Life in the Big Ciudad

As I sat in the plane heading south to Costa Rica, I asked myself a question that I often pose to myself: “What was I thinking?” I had traded in a cushy traveling style for one more rustic–though I didn’t know how much so until I got here.

This is my first “volunteer vacation” with Cross Cultural Solutions, a multinational nonprofit that partners with local organizations to promote understanding and communication among various cultures. Through volunteering, cultural immersion, and free time in a typical Costa Rican community, we can go beyond the typical, surface-level tourist experience. Not that I have anything against those, but for some time now I have longed for more, to get to know a place more deeply. I chose Costa Rica because it’s a gorgeous country with great people, healthful food, and a commitment to its future.

Having been to Costa Rica before, I expected to live in a building without air conditioning, to sleep with open windows unencumbered even by screens. I knew that Tico time means that if a meeting is called for 9:00 a.m., it may happen somewhere near that time if we’re lucky. I did not know that I would shower in ice-cold water or have to scour around to find toilet paper, which cannot be flushed here because the plumbing is too delicate.

I met my roommates, Charlotte from Alabama and Trine from Barcelona via Norway. Given that many volunteers are college-age, I felt relieved to share a room with women of my own age group. In fact, last night they and several others congregated on and around my bunk for a first official meeting of the Senior members of the group. Well, it was more like a gaggle of giggling girls, but we pretend to be dignified, anyway. We have already had our ritual of sharing secrets, none of which I’ll share here because, well, they’re secret. Even mine.

Other volunteers have shared stories that fascinate and raise my curiosity. There is the woman who, along with her husband and children, took a year off and traveled the world, combining sightseeing with volunteering. Another volunteer, well into her 70s but exuding more life and energy than any of us, told of delivering school textbooks to new schools along the Amazon in Peru. She told of how volunteers, upon their arrival to each village, were greeted with applause and given a show of song and dance to show their gratitude.

Then there are the young people, so open and interested in the larger world. Some have had to fund-raise to get here, and for many, the weekend excusions have to be planned carefully with a frugal budget in mind. They are here for many reasons. Two are teachers who want to observe teaching techniques in other countries, and who “miss the kids” that they teach. One is with her grandmother, another with her mother, and still others on their own, but with an impressive level of maturity and wisdom.

Yesterday we toured the town, had individual and group orientation sessions, and struggled through our first Spanish lessons. By noon several group members had organized a weekend activity of whitewater rafting and ziplines that has now attracted a group large enough that they may need more than one hostel to house them all. Me, I’m headed to an organic farm with yoga classes–my kind of place! One of my fellow volunteers, a woman from the U.K., may be joining me, including a venture out in a public bus.

This morning I began my volunteer assignment at CAIPAD, a center for adults with disabilities that include deafness, autism, mental retardation, and more. Immediately upon arrival, we were met with handshakes and hugs from some of the residents. I then met Dona Rita, the director of the center, and she asked me, in Spanish, about my writing. I did the best I could and even surprised myself by stringing together some coherent sentences.

We toured the center, which helps adults with disabilities gain as much independence as possible. Critical to the center’s operations is a woodshop where furniture is manufactured by residents and sold in the community. There I left one of my fellow volunteers, Spike, a cheerful college student who has volunteered previously in Tanzania, and Ellis, who has worked at the center for two weeks and helped us acclimate.

I worked with Abba, a generous and cheerful woman who teaches arts and crafts. Our task for the day was to glue pieces of toilet paper onto cardboard boxes that would later be polished and painted. In my first class, I worked with two students, a shy, quiet young woman, and a young man who longed for the 9:30 coffee break and struggled to focus with so much to look forward to.

In the second class, students worked more independently, though I still had plenty to do, especially when the teacher left the room for several minutes. One student seemed to be “dishing the dirt,” telling me about the other students, though she refused to speak to me in Spanish, preferring instead to use sign language that made no sense to me at all.

Before I knew it, my morning was over, and I had to say good-bye to my new friends. Hasta manana, we said, for tomorrow we do it again. After a delicious lunch at our Home Base and a history lesson by one of the CCS staff, I am now listening to the intense thunder and rain from one of Costa Rica’s daily storms. It has cooled my room. Tonight I will learn some sign language so I can communicate with my students who have hearing impairment.

The toilet paper has now been stocked properly. I have survived my first day of volunteering and lived to tell the tale. Now, if I could just do something about the cold water.

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