When thumbing through a vacation brochure, I am utterly dissatisfied by the images of families posing under palm trees or near ancient buildings and the bland facts that accompany the vibrant pictures. The information barely captures the image of a country’s colorful culture for those like me who prefer to dive into a country’s traditions rather than read straightforward facts from a country guidebook. For this reason, in July 2009 I stuffed a hiking backpack to its limit to embark on an adventure to Costa Rica as an Amigos de las Americas volunteer.
My first day in La Ribera (Spanish for “the riverbank), my breath was taken away by the community’s beauty. A single, rocky road connected all the houses and snaked its way around a mountain. Early in the morning, fog covered the tops of the mountains like a moist, transparent blanket. Millions of stars lit the way as my American partner and I walked home from dinner at a community member’s house. Any stroll through the community was always a wonderful, pleasurable experience despite the grueling heat.
As volunteers, my partner and I led campamentos for the community children. Every day during the children’s vacation from school, my partner and I met the children in the grassy salon where we taught them how to play cards; energized them with various physical activities; and inspired their creativity with arts and crafts. Occasionally they challenged us to soccer games in the beautiful green plaza. When my partner and I were not occupied with planning activities or teaching, we hung around other ticos in the community. While sharing meals of mouth-watering rice, beans, and a fried side with a family, we would stay for a couple of hours as parents weaved stories for us about their children and proudly displayed their photos as we sipped our sweet, dark coffee. Playing cards was a favorite past time, and the children and elders were always willing to teach my partner and me their favorite games and tricks.
Occasionally my partner and I would attend craft classes where we learned how to make napkin holders and trashcans out of newspaper and heard the stories of the women of the community. My host family took me to their farm a few times where they showed me how they harvest red beans and coffee beans. During the weekend, our host families and a few other community members piled into a banana truck to play soccer in another community. The game festivities were filled with fast, rhythmic music, delicious food, and pride as people cheered on for their team.
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I highly recommend traveling abroad to those who have the opportunity. It is a life-changing experience that not only opens the doors of another culture, but also allows you to reflect on your own culture and lifestyle.
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