Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Reflecting on Peace Corps

When you think about a twenty seven month commitment it can seem like a long time. It can also seem like a pretty short period of time when you look at other time periods in your life. I mean think about it, a traditional education from kindergarten to twelfth grade is roughly one hundred thirty months. Even so, when we stepped off of the plane in hot and humid San Jose on March 2, 2010 twenty seven months seemed like it would last an eternity.

Training didn't make that time frame seem any shorter. In fact at the end of those eleven weeks it felt like we had been sucked into a strange time warp in which seconds last months or even years. We had some good times and made some good friends, but it left us questioning our decision to serve with Peace Corps. But, not having experienced the service aspect yet, we decided to stick it out.

The two years that followed were full of ups and downs. If you've been following our blog all along, this isn't news to you. We had moments of joy and sadness as well as moments of success and defeat. There were many moments when we questioned our service.

Those moments of questioning often came when we were feeling sad or defeated. It's hard to leave behind your family and friends, your home, a job where you feel you are making a difference, and your language. Thankfully we had each other. When everything else in life was throwing us for a loop we could rely on the love and support that has provided such a strong base for our relationship and marriage. We often talked about how amazing it is that so many people serve as volunteers by themselves (props to you guys!).

It was those challenging moments that made it worth it in the end. The endless frustrations of trying to improve the colé and wrap up the CRUSA grant, the drawn out process of starting up an academic support group, the low attendance rates at exercise class, and the slowness of the postal service when trying to do a cultural exchange. When the last of the CRUSA money was spent and the colé was a little more accommodating for students, it was worth it. When the students in the academic support group moved on to the next grade level (and asked if they could continue with the group the following year), it was worth it. When fifteen women showed up to aerobics and stayed after to thank me for offering classes, it was worth it. When students received letters from their pen pals in the states and excitedly wrote back, it was worth it.

This was just one aspect of our service though. On top of our many work frustrations and successes, there were also language and cultural successes. When we arrived in Costa Rica it had been nearly ten years since either of us had used our Spanish. We entered the country barely being able to communicate and left being able to hold meaningful conversations with our friends, host family, and work partners. We were even asked to serve as translators when a mission group came into town.

Culturally we experienced some challenges that most do and some that many do not. One of the biggest challenges that we faced was the fact that we are married. Being in a country that is very family oriented meant that we did not receive the numerous invites to spend afternoons with community members that most single volunteers do. We were not invited to join in with other families for celebrations. We are after all our own family. While frustrating, it also gave us the privacy that some volunteers long for. In the end though we broke through that barrier. We were invited to spend weekends away with friends. We were invited out to the family farm. We were brought copious amounts of food by community members so that we wouldn't starve during our final days in site after we gave away our rice cooker. We were embraced as members of the community.

Those challenging things to give up - family, friends, home, job, and language? You just learn to embrace the new ones laid out in front of you. You become part of a new family and make new friends. You create a new home for yourself. You make a difference through your new job. You learn and use a new language. They become a part of who you are.

So, that twenty seven month commitment? It flew by. Yes there were slow times, but in the end it was hard to believe that the end had arrived. As we piled ourselves and our luggage into our friends Orlando and Alejandra's car and drove to the airport at two in the morning we realized just how much can happen in two years. You forget how uncomfortable it was to leave the life you knew behind. You forget how long and drawn out training seemed. You're able to ignore the frustrations and focus on the celebrations. Twenty seven months is after all just that, twenty seven months. So why not do something extraordinary with them? It may not be anything like you imagined; it may be more, it may be less. But in the grand scheme of things it's life. The challenges and successes make it that much more interesting.

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