Thursday, July 21, 2011

Weeks 25-26: Signing Off

 I am now down to my final days in Costa Rica. Amazing. As the departure day draws near I am thinking more and more about being home---and at the same time reflecting on the past six months. It's been an adventure.

To my boys: I'm going to miss you guys.
If you told me a year ago that I would be living in Costa Rica, I would have laughed and dismissed that idea. There was no reason to leave my job, friends, and life as I knew it in exchange for something so uncertain. But thankfully God called and brought me here, and by his grace I've been blessed through this time. There are so many things that I have learned from this experience that I believe will have a profound impact on the rest of my life. I pray that they will.

With so many lessons learned, it's difficult to express my entire sentiment on this experience. However, I think one lesson really captures the essense of what God wanted to teach me here: God doesn't need me to go out and save the world--He will redeem this world. On the contrary, I have seen how much I need Christ in my own heart. A broken heart cannot fix a broken world. I can only ask the Lord to transform my own heart that I might be an instrument in his hands. Here there is power.

To all those who have prayed for me, encouraged me, and supported me: Thank you. Without your faithfulness I would not be here in Costa Rica. You each have played a huge part in the blessings God has bestowed on me.

This is my last blog and the next time you hear from me--God willing--it will be in person. Until then...

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. Gal. 6:18

Signing off...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Weeks 22-24: Run with Endurance!

Papa, check out this cow pasture!
About a month ago I sat down and looked through a Costa Rican travel guide. With my time dwindling, I hoped to find one more weekend adventure to take before returning to the States. It didn’t take long before I found the page on Mount Chirripo, Costa Rica’s tallest mountain peak. Sitting at a mere 12,530 feet above sea level, Mount Chirripo is one of the tallest mountains in Central America and a challenge for any would-be-climber. I was sold right when I came to the page, and soon afterwards I convinced three of my fellow interns to join me on this new found quest.

Into the forest.

This past weekend the four of us set out to conquer Mt. Chirripo. I believe my exact words before the climb were (as so often is my saying): “we’re going to dominate Mt. Chirripo.” Well, there was plenty of domination going on this weekend—mostly of my knees, calves, and feet.  The plan was to hike up to the summit on Saturday and return on Sunday. There was a lodge 5 km from the summit where we would spend Saturday night.  Most people set aside at least 3 days for the climb and descent, but because of time limitations…and pride…we would have to do it in two.

A small victory on Saturday--reaching the lodge.

The Valley of Rabbits

After a grueling day of hiking on Saturday, including parts of the trail called “Hill of no Hope” and “Hill of Repentance” (and there was plenty of repentance on that hill…), we came to the base camp lodge. Because of storms moving in, we decided to not climb to the summit that afternoon. We sat around Saturday afternoon in our lodge room, debating whether or not we would attempt a summit climb on Sunday. A summit attempt on Sunday meant that we would have to cover 25km (15 miles) of steep elevation change all in one day. We had come too close and could not be defeated, so we woke at 2:00am Sunday morning and began the 5 km climb to the summit. With headlamps and tired bodies, we proceeded to the summit---and made it! I let out a Braveheart –sized yell as I gazed out across some of the most beautiful land in the world. There we stood, just before sunrise, on top of Costa Rica.
A freezing cold summit!

Now back in Atenas (and an elevation where I can breathe again), our time to finish our projects is also quickly dwindling. With all the interns leaving in less than three weeks, we still have much work to complete on several projects. Honestly, I don’t see how we will finish in time. But, regardless of the situation, I hope that we can finish with a strong effort. I was recently reminded by a good friend of a verse in Hebrews:  ...Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.. Heb 12:1,2. While not wanting to over-simplify this verse, I think it does speak to the ones that will become tired and weary in the race that is life—in my case, an internship.  
Please pray that God will show us a miracle and let all the necessary work be completed in these final days. Also pray that we would remember why we are doing this work and for whom. It is easy to become distracted with our daily labor and to forget our ultimate calling in Christ.
Surely in Him we will find endurance.
Sunrise after the summit---Well worth the pain.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Weeks 19-21: Mangos of Wrath

One of the great things about being an EMI intern is that we get time during the week to dedicate toward another avenue ministry. In fact, we have been strongly encouraged to take part in some other form of ministry and service. Back in January, the whole group of interns volunteered to help a local orphanage called Hogar de Vida. We spent the afternoon on landscape duty underneath the shade of a large grove of mangos. After a few hours of toil and few minutes of horsing around, we had the job done. I really enjoyed working there that day, so I decided to continue that as my avenue of service.

The band returns.

Working at Hogar de Vida has become one of my favorite weekly activities. Typically I do some type of landscape chore, and many times that can be as simple as picking up mangos. The orphanage is spread across a large tract of land and has more mango trees than you can shake a stick at. Consequently, I have learned that mango trees are the devil in disguise---they produce enough litter to keep one man busy for an entire year. The fruit is good, but after picking up a thousand rotten, sticky, smelly mangos, your appetite might be changed permanently. Still, I love working outside and it's a nice change of pace from the typical office work.

The orphanage has been in a tight spot with money recently and with a limited budget they have had to lay off maintenance personnel. The orphanage also happens to be only 100 feet from the front door of my house--making it a great place for me to serve. Honestly, it's one of the places I feel most at home and comfortable in---as well as the most satisfying work. There's nothing like shoveling dirt and rotten mangos!
The kids at the orphanage are cute (of course) and quite funny. They love to say "hola" (multiple times, of course) to me as I pass by with the wheelbarrow. Talking with 4 year olds in Spanish is so great; I can say whatever I want and won't be judged a bit!

One thing I don't like at Hogar: The pet parrots that live on the porch. These parrots have mastered the song of crying children and other obnoxious-sounding voices (all in Spanish). When are pet birds a good idea anyways? Never is the answer.

I added a couple of pictures from our Host Family Appreciation Day that was held last weekend. As custom, the interns got to plan a Saturday event to celebrate and show our appreciation for our Tico host families. We had a pool party and planned a few games for the families. One of our brilliant activities was to let the host families shoot water balloons at us from a launcher constructed earlier in the week. A few rubber exercise bands and duct tape can make a mean catapult.

The Weapon
We lined-up to face our payback for 5 months of lousy Spanish, dirty laundry, and messy rooms. After the third or fourth balloon whizzed by, I decided that I would turn around and avoid taking one to the face. Unfortunately, I was the first victim, and took a water balloon straight to the neck. I was seeing stars after the balloon nearly severed my unprotected spinal cord. A relay game would have been better, I thought to myself at that point...

The kids got a big kick out of the launcher, and the dads were lining up with evil smirks on their faces. There were several good shots that probably could have made Sports Center's Top-10 plays.

The Targets

The appreciation event ended with a lunch, sappy speeches, and a ridiculous video that the interns made for fun. I will post that sometime soon on Facebook.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Weeks 17 & 18: Washed

Last weekend my church, Templo Bautista de Atenas, celebrated its 10th anniversary. Church services were held at the nearby church camp and we had lunch and games afterwards. It was a fun time of celebration and thankfulness for what God has been doing in Atenas through this church body. Several of the church members stood up and gave a testimony of how the church (the people) had blessed them so much in the past years. I really appreciated that time, because I feel like too often we never hear about the praises that are filling our lives. It was the largest attendance I’ve seen since being here—somewhere around 80 to 90 people. Typically, our Sunday services have only about 50-60 people.

Besides the anniversary celebration, we also celebrated the baptisms of 11 people. It was the first time I have ever seen a baptism done in a swimming pool—a dirty swimming pool for that matter(the pastor actually told us that the pump was broken and there would be no swimming after the service). Quite a unique experience! I imagined in my mind how it looked when John was baptizing people in the Jordan. Was the river water similar to this pool water? Either way, this was the biggest celebration of the day—a visible picture of repentance and obedience to God. It didn’t matter how dirty that swimming pool water was because Christ baptizes not with water but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).

Pastor Yeremy reads the Scriptures before the baptisms.

Other than the church festivities, it has been rather tranquil around here recently--although, I do have a few more species to add my ‘captured-critter list’:

 Last week I came home one evening to find a strange creature fluttering about in my house. When I inquired about it, my host mom said that it was bird that had become trapped in the house. I glanced back up to confirm my suspicions that the “bird” was actually a bat---“umm…yeah, that’s not a bird.” I didn’t know the Spanish word for bat, so I reverted back to the old game of Pictionary and other words that might work. Somewhere between me using my fingers as vampire fangs and “Dracula”, my mom and brother must have understood because they shot out of the house like the devil himself was on their heels. I figured it couldn’t be too hard to catch a bat—it couldn’t be harder than catching a chicken, right? I grabbed a blanket and started trying to throw it over Dracula. The high ceilings in the kitchen and the sonar of the bat made it tough to capture him very gently so I switched to more barbaric methods. I used the blanket as whip and bounced him off the wall and onto the ground. It didn’t kill him but it stunned him long enough for me to escort him outside with a plastic crate.

An uninvited house guest.

Also, on the same Sunday as the baptisms, we found a small snake in the pool a few hours after the church service. My host dad plucked him out with a skimmer and threw it down on the concrete. Before it could regain its composure I reached down (I really don’t know why) and grabbed it just behind its head. We weren’t sure if it was venomous or not, so I took him way off into the woods and let him go. I think everyone there, including me, had the same question: Was the snake in the pool during the baptisms?!

So, I guess that I have two praises this week: No rabies, and no snake bites.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Weeks 15 & 16: A Family Visit

Despite not having the usual distractions of television (in English), internet and other forms of petty entertainment, I still have difficulty finding time to keep my blog updates regularly. Even though the lifestyle is more laid-back, somehow my personal time seems to be stuck on ‘fast-forward’. Another two weeks have passed with new experiences to ponder and share.

Question: How big is this tree?

For the past four days I was able to spend time with my brother and college friend who came to visit me and to see Costa Rica. We went to a couple of volcanoes, which I had not seen before, and experienced the land from a tourists’ point-of-view. Costa Rica is now in the rainy season and consequently also in the off-season for tourism. The result was good prices for tours and hotels, and we didn’t have to fight any crowds. In fact, the tourist town of La fortuna was nearly a ghost town except for the presence of the locals.

I finally saw my first snake in Costa Rica---a little guy but really spunky!

While I enjoyed the fun and novelty of being a tourist, I couldn’t help but be excited to return home to Atenas at the end of the weekend. I think my favorite part of my brother’s visit was when he came to meet my host family. He and my friend spent the afternoon with my host family as we set around and enjoyed coffee and conversation…Well, mas o menos ”conversation.” Neither of them speak Spanish, so I had to put on my translator hat—a role I’ve never played before. As I’ve said before, I don’t speak Spanish well, and translating is something usually reserved for the fluent. When I’m speaking for just myself, I can pick---very conveniently—the things I want to say in Spanish. My brother and friend put me to the test because they had no clue as to which words I knew and which ones that I did not. I felt like I was in a language whorl wind, and after thirty minutes my mind was fried. Regardless of my translation shortcomings, it was great to share my Tico family and their culture with my brother and friend. It gave them new perspective and insight on some of the past stories I had shared with them.

Volcan Arenal

This past weekend was also a reminder that life back in the US is moving forward without me. People are graduating, friends are getting married, and work is being done. It’s hard not to think about those things and feel like I am missing out on so much. As I watched my brother and friend drive away from my host family’s house, I was hit with a sense of loneliness and sadness because I wasn’t going with them. They were headed back to all the things that I missed. Fortunately, those feelings didn’t last long as God reminded of all the great blessings I am experiencing here in Costa Rica. Every day, Christ bids us to let go of the things of this world and to follow him whole-heartedly ---And now I am realizing that sometimes that means letting go of even the good things.

Answer: That big.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Weeks 12-14: Halftime

It is hard for me to believe, but as of last week I have reached the halfway mark in my 6 month internship. I have mixed emotions and thoughts about that fact, but one thing is for sure, the next 3 months will go by even faster.

I apologize to all of the blog "regulars" that follow me on weekly basis--I have been slacking in the last month. I will try to get back on a more consistent routine with my blog updates.
Bocas del Toro: Starfish Beach

As a part of the halfway mark, the other interns and myself went to Panama for a visa-renewal trip. Our visas are good for 90 days in Costa Rica, at which point we have to leave the country for 3 days and then return. We made the best of our trip and spent some time in Bocas del Toro, which is a cluster of islands on the Caribbean coast.....Ehh-nice! The white sand beaches, clear water, and picturesque palm trees made for a great weekend of relaxation. We spent most of the time exploring different beaches, but one day we took to the high seas on a large sailboat with an interesting German captain. When we weren’t snorkeling or napping on the bow, we listened to some of his crazy stories that he had collected throughout his 12 years in Bocas.

Sailing the high seas with my fellow interns

The trip provided some great down time for reflecting on the past 3 months and preparing for the last half of the internship. I’ve been learning so much about myself and who God has made me to be, and I am excited about the next three months. As I returned home on the bus Monday morning, I thought a good deal about changes I need make for the second half of my time in Costa Rica---you could call them halftime adjustments. Many of those changes center around the use of my time and keeping focused in light of my limited time here. One practical application that stems from that conviction is studying Spanish. Even after living here for three months, I can barely hold a conversation with my host family and other Tico friends. My natural persuasion is to justify my lack of learning by the fact that I am just not good at learning foreign languages. Though that may be part of the problem, I know that much of it is my own laziness. If I can’t hold a conversation with my family, then how will I be able to learn from them and encourage them? I don’t want to miss out on the fullness of blessings that can come from living in a foreign culture, so I’ve decided to ramp up my efforts. If I can spend at least 45 minutes each day, dedicated solely to studying Spanish, I think I will be able to really improve my understanding of the language. Hopefully I can find a few folks around me to hold me accountable to that commitment. 

More from Starfish Beach

Other than my trip to Panama, things have been rather normal around here. I did have a funny experience on the walk home from work a few weeks ago. I was sauntering along when passed by a lady holding a broom and standing in the road. When I passed by I saw that there were 3 other folks standing on the other side of a hedge trying to catch a chicken and the broom lady was trying to keep the wild-eyed bird contained. I stopped to assess the situation and figured the odds were in the favor of chicken because most of the people were only a few years away from being called ‘elderly’. I might not be able to speak espanol, but I was pretty confident that I could catch a bird---this might be my only opportunity to hunt in Costa Rica! I asked the lady if I could help, only to receive a confused look----like I said, my Spanish is lacking. I think she understood me, so I stepped in to confront the fugitive. He had pushed through the hedge and was working his way along the top of a steep, rocky ditch. I raced ahead and stood in the ditch, so that our eyes were at the same level. The bird stopped... I held my position. Here we were at O.K. Corral, as I stared down my opponent. He cocked his head and glared back as if to say: “Go ahead partner, draw.” With one swift motion I came flying with a right hook at caught the little fellow mid-air before he could avoid my attack. A few quick yelps and it was all over. I grabbed the chicken by its legs and handed it to the lady, who was rejoicing like she had just witnessed her favorite team make a 9th inning comeback. To make things more humorous, my family was returning from town in a neighbors truck and had stopped just down the street. They had witnessed the whole episode and were all laughing when I joined them in the truck. They cracked jokes all afternoon and called me something that I didn’t understand. From what I could tell, it was something like ‘chicken catcher’.

We made a sweet raft out of driftwood and vines...and it floated.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Weeks 9-11: Arquitecto del Paisaje Practicante

Up to this point I have written very little about my responsibilities here in Costa Rica. With all the adventures of living with a host family and experiencing new cultures, it's easy to think of my daily work routine as boring and not worth mentioning to my friends and family back home. However, my daily work is a major part of my calling here in Costa Rica, so I need to portray that service no matter how mundane or technical it might seem.
A project poster from our trip to Mexico

During language school in January, our teacher asked us all to write sentences about what we did for work--our jobs. I had no idea how to say landscape architect so I asked her for help. After exhausting my entire vocabulary of Spanish words, I quickly moved in hand motions, pictionary and interpretive dance to explain my profession. Despite my earnest efforts, the best word she could offer was: garden architect. I've come to embrace my profession's subtle existence in the world, and I've learned to appreciate all the other names people use instead: horticulturist, garden designer, landscape person, and my personal favorite, vegetation guy. I finally found the word I was looking for, arquitecto paisajiste---and to be accurate for my intern status, arquitecto del paisaje practicante. That is my job title in the US, and it is also my title here with Engineering Ministries International (eMi). So what does a landscape architect do at EMI?

The last month of the dry season: a pasture near my house
Because of the nature of our projects at EMI, the chance for me to practice all my abilities as a landscape architect (intern) are not always available. Many of the ministries we serve are often on limited budgets and landscape planning is typically considered a luxury--as it is the United States. (Now, if you will, allow me to step up on my soapbox for a brief moment. That the status of landscape has been relegated to that of luxury, is nothing short of a travesty. We see landscape as merely a pretty picture, rather than a ecological wonder--full of life, interwoven dependencies, richness and of course, beauty. It a gift bestowed to us from God and this amazing canvas directs our worship back to Him.) Because landscape plans are rare, most landscape architects that work with EMI will find themselves doing only master plans for sites. The master plan should take in to account existing site features and meet the program requirements of the client (ministry). It is often a difficult job, as there are so many factors to take into account.

Because most master planning decisions are made during the project trip week, the EMI volunteers(not staff and interns) usually handle most of the major design issues. As intern, I am responsible for coordinating with volunteers after the trip to produce a set of drawings and reports for the ministry. My work is often limited to drafting and other production tasks. I spend many hours drawings plans, elevations, and details for other design disciplines: architecture, civil, structural, mechanical, & electrical. I have limited knowledge in each of these fields, so there has definitely been much to learn.
Epic Fail: Yup, that's a tree stump.....
The life of an intern isn't always glorious, but it's a good environment for learning a servant's heart. Perhaps that's what I need to be praying for more often. Pride is subtle, and yet so destructive. Even in something as simple as making daily design decisions, I find it difficult to concede to someone else. It's good to be humbled daily, though, and I believe that God is helping me let go of some of that pride.

Though most of my time is spent on technical drafting, I have also been privileged with the chance to create a (rare) landscape plan for a seminary campus in Peru. Like I said before, it's a rare opportunity in the field of EMI, so I am very excited and thankful for this chance. It's been a unique challenge so far, as I have not been to the site, nor do I have the slightest familiarity with Peruvian flora. I'm looking forward to presenting the rest of the team with a comprehensive landscape plan in the weeks to come.

I have no words to explain this.
On a less serious note, I need to share a couple of funny/strange things I've seen over the past several weeks. One afternoon, as I was walking into town to go to the office, I heard the distant sound of a band. It grew louder with each step and as a turn the corner of the road, I was met with a bizarre collection of kids, instruments, and costumes. As I jumped out of the way of the parade I pulled my camera and snapped a few pictures. I chuckled to myself and smiled at the kids; As for the creepy costumes, I didn't turn my back on them until they were out of sight...
I also saw a woman wearing stiletos and black t-shirt---not too unusually, except the life-size Garth Brooks face on the shirt. A less humorous sighting happened this morning when some dude with a huge machete passed me on the street. There was no one else on the street, so I gave him a warm "buenos dias" and a safe machete's-length distance as I passed.

The easter egg hunt (or sprint)
This past Saturday, I went along with our church's children group to a nearby camp. A small group of folks had come from South Carolina to host a day of kid activities, including an easter egg hunt, swimming, and crafts. I had originally come along to help, but I think I fit in well with the children, and I had a blast playing along in all their shanaigans. I also had a blast watching a bunch of small-town gringos interact with Costa Rican children. It was glorious, in all of its awkwardness and comedy.

One other thing that I have also neglected to put in my updates is my new-found Tico friends. Jose Pablo is one of my good buddies that I have come to know over the past few months. Jose is a high school student that goes to my church and also works in our office one day a week for school credit. He speaks about as much English as I do Spanish, so we are constantly communicating in Spanglish--which is a lot of fun! One interesting thing about Jose is his passion for being a missionary. He has a heart for the people of Japan and has recently spent some time there. Last week he shared with me his hope of one day returning to Japan to live, work, and spread the good news of the Gospel.