¡Pura Vida Costa Rica!
During my summer I spent a month in Costa Rica, with a volunteering organisation called GVI. Costa Rica is a Central American country bordered on the north by Nicaragua, Panama at the South and the Caribbean and the Pacific on the East and West respectively. The official language is Spanish and it has a population of four and a half million. It is a stunning country that holds 3% of the world’s biodiversity, despite being only 0.5% of the world’s land mass as well as having the greatest density of species in the world.
My first week in Costa Rica involved cultural immersion in a town on the Pacific coast called Quepos with eight other teenagers from all around the world – we had Americans, Canadians, English and even a Swiss boy as well as me from Scotland. Cultural immersion meant four hours of Spanish lessons a day, salsa class and cooking class and staying with a host family for a week. We got to experience every part of tico life (tico is a term Costa Ricans use to refer to themselves) in a welcoming environment, which gave me a more authentic and real view of Costa Rica than many other visitors could hope to get.
My homestay was one of my favourite parts of my whole trip. Living with the host family improved my Spanish more than the lessons did. My family didn’t speak much English so it was up to me to make conversation and pass along information in Spanish. It broke down learning another language to its main purpose – communication. What I was saying didn’t have to be perfect; it just had to convey what I wanted to say. But by making mistakes and being corrected I learned how to say it for next time.
The other side of this experience was really feeling like a part of the family. I got on easily with my roommate from our group and our tico parents were welcoming and inclusive. They made it easy for us to take part in the conversations and enjoy our evenings together. There were two other students living with our family and the second night we were there we had a salsa party with the rest of their group. We moved the couches out of the way, turned up the music and shook our hips!
With only having eight people in the group the first week we all bonded quickly and easily. It was a brilliant way to start my stay in Costa Rica, in a small group, acclimatising to the new climate and getting to know the new culture. Seeing the way that every day life went in Costa Rica gave me context for the work we would be doing the next week and how it would fit into the lives of those in it.
After spending a week in Quepos with our host families we said goodbye and we moved to a hostel in the neighbouring hillside town of Manuel Antonio where another eight volunteers joined us. Our hostel was incredible – it looked like a treehouse and had regular visitors like monkeys, geckos and even a tarantula in the bathroom!
The next two weeks were spent doing construction and maintenance work at a school in a community called Roncador. The pupils in the school ranged from kindergarten up to around 12 years old. It was hard work under a hot sun but we got through a massive amount of work, more than anyone expected. We dug drains to stop the playground flooding, cleared, levelled and landscaped an area behind the kindergarten classroom for a new playground for the kindergarten kids, wirebrushed and painted tin panels for a new roof for the GVI English classroom, filled in the holes in the wall with cement and gave the lunch hall, kindergarten classroom, outside wall and English classroom all a fresh coat of paint! We also added a mural to the side of the English classroom.
After our first week of volunteering we said goodbye to five of the original volunteers who were only staying for two weeks and it was tough to let them go.They were desperate to stay and I was desperate to keep them. We were thrown together in the first week when we didn’t know anyone and didn’t know anything about this new country and were forced to make friends with each other. We spent another week working hard together and they have becomewhat I consider as my international family. After a very teary goodbye and an attempted all-nighter, we waved goodbye to them at half five in the morning before welcoming a new set of five volunteers for the remaining two weeks.
We continued our work out at Roncador and one day in our second week we got to have a sports day with the kids. We’d seen them in their lessons and running around during their breaks and had had some conversations with some of them (the older girls took a bit of a fancy to two of the boys in our group which provided some shy requests for selfies with them at break time) but in general. we hadn’t had much of an opportunity to interact with them. This was the first time we got to play and chat with them. They practised their English on us and we practised our Spanish on them, and we got to really meet the people that we were doing all this work for.
The kids are the life of the school, their smiles, their laughs, their eagerness to learn, and knowing that we could help them was very rewarding. They reminded us all why we were there, where all our sweat and effort was actually going. They day we left the project for the last time after two weeks there was a sad one and I think part of us wished we could stay for another week and do more. I am so proud of what we achieved throughout those two weeks and I know that the difference we have made will have a very real impact on the kids. It gives them a safer, cleaner, nicer learning environment to learn in and be proud of.
After two weeks of hard work we moved into our adventure week! We started with a trip to the Manuel Antonio National Park where we got to see some of the amazing creatures and plants that live in Costa Rica. We saw everything from monkeys on the beach and baby boa constrictors to spiders with skulls on the back of their heads, lizards and crabs climbing trees. The best thing we saw was by far a three-toed sloth chilling in a tree! The next day we took to the beach where I learnt that surfing is just as hard as it looks (which is hard!) but about a hundred times more fun. I have no evidence that I stood up so you’ll have to take me on my word but I promise that I did!
On the Monday of our last week we left the Quepos-Manuel Antonio area that had been my home for the last three weeks and drove across to the other side of Costa Rica to Turrialba. For our next adventure we went ziplining and abseiling in the rainforest, getting very wet and bashed around by waterfalls but riding high on the adrenaline rush. We then embarked on a rafting trip down the Rio Pacuare, one of the best rivers in the world for rafting. We spent two days navigating down class III and IV rapids in our rafting teams (Team Eduardo and the Six was the best). We spent two nights in a permanent camp in the middle of the rainforest that had one lightbulb in the kitchen and no other electricity. We slept in bunk beds in wooden cabins that had bug nets as walls – not a lot of privacy! Being away from everything and being right down to the basics was actually really enjoyable. We spent our free time playing cards, reading or trying to play the ukulele of one of our leaders. We had a day in between our two daysof rafting where we hiked to an indigenous village and saw their school. To get there we had to face extremely muddy paths and a tree that was completely covered in spider webs and about 100 accompanying spiders but we were rewarded with a view of the Atlantic Ocean across the hills and with a float down the river to get back to camp.
We returned to San Jose, the capital the day before we left and when it was time to leave Costa Rica, I was heartbroken. It is such a beautiful country, from thestunning landscape to the warm, welcoming people and I didn’t want to say goodbye. This extended to the volunteers too – I love everyone that was on the trip with me but there were a couple of girls who I know I will stay in contact with for the rest of my life and will definitely see again one day soon. That is one of the things that is so great about this kind of trip. You make special, long lasting connections with people easily, because they are all similar to you.
When I got home, I couldn’t stop crying because of how much I wanted to be back in Costa Rica. There were some things I couldn’t tell my family about my trip because I would start crying if I did! For a while (mostly while I was getting over the jetlag) it didn’t feel real that I was back in Scotland. If I’m honest there weren’t even that many things I missed while I was away. Hot water from the shower and cold water from the tap was one of them, and it being cold enough to snuggle up under a duvet at night was another but overall I miss more about Costa Rica than I did about Scotland. Is that bad?
Costa Rica will always be very special to me and I will never forget the thingsthat I saw and learnt there. I share a very unique connection with the people I met while on this trip and I now have a family that is spread all over the world. This trip has ignited a desire to travel in me, one that was already there but has now sparked. It has also shown me the way I want to spend the rest of my life –seeing the world and helping as much of it as I can. So until next time – ¡pura vida!
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