Monday, March 22, 2010


Peace Corps sent me to a small town in Alajuela, near the border with Nicaragua and in the tropical near-rainforest. I´m staying at another volunteer´s place. This is how volunteers live:

It´s pretty rural. Here´s the view from the kitchen window:

One of the volunteer´s main projects is an internet cafe. He raised $4000 to buy 8 computers, software, desks, wiring, backup batteries, and a printer, and uses a free satellite uplink provided by the government:

He teaches computer classes and has trained a few kids to run the cafe and teach their own classes. A lot of the classes include activities in Excel and Word which ask kids to be creative, reflect on their experiences, read, and write, so the class becomes a way to teach a lot of different things. The kids who help administer the cafe are learning entrepreneurial, teaching, leadership, and communications skills. Sometimes it´s easiest to teach kids because they have free time and nothing to loose.

Classes for adults have their own advantages, though: you can teach accounting and other business skills, and you can connect people to far-away resources, like helping farmers to communicate with the Ministry of Agriculture and take advantage of programs which give away better seeds.

On a seperate note for the biologically, chemically, or environmentally inclined, here´s a picture of a nearby ¨biodigester.¨ Waste from the pigpen goes in one end, slightly cleaner water comes out the far end, and in the middle anaerobic bacteria produce a lot of methane, which fills up the bag, connects to your house through the hose, and powers your stove. Now that´s cooking with gas!

As my host put it, Costa Rica is a developed enough country that Peace Corps projects aren´t just about helping people to survive. They´re about figuring out better ways to live.

Monday, March 15, 2010


Community Economic Development is community driven, so I'll spend my first few months on site integrating into the community and learning about their needs. My homework this last week included practicing two of the tools Peace Corps recommends--community mapping and interviews:

Of course, learning about the local economy goes beyond visiting pulperías (corner stores). I've also learned about making sugar:

and raising pigs (yes, they're eating sausage):

I ask questions to get a sense of how everything works. Take, for example, timing. If you buy young pigs, how long until they're big enough to sell them at a decent profit? (3 months). How long do you have to re-invest all your profits in your pulperia before you really start making money? (a year). How quickly can you take out a business loan from the bank? (6 months, but if you're in a hurry you can pay more interest and take out a personal loan).

No sudden realizations or answers yet. But on Sunday my host family showed me a local swimming hole:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Peace Corps Approach to Development

Unlike other aid and development organizations, Peace Corps rarely gives money or goods to the communities they target. Peace Corps offers people (me). And Peace Corps is clear: I'm not here to do anything for the community; I'm only supposed to assist them with their own projects. It's better for the community in the long run to do it themselves even if I could do it faster and better by myself.

Peace Corps defines our role as "learners, change agents, co-trainers, co-facilitators, project co-planners, and mentors." Peace Corps defines development as "helping people develop the capacity to improve their own lives." But Peace Corps also has two other goals: "to promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people."

Focusing now on these cultural exchange goals, here are a few pictures of where I live:

Wild bananas, with Josue, my host brother

The local soccer field

Stores in Vuelta de Jorco, about a kilometer down the road. Here they have real hardware stores.

My room

Sunset; view from my house

Also, I have a new address. This is the direct address to my host family's house and should reach me faster, but it's only good while I'm here. If you send a letter before May 1, send it to this address. After May 1, send it to the "Apartado Postal" address in the earlier post:

Alex Douglas
[address details removed for privacy reasons - email me or use alternate address]
San Jose
Costa Rica

Perhaps I should explain: In Costa Rica we don't use street names and numbers; we use landmarks, cardinal directions, and distances in meters. If you get lost you can always ask.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Greetings from Ojo de Agua!

Yesterday I moved in with my host family in Ojo de Agua, part of a small town called Vuelta de Jorco about 25 kilometers from the center of San Jose. We're up in the mountains and the weather is perfect with not a mosquito in sight. On Monday I start Spanish classes with the five other volunteers who are training in the same town. I'm about a kilometer up from the center of town, but the walk downhill is great--check out the view from my house!

On Tuesdays we'll take the bus about 5 kilometers to meet up with the other Community Economic Development volunteers, and on Thursdays we'll take the bus all the way to San Jose to get together with the whole group. I'll be here for 11 weeks, although that includes a few trips to visit volunteers in other parts of the country. Although I love the other volunteers, it's nice to switch to a more peaceful lifestyle. I'm living with a grandmother and great-grandmother, and their children and grandchildren are always around, but we go to sleep early, get up early, and there's time to write letters or go for a walk. At least, the weekends are nice and peaceful. Things may change when the classes and homework build up!

I've attached a picture from the orientation retreat with a number of other volunteers in the classroom just so you can get a rough idea of the group.

A note for those of you writing letters: I only get mail through Peace Corps on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I don't think there's anywhere to mail a letter without walking a few kilometers, so we'll all have to be patient.

We'll see if I can make it to an internet cafe this afternoon. In a moment I'm leaving with Josue--my host mom's grandson who is nine years old--to walk up the mountain a bit and explore a coffee plantation.

¡Hasta Luego!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Greetings from Beautiful Costa Rica

Just arrived (and no daylight left to take a better picture!) We checked out of the hotel in DC at six this morning and spent most of the day in transit, but the night air in the hills above San Jose is perfect. It's a little humid, but right around 70 and smells of hydrangeas. We'll spend the next few days in orientation before we move in with our first host families and dig deeper into training. Everyone I've met so far--including 55 other volunteers--is kind, passionate, and collected.

You can't call me, but you can reach me by email (unmapped at gmail dot com) or snail mail:

Alex Douglas, PCT
Cuerpo de Paz
Apartado Postal 1266-1000
San Jose
Costa Rica

It'll take me a while to respond to either, but bit by bit I'll be in touch.