In 2011, I spent the month of February in the beautiful country of Costa Rica. My first three weeks dedicated to volunteering and cultural immersion in and near Cartago, I spent the final week with my roomie and new friend Sheila exploring the rest of the country.
I learned several things right off the bat:
- The country's cultural motto is "Pura Vida!"- literally "pure life!" and the people are very proud to proclaim this.
- While a Spanish speaking country, the way they respond to being thanked is not the traditional Mexican phrase "de nada" - meaning "it's nothing." Rather, they say "con mucho gusto" - meaning "with great pleasure." They really take pride in this as well, as it lifts up the dialogue between people to a higher, more respectful, purer communication.
- The country does not have an army. They choose peace, even being right next to other countries with drug war lords and rebel activity.
- Last and certainly not least… drum roll… the water in the entire country is safe to drink! Woo hoo! How wonderful to not have to worry about this.
Oh yes, and one other thing I found quite curious. Costa Rica does not use traditional address naming conventions. Instead, they describe where a building is in relationship to other buildings or landmarks. For example, A Chamber of Tourism has the address Costado Este de la Municipalidad de Cartago, altos de Tienda Arenas. Translated, it becomes Costado East of the Municipality of Cartago, highs of Tienda Arenas. You just have to know the name of where you're going and the SatNav will take it from there. A picture being worth a thousand words, here's the address of where I was located:
I volunteered through Cross Cultural Solutions. CCS's model is to establish a local office in the country, and have that group interface with the organizations in need of assistance. Plus, they place an emphasis not just on volunteering, but cultural immersion as well, so volunteers come away with a valuable understanding of the country, its history, its language, social norms and culture. Very well organized, providing room and board in a "Home Base" safe location, and I highly recommend them. In fact, I would go on to volunteer with them for six weeks in India (their very first location) two years later.
Anyway, during my first three weeks, (weekdays), we spent the mornings at our volunteer assignments, the afternoon with free time and/or a cultural immersion activity (Spanish lessons, salsa dancing lessons, outings to natural landmarks and into San Jose, etc), evenings relaxing and/or preparing activities for our assignment the next day.
Weekends were filled with trips to the west coast, excursions in the rain forest, relaxation at a nearby resort. Adventures included zip-lining, parasailing, and rappelling. Take a peek at where we rappelled:
Yep. We kept busy. We had fun. We worked hard. And we grew in relationship. With each other, with the local staff, and with those at our assignments.
I was assigned to help at a child day care center. From little bitty babies to 5 year olds, age appropriate programs along with eating times and play times gave structure to the morning. I helped out wherever I was needed, which might mean clamoring with the older kids through elaborate playground sets (oh my aching back!), or helping one of the teachers with class, or feeding and holding babies and younger kids. Often I would prepare a game or craft activity to fill free time.
The first week I was a fish out of water. Unaccustomed to being around little ones, my energy quickly waned. Knowing very little Spanish, I felt inadequate. I realized how wise it was that we only volunteered half a day. No way I would have made a whole day.
The second week, I had picked up some Spanish and communicated a bit better with both the kids (¡siéntate! - sit down!) and the staff (¿Cómo puedo ayudar? - how can I help?). I learned the kids names, and they recognized me, waving with a smile, running up to hug me. I became proficient at feeding several little ones at the same time, interacting with them and making it fun. Left to their own devices they would linger, and there was a time table to be kept!
The third week, I felt at home, connected with both the kids and the staff. I took photos and videos and put them on a cd, and the kids got to watch themselves playing. They loved it. I cried the day I left, sad for me as I would miss them, sad also that the kids had to say good-bye to volunteers over and over again.
As is the tradition with CCS in Cartago, volunteers are invited to paint a message on the Home Base wall, along with a stamp of our hand. Rather than place the palm of my hand on the wall, I decided to place both hands together in the Namaste position and stamp that on the wall. Out from that grew whimsical leaves and vines and colorful flowers that reflected my experience of my time there.
In the last week, Sheila and I headed to the east coast, which, though officially Caribbean, tends to be more stormy and rainy. This did not dampen our spirits, and we enjoyed body surfing in six foot waves. Heading back west, we spent a few days near Arenal Fortuna, the active volcano, and experienced a local naturally hot (as in heated by the volcano) water park. Even the water in the pool at our hotel was hot… little did I know that I was experiencing a foretaste of middle east waters.
Wrapping up our last night in San Jose, we headed north to the USA the following morning, me in first class, Sheila back in economy. (I had originally booked for three weeks, then extended to the fourth. And lo and behold a first class ticket was not much more than what I'd have to pay simply to change my travel date. Cool!).
An amazing month behind me, our flight not yet taking off, I reflected on my blessings. Once in the air, I sent one of my five (they were quite small) mimosas back to Sheila, and took a photo of my breakfast to show her later. I ate every last bite. The movie The King's Speech was played for us. I felt like the luckiest woman on earth.
I hold the the team at CCS and teachers (I still follow some of them on Facebook) of Shaday school in my heart and thoughts. And the kids, realizing the most of them have grown to school age, new ones taking their place. Peace and Pure Vida to you all.
After my return home, my experience in Costa Rica would find expression in my painting "Costa Rica Beach" which hangs beautifully framed where I can see it in my kitchen, drawing me and others into its energy and beauty. It's a composite of several east coast experiences: one a three hour walk along the beach, two, the waves crashing against the rocks another day, and three the amazing sky on yet another day. This painting is my constant reminder of my time in that beautiful country., and brings me joy every time I look at it.