BLOGGING FROM THE FIELD
This last week has been one of the busiest times of my life (and that’s coming from a recent MIT grad!). Since our camps start in a few short days, this is crunch time and our preparation has been a bit of a roller coaster.
Last week, I was spending my days in San Jose and my nights in Cartago (about 45 minutes away) in the home of Silvia and Don Rigo. Since then, I have relocated to San Carlos — which is a 2hr+ drive from San Jose — to start preparing at the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica where our 3 science camps will be held. Since day 6, the three of us have been living with three different host families, each of which is the home of a student that will be attending our camps.
My new family includes Xinia, a curious and loving mother and Rolando, a silly but quiet and caring father. I have a little brother named Luis Alonso (13), who is about 4 inches short for his age but makes up for it with an insane amount of stamina that allows him to bike and rollerblade for hours at a time. Finally, there is Maria Jose (15) a friendly and driven attendee of a colegio scientífico and future camper. These four have welcomed me into their home with open arms but unfortunately, my work schedule has made it nearly impossible for me to spend as much time with them as I would like.
Costa Rica has a system of science high schools throughout the country, home to about 400 of the country’s most brilliant students. Students are chosen via a very selective merit-based process and experience a pretty rigorous high school career. After year 1, about a quarter of the first years are cut (according to grades) and the remaining students are allowed to return for the second and final year of the high school. Carla’s host brother Ricardo and Amrita’s host sister Liz are both second year students (2 of only 9) and Maria Jose just passed first year and was selected to stay for year two.
Suffice it to say that our three compañeros are smart cookies. But the stress of their education system is undeniable and I wonder whether they are lucky or not to be a part of it. Regardless, they are very gifted indeed and with such supportive families I’m sure they are bound to do great things.
I’ve learned a little about language already, but this past week was learning about lifestyle. I’m finding out about what ticos like to eat and how they treat their guests. I’m realizing that they are hospitable beyond reason but also aggressive behind the wheel. I’ve taken a bus, train, taxi and know how much each should cost me if I’m not getting ripped off. I’ve had guanabana, carambola, and ras in the form of fruit drinks and can identify the coins by feel alone. I’m even starting to enjoy the taste of coffee.
On day 9, we went with Doña Lucia to a construction warehouse, a stationary store, a supermarket, a lumberyard, a shipping store, and various other vendors on a massive hunt for materials. During a pitstop, I managed to snag the following photo of an ad for feminine products.
Mujeres mas seguras. I like that.
The Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica (better known as el Tec) has been our home base for the past week. We’ve been working with the director of the adjacent science high school, Wayner, where our 3 chiquillos attend. He, along with a marvelous Doña Lucia have been invaluable in our search for materials, lab spaces and the occasional coffee and cheese break. They receive about 3 emails from us daily, requesting new sizes of nails, more rubber hosing, a drill, agar plates, and basically anything else you might imagine in a lab. On day 8, Wayner took us on the grand tour of the campus and showed us around the biotech lab where our E.coli transformation lab module will be held.
A long time ago, the plan was for the three of us to arrive with almost a month before the start of the camps, so we would have enough time to prepare, troubleshoot, meet and discuss. Along the way, the plan changed to less than two weeks and that has made days 8-12 a bit of a nightmare. Everyday, the three of us wake up at 5am, eat breakfast and get on a bus by 6am and take the half hour trek to el Tec where our compañeros are finishing up the last week of classes. Our workday starts at 7am and goes to about 5:30pm when we take the bus back to the terminal and get home by around 6:30. The day’s work involves running around the entire campus, finding out that some things won’t work and our schedule has been changed without prior notice. It involves testing modules and hoping beyond hope that nature and science decide to cooperate with us on the day of the camps. Here, on day 11, we’ve turned Randall’s bathroom into our official lab testing space.
I won’t lie, it’s been frustrating. Things we took for granted are now proving to be great challenges and the enormity of teaching 65 of the most brilliant high schoolers in the country (in Spanish) is finally sinking in. There’s a lot riding on the success of these camps and if we mess up, a whole heap of people will be let down. Overwhelmed is a bit of an understatement.
On Day 10, Carla, Amrita and I took a 2.5 hour bus ride back to San Jose for an informal rendezvous with our 12 university volunteers. We all met at MICIT and headed to Pizza a la Leña with Randall where we introduced ourselves and explained to them our hopes and dreams for these camps. Here’s half the crew and coincidentally, its the boy half. From left to right we have Dennis (who gives hugs), Victor (at 25, the veteran), Ricardo (the biotech engineer who loves death metal), Mau (majoring in computer science and saxophone), Israel (at 18, the baby) and Ronald (the physics guy who will debate politics with you without even knowing your name).
Not included are Amanda (the rogue), Magaly (the one with perfect english), Yana (the one who invited us to stay with her someday), Katherine (the only computer science girl), Anna (the safety-conscious one) and Juan Jose (the agreeable one).
These were a dozen smart, driven students (many of whom were older than us) and the first thing we were made to understand was that, for some reason, they trusted and respected us to the utmost level. We’re from MIT and, according to them, it was an honor that they were even in our presence. I can assure you that most of this crew was smarter than I am but because I was wearing a Brass Rat, I was in charge.
This was unfamiliar territory. It’s one thing to be seen as perfection when you walk into the developing world where there is no water, no education and no infrastructure but when you become responsible even though you may not be the most qualified, that’s a weird feeling.
Since then, I’m trying simultaneously to assume this responsibility and redefine my role in this process. I don’t have all the answers, I just have questions that they haven’t tried asking yet. I hope they realize that before the campers get here.
The Big Picture
Today was the inauguration of our camps and our first public appearance. We met with the Minister of Science and Technology, the rector of the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica, the manager of the Banco Nacional and the director of Human Resources at HP. All around a pretty big-shot bunch.
After a rough week and some breakthroughs and letdowns, I had gotten a little short-sighted. The inauguration and seeing some of next week’s campers made me realize my role in this project. These are going to be Costa Rica’s first ever science camps and they will be run by a Pakistani, an Indian and an Salvadorian. If that’s not crazy, I don’t know what is.
A few pictures, a video, an interview and many thank-yous later, I finally backed up and saw the big picture. Its not about whether or not our modules run well next week, nor about whether my grammar is ok in the lectures I give. It’s about 65 high school kids and 12 college whizzes who want to make history and I’m sure as hell not going to stop them.