Part of my journey includes a strong desire to engross myself in other cultures and devote time to giving back to others. I had the honor of volunteering in San Jose, Costa Rica for a week this year. The journey is one I will never forget.
On a very long, hot bus ride to my volunteer site in La Carpio, a text popped up from my daughter checking in with me. "Hi Mom. Are you having fun?" I paused and pondered how to answer her question. I began to think about how I missed the people that I love and some of our modern day amenities that we here in the states take for granted. This trip was certainly not about having fun. I was not on a pleasure filled vacation, but rather a journey with a deeper meaning. One filled with enlightenment and giving back to the world. I smiled and texted back "Enriching". At that time, I did not know just how perfect that word, "enriching," would sum up my volunteer experience.
Volunteering in another country came with some serious reservations that would crowd my mind from time to time. Leaving the comfort of the US to travel, alone, to a non-English speaking country did not settle well to say the least. As the countdown inched closer to my departure date, I tried to think of every excuse in the book to derail the trip: terrorist attacks, the Middle East issues and volatile conditions in Somalia. (Kenya was my first choice of destinations.) I went back and forth for some time before booking my flight. BUT despite all the excuses, I finalized my plans. It was time to step completely out of my comfort zone and into the abyss! I knew that for my own personal growth, it was necessary for me to push past all my fears. And boy did this experience meet all the qualifications
The morning of my trip came with many signs that seemed to be telling me NOT to get on the plane. I did not "spring forward" an hour and I forgot my phone at home, causing me to have to change my flight plans. Just when I thought I was good to go and had returned to check in, there were passport issues. Despite it all, I made my flight and reached Costa Rica without additional glitches.
On my ride to my host's home, my level of anxiety mounted as I began to look around at the city. I couldn't help but notice that every business and home had bars on all the doors and windows and heavy locked fences around them. A feeling of uneasiness settled in, without knowing at the time that this is the norm for Central America. Then thoughts about staying with strangers began to flood my mind. I tired to shut them out with affirming thoughts: "Just another step in chipping away at those comfort zone walls Jackie, you can do this!"
When I arrived at the house, Alicia greeted me with a warm and gracious smile and kiss on the cheek. She introduced me to one of her sons and her other son's mother in law, who lives with her. Unlike the United States, many generations and extended family members live in the same home together taking care of one another. It is customary in this country as well as many Latino cultures for the children to live in their family homes until they are married. With the warm welcome I received from my hostess and her family, I knew I would be just fine for the week. Staying with them allowed me to embrace the culture fully which added to the authenticity and genuineness of my experience.
After settling in, it was time for me to receive my weekly instructions. As I went through volunteer orientation and training, my excitement quickly declined as I realized that my duties had changed since I registered. I went from being the English teacher's assistant to the lead teacher. Yikes! Panic struck. I immediately began to have thoughts of being inadequate and unprepared to be a lead teacher. How was I going to communicate with these children without knowing Spanish? I had no formal teaching training, experience, materials, or lesson plans created. I was so out of my element.
Then my fears were put to the test again when I learned the location of my assignment. La Carpio, located on the outskirts of San Jose, is an hour and a half trip on the city bus with a transfer in the heart of the city. The bus ride alone terrified me.
La Carpio is the poorest area in San Jose. This area was started by Nicaraguan immigrants leaving their country to try to make a better life for themselves. Now, the streets are filled with both Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans. Although conditions in La Carpio are improving, the area is still lacking in adequate housing, medical care and schooling for the community. When I began reading some info on the area, I'll admit I instantly had preconceived stereotypes, as the articles were filled with crime and negativity. I wanted to brush all of it aside, forming my own opinion.
As I arrived in La Carpio on my first day after a very confusing bus ride, I was completely taken back by the conditions. Even with my background in social work, I have never experienced anything remotely close to the level of poverty and conditions I witnessed here. Trash, decaying food and polluted water filled the dirt streets and sidewalks. The area's conditions were jaw dropping. It is a small city in itself with a maze of shanties built on land between a working landfill and 2 polluted rivers. Most of the shanties are built out of corrugated tin and whatever landfill treasures could be rummaged. As we walked off the bus I took a deep breath. Little did I know at the time that I was getting ready to embark on an experience that would change and shift my preconceived perceptions.
I was guided down a dirt path and a maze of hallways that adjoined the houses. At the end of the path I was warmly welcomed by a group of women and several children who all wore bright smiles and adorned me with big hugs and kisses on my cheek. All were so welcoming and excited to see me. As the kids called me teacher, I smirked. If they only knew. No formal teaching education here. Just a good ole Southern girl with a Spanish vocab of "Hola", "Gracias" and counting to 10.
The living area of one of the families' homes served as a make shift classroom. Home to 14 people including 3 generations of family members. I was truly amazed at how such a small space could be the home to so many people.
Warming up to the kids was a cinch. The school was in dire need of school supplies and I was able to bring some along with me. The kids dove into the bag immediately. Only glitter, notebooks, pens, markers and craft sticks to me, but to them, it was like Christmas morning. Only minutes into my teaching, I learned that the kids were very thirsty to learn English as they all anxiously wanted to be the first to answer my questions. I was quite impressed with some of their English skills, clearly the result of the efforts of all the teachers before me. I soon learned that winging it and my off-the-cuff teaching skills were not that bad. The kids and I developed a bond that strengthened as each day passed. If I only could've fit a couple in my suitcase to bring home with me! Although my teaching skills were not the greatest, the kids were so grateful for the time they had with me. No matter how exhausted I was by the end of each day, I would try to take a moment to reflect back.
Below are some of my reflections for the week.
People tend to dwell on the negative of La Carpio as well as all the other impoverished areas of our world: the crime, conditions, etc. If you look past all of that, you will see a different side. Despite the conditions and all they have stacked against them, they are happy and grateful for what they have. They don't just exist. They make the best out of their circumstances. There's so much beauty here in the spirit of the people. They are people with dreams of peace and building a better community for generations to come.
Some may wonder why they bother when they have all the cards stacked against them from a socioecnomic and education perspective. What I learned during my short time there is that it does not take a life of the latest and greatest things to be a happy and fulfilled. We all have dreams and goals. Every human has the right to be on the same playing field. Being allowed the opportunity to fulfill his/her dreams. For the goal of the people of La Carpio is not to be millionaires, but to be able to provide the necessities for their family and have a life with purpose. They have so much love and kindness to share.
At the beginning of the week I focused on thinking the kids were clearly at a disadvantage with me as their teacher. I quickly learned that I didn't need a teaching degree, lesson plans or to speak their language. I also learned that I was not the only teacher here. The children taught me that we spoke a language that each understood. Through their warm smiles, gleaming eyes and tight hugs and kisses, we were speaking a language much bigger than English or Spanish combined. We spoke a universal language, the language of LOVE.
On the plane ride home I thought about all the beautiful people I met in San Jose. Their warm spirits and the moments we shared will not be forgotten. Breaking out of my comfort zone and casting my fears aside was the best thing that could've happened to me!
A BIG thank you to Maximo Nivel's staff in Costa Rica for making my volunteer experience such a pleasant one. What an amazing, hard working and dedicated team! It was truly a pleasure getting to know all of them! Through their efforts and coordination, they are making major positive changes for the people and the environment of Costa Rica! You can find out more about Maximo Nivel and their study abroad programs in Latin America at maximonivel.com.
If you are considering volunteering in another country, I highly recommend International Volunteer HQ for arranging your trip. They work in over 30 countries and are a top notch program. Setting up and preparing for the trip is a breeze with their helpful staff, website and well-written training materials. You can visit them at volunteerhq.org.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might also like: The Greatest Gift of All, The Forgotten Ones, Nashville's "Sanctuary" Where All Are Welcome, and HOPE is Alive and Well in Austin!.
Like travel stories? Check out Big Sister Diaries', Tell the World I'm Coming Home, in which Rosanny Crumpton discusses some of her fears as she makes her way back home to Panama to visit her family.
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