Costa Rica is merely that, a vacation, and not a living experience. Therefore it should be a breeze for me to pretend I'm a Tica or a beach bum for a mere two weeks. For the most part, it does seem that my ability to adjust to another culture has come as easily as remembering how to ride a bike. However, there have been a few moments of struggle which have led me to create the following list of strategies for a fun survival.

The cliff notes version for friends who have told me I can be too verbose:

1. Be grateful for everything
2. Laugh
3. Chew, smile, and swallow
4. Dance, even if you think you don't know how to
5. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the view
6. Take care of yourself
7. Drink a little bit (with caution)
8. If all else fails, ask for forgiveness, forgive yourself and move on.

The rambling version (mostly for myself):
1. Be grateful for everything

This trip has left me with a predominant feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for various stories listed in this blog, gratitude that I have gotten to experience so much of the world over the last ten years, and mostly for the relationships I have made doing so. My Costa Rican family was the first family of foreigners who taught me lessons on generosity. They fed me, sheltered me, loved me and taught me Spanish ten years ago and have repeated such gifts in the same manner this time around. I am so thankful they have trusted me enough to let me peer into and become a part of their lives for a little while. Moments that make cultural immersion worthwhile include the following:
Daniela and I curling up with her mother Irma in her bed as we watched a Peruvian cooking show after stuffing ourselves with rice, beans and fish. We only payed slight attention to it as we distracted ourselves with laughing (bring in strategy #2 below) about me being the "hija perdida¨ and discussing how different life in Colorado would be for them, how they would die in the snow and cold. They say that one day they will visit and I can only hope this is true as I would love to pay back a small amount of all gifts they have shared with me.

Being grateful of course also includes constant reminders about appreciating everything that is wonderful about home, something I hope to write more about in a future entry.

2. Laugh

Something else to be grateful for? The capacity to laugh with others and at myself.
During one of the nights we were staying in San Carlos, Daniela and I were changing into pijamas when she suddenly shrieked upon the discovery of a cockroach on her shirt. Shooing it away near my feet, I had an immediate reaction of fright and did a creepy crawly sort of dance. Once again we could not stop laughing. Who would have ever thought a cockroach could have such an effect?

3. Chew, smile, and swallow

Another time I have been forced to laugh at myself has been me and the challenge of eating meat down here. Prior to this trip I convinced myself I was going to stick as much as possible to my oh-so-prenentious pescatarian diet (and to be a little bit more easy going said that an occasional piece of chicken could be fit in). My how that has flown out the window, starting with me consuming a delicious pineapple cream cheese dip at a Costa Rican uncle's birthday party last Saturday. I pinky swear that I did not notice the flakes of pink as I commented to Daniela how rico the dish was. All she did was laugh and ask in a sarcastic, carniverous way whether I knew I was eating pork. With an abashed no, I said it did not matter because I was in Costa Rica and could do whatever I wanted, taking a bite of the steak on her plate. Daniela's response to this was that I only care about American animals and not the Costa Rican ones.

I thought that the meat eating of that night would be an isolated event but of course the next morning awoke to my host mother Irma serving me a Costa Rican breakfast plate complete with a heaping portion of ham and eggs casserole (note that it appeared impossible to pick the ham out of the eggs). I know that I could have politely reminded Irma that I ¨usually¨ try not to eat pork, however the pride and generosity with which she had served the plate led me to my decision to forfeit my desire to not eat meat. My strategy at this point was to chew, smile, be grateful (strategy #1) and swallow.

Since becoming a semi-vegetarian many have asked me whether I have noticed changes in the way I feel in my body. I had never been sure of the answer until now that I have been reintroduced to the consumption of pork and beef on this trip. I must have a stomach of steel as I have not felt physically ill per se (or at least have not yet) BUT I have become acutely aware of an undefined, difficult to explain, fog of heaviness and disgust in my stomach.

I will not say that I regret eating the pork but will declare that I plan on returning to my vegetarian lifestyle with a vengance upon my return Stateside. And will be grateful there that I have full choice over what foods I want to nourish my body with, as well as the access to markets where I can buy them.

4. Dance, even if you think you don't know how to

Just do it. Don't think about it too much. See other blog entries for details.

5. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the view

Give me an i-pod and a window seat on any sort of bus and I am a patient, content girl. It may sound strange to some but bus rides with good views are often my most memorable and favorite parts of traveling. I am sure this origniated with the drive between San Jose and San Carlos I grew accustomed to many years ago. It was so nice to experience the views on this journey again this time around. This 2.5-3 hour long ride of windy roads blanketed by an ephemeral mist of fog showcases so much beauty. Coffee plantations are chiseled into the faces of lush, green, rolling hills. On the edges, houses painted with bold colors and topped with corrugated roofs hang daringly close to the edges. You pass pastures of cows munching on grass in between small, lazy towns that hug themselves to the side of the road. People that live in them seem to always be enjoying the simplicity of life- whether it is the older woman lounging on her patio as she munches on a bag of plantain chips, the farmer with large sombrero and heavy black boots walking alongside the road, or the soccer team of boys sitting in a circle on a green plaza in front of one of the town's cathedrals.

On this drive I found myself thinking about a lot of different people in the world- my sister in Portland came to mind, my Mom in the suburbs of Denver, my best friend in New York City, my Zambian family back in Africa. It seemed a miracle to me that so many places and lives were all existing simultaneously.

6. Take care of yourself

One of my biggest challenges of traveling recently has been finding the appropriate time and space to take care of myself physically and mentally. I previously mentioned how little my Costa Rican life seems to have changed since coming here years ago. Something major that has, however, have been my discovery of how much of an impact yoga, meditation and eating healthy can have on my life. There were several days I went on this trip without incorporating any of these into my time and the absence of them did not go unnoticed in my body or mind. This brings me back to the aspect of gratitude and how traveling can make you realize the benefits of your life back home. I have much more control over what I eat back there, have a plethora of yoga teachers to learn from, as well as have a beautiful, quiet and adequate space to meditate in.

I do try to remind myself here though that even though I can not do a full hour of asana (the sanskrit term for yoga poses) or find a quiet space for fifteen minutes in which to meditate, this does not mean that I can not take a deep breath from time to time or do a forward fold in the privacy of a bathroom.

I am also grateful (strategy #1!) that I am currently writing this from Playa Santa Teresa. I am here taking a break from being Tica and playing catch-up on my spirituality, as well as having fun in the sun. Yoga classes to the sound of ocean waves abound here and I have plans for my first meditation on a beach. I also, of course, am planning on engaging in all of the other strategies discussed on this blog entry here (see below).

7. Drink a little bit (but with caution)

I have to admit that some moments here, drinking has been the best remedy. When I first arrived in Santa Teresa all by myself, I was terrified of being lonely for many days and that I wouldn't make friends. A little wine to the rescue to try to combat that shy side of me and I found myself having interesting chats with backpackers from Germany, Denmark, England and San Francisco.

Another situation in which drinking seemed to be the best resort was last Sunday when Daniela convinced me to accompany her to a party in a town called Palmares. This turned out to be a sort of carnival, music festival and drinking fest all mixed into one. Under the hot Costa Rican sun, I suddenly found myself packed into a crowd full of drunk, college-aged Ticos, dancing in a way that Daniela described as vulgar (means the same in English) to reaggeton (I have no idea how you spell this) music. In Costa Rica apparantly at concerts a large part of the party culture involves cooling off by dumping beer onto each other's heads as well as spraying it into the rest of the crowd. At first I was slightly annoyed by all of this and felt incredibly old which had me feeling sad for a spell. Costa Rican Imperial and Rock Ice with lime to the rescue! This way I was more able to effectively dance and laugh with Daniela and her cousin Mariela at all of the borrachos in the crowd.

8. If all else fails, ask for forgiveness, forgive yourself, and move on

Nine hours, a nasty shoulder-strap sunburn and a beer-an-hour later, I was no longer able to effectively implement the strategies above. I kept telling Daniela that I was too American and too old to be at Palmares, frustrated with the fact that her and a boy she is dating (post breakup) kept telling me we would be leaving in 30 minutes even when they had said that hours before. As day grew into night (nights have been surprisingly cold in San Jose) and the pork I had eaten fermented in my belly along with the beer, I was no longer a happy camper. How quickly I seemed to have forgotten the laid back lifestyle of Tico Time (not to mention its Zambian cousin). I feel embarrassed about this bout of mal humor and wish I could have maintained more of a free spirit. Fortunately, this brings me again back to strategy number one. I am so grateful that I have created a relationship with my Costa Rican sister where she can see the bad side of me but forgive me and love me anyway.

As I mentioned, I am in Santa Teresa Beach for today before heading up to Playa Conchal tomorrow to finish the trip out with my host family before I catch my flight back to Colorado on Monday. Once again, I will find myself in a cultural situation where all of the above tips will be quite necessary. :)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

It´s Tico Time! Part Two

We like to pretend that we can measure time on calendars and watches with concrete minutes, hours, years, etc. My last few days, however, have left me seriously questioning whether we are all just fooling ourselves with the whole keeping track of time thing. At various moments throughout this vacay I feel as if I am in some sort of movie that flashes forward in time, then backward. Forward, then backward. Underlying themes touching on the theory of relativity and quantum physics are also somehow mixed in.

Maybe I should write the script sounding not nearly as dramatic and mind-boggling and a little bit more tropical. Also, I should caution my liberal arts degreed self before I start throwing in words like quantum physics. But the point I am trying to get across is that my mind keeps tripping in amazement over how little time seems to have changed things here in the last ten years. Then I of course contradict myself and make observations on the subtle things that have in fact changed. Nevertheless, people, relationships, sights, tastes, smells, sounds, feelings, and emotions that I have not experienced in such a decade have come rushing back to me in familiar waves. I also simply can not believe that it has actually been ten years since I stepped foot on this soil! I hate to use a cliché but time really does fly. And it is frightening how quickly.

If you read the post below, you know how nervous I was on Monday. I was flying into a foreign country all by my lonesome with no plans at all except to trust the hunch that I would be taken care of by a certain Costa Rican family I met ten years ago and had kept in mediocre touch with since. I also had a Lonely Planet guidebook in my backpack and plans of heading to the beach just in case they forgot about me.

How crazy I was for thinking they would forget about me! I so easily found their faces in the crowd waiting for arrivals outside of the airport on Monday morning that I could not help but squeel with delight and excitement as I skipped over to them. With the exception of my host sister Daniela´s longer and blonder hair, Daniela, Irma (my host mother) and Alvarito (my host brother) all looked the same. The custom of greeting them all with kisses on their right cheeks came surprisingly natural to me. Daniela handed me a bunch of flowers with tiny lavendar buds on them and started chattering away in her high-pitched voice, asking me if all the yoga I´ve been doing lately was why I was so much more flaca (slender) than when she last saw me.

Alvarito drove the same car I had ridden in ten years ago to a house that he and Daniela shared with their cousin and another roommate in San Jose since they both moved down here to attend the University of Costa Rica. Upon our arrival, Irma immediately went to work in the kitchen and I quickly realized that no, it was not the yoga that had made me much more slender since they had last saw me. It was being far far away from Irma´s home-style typical cooking. Before I knew it I had a massive plate of gallo pinto smeared with natilla, platano maduro and a massive chunk of queso fresco right in front of me. The best part? The rich cup of Costa Rican coffee that had no need for sugar.

How many feelings and memories can somehow exist in certain foods eaten in the right time and places! As soon as I took a bite of the black beans and rice breakfast, I was filled with a strange sense of nostalgia. Similar emotions presented themselves when I ate the first box of Mac and Cheese sent to me in Zambia, the first bite of nshima I made with my American friends upon returning to the U.S.

At this point, the exhaustion of the red eye flight began to take its toll on me and I started to become humbled at my Spanish speaking abilities. Nevertheless, I finally figured out what Irma was telling me and am so glad I did as it brought a smile to my heart. She shared with me how she still owns a party supply store in San Carlos and tapes local cooking shows a few times a week. She asked me if I remembered the time that I cooked their entire family french toast and joked around with me that I should be a guest on her cooking show during my time here and teach her audience how to cook french toast like we do in the U.S.

After breakfast, the entire day was filled with reminiscing as we strolled around San Jose. We laughed about the time I confused the words maquillaje with mantequilla and asked my host sister if she was going to put butter on her face. We bragged about the time my host sister and I walked to La Fortuna from Ciudad Quesada to participate in a Costa Rican pilgramige (a distance of around 40 kilometers). We recalled the time I came back to Costa Rica on a senior high school trip with three of my best friends and attended her quinciñera.

It has been fun to remember. Irma left on Monday back to the house that I lived with them in San Carlos and it really has been just Daniela and I spending some quality time together in San Jose these last few days. I have to remind myself to be patient and know that in the week to come I will be enjoying some more of Costa Rica´s natural beauty as well as meeting once again many other members of her family I became close with a decade ago. For now I am just enjoyng the unlikely friendship I speak so highly of.

I am proud and surprised to acknowledge that time has not seemed to have any real effects on the close relationship Daniela and I formed when we once shared a room together. I have no qualms with rummaging through her closet to try to find clothes I can borrow in order to not feel so incredibly gringa. Daniela broke up with her boyfriend of three years last week and she keeps bringing up the subject of boyfriends, husbands, children, life and we can not stop laughing about it all. I still get annoyed with her at how long it takes her to get ready to go anywhere. Staying with her has been much like visiting my American sister Emily in the U.S. We´ve gone shopping, cooked, watched movies, gone jogging, gone to a yoga class, laughed at her purse-sized tan mut of a dog named Loey.

Something that is much more Costa Rican, however, is the night life. Twice we have gone out to bars to dance the night away to live music. The nightlife down here is like some sort of drug for me- the latin music pulses through my veins and makes me feel a keen, simple and content aliveness. I am awkward at both dancing and flirting with boys when I go out back in the U.S. but down here I seem to take on somewhat of a different personality. It is fun to pretend that I am someone else for a little while. Costa Rican guys are excellent at twirling me around and making me pretend that I actually know how to dance salsa, kumbia, merengue. Perhaps it is the romantic aspects of the Spanish language, perhaps it is the confidence of knowing I possess the unique quality of being a foreigner, but it is incredibly easier for me to forget my shyness around males here. Friends, this is an entirely different story I´ll tell you about on a different occasion.

Though dancing and music were some of the qualities that began my love affair with Costa Rica so long ago, as we were out last night, I suddenly glanced around the room and realized I was the only gringa in the place packed full of Ticos. And suddenly I had the thought, ¨What in the world am I doing here? This is crazy. I should at least have one other American friend at my side.¨ A sense of loneliness creeped into me and I again thought about my sixteen-year-old self and wished I could go back in time to give her a hug. How did I have that much courage, that much strength, that much uniqueness as such a baby to have successfully immersed myself in this culture a decade ago?

Following these thoughts I was suddenly hit over the head with a brick of homesickness. This both surprised and confused me. For one, this trip is as short as the blink of an eye in comparison to ones I have embarked on in the past. I had only been here for three days (moments have creeped by but days have passed in a flash). Furthermore, my wandering spirit had recently been taunting me with thoughts of moving abroad again and continuing to live a life less ordinary. How in the world could I become homesick now ? It seemed utterly ridiculous and I wanted to dismiss the feeling immediately. Instead, I prayed that I would be able to embrace the feeling and be able to remember it in a few weeks´ time when I find myself back in Colorado life trying to figure out ways to make the normalcy of it all not feel too monotonous.

This is one of the reasons traveling has struck a chord with me- it never fails to remind you of all of the things that you love about home. Other reasons I am such an addict? That the balance between feeling incredibly uncomfortable but having an incredible amount of fun is something that makes me feel incredibly alive. Traveling has also been one of the easiest and most profound ways that I have learned lessons about myself. As the days progress here, I can´t help but wonder if this trip, one of the shortest, will be one of the most meaningful for me in regards to learning lessons about myself. I´ll save the details of this for another time.

Previews of other stories to be written about in the week to come? Tales of the Irazu volcano, heading back to San Carlos. a surprise birthday party full of extended family (another opportunity for me to wonder how in the world I got here), and an attempt for me to convince my host family that I would like to travel to the beach by myself and that this is normal for gringos and I will meet plenty of gringos there to keep me company and for them to not worry about me. We´ll see how that goes.

So much love to all. Pura Vida!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Iiiiiiiitttttttts Tico time! Part One

Somehow, I am writing this from Costa Rica. How in the world did I get here? This is what I keep asking myself.

I theoretically got here close to ten years ago, back in June of 2002. As a sixteen-year-old I became friends with two boys from my high school class- one who had just completed a semester abroad in Chile and another who was about to depart. As I listened to their stories, my intuition suddenly shouted at me, ¨you should do that!¨, despite the fact no one in my family was particularly fond of international travel and the extense of my own experience at the time had merely been a week long humanitarian trip to Juarez, Mexico as a child. I still to this day marvel at how fearlessly I listened to my heart and forged the application process to become a high school exchange student. Several months later, I found myself boarding a plane to become immersed in Costa Rican culture for the next six months. It was one of the most terrifying things I had done with my life thus far but the thought of the adventure that lay ahead of me was too addictive to back out of.

It is quite amazing how my time spent in Costa Rica was the stepping stone for so many aspects of my future life. Costa Rica infected me with the travel bug, the only remedy being to experience twelve different countries since. I feel confident in saying I would not have had the courage to sign up for Peace Corps without having experienced first the training wheels of cultural immersion in this gorgeous country. Even today I work at a job in which Spanish communication skills are essential (and one of my favorite aspects of the work).

I feel that I owe so much of my Spanish speaking abilities to the Quirós Avila family who took me in as one of their own ten years ago. There are so many other reasons I am forever grateful to them. My mind keeps discovering fond memories and dusting them off as my host sister, Daniela, and I reminiss about our time spent together.

I remember the first night Daniela and her mother Irma picked me up from the exchange coordinator´s house and seemed to be speaking a mile a minute to me in Spanish as they brought me to a party at their house full of extended family. How everyone present had English speaking abilities similar to my beginning Spanish at the time but how patient and welcoming they all were with me- offering me as much arroz con pollo and tres leches as I could fill myself with.

Several months later they threw me a surprise birthday party, complete with shoving my face into the cake in true Costa Rican fashion and then giving me a Costa Rican makeover before I went out dancing for the night with my host brother Alvaro and other friends from high school.

My most favorite memory occurred a few weeks after I had arrived to live with them. Daniela and I shared a room and even though I had yet to become anywhere close to fluent in her language, we somehow one night found ourselves staying up late gossipping about boys despite the language barrier. We laughed until our stomachs hurt and corners of lips ached. In that moment I marveled at how beautiful it was that I was in such a unique position to form an unlikely friendship with this girl from a completely different culture and country than my own. This moment was key in stealing my heart.

Months later came the tearful goodbye at the airport as my first semester abroad had come to an end. I had not escaped homesickeness throughout my six months abroad and a lot of me was excited to be heading back to comfort, familiarity and loved ones. But leaving was not easy. Not only did my immediate host family- Daniela, Irma, Alvarito (host brother), Alvaro (host father)- accomany me to the airport to bid goodbye, but a large group of cousins, aunts and uncles also formed a circle around me as I gave kisses on the cheek to each and every one. Daniela was the final goodbye and I can still feel the pull on my heart as we grasped fists before I turned away from her as well as the tears that streamed down my cheeks on the airplane as I read a letter from her saying I would always be her hermanita (little sister) and how much she loved me.

I was able to return to Costa Rica six months later in order to show three of my closest childhood friends how beautiful the country was. Afterwards, Daniela and I exchanged snail mail letters back and forth and gradually the gap between the envelopes arriving became longer and longer. I completely lost touch with Costa Rica during my time in Zambia but one day was ecstatic to see that Daniela Quirós Avila had added me as a friend on facebook. (I often am convinced Facebook is unhealthy for me but it is for reasons such as reconnecting with friends from around the world that I inisist on maintaining a profile). We began to chat little by little and one day I found myself promising her that Costa Rica would be the next place on my list to visit.

I realized back in November that in 2012 it would somehow be the ten year anniversary since I first met Costa Rica. This made me work hard to discover an affordable plane ticket here. Before I knew it, I was flying over the rolling, green hills of the outskirts of San Jose in the early morning hours of yesterday. Butterflies in my stomach flapped away as I wondered what it would be like to once again meet these foreigners I consider my family.

Part two to come. I am in Costa Rica after all and don´t want to spend too much time on a computer! ;)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Long Time!

Wow, blog, you and I have a lot of catching up to do! As they say in Zambia, long time! One reason you haven’t heard from me is because for a while I didn’t think I had anything interesting or worthwhile to tell you. Now that I’ve begun thinking about exactly what it is I want to tell you, however, I realize that I have too much to tell you, don’t know where to begin and am unsure that if I do whether I will know how to stop.

I want to tell you that in the last 12 months my job has been to help teenagers ease the stress and fear of having babies, to learn along with diabetic patients about how to manage their disease, to help parents devise plans of disciplining their children and teach them how to potty train (my least favorite topic of the day), to assist women who want to leave their alcoholic, abusive or unfaithful husbands, to feign the part of a mini-mental health counselor (when I’m in doubt I always resort to discussing deep breathing), and so on. It is a tough job because I’m always out of my comfort zone, I am usually seeing a whole lot of suffering, and I am confined to the indoors all day. It is a good job because it has taught me a lot about myself and what I want for my future "career", has given me many inspirational coworkers as my teachers and it allows me to help others even if I don't always know how to help.

I also think it would be therapeutic, yet undesirable, to tell you about the cloud of anxiety and depression that has hung over my head the last year or so. The simple version is that a little bit of the paragraph above, along with snippets of the paragraph below mixed together to create the perfect conditions for my last months of melancholy. I’ve been learning about how to bring in more sunshine though. My therapy has been spending significant amounts of time in the Colorado mountains, practicing as much yoga, meditation and prayer as possible, reveling in live music, rambling in my journal every day, reminding myself that I don’t have to be brushing my teeth under the moon and stars to gaze at them in wonder, laughing at things that aren’t necessarily so funny, and keeping people that understand me close to my heart. Funny how all of these therapies are exactly what brightened my day in Zambia. How I wish it was as easy here to carve out time for such essential treatments.

Mostly blog, I want to tell you about how much I miss Zambia and how much it aches. I want to tell you how sometimes I will silently whisper Bemba words to myself, simply to make sure I haven't forgotten too much. I want to tell you about the nights I’ll have vividly dreamt about returning there and seeing how much the children from the Mulomo family have grown, and will wake up with a pain in my heart at how quickly time passes by. I want to go back to the girl that wrote entries to you years ago and remind her to savor every moment, even though I know she did her best.

I want to tell you about how grateful I am that a girl named Natalie moved into Fiwila about a year ago, but how jealous I am when I log onto facebook and see photos posted of MY village that I did not post. I am so thankful that Natalie helps me keep in touch with my friend Paxina and because of her every so often I will get bright pink airmail envelopes from Mkushi as proof that I did actually live in Zambia and that no, Paxina has not forgotten about me.

I want to tell you about how much I miss lazy mornings, 30 k bike rides through the African bush, falling asleep to children singing in harmony under a glittering sky, gazing at a fire almost every night, and the ever present feeling of aliveness no matter how uncomfortable, annoying or inconvenient life there could be.

I remind myself that I can choose to carry all of these moments and friendships with me as long as I wish and friendships don’t disappear with distance. But I also remind myself that I am grieving a loss of how things once were and that it is okay to feel sad. That I do not have to apologize of the fact that I have been home for 16 months now and still don’t feel adjusted to American life. I remind myself how thankful I am to have friends from Peace Corps going through the exact same thing that I can laugh with and whine with about how damn difficult and stressful it can be here.

I lastly want to tell you about my feelings of guilt, confusion and helplessness weeks ago as I sat on the cozy couch in my mother's air-conditioned home, eating ice cream and watching CNN. How Anderson Cooper appeared from Somalia and the screen flashed images of children dying from lack of food. How he interviewed Jill Biden urging Americans to donate money to a certain organization which I had seen operate in Zambia and, in my humble opinion, not necessarily use funds appropriately. For everyone else that is interested in how they can help during this crisis, please see the following link to read more about an initiative created by one of my Peace Corps friends:

So, in a nutshell, blog, this has been my last year. I plan to continue learning about myself and how I can remain a world citizen even if I am no longer considered an expat. In fact, I’d like to talk with you more. I know I could continue telling you about my life curriculum above, but I think I’ll save most of it for my journal.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Quarterlife Crisis?

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”
–Maya Angelou

“So, tell me a story about Zambia…”
As soon as I hear the beginning words of this phrase from a well-meaning stranger, interested loved one, or polite acquaintance, I try to turn the cringe in my mind to a smile on my face as I dodge what I know in reality is a decent and courteous request. If my sister happens to be by my side, I dodge the question off on her since she might be able to default to the captivating tale we shared together of “Muzungus Rafting the Great Zambezi.” Anything so that I don’t have to explain the intricacies of the life I lead a mere six months ago that now seems as ephemeral as a dream. I know it should be easy to tell a story, however… I find it the opposite. Why? Maybe I’m simply lazy. Perhaps I’m worried that summing up a story from Zambia into a mere minute’s account isn’t enough to do my experience justice. Or maybe, something I consider last but avert thoughts from quickly, I actually miss Zambia and me not talking about it is a way of ignoring this feeling.

In addition to story requests, a voice in my mind keeps urging me to write down some of my feelings and experiences about readjusting back to life in the States, and in a States-like way I am quickly distracted by some other activity until that voice comes back again as a whisper. I have been putting this blog entry off for too long and I think it’s too important for me not to process some of my thoughts, feelings and experiences into words, so here I go. (Disclaimer: I’ve recently been told that blogs are supposed to be short. Oops? Next entry? And for now I’ll just try and share the most important snippets).

I’ll mislead you by starting at the very beginning. I arrived at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on April 23, 2010 after 3 international flights, the latter being close to 16 hours long. I was dazed from jetlag and culture shock. After landing, I spent close to a half hour in the restroom freshening up and emerged to find a slithering customs line that I swear was as long as a football field. I realized as soon as I joined in that the people I was waiting with were not the same from my flight. Everyone was in shorts and straw hats. Everyone was complaining that their flight from Cancun had arrived too late. Everyone was in a hurry. There was an overwhelming amount of white people and an underwhelming amount of diversity. And yes, I repeat this was the customs line of an international airport. Part of me wondered if I knew what I was getting myself into with this whole returning back to America business. And then, a few folds back in line, I spotted a girl I would guess to be around the age of four years old with chin-length jet black hair and almond shaped eyes carrying a backpack that fit her perfectly. She was holding hands with a middle aged woman who shared none of her physical characteristics. The girl peered up at the woman, who returned the glance with a huge, genuine smile and a compassionate, “you are doing a wonderful job, honey!” And with that simple observation I smiled my first smile since getting back home.

Since then, my return to the States has been easier than many other returned Peace Corps volunteers told me it was going to be. By saying this, I mean that I actually don’t freak out when I walk down the cheese aisle of the grocery store. I mean that I feel normal enough to laugh hysterically rather than over analyze our society when my sister facebooks me a link to a company that makes hoodies and tank tops for cats. I mean that I am fortunate enough to have loved ones who “get” me and give me the patience, love and understanding I need even if they don’t necessarily “get” Zambia.

But I still would never describe my return as easy. Among other things, the job market was a tough adjustment to get used to. And after recently conquering that obstacle, I have been forced to surmount the challenge of adjusting to a structured 40 hour-work week and face the reality of what being an adult actually entails. Frequently I have wondered if I am undergoing a quarterlife crisis.

But I’d rather put all that aside. Instead, I’ll sum up the most challenging aspects of my return in three distinct parts. The first, I would like to call the icibotolo (eee- chee- bow- tow- low) syndrome. The symptoms of this are summed up as me never failing to think of the children running around on the Mulomo family compound whenever I am forced to dispose of any sort of mildly recyclable material, such as a plastic bottle or tin can. Sometimes I even catch myself thinking, “oh the ‘iwes’ are really going to find a creative way to play with this one.” And then I stop, realize where I am, and figure out where the nearest recycle bin is.

A second routine thought process I’ve had in the last six months is one which I will title the WWPT habit. What Would Paxina Think. In the year 2010, I have flown on at least 19 different airplanes (to be fair this includes layovers and plane changes). What would Paxina think? Not only what would she think if she actually knew this, but what would she think if she could have been seated in the seat right next to me on just one of those plane rides? What would she think of the loud roar of the jet engine, the intricate designs of the earth viewed from the clouds above, or the way the plane feels like it is never going to slow down once it makes contact with the tarmac after reaching its destination? What would she think about that? What would she think if she was with me in that spa I had the luxury of spending an afternoon at last weekend? What would she think of getting naked and climbing under a sheet in order for a stranger to rub their hands over her skin? Would she think it was nice? What would she think if she knew that the cost of getting naked and climbing under a sheet in order for a stranger to rub their hands over her skin costs more money than she might see in an entire year? What would she think if she were in my mother’s house right now with me, seated by my side as I type this all out on this foreign object of letter and number squares, tapping sounds, and bright colored light? What would she think of all this fancy furniture in the living room and glass dishware in the kitchen cabinets? What would she think if she found out I have gone six months without eating nshima? I really miss the sounds of the mealy meal dripping and kerplunking into the soft boiling pot of water resting on the open air fire as Paxina gently stirred it around and around until she found the rhythm that would turn into the thick mush of nshima. Who would have thought I would end up missing the sound of a Zambian food more than the taste?

I am rambling. Furthermore, my thoughts were just interrupted by me feeling a need to remind any who might be confused reading this that Paxina was my best friend in Zambia. Our friendship was the most simple I have ever had and I keep her tucked away in a special corner of my heart.

Back on track to the final noteworthy adjustment to coming home. This one does not necessarily manifest as one of my thought patterns, rather something I would describe more as an unconscious awareness. Life is too normal here in the U.S.A. I feel myself falling deeper and deeper into mundane tasks and routines and start to feel like I’m losing myself and a feeling of being fully alive. I have watched way too many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy recently. Today I made mac and cheese and did not savor every single bite. I got into my car yesterday and did not appreciate the comfort or ease of the ride. I have not a clue the next time I’ll need to have my passport ready to go. In the mornings I wake up to the humdrum motors of cars on the road rather than chickens squawking, birds chirping and children laughing right outside my window.

But I have recently undergone an epiphany in my mind which I would like to share. I have realized that allowing life to be normal here in the U.S. is a choice. Deciding to let it become normal is something easy to do, therefore it is something essential to watch for. If I am not careful, I will miss the tiny adventures being offered to me each day. Adventures like savoring the smell of winter wafting in with the breeze yesterday afternoon. Just because I don’t have to brush my teeth outside every night doesn’t mean that I can’t take time to notice whether or not the moon is full or half, waxing or waning.

Additionally, if I don’t take initiative to make things I want to happen actually happen, then chances are likely more of the mid-level adventures available to me will pass me by. So I try and take chances, big and small, and take risks right here in Colorado. I think this is something I didn’t quite understand before leaving for Zambia.

One final shred of my recent enlightenment to share. I knew that life in Zambia was going to be challenging. Therefore, I tried my hardest to stay mentally fit every single day in my own way in order to still be able to enjoy the journey along the way. (Did I really just unintentionally rhyme three times?) Anyway, the point I'm trying to get at is...why not be as ambitious with life here at home?