By Peter Madsen • The Bulletin

Interested in hosting?

For information or to join Partner of Americas, call Central Oregon coordinator Lee Haroun at 541-598-7785

A group of sightseers made their way along the Big Obsidian Flow Trail in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument on a recent morning. The 1,300-year-old flow, the youngest in Oregon, is alternately covered in gray-beige pumice and inky obsidian. It struck some in the group as a world away from their native Costa Rica.

Irma Alvarez Trejos, 66, placed a hand on a smooth slab of obsidian along the 1-mile trail.

“It’s super cold,” Alvarez said in Spanish. “Touch it.”

The Costa Ricans and their Central Oregon hosts are participants in Partners of The Americas, a nonprofit that pairs participants with guests and host families. Individuals are responsible for expenses including airfare, which begins at around $600 for round-trip flights from Oregon to Costa Rica. The program was founded in 1964 through the Alliance For Progress, an initiative the Kennedy Administration began in the early 1960s. The Oregon-­Costa Rica program began the following year. The goal of the nonprofit — now independent — exchange program is to foster goodwill. Thirty-eight states and 27 countries participate as of this year.

“You get to the point where you begin to look at the world through their eyes, rather than looking at their country through U.S. eyes,” Joan Lansberg, 78, said. “Can you hear the difference?”

María Leonor Ruiz Pérez grabbed a football-sized slab of pumice with one hand and lobbed it as easily as a pillow into a mound of others.

“I thought it would be heavy, but it’s not!” Ruiz said in Spanish. (In Spanish culture, a person’s full name includes the father’s family name and the mother’s family name, in that order. Associated Press Style is to use the father’s last name after the first reference.)

A language barrier was no obstacle to the five Costa Ricans visiting Central Oregon, one of four locations in the state they are visiting in one-week increments. In each location — including Hood River, Portland and the coast near Astoria — hosts, or “anfitriones,” take the Costa Ricans into their homes, sharing their meals and lives with them. It’s similar to cultural exchanges popular among high school and college students, although most Costa Ricans and their American counterparts are in their 50s or older. Most are retired, freeing them to spend time abroad.

“I’m interested in the customs, friendship, culture and beauty of (Oregon),” said Ruiz, 65, a retired nurse who dedicated her career to diabetics and those with hypertension in Costa Rica’s Nicoya peninsula.

Carlos Jimenez Delcore, 62 and a second-career lawyer who cares for an elderly parent, said friendship across borders is important.

Jimenez, who lives in San José, Costa Rica, and his companions, who live elsewhere in the country, will also open their doors to the Oregon hosts who are taking them in and showing them around.

It’s a program rule that participants host before they are hosted for a four-week tour.

Jimenez enjoys the opportunity to improve his novice English so he can better interact with his brother, who lives in Florida with his American wife.

Jimenez’s niece, who shares his passion for cultural interchange, sees her uncle often in San José, where she has extended stays.

Sitting next to Jimenez, Elizabeth Villalobos Duarte, 75, has received numerous Oregonians throughout the years.

The retired teacher has been enjoying her immersion in the English language and has found Oregonians friendly, or “amable.”

“Exchanges are very important to learn the culture, English and American customs,” said Villalobos, who is also Costa Rica’s president of Partners of The Americas.

She oversees the eight regional chapters that Oregon participants can visit in two separate four-region trips that traipse from the sunny beaches, rain forests, arid dry lands and the metropolitan capital of San José.

Now that she has put both of her children through college, she can enjoy taking part in programs like Partners of The Americas.

“You have the confidence that after (taking part in the program), that yes, there are friendly, loving people who want to show you their country, share their traditions and their homes,” Villalobos said.

“This group’s affectionate reception is excellent.”

The caravan drove to the Big Obsidian Flow, one of several sites the visitors would be shown in Central Oregon, along with the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Smith Rock State Park, Fort Rock and Lava Lands Visitor Center.

Several hosts, including Lansberg and Partners of The Americas Central Oregon chairperson, Lee Haroun, served as translators for matters ranging from small interactions to impromptu group presentations.

Along the Big Obsidian Flow Trail, Bob Kempf, a host and Bureau of Land Management retiree, stopped the group in front of a white pine tree.

“Un momento, por favor,” he said.

It was one of the few Spanish phrases he picked up.

Kempf pointed toward the tree twisting out of a crack in the pumice, explaining in English why its top branches were barren and dead-looking while the lower half was thick with green needles.

Haroun, who would translate for the group, cut Kempf off.

“Whoa! That’s too much information at once,” Haroun said before relaying how deep snowpack had preserved much of the tree but not the top, which was killed by the obsidian flow’s harsh winter conditions.

The Costa Ricans nodded, squinting in the sunlight.

The hosts love these interactions.

“It’s wonderful to get to know such big-hearted people,” Lansberg said.

“They’re open to whatever we show them or serve them to eat. It’s a marvelous experience.”

As the group walked, Jimenez translated some Spanish observations into English.

The trail is rough or uneven — or “escabroso” — and its rocks are sharp, or “filosas.”

They’re also pretty.

“Look how it shimmers,” said Marnell McCleneghan, a Sunriver resident who became a Partners of The Americas host when she took a say-yes-to-everything approach to retirement.

She finds the program enriching.

“On a human level, (cultural exchanges) are to remind ourselves that we’re all alike,” McCleneghan said.

After earning her master’s degree, Lansberg mastered Spanish while serving in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica in 1965 and 1966.

Returning stateside, Lansberg earned a doctorate in forest ecology, subsequently working as a biologist for the Forest Service.

She retired in 2000.

Lansberg learned about The Partners of The Americas while reading a Bulletin article in the late 2000s.

She has since enjoyed two trips to Costa Rica through the program.

Despite speaking excellent Spanish that lets Lansberg switch from the conversational to the scientific, she is not always correct in her translations.

During a subsequent group trip to the top of Lava Butte, Lansberg was reminded of humility when she flubbed an explanation of why a compass’ accuracy is affected by the lava field’s high iron content.

“I said ‘bruja’ for compass,” she said, adding that the word actually means ‘witch.’”

Jimenez jumped in.

“Ah sí. Brújula,” he said, offering the right word for compass.

The error painted a whimsical picture.

Alvarez said she didn’t know how a witch had gotten involved.

“We had a good laugh over that,” Lansberg said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,