My Girl Scout troop of 13 years had been deliberating over the idea of an international tripsince middle school, and by sophomore year we had decided on a destination: Costa Rica. Specifically, a remote village named ColonÃa LibertÃ¡d, located in the country’s mountainous north-western region. Preparation was intense. For months we communicated with the people of ColonÃa LibertÃ¡d from their sole computer, organizing service projects that would best suit their needs, and spending hundreds of hours fundraising to ensure that every girl could afford to go. Finally in June of 2009, we departed Minnesota with 200 pairs of shoes, 200 bilingual children’s books, and a multitude of school supplies, all for the local children.
Prior to departure we’d been informed of the conditions surrounding our destination–considering their impoverished state we were instructed to leave all valuables at home, and not to make eye-contact or acknowledge the greetings of the local men. And we had quickly accepted these guidelines as correct, not knowing any better. We arrived in the sweltering outdoor airport looking only as girls with benevolent intent can; hiking boots, homogeneous quick-dry attire, and no makeup was the name of the game. After a four hour drive we arrived in ColonÃa LibertÃ¡d, expecting to witness poverty everywhere. On a preliminary tour, I started to become aware that our predisposed notions regarding the conditions and cultural norms of the town were off-base. I’ll never forget when we walked into the tiny church and met the eyes of three impeccably dressed and groomed teenagers. We felt their gaze as they sized us up immediately, and justifiably, as seven bedraggled oafs. They snickered and turned back to their conversation, of which we could understand nothing. This was not the arrival I had imagined.
Our interpreter soon amended our prejudices, explaining that in their culture, a well-groomed appearance is paramount- even if the family can’t afford the latest book for school, or eats plain rice and beans for every meal. This was my first lesson in international travel- you will arrive with preconceived notions and act accordingly, sometimes with adverse results. The next step, however, is to learn from the people themselves, and leave with a greater understanding of another culture. At first we thought the cultural barriers would be insurmountable. (This was epitomized when we learned that a common remark we’d been making about the weather translated into “I’m turned on”. In our defense, we thought they had just been chuckling in agreement.) But as we began to work with people from the village on our main service project, rehabilitating the community park, these barriers began to crumble. When I was painting a wall or planting flowers side by side with GabriÃ©lla or Raquel, it didn’t matter that we could hardly speak each other’s language.
While in the beginning we worked together in silence, by the end of the trip we were joking and laughing with each other regardless of language. Looking back I remember the friends I made more than the time I spent at the beach- which is indeed saying something. On our last day, the entire town convened and together we planted a peace pole in the center of the park, effectively summing up the values this trip instilled and affirmed in me. These include the importance of learning about other cultures firsthand, something I hope to continue to experience throughout my life. However the most important idea I departed with was that of a global community; one with barriers which we can break through experience and active understanding.
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