Fa lalala la fa lala laa
Oh the holidays, the spirit of love and unity and hope. What a wonderful season it can be for the normal folk. I however, have been blessed with an Abe Normal family. Yes, not abnormal but rather Abe Normal like out of the Young Frankenstein movie.  My silence in writing has been due to that gipsy gene I must have been born with (it must it exist, I should patent it). The gipsy gene, which I probably inherited from the Abe Normals, leads me to follow adventure and challenge; normal people call it wanderlust. I remember that the first time I heard the term wanderlust I felt as if I had been finally correctly diagnosed.  But oh sadly, through the years I’ve learned that I am not part of normal folk. If I were a TV character I would be the cousin that is seen as the weird one in the modern version of the Adams Family. You know, the blond one that looks like a normal human to us but to the Adams she as the weird one. Yes, that pretty much explains my entire life.

So either the gipsy gene or a desire to escape my family led me leave my life behind and start anew in Miami.  Why Miami? Well, the warm climate, an exciting new job, and a safe long distance from the Abe Normals. Miami is also a nice compromise for someone with the gipsy gene because Miami is full of people that speak different languages, is just miles from other countries, and just like in the developing world it has road conditions that are panic-attack-inducing. Yup, like I said, I know that I belong to the Abe Normals. For a long time I used to hope that there had been a switch at the hospital and that I was with the wrong family but one day I took a look at my brother and realized that we are so phenotypically similar that if we were of the same sex we would probably look like twins in spite of being five years apart.

Even though I don’t want to belong to the Abe Normals I can’t help but love them because you know you don’t choose your family, so I’m stuck with them. Given the fact that this time my move away from the family was one within the same country where they reside, they decided to come visit me. Mama Abe does not believe in taking a plane. If she were a TV character she would be Mr. T. That’s right, she’s as tough as they come but you would have to sedate her to get her on a plane. So the Abe Normals drove down and took three days to get here when it would have taken them three hours via plane (now you begin to understand why they are the Abe Normals).

I must pause and give you a heads up. This is a story of forewarning, for I hope that you don’t make the same mistake as I have. The Abe Normals took over my apartment, complained about my furniture, and forced me to engage in activities I do not enjoy. They made me play monopoly, you have no idea what cruelty this is for an activist that fights against capitalism! I explained that this torturous activity was against my principles but they did not heed my message. Not only did they make me play, I had to be the banker as well! The agony slowly increased and peaked when it became clear that Mama Abe is a dirty rat. So, I did it, I wished that we were like other dysfunctional families that play beer pong or something in that category.  I’m not really sure what it is that others families do but I wished that we would be like them and that’s when it happened. I got ‘the lesson of the Christmas present’ that’s right, it happens and I’m writing this as a warning cause it can happen to you too.

“The lesson” began to manifest itself the moment we left our apartment. It was pouring rain and windy.  I held an umbrella, my car keys, garbage to be thrown out an a bag of stuff so I proceeded to leave my suitcase right next to the Abe Normals while I went to get my car. We were going on vacation together to a ‘place full of magic’. I plug into GPS the address to the hotel that my sister had booked and drive for hours. We approach the ‘place full of magic’ and watch in horror as GPS is directing us to continue for another hour. My sister had booked our hotel in a town an hour away from our destination! We arrive at the hotel and begin to unpack when I realize that my suitcase is missing. I ask all of the suspects and they individually respond that they had brought their stuff. Even Abe Jr. who is eight years old had the same response. But it was right next to you people how could you not see it!? Nope, you get to have no clothes for your vacation, great.

I calm down, realize that I can look for clothes the following day and could borrow pajamas from the other Abes even though they wear an extra large and I wear an extra small. We go to bed around midnight but then my sister’s phone rings (and her ring is quite alarming cause it has something akin to police lights, and a loud sound) we all jump and a coarse voice says: do you like scary movies? We are all awake and freaked out. My sister gets up and doesn’t even know what happened. We get a second call and this time it says: I’m behind you. I’m going to kill you bitch. My sister looks at the mirror and starts checking to see if there is a secret wall there or something. Mama Abe, who does not master the English language, asks for clarification, eh dijo bitch o bitches? Abe Jr. clasps his hands and suggests that we all start praying. A third call follows and begins with a man’s voice but then switches to what sounds like a child’s voice. Mama Abe blocked the door with as much furniture as she could find, she looks around for a weapon and goes to bed prepared to defend her family with a pen. She held it all night long.  As you can imagine none of us slept that night.

The first day of our vacation we reach ‘the magical place’ happy to get away from the hotel that is an hour away and equipped with its very own fright inducing callers.  For the first ride, we decide to go together as a family. Thinking of Mama Abe’s heart condition I tried to ask the very talk lanky worker if the ride was scary but was coldly told ‘No, get behind the white line!’ I tell you, that ride made me feel as if I left my soul behind, it was scary and terrible. We had already had enough of this feeling and our vacation was just starting. I wont give you the details of the rest of our vacation but will let you know that we got through our vacation and just like in the movies our problems were solved. My neighbors saved my suitcase and the scary caller apparently lost our number but only I was left with a missing phone and a bad back. As the Abe Normals returned up north I began to miss them and was reminded once more that I belong to the Abe Normals and that if I so much as even wish it not to be the case things like the ‘lesson of the Christmas present’ will happen.

knock knock knocking on Ohio's doors

I didn’t grow up in a political household; politics were not the priority for my mother who was poor, immigrant, and a single mother of four. For years, as a green card holder I continued on the path of political apathy led by the inability to vote due to my status. When I finally became a US citizen I naively believed that I would get literature in the mail showing me each candidate’s record of what they had voted or fought for, a sort of report card if you will, and that I would base my decision on this information. When I learned how things really functioned, I was completely confused as to why would people make such an important decision based on media exposure.

Over the years I’ve begun a sort of political awakening. As a social worker I’ve worked at home and abroad advocating for rights and informing communities about policies.  I’ve seen first hand the power of information and mobilization therefore, when my best friend who now lives in Brazil, saw a Facebook posting about spots being left on the bus heading to Ohio and suggested I get involved, I was on board. I’ve never been active in a political campaign and had no idea what to expect. Navigating the Sandy-affected NYC public transportation system to arrive at our meeting location was just the beginning of many nerve-racking activities that proceeded. 

My only link to this two-to-three-hundred person group was the guy who posted on Facebook, whom I had never met. He had gotten in touch with the campaign desiring to get out the vote in the Latino community; our shared background sealed our newfound friendship and made us comrades in the race for votes. The nearly eleven-hour bus ride to Ohio provided plenty of opportunity for me to obtain information about what laid ahead and to clear up any myths. My biggest fear went something like this:

I knock on a door and say with my perfectly noticeable Colombian accent “hello, my name is Yaneth Lombana and I’m here with Obama for America….at which point I realize that the person greeting me is a gun holding republican and I start running for my life.

I was greatly relieved to find out that we would be working in areas that are known to be democratic and that we would mainly be providing information on early voting, voting locations, etc.

At every rest stop, the bond with others on my bus began to grow as we shared thoughts and experiences. Around midnight during our last rest stop we discovered that right next to us, heading to the same state, with identical intentions, was our opponent’s bus. If there was any need for more cohesion, this enemy sighting did the trick.

We arrived in Cleveland around three in the morning. The fifty members of our bus then moved to a scavenger hunt-like pursuit of a confortable location on a church’s carpeted floor to spend what was left of the night. Once settled into our spots, a mad rush towards the two bathrooms ensued.  Oh yeah, this get out the vote thing would be an exercise in endurance.

Early in the morning, my comrade rented a car and we parted from the group to head to Lorain County where there is a high concentration of Latinos. As soon as we found the right staging location and met the local team, we got right to it. I took the even numbered houses while he took the odd ones and we went block by block in our designated areas. At the end of a block we would meet up and talk about anything interesting that we had encountered.

As I began to knock on doors and meet friendly families that wanted to invite me in, people that yearned to share their stories, and individuals that appreciated information, I began to feel happier and happier to have made the decision to come there. I had agreed to go to Lorain because I knew that in looking like the people there and speaking the same language I had a better opportunity at connecting with them and every time I was able to provide information it felt like a little victory.

We were among our own. My comrade felt teased by the smell of sofrito emanating from people’s homes and was completely at ease requesting tips for places to go dancing later that night. Following their suggestions we headed for “Copa” and were surprised by the fact that there was a private party going on. I sheepishly say, “we can’t go in, it’s someone’s party” to which the comrade says “Si, vamos”. We approach the bar to inquire if the party will soon be over and if we could order some snacks. The bartender soon tells us that the owner wants us to eat and points at the buffet-style set up right behind us. We knew we had scored as soon as we approach the pernil and are stuffed with cake. We buy drinks and to my surprise the total for two is only $3.50 we have to drink three drinks each to reach the $10 tab limit. I think to myself, you know, this might be incentive enough for me to move here. Ever since I read the article on ratio of single men to women in NY I’ve had a hunch I need to skip town.

We communicate our location and situation to others from the staging crew. They join us and even though they are Ohioans they follow our lead. Salsa, merengue, and bachata has been playing all night and we begin to dance and end up teaching them.  Copa’s owner joins our dancing team, the comrade gets mistaken for the birthday girl’s husband, and I am left wondering how on earth did I become a party crasher?

The next day, we continue to go door to door and I am convinced that what Ohio needs are doorbells. No one seems to have them! My poor knuckles, and what is the deal with all the notes on doors requesting to go knock on the back door? It all feels like a booby trap, especially when I reach the back and am faced with a sign that says, “beware of dog”. What is this contradiction?

Each house begins to feel like an obstacle course. You need to get inside the enclosed porch to reach the front door that is behind another door that doesn’t have a doorbell. This entails dealing with broken latches, screens that are on the brink of falling, and dogs. I was doing pretty well until my last day when my list of homes included a little old Puerto Rican lady that owns two small dogs. She comes out to greet me but first yells, “mijita close the door cause this one escapes!” Si senora, I obediently reply knowing not to mess with my elders. She chains one of these little noisy dogs and the escapee, equally small and loud, is left to run around within the enclosed porch. As I’m explaining the reason for my visit and she stands right in from of me, I get bit in the knee by the chained dog and the loose dog begins to circle me. I yell out, AAAUU it bit me! To which the old lady calmly replies, yes, it bites and gives me a look as to say, ”so you were saying?”.   I get all the information out at the speed of light, redo the obstacle course in reverse order and I’m out of there. I tell ya, you won’t be catching me applying for a job with the postal service any time soon.

During my stay in Ohio I encountered all sorts of amazing and interesting people. There was a pilot from Texas, the family from NY that came with their kids, a group that came from California, the college student that took a semester off to campaign, and many more that came from all over the United States to get out the vote. To my surprise, this phenomenon takes place every four years. People have been going to swing states to knock on doors. These activists that care deeply about politics and feel they need to do something about it, what a peculiar group. I was equally in awe of them as I was of people whose door I knocked on, one day before Election Day that still had not decided whom they were going to vote for.

So there I was, a Latina in Ohio, getting out the vote within one of the groups that was influential in electing our next president, identifying with those whose lives resembled mine, and realizing how powerful my presence there actually was, because sadly few faces among those fabulous volunteers looked like mine and my comrade’s.  I rushed back to NY in time to vote with my mother whom just a month ago had become a US citizen and was voting for the very first time in her life. I stayed up until two in the morning to hear the victory speech that involved my president thanking all those who went door to door. I cried with joy, and knew that now, I am, fully politically awake.

End of service
 I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer; I left Costa Rica on September 22, 2010. It’s been eight months, five countries, and a million emotions since I last wrote. My departure wasn’t a surprise, from the moment you enter service you are aware of your leave date. This date becomes a sort of mystical force around you; it keeps you focused, gives you a sense of accomplishment and security. It’s like a mantra that you say over and over wishing it to existence giving you hope and clarity yet causing you frustration and anxiety for your lack of power over it and it’s intangibility and distance.

Volunteers have a countdown to their close of service day. You announce it to the villagers, to your friends and family, your colleagues and anyone who will listen. But then as the day approaches, what was your mantra of strength becomes unspeakable. As if by not saying it you’ll stop it from happening. The date that seemed so far away is almost here and there isn’t now enough time for everything you wanted to do. The projects you wanted to complete, the places you wanted to visit and the things you wanted to learn and teach now become a weight of guilt. At first, twenty-seven months seemed so daunting, and now, you don’t understand where the time went. You begin to question if you did everything right, if you kept true to your purpose for joining, if you did a good enough job. All your insecurities surface and not only are you questioning your past, but your future seems more frightening than ever before.

I had several going away parties in Burkina Faso but the last party I had wasn’t planned at all. On my last evening at site, I went to my host family’s house to give them bags of things I wanted to leave them. It was going to be an intimate thing giving me one last chance to thank them for all they had done for me. For the kids that I knew would be around (as they always are in Africa) I brought along glow sticks that a volunteer had left at my house. There was just one small problem; I had no idea how to use them. I tried banging, friction, and all sorts of movements to make them glow. It wasn’t until my host sister, in exasperation, attempted to break one that we figured out how to make them work; this led to a wave of joy from the kids around us. I laughed and thought to myself ‘how appropriate that till the very last minute they teach me something’. It was a moonless night someone had set up speakers and had gotten their hands on merengue music, we started dancing and this kicked up the dust from the floor creating a cloud of smoke around us, the kids waved their glow sticks, neighbors young and old came out of their huts and joined in and I can’t imagine a more bizarre and fun way to have spent my last night in Dori.

Since I extended service for a third year, I lived twice through the anxiety of a close of service date. My work there entailed child rights advocacy and soon, I began to be identified by young kids by what I did. Skaters and kids that practiced extreme biking sought me out, it was a funny sight, me dressed for meetings surrounded by youth in dark clothing and ripped jeans. We worked together on getting their voices heard, increasing their visibility, creating partnerships etc. Like in Burkina, I had several going away parties in Costa Rica but the most surprising celebration for me was during our celebration of Peace Day, which occurred on the last weekend I spent there. We had worked for months on figuring out what we wanted to do, planning, organizing, and advertising and then on what we feared would be a rainy day, Turrialba’s central park was filled with youth showing how their activities held a message of peace weather it be staying healthy through sport, rescuing stray animals, or volunteering for the Red Cross with a total of about five hundred people participating and supporting. That day in the mist of coordinating and supervising I took a second to breathe and stood in the middle of the park and absorbed the joy emanating from my kids and my community and though ‘this is the perfect way to end my service’.

Love in the time of parasite infested corps

By writing this blog I feel as if I’m breaching a secrecy code. Today I will tell you about a side of Peace Corps that you most likely have not heard of. Most volunteer’s blogs speak of intricacies of life with host country nationals, funny situations that have happened to them or something that they’ve learned about but if you want to learn of the more personal side of a volunteer’s life you won’t find it on their blogs. In fact I don’t think Peace Corps itself would want you to know what I’m about to tell you (so if I go missing after this blog, you know what happened to me). Yes, my friends I will share with you the good the bad and the hideous side of dating while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer.


When I applied to serve as a P.C. volunteer I was following my love for social work, adventure, and languages all things that I’m passionate about.  Not for one second did I worry about any other type of passion. It’s amazing to me to reflect now on the fact that back then I committed to two years of service without giving the subject of romance a thought. But then again, when do you ever take a job and think about how it will affect your dating life? The thing is, as I’ve stated before this is not a job like any other, and every aspect of your life is affected by it. 


The first thing that gets affected by your new job is your physical appearance. The change in weather will do horrible things to your skin and hair. The change in food will make you drastically gain or loose weight. You’ll be covered in mosquito bites, sweat and a farmer’s tan. You'll loose any desire to shave, the extra effort becomes too much. Now you may disagree with me but I think this look doesn’t exactly cry out “lets get physical”.


Then there are the accessories.  At first your clothes will stretch from hand washing which you’ll be able to hide somehow until they begin to get holes in them. You may get some clothes done at your local tailor but the difference in fashion sense and available fabrics will leave the real you, lost in translation. Makeup and sweat don’t mix well, perfume will probably be one of the many things you did not pack and now can’t afford.  Manicures and pedicures are now a fogged memory as well as any other accessory that might have helped you feel or look attractive. To top it off haircuts given by people who’ve never dealt with a “white” person’s hair or lack of haircuts due to your fear of replicating your last hair cut will further aggravate your new look.


The next aspect of your life that gets affected by this job is health. The medical side of your new life peeks its ugly face early on. You may be feeling well until the Peace Corps medical team (around week 2 of your arrival) shows you a video about all the sexually transmitted diseases that are prevalent in the country you are now living in.  You leave that session convinced that you will not have sex in the next two years. Gastrointestinal issues that will plague you during your service won’t help your case either. I mean how often do you think someone, with a high likelihood of pooping their pants is dating material (I know of at least three very nice guys to whom this happened).


Many months into your service you remember that you are human and that you need affection and that even superman made time for love. That’s when you start exploring your options. The locals with their hot bodies due to manual labor may seem as an obvious choice if it wasn’t for the fact that most your age are married and have several children or several wives. Another options is dating the foreign NGO workers that are near your site but they never stay in country as long as P.C. volunteers do. Of course another choice you have is dating another volunteer but chances are that the one that you like will be placed in the opposite side of the country. Given the transportation situation in the country you are in this may mean seeing them once every couple of months.   


Under normal circumstances dating is difficult, pulling off dating while in the Peace Corps will require flexibility akin to that of a contortionist. But all’s not terrible some volunteers end up marrying other volunteers or host country nationals. And besides if all else fails you will at least walk away from this experience with great dating stories because if you thought you’ve had funny situations previously happen to you on dates you will find your dating life in a developing country a riot. Take for instance being out to dinner with friends and thinking there is a rat by your feet when it’s really your loved one’s attempt to play footsy. Or being so out of touch with your feminine side that you’ll not only have to be asked by your boyfriend to not snore so loud but you’ll also be taking on your muggers while he walks on obliviously. Or how about becoming so food obsessed that in spite of being at a four star restaurant your guy has to lean over and kiss you to hide the fact that you have ice cream on your face. 


So go ahead finish that Peace Corps application and get ready for your new life of celibacy.

We are family

Have you ever wanted to belong to a club really badly? Or did you have a team you dreamt of joining? Perhaps there was a clique that you secretly wanted to infiltrate? You’re saying, yes, yes! Well, I never felt that. I was always the new kid, seriously besides fifth and twelfth grade every year I went to a different school. This meant I never had time to get to know a place long enough to want to belong. Nature, nurture you decide. Either growing up like this made me outgoing or because I’m outgoing I was able to deal well with the situation. All I know is that I was always one of the “popular” kids always loved and it wasn’t till I was an adult that I realized that my situation might not be normal. I probably thought changing countries, cities and schools was the thing everybody did, and therefore never asked around about it. 


I’m all grown up and without knowing I joined a group that had I known, I would have been dying to join anyway. When I thought of Peace Corps I thought of everything but the people that join it. I envisioned myself in a remote place living and learning from the locals and that’s it. I didn’t imagine that aside from the local culture, I would be learning about Peace Corps culture or that in joining Peace Corps I would also be joining a family made up of people very different and similar to me.


Bonding starts at training. Three months of worst conditions than those found at boot camp are enough to force you to feel close to those who made it through with you. You vent about the lack of sleep, the diseases you’ve acquired, and the difficulties of learning the new language. As if that wasn’t enough you have two years of living the most improbable situations you’ll ever live. This creates a lifetime of memories based on work, vacations and parties you shared. But none of this would be as unforgettable if volunteers weren’t the type of people they are. There are those that have been very sheltered and are a bit odd, then there are those that are the life of the party, the wise ones, the pranksters, those who work the hardest, and those who are so very well integrated you hate yourself for not being able to pick up two local languages with the same ease.

Surrounded by people from different states, ages, and backgrounds I felt right at home. Nevertheless, I did manage to always stick out. It was in Peace Corps that I found out I have an accent, everyone in NY comes from a different country and what do you mean I sound different? Not knowing what an American is supposed to sound like was just the beginning. They had all this knowledge about things I hadn’t the slightest clue. Who are these Chaco guys you speak of? Wait, you have to explain to me just how do you play charades. Saturday Night Live, no, never watched it, I’m usually out on Saturday nights otherwise I watch Sabado Gigante. Volunteers from the East Coast explained differences to those on the West Coast as did those from the South to those in the North and everyone explained everything to me. Since every volunteer has quirks mine became one of many in this family where everyone is different yet shares common values.


The one family I get to choose, my Peace Corps family functions just like all families.  They have your back, whether is one of the guys posing as your husband so that you don’t get harassed or one of the girls plucking African kid vomit from your hair. They will celebrate your achievements as if they were the biggest, whether it’s getting through a hiking trip with the wrong footwear, passing a kidney stone in village, or building a bridge for your town. And they will love you no matter what, even if you threw rotten tomatoes at them, made them bike 20k the wrong way, or laughed at them when they fell in the latrine. And to top it off, it’s an extended family because you will always feel a bond with anyone who did Peace Corps even if they served in a different country or in a different decade you know you are kindred spirits and that’s all you need to know to assure you that you have just met another member of your family.

Woman without a country

It’s funny how a simple question can frustrate me. You know the: “Where are you from?” “Where is home for you?” “Which family are you talking about?” My answers are not simple and I hate having to explain them cause they are long and I feel that I should be able to give a one-word answer like normal people; but I can’t. I’m from Colombia but grew up in NY yet live in Costa Rica. I have a home in NY and one here but at the moment when I get homesick it’s for Burkina Faso. I have one birth family but at least three other families that have adopted me in different parts of the world and I keep in touch with them so I’m likely to be speaking about them at any time. It can get really confusing such as when I’m having a conversation with my mom and I tell her something about my host dad and she is bewildered by the things I’m saying because I’ve forgotten to clarify which dad I’m speaking of.


What’s amazing is how no matter where I am in the world, certain things about my home and family manage to be the same. I once heard a saying “you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can never pick your family”. I thought it funny, true and disgusting at the time. I’ve never chosen any of the families I’ve been with but they tend to have certain commonalities. At my swearing-in ceremony in Burkina, I remember thinking “how is it that I manage to always get parents that embarrass me during my graduation?” My real mother fell asleep during my college graduation while my African dad laughed so loud and made so much noise during the swearing-in ceremony that everyone was asking, “who is that guy?”


In each family I’ve felt very loved and taken care of. In Burkina my host dad would come to visit me every three months even though I lived far. Here my host mom has me over for lunch on a weekly basis. My French family visited me in Paris the first chance they got and had me over for the holidays. Everywhere I’ve lived my homes have been the place where friends like to gather. In Dori you could always find a group of kids playing in my courtyard, in Paris my house was the place to hold parties, here it’s the place where volunteers like to stay. I have loved all of my homes and families. This leaves me feeling divided. How is it possible to love so many places and people as intently?


As I begin to think of ending my escapes and settling in one place I can’t help but feel that I’m cheating on someone and someplace. When you can see yourself living in different places and feeling equally at home it’s hard to choose one over the other. I feel like a polygamous nomad! Every time I leave a country it’s as if I had a breakup.  It took me years to get over Paris and I’m still hung up on Burkina Faso even though I left it about a year ago.  I thought Costa Rica was my rebound but when I went to Panama for vacation I came back with a whole new appreciation for it. Thank god that in my closing of service trip I will only be having a fling with Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil. They better not be too charming cause I might just cave and stay, which will lead to disaster because there cannot possibly be any room left in my heart and besides my birth mother threatens to find me and pull me away from the arms of any country she suspects may be growing on me. 

From yoga to jogging

 Life in a third world country is significantly slower than what we’re used to in the United States. When volunteers are first dropped off at their sites panic sets in when they look around their hut, neighborhood, and village without Internet, TV, running water, electricity or other Americans. Then the “what the heck did I get myself into?” question sounds loudly in your head. There isn’t much to do, you are the center of your village’s attention, you cannot communicate at the level you want to and you don’t understand how things work. The three months of torturous training seem to have flown by and now minutes seem to drag on. Two years in these conditions seem like a stint at purgatory!

 School had not started when I first arrived at my site in Burkina Faso and therefore I couldn’t get right to work. To help me pass the time I decided to assign myself daily activities such as going to the market, chatting with a neighbor, exercising etc. I was excited at the prospect of doing something healthy for my body and mind but there was no way that I was willingly going to add one more degree of discomfort or heat to my body while I was in Burkina Faso. With yoga I was able to feel energized and calmed and it soon became a coping mechanism that I used throughout my time in Africa. 

 After two years of routinely exercising I decided to up the ante. I guess the masochistic side of me took over when I decided to attempt to hike Costa Rica’s highest peak because I’ve never done anything like it. To prepare for this I began running again. It’s nice to exercise without worrying about not being able to show your knees or having everyone stare at you running for what seems to be no apparent reason (if no one is chasing you why run white woman?). I start around six in the morning because by seven the humidity makes running more uncomfortable and the sun is strong enough to leave a tan. Midway through my routine, as if they could feel that I need a boost, stray dogs begin to show up and with their attempts to attack me help me pick up my speed. This is another perk since in Burkina there was a shortage of dogs due to:

a) Dogs eating people’s chickens (and therefore people not wanting dogs around)

b) People’s believe that dogs scare away the angels (and therefore people not wanting dogs around)

c) Dogs being used as food (and therefore dogs not wanting to be around)

Then towards the end of what’s now become my jog, vultures start to line up by the posts that I pass, as if they were telling me that they could tell that my end is near. Every time I run is the same thing and every time it freaks me out just the same.

I recently reached my goal of hiking Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak and while I completed the two-day hike I thought of how much it resembled Peace Corps service and life. It’s full of ups and downs and moments that feel too difficult to deal with and where looking ahead is too painful so you can only push yourself to take the next step even though you don’t know what’s exactly at the end of the journey. There are also the many trips that are scary but that don’t necessarily lead to falls. And then somewhere along the way you realize that nothing could have helped you prepare for this. And when you reach your destination it may not be exactly what you thought or wanted but it’s still the summit and you know that getting there was a unique experience and no one else could have lived or felt it just as you did.

The scariest thing

During training in Burkina Faso we had a session where we discussed our biggest fears about living there. At the time, mine was to have a snake hide in my pit latrine, bite me while I’m using it and then cause me to run out in public with my pants down while having the snake still sinking its teeth into my behind. Turns out snakes don’t like latrines, the only animals I encountered there were bats roaches and lizards.


When I transferred from Burkina to Costa Rica I thought I had left all my fears behind. Then the fact I had moved to a country that experiences earthquakes and has five active volcanoes, and that I would be living15 kilometers from one of them, sunk in. Yet it’s not the likelihood of the occurrence of a natural disaster that I find to be the scariest thing here. It’s another kind of disaster that I find absolutely horrifying. It’s the disaster better know as “gossip”. Apparently its existence is a worldwide phenomenon. However, of all the places where I’ve lived, I had never seen such fierce gossiping as in Costa Rica.


In Burkina gossip came in a disguise. News is passed around by word of mouth and everyone knows each other and each other’s business.  Most people don’t own a TV and there isn’t much to do for entertainment so you spend your time talking with people and about people. There is no individuality, you belong to a family, an ethnic group, a village and you are always with them or identified as belonging to them. Therefore, you are always taken care of. If you leave your home, your neighbors feel responsible for watching over it, if a couple has a dispute it’s the family that fixes the problem, not the actual couple. There isn’t a sense of joy for having inside information about people; it’s a sense of duty.


Here in Costa Rica I live in a town with about 10,000 people and to my surprise in spite of how large Turrialba is, everyone seems to know everyone else’s story. I can be sitting on the porch and someone passes by and waves hello and I’m immediately given that person’s life story without having requested it. I’ll be walking in the center of town and I’m given information about the amount of weigh the person in front of me has gained or loss. Gossip AKA chisme is everywhere and telling people that you don’t want to be given these “life updates” does not stop them from providing them to you.


Both men and women partake in what I believe is this country’s favorite pass time: chisme. They even admit to liking to “chepear” which is a tico way of saying to check out what’s going on, but really translates to conducting the research that will lead to the chisme. This research is conducted at all times, when people meet you they look you up and down in a non-discrete way. They notice if you have a sense of style and how well you look. This initial analysis will be used as supporting evidence for whatever chisme is later created about you.


Gossip is worst than death here. I’ve heard of people loosing their jobs because of it. It infiltrates all aspects of people’s lives and even their deaths. Yes, I said their deaths, because just last week a group of people I know meant to give condolences to a neighbor whose husband they heard had just died. Later that day they were at a wake and sat next to the man who they then realized had been wrongly killed by a rumor.


The pressure of keeping up an image, demystifying what it’s like to be American and Colombian while fighting back the habits that I picked up in Burkina Faso is all enough to keep me in a constant fear that I’m for sure doing something wrong and that gossip is two steps behind me. This fear affects not only my present but it’s also infiltrating itself in my future. Currently I fear that once I’m back in the United States I’ll be out on a date and that as we sit at an African restaurant I’ll begin to talk about what a lady sitting near us is wearing while eating chicken with my hands and throwing the chicken bone over my shoulder and having the bone ricochet from the wall and hit my date on the forehead. The entire NY dating scene will hear of this and I will be an outcast for the rest of my life. But I shouldn’t worry, I know you won’t tell a soul about the potential of this ever happening.

Not working nine-to-five
It’s come to my attention that my readers want to know more about my work. The first time this came to light was when, after about five months of not having spoken, the first thing my best friend said to me was: “what do you do?” I wanted to say “why, I save the world of course!” The thing is, that what I do is not just a job it’s an experience. I’ll try to explain.

Peace Corps has three goals:
1.  Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
 2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

When people ask a volunteer about their job they are looking for a response that gets to the heart of goal 1. The volunteer’s answer will depend on what program, country, and town he or she belongs to. In Burkina Faso I belonged to the Girls Education and Empowerment Program (GEE). This meant that the work I did (or attempted to do) in Dori, the town where I lived, entailed trying to get girls into school and to help those already in school to continue attending.  To do this I held study hall sessions, had a girls club, an English club, a girls camp, participated in education campaigns and campaigns to obtain birth certificates for students. Although I mainly worked on GEE I also conducted HIV education with students, sex workers, and ad hoc groups. I taught Spanish to teachers and I volunteered at an orphanage. Some of these projects worked well, others not so much. I had the freedom to attempt anything I thought would help out the girl’s situation. This freedom led to a lot of frustration, which every now and then was interrupted by breakthroughs that brought along immense joy.

What I do now in Costa Rica is similar to what I did in BF in that I’m still advocating for child rights. Here I belong to the Children Youth and Families Program (CYF) but because my term here is only for a year I’m working at a higher level and I’m no longer fulfilling my work goals via small projects created by me. I’m involved with a pilot project that is currently taking place between UNICEF and Costa Rica. Their goal is to create a child protection system. Turrialba, where I live, is one of the eleven locations where they are trying this project out. My role is to help in making what’s on paper (via laws, intentions, promises, etc.) a reality. This means working with communities to guide them in the creation and workings of a locally formed child rights surveillance committees, working with youth groups to facilitate them in representing themselves, and with institutions to advice them on how to go about increasing their involvement with children’s issues. Working at this level brings with it the luxury of not feeling as a failure every time things don’t work out. But, it doesn’t shield me from the obstacles faced as a foreigner or development worker.

Before you can do any work in a developing country you have to have an understanding of the culture, otherwise getting anything done will be nearly impossible. This, for example, meant in BF not arranging meetings when people would be out cultivating and here in CR it means not arranging meetings when there is a big soccer match. Understanding that being late in BF can mean a couple of hours while in CR it’s around fifteen minutes to half an hour; and that in both countries everyone is always late. Not sharing your food in BF is of bad taste while in CR declining to eat someone’s food has the same effect. And many, many more situations like these can mean the difference between people seeing you as a person that has something to teach versus a person that has a lot to learn.

It is in simply living, sharing and communicating with the people of your host country that you learn the most.  In doing this, all sort of experiences and funny situations occur and this is what produces the great material we use for our blogs. In writing this blog I’m fulfilling goal 3, yes my friends, this is also work. In fact, there is no nine-to-five for us, volunteers never stop working. By being an American in a foreign place you are representing the U.S. all the time. So even when a volunteer is out relaxing he or she has to be conscious of goal 2, because the good or bad things that you do will most likely be believed to be done by all Americans and can affect your work. But more importantly we fulfill goal 2 by reflecting the way Americans approach work, responsibility, volunteerism, respect etc.

There is so much more to say about this job than what I can put on a resume or even attempt to explain with words. It’s like working in wonderland. I get to see things that my imagination would not be able to create and I am able to help create things that others would not have been able to think possible. It’s as the slogan says, the toughest job I’ll ever love.

After four months in Costa Rica I finally had a friend come from the United States to visit me. The $2,000 ticket, eleven hours of flight and a plethora of vaccinations was kind of a deterrent for tourism in Burkina and so I didn’t have any friends visit me during the two years I was there. The news of Helen’s arrival made me happy for many reasons. Not only was I going to take vacation and get to see a bit of Costa Rica I was going to be able to take my kind of vacation.  Helen was also a volunteer in Burkina and this means that she would be up to roughing it like me. You won’t catch us at a resort, we like to get a taste of what real life is like in another country and we like adventure. I planned a week’s worth of unconventional activities. We would go coffee picking, white water rafting, see ruins, attend a neighborhood party, see a volcano some museums and spend some time at the beach.   

Helen arrived on Tuesday the fifth of January. Latinos have a proverb that says, “don’t get married or travel on a Tuesday”.  As I look back on her trip I see that from early on there were signs, like missing the bus and then later puking on the bus on my way to pick her up. Living in a mountainous area means having to endure twists and turns, I know this, hate it and it’s the reason why I don’t leave Turrialba and haven’t even taken a weekend trip. Then there was the smog on the way home. There was so much of it that we could only see a couple of feet in front of us. It was a miracle we didn’t fall into a precipice. We arrive at my house and soon after, the phone starts ringing. While Helen is under the impression that I’m a very popular girl, it turns out that after one hundred and forty-four years without an eruption, the Turrialba volcano decided to have one that very afternoon. My community hasn’t been affected but we are advised to remain vigilant.
Friday is our white water rafting day. When we arrive I notice that everyone is wearing shorts and flip-flops. I get mad at Helen who has gone white water rafting before and didn’t warn me about the dress code. This always happens to me. The last time, I went hiking in sandals in Mali. That experience taught me to always bring sneakers, which I’m wearing to this rafting trip. Helen changed out of her sneakers into her flops and fit right in with the crowd. Our raft almost overturns a guy falls out of the raft and losses a slipper but then finds it. The rocks were slippery; I began to be glad I wore sneakers. I didn’t notice when Helen banged her toe against a rock, a giant leaf cutter ant bit her on that same toe, or when a German girl who was on our raft stepped on her toe every time we had to change positions, which was quite often. That night she discloses what she’s been through and says that her toe feels funny. I look at it and see that it’s huge and turning black. I yelled “IT”S FAT” sorry I translated that wrong I mean it’s swollen. I hope that toe won’t get in the way of dancing tomorrow and besides we’ll be at the beach on Sunday you’ll forget all about it.

It only takes us three busses and five hours to get to our desired location.  It’s the closest beach area to where I live and since it’s the Caribbean it promises to be less touristy than other parts of Costa Rica. I was glad to leave Turrialba with all that volcano talk and now they are saying a cold front is coming. Hope that means that there is a hot behind in the Caribbean, that’s how the weather works, right?  We spend one good first day there but then around four in the morning it starts to rain and by nine it doesn’t seem like it will stop soon. We discover that the cold front is coming from the Caribbean and is causing rivers to overflow, trees to block roads and there is already no electricity in our hotel. The safety and security guy calls me and says, “It seems that disasters follow you”. Did I ever tell him where I was during 9/11 and Katrina? The return home takes even longer by the time we get on the final bus we think we’re out of danger. Then the bus brakes down three times and at a point it has a sort of malfunction that causes smoke to spread from the back of the bus and sends everyone running towards the front. We make it home and decide that the next couple of days will be very low-key. We don’t chance it with a trip to see the most beautiful volcano here; we don’t want to push our luck.

Helen left on Friday the 15th. I went with her to the airport. I puked on the bus ride there, those curves kill me but then again it could have been the effect of my sister’s phone call in which she informed me that she is coming to spend a month with me in my exotic Costa Rica.


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