I knew I was in for an adventure when I pulled back the shower curtain in my hotel and discovered a small lizard, of at least 8 centimeters, with translucent skin and red eyes, scurrying up the walls. The run-down streets of Puerto Limón, Costa Rica are not exactly inviting; the 103º F heat and the reputation for high-volume drug trafficking scares away most tourists. I, however, was on a mission that transcended the boundaries of discomfort.
â–º Quarter Finalist 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
The previous December, I had participated in the first Semester at Sea program for high-schoolers; I sailed to every major port in Central America, including Puerto Limón, where our morning activity was visiting a local orphanage. The smiles on the children’s faces during our visit are as vivid in my mind as the tears in their eyes as we left. One boy latched onto me like a little monkey, and told the adults who were imploring him to let go,
“Quiero a él.”
The heartbreaking translation: “I love him.”
I knew I had to return someday.
The opportunity came in July, while I was studying Spanish in San José. Early one Friday morning, I took a sweaty bus ride, departing from the Caribeños Station. Three hours later, I found myself walking the decrepit streets of Puerto Limón, armed only with an intermediate knowledge of the language and a fairly informative guide book.
If you should ever find yourself in Costa Rica, don’t expect navigation to be an easy task. Addresses are based on relative distances from landmarks; there are no street names or house numbers. Thus, the office of Infant Services (in Spanish, Patronato Nacional de la Infancia) in Limón had an address somewhat along these lines: “Diagonal from the Chivi Autoshop in the Bellavista Neighborhood.” After twenty minutes of walking and asking locals for further directions, I found the office and received clearance to visit the orphanage the next day at nine o’ clock.
Finding the orphanage, however, would be tricky; thankfully, I decided to locate it that afternoon. The name of the orphanage was “The Cocos Shelter,” Cocos being another neighborhood across town (a detail unbeknownst to me at the time). The woman told me to start at “the Clinic,” and continue down a straight avenue, and the orphanage would be at the sixth left turn. I proceeded outside the office and down the adjacent street, only to be confused by which alleys and streets counted as left turns: “Okay, I’m either at street 3 or 5.”
Inevitably, I resigned myself to checking every single left turn, as an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and dehydration began to set in. After three hours of searching, I made my way to the post office and discovered that the “clinic” was a medical clinic located on the other side of town. From there I followed the postal worker’s amazingly specific directions; a wave of relief and satisfaction fell gently upon me as I rounded the sixth street corner and discovered a yard full of energetic children.
The next morning I found out that the majority of the children I had met in December, including the little monkey boy, had been moved to different locations. But it didn’t matter. This adventure was about working with what I had, and about giving love to those who needed it. I will never forget the great morning I spent with the new orphans there, nor will I forget the journey that led me to them. Most importantly, wherever I go in the future, I will never forget to ask where the post office is.
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