I had always been a hard-working girl who tried to appreciate everything that had been given to me in life. I am a member of my high school’s Key Club and participate in all of the service projects. I also am a member of the forensics team and present world issues and offer viable solutions to these issues. However, this summer my eyes were opened in a whole new way. I realized how blessed I truly am, that the key to a genuinely happy life is simplicity and love, and how the power of a simple smile can be enough to change a life. For three weeks, I lived with twenty- seven other teenagers from across the world in a small hotel in the town of La Cruz in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. There, we learned Spanish skills, Costa Rican culture and history, and helped out at two elementary schools.
Going on this trip was not only the longest time I have spent away from my family, it was also the first time I had left America; it completely changed my view of the world and how I want to live. The Ticos, the native people of Costa Rica, were welcoming and created an environment perfect for self-growth. These life lessons came in a variety of different forms: the patience and love of the children, the respect for nature and peace that the Ticos have, and the ability to accept and understand others that the students who became my family-away-from-home showed me.
Lesson #1: the power of a smile and a camera.
The children at one of the schools where we worked, Sonzapote, opened their hearts to us from the first moment. On the first day, they performed a ceremony for Dia de Guanacaste and offered us coffee. Dia de Guanacaste is an independence celebration in the state of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. They took our hands and asked us to be friends and suggested a game of futbol. The language barrier seemed to have no effect at all. We laughed and smiled and learned each other’s names. We sat coloring pictures to explain important facts about our lives. The day when I untimely realized that I didn’t have to be fluent in Spanish or the best English teacher in order to make an impact came the second week when we were having English class outside under the trees. I was sitting at a table with three little girls. One, Jessica, said my name and then gave me a huge grin. I drew her a picture of a tutu and explained that I wore one when I danced. She clapped her hands and showed it to a friend and they both giggled. Then she saw my camera. She extended her hand and I passed it to her. She began taking pictures of everything! Then she passed the camera off to a friend and came over, sat on my lap, and hugged me while Arianna snapped the pictures. It was in that moment that I understood that something as simple as a high-five, a picture of a tutu, or a camera could make a difference in a child’s life.
Lesson #2: Peace and sacrifice
Costa Rica has no army. When we were told this, it was a shock. I remember thinking that they must be crazy. However, our teacher Luigi challenged my narrow-minded thinking. He told us to imagine America without an army. It was not an easy situation to imagine. Yet, the more we learned about Costa Rica the more the “no army policy” made sense to me. The people of Costa Rica believe in spreading good vibrations to those around them. Those around them, especially in Guanacaste, are Nicaraguans. Education and health services are free to all those who want it. Due to this, Costa Rica has a border issue similar to that between the US and Mexico. Yet, they are peaceful, diplomatic, and optimistic about it. I am now more understanding of the illegal immigrants’ circumstances and open- minded to different solutions than I was before. No country is perfect, and I believe that we could learn something from the peaceful Ticos. Not only that, but I find that I am at times ashamed by the way America treats other nations and gets involved in problems that are not our own. I have much more broad views and opinions on these social and national issues than before, and am much more interested in being able to share my views and make a difference than I was before this trip.
Lesson #3: Simplicity and Green
The Ticos channel all of the money that they would spend on an army into education and environmental conservation. Over forty percent of Costa Rica’s land is a national park; no building anywhere in the nation can be over three stories; the main highway is literally a two-way road; and the number one export of the country is oxygen. But Costa Rica is about much more than a carbon neutral country; it is the love that the people have for nature and for the land they have been given. There is a story that Luigi told us about how the Ticos got their land, a piece of God’s own paradise. Maybe that explains why the people respect it so much more than other nations do. Regardless of the reason, coming home was a major culture shock for me. From the little luxuries, like having water pressure and being able to flush toilet paper down the toilet, to the big comforts, like internet, TV, and highways, I had a hard time re-adjusting. So much of it seemed pointless. I would look up to see the stars and I would not be able to find them. There was one weekend where we hiked to a secluded National Park and beach and camped out. That night we lay on the beach and stared at huge stars for hours and shared beds with little red crabs. I am no camper, and yet that weekend was perfect. I did not miss the fancier extravagances in life at all while I was there. The simple, pure meals of rice, beans, fish and fruit gave me strength and energy to do what I needed to do. I still miss having intense views, crazy animals, card games, and nights in hammocks to keep me entertained. There is too much going on in America at times. I feel that the people of Costa Rica not only work very hard to be an example of environmental conservation to nations like America, but are also an example to us through their slow, relaxed, “pura vida” lifestyle. Costa Rica helped me understand that it is just fine to take time to smell the roses and enjoy the company I have in the time I was given. A stressful and hectic lifestyle results in missing moments with loved ones and never really enjoying beautiful moments in life. I believe it is a lesson that all Americans who work and live at a fast pace could use: All of our “things” distract us from what is truly important. “Going green” is more than buying an organic t-shirt; it is fully admiring the wonder of nature and doing everything possible to preserve it.
Lesson #4: Friends and good people come from everywhere and can be anyone
As I said before, I went on this trip with twenty- seven other students from around the world. I knew absolutely no one prior to the trip, and now I have deep bonds with each of these people, and count a few of them among the best friends I have ever made. Normally, I hang out with my “group.” I have classmates who I talk to during a class or a sport season, but I would not choose to hang out with them outside of class or practice. Like every teenager, I am guilty of judging before I get to know someone. However, for this trip, I promised myself to give everyone a chance. I am so grateful that I stuck to that promise, because I would have missed out on a lot of amazing people and stories. From the very first day, I felt comfortable with everyone. Even though we were all from different places in the world and had very different personalities, from the first conversations we all found similar tastes in music and hobbies. We were able to laugh and be totally ourselves, with no pre-conceptions. However, there was one day the beginning of the third week that changed my entire perspective and made me love each and every one of these new friends even more. We participated in “Cross the Line.” “Cross the Line” is an activity where a mentor reads a series of statements that have to do with culture, religion, and incidents in life. If one has experienced any statement they cross the line. Afterwards everyone gathers and a deep, emotional discussion occurs. During this discussion people explain why they crossed the line at certain statements while everyone else supports them and offers them advice. It was the most emotional day of my life. I learned facts about the people I had been living with for two weeks that I had never imagined. I also shared hidden scars with these people that I had never told anyone else before. Our mentors shared their stories and gave us incredible advice. I grew that day in a way that is almost unreal. My heart, mind, soul all seemed to open up. Not only do I have more respect for people I meet, but I understand that genuinely good people can come from everywhere. They do not have to be of my religion or people with no skeletons in the closet. They can be people who have been discriminated against, harmed in ways they shouldn’t have been, and broken spirits re-building themselves. What matters in a person is how they use those experiences. My mentor, Ale, told us that what happens in our life doesn’t define who we are. We can plant any seed in our soul that we want. If we nurture it and feed it, it will blossom into a beautiful tree. We can show the world what we want them to see in us. I have taken this lesson on as a type of mantra in my life. I had never heard better words. I have worked hard to plant a seed of courage and respect in myself since I have been home.
Going on this service trip abroad alone took guts. It is not something that is traditional or typical in my family. I knew that I needed to go abroad, learn a new culture, and help the people, and I worked extremely hard to be able to do so. I know now that I have to do it again and again. The service work was so rewarding and meant as much to me as it did to the children we helped. I was not homesick on this trip, because I knew I was coming home and would see my family again. Yet, leaving all of my new friends was one of the hardest days of life. Still, with everything I learned on this trip, I know that I have the power to make a change in the life of people across the globe as well as grow into anyone I want to be. I just need to trust my heart, believe in myself, and live the Pura Vida.
Hi, today I read your essay on Costa Rica. I have been contemplating visiting Costa Rica myself with GLA until I realised I am not yet old enough nor have the money. But reading your essay touched me so much that reading the paragraph mentioning “Cross The Line” I genuinely began to cry!!! I have now thought about saving all of my money and fundraising until I am old enough and have the right amount of money to go on a GLA trip, thank you so much for writing this essay, it was truly inspiring.
hi, we have a 17 year-old son. will he be too old for the costa rican service adventure? what are the ages of most of the kids there? thanks. -claudia
Jane (mum) says
what a fantastic essay Emily, so moving and from the heart. really enjoyed it.
my daughter Faye is thinking of participating in the GLA costa rica programme this year on 12/7/12.
she is from the UK so will have a lot of travelling to do alone which she is fine about.
your essay reassured me that she would be okay whilst there and amongst friends and mentors.
do you have any reassuring words you can give to a parent who is considering letting her 16 year old daughter go half way around the world?