From Peace Corps Wiki
For the official Welcome Book for Costa Rica see here
PEACE CORPS / COSTA RICA HISTORY AND PROGRAMS
History of the Peace Corps in Costa Rica
Since 1963, more than 2,200 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in Costa Rica in a variety of projects in the areas of health, education, the environment, community development, agriculture, small business development, and youth development. Throughout the program’s existence in Costa Rica, Volunteers have been consistently well received by the Costa Rican people and local counterpart agencies.
The children, youth, and families project was the primary sector of the Peace Corps/Costa Rica program from 1998 through 2002. In 2003, a second project in rural community development began; it focuses on the poorest rural communities in the country. And now in 2005, we are opening a third project in the area of micro-enterprise development to address the needs of a mostly rural population.
History and Future of Peace Corps Programming in Costa Rica
The Peace Corps’ projects in Costa Rica have changed to respond and adapt to the needs and challenges of Costa Rica and its people. Early programming efforts responded to needs in the health and agriculture sectors. In the 1970s and 1980s, the education sector grew in importance, culminating in the Peace Corps’ development of a national curriculum for environmental education. In the mid-1980s, the Peace Corps started small business and housing projects to assist Costa Rica in the creation of employment opportunities and the construction of new housing units. In the 1990s, the Peace Corps’ programming changed to address community education, environmental issues, and the problems of youth at social risk.
The urban youth project started in 1990 to respond to increased migration from rural to urban centers and the subsequent social dislocation and disintegration of youth. In this project, the Peace Corps has worked with the Patronato Naciónal de la Infancia (PANI), a Costa Rican agency that is similar to Child Protective Services in the United States. The relationship between Peace Corps/Costa Rica and PANI has strengthened over the years, and the project has now evolved to address the needs of all at-risk communities, not just urban ones. In addition, the project now works with people of all ages to allow for a more integrated approach to addressing issues that affect young people.
In many respects, Costa Rica has attained impressive levels of social and economic development, manifesting a material progress that, at first glance, compares with the infrastructure and commercial activity of the United States or Europe, especially in the nation’s capital, San José. However, under the surface, growing social ills threaten to diminish the country’s gains in education, democracy, and healthcare. The Peace Corps therefore now focuses on addressing the needs of the populations most vulnerable to poverty, crime, drug abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence. It is also working to strengthen the ability of PANI and local communities to serve these populations.
As a result of the success of the children, youth, and families project, the Peace Corps and PANI decided to expand the project in 2002. Currently, more than 30 Volunteers are assigned to this project. The Peace Corps initiated the rural community development (RCD) project in early 2003 to focus on the poorest rural communities. The host country agency for this project is the Directorate National for Community Development (DINADECO). The relationship between Peace Corps and DINADECO has evolved and continues to strengthen. There are approximately 35 Volunteers in the RCD project. The new micro-enterprise development project will add approximately 20 Volunteers to the program.
COUNTRY OVERVIEW: COSTA RICA AT A GLANCE
While there is debate about the number of indigenous people in Costa Rica prior to Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1502, few survived contact with Europeans. Today, the country’s indigenous population makes up less than 2 percent of the total population.
For nearly three centuries, Spain administered what is now Costa Rica as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala under a military governor. The Spanish optimistically called the country “Rich Coast.” Finding little gold or other valuable minerals in Costa Rica, however, the Spanish turned to agriculture. The small landowners’ relative poverty, the lack of a large indigenous labor force, the population’s ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and Costa Rica’s isolation from the Spanish colonial centers in Mexico and the Andes contributed to the development of a relatively autonomous, individualistic, and egalitarian agrarian society. This tradition survived the widened class distinctions brought on by the introduction of banana and coffee cultivation in the 19th century and the subsequent accumulation of local wealth.
Costa Rica joined other Central American provinces in 1821 in a joint declaration of independence from Spain. In 1838, longafter the Central American Federation ceased to function inpractice, Costa Rica formally withdrew and proclaimed itself asovereign nation. An era of peaceful democracy in Costa Ricabegan in 1899, and has continued through today with only two lapses: 1917-1919, when Federico Tinoco ruled as a dictator; and 1948, when Jose Figueres led an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed presidential election. The victorious junta in this 44-day civil war drafted a Constitution guaranteeing free elections with universal suffrage and the abolition of the military. Figueres became a national hero, winning the first election under the new Constitution in 1953.
The Costa Rican government has been very involved in managing the economy since the 1948 revolution. The government operates many state monopolies (i.e., banking, insurance, telecommunications), controls the prices of a number of goods and services, and maintains protectionist trade laws. Government policy in the 1960s and 1970s focused on making Costa Rica more self-sufficient, and the nation has enjoyed a gradual upward economic trend. However, with the increase in oil prices in the 1970s and the sharp decreases in international coffee, banana, and sugar prices, Costa Rica’s economy collapsed in 1980. The warfare in neighboring countries in the 1980s also affected the Costa Rican economy and society, shattering regional trade and bringing a large number of refugees and illegal aliens, particularly from Nicaragua, to the country. To quell the regional violence, President Oscar Arias Sánchez (1986-1990) promoted a successful regional peace plan that resulted in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. Since 1948, Costa Rica has held 12 successive democratic presidential elections, more than any other Latin American country.
Costa Rica is a democratic republic with strong constitutional checks and balances. Executive responsibilities are vested in a president, who is the country’s center of power. There also are two vice presidents and a 15-member cabinet that includes one of the vice presidents. The president and the 57 Legislative Assembly deputies are elected for four-year terms.
An independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal supervises the
electoral process. The Supreme Court of Justice exercises judicial power, and a chamber of the Supreme Court reviews the constitutionality of legislation and executive decrees and all habeas corpus warrants.
The offices of the comptroller general of the republic, the procurator general of the republic, and the ombudsman exercise autonomous oversight of the government. State agencies enjoy considerable operational independence; they include the telecommunications and electrical power monopoly, the nationalized commercial banks, the state insurance monopoly, and the social security healthcare agency. Costa Rica has no military; it maintains police and security forces only for internal security.
The government of Costa Rica has emphasized the development of democracy and respect for human rights for a long time. Until recently, the country’s political system contrasted sharply with those of many of its Central American and Caribbean neighbors. Costa Rica experienced several unusual days of civil disturbance in early 2000 over legislation that would have permitted private sector participation in the state-owned telecommunications and electrical power sectors.
In the February 2002 presidential election, no candidate received 40 percent of the popular vote, as required by the Constitution. In the runoff election held in April 2002, the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) candidate, Abel Pacheco, won the presidency; he assumed office on May 8, 2002. The PUSC generally favors free-market principles, conservative fiscal policies, and government reform. For the first time since 1948, no political party obtained a plurality in the Legislative Assembly. While the PUSC and the other major party, the National Liberation Party, received the majority of legislative seats, two other parties made significant gains, the Citizen Action Party and the Libertarian Movement Party. The next presidential elections are to be held in February 2006.
In 2003, inflation was 9.4 percent per annum, real growth rate was 5.2 percent, and unemployment was 6.7 percent. In August 2005, the currency exchange rate was 481 colóns to the dollar.
Costa Rica’s major economic resources are its fertile land and frequent rainfall, well-educated population, attractive ecological diversity, and location in the Central American isthmus, which provides easy access to North and South American markets and direct ocean access to Europe and Asia. The economy of Costa Rica has, in the past, been dependent on the production and export of bananas and coffee. While these products, along with sugar cane and beef, are still important, tourism, manufacturing, and services have surpassed agriculture’s contribution to gross domestic product and diversified the economy. In recent years, Costa Rica has successfully attracted important foreign investments in free trade zones by companies such as Intel. Tourism is also booming and now earns more foreign exchange than bananas and coffee combined. The government still holds controlling interests in many sectors of the economy, particularly telecommunications, electricity, and banking. Costa Rica has sought to widen its economic and trade ties both within and outside the region.
Recent studies indicate that nearly 21 percent of Costa Ricans live below the poverty level and that the gap between the rich and poor has been increasing. Therefore, while you will see visible affluence, including modern shopping malls, just-released American movies, well-developed tourist resorts, and late-model cars on the streets, you will live and work with people who do not have access to such privileges.
People and Culture
Costa Ricans, commonly known as ticos, are predominantly of Spanish descent. There are smaller groups of people of Jamaican (3 percent), indigenous (1.7 percent), and Asian heritage. Spanish is the national language, although many people on the Caribbean coast speak English and Patua (a form of Creole English). The 2000 census set the population at 3.8 million; 59 percent are urban and 41 percent are rural, with more and more people moving to urban areas. Most people belong to the Roman Catholic Church (76 percent), although the congregations of Evangelical churches are growing (14 percent).
Costa Rica boasts a relatively high literacy rate (almost 95 percent). The rate of attendance at elementary schools is nearly 100 percent. However, attendance drops significantly at the secondary level, to only 65 percent. Infant mortality in Costa Rica is low relative to that of its neighbors, and life expectancy is comparable to that in the United States.
The Republic of Costa Rica is located in Central America, with Panama to the south, Nicaragua to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It covers a land area of 19,652 square miles, about the size of West Virginia. A chain of volcanic mountains runs through the center of the country into Nicaragua, splitting Costa Rica in two. In the center of the mountain ranges is a high-altitude plain, with coastal lowlands on either side. Much of the country was once covered with dense forests and jungles, most of which have been cut down to provide farmland. There has been a concerted effort to preserve what is left by the creation of a national park system, which covers almost 12 percent of the country, and forest reserves and indigenous reservations boost the protected land area to 27 percent. Costa Rica is famous for its great diversity of tropical flora and fauna.
While strong legislation exists for these protected areas, enforcement has been a problem and illegal poaching and logging occur. Outside the protected areas, Costa Rica faces a wide range of environmental challenges, including poor solid waste management, lack of water treatment facilities, deforestation, air pollution from vehicles and industry, and noise pollution.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Following is a list of websites for additional information about the Peace Corps and Costa Rica and to connect you to returned Volunteers and other invitees. Please keep in mind that although we try to make sure all these links are active and current, we cannot guarantee it. If you do not have access to the Internet, visit your local library. Libraries offer free Internet usage and often let you print information to take home.
A note of caution: As you surf the Internet, be aware that you may find bulletin boards and chat rooms in which people are free to express opinions about the Peace Corps based on their own experiences, including comments by those who were unhappy with their choice to serve in the Peace Corps. These opinions are not those of the Peace Corps or the U.S. government, and we hope you will keep in mind that no two people experience their service in the same way.
General Information About Costa Rica
On this site, you can learn anything from what time it is in San José to how to convert from the dollar to the colón. Just click on Costa Rica and go from there.
Visit this site for general travel advice about almost any country in the world.
The U.S. State Department’s website issues background notes periodically about countries around the world. Find Costa Rica and learn more about its social and political history.
This site includes links to all the official sites for governments worldwide.
This online world atlas includes maps and geographical information, and each country page contains links to other sites, such as the Library of Congress, that contain comprehensive historical, social, and political background.
This United Nations site allows you to search for statistical information for member states of the U.N.
This site provides an additional source of current and historical information about 228 countries.
Connect With Returned Volunteers and Other Invitees
This is the site of the National Peace Corps Association, made up of returned Volunteers. On this site you can find links to all the Web pages of the “friends of” groups for most countries of service, made up of former Volunteers who served in those countries. There are also regional groups who frequently get together for social events and local Volunteer activities.
This site is known as the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Web Ring. Browse the Web ring and see what former Volunteers are saying about their service.
This site is hosted by a group of returned Volunteer writers. It is a monthly online publication of essays and Volunteer accounts of their Peace Corps service.
Online Articles/Current News Sites About Costa Rica
Online edition of the Tico Times, an English-language weekly
Online edition of La Nación, a daily newspaper in Spanish
Online edition of La República, a daily newspaper in Spanish
A.M. Costa Rica, a daily English-language summary of Costa Rican news
El Seminario, a weekly (in Spanish) published by the University of Costa Rica
An annual analysis (in Spanish) of Costa Rica’s most recent socioeconomic and environmental indicators
The site of Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, a social science research organization (in Spanish)
International Development Sites About Costa Rica
United Nations programs (e.g., UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNESCO) in Costa Rica
Organization of American States in Costa Rica
Inter-American Development Bank
Pan American Health Organization in Costa Rica
International Labour Organization in Costa Rica (in Spanish)
- Booth, John. Costa Rica: Quest for Democracy.Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998.
- Daling, Tjabel. Costa Rica in Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture. London: Latin America Bureau, 1998.
- Edelman, Marc, and Joanne Kenen (eds.). The Costa Rican Reader. New York: Grove Press, 1989.
- Lara, Silvia, et al. Inside Costa Rica: The Essential Guide to Its Politics, Economy, Society, and Environment. Silver City, N.M.: Interhemispheric Resource Center, 1995.
- Mavis, Hiltunen Biesanz, et al. The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.
- Molina, Iván, and Steven Palmer. The History of Costa Rica. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 1998.
- Ras, Barbara, and Oscar Arias (eds.). Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. St. Paul, Minn.: Consortium Book Sales, 1994. Translations of 26 short stories by 20 of Costa Rica’s best authors.
Books About the Peace Corps
- Banerjee, Dillon. So You Want to Join the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 2000 (paperback).
- Herrera, Susana. Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1999.
- Hessler, Peter. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001.
- Hoffman, Elizabeth Cobbs. All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000 (paperback).
- Lucas, C. Payne and Kevin Lowther. Keeping Kennedy’s Promise: The Peace Corps’ Moment of Truth (2nd ed.). Peace Corps Online, 2002.
- Redmon, Coates. Come as You Are: The Peace Corps Story. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 1986.
- Thomsen, Moritz. Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969, 1997 (paperback).
- Tidwell, Mike. The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn. Guilford, Conn.: The Lyons Press, 1990, 1996 (paperback).
LIVING CONDITIONS AND VOLUNTEER LIFESTYLE
Airmail to and from Costa Rica takes one to two weeks. Volunteers in more remote areas of the country have an additional delay. You can receive mail at the Peace Corps office both during training and as a Volunteer.
The mailing address of the Peace Corps office is:
“Your Name,” PCT
Cuerpo de Paz
Apartado Postal 1266
1000 San José
Once you have completed training, you will be responsible for sending the address of your new site to friends and family. Most sites are near post offices, and Volunteers can rent a post office box or have mail delivered directly to their home.
We discourage you from having people send you money, airline tickets, or other valuable items through the mail. Items mailed in “bubbled” manila envelopes have a better chance of arriving at your site without being delayed by customs. Larger packages have to go through customs and sometimes mysteriously disappear in transit. Retrieving packages from customs is time-consuming and often requires payment of duty fees.
DHL, Federal Express, and other couriers have offices in Costa Rica. If your friends or relatives want to send you something by courier, they should send it to the Peace Corps office, for which a phone number and directions to a street address are usually required. The Peace Corps/Costa Rica office phone number is 011.506.231.4122; the fax number is 011.506.220.3275. The Peace Corps/Costa Rica office address and directions are:
“Your Name,” PCT
Cuerpo de Paz
Del Banco Interfin en Sabana Norte, dos cuadras al oeste y una cuadra al sur. Diagonal a la residencia del embajador de España, frente al Parque Perú.
San José, Costa Rica
International phone service to and from Costa Rica is good. One can make direct calls to the United States at phone centers located throughout the country, using a calling card (e.g., from MCI, AT&T, Sprint, or the Costa Rican telephone company) or calling collect. During training, most of the host families that Volunteers live with have telephones; if they do not, there is likely to be a neighbor with a phone or a public phone nearby. Telephone service is more limited at a few rural sites. The Peace Corps issues a beeper to Volunteers who live with families that do not have phones.
Fax service is also available in most cities, usually at the local post office. The post office charges a fee for both sending and receiving faxes. Once you are at your assigned site, you can send a fax number to your friends and relatives for easier communication.
You do not need a cellular phone to carry out your work in Costa Rica. Most U.S. cellphones are not compatible with the cellular technology in Costa Rica, although there are plans to change this in the near future.
To reach you in an emergency, your family can call the Office of Special Services at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., at 800.424.8580, extension 1470 (or 202.638.2574 during nonbusiness hours). The Office of Special Services will contact Peace Corps/Costa Rica as soon as possible to relay the information.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
You will have access to computers and the Internet at the Volunteer resource center at the Peace Corps office in San José. Because these computers are shared among all Volunteers in-country, access depends on demand. In addition, Volunteers in the children, youth, and families project have limited access to computers at the local child welfare office. Bringing a personal computer to Costa Rica increases your risk of being a victim of theft. Nevertheless, some Volunteers bring laptop computers with them, which they find useful for work purposes, but access to the Internet may be limited.
Housing and Site Location
Currently, there are Volunteers in all parts of the country: the Central Valley, Limón on the Caribbean coast, Puntarenas on the Pacific coast, as far north as Los Chiles near the Nicaraguan border, and as far south as Paso Canoas on the Panama border. While sites vary in size, climate, and distance to downtown San José (from 20 minutes to eight hours by bus), each has been preselected by the Peace Corps in consultation with relevant host country agencies as being a community where a Volunteer will find plenty of work opportunities and support.
Volunteers in the children, youth, and families project live in urban, semi-urban, or rural communities. While Volunteers in the community development and micro-enterprise development projects will live in rural/semi-rural communities. Volunteers in urban sites usually have access via a short bus ride to services such as banks, post offices, and hospitals. Volunteers in more rural areas have to take a longer bus ride to the nearest large town to mail letters or cash checks. Some sites are converted squatter settlements made up of a combination of tin and wood shacks, but most sites have recently built two- or three-room cement block buildings with corrugated steel roofs. All Volunteer houses have cold running water and electricity, and most have phones. In all communities, you will find a church, a school, and general stores (pulperías) that sell staples such as rice, black beans, tuna, soap, soft drinks, and snack food.
During training, you will live with a family selected by the training staff in one of several training communities. During your first year of service, you are also required to live with a family in your assigned community. This promotes your integration into the community, increases your language skills, and helps ensure your safety. The families are recommended by community leaders and approved by your program manager. Requests to live independently during the second year are approved on a case-by-case basis.
The family you stay with, which is likely to include children, will probably have a home modest in size and comfort. While the Peace Corps requests that Volunteers be given their own room, you may find that its walls do not reach the ceiling or are very thin. It is important to remember that the concept of individual space in Costa Rica is different from that in America. While some Volunteers find living with a family frustrating at times, they also concede that it is an enriching way to experience a new culture and develop an awareness of its values.
While you will find most Costa Rican people to be kind and good, communities also have members with a variety of problems, including substance abuse and alcoholism, low income, single parenthood, child abuse, high unemployment, and delinquency. Therefore your safety is of major concern, and you will have to adjust and conform to different norms of behavior and take continual precautions to maximize your safety. (The Health Care and Safety chapter provides more information on this important issue.)
Living Allowance and Money Management
During pre-service training, the Peace Corps will open an electronic debit account (in colóns) for you at Banco Naciónal, to which you can gain access from any of the bank’s automated teller machines throughout the country. (Most ATM cards from U.S. banks can also be used at local banks.) The debit card can also be used at most larger businesses. The Peace Corps pays host families a set amount to cover your food, lodging, and laundry during training and deposits a small “walking-around allowance” in your account for other expenses.
When you become a Volunteer, the Peace Corps will begin depositing a living allowance in your account every month, along with a one-time settling-in allowance (about $200) to purchase items to set up your home. The amount of the living allowance is based on an annual cost-of-living survey of current Volunteers and is intended to cover all of your essential expenses, i.e., rent, local travel, food, and entertainment. You will negotiate the rent you pay your host family using guidelines provided by the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps encourages you to maintain a lifestyle similar to that of the people with whom you live and work, so you do not need to bring additional money. Nevertheless, many Volunteers bring at least one major credit card in case they need to make a major personal purchase or for out-ofcountry travel. If you choose to bring extra money, we
recommend that you bring traveler’s checks or open a local bank account in dollars to minimize the risk of loss or theft. There is also a safe at the Peace Corps office in which Volunteers can store cash, credit cards, traveler’s checks, and important documents.
You will also accrue $24 per month of Volunteer service for a vacation allowance, deposited monthly in your account in local currency. Some Volunteers regularly transfer their leave allowance into a dollar account to prevent losses resulting from devaluation of the local currency.
Food and Diet
During training, your host family will prepare all of your meals. Once you are a Volunteer, you can arrange to have all or some of your meals with your host family or buy and prepare your own food.
The availability of fresh fruits and vegetables depends on the season and the region. Costa Ricans tend to eat few green vegetables, favoring root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassavas, etc.). Volunteers sometimes comment on the lack of diversity in the local diet, which relies heavily on rice and beans and starchy foods fried in oil or lard. Many families do not eat a lot of meat because of its cost. Although almost any specialty food can be purchased at supermarkets in San José, these imported products are not part of the local diet and are well beyond the economic means of most host families.
It is relatively easy for vegetarians to maintain their diet in Costa Rica, since rice and beans are the staple foods. However, Costa Ricans often prepare their vegetables with meat or in meat broth, so you will have to make special arrangements to maintain a strictly vegetarian diet.
The country has an extensive road system of more than 18,600 miles (30,000 km), although much of it is in disrepair. The main cities in the Central Valley are connected by paved, all-weather roads to the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and to the Pan American Highway, which goes to Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica’s neighbors to the north and south. Unfortunately, the rate of traffic-related fatalities is one of the highest per capita in the world.
Volunteers travel mostly by public bus. Costa Rica has an extensive and dependable bus system that operates in most of the country. The service is inexpensive and usually runs on a set schedule several times a day. In the San José metropolitan area, however, traffic jams often extend travel times.
The Peace Corps recommends taking “official” taxis at night; the red cars with yellow triangles on the front doors are easily identifiable. Most fares within the San José area are determined by using the meter (called the María), but longer distances are usually set at a fixed rate.
Volunteers are not allowed to drive motorized vehicles except during an official vacation. Many Volunteers request and receive bicycles from the Peace Corps to facilitate travel around their sites. Volunteers who are issued a bicycle must receive safety training and wear a bicycle helmet provided by the Peace Corps. Volunteers are not allowed to drive or ride as a passenger on motorcycles.
Geography and Climate
There are two distinct seasons in Costa Rica, rainy and dry. In much of the country, the rainy season lasts from May to November, but parts of the Caribbean coast receive rain year-round. And when it rains, it really rains, with heavy afternoon downpours resulting in flooded or muddy streets. The driest months in San José are December through April. The southwestern plains and mountain slopes receive more rain, averaging only three dry months a year. Temperatures vary little between seasons—the main influence on temperature is altitude. San José, at almost 3,800 feet (1,150 meters), has temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The coasts and lowlands are much hotter, averaging 72 degrees at night and 86 degrees during the day.
Training takes place in several communities in the Central Valley (near San José), so be prepared for warm days and cool nights. You will need a warm jacket or heavy sweater, especially during the rainy season, when the dampness and wind make it quite chilly. A blanket (easily purchased in Costa Rica) is necessary for sleeping even at lower altitudes.
The climate in your future work site will depend on where you are located. You should be prepared for a location that is very hot, somewhat cooler, or anything in between.
Since your assignment will entail working with people, much of your “work” time will be spent socializing and getting to know community members by drinking a cafecito (coffee) with them. This time with community members is important to building the trust necessary to work effectively with them. The Peace Corps expects Volunteers to spend most evenings and weekends working or socializing in their community, except when they work in another community on integrated programming efforts. In fact, Volunteers may spend only one weekend night per month away from their site for non-workrelated reasons, unless they have requested vacation time.
Most Volunteers celebrate birthdays, weddings, and holidays with their host families. Other activities depend on the size of the community. Smaller sites have activities at the community center, local school, soccer field, and churches. Larger communities may also have restaurants, a movie theater, a dance hall or disco, and special cultural activities. When you are in San José, you will find a variety of movie theaters, music and theater performances, art galleries, museums, and sports events. In addition, you are likely to discover places of incredible natural beauty close to your site and throughout the country.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
As a novelty in your community, you will be noticed, and your dress and behavior will be commented upon. Therefore, to minimize any unnecessary obstacles in your work and personal relations, you must respect local cultural norms. To help ensure that you serve as a positive role model by working in a professional and ethical manner, you will be asked to sign a copy of the code of behavior that governs the Peace Corps program in Costa Rica.
Personal appearance delivers a message, whether intended or unintended. As in the United States, dressing appropriately in Costa Rica can enhance your credibility, since it reflects your respect for the customs and expectations of the people with whom you live and work. Inappropriate dress, like inappropriate behavior, is something that can set you unnecessarily apart from your community. Until you become well-known by Costa Ricans, your dress will be an important indicator to them. From the biggest city to the remotest village, you will be judged, especially initially, on your appearance.
Costa Ricans dress very neatly and take great pride in looking good in public (i.e., clean with ironed clothes, polished shoes, and groomed hair), even on informal occasions. “Dressing down” as a personal statement does not occur to most people, since they are still struggling to better their lives. For example, it may be confusing and offensive to them to see a “rich” North American wear dirty gym shoes when dressier shoes are appropriate. A Volunteer who looks “young” can gain greater acceptance of his or her ideas by wearing the right outfit, which generally means wearing what Costa Ricans wear in the same situation. For example, in schools, Costa Rican women tend to wear skirts, dresses, or pressed pants and men tend to wear collared shirts with pants. When visiting with neighbors, however, you can wear casual clothes. You are expected to observe these guidelines for dress during pre-service training as well.
On the coast and in the big cities, shorts are acceptable for doing household projects and for recreational or sports activities. Shorts may not be worn at the Peace Corps office or in other professional settings (long culottes are acceptable for women). In hot areas, women often wear tank tops, sundresses, and dressy sandals for work.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers, especially women, experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Costa Rica. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
The Peace Corps is not for everyone. You will have to cope with the frustrations of working in a new culture with different norms and behaviors. You may be made fun of because of your difference from Costa Ricans. You must be willing to live with a family, even it makes you feel like a child again or makes you feel like you never leave your work. You will work with government employees who are often overworked and underappreciated. The work can be mentally and physically stressful because of Costa Rica’s complex social problems. Resources may be limited and facilities inadequate.
You will need to find inner reserves of strength to continue your work with enthusiasm, new ideas, and much patience. In most cases, you will structure your own time. You must possess the self-confidence and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without always seeing immediate results.
You will find that the key to satisfying work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is the ability to establish successful human relationships at all levels—with your host family, the community members with whom you work, counterpart agencies and school officials, and your fellow Volunteers. You can expect Costa Ricans to be friendly and interested in having you in their community. You will acquire a sense of accomplishment when small projects are made effective because of your efforts. In addition, acceptance into a foreign culture and acquisition of a second or even a third language are significant rewards. If you have the personal qualifications needed to meet the challenges of two years of service in Costa Rica, you will have a rewarding, enriching, and lasting experience. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have had a positive impact on other people’s lives while making much-needed contributions to the goals of Peace Corps/Costa Rica. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the rewards are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave Costa Rica feeling that they gained much more than they sacrificed during their service.
PEACE CORPS TRAINING
Overview of Pre-Service Training
Pre-service training, which follows a community-based training model, lasts for 11 weeks. Training communities are selected based on whether they meet certain safety and health requirements and allow trainees to carry out activities that help prepare them for their work. Approximately three to five trainees are placed in each of several communities around the capital city, San José, where they live with a host family. A language and cultural facilitator works closely with each group of trainees, providing formal language classes in trainees’ homes or in another suitable space in the community and practice-based instruction outside of the classroom. Advanced or native Spanish speakers participate in an alternative program that accommodates their particular needs.
All trainees are assigned integrated training activities, to be completed independently or with assistance from the language and cultural facilitators or members of the community. Trainees are responsible for scheduling the activities and determining what kind of support and resources they need in order to complete them. This neighborhood-based, experiential training is complemented by classroom-based technical, cultural, and health and safety training. On Fridays and some Saturdays, all trainees and staff meet at the Peace Corps office for seminars on the particular training “theme” that serves as a framework for determining weekly activities and as a guide for language instruction.
The training program include a group field trip to observe functioning projects, a visit to a Volunteer’s site, and one trip to trainees’ future sites, during which trainees begin planning for their future assignments.
Technical training prepares you to work in Costa Rica by building on the skills you already have and helping you develop new skills in a manner appropriate to the needs of the country. The Peace Corps staff, Costa Rican experts, and current Volunteers conduct the training program. Training places great emphasis on learning how to transfer the skills you have to the community in which you will serve as a Volunteer. Training staff will observe your informal presentations to community groups as part of your preparation.
Technical training will include sessions on the general economic and political environment in Costa Rica and strategies for working within such a framework. You will review your technical sector’s goals and will meet with the Costa Rican agencies and organizations that invited the Peace Corps to assist them. You will be supported and evaluated throughout the training to build the confidence and skills you need to undertake your project activities and be a productive member of your community.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will find that language skills are the key to personal and professional satisfaction during your service. These skills are critical to your job performance, they help you integrate into your host community, and they can ease your personal adaptation to the new surroundings.
Therefore, language training is the heart of the training program, and you must successfully meet minimum language requirements to complete training and be sworn-in as a Volunteer. Costa Rican language instructors teach formal language classes three or four mornings a week in small groups of three to five trainees. In the afternoons, trainees receive individual assistance and carry out activities in the community. The language facilitators rotate among trainee groups so that they receive instruction from different facilitators over the 11-week period.
The goal is to get you to a point of basic social communication skills so that you can practice and develop language skills further on your own. Prior to being sworn in as a Volunteer, you will work on strategies to continue language studies during your two years of service.
The experience of living with a Costa Rican host family during training is designed to ease your transition to life at your site. Families go through an orientation conducted by Peace Corps staff to explain the purpose of pre-service training and to assist them in helping you adapt to living in Costa Rica. Many Volunteers form strong and lasting friendships with their host families.
Cross-cultural and community development training will help you improve your communication skills and understand your role as a facilitator of development. You will be exposed to topics such as community mobilization, conflict resolution, gender and development, nonformal and adult education strategies, cultural diversity, and political structures.
During pre-service training, you will be given basic medical training and information. You will be expected to practice preventive healthcare and to take responsibility for your own health by adhering to all medical policies. Trainees are required to attend all medical sessions. The topics include preventive health measures and minor and major medical issues that you might encounter while in Costa Rica.
Nutrition, mental health, safety and security, setting up a safe living compound, and how to avoid HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are also covered.
During the safety training sessions, you will learn how to adopt a lifestyle that reduces risk in your home, at work, and during your travels. You will also learn appropriate, effective strategies for coping with unwanted attention and about your individual responsibility for promoting safety throughout your service.
Additional Trainings During Volunteer Service
In its commitment to institutionalize quality training, the Peace Corps has implemented a training system that provides Volunteers with continual opportunities to evaluate their commitment to Peace Corps service while increasing their technical and cross-cultural skills. During service, there are usually three training events. The titles and objectives for those trainings are as follows:
- In-service training: Provides an opportunity for Volunteers to upgrade their technical, language, and project development skills while sharing their experiences and reaffirming their commitment after serving for three months and again after serving for six months.
- Midterm conference: Assists Volunteers in reviewing their first year, reassessing their personal and project objectives, and planning for their second year of service.
- Close of service conference: Prepares Volunteers for the future after Peace Corps service and reviews their respective projects and personal experiences.
The number, length, and design of these trainings are adapted to country-specific needs and conditions. The key to the training system is that training events are integrated and interrelated, from the pre-departure orientation through the end of your service, and are planned, implemented, and evaluated cooperatively by the training staff, Peace Corps staff, and Volunteers.
YOUR HEALTH CARE AND SAFETY IN COSTA RICA
The Peace Corps’ highest priority is maintaining the good health and safety of every Volunteer. Peace Corps medical programs emphasize the preventive, rather than the curative, approach to disease. The Peace Corps in Costa Rica maintains a health unit with a full-time medical officer, who takes care of Volunteers’ primary healthcare needs. Medical services may include hospitalization at authorized facilities that are located in the capital city. If you become seriously ill or the resources in-country are insufficient, the Office of Medical Services at Peace Corps headquarters may decide to medically evacuate you to the United States for further care or treatment.
Health Issues in Costa Rica
Health conditions in Costa Rica are typical of those found in tropical countries. Most illnesses can be avoided by using common sense and following basic preventive measures.
Because you will be serving in an area where malaria, a mosquito-borne disease, is prevalent, you will be given and required to take an approved antimalarial drug while you are in-country for your entire service. Humidity and heat promote the growth of skin infections, which you can help prevent by keeping your body clean and dry. Environmental pollution, mold, and pollen found throughout the country year-round can aggravate existing environmental allergies. (Because it is very difficult, even in the United States, to identify the causing allergen, the Peace Corps does not provide allergy testing.) Other illnesses that exist in Costa Rica are dengue fever, rabies, tuberculosis, intestinal parasites, hepatitis A and B, and infection with STDs, including HIV/AIDS.
Helping You Stay Healthy
The Peace Corps will provide you with all the necessary inoculations, medications, and information to stay healthy. During training, you will receive a medical kit with supplies to take care of mild illnesses and first-aid needs. The contents of the kit are listed later in this chapter.
During training, you will have access to basic medical supplies through the medical officer. However, you will be responsible for your own supply of prescription drugs and any other specific medical supplies you require, as we will not order these items during training. Please bring a three-month supply of any prescription drugs you use, since they may not be available here and it may take several months for shipments to arrive.
You will have a basic nurse assessment at midservice and a physical examination for clearance at the end of your service. If you develop a serious medical problem during your service, the medical officer in Costa Rica will consult with the Office of Medical Services in Washington, D.C. If it is determined that your condition cannot be treated in Costa Rica, you may be sent out of the country for further evaluation and care.
Maintaining Your Health
As a Volunteer, you must accept considerable responsibility for your own health. Proper precautions will significantly reduce your risk of serious illness or injury. The old adage “An ounce of prevention …” becomes extremely important in areas where diagnostic and treatment facilities are not up to the standards of the United States. The most important of your responsibilities in Costa Rica is to take preventive measures for the following:
Many illnesses that afflict Volunteers worldwide are entirely preventable if proper precautions are taken, such as boiling drinking water and washing fruits and vegetables with soap and water. These illnesses include food poisoning, parasitic infections, hepatitis A, dysentery, tapeworms, and typhoid fever. Your medical officer will discuss specific standards for water and food preparation in Costa Rica during pre-service training.
Abstinence is the only certain choice for preventing infection with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. You are taking risks if you choose to be sexually active. To lessen risk, use a condom every time you have sex. Whether your partner is a host country citizen, a fellow Volunteer, or anyone else, do not assume this person is free of HIV/AIDS or other STDs. You will receive more information from the medical officer about this important issue.
Volunteers are expected to adhere to an effective means of birth control to prevent an unplanned pregnancy. Your medical officer can help you decide on the most appropriate method to suit your individual needs. Contraceptive methods are available without charge from the medical officer.
A male Peace Corps Volunteer who fathers a child out of wedlock may be administratively separated if the country director determines that the Volunteer’s action has impaired his ability to perform his assignment or has violated local laws or customs. Absent administrative action, the Peace Corps will pay the prenatal, delivery, and postpartum costs for a non-Volunteer spouse or unmarried partner only if the Volunteer has taken action to acknowledge paternity of the child and only for costs incurred while the trainee or Volunteer is in service. Paternity legislation in Costa Rica states that DNA testing is mandatory when a woman claims a man is the father of her child. If the test establishes paternity, the father automatically must pay child support; if he does not comply, he can be jailed.
It is critical to your health that you promptly report to the medical office for scheduled immunizations, and that you let your medical officer know immediately of significant illnesses and injuries.
Women’s Health Information
Pregnancy is treated in the same manner as other Volunteer health conditions that require medical attention but also have programmatic ramifications. The Peace Corps is responsible for determining the medical risk and the availability of appropriate medical care if the Volunteer remains in-country. Given the circumstances under which Volunteers live and work in Peace Corps countries, it is rare that the Peace Corps’ medical and programmatic standards for continued service during pregnancy can be met.
Feminine hygiene products are available for you to purchase on the local market. If you require a specific feminine hygiene product, please bring a six-month supply with you.
Your Peace Corps Medical Kit
The Peace Corps medical officer will provide you with a kit that contains basic items necessary to prevent and treat illnesses that may occur during service. Kit items can be periodically restocked at the medical office.
Medical Kit Contents
American Red Cross First Aid & Safety Handbook
Antacid tablets (Tums)
Antibiotic ointment (Bacitracin/Neomycin/Polymycin B)
Antiseptic antimicrobial skin cleaner (Hibiclens)
Diphenhydramine HCL 25 mg (Benadryl)
Insect repellent stick (Cutter’s)
Iodine tablets (for water purification)
Lip balm (Chapstick)
Oral rehydration salts
Pseudoephedrine HCL 30 mg (Sudafed)
Robitussin-DM lozenges (for cough)
Sterile gauze pads
Tetrahydrozaline eyedrops (Visine)
Tinactin (antifungal cream)
Before You Leave: A Medical Checklist
If there has been any change in your health—physical, mental, or dental—since you submitted your examination reports to the Peace Corps, you must immediately notify the Office of Medical Services. Failure to disclose new illnesses, injuries, allergies, or pregnancy can endanger your health and may jeopardize your eligibility to serve.
If your dental exam was done more than a year ago, or if your physical exam is more than two years old, contact the Office of Medical Services to find out whether you need to update your records. If your dentist or Peace Corps dental consultant has recommended that you undergo dental treatment or repair, you must complete that work and make sure your dentist sends requested confirmation reports or X-rays to the Office of Medical Services.
If you wish to avoid having duplicate vaccinations, contact your physician’s office, obtain a copy of your immunization record, and bring it to your pre-departure orientation. If you have any immunizations prior to Peace Corps service, the Peace Corps cannot reimburse you for the cost. The Peace Corps will provide all the immunizations necessary for your overseas assignment, either at your pre-departure orientation or shortly after you arrive in Costa Rica. You do not need to begin taking malaria medication prior to departure.
Bring a three-month supply of any prescription or over-thecounter medication you use on a regular basis, including birth control pills. Although the Peace Corps cannot reimburse you for this three-month supply, we will order refills during your service.
While awaiting shipment—which can take several months— you will be dependent on your own medication supply. The Peace Corps will not pay for herbal or nonprescribed medications, such as St. John’s wort, glucosamine, selenium, or antioxidant supplements.
You are encouraged to bring copies of medical prescriptions signed by your physician. This is not a requirement, but they might come in handy if you are questioned in transit about carrying a three-month supply of prescription drugs.
If you wear eyeglasses, bring two pairs with you—a pair and a spare. If a pair breaks, the Peace Corps will replace it, using the information your doctor in the United States provided on the eyeglasses form during your examination. We discourage you from using contact lenses during your service to reduce your risk of developing a serious infection or other eye disease. Most Peace Corps countries do not have appropriate water and sanitation to support eye care with the use of contact lenses. The Peace Corps will not supply or replace contact lenses or associated solutions unless an ophthalmologist has recommended their use for a specific medical condition and the Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services has given approval.
If you are eligible for Medicare, are over 50 years of age, or have a health condition that may restrict your future participation in healthcare plans, you may wish to consult an insurance specialist about unique coverage needs before your departure. The Peace Corps will provide all necessary healthcare from the time you leave for your pre-departure orientation until you complete your service. When you finish, you will be entitled to the post-service healthcare benefits described in the Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook. You may wish to consider keeping an existing health plan in effect during your service if you think age or preexisting conditions might prevent you from reenrolling in your current plan when you return home.
Safety and Security—Our Partnership
Serving as a Volunteer overseas entails certain safety and security risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment, a limited understanding of the local language and culture, and the perception of being a wealthy American are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon. Incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although almost all Volunteers complete their two years of service without serious personal safety problems. In addition, more than 83 percent of Volunteers surveyed say they would join the Peace Corps again.
The Peace Corps approaches safety and security as a partnership with you. This Welcome Book contains sections on: Living Conditions and Volunteer Lifestyle; Peace Corps Training; and Your Health Care and Safety. All of these sections include important safety information.
The Peace Corps makes every effort to give Volunteers the tools they need to function in the safest and most secure way possible, because working to maximize the safety and security of Volunteers is our highest priority. Not only do we provide you with training and tools to prepare for the unexpected, but we teach you to identify and manage the risks you may encounter.
Factors that Contribute to Volunteer Risk
There are several factors that can heighten a Volunteer’s risk, many of which are in the Volunteer’s control. Based on information gathered from incident reports worldwide in 2003, the following factors stand out as risk characteristics for assaults. Assaults consist of personal crimes committed against Volunteers, and do not include property crimes (such as vandalism or theft).
- Location: Most crimes occurred when Volunteers were in public areas (e.g., street, park, beach, public buildings). Specifically, 47 percent of assaults took place when Volunteers were away from their sites.
- Time of day: Assaults usually took place on the weekend during the late evening between 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m.— most often occurring around 1:00 a.m.
- Absence of others: More than 75 percent of crime incidents occurred when a Volunteer was unaccompanied.
- Relationship to assailant: In most assaults, the Volunteer did not know the assailant.
- Consumption of alcohol: Almost a third of all assaults involved alcohol consumption by Volunteers and/or assailants.
Summary Strategies to Reduce Risk
Before and during service, your training will address these areas of concern so that you can reduce the risks you face.
For example, here are some strategies Volunteers employ:
Strategies to reduce the risk/impact of theft:
- Know the environment and choose safe routes/times for travel
- Avoid high-crime areas per Peace Corps guidance
- Know the vocabulary to get help in an emergency
- Carry valuables in different pockets/places
- Carry a “dummy” wallet as a decoy Strategies to reduce the risk/impact of burglary:
- Live with a local family or on a family compound
- Put strong locks on doors and keep valuables in a lock box or trunk
- Leave irreplaceable objects at home in the U.S.
- Follow Peace Corps guidelines on maintaining home security Strategies to reduce the risk/impact of assault:
- Make local friends
- Make sure your appearance is respectful of local customs; don’t draw negative attention to yourself by wearing inappropriate clothing
- Get to know local officials, police, and neighbors
- Travel with someone whenever possible
- Avoid known high crime areas
- Limit alcohol consumption
Support from Staff
In March 2003, the Peace Corps created the Office of Safety and Security with its mission to “foster improved communication, coordination, oversight, and accountability of all Peace Corps’ safety and security efforts.” The new office is led by an Associate Director for Safety and Security who reports to the Peace Corps Director and includes the following divisions: Volunteer Safety and Overseas Security;
Information and Personnel Security; and Emergency Preparedness, Plans, Training and Exercise. The safety and security team also tracks crime statistics, identifies trends in criminal activity, and highlights potential safety risks to Volunteers.
The major responsibilities of the Volunteer Safety and Overseas Security Division are to coordinate the office’s overseas operations and direct the Peace Corps’ safety and security officers who are located in various regions around the world that have Peace Corps programs. The safety and security officers conduct security assessments; review safety trainings; train trainers and managers; train Volunteer safety wardens, local guards, and staff; develop security incident response procedures; and provide crisis management support.
If a trainee or Volunteer is the victim of a safety incident, Peace Corps staff is prepared to provide support. All Peace Corps posts have procedures in place to respond to incidents of crime committed against Volunteers. The first priority for all posts in the aftermath of an incident is to ensure that the Volunteer is safe and receiving medical treatment as needed.
After assuring the safety of the Volunteer, Peace Corps staff provides support by reassessing the Volunteer’s work site and housing arrangements and making any adjustments, as needed. In some cases, the nature of the incident may necessitate a site or housing transfer. Peace Corps staff will also assist Volunteers with preserving their rights to pursue legal sanctions against the perpetrators of the crime. It is very important that Volunteers report incidents as they occur, not only to protect their peer Volunteers, but also to preserve the future right to prosecute. Should Volunteers decide later in the process that they want to proceed with the prosecution of their assailant, this option may no longer exist if the evidence of the event has not been preserved at the time of the incident.
The country-specific data chart below shows the incidence rates and the average number of incidents of the major types of safety incidents reported by Peace Corps Volunteers/trainees in Costa Rica as compared to all other Inter-America and Pacific region programs as a whole, from 1999–2003. It is presented to you in a somewhat technical manner for statistical accuracy.
To fully appreciate the collected data below, an explanation of the graph is provided as follows:
The incidence rate for each type of crime is the number of crime events relative to the Volunteer/trainee population. It is expressed on the chart as a ratio of crime to Volunteer and trainee years (or V/T years, which is a measure of 12 full months of V/T service) to allow for a statistically valid way to compare crime data across countries. An “incident” is a specific offense, per Peace Corps’ classification of offenses, and may involve one or more Volunteer/trainee victims. For example, if two Volunteers are robbed at the same time and place, this is classified as one robbery incident.
The chart is separated into the eight most commonly occurring assault types. These include vandalism (malicious defacement or damage of property); theft (taking without force or illegal entry); burglary (forcible entry of a residence); robbery (taking something by force); minor physical assault (attacking without a weapon with minor injuries); minor sexual assault (fondling, groping, etc.); aggravated assault (attacking with a weapon, and/or without a weapon when serious injury results); and rape (sexual intercourse without consent).
When anticipating Peace Corps Volunteer service, you should review all of the safety and security information provided to you, including the strategies to reduce risk. Throughout your training and Volunteer service, you will be expected to successfully complete all training competencies in a variety of areas including safety and security. Once in-country, use the tools and information shared with you to remain as safe and secure as possible.
Security Issues in Costa Rica
When it comes to your safety and security in the Peace Corps, you have to be willing to adapt your behavior and lifestyle to minimize the potential for being a target of crime. As with anywhere in the world, crime does exist in Costa Rica. You can reduce your risk by avoiding situations that make you feel uncomfortable and by taking precautions. Crime at the village or town level is less frequent than in the large cities; people know each other and generally will not steal from their neighbors. Tourist attractions in large towns, for instance, are favorite work sites for pickpockets.
The most common safety risks to Volunteers in Costa Rica are petty crimes like pickpocketing, theft, robbery, and simple assault. Aggravated assault, sexual assault, and rape also occur, as in any other place in the world, so Volunteers must avoid unsafe environments and situations.
Staying Safe: Don’t Be a Target for Crime
You must be prepared to take on a large degree of responsibility for your own safety. Only you can make yourself less of a target, ensure that your house is secure, and develop relations in your community that will make you an unlikely victim of crime. In coming to Costa Rica, do what you would do if you moved to a new city in the United States: Be cautious, check things out, ask questions, learn about your neighborhood, know where the more risky locations are, use common sense, and be aware. You can reduce your vulnerability to crime by integrating into your community, learning the local language, acting responsibly, and abiding by Peace Corps policies and procedures. Serving safely and effectively in Costa Rica may require that you accept some restrictions on your current lifestyle.
Volunteers attract a lot of attention in large cities and at their sites, but they are likely to receive far more negative attention in highly populated centers than at their sites, where “family,” friends, and colleagues look out for them. While whistles and exclamations are fairly common on the street, this behavior can be reduced if you dress conservatively, avoid eye contact, and do not respond to unwanted attention. Keep your money out of sight by using an undergarment money pouch, the kind that hangs around your neck and stays hidden under your shirt or inside your coat. Do not keep your money in outside pockets of backpacks, in coat pockets, or in fanny packs. You should always walk with a companion at night.
Preparing for the Unexpected: Safety Training and Volunteer Support in Costa Rica
The Peace Corps’ approach to safety is a five-pronged plan to help you stay safe during your two-year service and includes the following: Information sharing, Volunteer training, site selection criteria, a detailed emergency action plan, and protocols for addressing safety and security incidents. Costa Rica’s in-country safety program is outlined below.
The Peace Corps/Costa Rica office will keep Volunteers informed of any issues that may impact Volunteer safety through information sharing. Regular updates will be provided in Volunteer newsletters and in memorandums from the country director. In the event of a critical situation or emergency, Volunteers will be contacted through the emergency communication network.
Volunteer training will include sessions to prepare you for specific safety and security issues in Costa Rica. This training will prepare you to adopt a culturally appropriate lifestyle and exercise judgment that promotes safety and reduces risk in your home, at work, and while traveling. Safety training is offered throughout service and is integrated into the language, cross-cultural, health, and other components of training.
Certain site selection criteria are used to determine safe housing for Volunteers before their arrival. Peace Corps staff works closely with host communities and counterpart agencies to help prepare them for a Volunteer’s arrival and to establish expectations of their respective roles in supporting the Volunteer. Each site is inspected before the Volunteer’s arrival to ensure placement in appropriate, safe, and secure housing and work sites. Site selection is based in part on any relevant site history; access to medical, banking, postal, and other essential services; availability of communications, transportation, and markets; different housing options and living arrangements; and other Volunteer support needs.
You will also learn about Peace Corps/Costa Rica’s detailed emergency action plan, which is implemented in the event of civil or political unrest or a natural disaster. When you arrive at your site, you will complete and submit a site locator form with your address, contact information, and a map to your house. If there is a security threat, Volunteers will receive instructions from the Peace Corps about the appropriate action to take. This might include gathering with other Volunteers at a predetermined location until the situation is resolved or the Peace Corps decides to evacuate.
Finally, in order for the Peace Corps to be fully responsive to the needs of Volunteers, it is imperative that Volunteers immediately report any security incident to the Peace Corps medical officer. The Peace Corps has established protocols for addressing safety and security incidents in a timely and appropriate manner, and it collects and evaluates safety and security data to track trends and develop strategies to minimize risks to future Volunteers.
DIVERSITY AND CROSSCULTURAL ISSUES
In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, our diversity poses challenges. In Costa Rica, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Costa Rica.
Outside of Costa Rica’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Costa Rica are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Costa Rica, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
Overview of Diversity in Costa Rica
The Peace Corps staff in Costa Rica recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Costa Rican society can be considered very macho. Some men hiss or make inappropriate comments to any woman (foreigner or local) who walks by, which can be frustrating.
Many women deal with this issue by completely ignoring the comments; others continue to be bothered by them for their entire two years. In the workplace, it can be difficult to know when a comment is culturally acceptable and when it constitutes harassment. It is safe to say that most women never accept the catcalls and sexual harassment; rather, they develop a degree of tolerance with which they can function effectively.
Other issues relate to the gender roles that exist in host families. Female Volunteers may experience discomfort at seeing females in the family having the primary responsibility for household chores (i.e., child care, cleaning, and cooking). In addition, many female Volunteers find it difficult to maintain friendships with Costa Rican males because of the assumption that there is always a sexual undertone in any male-female relationship. They may even have a hard time developing close friendships with Costa Rican women of their own age because many local women in their 20s are already married with children.
The Costa Rican culture generally does not allow women to exercise the freedoms to which North American women are accustomed. Female Volunteers may therefore find it frustrating to live in a country that on some levels is very egalitarian, yet on other levels is very limiting. While some Costa Rican women occupy top government positions, traditional roles for women prevail. Costa Rican men, in contrast, are expected to be strong and to smoke, drink, and pursue women regardless of their marital status. Volunteers, especially women, are often bothered by the machismo aspect of Costa Rican culture. There have been incidents in which female Volunteers have been touched or groped on the street or on buses. American women are obvious targets because they are so visible and have a reputation of being sexually liberal.
Possible Issues for Male Volunteers
Male Volunteers also must deal with the macho nature of the society. Men are expected to show their machismo by making sexual comments or by having numerous girlfriends. They also are expected to drink with other men and to treat women roughly at times. Many Costa Rican mothers consider an American to be a great catch for their daughters. Although male Volunteers may not be bothered by these perceptions, in reality, they can interfere with relationships and work in the community. Male Volunteers need to learn to walk the fine line between machismo and their own feelings.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
The majority of the tourists who visit Costa Rica are white. Consequently, host country nationals tend to think that all North Americans are white, and they sometimes mistake non-Caucasian Volunteers for being something other than Americans. For instance, African Americans or Hispanic Americans may be thought to be from Costa Rica or other Latin American countries. Similarly, Volunteers of Asian decent are often considered Chinese regardless of their true origin.
Volunteers of color have different reactions to this situation, depending on their level of sensitivity and their geographical location in the country. For example, a light-skinned African American blended into Costa Rican culture without any problems and found this to be helpful when buying goods at the market. People assumed that she was a local, not an American, so she was not charged inflated prices. However, another Volunteer with much darker skin was frustrated by the prejudice against people with darker skin in some areas of the country.
African-American Volunteers may be assumed to be from the Caribbean area of the country and ascribed attributes of that subculture. They may be called negro (black), the local word commonly used to describe black people, whether used in a derogatory way or as a term of endearment. They may be evaluated as less professionally competent than white Volunteers. They may be one of the few minority members within the program and thus work and live with individuals who have no understanding of African-American cultures and cannot provide adequate support. Finally, they may have difficulty finding certain beauty products found in the United States.
Hispanic-American Volunteers may not be perceived as being North American. They may be expected to speak Spanish fluently because of a Hispanic surname. They may be considered Cubans or Mexicans and ascribed stereotypical attributes of those cultures. Costa Ricans may assume that Hispanic Americans understand the culture and language and thus expect them to interact socially with more ease.
Asian-American Volunteers may be identified by their cultural heritage, not by their American citizenship. They may be assumed to be experts in kung fu. They may be perceived in a certain way based on Costa Rica’s current or historical involvement with Asian countries or the increased presence of Asian businessmen in the community as bar, restaurant, and shop owners.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
More than younger Volunteers, seniors may have challenges in maintaining lifelong friendships and dealing with financial matters from afar. They may want to consider assigning power of attorney to someone.
A senior may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group. Seniors may not be inclined to participate fully in certain activities to “give the young folks their turn.” They may be reluctant to share personal, sexual, or health concerns with Peace Corps staff or other Volunteers. Younger Volunteers may look to an older Volunteer for advice and support; some seniors find this to be an enjoyable experience, while others choose not to fill this role. Some seniors may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job.
Some senior trainees find the intensity of training quite tiring. Others experience a lack of attention to their particular language learning needs and may need to be assertive in developing an effective individual approach.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Homosexuality is generally considered immoral in Costa Rican society, so few gay, lesbian, or bisexual Volunteers choose to be open about their sexual orientation during service. Because of local views about homosexuality, it is wise to be discreet and to know your community well before disclosing your sexual orientation.
The presence of homosexuals and bisexuals is certainly recognized in Costa Rica, but hardly with the same level of acceptance as in the United States. Styles of hair and clothes, earrings on men, and certain mannerisms that are accepted in the United States may be viewed with disdain or suspicion in your community. It is likely that most Costa Rican homosexuals have migrated to larger cities. Relationships with local people can happen, but as with all cross-cultural relationships, they may not be easy. Civil liberties are sometimes ignored, and you may be hassled in bars or on the street. Lesbians have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex (as do all women). Wearing an “engagement ring” may help. Gay men must deal with machismo: talk of conquests, girl watching, and dirty jokes.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Costa Rica is a largely Roman Catholic country, and the church plays an important role in the political debate of the country and in the society’s moral beliefs. There is not the separation of church and state that exists in the United States. Some Costa Ricans you meet may not know much about or may have misconceptions about other religions. However, there are congregations of other religions in Costa Rica (e.g., Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, and Jehovah’s Witnesses).
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
The infrastructure in Costa Rica does not make many accommodations for people with physical disabilities. Most communities do not even have sidewalks, and very few have ramps. In addition, Costa Ricans sometimes give nicknames to people based on their physical characteristics, including disabilities, and you may experience prejudice or jokes about your disability. Depending on your disability, there may be few local resources to turn to for support.
That being said, as part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Costa Rica without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Costa Rica staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in their training, housing, job sites, or in other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
How much luggage am I allowed to bring to Costa Rica?
Most airlines have baggage size and weight limits and assess charges for transport of baggage that exceeds those limits. The Peace Corps has its own size and weight limits and will not pay the cost of transport for baggage that exceeds these limits. The Peace Corps’ allowance is two checked pieces of luggage with combined dimensions of both pieces not to exceed 107 inches (length + width + height) and a carry-on bag with dimensions of no more than 45 inches. Checked baggage should not exceed 80 pounds total with a maximum weight of 50 pounds for any one bag. Keep in mind that you will be responsible for carrying all your baggage during training and when you travel to your future site on public buses.
Peace Corps Volunteers are not allowed to take pets, weapons, explosives, radio transmitters (shortwave radios are permitted), automobiles, or motorcycles to their overseas assignments. Do not pack flammable materials or liquids such as lighter fluid, cleaning solvents, hair spray, or aerosol containers. This is an important safety precaution.
What is the electric current in Costa Rica?
The electric current generally is 110 volts; however, there are 220-volt outlets for some appliances (e.g., refrigerators and electric ovens).
How much money should I bring?
Volunteers are expected to live at the same level as the people in their community. You will be given a settling-in allowance and a monthly living allowance, which should cover your expenses. Often, Volunteers wish to bring additional money for vacation travel to other countries. Credit cards and traveler’s checks are preferable to cash. If you choose to bring extra money, bring the amount that will suit your own travel plans and needs.
When can I take vacation and have people visit me?
Each Volunteer accrues two vacation days per month of service (excluding training). Leave may not be taken during training, the first three months of service, or the last three months of service, except in conjunction with an authorized emergency leave. Vacation requests must be approved in advance by the Volunteer’s Peace Corps program manager and local counterpart. Family and friends are welcome to visit you after pre-service training and the first three months of service as long as their stay does not interfere with your work. Extended stays at your site are not encouraged and may require permission from your country director. The Peace Corps is not able to provide your visitors with visa, medical, or travel assistance.
Will my belongings be covered by insurance?
The Peace Corps does not provide insurance coverage for personal effects. Volunteers are ultimately responsible for the safekeeping of their personal belongings. However, you can purchase such insurance before you leave. If you wish, you may contact your own insurance company; additionally, insurance application forms will be provided, and we encourage you to consider them carefully. Volunteers should not ship or take valuable items overseas. Jewelry, watches, radios, cameras, and expensive appliances are subject to loss, theft, and breakage, and in many places, satisfactory maintenance and repair services are not available.
Do I need an international driver’s license?
Volunteers in Costa Rica do not need to get an international driver’s license because they are prohibited from operating privately owned motorized vehicles. Most urban travel is by bus or taxi. Rural travel ranges from buses and minibuses to trucks and lots of walking. On very rare occasions, a Volunteer may be asked to drive a sponsor’s vehicle, but this can occur only with prior written permission of the country director. Should this occur, the Volunteer will have to obtain a local driver’s license. A U.S. driver’s license will facilitate the process, so bring it with you just in case.
What should I bring as gifts for Costa Rican friends and my host family?
This is not a requirement. A token of friendship is sufficient. Some gift suggestions include knickknacks for the house; pictures, books, or calendars of American scenes; souvenirs from your area; hard candies that will not melt or spoil; or photos to give away.
Where will my site assignment be when I finish training and how isolated will I be?
Peace Corps trainees are not assigned to individual sites until halfway through pre-service training. This gives Peace Corps staff the opportunity to assess each trainee’s technical and language skills prior to assigning sites. During an individual interview with the program manager, you will have the opportunity to provide input on your site preferences, including work priorities, geographical location, and living conditions. However, keep in mind that many factors influence the site selection process and that the Peace Corps cannot guarantee placement where you would ideally like to be.
Volunteers in the rural community development and Mmcroenterprise development projects live in rural to semi-rural sites, while Volunteers working in children, youth, and families projects live in sites of all kinds—urban, semiurban, and rural. Some sites are close to San José, while others are an eight-hour bus ride away. Volunteers in all projects will meet on a regular basis to discuss Peace Corps-related issues as well as cooperate on work-related activities.
How can my family contact me in an emergency?
The Peace Corps’ Office of Special Services provides assistance in handling emergencies affecting trainees and Volunteers or their families. Before leaving the United States, instruct your family to notify the Office of Special Services immediately if an emergency arises, such as a serious illness or death of a family member. During normal business hours, the number for the Office of Special Services is 800.424.8580, extension 1470. After normal business hours and on weekends and holidays, the Special Services duty officer can be reached at 202.638.2574.
For nonemergency questions, your family can get information from your country desk staff at the Peace Corps by calling 800.424.8580, extension 2521 or 2520.
Can I call home from Costa Rica?
Yes, you can call home from any public or private phone, collect or with a calling card. There are international operators for Sprint, AT&T, and MCI. In addition, you can purchase international calling cards issued by the national telephone company at many stores throughout Costa Rica.
Should I bring a cellular phone with me?
We discourage you from bringing a cellular phone because it may not be compatible with the technology in Costa Rica. Although there are plans to change the technology, at this time there is a long waiting list for cellular service. Public phones are readily available, and most host families have telephones.
Will there be e-mail and Internet access? Should I bring my computer?
There are many Internet services in larger communities, which means that Volunteers in rural sites or small towns generally have to travel by bus to the nearest commercial center to access e-mail and the Internet. In addition, CYF Volunteers have limited access to computers in the local office of Patronato Naciónal de la Infancia, a counterpart agency. You do not need to bring a personal computer to Costa Rica.
Doing so will only increase your risk of being a victim of theft. Nevertheless, some Volunteers choose to bring a laptop so they can have unlimited Internet access. Should you choose to bring a laptop, it will be your responsibility to maintain and insure it.
This list has been compiled by Volunteers serving in Costa Rica and is based on their experience. Use it as an informal guide in making your own list, bearing in mind that experience is individual. There is no perfect list! You obviously cannot bring everything we mention, so consider those items that make the most sense to you personally and professionally. You can always purchase some things locally and have other things sent to you later. As you decide what to bring, keep in mind that you have an 80-pound weight restriction on baggage. And remember, you can get almost everything you need in Costa Rica.
Clothes should be conservative, sturdy, easily washable, and free of the need for ironing if possible. Given the high prices and limited selection in Costa Rica, you probably will not want to buy many clothes in-country. Women should know that although many Costa Rican women wear short skirts, doing so is likely to attract unwanted attention from men.
- At least two casual tops (e.g., T-shirts or polo shirts)
- One fleece vest/jacket, one windbreaker and one sweater or sweatshirt
- One or two swimsuits
- One lightweight rain jacket or poncho good for going over back-pack, bags
- Cap or hat for sun protection
- Running gear (if you run)
- 10 pairs of socks
- One or two dressy outfits for nightlife (on breaks or workshops) For Men
- Three pairs of pants for work (denim, cotton, khaki; wrinkle free)
- Five to seven shirts, some button down and mostly short sleeved
- Five to seven T-shirts
- One pair of casual pants (for hiking, painting, etc.)
- Three pairs of shorts
- Ten pairs of boxers or briefs
- One or two ties (sport coat optional) for formal occasions/swearing-in For Women
- Four pairs of pants for work (denim, cotton, khaki, wrinkle-free)
- Five or six tops for work (T-shirts, blouses, tank tops, etc.)
- One pair of dress pants
- Three casual skirts or dresses and one or two dressy outfits
- Five to seven bras and/or sports tops
- Fifteen to 20 pairs of underwear
With the exception of flip-flops, the selection of shoes available in Costa Rica is more limited than in the United States, particularly in larger sizes (over size 9 for women or over size 10-1/2 for men). You may want to bring a two-year supply.
- One pair of sturdy walking or tennis shoes
- One pair of running shoes, if you run
- One pair of waterproof hiking boots or Vibram-soled boots (all parts of the country are wet and muddy during the rainy season; inexpensive rubber boots can be bought locally)
- Two pairs of comfortable shoes for work (can include open-toe shoes for women)
- One pair of dress shoes (can include sandals for women)
- Flip-flops or Teva-like sandals
Personal Hygiene and Toiletry Items
- Regular toiletries (soap, shampoo, shaving cream, body lotion, toothpaste, special floss, etc.) Volunteers recommend bringing economy size of these as the
Peace Corps does not provide for these items
- Tampons, if you use them (few brands are available locally, and they are expensive)
- Any particular brands of over-the-counter medicine you need (the Peace Corps provides some over-the-counter medicine but usually has only one brand for each type)
- Fast-drying towels—two bath, one beach, and one hand
- Sunscreen and mosquito repellent, if you prefer a certain type (The Peace Corps provides only one kind of each. Mosquito nets are provided)
- Refillable razors
- Two flat sheets or a set for a twin bed
- A favorite pillow and pillowcase(s)
- Sturdy (larger) backpack or duffel bag for three-tofour-day trips (Many Volunteers say this is essential)
- Day pack or small backpack
- Inexpensive water-resistant or waterproof watch
- Small travel alarm clock
- Money belt
- Leakproof water bottle (e.g., Nalgene)
- Pocket knife
- Radio, cassette player or discman (with electrical cord); favorite tapes or CDs
- Shortwave radio (optional)
- Start-up supply of stationery, pens, etc.
- Light, stuffable, and preferably waterproof sleeping bag
- Camera and film
- A few dollars to tide you over at your pre-departure orientation (or staging)
- Good scissors
- World map or lightweight atlas
- Small iron
- Photos of family and friends
- Inexpensive jewelry
- Backgammon and other travel games
- Small sewing kit
- A pair or two of cheap but strong sunglasses
- Favorite resources for working with children and youth (games, art supplies, icebreakers, etc.); the Peace Corps provides some
- Cheap items to use as rewards (e.g., stickers, decorative pencils, or erasers)
- Books in English (to read and exchange; Peace Corps/Costa Rica has a library of novels and resource materials)
- Rechargable Batteries (while regualar batteries are available locally, they are expensive and/or of lower quality.)
Items You Do Not Need to Bring
The following items are either available in Costa Rica or provided by the Peace Corps.
- Disposable razors, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothpaste, body lotions
- Mosquito net
- Spanish-English dictionary
- Travel books about Costa Rica or Central America (there are plenty in the Peace Corps library)
The following list consists of suggestions for you to consider as you prepare to live outside the United States for two years. Not all items will be relevant to everyone, and the list does not include everything you should make arrangements for.
- Notify family that they can call the Peace Corps’ Office of Special Services at any time if there is a critical illness or death of a family member (telephone number: 800.424.8580, extension 2254 or 2286; after-hours duty officer: 202.638.2574).
- Give the Peace Corps’ On the Home Front handbook to family and friends.
- Forward to the Peace Corps travel office all paperwork for the Peace Corps passport and visas.
- Verify that luggage meets the size and weight limits for international travel.
- Obtain a personal passport if you plan to travel after your service ends. (Your Peace Corps passport will expire three months after you finish your service, so if you plan to travel longer, you will need a regular passport.)
- Complete any needed dental and medical work.
- If you wear glasses, bring two pairs.
- Arrange to bring a six-month supply of all medications (including birth control pills) you are currently taking.
- Make arrangements to maintain life insurance coverage. . Arrange to maintain supplemental health coverage while you are away. (Even though the Peace Corps is responsible for your health care during Peace Corps service overseas, it is advisable for people who have preexisting conditions to arrange for the continuation of their supplemental health coverage. If there is a lapse in coverage, it is often difficult and expensive to be reinstated.)
- Arrange to continue Medicare coverage if applicable.
- Bring a copy of your certificate of marriage or divorce.
- Register to vote in the state of your home of record. (Many state universities consider voting and payment of state taxes as evidence of residence in that state.) . Obtain a voter registration card and take it with you overseas.
- Arrange to have an absentee ballot forwarded to you overseas.
- Purchase personal property insurance to extend from the time you leave your home for service overseas until the time you complete your service and return to the United States.
- Obtain student loan deferment forms from the lender or loan service.
- Execute a power of attorney for the management of your property and business.
- Arrange for deductions from your readjustment allowance to pay alimony, child support, and other debts through the office of Volunteer Financial Operations at 800.424.8580, extension 1770.
- Place all important papers—mortgages, deeds, stocks, and bonds—in a safe deposit box or with an attorney or other caretaker.