It's National Peace Corps Week, which makes me think back on my own experience. My time in Costa Rica was powerful. I worked with PANI, the Costa Rican equivalent of child protective services. A few months before I arrived in BriBri, PANI had opened its first office in the region. Prior to this, anyone dealing with child abuse, neglect, or delinquency needed to travel two hours to the nearest office. Still, people were wary of the organization – there were rumors of child-stealing, along with the fear that those sorts of rumors brings out in people.
But years before my arrival, there had been some Peace Corps volunteers that the community had loved well. So for a while, I became the PANI spokesperson. Because people were willing to listen to what a Peace Corps volunteer had to say, they were then willing to learn how PANI could support their families and their region.
I ended up working in over 20 local communities, some of which I reached by boat and then by horseback. I created workshops and programs on violence prevention, creativity, motivation, encouraging dialogue between parents and children, preparing indigenous youth to attend mixed high schools, and using the arts to share values and perspectives.
I felt amazed and honored that, at least once a week, people ran up to say that I had taught them something that was now benefiting their family.
The most profound impact of my work was when, after teaching school groups about sexual abuse, two girls told me they had been abused. We were able to support the girls and prosecute their abusers. I felt so grateful that I was able to help these girls change their lives for the better.
The theme of Peace Corps Week 2016 is "Highlighting Happiness: What Does Happiness Look Like in My Peace Corps Country?"
Costa Ricans are known for their ability to appreciate the good in their day-to-day experience. In my experience, they are always ready to celebrate something. Even when they face challenges, most Costa Ricans I know can usually find a reason to dance, to laugh, and to create more joy in their lives.
My work with PANI dealt with challenging issues that many travelers don't think of when they visit Costa Rica. My experience with the Peace Corps taught me that all of our lives are complex. It helped me to value the hard work I do to make people's lives better. And it also helped me to appreciate the small joys we all have access to in every moment.
I am looking out the window, loving the landscape as it passes like the wind. Waving grasses or graffiti-covered walls, they all appear and then vanish while I stare, transfixed. The walls of this train car are painted a deep green. The cracked vinyl seats flip so I can change direction when the train does. I am wearing headphones, listening to music that spirals me from melancholy to joy and back again. The people around me are speaking languages I don't understand. The door creaks, and often when someone walks through, it doesn't close for a long time. If I take my eyes from the window, I can see into the car ahead: a blue flowered hat hangs from an overhead bin; two teenage boys each balance on one foot and try to push the other down in the aisle; a small girl has fallen asleep with her legs dangling over the arm of her chair. I travel on trains that take their time arriving.
These trains are the best places I know of for daydreaming. On long train rides, my daydreams about what it will be like where I'm going can take their sweet time unraveling. And as long as the train is moving, I can only be right where I am. So I also revel in drawing up new plans for myself and in pulling out old memories one by one to polish them.
When the train stops in a tiny town I've never heard of, I smile at those first sentence hugs and hellos I see outside the window. While the train pulls away from the station, I wonder how those stories will blossom. Then a woman who could be my grandmother sits down next to me, offers me a cookie, and asks me where I'm going.
Robert Louis Stevenson said, "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive." I am sure that thought came to him when he was traveling on a train.
Travel done well can be a catalyst
for positive change in our lives and in the lives of others.
This on-going series of interviews looks at how that happens.
Kelly McDonald is a nurse in Asheville, North Carolina. Travel and service to others have always been a part of her life. She has been a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica, and has worked with Doctors Without Borders in Guatemala, Niger, West Africa, Haiti, Kenya and Democratic Republic of Congo. She and her husband, Connor, spent the past year traveling in 18 countries. Here are some ways that travel has added value to Kelly's life:
One of the most powerful interactions on our world trip was staying with a family in Ladkah, India for three weeks. Even though they didn't speak too much English and we didn't speak Ladakian, we were still able to communicate for the most part. We had so many great laughs in the process. They took us in and made us feel like part of their family. We ate meals with this gracious family in their typical way, on the floor with a small table. It was a very rewarding and beneficial experience but more for us I'm sure. The mother of the house showed me how to milk a cow, and taught Connor how to cut the barley in the fields when it was ready. We learned how to make their typical food, momo's, filled with meat and veggies. Overall, it was a very special and memorable time on our journey and made even more special because their village is where Connor proposed to me.
Love + Wisdom
Connor and I learned a lot about each other over the course of the year. We learned that sometimes you just have to go with the flow. We also learned that you must pick your battles! I think we also learned how to support one another but also how to allow one another to have personal space. Traveling is the best way to learn about a partner. We got engaged and then married on our trip!
The Power of Place
New Zealand is one of my favorite places. The lifestyle in New Zealand is more laid back and easy-going, and there is a great quality of life. It's a paradise offering beautiful beaches and coves, and deep forested mountains, wonderful for trekking which we did a lot of. There are magnificent fjords on the Southern Island.
We also loved Nepal, a very magical and spiritual place. We spent 6 weeks here, where we spent one week volunteering in rural village, ten days trekking on the Annapurna and 10 days at a yoga and mediation center. The Nepalese are such kind and generous people. It's a country we will definitely get back to.
We thoroughly enjoyed every country we visited--18 countries over the course of a year. We learned and gained so much!
The Gifts of Travel
Once you start traveling you realize how many more countries spark your interest. So you put them on your list and the list grows endless.
Traveling has definitely opened my mind to the many thousands of different cultures, ethnicities, and customs the world has to offer, and to the diversity of our universe. There is always so much to learn and appreciate.
Read more about Kelly's year of travel at: http://connorandkellymarchforth.com/
Just because you see or hear something doesn’t mean you know how to appreciate or understand it. Especially given the nuances of culture, language, history, and the whole gamut of what it means to bring our experiences together with the experiences of others and make sense of them together.
In my family, we’re always looking at how we can increase our understanding of places and people beyond our door. See some things that have worked well for us in my latest blogpost for Small Planet Studio: http://www.smallplanetstudio.com/2015/07/15/3-simple-ways-to-help-your-kids-meet-the-world/#sthash.GbRqgSaq.dpuf
Hi, I'm Deidra
To me, transformative travel means traveling in a way that connects you to places and people in a profound way., being real and present with what is happening while you travel and recognizing the impact travel has on your life beyond your journeys.