My eyes lock on the rosary dangling from the driver’s mirror as he swerves down the foggy mountainside, chauffeuring 17 American teens to the first stop on their community service adventure in Costa Rica. I say my prayers, hoping this driver’s style is unique among the Costa Rican populous. It wasn’t.
AFS Intercultural programs, one of the oldest and most respected student exchange services, offers a one-month trip to Costa Rica (the country above Panama and below Nicaragua) each summer, where participants volunteer and stay with two host families. Lucky for me, I was one of the 2009 volunteers.
After a fun-filled night of UNO and hide-and-seek at a San Jose hostel, yet another extra from The Fast and the Furious took us to Finca La Flor, an organic, self-sustainable farm in the province of Cartago that will always lodge visitors, as long as they work for their room and board. (www.la-flor.org/index.html) Our arrival was classic- neatly dressed school children laughing, townspeople watching yet another bus of uncultured Americans take pictures of anything that moved, and barking dogs chasing our bus down a long driveway, miraculously avoiding the intruder’s four wheels.
Volunteering at Finca La Flor was undoubtedly one of my favorite parts of the trip- new food, live music, and beautiful views of both the mountainside and one of Costa Rica’s many volcanoes were something I experienced each day. I highly recommend it for those interested in learning the ways of Costa Rican farm life, all while brushing up on their Spanish and meeting people who will show you what it truly means to be a tico, or Costa Rican native.
The next two weeks of our trip were spent with host families in San Marcos de Tarrazu, and later in Ciudad Quesada, cities on opposite ends of the small country. While the life-long bonds I made with my host families certainly made these two weeks special, the fact that our service projects consisted of sprucing up two private high schools gave me, and many other group members, the feeling that this part of our trip had less to do with making an impact on the community than it did with the community wanting to host AFS participants.
The last days of volunteer service were spent at Volcan Tenorio National Park, famous for being the home of Agua Celeste, a bright-blue lake whose color derives from a chemical reaction in the water. While two days of carrying 20-pound sand bags up and down a steep, muddy trail was nobody’s idea of fun, the surrounding forest was astounding. I saw howler monkeys, huge birds, and scary spiders, not to mention swarms of hungry mosquitoes. The best part was undoubtedly when the lodge’s cook gave us girls directions to Rio Celeste- Agua Celeste’s counterpart, as the boys in our group labored away somewhere down the dusty road.
The grand finale of our trip consisted of a two-day stop at Punta Leona Beach Resort, located on the west coast of Costa Rica. While the hot showers and all-you-can-eat buffet were a pleasant change from almost 4 weeks of 50 degree water and gallo pinto three times a day, the resort itself was not a reflection of the wonderful culture we had just encountered.
My month in Costa Rica barely scraped the surface of discoveries I will make through travel- about myself, other cultures, and our planet, but it has certainly impacted my life and world view. I now understand the meaning of Pura Vida (life is good), Costa Rica’s main greeting, closing, and general expression. It is a way of life.