Deciding to go to Costa Rica with International Student Volunteers was not a decision that I took lightly. I remember reading my acceptance letter in early January and consulting with a few close friends whether or not I should embark on this trip that became a journey of a lifetime. So I want to begin by thanking my parents and close friends for encouraging me to take this opportunity that was entirely rewarding and eye opening. Spending the last four weeks of my life in a foreign country has taught me many valuable lessons about myself, about others, and about the world that I live in. As cliché as this is going to sound, the past four weeks has managed to change my entire outlook on life.
During my time in Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to volunteer in a small town of about 250 people called Providencia. Providencia is a quaint town built on the side of a mountain. The community was friendly, welcoming, and passionate about the sustainability of their town. Throughout my volunteer project, I helped make organic fertilizer, worked on an organic coffee farm digging terrains, and continued to build a cement road leading down the mountain. I also had the chance to spend time in the local elementary school teaching about sustainability, playing games with the students, and building a bench made out of eco-bricks. However, the most rewarding part of my trip was getting the opportunity to live with a host family that was kind enough to take me into their home with open arms, feed me amazing local cuisine, and help me learn Spanish. Words cannot begin to describe the appreciation I have for my host family. Not only did they take care of me while I was sick, but they taught me how to appreciate life. These families living in Providencia live a very simple life. A life that is not measured by how big of house they live in, what kind of car they drive, or what kind of clothes they wear. Instead, they value the small things that our western culture often takes for granted. Things like making meals as a family or spending the evening with the community playing soccer. Looking back on my journal from my trip, I remember sitting on my family’s porch looking out at the breathtaking mountains that stood in front of me. At that moment I wrote, being here has made me start to think about how much we (as a society) take for granted and begin to appreciate the value of simple living.
A typical day of work in Providencia began at six in the morning. I would wake up, usually to the sound of a rooster from across the street, change into my work clothes, and breakfast would be waiting for me in the kitchen at six thirty. My host mom was an amazing cook. She made me an array of food for breakfast, including: empanadas, pancakes, fresh fruit, and the most traditional Costa Rican breakfast meal called gallo pinto. Gallo pinto is a mixture of rice and beans along with scrambled eggs. After breakfast, the group of volunteers would walk together to our work site. This walk, which took place down the mountain, took about thirty minutes each morning. Although this was a challenging trek to work, I valued the time because it gave me a chance to enjoy the stunning view of the mountains and reflect on my time in Providencia. The work day was fairly labour intensive. We could usually be found with a shovel in our hands digging flat terrains around the coffee plants, shoveling cement onto the road, or mixing fertilizer to be spread on the coffee farm. The work that we were completing for the community was rewarding because we could see the progress we were making. As I stated before, the lifestyle in Providencia is very simple, so the community members were so thankful for anything we did to help improve and sustain their community. They don’t have the machinery that we can easily access in Canada so everything is done mostly by hand. Being able to help a community that appreciates everything you do is not only rewarding, but it made me realize how much we complain in our society. I am the first to admit that I am just as guilty of this as the next person, but this is something that I want to change returning home to Canada. I think I tend to forget that my problems are minimal compared to everything that is going on in the world and I need to take a step back to evaluate what is truly significant in my life.
What is significant in my life? That is a question that I asked myself often during my time in Costa Rica. I became lifelong friends with the people that I volunteered with in a matter of days. Not only did we share a common interest of helping others, but also I was able to get to know them in a unique setting. Not only did we spend every day working together for two weeks, but we were also without any form of technology. Let me begin by saying that this was such a refreshing experience. I wish everyone could experience being away from technology for a period of time to reconnect with life. I think technology is our own worst enemy. As positive as it can be, it can be just as negative. When is the last time you went a day without checking your phone for a text message, or checking Twitter or facebook for the most recent update? I can say from experience that it can make a difference in your life to remove yourself from social media for an extended period of time. In my journal I wrote:
Today I am really thinking about the role technology plays in my life and the life of others in Canada. Why have we become a culture that is so dependent on our phones and on social media? What role does it really play? I am questioning how much life I miss out on when using my phone. As I sat with my host family showing them pictures of my family and friends back home, I started to reconsider how I spend my time with friends and family. What would it be like to meet up with friends and leave our cellphones in our pockets? Is that a realistic expectation back home? One thing I can say for sure is that living without technology has made me realize how much time is wasted in a day on social media and how quickly life can pass by. Here, in Providencia, the days go by slower and I am able to appreciate every second for what it is worth. Soon I will not be able to sit and visit with my host family looking out at the lush green mountains that have clouds hanging over them.
I am struggling writing this reflection on my volunteer experience in Costa Rica because I cannot find the words to express how I feel. It is difficult to describe my experiences and how my way of thinking has changed. The last thing I want to do is preach to others to make changes in their own lives because that is not my decision. Instead, I want to share my personal experiences to shine light on the way that others live. Immersing myself in an entirely new culture and finding simplicity in life has taught me so much about my surroundings and myself. This trip has taught me about how much I take for granted, but also how much I can live without. I want to end with something that my project leader, Ryne Tucker, said during one of our group discussions that I need to remind myself on a regular basis. He said, “no one is able to change everyone or everything, but we need to remember this is our life. Don’t let others dictate how we live or how we spend our time.” I am so grateful for this cultural experience that I was able to live because it taught me so much about myself, and how I want to live my life.
“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit” – Nelson Henderson