Costa Rican Wonders - My Family Travels

Although I have been travelling internationally since I was three, my trip to Costa Rica was one of the most memorable, colorful and beautiful trips I have undertaken.  Instead of finding volunteer work through a third-party U.S. agency, I connected directly with the wonderful people from Proyecto Asis, a wildlife preserve in the central part of Costa Rica. 

            After landing in San Jose, I took the Interbus to a hotel near Asis.  There, I was picked up by Mary, one of the five full-time workers at preserve where I volunteered. 

            Proyecto Asis was a wonderful experience.  The project was initiated when locals began bringing injured and abandoned animals to Don Jaime, a respected veterinarian and founder of the preserve.  Today, Proyecto Asis frequently rescues animals from the black market; if they cannot release creatures into the wild, they provide a safe, natural home in the preserve.  International volunteers help care for the animals and do maintenance work needed around the ten-acre grounds.  

            The volunteers stay with host families who provide all meals.  I was wonderfully fortunate to stay with Dinia, her husband Roy, and three children.  Within a hundred-meter radius of their home lived Dinia’s parents, three sisters and a brother with their own families.  Everyone was extremely welcoming and open-hearted toward me; my biggest issue was telling the children apart and learning everyone’s name.  (In the end, Dinia took pity on me and drew a family tree.)

            My days settled into a comfortable pattern.  After I munched down some papaya, banana, and mango followed by the traditional Costa Rican meal “gallo pinto” (rice and beans), Mary would come round up the volunteers in her minivan. At Asis, we would begin by feeding the animals, which included three monkeys, two kinkajous, three baby raccoons, three wild pigs, four parakeets, five parrots, and one traumatized baby parrot who would not stop squawking even as I fed bits of banana down his throat.  After completing our morning duties, we worked on varied projects.  We constructed a new greenhouse, repaired a fence, planted trees, harvested fruit, and cleared a pond of poisonous plants.  On my favorite day, I translated for emergency raccoon surgery between Don Jaime and one of the U.S. volunteers who assisted him. 

            In the evening the heat and humidity of the day would ease off, and I would sit on the porch of my host house reading, talking with my family, or playing games with the kids.  The children would bring me fruit they collected from the trees (and laughed at my puckered mouth when they fed me unripe starfruit).  One night the power went out, and the whole family converged on the porch telling spooky stories.

            Weekends were a relaxing time when I really got to know my family.  I went to parties and carnivals with the older cousins, played soccer with the younger cousins, hiked to swimming holes in the river with other volunteers, or just walked across my family’s farm, admiring the bursts of color of flowers amongst the vast greenery and mooing cows. 

            I traveled to Costa Rica completely alone at age sixteen, and I would not have had it any other way.  Alone, I got the experience of full immersion in Spanish and was fluent by the end of the trip, thanks to many spirited debates with my host cousins about whether rafting or kayaking is better for the soul and lessons on Tican colloquial expressions.  And the quinceañero I attended, learning to milk a cow and make empanadas and tamal, teaching my family how to bake cookies: all experiences were my own. 

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