Tuesday, November 24, 2009

MAF history in space

For any of you in the Nampa, Idaho area, if you want an excuse to go see what exciting new things are going on at MAF headquarters over by the Nampa airport, astronaut Patrick Forrester will be speaking in chapel at 8AM, December 2. Forrester took with him a piece of the Piper plane that the missionary martyr Nate Saint flew in Ecuador.

Sounds cool. I'd be there :)

(more info)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trick or Talent

October 31, 2009 - It's been a long time since I was pointed out the close relationship of Halloween celebrations and occult practices. In fact, the last time the question of whether Christians should celebrate Halloween was put in my mind was in our spiritual warfare class where as a senior in high school we each had to research some... I can't remember what they were called, spiritual strongholds or something. My topic was Halloween.

Anyway, all that to say that as Halloween approached here in Costa Rica, I didn't even notice until I realized our church youth group had scheduled a Talent Show night on October 31st, as a sort of alternative activity to Halloween. As I questioned the wisdom of this decision, I was reminded almost unanimously with rather strong reactions that Christians do NOT dress up or celebrate Halloween. Apparently, this is a cultural difference I have not yet gained a sensitivity to, much like the reluctance of most evangelical Latin American Christians to put up nativity scenes during Christmas. There is a certain sensitivity to the use of images to celebrate Christ's birth, which I'll take a crack at explaining as Christmas draws closer. Actually, without the Thanksgiving marker to indicate the start of the Christmas season, people are already starting to put up decorations. In any case, there was no dressing up or trick-or-treating for our youth group this Halloween.

As a substitute, our youth group did a talent show, together with a group called Funda Vida who we joined for a mission trip a few months ago. Oh, come to think of it, that trip was also a sort of set up like a positive alternative to something as well. Anyway, the talent night involved a lot of song, dance, praise, and lots of laughs. The leaders in our youth group and the Funda Vida teens did a great job of decorating the stage of our church (since we meet in a drama theater), and the whole event really turned out very well. One of my good friends in the group, Priscilla (yes, like Elvis's wife and the anonymous author of Hebrews), persuaded me to put together a breakdancing choreography with her, which is one of my lesser known talents and ironically, one that all the youth group knew about but none of my fellow Sunday-church members had seen. Part of the reason is because I loathe doing anything in front of a crowd of people, but I'm kinda glad Priscilla persuaded me to, cuz after it was over I really enjoyed it.

A fellow MAFer who is planning on joining our team was here in Costa Rica visiting this week, to see what MAF Learning Technologies was all about. I'm not sure this is what he had in mind :) Anyway, he recorded a few videos of the event and posted them on YouTube. The breakdancing clip is above, and a few more videos of the worship are linked to below.
¡Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Scratch Project
Play "Walking in the Desert"

See more student projects like this

"Hello world!" as any beginning programmer knows, is the first computer program you ever write. It announces to the world that "you're in," you know how to sink your hands into the guts of the computer and get it to do what you want. You can now use the computer as a tool to communicate, to calculate, or to do whatever your imagination can come up with.

The program you see above is a sort of "Hello World!" program written by Queso (Jose, on the left) in the computer class I'm teaching in La Carpio. I'm IMMENSELY excited about all the cool stuff they've been doing. This is far easier to show than to explain, so if you're reading this on facebook or e-mail, make sure you read the original post on my blog by clicking here. That way you can see the videos and play the games. In fact, go ahead and skim through the article for the project links first, and then read it later if you get time.

In case you're just reading this, however, I'll try to explain a little bit about what's been cooking in the La Carpio Computer Lab. Settle in, it's a long story.

For the past four months, I've increased significantly the type and amount of involvement in La Carpio. Starting in May, in addition to the weekly after-school kids activities on Thursday, I would go down on Tuesday as well to help repair computers in a computer lab they have, supervise their "game playing," and teach them a few basic computing concepts. For the past few months, I've poured considerable time into their little computer lab, resulting in 10 smoothly-running, virus-free, internally-networked computers. If this sounds like a small accomplishment, let me augment it slightly by mentioning that the first time I used my flash drive in those computers, my personal computer caught 408 viruses (3 strains) and took over an hour to clean. This trend continued weekly until I had disinfected every computer and put updated virus scanners on each one.

Squeaky-clean machines meant their games would run better - but it also meant I could start loading up some educational games for them to start using - creating their own worlds and thinking in different ways - logically, structurally, narratively, and artistically by painting their own pictures, creating their own levels for games, cutting together videos, and even writing their own programs. When art, creation, story-telling, and self-expression started happening, they got excited. And I got excited. Some of their creations are linked from this blog entry.

I can't tell you the measure of joy it gives me to see these kids using the computer to create their own levels, to draw things, to create stories and program actors to live out their stories, to use graphics from their lives - from camp, from their neighborhood, of themselves, and genuinely own their creations in the sense that they more closely touch their reality. The programs are in Spanish, so they understand the instructions they are writing. The photos, for example, are either taken by me of their neighborhood, or taken by them of activities such as camp retreat when I trained a few of them to take photos using my camera. Their programs and videos are beginning to take on a form of "digital storytelling" that captures their interest in a way that familiarizes them with the computer as a tool. It's helping them become computer literate. It's helping them use it to create.

One of the main programs we've been using is called "Scratch," a simple program designed by MIT to help kids ages 8 and up develop the skills necessary for computer engineering in the 21st century. It's very simple and extremely fun to use - scenarios and "programs" are written by dragging instructions from a toolbox to your workspace. These "instructions," color-coded and shaped like puzzle pieces that snap together, create a set of commands that manipulate the objects on your screen. I could go into deeper jargon on the programming skills and logical thinking concepts Scratch helps develop, but that's been done in great detail on MIT's Scratch website. To put it simply, it's like building a program out of legos, where each lego block represents instructions for the computer to follow.

Oh, the flexibility of the Scratch program is incredible - you can upload projects to the web to share with others, and download theirs. Once you've written a program, with a simple click you can translate all the instructions into 50 different languages, including Spanish, Creole, and Arabic. I mention Creole and Arabic because whenever I see a program that can translate into Creole, I know it's designed to go the extra mile in reaching isolated areas. And whenever a program can translate into Arabic or Thai or Russian, I know the programmers went the extra mile in dealing with right-to-left text compatibility and complex character sets.

Once the computers were clean of viruses and being used for collaborative projects, I set up a small network between them, just 10 computers connected through a 16-port router. That way the kids can share resources amongst all the computers and play games "interactively" with each other instead of in isolation. This is sure to result in a few fights, but competition teaches a lot too, so we'll see how that goes.

And networked computers lead to the final phase in this project - connectivity and business. There is no internet connection in La Carpio. Every project I mentioned above required several weeks' planning and numerous hour-long bus rides to and from my house to download resources to get the computers running. If I forgot one thing or brought the wrong file, it meant waiting a week for the next trip down here. Aside from inconvenience, the fact that La Carpio has no internet access (that I've come across yet, anyway) is probably a strategic move, as is the relocation and isolation of the poor and immigrants to this area, as is the positioning of a garbage dump that receives 700 tons of trash per day at the other end of their community, as is the thin, one-km road that limits all entry points by vehicle in and out of the area to one. Read more about La Carpio in one of my previous blog posts. All that to say, getting internet in La Carpio would bring opportunities to the community to stay in contact with family in other countries, to learn and read and find solutions to issues that affect them, to train themselves in some skill, and to research, print, and facilitate any legal documentation (residency or work visas) they may need to do.

Connecting the La Carpio community to the internet and using the computer lab part-time as an internet café to offer services locally is a future goal, one fraught with obstacles and unknowns. But strategically it will likely be an awesome resource for the community.

All these technological advances mean nothing if there isn't some sense of purpose and intentionality behind them. I work a lot with computers, but technology for technology's sake never really sat well with me. A fellow language student, after months of leading a step-by-step discipleship class with some of the kids in La Carpio, and after diligently walking them through the steps of salvation and foundational biblical concepts, told me he'd been praying specifically for a way for the kids to make money. At first, I didn't understand why his ardent passion for evangelism translated into a prayer for employment opportunities.

But it makes sense. Most of the young kids I'm teaching in that class will graduate from 6th grade pretty soon, the highest level of education offered inside La Carpio. The chances of going on to high school afterward are slim. During that time they're at a pretty high risk for roaming the streets and getting involved in gang activities. This is another reason why the soccer and youth activities Lalo (the missionary there) does are great in giving the kids something to do with their spare time that they LOVE.

All that to say, computer literacy and ability to speak English are 2 skills that will give you a fighting chance at securing any type of employment, and considerably reputable employment at that (I know you won't read it but a study by some branch of the World Bank released a report in 2006 analyzing the impact of Intel's relocation to Costa Rica). Keep the La Carpio computer lab in your prayers. Please pray that in some way the problem-solving skills and computer literacy these kids get in that small, hot classroom will help keep them of the streets and in good employment or in further education.

The second philosophy behind the work put into this has to do with fighting marginalization and neutralizing structural violence. Fancy words to say - God doesn't see a distinction between immigrants and the poor in La Carpio and the rich diplomats living across the valley, flying over their heads in tourist jets and sending all the trash to the landfill behind their houses. Both should be given opportunities to work, and make a safe, legally protected home. The people of La Carpio face a particular set of challenges in reaching those goals, which opportunities for education and employment within their community will help neutralize. Please keep the community and kids of La Carpio in your prayers as well.

And so, this project doesn't just get me all excited and keep me busy doing tech stuff that interests me. It is a strategic move consistent with MAF's vision of reaching people in isolation, with direly needed resources - in this case, people isolated culturally, economically, and geographically will receive employment opportunities, training, and connectivity using the computer as a tool to help deliver those desperately needed resources. And "resources" refers partly to the physical equipment, but moreso to the process of personal formation and competency in an empowering way that makes them less dependent on the outside world for "stuff," and more self-reliant on themselves for solving their own problems. This is the strategic "theory" behind the joy of the work, that when coupled together, I believe glorifies God and gives him room to work, taking control of the "project" from our hands and putting it in his. Which, for all the hard work and good theory I can put into it, will amount to nothing if prayer and God's guidance were not spurring it on from the beginning.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

In Which Family Comes to Visit

Over the summer my family came to visit - the parents and Jason for 2 weeks, and Camden for about 2 months.

Camden spent his first week here up at the QERC biological research center. I'm quite jealous he got to do that, actually. I only got to visit him on the weekends in between work. The first weekend Nikki (friend from NNU) came up with us. The second weekend we went on a hike with David and he identified over 20 bird species. We went on a frog-hunt at night, and saw a female quetzal and several toucanettes the next morning.

Shortly after that, the rest of the fam arrived (minus nate and jill and alexyss). Over the next two weeks my family got to see pieces of my life here (language school, the office, La Carpio), and we visited different parts of Costa Rica on the weekends. My mom thought it was great fun to just do "normal things" and see my real day-to-day life rather than go gallavanting around the country all week. But on the weekends we visited a volcano, ancient Huatare city ruins in Guayabo (this was really cool, I'd wanted to visit this but hadn't yet had a chance), saw monkeys and slots at Manuel Antonio, and went to museums downtown.

So that was fun to have them around for 2 weeks, and they enjoyed seeing a slice of my life here. We talked a lot about how Costa Rica compares to Haiti. We talked a lot about you, probably, if you're reading this you get news about me and my mom talked me through every person she'd seen and how they were doing.

Camden stayed afterward to finish some language classes and explore more of the country. I didn't get a single second to do "touristy" stuff with him, unfortunately. But on the other hand, he got to do things a tourist wouldn't get to, like pour a cement floor in a church in San Carlos, visit a local dance exhibition, and go to one of the awesomest Christian Camps in Central America along with the La Carpio kids. I think that stuff's way cooler than white-water rafting and surfing. But I'm kind of weird. He just left a few days ago.

Anyway, that's what the fam did when they came to visit! Enjoy the photos!

P.S. - If you're reading this as an e-mail, you won't see all the photos! To see the post on the original site and get the full effect, make sure to click the title of the post, and then you'll see the slideshows.

Translation Trip

One of the more difficult language classes we had was one where Graziella came into our class with fake bruises on her face, wrapped in a shawl and pretending to be a single mom who was being physically abused and threatened by the father of her child. She was there to seek counseling from us. We had to offer suggestions and try to alleviate her situation (using mainly the second rule of subjunctive tense, "verbos de influencia" in case you're curious).

Each person took a turn, but I quickly realized that each person slipped into a role during that class. The pastors said pastorly things, trying to connect her with the church and trying to straighten out her view of God's love and her identity in Christ. The more evangelistic types tried to explain to her how to have a relationship with Jesus and what that meant. The social workers/health providers asked what type of public or private options she could hook up with, what social services were available through the church or state, and if the law could do anything. And what did I say? I think my response in a real situation would have been anthropological - I would ask more questions, trying to penetrate to the social and cultural injustices that create such situations, and I'd try to understand from her point of view what a desirable outcome would be. Which probably reveals a bit about why I'm the type of missionary I am, instead of a "minister" or a "preacher," which is why I'll never deliver a silver bullet counseling solution, but hope to possibly foster a learning environments where solutions are discovered internally in ways that could simply never come from an outsider like me. But what I actually said touched on all the areas I just mentioned, because the point of the exercise was to give suggestions, not ask questions.

Interesting note here, that we never covered specifically how to ask questions. Most of what we learn is how to make statements. How to give answers. We are asked the questions and taught to answer, we don't learn to use the language to ask others questions. Shame.

All that to say... tough lesson. And left me depressed for most of the day, questioning whether any of this schoolwork would get me to a point where I could field situations like that, confidently.

And no. It didn't. I joined a group of doctors and teenagers (about 15 docs and 25 high-schoolers) from Hinsdale Hospital in Chicago. I found myself seated between a well-trained doctor and counselor, and a thin young man about my age who'd limped in using an umbrella for a cane, holding a diagnosis from a local hospital of schizophernia and suicidal tendencies. In fact, he'd just come straight from the hospital. His eyes were watery and his hand trembled involuntarily. As he put it... "they couldn't do anything for me. So I might as well try here."

The following counseling session was extremely difficult to translate. The doctor gave him her full attention and as I translated I realized she'd done this before and was going methodically through a process - but it was hard to tell, she was doing it well and with genuine concern. I translated back and forth between them. Not just the situation was difficult. The grammar was hard. The ideas on both end were extremely hard to translate. They were talking in different directions, he about utter hopelessness, only able to focus on the bad. She about God's love and hope, which was meaningless to him. Since I was having difficulty translating ideas, I started translating literally, which suddenly became very depressing because the gap in ideology became evident real fast. At one point we found a photo of his wife who'd left him, which he dismissed with a wave of his hand as totally irrelevant, and kept talking about his leg which had suddenly become lame. "The only thing I like about that picture is that I'm standing in it," he fixated on. I immediately began to think about some of the characters in Dostoyevsky's books who exhibit severe physical disabilities that result from emotional trauma they're experiencing. There are connections within ourselves we often can't even understand. I began to think the problem wasn't his leg. And that's when I didn't know what to do and started translating literally. And like I mentioned before, a million questions came to mind as I talked with him. He showed us his most recent employment ID from Walmart (or its local equivalant) which I think was covering his health care costs. And I began asking myself questions about what type of societal pressures cause situations like this in Quepos, the more commercialized town we were in that supports the hugely popular tourist destination of Manuel Antonio. Fortunately the doctor was guiding the conversation and not my curiosity.

I met a friend named Steve on that trip. He was here helping with Conexiones, the group hosting the team of doctors. Steve had just come down from Washington and had been using his Spanish for 2 weeks and he had just had to translate for a pregnant woman, explaining to her that while she still had a baby in her, she was no longer technically pregnant because the baby had died and was stuck in her fallopian tube. She was hospitalized immediately. Stephen had me write this in his journal for him so he wouldn't forget. He also had me write that he had received a shot to allieve his tenanitis, a shot given to him for free by one of the doctors here that he couldn't afford to get before he left the U.S. His hand was still strengthening up after getting the shot, that's why I was writing things down for him to remember.

I loved meeting the people on this team. Our group was a hodgepodge of different ministries (christians, non-christians, catholics, evangelicals, nazarenes, seventh-day adventists), and for that reason I learned a LOT from them. When they found out I was from Haiti, several were familiar with Paul Farmer's work there. I translated for the infectologist, the pediatrician, the lung doc guy (can't remember what that's called, numologist or something), and general family practice. As it turns out, I worked hard with them all week, traveling to 4 different parts of Costa Rica to provide free medical attention and kids activities for the locals, and then had to leave for the fun part when they went to the beach, white-water rafting, hiking, and nice hotels. And for some reason this time I actually wanted to do those things. Probably just to spend more time with them.

I'm happy to be resourceful for visiting teams like these. I'm immensely excited to see ministries working together, and to get to be a part of that. It brings me great joy and I think God gets a kick out of it as well. It happens a lot at language school, before everyone gets pidgeon-holed into whatever specific denomination they're working with. Everyone unites around a common purpose - learning Spanish, medical work, rebuilding a house. MAF by its very design can't work except by partnering with other groups like these, that are open to working together with others. I'm realizing how crucial it is to work together like this as time goes on - and how rarely it happens. That's one thing I came out of language school firmly convinced of. I'll partner with anyone as often as I can.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

In whom do I put my trust?

I wrote this in my journal several months ago during our weeklong Easter trip through Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. I wasn't immediately able to post it but I still want to share some of the things God taught me while we were on that trip.

I can't think back on our trip without confessing two things that left a lasting impression on me - two things that left me realizing God still has a lot to work on in me.

We began and ended our trip with a prayer in the hotel room in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Although it was Holy Week, a week when I'm used to celebrating very religiously, especially attempting to focus on the joy of Christ's resurrection, for the most part our activities did not follow the church calendar too closely. Part of this, I learned later, is just a cultural difference. During Holy Week, most Catholics participate in the processions remembering Christ's death. Most evangelical Christians and the non-religious head out to the beaches or the mountains - the beaches are CRAMMED during Holy Week. In Costa Rica a 2-hour car ride to the beach ended up taking more than 6 hours! Evangelicals don't usually do a sunrise service (at least not in Central America), they certainly don't paint easter eggs or eat chocolate bunnies, and few even address the resurrection at all during the Sunday service. We talked about these differences in our language class and our teacher was fascinated at how different our traditions were. San José, I understand, as like a ghost town that week. Everyone was at the beach. Except the ones doing the processions. The Catholics.

All that being said, I didn't know all that on the outset so I felt guilt pangs often during the trip, realizing I was celebrating in a way rather far removed from the shared Christian calendar celebration of Christ's death and resurrection. Stemming from that guilt came two thoughts which stuck with me during the trip.

First, when preparing to travel, in what do we put our trust? Upon what do we meditate? While packing my belongings and dressing myself every morning of our journey, I was reminded of what I placed my trust in and looked to for protection and safety. It's what I "girded my loins with", in this case :). Held closely and protected more securely than anything else was my money belt, containing my passport, my debit card, and my memory chip of photos I'd taken on the trip. That way, if I ever got robbed or in a jam, I always had my money to solve my problems or my citizenship to fall back on. I've realized of late how incredibly fortunate, and, quite frankly, how unjustly fortunate one is to carry a U.S. passport. I can hopscotch through several countries, never worrying about visas, interviews, immigration... at the very least I'm granted practically hassle-free movement across borders. Beyond that, I understand 90-day tourist visa overstays are often overlooked, even though I've been careful to renew mine 3 times since arriving in Costa Rica by exiting the country for 72 hours and returning (a "taco bell run," my boss calls it).

The flexibility my passport gives me is backed by the dollars represented by my debit card. If everything falls to pieces, if only I have enough $$ I can probably get out of any difficult situation, I mentally remind myself. This is reinforced by the panicky helplessness I felt several times in Belize, because ATMs were so few and far between. Where would I sleep? How would I buy food? What came to my rescue? The greatest combination of the two things I carried to get me out of a jam - U.S. American dollars. Tied to every country's local currency, those bills were usable pretty much anywhere we went.

Oh, and my memory card with photos. No mystery there. I didn't want to loose the images of our adventures in Tikal and all the places we'd been up to that point. On one hand, I'm really proud of the fact that my memories and photos were so important to me. At first that seems like a much "nobler" thing to prioritize. Maybe so, but it also revealed my pride. I am proud of all the places we visited and things we got to see. I kept telling myself how unique this was and how no one had ever or could ever do it as well as we had. I even told myself God was directing our steps and guiding every even that happened. On one hand, that may be true, and I still believe it was, but to think somehow we merited that good fortune, that protection and that supernatural feeling of things clicking together in a fate/destiny-driven way? Sounds less like a spirit of God-honoring gratitude and more like a spirit of pride and entitlement. Perhaps these two are so closely related its hard to separate them. I turn the question to my passport country. When some claim that we are "blessed by God," what exactly are we saying? Or, in what situations do we proclaim that? A person who is truly blessed by God does not feel pride or entitlement, but rather humility and a magnetized pull toward God - what I'd call "love." There isn't a sense of "I deserve this," but "who am I to be so blessed?"

Consequently, perhaps the litmus test for whether are "blessed" or "entitled" comes when things fall apart. Then... do we shake our fists at the man because we aren't getting what we deserved, what was promised us, our "birthright?" Or do we place what we've lost before God, and as we had always done before, thank Him for the time we enjoyed his favor, confess his control over our situation, and continue to draw nearer to Him in faith and trust.

My citizenship, the $$ behind my debit card, my memories, and my availability to travel are a blessing and a source of joy in my life. But not for a second do I want to fall into the trap of somehow believing I am entitled to those things. If I am truly moved by the sense of injustice I feel when I realize I have enough money to get out of any jam while others are starving for lack of food, if I am truly humbled by the fact that I was arbitrarily born into a country and family that gives me the ability to cross three borders in one day without a hitch, I think I must be willing to sacrifice these blessings so that others might enjoy a more complete justice, a better sense of security, and the same open borders I enjoy. I must thank God for these blessings but put them back in his hands, and truly say, without reserve or holding back... "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Friday, August 07, 2009

A Wheely Good Lesson - What goes around comes around

After moving out of the Rueda's house I wasn't able to keep in touch with them very well. The parents were gone in Perú and the kids were busy with schoolwork. I went over once to fix their computer so they could talk on Skype to their parents while they were apart.

Upon returning from Perú, though, they invited myself and my family who was here visiting over for lunch. It had been a while since I'd had some good Peruvian cooking sprinkled with un poquito de amor (a little bit of love, as Irma says), and I wanted my family-family to meet my host family I'd lived with for 8 months, so we gladly accepted. We also took with us a little welcome-home gift that my parents had carried down from Idaho. One of my good friends and supporters, Ted Wheeler (who incidentally also taught me much of what I know about fixing computers in the NNU computer support center), had sent a brand new (to them) computer down here for their family to use, courtesy of my alma mater NNU, which has it's own shiny brand new ones :)

This is a HUGE blessing for them for a number of reasons. First, it was a totally unexpected and exciting "welcome back" gift. Secondly, the unexpected expense of a trip to Perú took a hit on their finances. I really don't know how they pay all their living expenses plus keep 2 kids in college and where the money comes from for them to do that. In any case, I know that any large purchases around the house have been "gifts from God" given to them by others. This is something they'd needed for a long time, but weren't in any position to buy themselves at this time (or in any near future). Thirdly, most of the work Carlos does is from home, at his computer. Having attended seminary and learned Greek, and then pastored for several years, he teaches several classes and uses the computer a LOT to make powerpoint slides and other teaching aids. While living in their house I worked on their old computer dozens of times, often late into the night because it inched along SO slowly. The rest of the family uses it a lots as well - for schoolwork, research, papers, and to chat with friends and family. Anyway, now thanks to Ted they're up and running again with a nice new computer, equipped with a DVD burner and everything!

Their visas are back in process, their eldest son just visited from El Salvador this week, and I just moved back in with them a few days ago. Oh, and in case you didn't catch the connection in the names here - Carlos "Rueda" translates as Carlos "Wheel," or "Wheeler" if you stretch it a little. And Ted "Wheeler" fixed him up with a brand new computer. What goes around comes around, eh?

And thus...things were put back together again. I figured you should get to hear the rest of the story! THANKS so much for your prayers!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Things Fall Apart

Things aren't so much falling apart right now as changing more quickly than I can take in. A lot has changed in the past few weeks to really destabilize the household I'm living in.

The largest change being that Carlos and Irma, my host parents, had to leave the country to return to Peru unexpectedly. Leaving their two kids and two language school students to run the house for a month.

I feel this would affect the family more than they talk about, but they don't seem to see it as much of an issue, and believe God had something to do with the timing and logistics that fell together rather abruptly.

The way it happened was this: about a month ago a new language student moved in with us. She's the type of person to whom everything that is unlikely to happen but can, does. So we were walking to church one morning when a viscious dog jumped out of the bushes and chomped on her ankle. It started bleeding, quite profusely, so we walked back to the house. To make a long story short, Irma called the Red Cross and the police to talk to the owner and make sure the dog was vaccinated. It was, and Melissa, the language student, was fine. But th next day Immigration came knocking at th door, asking for an appointment with Irma. She'd accidentally given her name when calling the police.

That night she gathered all her documents together and reviewed her story. They've been here 8 years now, the first four on invitatio from the Salvation Army, but the last four... "in the process" of getting legal residency. Their request for residency, she explained to me, was "sleeping with dreams of justice."

Those documents were woken from their slumber the next day at her interview, when the immigration officer presented her with deportation papers ready to be enforced. "Your deportation papers are right her," he explained to her. "But here is what I recommend you do..."

Because of her clean record and involvment in local churches and the community, there wasn't any reason to officially deport her. The immigration officer recommended she exit th ecountry, return to Perú, and re-enter legally. Through her eldest son, a legal resident, she could then reapply for residency, and because of recent legislation, probably get it.

Which, she explained, was God's way of turning the situation around for good. She just needed to quickly put together a trip to Perú for herself and her husband.

For which they left last Sunday. Leaving her two kids and me and another language student to the house on our own for a month.

However, both myself and Melissa, the other student, had already planned to move out at this time. Me to house-sit for my mission director at his house until August.

So that's the story of how things fell apart at the Rueda house, and many changes came into play. Please keep the Rueda family in your prayers as they figure this out over the next few months - especially Janette and Jonathon staying here in Costa Rica.

How's my residency status? It's in process as well. This has helped me realize how important it is to be in the country legally. I'd hate to live under constant threat of deportation, unable to call the police, unable to travel for fear of having my visa checked, running the risk of having to stay outside the country for living illegally. I've spent... well, 10 months now working on my visa. Please keep that in your prayers.

And my living situation? This summer I'm watching my mission directors' house, but in August I'm unsure of what I'll be doing. I need some guidance on that. Meaning, I need a clear direction to kick me in the face. I have a couple of ideas, but not sure which one to go with.

Costa Rica: 3 U.S.: 1

The score of the Costa Rica vs. U.S. world cup qualifying game (in case anyone's following it) was 3:1. Costa Rica won solidly, scoring their first goal in the first minute of the game and getting a solid 3 point lead before the U.S. got a sympathy goal from a penalty near the end of the game.

I was pretty excited to be able to watch the game at the stadium here in Costa Rica. My host brother and I and some language students got the cheapest tickets we could, which situated us behind the south-side goal. Turns out the location we sat in is notorious for having the roudiest, craziest fans. Sure enough, we were crammed shoulder to shoulder with a blob of people that moved and screamed their support/ridicule as one. Several times during the game this shook the cement stands we were on. It was quite a cool experience. I recognized some of the traditional sports cheers (Olé, la ola [the wave]), but learned lots of new ones. I also learned lots of important vocabulary, many words we DIDN'T learn at language school, very useful terms for sports matches and to use when someone cuts you off in traffic. One of these words was appended to every U.S. player's name as it was announced when they first came onto the field. However, it was cool how when announcing the Costa Rican players, the announcer didn't even say the last name - the audience screamed it in unison.

The Costa Rican's were pretty proud of their victory. Understandably so. It put them in first place in the CONCACAF section, the North American section fighting to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa next June 2010. At this point they're the only undefeated team in their division. So... they're doing pretty good. Really good.

I don't follow soccer too closely. My host brother Jonathan does, though. He enjoyed the game a lot. Seeing it the stadium kind of made it come alive for me. It's kind of cool how pervasive the soccer following is in the culture. A few days later Costa Rica played Trinidad and Tobago. I was in the food court at a mall waiting for a movie to start, and everyone in the room was glued to the TV coverage, all cheering or sucking in their breath as the teams took close shots on the goals.

I think Costa Rica will play the U.S. on U.S. soil in a few months here. Stay posted.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Costa Rica: Part Armadillos

About 2 weeks ago I participated in a mission trip with the youth group from my church, which I report on in this entry. You should know that this entry, however, is not the original. I actually wrote the original report in Spanish for our church secretary, which she corrected :) and posted on facebook. So what you're getting is a translation of that report back into English :) I hope you still enjoy it all the same.

On this trip I got to use some of my lesser-known talents that sit dormant until they have some reason to be used. I did lots of magic tricks for the kids, which they loved. And along with some others, we taught some breakdancing moves. It was awesome fun.

* * * * * *

We arrived in Abangaritos, Costa Rica after night had fallen. As soon as we arrived, we went immediately to the church to participate in the service and share with the community. Gary, one of the teens from our partner group, Funda Vida, sang some hip-hop songs. Later, two teens shared their testimonies. And finally a group did a choreography. Even though this was a weeknight (Thursday), they still had a church gathering. It was a great night to meet the community. However afterward we had to set up our tents in the dark.

For the next few days, we worked really hard and did lots of activities. One group prepared worship for the night service, some practiced their choreography, some did activities and crafts for the kids, and some helped dig a trench around the church in order to construct a wall.

I talked with Edgar, the trip leader, about the church and the little village of Abangaritos. In this village there is only one small "pulpería" (small convenience store) and a small restaurant that provide the food. There's one football field and one school that offer education and activities. There's one bar that provides beer. And this new fledgling church that provides hope. The church brings a little rivalry against the bar, because while we were there sometimes the music, worship, and dances from the church almost drowned out the noise form the bar. I don't think the bar is pleased that they lose clientele to the church.

The church has been in process for 5 years. Right now, a few posts support a tin roof. That setup is situated inside the partially-built walls for the new church. During the past five years, the walls of this structure have been constructed block by block. That is, the members bring in their "tithe" - cinder blocks - every week for years until they had enough to build the walls. Now they're waiting for a roof, which will probably be built in July of this year. It seemed to me very interesting that each person had brought a piece of the church until they arrived at what they have today.

Bit by bit, the community has accepted the church's presence in their village. Edgar explained to me that the church has supported the people of the village, and many resources, activities, and blessings have gone to this village through the church so that the people will know what and who the church represents, as a source of life and hope.

It is a place with significant need. The people of this village harvest watermelons to export, but that source of work only happens four months per year. The rest of the year, 8 months, they don't have a fixed source of income. And whats more, every 3 years the river rises and floods the house of the pastor and her family. They have to take out all their possessions and put them on top of the roof until the river recedes.

Speaking of floods, on our last day there, we had an experience that taught us a little of what the people suffer every year. On Saturday night at about 2 in the morning, a downpour fell, so intense that several tents flooded. Some 15 teenagers had to look for refuge under the roof of the outside cooking area. Fortunately, the pets shared their sleeping space with the victims. But no one complained. We realized that we had a small experience that those people suffer often.

We did much more, arriving totally spent in our sleeping bags every night. We did magic tricks, hip-hop classes, crafts, a bonfire, and dramas. We showed a family film free for the whole community. Many people came and stood around the outside, but didn't want to come in and sit down. But some of the families that did were not normal members of the church.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Adios Language school!

This is old news. But old news is good news. Actually it doesn't always work that way. In any case, my official graduation from the language school was back in May, but it didn't feel much like a transition point until this August, when now my year of language studies is over and all my classmates I went to school with have moved on to the countries they're serving in, or gone back to the U.S.

Anyway, just wanted to post some photos from graduation. I got the honor of carrying the Costa Rican flag! (since my last name starts with a "B," probably, and since that's where I'll be living). I also attached a video I helped one of my fellow classmates make while we were taking classes. I planned on making a video talking about language school, but I never found the time. Steve does a good job of highlighting some of why the school is there and what the language school experience is like.

The other reason I wanted to include this video is because at minute 3:45 there is an interview with one of my favorite teachers, Graziella. She has a particularly powerful testimony which she shared with us and even allowed me to video it. Graziella is an incredible teacher and taught lessons on culture and personal growth that went far beyond normal language classes. The flashcards she made us are one of the main reasons I put together the student resources website. Anyway, I was very blessed to have her as a teacher (twice, in fact, which isn't normally allowed) and hear lots of her stories. Here is one I invite you to watch...

Click here to go the the original post on Steve's blog

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Costa Rica: Part La Carpio

Poverty, crime, marginalization, pollution, and Nicaraguan migration have a name in the imagination of Costa Ricans: La Carpio, a strategic point for understanding the contemporary reality of the Central American country.

I mentioned in a previous blog about the best day of my week - Thursdays, when we go to a shantytown area called La Carpio for after-school kids activities. Recently I've been going twice a week - Thursdays for the children's activities, and Tuesdays to help teach some English classes and spend time with the kids in the computer lab.

Spending time in La Carpio really strikes a chord of compassion in my heart, for the kids, their families, and the environment they grow up in. During my interview classes I asked a lot of questions about Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica, and consequently had a few conversations about La Carpio (half the people living there are Nicarguan immigrants). It's no secret that the general Costa Rican reaction against Nicaraguan immigration is very negative. "Negative" is a pretty positive way of putting it, actually. A lot of bitterness and harsh generalizations came out of my interviews about Nicaraguan immigrants. These feelings are reinforced on a regular basis by the news coverage of crime and instability in the La Carpio area.

When I wrote my report on this particular activity, I went to the Internet to read some articles about the La Carpio area to fill in my knowledge. The quote above sums it up pretty well, but I'll repeat it again here:
Pobresa, criminalización, marginalización, contaminación y migración nicaragüense tienen un nombre en el imaginario social costarricense: La Carpio, punto estratégico para comprender la realidad contemporánea del país centroamericano.
Isabel Soto Mayedo, Agencia PL.
Poverty, crime, marginalization, pollution, and Nicaraguan migration have a name in the imagination of Costa Ricans: La Carpio, a strategic point for understanding the contemporary reality of the Central American country.
The only way in and out of La Carpio is a solitary thin paved road with steep drop-offs on both sides. Throughout the day, garbage trucks run in and out of La Carpio on that road, depositing over 700 tons of garbage, daily, in a landfill at the opposite end of the small isthmus-like area. La Carpio is bordered on two other sides by rivers. More than half of the people living there are below the poverty line, making an estimated $130-$160/month.

Costa Ricans probably have good reason to be a little wary of the area. It does suffer from a great deal of violent crime and domestic abuse. However, some of the reports I read pointed out that the statistics aren't really that much different than other areas.

It was interesting to hear and read the perceptions of people surrounding an area I'd been visiting regularly for several months. The risk involved in working in that area can't be denied, but we'd never felt threatened or in danger. I'd been rather privilaged to have some of the kids invite me to meet their families, who'd welcomed me in for a cup of coffee and some "pico" bread. I interviewed one woman a few times for my class... and in this particular case my interview was driven more by my fascination and curiosity about the culture than my spanish learning.

All this to say, it was difficult for me to put together a "report" drawing from these varied sources. I didn't really know how to go about it and remain true to all the views people had presented to me.

Besides the report, I also assembled a video using photos taken during visits to La Carpio. I was also having difficulty editing this together and writing the subtitles, because it sounded so sterile and impersonal. As I was struggling over the phrases I wanted to use to subtitle the video, I had a sudden revelation as to what the problem was. Because I was writing the subtitles in Spanish, using photos and events from the people's lives I knew, I suddenly realized that I was writing the subtitles in a way I would never connect with the kids in the photos. That is... I realized that I'd probably get the chance to show them this video, and they'd understand all of it because it was in Spanish. The intended audience... was them, the people in the photos. When they actually watched this video, they wouldn't be interested in information "about" themselves or the area they lived in. Who wants to hear information describing oneself as if they're some specimen or "otherness"? This realization caused me to write the subtitles in a completely different way, from "within" La Carpio, in a way that I hoped I could bring the video with me and we could watch it together, without anyone feeling like it was "about" them but rather everyone feeling like it naturally rose "from" within all of us.

Woah, does it sound like I'm preaching? I kind of feel like feel like I'm preaching. That's probably as close as I'll ever get to preaching.

Sources I used for the writing of this article and my report for class are mentioned in the previous post, along with the story about Deliana, the doctor at the clinic in La Carpio.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Meet Deliana Dale

This is Deliana Dale.
The first time I met Deliana she was busy stitching up a patient who’d come in that morning with several gunshot wounds. After the patient was bandaged up and sent on his way, the doctors in the La Carpio clinic sat around during a short break time and discussed their most recent patient, as well as the usual morning news of drug busts, car accidents, midnight robbing and murders. For some reason the local Costa Rica news channels enjoy starting off the day on a rather morbid note. All the gory stories come out bright and early while everyone eats breakfast. In any case, I watched Deliana as she talked, eyes wide with expression, shifting vigorously in her seat, as she declared emphatically that the only murderers who got tracked down were those who killed someone with enough notoriety and money for the police to make it worth their while. Her expressions and gestures were so animated, I hardly even needed to know any Spanish to understand her. A month later, when I began my Spanish class in which I interview people over the course of the trimester about different themes, she was one of the first people I called.

To understand why interviewing Deliana was so important, you have to understand a little bit about the area where she works – La Carpio. The shanty-town area of La Carpio, in the minds of Costa Ricans, is an area synonymous with poverty, crime, marginalization, contamination, and Nicaraguan migration. The people in this area are surrounded on two sides by rivers, and on one side by the city dump, which since the year 2000 has received 700 tons of waste. Daily. Half of the people living in La Carpio are Nicaraguan immigrants, many undocumented and nearly all scraping by on meager salaries. The average salary in this area, as estimated by the Costa Rican Joint Institute of Social Aid (Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social de Costa Rica) is between $130 and $165 dollars per month. The area is also wrought with domestic violence and crime, although some statistics and articles I read challenge that. Even with such dangerous environmental hazards, Deliana explained to me that one of the biggest problems she saw in her patients was their diet. Her patients suffering from obesity, hypertension, and diabetes find it too hard to make a complete lifestyle change to eat healthier. I'll post another blog entry soon about La Carpio for some more information on the area.

Over the course of our interviews, I found out lots of interesting things about Deliana. Deliana grew up in Ecuador, accepted Christ at age 8, and decided to serve God as a missionary doctor at age 16. 9 years ago she came to Costa Rica to work with Christ For the City as a family doctor in La Carpio. She drives a nice rose-pink 2002 Toyota Yaris. It looks practically new. I asked her if she’d had any trouble parking it in La Carpio. None at all, she told me. “Watch where you’re throwing those rocks, you’ll hit the doctor’s car!” she’d heard people on the street yell at each other before they took their target practice somewhere else. However, her car had been broken into in San José and Escazu. Escazu is the rich expat part of town. But it’s never been touched in La Carpio.

Just recently I’ve had to stop meeting with Deliana, and she’s stopped working at the clinic for a few months. Why? She’s carrying her and her husband’s first child, and her belly has grown so large she can’t even drive. I can’t believe she continued working in the clinic as long as she did. I think the final straw was when she began having trouble examining patients because her belly hit the table and prevented her from peering into equipment she used to examine them.

A few weeks into the interviews I met Deliana’s husband, Dan. Dan and Deliana Dale. Absolutely nothing I know about Deliana explains the bizarre story of how she met her husband. She only uses the computer to research medical problems and write an occasional e-mail. But within a month of posting her profile on a Christian dating website (lovenseek.com, if you want to check it out) she got in touch with her future husband, Dan who's Canadian. They began their relationship purely on-line, and got to know each other from a distance. At that point, Dan didn’t speak any Spanish, and Deliana’s English was pretty limited. Over the course of two-and-a-half years they got to know each other better, through personal visits as well, got engaged, and have now been married for 2 years, as of March 24.

In Spanish, you don’t say someone is going to “have” a baby. It doesn’t really make sense in English either – anyone can “have” a baby, as long as they happen to be holding one. Even I can have a baby. Just this week I had a baby, in fact, holding her in my arms. In Spanish, a woman “gives light” to a baby. Deliana will be “giving light” to her first child within the next month (at the time I wrote this).

The photos I posted along with this article depict Deliana’s last appointment with a woman in La Carpio before she started her maternity leave. Some of the shots of La Carpio area I took at other times. The source for the information about La Carpio is from this article (linked), and this article (linked). It also includes some information I gathered in interviews with another person on my route, from the receiving end of the clinical work. Danice, a 26-year-old mom with 5 kids, actually lives deep inside the winding roads of La Carpio, and over the course of several weeks helped me with a number of my questions.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

9 Days 10 nights

View Dios Guia Mi Camino in a larger map

Where has Brendan been the past week?

For Holy Week we had several days off, so a fellow language student and I took the opportunity to work our way as cheaply as possible through Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, hitting some of the more famous Mayan Ruins. We took a short 1-hour flight from Costa Rica to Honduras, and made our way through the three countries using public buses and a ferry into Belize.

At the end of our first full day it really struck me that we were playing a rather serious hopscotch game across several borders when I realized I had 5 different currencies in my wallet - US dollars, Costa Rican colones, Honduran lempiras, Belizean dollars, and Guatemalan quetzals. At the end of the first 24 hours, we'd traveled by air, land, and sea through 4 countries. After clearing customs in Costa Rica, I had 10 new stamps in my passport.

When we planned this we were disappointed that we'd be missing the Holy Week traditions in Costa Rica... but as it turns out we caught a lot of them in Honduras.

The awesome thing about this is that I get to write two papers about the trip, in Spanish of course, to turn in as a part of my class. That being said, I'll post more details later, but it's late and beginning tomorrow we have our final exams.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

In Search of Q

In Search of Q

(Part One: On pursuing the Resplendent Quetzal and not finding it)

I went to the place where I thought you would be,
I got up early, before the sun rose,
and went to the quiet place
at the foot of the rock, where it is said that you often visit
in the early morning hours.

I sat there, in the early morning hours at the base of the rock,
and waited for you to come.

From the farthest reaches of the earth come tourists
wanting a glimpse of your iridescent splendor,
Your red, green, and teal feathers,
Your spiky crown and rainbow plumage.

From Europe, Canada, the United States, and all parts of the world,
Come tourists with fishing hats, khaki vests,
And cameras with lenses longer than my arm,
To catch a glimpse of your resplendent grandeur.

I don't come from far off,
I don't have huge cameras,
And I'm not spending hundreds of dollars a night,
to stay in the big fancy places.

Yet they return with stories of sightings,
with photos of you and stories about the
elusive displays they witnessed.

I just came here this morning,
simple and plainly,
to see you.

And you didn't show up.

Is it because I don't know what I'm looking for?
Did I pass you several times but fail to recognize your call
Or see your colors through the dense jungle growth?

Is it because I'm here at the wrong time?
 Am I wearing the wrong color?
Am I making too much noise?

I have read that this is your sanctuary...
It is here you make your glory shine.
The guides have pointed me in this direction...
“Here is where you are bound to see them,”
they assured me.
Others have confirmed your presence in this area,
with photographs and stories and bright-eyed stories of
The Experience.
Yet you have not made yourself known to me.

I came here intentionally,
with the hope and desire to see you.
But as is often the case,
For reasons I cannot explain,
You never showed up.

This is not the first time, my elusive Q.
I have written this story again, and again,
in constant search for you.
I begin to fear people might think I've given up searching,
but this is not the case; I show up faithfully
every morning in hopes of seeing you.

I went. I waited. But you never showed up.

Part 2: On considering the possibility that the quetzal appears and yet I tell no one

And after so long writing these poems about how I strove
to meet with you,
but you never showed up,
It occurs to me that there are likely scores of others
who have gone in search of the resplendent quetzal
and returned without the sparkling-eyed stories
of colorful plumage and extravagant displays.
They likely sit quietly and listen to others tell their stories
filled with a mixture of hope, expectation, wonder,
and emptiness, yearning, and the only question in this world more powerful than “Why do these things happen to me?”
“Why DON'T these things happen to me?”

I think to myself,
even if I did see the elusive quetzal,
Would I tell anyone about it?
Would I keep it a secret between me and him?
And for myself: Would I remain in ardent pursuit, showing up every morning in hope of seeing him, if I had seen him with my own eyes, taken a photo, and in a sense captured his beauty?

What would I do if I actually SAW this brilliant creature before my very eyes this morning?

I know the story I want to tell.
I want to say that I went out that morning to the quiet place at the foot of the rock.
I wrote the poem about longing and searching,
Hoping, praying, and believing he would show up.
And after patient waiting, praying, full of faith and assurance,
He showed up.

That is story I want to tell. That is the story people's itching ears want to hear.

But something inside me stops short, thinking...
If he WERE to show up,
why tell the story with such certainty and conviction
as so many have done before?
That is not what I felt. That is not what happened.

And if he WERE to show up,
what if I were to tell the story as it so often happens in real life?
Wherein I put the lens on my camera,
Put away my binoculars,
and walk out of the jungle dejected and discouraged,
That I was there waiting,
and he never showed up?

What IF I were to keep the sighting to myself and never tell anyone whether the wondrous quetzal showed up, or not?

Would I dishonor him? Or glorify him perhaps, offering hope and renewed passion in those who have showed up so often at the foot of the rock to see the elusive quetzal, but have not. And yet, with a stubborn determination and blind resilience only love can give, return to the rock again,
and again,
and again,
in hopes of seeing the desire of their heart
flashing and swooping and beaming with color.

On the other hand,
I would angrily condemn the one who had never spotted the quetzal,
yet proclaimed his story as if he had,
and besides, his pretentiousness would be evident,
as he attempted to contrive an experience he never had.

In the same way, having then seen the quetzal,
perhaps I would not even be able to pretend,
in good faith or full transparency,
that I had never seen it.
Such an experience, as it cannot be faked,
neither can it be denied once it has taken place.

Part 3: Q sighting
(Describing the glorious moment in which the quetzal is seen, it having happened or not, and the thoughts therewith)

O glorious flashes of green and red!
Reflecting golden sunlight off your rapidly beating wings!
As I imagined but so much more beautiful!
So much quicker, and elusive than I imagined,
tantalizing glimpses as you flit from branch to branch,
never stopping for longer than a few short moments!

Oh the beauty, to which my eyes were fixed solidly,
not just drawn by the beauty
but because I feared that if I took my eyes off you for a single split second,
I would not see where you moved,
where you showed up next.

Ay it was difficult enough to find you the first time,
and from that second on I refused to let my eyes break from your beauty,
afraid that you would fly away and I would return to searching the trees in vain.

But praises be! That you made yourself known to me, soaring above my head in the clear blue sky,
Not just “showing up” but swooping and dancing in a glorious ballet of light and motion!

I came. I waited. And you showed up.

Having seen the quetzal dozens of times since then, but still always feeling the thrill and surging excitement of that first encounter.


When I left that day I made a promise.
Whether I did or didn't see the quetzal, I'd be back there again, and I keep going back, looking for him every day until I found him or died believing he was there.

And I promised my self that even if I DID see the quetzal, I WOULDN'T tell some amazing story about seeing it, but leave it up to doubt. Instead, I'd LIVE as if I saw it, that is, without anyone knowing whether I saw it that first day or not, I'd be back every morning just to try and get a glimpse of him.

I wouldn't TELL the story, but I'd SHOW it. And if anyone asks... I wouldn't tell them... not because I want to keep it a secret but I want to be back there every morning, pursuing and searching for the quetzal as if I'd never seen him the first time.

The joy is certainly in seeing the quetzal, but perhaps for whom the sighting is a rarity or has not yet happened, the joy is moreso in realizing that if one searches for him, he will show up – maybe not this time, maybe not the next time, but there is value in coming back, again and again to search for him, even if no other time has resulted in a sighting.

Costa Rica: Part Visitors

I wish everyone could join me down here for a few days, as several of my friends have done in the past 4 weeks.

I'm currently writing this at a research station located at the end of a remote dirt road off the Inter-American highway, partway between San José (the capital of Costa Rica where I'm attending language school) and Panama. I'm sitting outside on the porch watching the sun set over yonder mountain ridge, a mountain ridge which divides this privately owned eco-tourism community from the Quetzal National Park, the most recently designated national park land in Costa Rica. I'm looking out at a rushing brook cutting through the cloud forest jungle habitat outside our rooms, seriously considering the possibility of helping this research center set up an improved website to post student research and news about the center.

And why am I here this weekend? Nathanael and Laura, two of my best friends from NNU, chiseled out some spring break time to come visit me and see some of the beauty of Costa Rica. I took this opportunity to take up a friend's offer to visit him at the Quetzal Education and Research Center, where he's been working for the past year hosting research groups that come down from Nazarene colleges in the U.S. And so, en route to Manuel Antonio beach, Nathanael, Laura, and I have spent the day hiking through the cloud forest in search of the elusive Quetzal bird, arguably the most beautiful bird in the world, possibly a close tie to the Bird of Paradise.

We hit several cool spots during their time here - the Quetzal research Center at San Gerardo de Dota, where we saw 3 quetzals, summer tanagers and flame-colored tanagers, yellow-bellied siscanes, collared red starts, and listened to the melodic call of the black-faced soltaire. In Manuel Antonio we saw 6 sloths, over a dozen white-faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys (very few of these are left), two Jesus Christ lizards (named as such because they can walk on water), and an agouti. We sat watching what could have been a segment for the Discovery Channel as a family of about a dozen white-faced capuchins came literally within arm's reach of us, and began wrestling, fighting over water, and scared off an invading raccoon from their drinking spot. A little momma capuchin carried her baby on her back and came right up to a fellow hiker to steal food from him.

The week before I hit some of the same spots with Mark, Sarah, Josh, and Klara - including the Arenal Volcano, Cartago, and the ruins in the Orosi Valley. We visited "el Avión" in Manuel Antonio, an abandoned C125 cargo plane that's been remodeled into a restaurant and bar. More than just an old cargo plane, this huge thing is a piece of history. It was one of two planes purchased by the U.S. during the Iran-Contra affair to supply Nicaraguan rebels with weapons. The other plane was shot down, and this one was transported to Manuel Antonio to lure interested travelers. Like us.

Mark, Sarah, and I visited La Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles in Cartago, which has such a fascinating history and description than I'll describe it in more detail elsewhere. Suffice to say it's a Catholic cathedral with the reputation (and aura) of a theme park - except, somber and hallowed. People come from everywhere to wash wounds in the healing waters or fill up small bottles with the holy waters. You can buy all sorts of small charms to remind you of your religious pilgrimage to this location where a magical statue of the Virgin Mary appeared several centuries ago and refuses to leave. I'll describe it in more detail elsewhere - I ended up writing a paper on it as part of my Spanish class.

I forced my friends to experience some of my "normal life," not just galavant around the country :) Mark and Sarah joined me one day for a language class, as I had to carefully balance my time between traveling with friends and trying to keep up with classes. Nathanael and Laura got to come watch a presentation by a group of dancers composed of language students learning traditional Costa Rican dances, led by my grammar teacher Graziella. Within an hour of arriving, Nathanael and Laura went straight to La Carpio with the kids-group we work with there.

Props to both groups of friends who ventured out on their own to travel around by bus and take themselves to different parts of the city. Mark and Sarah visited more museums and places than I've even been to downtown, and Nathanael and Laura made it out to a coffee tour. Josh had already lived here for several months during college, so getting around was no problem for him.

So, such was Costa Rica, Part Visitors. There's so much I didn't even mention: canopy zip-lining, volcano hikes, ancient ruins. Like I said, I wish so many of you could join me here for a short time to experience in person the beauty of Costa Rica, to wind through the cloud forests, to scour the trees for a glimpse of the quetzal, to watch a nature-channel documentary take place before your eyes. I wish everyone could come meet the people who I'm so privilaged to learn from, to work with, and to serve. There's really no substitute for seeing it for yourself. However, time with friends in Costa Rica helped me look through my time here through a different lens, making it fresh and new and exciting all over again. Their time here enriched my experience, and I know they enjoyed it as well.