Cultural immersion was my way to learn about the world’s diversities and my own identity. This past summer, I lived in Costa Rica for three weeks and worked on community service projects with a student travel program. It was a challenging and rewarding journey, especially at such a young age. The Costa Rica we saw was not what one finds in travel brochures and advertisements; we experienced first hand the lifestyle of those communities that battle the world’s hardships everyday. This exposure to something completely unfamiliar was frightening at first, but offered me the greatest gift I’ve ever received.
Our first four days were spent assisting Habitat for Humanity. Along with the physical labor, we were met with the hindrance of a language barrier. Those of us familiar with Spanish became a bridge between the group and the locals. We would work each day from ten in the morning until four in the afternoon, digging, lifting, and preparing cement. Although finishing the house was a great accomplishment, what I remember most about the project are the children who came to the site everyday. They came after school and spent time interacting with us; all they wanted was our time and affection. Without even being asked, they picked up tools to work with us, and became a joyful presence that we looked forward to everyday. The women of the neighboring houses provided our lunches, and we were always welcome to use their private facilities. The people I met and their gentle ways opened my eyes to the way humanity should be: friendly and altruistic.
For me, the most influential part of the trip was when we volunteered in La Carpio, one of the most run-down neighborhoods in Costa Rica. The inhabitants of this area are mostly illegal Nicaraguan immigrants, unwelcome in other parts of the country. Our main goal there was to bring joy and life to the community; we painted bright colors on the walls lining the streets, picked up trash, and played several games with the children at La Guarderia de Libertad, their community center. The day we left, the woman who ran the center told us that the kids will never forget our faces, and the time we spent with them will always remain in their hearts. For the first time, I felt like I had made a real difference in someone else’s life.
Leaving Costa Rica was the hardest challenge. After all the projects we did and all the people we met, I feel like they gave me so much more than I gave to them. My character has been shaped because of this awe-inspiring experience; it showed me not only the person I can be, but also the person I want to be.
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