All students have checked in the airport and are headed home!
If there is one thing to say about the amazing past three weeks in Costa Rica, it is that it feels like anything but three weeks. Two, maybe three days ago, I was on a plane coming here. Yesterday, I was building sidewalks, making eco-bricks, rafting through a beautiful and rushing river, learning Spanish, and just hanging out with friends, somehow all at the same time. And today, as I write this, I am fully packed up, my room empty, getting ready for the last delicious meal I will ever share with this group of incredible people. Even though I can look back at the calendar, and I know that we didn’t really do everything over the course of a couple days, a part of me refuses to believe it, the same part that refuses to believe that these three weeks really have come to an end, and tomorrow I will be on another plane, this one taking me back home. Nonetheless, it is over, and now it’s time to look back, reflect, and remember all of the fantastic things these short few weeks have held.
Even though this trip was explicitly described as one of service, I don’t think I fully realized before I left how much hard work we would be doing. Although the first few days were definitely hard to get used to, looking back on all of the great work we have done is an amazing feeling. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we are all so happy for the opportunity we have been given to help out in both communities, and do not regret a single blister, sore arm, or sun-burn we have all acquired over the course of our time here. I know that I could spend the rest of this paragraph going over all of the how many bags of cement, and how many painted tires, and how much square feet of sidewalk we made, and all of that, but I won’t. Those numbers belong on a spreadsheet, and this experience will never be anything like one. Instead, I will simply say that I think we made a real difference, no matter how small, and I, like everyone else in the group, am incredibly grateful for that opportunity.
If I could, I would spend paragraphs and paragraphs talking about the amazing friendships I have made here, the adventures and excitement we have had, the incredible locals we have been guided and welcomed by, and the ways that all of us have grown, as leaders, followers, and individuals. Unfortunately, I can’t. There is too little time, too many things to talk about, and I am pretty sure the food is getting cold waiting for me to finish this blog post, so I have to end it here. I don’t think it really matters anyway, because I would never have been able to do any sort of justice to this experience, no matter how much time I had to write. The only way to really hear about this story is to hear it from one of us, and I don’t think even that will ever fully capture it. But don’t worry, because if you want to hear about this wonderful experience in person, you won’t have to wait long. We, sadly and much too quickly, will be home soon.
With this final week, we wrapped up service at San Pedro, accomplishing all the goals set for the program. Among the key tasks were the continuation of the cementing of a sidewalk, and helping in the fertilization and cleaning of various organic coffee farms in the area. Both had great advantages, and disadvantages. As regards to to the coffee farming, one of the highlights was riding in the back of a pickup truck to the farming destination, and hooting and hollering at the cement group, who returned the gestures and comments, all in the name of jest. However, the thrill of riding in the pickup truck faded with arrival at the farm, and the immediate swarming of bugs no one had ever seen before. A word from the wise: it turns out that when faced with the super bugs of Costa Rica, conventional insect repellent does not completely eliminate the number of bugs capable of mounting an attack on one’s flesh. Casualties still occurred, just on a smaller scale. As far as cementing the sidewalk went, the largest “con” was simply the amount of labor necessary. Mixing cement is difficult work, but the feeling at the end of the task, and seeing the sidewalk slowly advance was rewarding. All the service tasks at San Pedro were completed, and we finished the final day with a satisfying soccer game. The end of service proved to be bittersweet, with many valuable lessons learned along the way.
After the week of service, we had a single-day excursion at an adventure park. There were all sorts of high-flying activities (literally). They included a Tarzan swing, climbing up the inside of a ficus tree and repelling down, and many others. All had fun, many conquering their fear of heights in return for a rush of adrenaline.
As far as the program goes, I am sad to be leaving. However, it is now time to take all the memories, and return to change our lives at home.
This week, I get the blog about our excursion. I plan to make the most of it.
On Monday, we traveled to the Dominical beach. As to be expected, going to ¨la playa¨ with a large group of teenagers was a crazy affair. Our group arrived around lunchtime, and after devouring the aforementioned meal, had an afternoon of free time. There was an outdoor pool at the hotel we stayed at, so some opted for that option rather than dunking themselves in the salty waters of the Pacific Ocean. Surfing lessons were provided, for a fee, and the adventurous few that took this opportunity emerged with mixed results. Some proved natural surfers, while others found the ocean to be rather disagreeable; the ¨naturals¨ comforting those that found the waves disagreeable with the words ¨All I did was stand up,¨ and receiving the response ¨I tried to do that multiple times, and failed.¨ Personally, I sympathized with the group that found the ocean less friendly.
The next day of our ¨weekend¨ (Tuesday), we went to one of the most famous national parks in Costa Rica: El Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. Before reaching the beautiful beach the park provided, we walked on a short trail through the rainforest surrounding the coast. Sloths, monkeys, bats, and various insects and bugs were sighted on the trail, showing the diversity of life in the rainforest, even though we passed through a very small, people‐congested segment of the ecosystem. Our tour guides led us to a more private beach area, and almost immediately upon arrival, people began sprinting for the water ‐ a cautious few remaining behind to secure their belongings to prevent theft by raccoon. The water was warm and extremely salty. Those that enjoyed diving through the waves did that all morning. Everyone enjoyed wonderful and relaxing atmosphere until lunchtime, when it dawned upon the group that we needed to walk all the way out of park and twenty minutes more to the restaurant in hot, sticky, and humid weather. The showers were outdoor, so many opted out of them, and the result was a salty and sandy entourage engaging in a miserable and complaint‐filled trek in which every individual was forced to dig deep inside and find the motivation to continue. Looking back on it though, it really wasn´t that bad, we were all probably just hungry. The rest of the afternoon was free‐time, and a long bus ride back to home base. The day ended with a delicious meal prepared by our chef (more like resident superhero) Memo.
In conclusion, the beach excursion this weekend was filled with entertainment and great experiences. Service is fun and chock‐full of lessons, but breaks are refreshing, and we want to enjoy all that the country of Costa Rica has to offer. The two beaches we went to were beautiful, and it is a valuable lesson to remember that we must work hard to maintain state.
A New Week of Service
Today marked the beginning of a new week of service, and the completion our first set of service projects. We spent the last week in San Bernardo, a small town tucked away high in the Costa Rican mountains. Although we had to get up earlier to account for the long and winding drive there, we had several delicious breakfasts prepared by Memo, our chef/superhero in residence, to fortify ourselves for each days hard work.
While in San Bernardo we had three tasks: painting and extending a fence made out of recycled tires, improving the concrete driveway that connected the community center to the main road, and constructing an eco-brick wall around the local school’s garden. Constructing the tire fence first involved the incredibly hard and strenuous work of sitting down and using a paintbrush to color the tires. Although this was back breaking labor, several brave students volunteered themselves for this sacrifice. The tires were then positioned in trenches, and stacked on top of each other, resulting in a colorful and efficient barrier between the grass soccer field and the town’s hungry cows. While half the group worked on this project, the others got their first exposure to cement, and received a crash course in how heavy shovels can be. Although the work was very tiring, standing back at the end of each day and seeing the driveway slowly grow towards the road was very rewarding, and when it was finally complete, we all felt happy about what we accomplished, although that feeling could also have been the exposure to excess paint fumes from the tires.
The last service project was the helping the local school with a wall for their new garden, made out of eco-bricks. For those who don’t know, eco-bricks are recycled plastic bottles that are the filled to the brim with other plastic trash. This sounds incredibly easy, up until you finish your first eco-brick, hand it to one of the counselors, and have your dreams crushed when they squish it down and your learn you only filled up about half of the bottle. When all of the eco bricks were finished, we painted them in the colors of the Puerto Rican flag, and built up the wall itself. In the end, we were left with a smooth, beautiful, and eco-friendly wall, that was then entirely ruined by 20 GLA students signatures, along with a host of smiley faces, hearts, and the use of the phrase “2K14.”
Although we have finished our first set of projects and we still have many more to go, we will all always remember our achievements, the locals we met and befriended, and delicious food we ate while we were there. We won’t have to think to hard to remember though, because we will always be reminded of them by specks of paint that we still have on our arms, and at this point look like they are never coming off.
The past week in Costa Rica has been full of service and learning, but there has been plenty of adventure and excitement as well! After two days of hard work in San Pedro, we started off our “weekend” with a late wake up, and a fantastic breakfast. We then got on the bus, and traveled three hours to the beautiful Gauyabo National Monument, an archaeological site where we hiked through the rainforest while learning about the indigenous peoples who used to inhabit the land, and the monuments they left behind. We saw the foundations of the houses and structures they inhabited, and an aqueduct that still functions after hundreds of years! After this, we headed back to a hotel in Turrialba, where we ate a delicious dinner and relaxed to get ready for a busy day on the Pacuare River.
The next day, we hopped on another bus, and drove through the mountains, descending down to the banks of the Pacuare, where we met our guides, geared up in life jackets and helmets, and grabbed our paddles. Once we were on the river, the guides taught us the essential commands, such as “forward” and “backwards,” and then moved on to more complicated and advanced maneuvers, such as “right forward” and “left forward.” Although advanced, we quickly mastered these techniques, and set off down the river, towards the rapids. As the river got faster and the rapids got more intense, losing a couple travelers along the way (we managed to retrieve them all quickly, with no injuries other than their pride,) we ended an exhilarating and excitement fun filled morning with a delicious lunch on the banks of the river, prepared by the guides.
The afternoon rafting got on to an exciting start, when one intrepid crew of rafters became carried away with just the basic commands of “forwards” and “backwards” and decided to advance to the next level command of “upside down,” while trying to save another member of their crew who had decided to take an impromptu swim through a rapid. Fortunately, everyone responded quickly and intelligently to the situation, and soon enough we were once again forging on through the river. Everyone had a fantastic day, and our rafting adventure (or misadventure) will definitely be one of the highlights of the trip!
A Great Week!
Because it is really difficult for me, as a writer, to write a brilliant introduction, I won’t. It has officially been a week since the start of this Costa Rica trip, and so many events have occurred. It’s really hard to believe that this program is already, or perhaps only, a third of the way done. Personally, I’ve experienced so much, especially through the various service activities that we assist in in the area.
One of the communities that the group has been assisting is the small town of San Pedro. After arriving at the service site, there was a group discussion regarding sustainable development, which we defined as development in an area that is designed to maintain the environment, and benefit the community at the same time. To explore this, a hypothetical situation was proposed. “If Earth were to be destroyed within a week, what ten things would you take to another planet?” The only assumption to this situation being that there was no need for oxygen. We were split into groups, with some being more serious than others. After much jest, however, we realized just how much humans depend and are a part of nature (despite the reluctance of some to accept this), and how necessary it is to promote sustainable development. The various lists proposed were almost entirely composed of water, seeds, and other “natural” materials. Clearly, an X-box, no matter how entertaining, would not be helpful without other necessities coming from the Earth.
After this discussion about sustainable development, we set to work in aiding the community of San Pedro. Half of our group was assigned the duty of helping a local coffee farm in its transition to a more eco-friendly technique. The farm was located on a slope, as most are in Costa Rica. In order to slow the process of erosion in the topsoil, deep holes and trenches were dug – the former to catch dirt, and the latter to carry rainwater away. Many compared the experience to the novel and film Holes. The other group went to the local school and completed several smaller projects. Some were delegated the task of painting tires, and others were told to dig ditches in the ground for the tires, so children could run and jump on them. The last section of the group that went to the school was given the task of scrubbing a wall to clean it for a future paint job. From a personal perspective, vigorously attacking the wall and watching the clouds of dust and moss explode of the wall was far more satisfying than one could expect. For day two at San Pedro, the responsibilities were switched, and everything functioned similarly to the first day, with slight discrepancies: the freshly scrubbed wall was given a paint job, and the group at the farm planted trees in addition to digging ditches.
The second community we spent time at was San Bernardo. By the time we got here, everyone was out of the fresh energy that was plentiful at San Pedro (i.e. It was a little difficult to get everyone moving). During our first day there, half of the group was given the responsibility of moving piles of dirt near the goal of the soccer field. Later, we also began cementing a sort of driveway. The other half of the group painted tires for a fence around the soccer field. The second day, the group that painted tires continued the cementing job, and vice versa. Later, we all made eco-bricks. Eco-bricks are plastic water bottles that are stuffed with compacted plastic waste, and later painted and cemented to make a strong wall. If one ever desires to have their dreams repeatedly crushed, begin an eco-brick project. You fill the water bottle to what you think is the brim, and watch someone else mash the plastic to half of what it was.
However, despite any possible complaints, this past week of service (with a “weekend” break – see other blog post) has been an almost literal blast. Helping a community to build can be truly rewarding, in more ways then one. I never knew that I could have the liveliness to complete some of the things that I’ve accomplished. As an example, I look children running around, and wonder how they have the energy and excitement for something like that. I’ve realized, however, that the reason why adults seem to have less energy than children is because adults spend all their energy thinking, as opposed to children, who spend all their energy doing. Through the service in Costa Rica, it has become more apparent that doing is infinitely more valuable than thinking.
Well, it is official; the second GLA Spanish Service Adventure Mountain program is in full force. Starting with the first students arriving at 6am Thursday morning and the last one at 11:00pm, all the motivated, enthusiastic, amazing learners are here, happy and healthy! Our international staff consists of Director Andrea and Mentors MarDestinee and Carlos. I can confidently say this is an amazing team, which is only enhanced by our local collaborating partners. We all agree that we are lucky to have such a strong local Costa Rican staff running an authentic environmentally sustainable program as well as such a strong home base (GLA) in San Diego providing support.
The program is located in the South Central region of CR called Los Santos. It consists of three towns: San Pedro, Santa Maria and San Marcos. Our home base in Copey, the beautiful Cedrela (Cedar) Eco Lodge is located about three miles uphill from Santa Maria and sits around 6,000 feet. It consists of seven cabins, staff quarters and a beautiful dining hall built four months ago. The cabins and all the furniture are built using local Cypress and Oak and are nothing short of master craftsmanship woodwork. The cabins range from one to three floor units with winding staircases, balconies, and large glass windows to take in the breathtaking views of the rolling hills and valleys below. There are over 50 species of birds in this area alone and a trail that winds through the hundreds of acres of forest above and behind Cedrela where one can find all sorts of food being grown. The mornings are crisp and cool but the sun quickly warms one up. Throughout the day the clouds roll in at around the same level as our lodge. The days are hot, the afternoon rains are cooling, and we have dipped into the low 60’s in the evenings. At night we trade flip-flops for socks and shoes, t-shirts for a warm sweatshirt and cold water for a hot tea.
The students have been amazed by the property and excited about their living quarters. They have been incredibly open towards everything here. They are full of questions, eager to learn, and have been practicing their Spanish with the local staff. Today, Friday, was our first day in the community. We met the local community, who prepared us lunch and a handful of the little girls from town performed traditional dances. After lunch, we headed into Santa Maria for a coffee tour learning about the process from farm to cup ending with a taste of one of the café’s delicious specialty drinks using their award-winning coffee. The café and coffee cooperative is listed on Lonely Planet’s “The 9 Best Places to Have a Cup of Coffee Around the World!” To round out the day, the students also had their first Spanish class and mentor groups back at homebase.
True learning is taking place and we are only one full day into our program. We want to thank the parents for supporting their children on such an important journey. Through the students we see the work that has been done at home and we hope they return even more motivated to ‘become the change’ they want to see in their lives and their local communities.
All students have arrived and are ready for their program! Stay tuned for blog updates and photos!