Peace Corps or Posh Corps?

When most of people think of Costa Rica they think of some of the most pristine beaches in the world. There is this perception of a beautiful vacation destination. A country without an army, a tropical paradise where people go to get married, where many US citizens own property and a quick flight away. People know that it is somewhere in central America, unsure where exactly. Costa Rica has the perception of being very safe, especially in comparison to its next door neighbor Nicaragua.

Then there is the perception of the Peace Corps. Volunteers serving in remote villages, without potable water or electricity. Volunteers dressed in native garb and taking bucket baths. Volunteers living in small  huts with dirt floors and collecting firewood to cook their meals.

There is a definite clash between those two perceptions. I am sure many of you have wondered why the Peace Corps is even in Costa Rica. Many of you know someone who has vacationed here, gotten married here or studied abroad here. Maybe it was even YOU who did this. I even have moments, like last week when my grandpa and cousins were visiting, when I think this isn’t Peace Corps this is POSH CORPS.

Even among the other Peace Corps Volunteers around the world, Costa Rican PCVs are viewed as the black sheep. Out of all the 120 volunteers in Costa Rica, less than 5 do not have running water and electricity in their homes. Almost all of us have internet within our homes. We dress more or less in the same way we dress in the US. We have people in our communities that are anxious to practice their English with us. This is where the perception of the black sheep reputation of being part of the Posh Corps instead of the Peace Corps comes from.

However, I am quickly approaching the 1 year mark in my service and I can tell you that is not the entire picture. Peace Corps as a whole is such a beautiful experience because all PCVs are forever bonded by it. Despite this bond, our service comes in so many shapes and forms. We applied being willing to live anywhere and under any conditions. I thought I could end up anywhere from a small African village to a drafty apartment in Eastern Europe to a yurt in Mongolia to an indigenous village in South America. The Peace Corps has been in approximately 140 countries over the past 50 years. Each Peace Corps experiences looks vastly different in each one of those countries.

So why is the Peace Corps in Costa Rica? What am I doing here?

The Peace Corps works in countries where their service, work, and commitment is requested, wanted, and being put to good and sustainable use. The fact is that there are approximately 120 communities in Costa Rica that requested Peace Corps Volunteers. We are needed and we are wanted. So, here we are.

When you leave the developed resort beaches and beautiful, tropical tourist destinations you can get a better picture of this country.  A country rich in pride and history. A country that takes up only .03% of the world’s land mass but has 5% of the world’s biodiversity; A country that has fair and free elections and smooth transitions of political power (which I recently witnessed). A country that puts money into education instead of the army. While the education system has many faults (as it does in any country), Costa Rica has one of the strongest systems in Central America.

The challenges in my community are real. They are complicated and not so different than many of the issues in the US. I am proud to be a Peace Corps Volunteer here in Costa Rica because although we may have more “luxeries” than many Peace Corps Volunteers around the world, I am still challenged every day. I am not here to solve the problems or to do the work for the people. I am here to work with the community to help them achieve what THEY want to achieve. I think this quote perfectly describes my role and my service,

“ The Peace Corps is more than the sum total of the Volunteers’ activities. It stands for something special. It is a non-traditional government agency that reflects the most enduring values and ideals of the American people: generosity, civic pride, a strong work ethic, and a commitment to service.”

Over the past 10 months, I have been working very hard to give the Costa Ricans around me a (perhaps) different perception of the US and its people. I hope in my second year, and the years after my service, I can help present a different point of view of the country in wich I am serving. One that focuses not on the tropical paradise that Costa Rica is, but instead on the people who will literally take the shoes off their feet and give them to you (just as my Mom!).

Pura Vida!

 

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Oh Christmas lights keep shining on

Despite the fact that Ticos have been playing Christmas music and putting up decorations since before Halloween, the holiday season came and went in a flash. Despite all the Christmas activities I helped with in my community, without the snow, the familiar Christmas music and my parents cozy house in the wintertime, it didn’t really feel like Christmas at all here (which perhaps made it easier to be away from home for the holidays).

I tried to make the best of my first Christmas in 24 years away from home by taking partt in every Tico tradition I came across. The week leading up to Christmas I joined the Posada, where children dress up as Mary and Joseph and go house to house singing and asking for a place to stay. Each night, one house hosts and lets the children come in. There is a small reflection on the meaning of the season and then we have…what any Costa Rica activity would be incomplete without…cafecito! I also helped make tamales, set up the nativity scene (they are enormous here!), decorate the Christmas tree and of course took part in a very old and sacred Tico Christmas tradition of playing soccer at the family Christmas party 😉

Nativity Scene that literally takes up half the room in this house!

Nativity Scene that literally takes up half the room in this house!

La Posada

La Posada

Then I shared a my own Christmas traditions with the family. Every Christmas my family makes Nana Ginny’s cut out sugar cookies and then we have a decorating contest. I wasn’t going to give up that tradition (or my winning streak) just because I was gone. My parents mailed me the cookie cutters and with my half working oven and improvising skills, I was able to make cookies that somewhat resembled Nana Ginny’s. Then I took them to my host grandma’s house and all 17 cousins decorated them in what was definitely the most chaotic cookie decorating activity ever. They absolutely loved it though which is all the matters. This whole experience is all about letting go of expectations and just going with the flow, if icing ends up on the ceiling it can always be cleaned off 🙂

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Decorating christmas cookies!

Lots of giggles and icing everywhere!

Christmas eve was warm and was spent grilling out and shooting off fireworks next door at my other grandma’s house. It reminded me more of the 4th of July than Christmas but I guess that makes sense since it is summer here. Santa Claus doesn’t come to Costa Rica (it must be too tropical and warm for him) but at midnight El Niño (Baby Jesus), brought me a cardigan, slippers and chocolate.

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Christmas Eve!

The best present I could have asked for was my family, who arrived in Costa Rica on Christmas day. I can’t explain after (almost!) six months how excited and happy I was to see them. The time together flew by but I enjoyed every second of it. I’d say they got a pretty good taste of Costa Rica in the whirlwind trip. Seven beaches, five waterfalls, one volcano, hikes in the rainforest, hikes in the cloud forest, hundreds of monkeys, learning how to pick coffee and seeing where I live and meeting my host family. They definitely saw the beauty of this country, but better than that, they truly did experience the beauty of the people here. Time and time again the Ticos showed my family kindness and a beautiful part of the human soul that is so rarely seen and shared in the US. Although I hope they enjoyed the 7 beaches, 5 waterfalls, one volcano, hikes in the rainforest, hikes in the cloud forest, hundreds of monkeys, learning how to pick coffee and seeing my community, I hope what they enjoyed most were the people here because it was truly what the PURA VIDA is all about.

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1 of 7 beaches we visited!

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Both my families meet!

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1 of 5 waterfalls they visited!

After tears and difficult goodbyes, I headed south to the indigenous village of Boruca where I rang in the 2014 at the Borucan Tribe’s Dance of the Devils Festival. The festival celebrates the Boruca people who fought off the Spanish not long after Columbus came to Costa Rica. They carve with gorgeous intricacy masks that represent devils which they then use in “dances” to fight off a bull. It will definitely go down as the most unique New Year’s ever and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. On New Year’s day, we spent the day hiking to 4 waterfalls and spent the day swimming under them…not a bad start to 2014.

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The indigenous Boruca people

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Not your typical bull fight

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Pondering New Year’s Resolutions cliff side.

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New Year’s Day waterfall swimming

I hope 2014 is full of more adventures, more visits from friends and family and truly enjoying my time in the beautiful country with its beautiful people. Happy New Year and be kind to one another!

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Giving Thanks

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” – Melody Beattie

Thanksgiving is my favorite time of year and this year, more than ever, I am aware of how much I have to be thankful for. While I was sad not to be at my Grandpa’s house eating my mom’s carmel corn, aunt kelly’s pumpkin roll, playing bunco and sharing my favorite holiday with them, I did have a wonderful and very unique experience here in Costa Rica.

Celebrating Thanksgiving here with my host family was a wonderful opportunity to share a part of the US culture and my family’s traditions. After trekking all around San Ramon in the pouring rain to find two chickens, five hours of cooking with only one pot and a half working oven and converting all the recipes from the US to metric system (we all know math and cooking are not my strong suits), after a lot of improvising I was able to share a delicious meal of chicken, stuffing, yams, salad, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and pumpkin cake.

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Sharing Thanksgiving with my host family

My host family, aunts, cousins and grandmas all appreciated the meal and the meaning of the day. There was no snow on the ground this year and instead of watching football we watched my host dad’s favorite soccer team play. While I was happy to share a taste of home, it was explaining the meaning of the holiday that was so rewarding to share.

On the actual Thanksgiving holiday I went to San Jose to meet up with other volunteers and have a real Thanksgiving dinner (turkey and all!) at the Peace Corps Country Director’s house. I hadn’t seen my Peace Corps friends in two months and was overwhelmed with excitement and happiness to see them. We met up in the morning and went to see the Hunger Games and I didn’t think we were going to be able to stop talking long enough to watch the movie. After the movie we went to our Country Director’s house where we shared a beautiful and REALLY delicious Thanksgiving dinner together. The wine, fancy cheese and football were fun reminders of things that I’ve traded for papaya smoothies, tamales and soccer. The next morning I took my first hot shower since I left the states in July and had a delicious brunch (no rice and beans for breakfast…pancakes & bacon!). It was great to have a taste of home and share the holiday with the Country Director and my Peace Corps family.

Thanksgiving dinner with my Peace Corps Family

Thanksgiving dinner with my Peace Corps Family

On Friday I met up with the majority of Tico 26 and a few other Peace Corps volunteers at Playa Uvita/Bahia Ballena. We spent a few days at the beach catching up and relaxing. The hostel we stayed at was literally made up of different tree houses and every morning I woke up to howler monkeys and toucans. The beach is most famous for being in the shape of a whales tail and what makes it even better is you can see whales and dolphins migrating right off the shore.

Bahia Ballena...the whale's tail!

Bahia Ballena…the whale’s tail!

Gorgeous beach and all to ourselves!

Gorgeous beach and all to ourselves!

I have been to the beaches of South Spain, the north coast of Hawaii, beaches on both sides of Mexico, some of the best beaches in the world in Guanacaste, Costa Rica but Playa Uvita and Bahia Ballena are by far not only my favorite beaches but the most beautiful, awe-inspiring beaches I have EVER been to in my life.

No words.

No words.

Amazing.

Amazing.

My Thanksgiving celebration wasn’t quite over yet. On Saturday night at the hostel we had a potluck Thanksgiving dinner. We all cooked together in the open air kitchen at the hostel. While the only “traditional” dish we had was an improvised version of stuffing, this was my favorite meal this year. It was not the food that made it so special.

That night 37 of us from around the world (the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Austria, England, India, Mexico and Portugal) sat down at one large table to share food, drink and conversation. I could not stop smiling as I looked up and down the large table during dinner and think this is what it is all about. It didn’t matter where we were born, what religion we practice, what our political views are, the color of our skin, our gender identity or our sexual orientation. Here we were, all 37 of us, sharing a meal and conversations together, bonding and understanding that we all really aren’t that different after all.

Why does this happen at magical little tree house hostels on a beautiful, whale tail beach but it is so difficult in our daily lives? I’ve written it before but it is this kind of human to human interaction and relationship that, in my opinion, creates a better understanding of not only each other but also ourselves and allows for peace to flourish.

This year I am keenly aware of all the friends (both new and old), family, opportunities and experiences I am thankful for. The past five months have given me more than I could have possibly ever imagined to get out of this experience in two years and my Thanksgiving celebrations this year were perfect reminders of this.

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So it begins…

Sunday morning I was hiking through my host grandma’s coffee fields to the forest up the mountain to look at the Pacific Ocean, when my host mom handed me a machete and told me to take it with me to protect myself from the snakes. It was in this moment I laughed out loud and decided it is time to give you all an update.

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Tico 26 officially sworn in as PCVs!

I’ve now been in my community for a month. It feels much longer than that, especially when I get on the bus and I hear my name and greetings called out as I walk down the aisle. It feels much longer than that when I am walking to the corner store and have to stop several times to kiss people’s cheek and ask the how their kids are or how their coffee crop is doing. It feels longer than a month when I go to the “big” city of San Ramon and I end up running into 5 or 6 people I know in just one afternoon.

My community is about 40 minutes by bus from San Ramon. It is a small, tranquil mountainous town with about 250 families living in the area. It is surrounded by beautiful fields of coffee and most the people that live in my community work growing and harvesting coffee, tomatoes and chiles. We have a paved road leading into our town and we proudly have 4 paved streets surrounding the “plaza” (the soccer field). The community literally and figuratively revolves around a soccer field in the center. On one side of the field is the church, the other side the elementary school, the other side a health clinic, and the other side the high school.  There are two corner stores the sell the basics (rice, beans, milk) and a restaurant/bar. There is a community hall and a bull fighting ring. That is it.

What the community may “lack” in services it certainly makes up in natural beauty. From my community you can see the Pacific Ocean which is about an hour west. There are breathtaking mountainous views and beautiful mountainside pastures for our most popular residents…the cows!

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Morning hike view 🙂

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My neighbors are still skeptical of me.

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View from my house.

This past month has been full of games up jump rope with the elementary school kids, learning how to milk a cow with kids from my high school and morning hikes with neighborhood women. I took a trip with my host family to the volcanic hot springs and visited with volunteers for a weekend at the beach. I’ve attended more first communions in the first month than I have in my entire life. I’ve been to many birthday parties, soccer games and more soccer games. My host siblings surprised me by dressing up in halloween costumes for Halloween and I got to teach them and a group of high schoolers how to Trick or Treat. I celebrated the 100th anniversary of a Costa Rican’s poet by dancing around in a cemmentary with masked figures.

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Learning how to milk the cows at my high school

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Natural volcanic hot springs!

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Bringing Halloween traditions to Costa Rica!

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Day of the Dead celebrations

In the past month I’ve seen a pod of whales swimming close to the shore, turtles hatching from eggs on the beach, monkeys eat guava in the trees at my grandma’s house, lizzards the size of small children, wild macaws and bugs that look like aliens. That is only after one month, I can’t help but wonder what will be added to that list over the next 23 months!

They say the first three months in your community are some of the most challenging and this first month hasn’t been all volcanoes, whales and cafecito. There are moments when this is hard. Despite the beauty of the people and the nature in my community, there are times where I really miss certain things that I left behind. Family and friends are the number one. I miss people knowing me as me and not as the gringa who is going to be living here the next two years. I miss that deeper level of friendship. I miss having personal time and space and mostly not having to be “on” 24-7. When I think about the upcoming holidays or the Cardinals in the World Series or Pumpkin Ale’s and Forest Park’s trees in the fall it can be hard. These moments come and when they hit me, they hit me hard. Sometimes they linger for just a brief moment or sometimes all morning but they always pass.  It doesn’t take much to be reminded of how amazing of an experience this is. The people, the natural beauty and a life mas tranquila humbles me to the core.

How lucky am I!?

How lucky am I!?

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Gratitude is the Attitude: End of Training!

The past two weeks I have been flooded with all different kinds of emotions but one in particular has repetitively stood out: the feeling of gratitude. Twelve weeks of training have gone by and while at times it has been slow and hard, in general training seems to have flown by. Today I will be sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer at the US Ambassador’s house in San Jose.

Its hard to believe that 12 weeks ago I arrived in Washington DC not knowing a single sole. Now here I am with 31 people who I will always, no matter what, share a bond and unique connection with that is like no other. There are several people in particular who I know will always be a huge part of my life. In twelve weeks I have made friendships that might normally take years. That is part of the beauty of the Peace Corps, not only does it choose the best of the best but it puts you in a situation where friendships grow quickly and strongly. I can’t help but feel grateful for each individual in Tico 26 and few in particular who I am really going to miss seeing on a daily basis.

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Beautiful YDers!

I am also very grateful for my host family here in San Miguel, they not only opened up their home to me, but made me a part of their family. Living in someone else home, with someone else rules, eating someone else food, in a culture very different than your own makes it difficult to not feel like a guest. I can honestly say that I have a second family here and a home where I feel comfortable being myself. I am REALLY going to miss my little siblings. They have shown me so much love and patience. Most importantly they have made me laugh everyday which is so important for my happiness.

My loves!

My loves!

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Independence Day!

Last week something happened that truly made all of us here feel vulnerable and consider once again our decision and purpose as volunteers. You leave for your Peace Corps service thinking that all those you love will still be there when you get back to the US. Unfortunately, we were reminded that this might not be the case. Death of a loved one is difficult no matter where you are in the world and for this reason, I remind all of you to take time to be grateful for those in your life and to let them know how much they mean to you.

I feel extremely grateful for where I am right now at this point of my life. I feel confident in my decision to join the Peace Corps and I feel really genuinely happy here. I used to love road trips particularly because of all the thinking I got to do on them. Since I am not allowed to drive here, long bus rides are now my favorite time to do my thinking. It is on these bus rides that I become so overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude for where I am at this moment. I cannot describe the feeling exactly but I hope every person gets to experience that feeling on a consistent basis throughout their life.

Going to miss San Miguel!

Going to miss San Miguel!

Today I take an oath very similar to the oath that the President of the United States takes when (s)he is sworn into office. When President Obama came to Costa Rica in May, he spoke to Peace Corps Volunteers and US Diplomats here saying that we are more important than he is in this country. We are the personal connection that Costa Ricans have with the United States. We carry out the day to day work to built the capacity of people within this country. We promote friendships and cross-cultural understanding that allows for peace to flourish. Today I take an important oath and one in which I am proud of and very grateful for the opportunity to take.

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Tomorrow I leave for my new community where I will be living the next two years. After my visit two weeks ago, I feel like it is the perfect fit for me and that I will be very happy there!

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Coast to Coast and Back Again!

This past month was packed full. I made my way from the central valley, to the Caribbean coast, to the Pacific coast and finally back into the central valley. I also found out the exciting and much anticipated news of where I will be living the next two years!

As part of training, I went with 8 other volunteers to visit a current PCV in a small, rural, banana plantation town on the Caribbean coast located just fifteen minutes from the border of Panama. We spent a week at her site doing everything from giving lessons on recycling to having a field day to helping youth in the community finish constructing a basketball court. An experience I will always remember is the trip we took by boat to an indigenous community. The indigenous communities of Costa Rica face many of the same challenges as indigenous groups in the United States. It was fascinating to see what work other PCVs are doing in those communities and the unique challenges they face. I could write an entire blog post on tech week alone, but all-in-all the week was amazing, challenging and great validation for why I am here.

Caribbean Ocean

Caribbean Ocean

Sloths every where!

Sloths every where!

Indigenous Village

Indigenous Village

My job for the next two years :)

My job for the next two years 🙂


Over the twelve weeks of training, we are only permitted two nights of vacation.  After tech week, our Tico 26 group took our first night of vacation by heading to the Pacific coast to Playa Hermosa. The 32 hours of freedom was well needed and well deserved. As you can imagine, being at the beach with 29 of your newest friends was amazing. We all returned to San Jose sun-kissed and tired but feeling refreshed.

The best.

The best.

Tico 26 Love.

Playa Hermosa

Tico 26 Love.

Tico 26 Love.


After the beach trip came the day we all had been anxiously awaiting for since we accepted our Peace Corps offer…site assignment day! We went to a fancy Costa Rican country club where we found out our sites and celebrated afterwards with swimming, soccer, dancing and of course hamburgers! After lots of laughter and fun, we took our second vacation night out in San Jose that night to celebrate at an event called VACtail. All the other current PCVs in Costa Rica came to San Jose, rented out a hostel and threw a big party us. It was fun and VACtail is one of the few times almost all hundred-some Peace Corps volunteers in the country are all together in one place.

Anxiously awaiting our site placements!

Anxiously awaiting our site placements!

Los Migueleños at Vactail

Los Migueleños at Vactail


After 8 weeks of training, I cannot even put into words the feeling of nervous excitement we all were experiencing on site assignment day. It felt like sitting on the top of the steps on Christmas morning waiting to run down stairs to see what Santa had brought me.

I was beaming with excitement when I found out I will be living in a small coffee farming village in the mountains. My community seems like a great fit for my interests. I’ll have the opportunity to work in the high school, primary school and with a local women’s group. My community is rural but not isolated, it is only 20 minutes from San Ramon (a small city with many “modern” amenities). I will be an hour from San Jose, an hour from the beaches and less than an hour from the rainforest. Next week I will be meeting my project partners and I will travel to my site to get to know my community and meet my new host family! I’ll drop off some of my belongings before returning to San Jose for two weeks and then I will be officially sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer!

My new home for the next two years!

My new home for the next two years!


These next few weeks will be exciting, nerve racking and bittersweet as I get ready to leave the safety and security of my training community, host family and friends and start my work as an official Peace Corps Volunteer!

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The Pura Vida Begins!

Friday will mark the first month of my Peace Corps experience in Costa Rica. Time is a strange concept here. My first month of training has flown by and yet it feels like I have been gone for a lot longer than a month.

My experience so far has been exhilarating, yet exhausting. I feel so free, yet  I have not had this many rules or restrictions since high school. I feel more confident in myself than ever before, yet I am living in a culture very different than my own, where everything I do is closely observed and noted. I miss my family, UD friends and St. Louis friends very much, yet I find it very difficult to explain to everyone what I am actually experiencing and feeling here now.

I spent my first week in Tres Rios, Costa Rica at a beautiful mountain retreat. Friendships and bonds that will last a lifetime started here. I have never felt such a close and comfortable bond so fast with so many different people. I have so much love and respect for each individual in Tico 26. As our country desk officer said, “You will never have to explain your rationale or reason why you joined the Peace Corps to anyone in this room. They get it.”

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Awesome Youth Development Volunteers!

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Amazing view from the top of the mountain

Our group of 31 volunteers (16 Youth Development and 15 Community Economic Development) were divided into groups to live in different communities around San Jose. I was so happy when I found out I would be living in San Miguel with my good friends David and Montana!

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Los Migueleños

I live with a wonderful family and have a younger sister and brother who I adore. I have Spanish and culture class Monday, Wednesday, Friday in San Miguel with David and Montana. On Tuesdays and Thursdays (and some Saturdays) I take the bus to San Jose for CORE and technical training with the entire Tico 26 group. I won’t bore all of you with details but if you are interested, training is actually really practical and fun.

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San Miguel, my home until October

I went to El Roble, Puntarenas to visit two other current volunteers as part of training. The trip was a great break from the normal, structured routine of training. Both volunteers were amazing and really patient in answering all my questions. It was a great insight to what the next two years will be like. The reality of the challenges that lie ahead started to sink in during the days I spent in El Roble. We also spent a day at a BEAUTIFUL beach close to their community. I saw amazing tropical birds and crocodiles. I cannot believe how lucky I am to call this country home for the next two years!

Playa Herradura

Playa Herradura

Playa Herradura

Beach break!

I have experienced two national holidays since I arrived. The celebration of the annexation of Nicoya and the Romeria. I went to two primary schools to watch them perform actos civicos (dancing and reading poems) for the annexation of Nicoya. I was lucky enough to see my two host siblings perform! The Romeria is a pilgrimage that over 2 million people (over half Costa Rica’s population) take part in every year to the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Los Angelos. I walked over 15 miles from San Jose to Cartago. It was amazing to witness the power of faith of the Costa Rican people. I had a lot of fun joining in the cultural and event with good friends!

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My siblings and mom in the traditional attire for the Actos Civicos

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On our way to Cartago…walking!

We made it!

We made it!

As the first month comes to a close, I am feeling confident and excited about what lies ahead!

Pura Vida!

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