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Crazy Ambitions: Community Service in Costa Rica

I am a North Penn student who spent my junior year in France. Now I find myself in Costa Rica for a month of community service.

After nineteen days at home I found myself at the airport again, passport in hand. This time, destination: Costa Rica. My desire to travel and ambitious will got me involved with the AFS (American Field Services) in a four-week community service program.

Our projects are scattered throughout the country starting at an ecological farm in Cartago and ending in the swampy wetlands of Palo Verde. Each week we have a different task, and when I say we I’m talking about the thirty-one other students with me. With our goal in mind, we are fighting the heat, sweat, and hard labor together.

In our AFS meeting we had before actually embarking on this journey, our goal was laid out like this: through international involvement we will help and serve a local community. However, my expectations are a bit more elaborate. Not only do I want to aid the local community but I plan on leaving with a stronger grasp on the Spanish language and a better understanding of Latin American culture.

This trip will tell me a lot about myself too, because I will be tested by being away from family again, the mercy of Mother Nature, tedious and grueling work, living in downsized rustic accommodations, and other people’s tempers. In the end, the most important thing will be to remain calm and focused.

Let’s get one thing straight, I don’t speak Spanish. Even after Spanish classes and attempts to learn, I have never found myself in the right environment to fully learn the language.  So I feel like I am starting at ground zero again but also I have a tremendous fear of forgetting my French. Traveling with thirty other Americans won’t help either.  But I have to say the group is awesome, really mature, positive, and friendly.

So far I have found that Costa Rican customs are a lot like France, for example kisses on the cheeks for greetings and they really cherish family life. Families in Costa Rica are generally large, and they are all very close and usually live close to home (literally just down the street).

Also, the Costa Ricans are very relaxed. I can’t emphasize that enough, in France I felt like life was so much calmer than the U.S., but in Costa Rica, they take that “laziness” to the next level. They are never hesitant to leave something off until the next day, and they’re constantly saying mañana which means “tomorrow.”

The food is nothing like that of France though. Rice and beans are staple items and I’m not joking when I say we eat them all the time. Breakfast, lunch and dinner; rice and beans are always on the table. The coffee’s delicious, and they eat a lot of tropical fruits. They also have this sauce “English sauce” that they use in a lot of dishes and put on nearly everything, so everything has a similar underlying taste.

Costa Rica is a vacation spot though, and it’s evident why. Ranging from the cooler climates in the high mountains, to the sun at the beach, to the tropical heat in the rainforest, Costa Rica is stunningly gorgeous. Surrounded by nature, you can’t help but to just soak it all in. One of the major concerns was about drinking water, but even that isn’t a big deal as you can drink most of the water, especially when you are farther from the coast, but it’s better to stick to bottled items.

Costa Ricans use calones instead of U.S. dollars, and 500 calones equals one US dollar, so we were all a little shocked when a hamburger and fries cost 2400 calones. In reality though, that’s about five dollars. With tourism being the mainstream in their economy though, anyone will accept U.S. dollars.

One thing that surprises me though, and I’m rather sad about, is the amount of industrialization here. I was expecting a more rural country not yet sprouting the McDonalds and fast food restaurants. There’s a lot of development for the country is getting heavily involved in tourism and globalization is highly important to the economy. Which, I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad about that, but I’m definitely surprised.

So wish me luck as I tackle my first week at an ecological farm. I’ll leave you with a typical Costa Rican saying: Pura Vida (there are many meanings to this expression, as people use it all the time for different scenarios). For example, you ask someone how they’re doing, they respond “pura vida” or you say good job, “pura vida” or something cool happens, “pura vida.” 

Direct translation: pure life

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Brian McCaffrey July 27, 2012 at 12:37 PM
Hi Caroline! Thanks for sending home a blog post it's great as always to vicariously share in your trips through your writings. I've heard from others who vacationed in Costa Rica that it is very lush and tropical, guess they didn't go to the mountains. I don't know ANY spanish so I won't even attempt this blog post in that language - I'll stick to French or English. Hope you enjoyed your service weeks and have a safe trip home this weekend. Brian
Carly Loper August 01, 2012 at 12:55 PM
thank you !

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