Volunteer Abroad Trip to
Costa Rica (a recap)
For those of you who have been following me, you’re probably familiar with my recent trip to Costa Rica. You have probably heard my stories, seen my photos, and may have even contributed to my trip in some way. Chances are, you haven’t heard everything and that’s why you’re here. This is the post. The post to end all posts regarding my volunteer trip to Costa Rica. Sit back, buckle up, and hold on… the roads get a little bumpy at times. Here we go!
I would like to start at the beginning, when my idea was born, but who is to say when that little seed sprouted. All I knew is that it was there, growing in my brain, spreading it roots through my temporal lobe. It started years ago as a desire to join the Peace Corps. Which I researched at great lengths. I emailed former volunteers, talked to recruiters, and thought about it until my brain finally told me to stop thinking and make a move. So I did. My application was inked, my references were sourced, and my dream was just about ready to launch… then I got derailed. Perhaps it was a fear of commitment”2 years is a long time. It could have been the dream job I just landed”what if there is no work when I return? Or it could have been the ambiguity”you don’t have a lot of control over your volunteer placement in the Peace Corps. Whatever it was, it made me freeze. I put my application in a drawer on the bottom of my file cabinet in the back of my closet under a pile of old clothes I’ve been meaning to donate to Goodwill. But the idea didn’t die.
Life moved on as it always does. A house was bought, a dog adopted, relationships began and ended and before I knew it, a few years had passed. It was the middle of January and I had just started working as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. I was taking a break and sitting on the floor of a new Habitat home, talking with another volunteer and watching the look on the new homeowners face as he watched his dream became a reality around him. Then it hit me. That long lost idea. It returned to me like spring Crocus, blooming at the most unexpected time. My volunteer abroad dream had been dormant for so long. I had nearly forgotten it, but looking at that man’s face and seeing how much our work meant to him, brought me back to that place. The next thing I knew, I was at the library reading books and articles about volunteering abroad. One book in particular that helped me tremendously was How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas.
This book is a great resource. Not only does it outline reputable volunteer programs, but it asks you the tough questions that challenge you to be honest about what your intentions are, and what type of commitment you are truly ready for both financially and personally. It also helps you find local organizations that you can start volunteering for before you take the international plunge. I decided to start off my volunteer abroad experiences with a 2 week program in Costa Rica with Cross Cultural Solutions.
Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) has programs in many countries all over the world. I choose Costa Rica because it was a great starting point for international volunteerism. I have a little experience with Spanish, but knowing the language was not a requirement because many locals know English. It is also one of the safer countries, and this was my first time going to another country. So overall it was a good place to start. Read more about CCS by clicking here »
You definitely get what you pay for with CCS, but it’s not cheap & I am by no means rich. Figuring out how to pay for this little endeavour was my first hurdle. I started saving. Then my car broke and I spent all my savings fixing it. So I saved again. Another emergency arose and “poof” there went my savings. I didn’t let it get me down, I was determined. It was pretty clear that simply saving a little each month wasn’t going to cut it. So I started fundraising. I didn’t want to go around simply asking for money, so I put on an art show. I found a local coffee house called Thomas Hammer who agreed to let me hang my art for a month. I made posters, a website, and created a new series of art to hang. It was an amazing success! I was nearly fully funded when it came time to take my art down at Thomas Hammer. I was a little nervous about how I was going to get my last bit of money when the company I work at, Balihoo, announced a new volunteer grant program. I applied for the grant and was awarded the funds just in time for my trip. I am so thankful for both Balihoo and everyone who supported me by purchasing my art and/or making donations!
My flight to San Jose was a late flight for Costa Rica. The airport was abandoned and it felt like it could be 2am, but it was only 8pm. I made my way through customs and got my bag pretty fast. Before I knew it, I was in a cab on my way to the volunteer homebase in Cuidad Quesada. Cuidad Quesada, also referred to as San Carlos, was about 2 hours from the airport. The cab driver drove like a mad man, cutting people off, weaving between traffic, and quick to lay on the horn. This driving style was a bit much after a day of flying, but it was something you grew accustomed to once in Costa Rica. There was an unspoken trust between pedestrians and drivers. Pedestrians seemed to take their time, walk in the middle of the road, and didn’t get out of the way when a vehicle came flying through an intersection. Vehicles got dangerously close, drove at high speed, and waited till the very last second to come to a screeching halt. In the US this type of driving would cause road rage or catastrophic accidents. In Costa Rica, there was an understanding and underlying respect. I could see it in my cab driver as he honked his horn and flew past bicyclist then turned and smiled at me and asked about my flight. He wasn’t stressed or anxious. It was just the way he got from point A to point B and everyone seemed to understand that.
My cab driver dropped me off at my new home in San Carlos. I was a little disorientated, it was dark, and I was really hungry. I found my way to the kitchen, ate a banana and then passed out on a bunk bed in a dorm-like room.
I woke up early the next day, found my way to a shower, and then made my way to the kitchen for breakfast. All the other volunteers were up and ready to go. I awkwardly introduced myself (as I always do) and then stuffed my face with gallo pinto. After breakfast, we had our orientation and city tour. San Carlos is a bit of a hub for the county or canton. Many people travel to San Carlos to take care of their business, go to school, or go shopping. The streets were always full of people walking and cars driving like maniacs. There was a large catholic church in the center of the city that faced West, overlooking a park. In Costa Rica, all the churches face west, which is a great tidbit of info for foreigners who can barely make their way through the unmarked city streets. The town was larger then I had expected, yet easy to manage. Just about anything you needed was within a few blocks of home base.
My volunteer placement was at a local government funded community college called INA. I helped students in an conversational english class. The students were advanced and really just needed to have a native speaker to talk to. So we came up with word games, told stories, and simply talked about our lives. Most the students were about 18-20 years old and everyone of them were incredibly nice.
One day the teacher asked me to write up a short story for what he called a “running dictation”. We split the class into groups & hung the story up in the room next door. Each group sent one student at a time into the other room to try read and memorize a sentence from my story. Then the student had to run back to the classroom and tell the other students in his/her group what they read so they could write it down. The student who read the sentence wasn’t allowed to write, and only one student from each group was allowed to be in the other room at a time. The group that finished the story first, won. Here is my story”go ahead and print it out and try a little running dictation of your own!
They all lived in the desert as a small family, brought there by the wind and sprouted under the same sun. Most of them grew into cactus or sagebrush, but there was one who didn’t belong and his name was Eddie.
When Eddie was young, he knew he was different. He wasn’t the same shape, size, or color as the others around him. He couldn’t figure out why he was different. He grew under the same sun, was carried as a seed by the same wind, and drank the same water as the cacti and sagebrush around him. Yet each day he sprouted a new leaf and grew taller than any other plant in the desert.
One spring he noticed something odd growing on his head. The cactus teased him, “Looks like plant cancer!”, they said. “I knew he was a freak,” shouted the sage brush. Eddie didn’t know what to think. He thought about trying to burn it off in the hot sun by twisting his head and pointing it to the sky, but it was no use. Whatever it was, it kept on growing. The plants around him started to lean away. They didn’t want to be anywhere near Eddie and his strange growth.
Then one spring morning, as the sun rose and the sky turned from black to soft pink and then to blue, Eddie bloomed into a beautiful flower. The other plants looked at him in amazement. Eddie stood tall as the first sunflower in the desert, and let his petals shine a brilliant yellow in the hot sun.
There were 3 days when class at INA was canceled and I was given another volunteer placement. I spent the first day at a day center for senior citizens and the other two days at a nursing home. I really surprised myself when I enjoyed working at the nursing home. I’ve always had a fear of human mortality. Being around elderly is like looking mortality straight in the eye. I was terrified. But it was good. Working with the students at INA was rewarding, but working with the elderly at the nursing home felt so much more impactful. Many of these people struggled in their lives and most had severed relationships with their families. They were so thankful to have someone to take them to the garden, listen to them, and care for them when they are facing their last years, months, or perhaps days of their lives.
When we weren’t volunteering, we were:
- Taking Spanish classes
- Attending lectures about Costa Rican history or the health care system
- Learning salsa and meringue
- Going on field trips to learn about local leather shops or wild life rescue centers
We had the weekends off, so I took trips with the other volunteers. We went to Monteverde & La Fortuna one weekend. I rode my first horse and went zip-lining!
On my last weekend, we went to Manuel Antonio. I spent the entire weekend laying on the beach. I even learned how to surf!
It was an amazing trip. I hope to go on another some day soon and if you get a chance to do a volunteer abroad trip, do it! Please let me know if you have any questions. Thanks for reading!
Here are links to posts I wrote while I was in Costa Rica & while I was fundraising for the trip: