Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I Loved This Hard Job, Too

I knew exactly the picture I wanted to use with this entry. It showed a young woman, very blond and tall, standing next to a tiny Latina woman. The two are on a red dirt road, and behind them is a meadow so green it seems edible. The two have their heads inclined toward each other, and they are laughing.

When I found the picture the print had faded. The colors weren't as bright, the laughter wasn't as evident. In this case, though, my memory is much more accurate. Chena and I were always laughing, and the colors were always vivid.

Chena was my mama during the years I spent in Costa Rica as a Peace Corps volunteer, and as the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps yesterday, I realized that it's been three decades since I spent rainy afternoons laughing and drinking coffee with her.

My Peace Corps service was not, as the Corps propaganda promises, the hardest job I'd ever love.That designation goes to motherhood--swatting mosquitos and running after buses is chocolate cake with frosting compared to holding an asthmatic baby  and willing him to pull one more breath into his lungs. But, oh, I loved both of those jobs.

I was a fairly typical Peace Corps volunteer when I arrived in-country in 1979. Although I had a college degree, and had worked on a newspaper for a few years, I wasn't quite ready to settle down permanently.  But I knew instinctively that if I didn't close my eyes and jump off that cliff right then I would forever find reasons to cling to the safety of what I knew. And, of course, I thought I could change the world.

In its wisdom, the Peace Corps sent me to the perfect spot for the girl I was then: Smart and with high potential, but someone who had perfected the art of letting others clear the path. I coasted in the slipstream of my parents, my siblings, my friends. The 1979 Costa Rica was not the tourist mecca it has become, but it also wasn't a hardship post. The places I lived always had electricity and running water, and transportation anywhere in country was just a bus ride away. It was a life different enough from what I knew in Kansas to be challenging, while similar enough to be manageable.

A blog post isn't long enough to detail those 3 1/2 years. Suffice it to say that some of the closest friendships of my life were forged around tables where we drank coffee and solved the problems of the world. I learned that I could, and I worked and played and learned and laughed in a place where no one knew or cared that I was Dr. S's daughter or J's sister.

My performance in the Peace Corps' first goal (providing technical assistance) was, shall we say, minimal. But my fulfillment of the second and third goals (learning about a different culture, and giving the opportunity for those in that culture to know me) was stellar. I still dream about Costa Rica frequently, although my Spanish is now rusty enough that the conjugations wake me up.

The Peace Corps wisely limits the time a volunteer can serve, so after I had extended my service a year to complete a project, I returned to the U.S. and started the next phase of my life. I never got over loving Costa Rica and Central America, though, and my viewpoint on the relative importance our nation has in the world had been forever altered.

I went into the Peace Corps to change the world.

Instead, the world changed me.

1 comment:

  1. Linda and I lived in Costa Rica during 1982. Even at that time it was not a mecca for tourism. Airline personal kept trying to send us to Puerta Rico!

    Linda was a PC in Malaysia during late '60s, early '70s. As her Director said, "you are marked for life".