Trying to write about my volunteer stint in Costa Rica resembles my clumsy attempts at photographing the many varieties of hummingbirds and butterflies that flutter, flit, and hover near the local flora. Snap! Oops, the bird flew away. Snap! The butterfly starts beating its wings as I take the shot. Snap! Another animal turns away and shows me its backside.
It’s that hard to explain the magic of this place, this rainy, humid country filled with snakes and other scary creatures, where I am limited by a level of Spanish that impresses my fellow volunteers but none of the locals.
Still, something draws me here. In my second visit to Costa Rica in five months, I live in a building with nearly 30 other volunteers, trying to sleep amid late-night cacophony and early-morning cold showers. Each day I report to a center for adults with disabilities to work, and I struggle with conversation.
I know they are telling me about how too many trees have been cut here, even in a country where conservation has taken on urgency from the presidency on down. I know they are telling me how hard it is to make a living, and how some that I work with go home to work their small coffee farms at the end of the day. I can hear them, and yet I cannot understand.
Each day I communicate as best I can. With the students who come to my placement, often smiles and hugs are enough. Today a woman I’d never met came to me to hug me and give me the traditional kiss on the right cheek. Some of my students cannot hear, and others cannot speak. Some are bright but physically unable to share their brilliance; others struggle with knowing what day it is. Mostly I just love them, because that’s what I can do.
On the weekend, I discovered Rancho Margot, finding that life off the grid can work incredibly well. I met people who live there as volunteers for 6-12 months, young people already well traveled and concerned about their larger world. I wandered the grounds, studying the gardens and marveling at the handiwork of a man trained in chemistry who had never grown a garden, yet who has created a magnificent farm filled not only with fruits, vegetables, herbs, and animals, but flower gardens, sweet with ginger, brightened with flaming red and gold Bird of Paradise.
Returning from our weekend, back to work at the center, I wonder how I can tell the teachers, in my limited Spanish, how much I admire them. Their dedication, their humor, and their Tico love of life permeates the school. Laughter covers the air like the clouds in the Monteverde forest. I am the privileged American, the roundtrip revolutionary, swooping in for a few weeks while they dedicate their lives to this work. They humble me, the teachers and the students, and when I leave this Saturday for home, a part of me will stay with them forever.
On my visit to Rancho Margot, I spotted a hummingbird sitting on a tree branch, still as the morning. I aimed my camera and began to shoot. It remained still. I stepped a bit closer, a bit closer, a bit more, and it remained. A volunteer stood behind me in awe, watching the tiny bird in its silent stillness. “I’ve been here for two months,” he said, “and I’ve never seen that.”
I don’t know if I captured the hummingbird’s beauty with my camera, but I had several long moments to try. I may never capture with words the beauty of Costa Rica…but perhaps I can try that, too.