long time coming

i was reflecting today on how my arrival here in costa rica has been a long time in coming – 16 years, in fact. let me explain.

after my summer as an exchange student in paraguay turned me onto travel and southern culture, i returned home and immediately began looking for ways to go and see and do more. i found a volunteer programme called “amigos de las americas” which sent volunteers to rural parts of latin america to work on improving health, education and sanitation in those communities. volunteers were assigned to a variety of work projects and spent the summer with a host family.

as i was entering my final year of high school, not only would this look good on a college application, but allow me to do some traveling before heading off to university. i had a friend at the time (liz) who was spending a year in costa rica living with relatives. after writing to me about how beautiful the country was, i asked for and was assigned to the dental hygiene education programme for costa rica. i was thrilled.

over the course of the next few months, we prepared for our volunteer projects. we studied and practiced. we fundraised for our trips. we bought cots and other needed materials. liz and i wrote back and forth planning a meet-up for when i got there. i was assigned to a host family.

and then, on 17th february 1990, i got a new brother and sister.

i don’t like to write about my family because i don’t think it’s fair to talk about them without their consent. after all, if they wanted to tell the world their business, they’d have their own blog. but most people who know me in real life know that i have a brother and sister that i grew up with from childhood, and a brother and sister who came into oiur family when i was 17 and they were in their early teens.

so suddenly, i had family i knew nothing about. we had no shared experience, no history. no trust, no rapport. there was an understandable amount of upheaval and drama happening at home as a result, and suddenly everything was confusion as we all grappled with negotiating a basis for understanding each other. trying to suss out these new permanent additions and decide who we would be in the family tree. as the weeks ticked past, i became acutely aware that i would soon be gone from the nest and my new siblings were still perfect strangers to me. i would leave for my programme, be home for two weeks, then spend the better part of 4 years out of the country attending college in montreal… by which time, they’d be out of the nest themselves. my legal brother and sister were a mystery to me – and likely to remain so if i missed this small window of opportunity.

so after much deliberation, two weeks before my flight… i withdrew from the programme. no refunds, no regrets. it remains one of the best decisions i’ve made (though my parents weren’t convinced at the time).

and so when i think back to how things might have been different if i’d made another choice… i don’t think about missing out on spending a summer working with indigenous people in the rainforests of a tropical land. i think about how different my family, my life would have been if i’d gotten on that plane. how much poorer in love i would be if we’d remained family united in name only, but strangers to each other.

a lot happened that summer, and a lot has happened since. some good, some bad. i won’t pretend that we all bonded instantly, or that even now, 16 years later, we know everything we should about each other. family ties are not the product of wishful thinking or even good intentions. they are the result of putting in the time and energy and commitment. and that’s why i stayed home that summer. not everything and not magic. but a start. because i think i knew even then there are some things you never get a second chance for.

and i always knew i’d get a second chance for costa rica.

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