My Work is Done!

Any good professional dedicated to their craft would argue that one’s work is never done.

But in my case, sadly, my Fulbright grant has already come to an end =”( and with it, my projects in Costa Rica have as well.

Throughout my grant the recurring theme from the outside world was, “So what do you do with your work now? Did you send your ‘reports’ to the State Department? What did they think?” There is a desperation within our productive-happy society for feedback, deadlines, reports, and outside recognition for our accomplishments in a way which we’ve understood it our whole lives. If you were considering a Fulbright and are this kind of person, do not apply.

Fulbright is a completely independent 10-month research period. Your only dues are to yourself and to your affiliate organization. The U.S. State Department, the embassy in your host country and anyone else affiliated with the Fulbright Scholarship will never ask you to show your work, produce anything in writing, present…nothing. It is completely up to you to make your research of use. It’s daunting…yet liberating, because the possibilities are endless!

I’d like to share what I “produced” in Costa Rica, many of these docs are in Spanish, so if there are any inquiries please ask and I’ll elaborate in English!

  • First and most importantly, the results of my survey! This was a challenge, a learning experience, and a joy all at once. This is the culmination of the main focus of my Fulbright grant and it’s still surreal to see it all completed. If you have ever considered doing field work of this kind, you deserve praise because it’s difficult! There is so much that goes into this, like writing the questionnaire:

then of course conducting the survey:

inputting all of the data:

and then analyzing it using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS)

All of these steps led to my final report. What did I find? After surveying 85 residents of the community, I learned that they generally have a positive view of the Women’s Association, their priority is to fix the roads in their community, and they are pleased with the organic products being sold to them by the Women’s Association, among other things…

  • Another one of my goals was to make a blueprint for a sustainable community. After spending so much time in Los Jazmines, learning about community development and development work in general, I considered it important to compile what I learned, a starting point to the necessary state of mind, in a sense, to achieve a cohesive sustainable community.
  • A fun task I was involved in was making a brochure that will be used in an overall strategy for Reto Juvenil to expand with US volunteers. If you’re a college student in the U.S., this is aimed for you!
  • I was also able to incorporate Model United Nations, an activity that has been an important part of my life for 7 years, into my time in Costa Rica. Here’s a picture with the Head Delegate of the University of Costa Rica Model UN team. I had the pleasure of being the advisor of the first-ever UCR team traveling to compete in Harvard!

  • This job proved to be one of the most rewarding.  I had the chance to lead a volunteer group on their Alternative Spring Break where they built a Special Needs classroom in Los Jazmines back in February. Here’s a summary of the 5 day project.
  • One of the first ideas I had upon arriving in Costa Rica was to make an intern guide for international ladies and gents who would be working in the Reto offices. There are volunteer guides on what to do, not do, pack, eat…but none for interns, so I’m proud to have left that little piece of me for future interns, I’m sure it will be handy.
  • Lastly, I’d say this was the most unique project I worked on. For the 20th Anniversary of Reto, we made a video recounting 20 years of successes and highlighting the incredible work this organization has done all over Central America. I had the privilege of doing the English voice over for the production. Enjoy!

When I look back it seems like all of this happened in a parallel life, one that is completely removed from where I am now and where I’m going next. But what is true is that the knowledge I gained, hard work and contributions I was able to make in this country will be with me for a lifetime, and I will always strive to engage in meaningful exchanges and experiences all over the world and make sure that what I begin will produce meaningful results.

Much love,



Oh, the Places I’ve Seen! Pt. 2

My Costa Rican travels did not slow down in 2012. Here’s a summary of the places I visited the past 5 months:


Palmares is a city about an hour and a half from San Jose, but a huge week-long festival that happens every year in January. It’s a combination of a county fair, concert, club and artisanal market. I went the last two weekends of it and it proved to be unforgettable. The local flavors, fun artists, and local events like folkloric dances and the famous bullfights show why this is THE event to attend no matter where in Costa Rica you otherwise planned to be. Plus, it’s a rowdy time with people of all ages enjoying what is usually beautiful summer weather!


Playa Hermosa/Playa del Coco

I came here to this often visited tourist destination located in the Nicoya Peninsula with my Canadian volunteers in February. It’s about a 4-hour drive from San Jose on the Pacific Coast of the country. Both beaches were a good mix of quiet, lazy beach vibes perfect for enjoying the scenery and tourist streets filled with quaint shops, art galleries and restaurants. Not one of the top places I’ve been to, and I probably wouldn’t go back.


WOW. What a different and exciting place. The best of Costa Rican hospitality as well as its biodiversity exists in this amazing rainforest. Here I got the chance to experience countless microclimates from arid and dry to cold, to wet and windy all within in a 5-mile area. I visited the Bosque de Eterno de los Niños, Bosque Santa Elena, and the famous Cloud Forrest. Want to know why it’s called that? Because the condensation from the Pacific Coast and the Caribbean Coast meet at the top of the forest and cause fog making it seem like it’s permanently cloudy. It’s a mystic place. I explored a bunch here but my favorite activities were by far the night hike (our guide was super knowledgeable and went out there to find dangerous animals like this) and the coffee tour. 4 days is plenty to experience everything, after accounting for the 5-hour travel time from San Jose, but you leave this place renewed and with a newfound respect and reverence for Mother Earth.


Tabacon is the most luxurious hot spring in the country and is also a 5 star resort. It’s located 5 hours from SJO. I knew I would not leave the country without experiencing this! Although everyone has their hot spring of choice, I must say that this was extraordinarily beautiful and an A+ experience. The lush greenery is breathtaking and really makes you feel like you’re in a zen otherworldly place. The pros: it’s run by locals, it’s located right inside the mountains so the hot spring is all natural streaming directly from the volcano, it’s impeccably clean and well managed with awesome staff.

The cons: It’s overpriced at about $60 a day ($60 for 2 days in low season!), the food options inside are bad and extremely expensive, and you no option but to eat there because outside food not allowed (we were sneaky and smuggled in the goods), and there’s nothing else around it so you have to have your own transportation to not pay an arm and a leg in taxi fees to get there from the center of La Fortuna.

All in all, the hot springs of Tabacon were absolutely breathtaking and you truly feel like you are a part of some unearthly natural paradise from which you never want to leave…HINT: Go with a significant other, you won’t regret it! 😉

Puerto Viejo

What a town. Puerto Viejo has an enchantment that I’ve never felt before. The vibe is as if you were instantly covered with a warm blanket of feel good vibes. It was such an eclectic little place! Yet if you don’t have the advantage of hanging with a local and their hookups, I can totally understand why it would be written off as a hippie grunge town with little to offer. But it’s so much more! Beautiful beaches for surf or just to chill, delicious food from Italian (best seafood pasta I’ve ever eaten) to typical Caribbean staples like spicy beef patty’s, to organic and vegan artsy and quality bistros and nooks that offer delectable and fancy meals. There’s nightlife for any crowd, late night food spots, fruit vendors, people on bikes or just strolling around. I really loved this place! Maybe I’ll even own a home there one day…

Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro, Panama is only 2 hours away from Puerto Viejo, so why not take a day trip?! That’s exactly what we did! Besides packing 10 people in a 5-person car to get there, and fearing for our life as we crossed the border

the minute we stepped on the main island I was sure we were in store for a unique day. The place is storming with gringo surfer types, local merchants, and lost tourists like us. The ambiance felt like an old colonial movie, with locals sitting in the plaza on a lazy summer day, chatting and people watching, as if time didn’t exist. It was an intriguing atmosphere. We took a motorboat to a local restaurant that was perfect, absolutely perfect! A locally owned wooden restaurant on stilts in the water serving the best Caribbean food I’ve ever had. Next it was time to explore the beaches, which had strong currents, but were still beautiful. Before returning to Costa Rica, we did a bit of snorkeling. Don’t regret a minute of this trip!


Lush and Beautiful. That’s pretty much all you need to know. It’s a rural part of Costa Rica, home of intense biodiversity and many family owned fincas and farms. It’s mountainous, fairly untouched, and an amazing place to do any of the typical Costa Rican attractions like horseback riding and zip lining, or to just stay in a nature-filled cabin getaway. What a pristine and refreshing place. The trip was all the more special because I visited my friend Victor’s family home, and the heart and soul of the Costa Rican people were so beautifully present in this family that the true value of the experience goes beyond the beauty of the place.

Panama City

The Miami of Central America. Going there felt like being home. SO hot, so unbelievably hot. But what a fun city! I took a bus from San Jose (about a 16 hour journey) and got to visit the most popular destinations in the city. I toured the Causeway, a quaint boulevard on the water where locals and foreigners go to wine and dine. I went to Las Terrazas, a more posh place to eat and be entertained in the ritzy Mutiplaza Mall. I strolled through Panama Viejo, the 600 year old ruins that are still conserved in the city and which is the oldest European settlement in the Pacific Coast. And of course, I went to the Panama Canal. It was impressive to see, I expected it to be gargantuan, but it is simply a small port where only a couple of boats can pass through. PTY is an interesting mix of local flavor, and Miami high-rises, local foods and shops, and top of the line entertainment and luxury shopping. Again, it’s Miami…but hotter. I loved the city, and know that having family there won’t be my only excuse to return!

Costa Rica Craft Brewery

If you love beer as much as I do then this small little place is so worth it! Firstly, it’s the only artisanal craft brewery in Central America. It’s about a 40-minute drive from San Jose in the city of Cartago. They produce high quality hand crafted beers from ales to lagers to seasonal brews. The best part, the tour is FREE and so are the samples of all the beers! The brewmasters and employees are exceptionally nice, are eager to chat, and happy to answer any questions and show you around the brewery. I recommend this activity 100%! We were lucky enough to be able to take home a special brew not sold to customers: an experimental pumpkin spice beer!

Festival Imperial

Did I mention I love beer? Festival Imperial is the biggest music festival in the country sponsored by the biggest beer company in the country: Imperial. This event is worth mentioning because so much expectation leads up to this 2 day event, simply because it doesn’t happen annually, so when it does come around, it causes quite a frenzy! The festival featured acts such as Skrillex, Cypress Hill, TV on the Radio, Major Laser, Madeon, The Flaming Lips, Moby, Bjork, LMFAO, and the necessary pop headliners: Maroon 5. It was a really cool music festival complete with the usual overpriced food, smelly port a potties, and merchandise. But the music was varied and performances were good. A respectable music festival that is a MUST if ever in Costa Rica in March…and if you’re lucky to be around when the event is hosted.

I left the country without seeing it all. The Osa Peninsula, Montezuma, other beaches on the Nicoya Peninsula, and climbing the famous Chirripo are on my to-do lists for future trips to Costa Rica.

There’s so much to see, that even 10 months were not enough…

Much love,


Is Costa Rica as “Green” as you Think?


I’ve come to realize that there is a definite disparity between what foreigners perceive Costa Rica to be and the actual “green initiatives” that are practiced, both by the government and civil society.

It is no secret that Costa Rica is the poster-country for green living and ecotourism. And it certainly boasts plenty of stats that favor this reputation.  26% of its territory is under national park protection, its ecotourism sector is a $2 billion-a-year cash cow (1 million Americans visit Costa Rica each year, with a growing expat community seeking to live “one with nature”) and the span of it’s forests has actually doubled since the 1980s — thanks to more trees per capita being planted there than anywhere else, a widely known initiative spearheaded by Nobel Peace Prize winning president Oscar Arias. “Cutting down a single tree in Costa Rica is cause for scandal,” as said by the Pedro Leon, head of the administration’s Peace With Nature Initiative. I can vouch for the truth of this statement. This past February all national news stations were in a frenzy over the findings of many cut down trees  in Ñacunday National Park.

There is no question that concrete, formal initiatives exist at the higher levels. The government has focused on marketing Costa Rica as a place where locals survive greatly on ecotourism, the pinnacle of its green movement.  The Costa Rican Institute for Tourism has established a Certificate of Sustainable Tourism or CST. It is a voluntary certification program available for hotels, attractions and other venues. Yet, the key word here is voluntary. In all of the places I’ve been over these past 9 months, not one place has advertised or mentioned this certification, and there is no formal process pressuring places to adopt this still obscure certification.

And the government is not the only one contradicting itself. Are travelers really following Webster’s definition of ecotourism seeking “the practice of touring natural habitats in a manner meant to minimize ecological impact”? Hardly. Eco tourists are harder to come by than you think. While I of course came across back-pack-sporting rugged outdoors people, the plethora of high maintenance travelers I’ve seen I fear is growing. Some choose to stay at environmentally friendly ecolodges, yet more and more travelers seem to fall for foreign owned mega resorts, especially in one of the most popular destinations in the country, the Nicoya Peninsula. This highly coveted area is known for it’s ritzy accommodations and it’s ritzy residents with frequent advertisement of Mel Gibson’s and the Smith’s fancy mansions and properties as a popular marketing strategy for this vacation hot spot.

But back to the government. Yes, Costa Rica has a very low carbon footprint. The country has publicly committed to being zero-carbon emitting or “carbon-neutral” by 2021.

What a commendable challenge! Advertisements such as this one

is something I see everyday on my walk to work. I think this is an important step at the automotive level. But it is difficult to see vehicles that are embracing green fuel alternatives. And the lackluster performance on this front by public transportation options is preoccupying. San Jose is overcrowded with old buses with huge exhausts emitting dangerous emissions every day. You can imagine the air in the city. Even the 2 Mexican interns at Reto right now mention that they feel San Jose is much more polluted than the once notoriously smog-ridden Mexico City.

The final area I’ve observed is that of garbage and recycling. On a scale of 1 to 10 I’d give Costa Rica a 4. In my opinion, Costa Ricans are more behind than would be expected when it comes to recycling initiatives. I am lucky enough to live in a place where we have recycling bins, separate compost, and are constantly reminded to conserve energy.

Not only is my humble abode eco-friendly, my office is as well. As I’ve already mentioned, my office is closed on Fridays in order to save energy. More places should adopt this as well!

But unfortunately this

is a common sight.

Not only is there a big issue with garbage collection and recycling in the country, there is a huge sewage problem in Costa Rica as well. We actually can’t flush our toilet paper down the drain, and there is much talk about waste being improperly disposed of in the country’s rivers and oceans.

Luckily, there seems to be a new rush of conscientiousness splashing into San Jose. This wave made from plastic bottles

is proudly displayed in front of parque La Sabana in efforts to bring awareness to the need for recycling.

When everyday practices like recycling, conserving water and energy are still very absent in the country’s habits and among government practices, one has to wonder what the best tactic is to foment a “green culture” to the country on all fronts.

And when the government is allowing open pit mining and exercising what seems to be little control over the use of agrochemicals or multinationals like Walmart taking over most of the country’s supermarkets, skepticism about Costa Rica’s conservationist culture is inevitable.

Hopefully Costa Rica holistically commits to  “going green” so that it may live up to its reputation.

Much love,


The Most Important People in the UN You’ve Never Heard of

A couple of weeks ago I made my return to the world of academia.

Thanks to my Fulbright grant, passion for the subject and persuasion skills, I was able to present a convincing case as to why I should be allowed to audit a course at the University for Peace on Human Rights Advocacy. (Thanks, U Peace!)

It’s an understatement to say that this one-week course was one of the most informative lessons on human rights I’ve ever had…

I learned that Special Rapporteurs are some of the most important people within the UN system, yet we rarely hear about the job they do.

Case in point: the professor for my class, Mr. Tomas Ojea-Quintana. He is an Argentinean lawyer with more than 14 years of experience in human rights including jobs at the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at the OHCHR Programme for Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in Bolivia and representing the Argentinean NGO Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo in cases concerning child abduction during the Peronista era.

Mr. Tomas Ojea-Quintana is the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar (Burma). Basically, he’s the most important person in human rights advocacy in issues pertaining to the country. Myanmar is one of the least free places on Earth which has been lead by an authoritarian and abusive military regime for decades.

Background on Special Rapporteurs

The job description is broad in scope, but specific in its goals. This job includes thematic mandates covering issues from the right to food, to poverty and human rights, minority issues, trafficking in persons, etc. as well as country mandates for states which have been deemed to be in critical condition in every one of the 35 thematic mandate categories.

Special Rapporteurs are individuals working on behalf of the United Nations who bear a specific mandate from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Basically, these people are experts in their field who during their 6-year mandate produce fact-finding missions to countries investigating allegations of human rights violations. From the research gathered they make reports and recommendations directly to the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and to states as to how to proceed on the issue.

Rapporteurs also assess and verify complaints from alleged victims of human rights violations. Once a complaint is verified as legitimate, an urgent letter or appeal is sent to the government that has allegedly committed the violation.

UN adversaries will automatically disregard the importance of this position. “They have no real power. They can’t sanction. They don’t have leverage to change the government” But after learning the capacities and profile of the position, I can refute those thoughts with the following:

They have no attachment to the country they are working in

Special Rapporteurs work in a country other than where they are from. This is especially important because they are able to unemotionally and objectively analyze the situation without biases regarding the government, civil society, or others.

 They are not paid

Special Rapporteurs receive only travel expenses. This is crucial to the integrity of the work they are doing. This prevents any accusations of having conflict of interests. When presenting findings that prove difficult for the accused country to digest, even under those circumstances the work of the SPs is received with respect and legitimacy, honoring their expertise and objectivity.

They work independently

With the support of a small staff in Geneva at the Human Rights Council, SPs basically decide what tasks they want to tackle and how to accomplish them. Mr. Quintana has for example traveled to Myanmar’s neighboring countries of Thailand and Bangladesh to meet with refugees and immigrants to understand why they left. He orquestrated a one on one meeting with political prisoners in Myanmar by successfully negotiating with the head of the maximum-security prison- he even convinced his to permit him to interview the prisoners. He also met with the most important opposition leader while she was on house arrest and gave a press conference from her home.

When not traveling to the country to do on-site research, SPs work from their home country. While at home, they can gather information for their bi-annual presentations to the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council from any source they deem important. This can range from meetings with NGOs specialized in human rights research, civil society in the country, international experts, colleagues, previous SPs and the government itself.

No bureaucracy = No boss

The Special Rapporteur has about 3 people within the UN staff that help him fulfill his job. This includes an interpreter and a small staff in the Human Rights Council in Geneva. He does not need to go through anyone else to get his job done (besides, of course, charming his way through a dictatorship). When he has a report to present, he sits in front of the HRC and explains his findings. He has no need to do any bureaucratic climbing, go through red tape or follow any other procedures, rules, regulations, or protocols to fulfill his mandate. All he needs is to adhere to a basic Special Rapporteur Code of Conduct, and he’s good to go.

It was fascinating to learn how he carries out his mandate and how he relies entirely on his expertise and social and creative problem solving skills to find an outlet to meet with those who are suffering the gravest of human rights violations and to sit down with the most obtuse government officials, and get the job done.

He does this using the leverage of being an independent expert who reports directly to the UN. He also has the benefit of having access to the international media at any moment to display the realities of the country if not allowed to do his job. I’d say this is very useful in the politically charged world of human rights advocacy.

You may still be wondering, has he really been effective? I’d have to say that I firmly believe he has been. There are no other people within the UN system that have the ability and authority to come that close to the issue and be able to take their findings to the top of the top.

While Mr. Quintana has been working in Myanmar (since 2008):

-opposition leader Aung San Suu Ky has been released from house arrest after 15 years

-the number of political prisoners have been reduced from 2000 to 400

-elections were held in April for the first time since 1990 and Aung San Suu Ky and her National League for Democracy did well, even gaining her a seat in parliament

-in the past 2 years, over 200 journals and magazines have been uncensored

The title of Special Rapporteur is a dignified and important job. With the abounding lack of trust people have in the UN, especially the popular stance of many American policy leaders who often highlight it’s disruptive bureaucracy and lack of power, I am extremely pleased to have learned about this position, to be able to share my knowledge about it, and to confirm my views that to improve any system you have to learn how to work with it and reform from within, rather than become a rival and overlook the available resources and people doing good work – albeit within a difficult system- who have good intentions.

Another unforgettable Costa Rican experience to add to my list!

Much love,



Diplomatic Pursuits: Liz the FoodAmbassador

I love food. I am always thinking about food, and I’ve always said that if I had 3 wishes, the 1st would be to think of what I want to eat and have it magically appear, the 2nd would be to be able to eat whatever I wanted without getting sick or obese. (the 3rd wish was devoted to a more selfless request). I often daydream about being the female version of Anthony Bourdain.

Yet the reality is that I have many other aspirations besides eating my way around the world as the next Travel Channel star. Luckily, I’ve found a way to reconcile some of my main interests (food, people and improving my cultural intelligence) in a more attainable way.

My recipe: ArepaFest. This term was coined by a good friend of mine back in high school. It started as a silly name for a party at my house while the parents were out of town (sorry, mom! love you =) representing my Venezuelan background- arepas are the most popular food item in Vzla- but it slowly turned into an event I have continued to host and reinvent over the years to 1) actually include arepas 2) and to bring people together in a potluck fashion.

The concept: I make the arepas, a couple of fillings and attendees bring an arepa filling, beverage or side of choice.

I’m not here to share how my mouth waters thinking of how delicious an arepa with melted yellow cheese, pulled meat and a little hot sauce dripped over the top, with a nice cold freshly made juice of your choice would be right about now. Or at any time of the day, really…

What I do want to tell you about is the sharing and learned experiences that I’ve gained through hosting these never dull ArepaFests.

My first ArepaFest was with my neighbors in my old apartment building within my first couple of weeks of moving here. The attendance to this event included people from their early 20s to 60s. There was no such thing as an age or cultural gap. New friendships were born, we talked about the government, politics, America, the developing world, had a sing along…it resembled what my idealized version of a family reunion- albeit a VERY diverse family reunion- would be. The biggest life lesson I learned at this event is that friendship transcends age. I have been and plan on befriending children, people in their 40s, people my age and my grandma’s age from now until forever. This decision has dramatically changed my view of others and myself.

Then I hosted an ArepaFest party for the Women’s Association in Los Jazmines. This was so exciting!! They had heard and seen arepas on TV before thanks to their adored Venezuelan novelas, so this was a special treat for me. This was more of a gift for them for all they do so instead of potlucking I “catered” the entire event. They were so happy! They ate over 20 arepas, took pictures and made their kids put them on Facebook, made it their wallpaper on their phones. It was adorable. I felt so rewarded to be able to give them an international experience without them having to leave home. Simple acts of cultural exchange and counter hospitality can make someone feel more special than I could have imagined but quickly realized that night.

My third ArepaFest was in the form of a “Welcome Back” evening for the MUN team at UCR that traveled to compete at Harvard. This was a really funny experience! One of the dudes was very eager to help in the kitchen. He asked questions about how they were made, was constantly flipping the arepas on the stove like a pro, helped wash the dishes, and of course ate about 3 arepas stuffed beyond belief with everything from tuna, to cheese, ham, even with nothing inside. This showed me that what’s normal food for me may represent a really exciting and hands-on experience to someone else. I also learned a lot about my guests over the evening, and we had enlightening conversations on the 20-something life.

The latest ArepaFest I hosted was 3 days ago in my new home. This time, the guests of honor were the other Fulbrighters currently living in the San Jose area and their plus 1s. Another wonderful exchange! They each brought a filling for the arepas so we got to enjoy amazing guacamole, a ground beef and vegetable dish, different cheeses, shredded chicken, and the works. We were Fulbrighters of different ages and disciplines, with little in common besides our shared award, yet for 3 hours that evening food brought us together in conversation reiterating how much more we all have in common rather than different.

Acting as a FoodAmbassador has been the best way I have found to enact citizen diplomacy during my time here. Bringing people together of all ages, backgrounds, races and nationalities with the purpose of trying a new dish has been really remarkable. Arepas have been the catalyst to important conversations with my Costa Rican hosts, my colleagues, and my friends about breaking down barriers, sharing and understanding one another’s customs and creating an environment of happiness surrounding an activity that we do everyday: Eat.

Much love,


Volunteering Abroad does not “Save the World”

Now that the title’s got your attention, hear me out before any emotional opinions take over.

Following my 2 week surveying adventure, I had the chance to take on a pretty awesome assignment. The organization I’m affiliated with organizes volunteer groups from mainly Australia and Canada that come to undertake development projects throughout Central America anywhere from 1 to 10 weeks in areas that include working with women’s groups, children, environmental conservation, and building infrastructure.

As part of my be-involved-in-as-much-as-you-can-during-the-little-time-you-have-in Costa-Rica plan, I decided that before July I would act as one of the group leaders for these trips.

How hard could it be?

Well let me tell you, it was nothing short of a challenging experience.

My assignment: Group Leader for 13 Canadian college kids on their Alternative Reading Week from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo came to CR to build a Special Needs classroom in Los Jazmines, Upala (yup! same place my Fulbright project takes place, not a coincidence)

My responsibilities: to act as the liaison between the volunteers and the community and to facilitate their stay and make it as carefree as possible by:

–       giving them a half day orientation on the country, customs, community, rules and regulations and cultural immersion/sensitivity topics for their volunteer week
–       organizing and accounting for all of the costs and details of their 5 meals a day (the usuals plus 2 snacks)
–       getting them anything they needed in the community
–       acting as a 24 hour translator
–       taking care of all logistics from building materials for the classroom, to our rest day at the beach, hotel check in, transportation, allowance, etc.
–       filling their water tank

It was a really cool experience, one that challenged me emotionally and tested my patience and people skills. It’s exhausting to be on call for 24 hours for 7 days. I was the first to rise, the last to bed, and no matter how tired, hot, cold or sleepy I was I had to be excited and motivated and willing to help with the best disposition at all times. Luckily, my volunteers were all fantastic, a pleasure to work with and so motivated and caring. They really made my job extremely pleasant and fun!

But telling you about my GL experience is not the point of this post. The point is to tell you how this first hand experience exposed me to the “truth” of volunteering abroad.

It’s important to distinguish that there are many different ways to volunteer and I’m specifically relating my conclusions to the type of volunteering where you come to a foreign country and build infrastructure for a short period of time, and then peace out.

It’s not effective. Here’s why:

-We were unskilled laborers
We really had NO idea how to do anything correctly beginning with simple tasks like holding the shovel correctly, or mixing cement with the right strokes, or the rock-cement-sand proportions to use. So instead of us bringing a service to the community, we brought them a hassle, because they had to spend twice the time explaining things to us that come naturally to someone that has grown up around construction.

The volunteers didn’t speak Spanish
I had to translate EVERYTHING. Although I didn’t mind in the least bit, as it was part of my job, it slows down productivity to have to translate every single step of a classroom building process. “Move the column to the left, to the right, no not like that, with your body, bend down lower, hold the column with both hands, more to the left, now twist it, move it towards you, make sure it’s even with the string, more forward, no back, to the right, no my right” Dialogues like this went on at every step of the process, all day, during every task, big or small. We could have accomplished much more in a quicker time span than we did had we not had a language barrier.

We were too many people with too little to do
Since we were unskilled, there was only so much we could do with no previous construction experience. That limited amount of work was too little for 13 ppl to be busy at all times. A better solution to building this classroom would have been for volunteers to raise money for the project, send it to the community, and have 2-4 local, unemployed residents of the community who knew the language and knew about construction complete the classroom.

We had to be accommodated
For us to stay in the community a lot of logistics had to be panned out. We had to get the women of the Asociacion to make schedules and take time out of their lives to cook all of our meals. We had to rent a community hall to be able to all sleep there (this hall had to have the bathrooms fixed, had to be cleaned, etc) we had to ask community members for all sorts of favors while we were there, etc. We were guests who had to be taken care of during our time there. And although we paid for the services, it involved a lot of sacrifice for community members to make us feel safe and as adequate as possible while we were there.

We bonded with the kids and the families, and then left
These kind of short term interactions are not the most healthy. There was a very strong, short and intense interaction with the members of the community. We laughed, played, cried, dined, and interacted for 24 hours for 7 days. Especially the kids, they take such a liking to visitors…they hang around all the time, they draw us pictures, they hug and kiss us and are so happy to be around us. And then instantly all of that love, affection and sharing is over, and almost no one keeps in touch with anyone there, leaving an emotional void to the members of the community. It’s a lot for the community to assimilate and handle that 99% of the time there will be no emotional commitment or interaction from the volunteers after that week.

Charity doesn’t have the positive impact we think it does
This was the BIGGEST, most eye opening and complex lesson to understand. While we were there, many volunteers brought clothes, shoes, and school supplies for the community. You would think this is a good thing, but many times it turns into a nightmare. Why? Because you have to be very careful with what you give and who gets it.

And charity is NOT sustainable.

What happens when the pencils and paper run out? When the clothes get old? Are these volunteers going to commit to sending school supplies for all kids every year forever in the form of scholarship? And are the donations going to those most needed? Not really…an example of Jazmines: since we worked closely with the women’s group, who do you think got dibs on the nice Aeropostal and AE clothes? The kids of the women who hung out with us and looked cute and adorable and presentable and know how to work volunteer’s emotional side by now (they’ve been interacting with volunteers for about 7 years now). These women and their families pretty much get dibs on everything and, they are all relatively “well off”. But in a meritocratic mentality, you’d think well “Hey! They’re putting in the work to feed you guys and care for you guys and be involved with bettering the community, they deserve it.” But how do you look a woman in the eye who gets beat by her possessive and drunk husband, has 5 kids and lives in a home that has mud floors and no running water–in that same community- that she doesn’t deserve an opportunity to advance, or doesn’t deserve the access to resources because she wasn’t there laughing and cooking and hanging out with the volunteers the whole week. It’s a tough situation and many times the materials and donations go to those who already have enough to subsist in a dignified manner, and not those who need it most.

We also ran into 2 situations where members of the community asked us for monetary donations. At first it’s hard to see why this is a problem and shouldn’t be done. But it is absolutely unsustainable to give monetary donations, for whatever the cause or reason. First, there’s no way of knowing if the money will go to where it is being said it will, second, if word gets out that volunteers come and leave money, then everyone will expect for volunteers to drop cash each time they come for a project. Third, as volunteers coming from the outside, many times the image we get of a community is a rosy one of unity, gratitude and excitement for foreigners to be visiting and helping. But we don’t have the slightest notion of the inner workings of the community and after we leave, then what? Will there be resentment towards those who got money or things from those who didn’t? Will there be tensions, rumors, or even impediments for future projects because of jealousy or politics about power and resources? There’s no way of knowing, and this is why entering an unknown community is an extremely sensitive issue that should not be done until extensive research and cultural sensitivity is taken into account first.

During my training to be group leader we learned that community development is giving a community that which it wants, but cannot give itself. Is this what we did during my week-long experience? Not quite.

Did we give them a classroom they needed but couldn’t pay for? Yes. Was it done in the most efficient, resourceful and smart manner? I don’t think so. This experience was extremely positive and enlightening for the volunteers as well as those members of the community that interacted with us and that was the most positive aspect. There was an awesome personal development and reflection process on the volunteer’s end, and there was a wonderful cultural exchange between the community and volunteers.

I could continue on as to why I don’t think these kind of volunteer trips are recommendable. But more importantly, if not like this, how should one help “save the world” in an effective and productive way? I think that we can do this by starting in our own communities. Communities where we know how the system, culture and people work. You don’t have to go abroad to prove or express humanitarian desires. Starting with your own family, friends, community, state and country give plenty to work with. This does not mean not to travel or volunteer abroad. But a lot more research and understanding into how intl. volunteering works, as to why organizations funnel the money certain ways and don’t just drop it in communities directly without regulation, has to happen before embarking on volunteer trip abroad. It’s also much more effective to go abroad and teach a skill that the community lacks, rather than to go work in construction or any other trade that you are not skilled in. Teaching someone how to read, write, speak a language you are fluent in, help them learn about gender, or literature, or even self esteem and personal development are much better ways to help people abroad.

I’ve extended my post well beyond what I intended and have abused enough of your attention span.

Hope this gives some insight into my experience.

Much love,


Confessions of a Pollster

I spent the 2nd and 3rd weeks of February finally doing the core of what I came to Costa Rica to complete: a survey of Jazmines A in Upala, Costa Rica. I will openly admit that I was dreading the arrival of this moment. What a mix of emotions. I was nervous.  Very nervous. Although I worked at a polling firm prior to my Fulbright, I had never conducted a survey in person, only over the telephone following a very concise and clear script. In this scenario, I had to devise the approach I was going to take with the people I was going to survey on my own.  I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I had no idea what to expect, how to approach people, if they would be responsive, etc.

Luckily I didn’t have much time to think, it was then, or never. So I went in headfirst and this is what I learned:

–       The wording of my survey was too difficult, even though I thought I had made it very colloquial

–       People didn’t know what a census or a survey was, so instead of having them fill it our on their own I had to conduct all interviews and fill in answers for them

–       I had to associate myself with my organization to gain their trust, even though when surveying it is always recommended to keep yourself as an independent entity

–       I should have modified certain questions because they were repetitive and people did not interpret them as I did

So the purpose of my survey was to uncover the answers to 3 main questions 1) What people thought of the Women’s Association through which most development projects have been funneled in Jazmines A 2) What they think about the projects that have been implemented 3) What they want to see in the future. This is what I learned about the people I surveyed and the community (informal conclusions, I am still not finished inputting my data):

–       Nicaraguans in the community feel discriminated against

–       Residents feel as though some people who get help in the community are not the ones who need it most

–       People feel as though politics is what determines who gets help and how

–       There is no unity in the community

–       People feel as though there is favoritism from NGOs giving help towards certain groups in the community

It was so touching to be welcomed into stranger’s homes and to be able to after a 30-45 minute conversation gain their trust and their warmth. People really, honestly, just want someone to listen to what they have to say. Once people warmed up to me it turned into an informal yet extremely enlightening conversation about how to fix the community. I also learned that most people there are very humble, nice and truly care about the state of the community, just may not be sure how to take action.

My days walking and surveying the community were filled with incredible expressions of love and gratitude that I didn’t quite know how to reciprocate. Several people gave me snacks and fruit while I was interviewing them, and 1 gentleman even gave me 3 pineapples to take home to my host family. Another lady was so charmed and excited to get to know me that she invited me over for a “girls night in” with her 19 yr old daughter, my host mom, and herself. We laughed about men and fashion over a couple of really good Micheladas, beer with lime and salt mixed in. I also got to take part in some of the daily farm tasks. One afternoon my chore was to put chickens back in their pen and I even watched one lay an egg! Such a silly experience. Another funny moment was when after interviewing one lady who owns about 10 cows, she asks me to lead her cows back into their barn because she wasn’t wearing the right shoes to get dirty (so you can imagine my appearance)…I have learned that ranch life is probably not for me since the cows pretty much ignored all of my gesticulations, yells, signals and mooing for them to get back in their pen.

me and the cows

Although there were too many heartwarming moments to recount, I also witnessed some of the ugliest realities of our human condition that were really heart wrenching. There were many illiterate people, especially women, who were so overwhelmed and intimidated by my presence that they started tearing up in embarrassment and could not even answer questions like “Are you a member of any associations in the community”. My theory is that they have been house ridden for most of their lives and any contact with outsiders is difficult to comprehend.

I also saw things like women breast-feeding their dirty and naked babies with out covering themselves in front of me and any one else around WHILE answering my questions. Another woman walked out in her towel with soap all over her to answer my questions because she didn’t want to leave me waiting, even though I insisted that I could come back another time. The saddest experience was when I came to one house at about 2 pm and a dirty naked little boy answers the door and then runs and wakes up his dad and the father gruntingly and half asleep comes outside with boxers and no shirt on and insists that he would like to answer my questions. He then stops me at around question 7 and says “look, I’m sorry but my wife is in the hospital, she just had surgery, and I’m still drunk…I drank some, you know, to be able to fall asleep for a bit, because this hasn’t been easy, you understand me right?” I had to hold back the tears and my overwhelming urge to take the little boy somewhere…safer? cleaner? It was difficult to see this dark side of the community, but an important and humbling experience nonetheless.

This entire surveying process was a fascinating, intense, emotionally testing and intellectually challenging feat. But it was incredible, and made me fall in love with person to person interactions more than I already was, and is even making me consider field work as a possible career path.

Much love,


“So, uh, what is it you’re doing there?”

I’ve been in Costa Rica for 5 months now and this is still the most common question I get from people both back home and here in Costa Rica.

There’s no better time to explain what I’ve been up to on the professional front than on the eve before I head out to complete the bulk of my Fulbright project! More on that in a bit…

Back tracking to November…. In one of my posts last year I raved about how incredibly productive my first trip to Los Jazmines was. This is the town where I am going to be conducting my survey. I was on a productivity high! Remarkably, it was fairly easy  to make the contacts and run the errands I had pending, even with the difficult access I anticipated. My to-do list for the trip included:

– Meet with the head of the Women’s Office in the Municipality of Upala to understand how Women’s Associations can access resources offered there

– Meet with the “Commissioner” of Los Jazmines to the Municipality to understand how residents access resources offered there

– Meet with the head of the Instituto de Desarollo Agronomo to get the last census and blueprint of the residences in Jazmines A

– Meet with the Women’s Association of Los Jazmines to explain my project, ask for support, and inquire how I can be of service

– Meet with the principal of the school in Jazmines A to plan my English classes and other activities with efforts to engage in the community, that way, come February, I would be a familiar face and families would feel less hesitant to complete my survey

– Complete a walking tour of Jazmines A to map my route for my door to door surveying

I had anticipated perhaps not being able to meet with certain people, or the school principal not being too receptive of my desire to volunteer at the school, or not being able to complete my walking tour of the community due to weather, access, or lack of time. Luckily, the community of Jazmines A is a place where people are always willing to help, eager to work for the progress of their town, and were very excited to have a Spanish-speaking volunteer/researcher/friend to be around and understand them on a more informal, personal basis.

I even had time to eat some of Iginea’s (one of the 9 women in the Women’s Association of Los Jazmines) delicious food and have a dance off with the girls after my English class =)

November set an amazing foundation for my field work which will begin tomorrow until February 18th. In this period of time I plan to complete the second phase of my 3 phase Fulbright project: conducting a questionnaire of the residents of Los Jazmines to determine how effective the development projects happening over the last several years have actually been. More about these projects can be found in the About My Project section of this blog…

Los Jazmines represents one of the most successful communities that my organization works with. Yet there has never been a formal evaluation of what has been done. What I seek to find with my research is the answer to the questions: What works? What can be improved? And how can we follow this model to create a template for “How to build a sustainable community in Latin America?” Answering the third question will be my focus in April, May and June….and then just like that, my Fulbright will be over!

I can hardly begin to describe what I’ve lived here in Costa Rica. I am still baffled about how radically my life, focus, interests and priorities have shifted from 2011 Fulbright, to my reality now in 2012. This year has welcomed me with a huge amount of work and new responsibilities including:

– advising the first ever Model United Nations team of the University of Costa Rica who will be traveling very soon to Harvard to represent Kuwait

– the opportunity to serve as a cite leader for 13 Canadian volunteers for my org who will be building a special needs classroom in Los Jazmines from February 19th-25th

– and working on a couple of very exciting project proposals for my organization

Not to mention my ample traveling, friend making, and continued exploring that is just part of life here everyday.

All in all, I’m unbelievably excited for everything that lays ahead and I’m trying desperately to enjoy every single second of the 5 months I have left here!

More to come so stay tuned…

Much love,


Oh the Places I’ve Seen!

Looking back at my 3 months here in Costa Rica, I realized I’ve done a lot more traveling than I thought! If this is in any way indicative of my forthcoming 6 months here, I can’t wait!

Arenal/ La Fortuna

The rural town of La Fortuna is about 3 and a half hours north from San Jose. It is very touristy mostly because therein lies the Arenal Volcano, which is among the 20 most active volcanoes in the world. It was the first place I visited here in Costa Rica and it was so much more exciting because I got to go with my mom! We went to little shops in the town, walked around, walked up to a mirador to see the volcano from up close, and also had a chance to visit the other main attraction in La Fortuna: the hot springs. We went to the Baldi Resort and hot springs, and enjoyed over 25 natural hot springs for the afternoon. BLISS.

Perez Zeledon

Honestly, there’s not very much to see or do here. It’s about 3 hours South from San Jose. This city is It’s extremely hot, there’s not much infrastructure, and frankly, it’s pretty much a residential town. But the company was amazing! Had the chance to stay at the house of a friend’s cousin and her husband, and they gave us a night tour of the best spots, and I also had my first, and hopefully only shot of Cacique…a horrid anis liquor that ticos adore.

Dominical, Playa Ballena

The same weekend I stayed in Perez Zeledon my wonderful hosts took my friend and I to Dominical and Playa Ballena.

Dominical is one of the most famous surfing beaches in Costa Rica. It’s on the Pacific coast of the country.  It’s known for it’s huge waves and the shore is packed with hostels, shops, bars, and blonde surfer dudes chillin in hammocks waiting for the next wave to break. The vibe was inviting and made me want to stay the night and pretend to be down with the surfing way of life.

Playa Ballena is part of the Marino Ballena National Park and it part of the Costa Ballena coastline area of the southern pacific part of the country. It is called Costa Ballena because it looks like the fins of the whales. I loved this beach so much because it was completely unspoiled, rustic, and serene. Definitely worth the visit.

Santa Maria de Ota

My good friend who invited me to the previous two expeditions lives 2 hours away from San Jose in a cold, mountainous and coffee-plantation-filled rural town called Santa Maria de Ota. His family actually owns a small coffee plantation in their home, and it’s beautiful! The town is quaint, chilly, and mostly strives off of profit made from selling both artisanal coffee and wholesale.


Orosi is beautiful! It’s about an hour away from San Jose and also thrives mostly from coffee production. It has awesome views, hot springs, and is also home to the oldest Catholic church in Costa Rica. My trip to Orosi was really exciting and spontaneous! I went with 4 neighbors and we spent the day exploring. We hiked through coffee fields, found a beautiful river, went in, had a picnic, then found an awesome hole in the wall restaurant with delicious, lemony, amazing ceviche and ended our trip with a dip in the hot springs which overlooked the entire valley. A town worth seeing for sure!

Manuel Antonio

A MUST see! Manuel Antonio National Park is probably in the top 3 most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica. It’s 3 hours away from the capital in the central pacific region. It’s generally just a really fun time! There are tons of hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, a decent public beach and then of course, the national park. It’s beautiful! Inside you’ll see a bunch of animals like deer, raccoons, white faced monkeys (adorable!) and more roaming freely. The beach is actually a bay so it’s incredibly pristine, calm, and gorgeous. This is definitely my favorite trip so far and my special visitor agrees! 2 and a half days there was plenty to enjoy our hotel, the restaurants, get a drink with some friends that live in the area, see the national park, and stroll. It’s wonderful…I hope I can bring my future visitors here as well!


The views. Man, the views. That’s all there is to say. Some former neighbors moved to this part of the country, a mountainous, residential town about an hour from San Jose. I spent 24 hours basically just basking in the views. The pink skies, the mountains, we were so high up that it felt like we were on top of the world. You can appreciate it much more when traveling by car because there’s not really much to do besides, well, enjoy the views.

Isla San Lucas & Puntarenas

Isla San Lucas is an island off of the pacific shore of Costa Rica. It was a maximum security prison from 1873 to 1991. The feel of the island was eerie and uncomfortable, as if it was still inhabited. It was super interesting to see the old cells and the graffiti lining the walls portrayed the pain, desires and frustrations of the prisoners. An important historical landmark for sure.

Puntarenas is a tourist hot spot. It’s a port town that’s vibrant and buzzing with music, dive bars, plenty of sea food joints and THE MOST AMAZING STREET FOOD I’VE EVER EATEN!

VIGORON: A Banana leaf, on top: a bed of yuca, then another layer of grated cabbage, then pico de gallo (cut up tomatoes, onion, cilantro, salt and lemon), then chicharron on top! AND a beer, while hanging out on the beach…

What more could you want in life!

Thank you everyone so much for reading! I wish you an amazing holiday season with your loved ones, an exciting and fabulous New Year’s, and all the best wishes for a 2012 full of everything you’ve ever wished for!

I’m off to Panama…

Much love,


Being “Civilized” has Made Us Ignorant

I just got back from spending 5 days in Los Jazmines, Upala, where the core of my Fulbright research will be materializing over the next several months. I’m euphoric and so grateful and thankful and just in utter bliss about how productive I was this week! I’m so elated I could CRY! =”””) And although I’m bursting to share all of the details about what I’ve been up to on the research front, I’ll have to leave that for my next post. I feel it’s more important to share some reflections I’ve had after spending this valuable time with some of the wisest people I’ve ever met.

A bit about Los Jazmines. This is a strictly agricultural community of about 150 families. Very few people have cars, much less internet access, or full time jobs. More than half cannot read or write. It’s rare if teens continue school past the 6th grade. Some one bedroom houses are shared by a family of 14, where there is no toilet, or electricity. And so on…

Yet those that I have had the pleasure of interacting with seem to have the most positive, real, caring, sincere and giving disposition of anyone I’ve ever met.

After spending time in this community, I feel like we’re really missing something in the “1st world.” And I mean this in the most general of terms. I’m not trying to put over half a billion people into the same category. But I think there is surely some truth to my impression that the people of Los Jazmines know so much more about and truly internalize the idea of a life of integrity, following your instincts, sharing, trust, cooperation, communication, etc. I’d say they just have a heightened sense of humanity.

Some examples:

On Racism: As I watched the nightly news with my host family, a commercial about adoption came on. My host mom Ruth Mery mentioned that she would LOVE to adopt a cute little black baby because she thinks they’re adorable. Her daughter Yendys, alarmed, says “really mom?! A BLACK baby?” She responds, “of course, why not? Are they not human beings just like the rest of us? What’s the difference between a black person and you?”

Note that the town of Upala is a pretty homogenous place made up of mostly Mestizos. No Blacks, or Asians, or Hindus or Arabs or any other “minority”. We can’t always blame attitudes such as racism i.e. ignorance, on lack of exposure.

On Classism: One afternoon, while we were all watching la novela del mediodia, (Dos Hogares), the typical storyline of poor-girl-marries-rich-guy, rich-family-hates-poor-girl because-she’s-poor was unfolding. Even as we were glued to the TV, Ruth Mery’s boyfriend says, “You see, I don’t know why we watch this. Look at how they degrade people like us, as if we were any less just because we don’t have money. Look at what we’re supporting. We’re all son’s and daughter’s of God and deserve respect.”

On Cooperation: Iginea, one of the women in La Asociacion, had a death in the family several months ago. When I went over her house one afternoon for refrigerios (snack), she told me all about how every single one of the women in the group was extremely helpful during here grieving time. Be it by helping to feed the pigs, or doing her load of the work in the greenhouse, cooking extra food and sending it over to her house, babysitting, really anything. They took charge and were THERE for her, beyond the general “we’re sorry for your loss, let us know how we can help.” A true sense of community.

On Instincts: Ruth Mery was telling me that she gets odd vibes from here neighbor across the street. She feels that he watches her at night, that he’s tried to steal things from her house, and that he generally dislikes her. She’s never established any sort of relationship with him. As she says “ni lo quiero ni lo malquiero”. She simply does not associate with him. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt bad vibes from people even within my own circle, but I still hypocritically interact with them to not cause conflict, or to make nice and so everything seems like it’s happy-go-lucky. I always regret this. Something always happens where I should have followed my instincts without caring what any body else had to say regarding a situation or a person I didn’t feel comfortable with.

On Humanity: Margarita, another woman from La Asociacion was telling us during one of our meetings this week that there have been robberies recently in the community. She specifically cited an incident where someone stole 30 chickens from someone’s pen. The conversation concluded by everyone agreeing that if there was really hunger, if someone needed to feed their family, they would have no problem in donating as many chickens as were necessary so that the people in the community could eat. That they would even pardon and understand such an act -meaning a low scale robbery- because they can identify with the idea that meeting basic needs can sometimes be tough.

I won’t even begin to enumerate the people who have it all, and give nothing because of an “every man for himself” mentality.

On Self-Assurance: This one really got to me and made me so proud of these women. Iginea was commenting that her daughter’s quince was really a lovely event where everyone had enough to eat, her daughter had a good time, and it was an all around fantastic party. She didn’t fail to share the reflection that this celebration was not about showing off, or doing anything lavish to show the town that they could pull off the best party Los Jazmines has ever seen, it was about the occasion and good company, nothing else.

Final anecdote…so my organization, Reto Juvenil Internacional, has been sending volunteers to Los Jazmines for about 5 years. It’s always an issue when the male volunteers come because some of the husbands have major jealousy issues. One of the women of La Asociacion was very proud of the fact that she has received 3 male volunteers thus far, that she has taught her husband to not have a problem with it and that he has even grown to love these young men as family. She also noted that she would walk all around the community with the male volunteers to go to the respective projects that were happening, and that she didn’t give a DAMN what anybody said about her, or if anyone thought it was inappropriate! You go girl…

I could go on about so many more examples…

Basically, this week made me feel like we’re so focused on becoming knowledgeable in such specialized areas that I think we forget how important basic values are and choose to opt out of working on them. As if we were born with them because we’re “civilized”. As if we’re above all of this.

I hope I remember all of these important lessons, because at the end of the day, it’s what counts.