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!).