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Last Updated: 06/02/2008
Que Dicha
Maggie Schwalbach

Sometimes, just when you least expect it, life hits you over the head with wonder. This week is one of those times.

Monday: I drop my laptop. It falls to the floor, and the screen shatters -- digitally shatters, that is. The timing is awesome because I have a final paper due that afternoon, all of my thesis research saved in one folder (who backs up?) and my lecture notes/power point presentation for a conference I’m speaking at on Friday stuck in the shattered virtual reality.

Tuesday: Phone rings. It’s a grant director calling to inform me that the money I’d been awarded to implement a post-grad project in Buenos Aires has been pulled. Sorry about that, they say. Good luck finding another funder.

Wednesday: The rain starts. It’s difficult to actually use the word “start” when a weather pattern is on a 24-hour cycle. If you can’t tell if it’s morning, noon or night because sheets of rain block the sun/moon/reality, does time count? Mold counts. It says, “Hola! I’m officially all over your walls! Just count how many times I’ve multiplied!” My laundry hangs in limp mockery. My house smells musty and damp.

Thursday: I start teaching classes to a group of 6th graders at the local elementary school in Ciudad Colon. As part of my thesis research, I’m testing kids’ awareness of the effects of media violence by introducing a Media Literacy for Peace curriculum. These kids are so, so, so cute.

And so exhausting. The bell rings, and two blushing 12 year-old boys approach.

One hands me a drawing of a girl (me?) holding a turtle. Um, ok. Gracias. The other notita is an invitation from the self-proclaimed "best in the schol of inglish" informing that he lives "enfront of the water tanke" and proposing "you be coming to my house?” As I’m leaving, the kids run out to the school courtyard to shout, “Gooud-bi! See you too-marrow, Magi. Good-bi!” On the way home, a truck swerves to hit a puddle that drenches me from head to toe. It’s okay, though. I’m already smiling.

Friday: I turn on my shattered shell of a laptop that’s been hooked up in a rag-tag fashion to an 80s monitor I borrowed from UPeace. Connecting to instant messenger, a box pops up saying, “Alvaro wants to contact you.” Who’s Alvaro?

Twelve years ago I was a volunteer in Costa Rica with a program called Amigos de las Americas. I lived in a tiny rural community working on a sustainable education project. I’ve often thought about the family that opened their home to me. This was a family without running water, electricity, or a telephone – they slept upstairs because of the threat of tigres at night. My host brother was 13 years-old and killed a crocodile on our way to the village (true story! It was a baby croc, but still!!) My host father shifted my understanding of human security in a conversation in which we were walking through the jungle and he said, "No conozco la guerra." “But you must know war,” I protested. To which he responded, "Sé que es la guerra, pero gracias a dios, no la conozco." (I know what war is (as a concept), but, thank god, I don’t know it. (Costa Rica abolished its standing army in 1948. It was the first country in the world to do so, and although almost every country in Central America fell into bloody civil war in the 1980s, Costa Rica never rearmed.)

With that family I also learned about traditional medicine. When I first got to the village, I went for a horseback ride in shorts. By the next day, my gringa legs were covered in welts with some kind of terrible rash. It was scary and horribly painful. The volunteer program took me to the central hospital in San José, and specialists from the US flew down medications. Nothing worked. Miserable, I went back to the community. My host mother, Rosario, gently approached me and told me to trust her. That night, sitting in their candle-lit kitchen, she and her son took plants they’d collected from the jungle and rubbed them on my legs, squeezing out the natural green juice. Instantly, the burning pain subsided. The next day, the rash cleared. Saragundi, the plant is called. I’ll never forget.

Since I arrived in Costa Rica last August, I’ve been planning to return to the village to look for the family. The trip is not easy, though. It’s 5 hours by bus from San José and then another 2 or 3 by lancha (a canoe-style boat) and another hour on horseback. Plus, it’s been more than a decade since I’ve seen this family. I have no idea if they are still in that house, or if they even still remember me.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that the mystery man contacting me on MSN this afternoon was Alvaro, my 13 year-old host brother (who’s now 25!)  After twelve years, he chose today to seek me out… only to discover that of all the places in the world, I’m here in Costa Rica!

I just got off the phone with the family. We set a date in June to all reunite (as soon as I finish my thesis.) I told them with absolute sincerity that they changed the course of my life. Inspired by their generosity and compassion, I’ve gone on to work toward Latin American development, learned Spanish and returned again and again to this continent. The trajectory that started with the pure love of one welcoming Tico family brought me back to UPEACE and will carry me through a career dedicated to Inter-American cooperation.

Rosario listened to me gush and said softly, “Que dicha, Margarita. Que alegria, hija.” (What joy. What happiness, my daughter.)

Isn’t life beautiful and random? What a week!

“La dicha está donde la encuentras, muy rara vez donde la buscas.”

Maggie Schwalbach is a Master's degree candidate from the University for Peace.