Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Three Musketeers....ok, Volunteers, but that sounded better

Mum falls asleep mid-sentence and within seconds the room is filled with the dulcet tones of her gurgling snores reverberating off the walls and drilling into the recesses of my brain. It's like the entire forest outside the window has come to life, with various grunts and whoops - but no, it's just De Mama in the bed next to mine. Andy sure had a lucky escape, sleeping softly in his own adjoining room.

When I wake up and roll over I think for a moment that Chiky the chihuahua has escaped in the night and plotted up in Mum's bed, as there's a bug-eyed face with bared teeth and lolling tongue on the pillow.....but no, it's just my unconscious mother.

We get dressed and are greeted by another of Nancy's delicious meals - this time Gallo Pinto (rice and black beans) and a fruit platter, with fresh juice and herbal teas:

More attempts at conversation falter and there are several funny moments when we realise we have no idea what the other is saying, so we settle for making appreciative noises instead. I think Nancy is telling me to clean my teeth so I obediently hurry off, only for her to laugh and say she was going to clean HER teeth before we leave for work - duh!

Nancy reappears and walks us to the bus stop, which is not a proper stop at all, it's just a point in front of a pylon, in typical Costa Rica vague fashion. We jump a bus and she attempts to point out landmarks as they whizz by; we know we wouldn't have a cat in hell's chance of getting back as easily as she makes out, but nod away as if taking it all in.

Maximo Nivel HQ (the GVN affiliate) is located in central San Jose, a bustling city of "Ticos", which is what Costa Ricans call themselves. As the UK has Greenwich Mean Time, they run on "Tico Time" (which we can't help singing to the tune of that cheesy hit, "It's Chico Time"), which basically means around 30 minutes late.

We meet Erika, Chino, Tati and the rest of the Maximo team upon arrival and have our volunteering induction, which is all good until we get to the warnings of the dangers of Costa Rica : date-rape drugs, violent rape, robberies at knife/gunpoint, fake taxis, never go out after dark or alone....the list goes on. It concerns me that San Jose is like a hedge maze and there are several lone-travelling girls in our group from all over the world who are barely 18yrs old, shy and who now have the colour rapidly draining from their faces....

Almost as scary is the next announcement - we have to sit a Spanish exam. Andy is up first for the oral exam, so Erika reads 5 Spanish questions which he is supposed to respond to, but she is met with silence and a blank expression.

"Try me," I say, "hit me with it!" sitting upright and focusing intently. She rattles off the questions again. I blink, opening and closing my mouth like a fish out of water. Which is exactly what I am. Screwing up the exam paper, she tosses it in the bin and moves swiftly on....

We attempt to take a bus to the Conception District, which is where our volunteering project is located, a good 30 minutes from the HQ, but it's hot and hectic so we cheat and jump a taxi. Tati briefs us : there are several childcare projects running at the moment - the orphanage, a community care centre, teen mums guidance, and then this brand new project which we've been allocated, which is to be called The Caterpillar Club: daycare services for children of working mothers who have come from tough backgrounds and need support to be able to work and provide.

We are excited by this prospect....until the cab pulls up outside a decrepit Scout hut held together solely by cobwebs, in an overgrown garden. Hmm, not exactly what we'd envisaged. We set about clearing the garden, tidying inside the building and planning our lessons for the class.

The activity creates local interest, and a curious guy called Victor approaches us shyly to find out what we're doing. He tells us he's unemployed and desperate to learn, so we start an inpromptu English lesson for him and he's really eager and receptive - a sweet guy of 26 who'd never really had any opportunities in life. After a few hours we're set up for the following morning's launch day, so continue teaching Victor, who asks if he can come back when we open at 8am tomorrow and of course we agree.

We have to be back at Maximo HQ by 2pm for our Spanish class, so we head back. The class is only the 3 of us today plus the teacher, which is just as well as we're like three backward chimps - totally clueless - although we do pick it up fairly quickly. Mum is struggling to pronounce her allocated phrase when discussing our professions though, and keeps repeating "soy retarda" instead of "retirada", which has us cracking up at various intervals. The 2hr lesson is pretty intense, so we decide to head home afterwards as we've all been up since 3am with jetlag....

Two hours later and we are hopelessly lost - we decided to attempt to walk part of the way along the treacherous main street, the Pan-American Highway, which stretches all the way to Mexico, with Costa Rica sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama. I think we were approximately halfway to Nicaragua before we realised we'd taken a wrong turn.

Around 5.30pm darkness falls and Erika's warnings of rapists and robbers echoes in our ears, so we attempt to hail a taxi on the busy congested road. You must look carefully for a red taxi with a yellow triangle with a number inside the triangle to check it's a genuine cab, but by now it's pitch black and we are so exhsusted we just launch ourselves into the first one that stops, Andy dicing with death to flag it in the first place. Driving here is mental, we've seen several accidents and countless near-misses already. When we finally pull up outside the house we are so relieved to have made it that we practically fall upon the bewildered Pablo with relief, greeting him like a long-lost relative; he must think we're absolute headcases.

Nancy takes one look at our traumatised selves and serves up dinner, which we devour and then crash straight away - tomorrow is project launch day and we open at 8am. It's just Andy, Mum and myself running the centre......what could possibly go wrong.....?

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