Costa Rica had long been on my list of future travel destinations. Surrounded by the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, it offers 900 miles of tropical coastline. It is home to over 600 different wildlife species, and 25% of Costa Rica is made up of protected forests and reserves. But I wanted to experience it a little differently. My previous trips had either been for work or my own pleasure, and I felt like it was time to give back in a different way. I did my homework on the best volunteer vacation organizations, and Global Volunteers won me over. Established in 1984, it is one of the longest-running volunteer vacation providers in the world. They operate in over 17 countries and offer different projects to suit every volunteer.
I arrived in San Jose' just before noon on Saturday, August 15th. Not only is it Market Day, but it's also Mother's Day in Costa Rica. If ever there was a time to see the entire population of this country, this would be it. The "Ticos" (male) and "Ticas" (female), as they affectionately call themselves, were out in full force. Costa Rican women are known for their sex appeal and I began to understand this phenomenon. There are a few must-haves to be entered into this category, all of which I did not possess. First, stilettos are a must. There isn't a "tica" in sight who's afraid to prance around a pothole, strut over uneven sidewalks or sashay down hilly terrain in 6-inch spikes. Next, do not leave home with just mascara and lip balm. These women are glamorous. I saw a woman, baby on her hip, applying red lipstick in a storefront window like a pro. I whipped out my chapstick in hopes of blending in. Finally, flaunt what your mama gave you. "Ticas" are not concerned with a few extra pounds, they are sexy and they know it. My baggy jeans and loose t-shirt were certainly not going to warrant any cat calls from the locals, but I assured myself that as soon as I returned home, a shopping spree was in order.
I had only one day in Costa Rica's capital, so after perusing the shops and historic buildings, I stopped to have lunch at an outdoor cafe, perfect for people watching. I ordered the traditional casado (rice & beans), and enjoyed my first coffee of the day. I was not in Kansas anymore Toto, their cup-o-joe is no joke! Coffee is one of Costa Rica's top exports, so you know these beans are the real deal.
Our team leader Nia, a native to Costa Rica, met our volunteer group for the drive up to Santa Elena, in the Monteverde region. This was to be our home for the next 7 days. The roads are....how shall I put this....unnerving. On the bright side, you can create a fun road trip game called "count the potholes". This is also called the Costa Rican massage. The rainy season causes severe landslides and road construction is tough to keep up with. To add to the white knuckle ride, locals do not enjoy using their brakes, and the running joke is that the "tico" word for speed bump is "son muertos" or "the dead people". This is slightly amusing.
On the way to Santa Elena, we are told to be on the lookout for Howler Monkeys. They are everywhere and they make their presence known. Our driver, who spoke impeccable english, had a funny childhood story about these precocious primates. As a young boy, he and his friends would tease the monkeys, throwing small pebbles or clumps of dirt into the trees to get their attention. They got their attention alright. The howlers would retaliate by flinging their own feces back at the boys. Now, it doesn't take a genius to figure out the clear winner here......Howler Monkeys-1, Costa Rican Youth-0.
Once we arrived in Santa Elena, and the blood had returned to my fingertips, we made our way to our rooms and had time to settle in before dinner. Upon using the restroom, I noticed a note on the wall that read, "Please dispose of toilet paper in the trash bin. Do not flush". Apparently, the septic systems are too old and the pipes too narrow for such items. Travel really is an adventure!
Our team project for the next week was to build a cafeteria at a local women's co-op called Casem. These artisan women pridefully display their crafts for locals and tourists alike, and they wanted a place for the customers to eat and drink during their visit. We got our hands dirty right away by knocking down walls, replacing old tile floors, and digging ditches for the new water system. There's a quote by James Lendall Basford that says, "honest labor dispels melancholy". I concur.
The week was filled with stories in "spanglish" as our team and the ladies of Casem worked hard to understand one another through hand gestures, facial expressions, and laughter. It's amazing what non-verbal communication can accomplish if done correctly. Costa Ricans are highly educated with a 98% literacy rate, and most do speak english. But on occasion, a translator is most welcome. Thankfully, our trusty team leader Nia was there for the more difficult conversations. Women often bring their children to work with them after they finish school, so this was a real treat at the end of each day.
Once 5 o'clock came around, we had the rest of the evening to explore Monteverde and it's lush flora and fauna. I enjoyed the famous Sky Walk suspension bridge tour and became enveloped in the complex ecosystem of this rainforest. Costa Rica is home to 10% of the world's butterfly population, hummingbirds, quetzals, toucans, bats, sloths, howler & spider monkeys, and too many species of frogs to mention. It's a treasure trove of life & vitality.
My last day at Casem was filled with mixed emotions as I did my best to express my feelings to the people I had met and worked so closely with over the past week. We had become like family. As I choked out my goodbyes, I heard a lady in the back whisper, "oh, cara linda, cara linda". This literally means "pretty face", but I know she was empathizing with my sadness over leaving.
I will be back to visit this Central American gem, there's so much more to see. I hear the beaches are to die for. They say the life expectancy of a Costa Rican is one of the highest in the world, and they are consistently listed in the top 15 happiest countries. This comes as no surprise to me. They are a warm, passionate culture, they dance, they love their family & friends, they laugh easily and often, and they embrace with their whole hearts "pura vida".
For more information on Global Volunteers visit https://globalvolunteers.org
For more information on the Monteverde Sky Bridge Tours visit: http://www.monteverdeinfo.com/sky-walk.htm