In the past two weeks, El Balsamo has become more like home and family to me. Now that everyone knows me, I can sit down in plastic chairs outside people's houses and chat for hours about anything and everything. I am attuned to the subtle nuances of life, and now I can participate more fully. I can sense the eager eyes of the pig when she wants to sneak into the house and shoo her away. I know the back ways to get through the village, and I can walk through the steep rocky trails in flip-flops.
The community has also warmed up to me, as the realize that I am here to stay for a bit longer. I was invited to make a surprise birthday cake for a quincenera using one of the improved cookstoves in the community that Asofenix installed. It was good fun mixing batter and chatting with my friend and her parrot in her kitchen. The next day I went to the birthday party for dinner, and it was fun chatting and celebrating. They know me well and are very considerate, so they even gave me juice instead soda and fished the vegetables out a soup so I didn't have to eat the meat. I felt like part of the family chatting with the ladies and playing with the kids.
I have really enjoyed getting to learn new things including how to ride a horse in flip-flops and make perfectly round corn tortillas. Whenever people want a laugh, they ask to listen to my pathetic attempts to whistle. I am determined to learn before I leave, and they assure me it is really easy although I still haven't had much success so far. I am also learning a bit how to dance, and they even threw me a dance party where I self-consciously danced in the dim light of flashlights with a surprisingly large number of people who came to watch. Some people have even taken to calling me "Chenita," an affectionate manipulation of my nickname.
Getting to know people better has also given me insight into the struggles and difficulties that the people are facing. It is a particularly dry winter here, and because the bean crops did not come out, most people are out of work and are struggling to make ends meet. I heard about one lady's struggles with an oppressive mother. I listened to a mother grieving for her son who died suddenly, and talked to his wife who is now working several jobs to support her children. I listened to people who were planning to go back to Costa Rica early to work the back-breaking night shift coffee plantations to make enough money to support their families. A friend told me how before the dirt road was constructed, she would have to wake up at 3 am and hike 2 hours by foot to take a 3 hour bus to go to secondary school, and how everyone dropped out of school to avoid the walk except for her and on other person from El Balsamo.
I am humbled by the strength and resilience of the people, and I am honored to be able to listen to their stories. One of the gems came from a discussion I was having about learning and development with one of the leaders in the community. Roughly translated, he told me that "development is when people grow their conscience." He told me how it doesn't matter how much people have or don't have if they do not care for and care about what they have. The way he put it in Spanish was so eloquent and struck a chord with what I have been experiencing and learning about the practice of care.
I have loved spending so much time with children. My workshops in the school continue to be a learning process, but the kids are more comfortable with me now and I was invited to start working with another community as well. It was a beautiful hike up the mountain with the other school, and my experiences have reinforced how much I enjoy rewards of the beautiful challenge of education. I also visited 36 households with cookstoves to start working on a digital registry of the cookstove projects in El Balsamo and enjoyed chatting with the women. I have been working on planting trees and am helping plan a workshop about biofertilizers and pesticides to help combat the tomato plagues that have been affecting the patio gardens.
When I am not working, I am usually playing, and the three kids that I play with every day have become little siblings to me. They come to me to settle their fights about whether there "owl" (out) or "saaf" (safe) in our games of baseball. They have commandeered my camera taking hundreds of pictures of themselves and me when I am not watching. They are trying to set me up and find a boyfriend and it is amusing to see how excited they get when I talk to teenaged boys. They taught me how to make origami using bean shells, and love to sneak up to me. Yesterday, they took 30 minutes to say goodnight to me because they kept tickling me and then hugging me and telling me not to leave them. They told me "hasta Lunes," but they ended up waking up early anyway to see me off in the cattle truck this morning. I don't want to think about when I have to say goodbye for real.