Its nearing a month since Ive come back from Costa Rica, but I don’t think there has been a day where I haven’t thought about the people of San Salvador or my group members; I miss everyone dearly. During my stay in the host village,I always admired the simplicity. The village was small for the most part and it was as if everyone was family. In the village there was only one small store where my group members and I would often hang out at after a long days of work, just talking and sipping on sodas. Ive come to find myself wishing I could experience it all again, at least for a day.
I miss the 15 minute walk to my friend Katie’s house that I made almost everyday. I miss laughing with her younger host sister, as I myself didn’t have any. I miss playing soccer with all the other kids and never failing to be impressed with their skills.I miss the early mornings and early nights (I didn’t quite mind being in bed at 8 almost everyday!). After being with the same people for three weeks you develop a routine and sense of familiarity and its odd to be thrown back into a seemingly different world. During my stay I gained a new family and 8 new best friends, and I can’t help but be sad at the fact that it will be a while before we reunite, if ever. But with the sadness, comes great happiness that it happened.
It feels nice to have an experience that Ill never forget and can always look back on with a smile. Whenever I hear the song Upgrade U or Rich Girl, I’ll remember the long car rides and even longer workdays spent with my group; and whenever I hear the song El taxi I’ll think back to all the kids in the village whom I adore. Although, there were a couple challenges I faced while there, the main one being the language barrier, it was all so minuscule in comparison to what I have gained.
I’m not religious, but while staying in the village I decided to attend church with my host mother. I figured that I might as well try to participate in the culture as much as possible. In Herradura de Rivas, they have a formal mass twice a month. I hadn’t yet arrived in Costa Rica during the first mass, and the second of that month would not take place until after my group’s departure, so it was a simple Thursday evening service that we were attending. Our trip leader, Rashad, had told us that the service would likely not be heavily attended, but he still encouraged us to go. I was the only student who chose to attend, which made me feel nervous but also more resolute.
After long hours of working at the construction site, I hiked back home to shower and change. I had been under the impression that the community of Herradura de Rivas was very conservative, so I wore a long skirt and blouse in an effort to make sure that no one was offended by my church attire. I needn’t have worried. My host mother and two other ladies from the village sat chatting, comfortable in their jeans and sweatshirts. One of them held a guitar in her lap. My host mother Zobeida explained that they would sing as their form of prayer. She handed me a book of prayers and songs. It was in Spanish, of course, but thankfully I could understand most of it. They had fun explaining to me the meaning of the word “alabar” (praise) in the song “Alabaré A Mi Señor”.
When six o’clock arrived, Zobeida and one of the women began to sing of appreciation and celebration in voices filled with passion and happiness. The other woman joined them, their voices accompanied by the joyous strumming of her guitar. I followed along as best I could, but as I lost my place among the many pages of the songbook I realized that they knew all the words by heart and were singing directly from memory. One of the women was very helpful and would point out the place in my book that they were referencing when they switched to a new song. Even though the words of the songs were in Spanish, the emotion in their voices would be understood in any language.
Towards the end of the service, they asked me to read a passage from one of the books, and they complimented me on my Spanish. Then we all held each other’s hands and I listened to their sincere prayers of thankfulness for their families, their lives, and everything that they have. It reminded me of how much we all have to be grateful for. Zobeida thanked me for joining her at the church that evening. Despite the fact that I was a newcomer and unfamiliar with their traditions, they had accepted me without hesitation welcomed me fully into their community.
Afterwards, we stopped by the local pulpería (it was similar to a corner store or small grocery store) and were greeted by some of the other women from the village. They created a boisterous atmosphere by laughing, joking and generally having a good time. The rest of the group was sitting there as well, talking and relaxing after a game of soccer with some of the local children.
My host mother asked me what I would like to eat and what foods she should buy for dinner. I’m not too choosy and I don’t like being a burden, but she insisted, so I mentioned foods that I knew were accessible and not too inconvenient: fruits and vegetables, beans, plantain, and cilantro. She laughed because she knows how much I love cilantro. On our way back it started to rain hard, and then it began to pour. My host mother put her arm around me and we shared her umbrella while we talked about small things. We had a long walk ahead of us, and a short hike to end it. She was patient with me even though I was unaccustomed to the rough terrain. When we returned home, there were lots of ripe, juicy grapes and mangoes to eat from the store. For dinner she made rice, beans, sweet plantain, and a fresh salad with plenty of cilantro for flavoring. It was delicious!
It is a great thing to make someone who is new to your community feel completely comfortable, welcome, and appreciated. And that is what they did for me.
After arriving in Herradura de Rivas, one thing that surprised me was the difference between my host village and the other cities we visited. San Jose, Alajuela, and Manuel Antonio were hot and humid as I assumed they would be, with many stores, restaurants, cars and people lining the highways. While they were not as crowded as the cities that I’m accustomed to, they still contrasted with the village’s size and atmosphere.
Herradura de Rivas is located high in the mountains, enveloped by fog. During the journey there, the change of the ground from paved road to rough dirt and rocks was one of the first that I noticed. The path became more precarious, with steep slopes and bridges that gave way to open air and running water below on both sides. As we drove past forests of giant palm trees, flat plains and lush green hills and valleys, I then began to see the fog-tipped mountains in the distance, a taste of the famous cloud forests of Costa Rica that I had longed to see.
It was colder and damper there, with a heavy cover of clouds muting the sun’s heat for much of the day, although the sun was known to cast down its searing rays from time to time. Both in the village and in the cities, the intense humidity meant that clean laundry hung outside was reluctant to dry. It was the rainy season (which is considered to be their winter) at the time of my trip in July, so a torrential downpour could strike suddenly without warning, especially in the afternoon period. Ironically, I found the unpredictable weather to be reliable and familiar. Living in New England has made me comfortable with capricious weather conditions.
The village, though considerably smaller than a city, was spread out farther than I had imagined. Despite this, the people still formed a close knit community that proved to be warm and welcoming towards our group. Our trip leaders had explained that these were very nice people and that there was no reason to be nervous, so this was as expected, but it was still good have my doubts quelled and to feel reassured. Very few of the residents spoke substantial English. That was also as expected.
Even though I knew that Costa Rica was a Spanish speaking country, it hit me from the moment I arrived at the airport – and again with more force when I entered San Jose – that I was truly in a place where English was not the top priority or the automatic standard. The signs were written in Spanish. The announcements over the airport speaker were in rapidly delivered Spanish. Passerby chatted animatedly in their native tongue. This was heartening for me; I had wanted thorough immersion into the language and culture to develop my communication skills. Nevertheless, it was a bit shocking and disorienting as well. I would be forced to use what knowledge of the language I possessed and adapt to survive here. That was the point.
My first encounter with being thrown into speaking Spanish was at the customs desk. After all that I had heard about customs being a stressful and daunting ordeal, I was feeling rather intimidated. I walked without confidence up to the counter, and was pleasantly surprised by the official’s relaxed and friendly demeanor. He asked me a few simple questions and was pleased with my Spanish. After a brief but encouraging exchange, I rejoined my party and we left to meet the rest of the group, which had flew to San Jose from Houston instead of JFK airport in New York.
Our group was fantastic. I feel like we developed a close camaraderie and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. Our volunteer project in the village – building bathrooms for the church – gave us even more opportunity to bond with each other and with the workers that lived there. I feel as if we all fed off of each other’s positive energy and created an inclusive and respectful environment that was comfortable for us and for the people of Herradura. We also accomplished a lot. With the combined efforts of our group of thirteen (ten participants, three guides), and Osvaldo, Raquel and the other village workers, we made a pretty good team.
I surprised myself on this trip by stepping out of my comfort zone and taking more risks than usual. My personality inclines towards introversion, but I made an effort to connect with my group, my host family, and the villagers in general. I was amazed by how easy it was, and fun, too. I decided that I had to enjoy this experience to the fullest; it would be over before I knew it. There was no excuse for not participating in everything. Most of the participants spoke little to no Spanish, so there were times when a translator was needed to facilitate communication at the work site. That pushed me to withdraw from my shell, challenge my quiet and solitary nature and draw upon my inner leader. This also applied to living with my host family. I had no choice but to get to know them, and to let them get to know me. There was no where to hide, so I had to move forward.
It turned out that I knew more Spanish than I gave myself credit for, and since my host sisters knew a tiny bit of English, communication was generally simple and enjoyable. When we encountered difficulties, then we found ways to bypass the language barrier and bonded in the process. I loved getting to know each of them. My host mother Zobeida was warm and friendly, my host father Leonel and brothers Cristhian and Steve helpful and respectful. Sweet, funny Jenny (below) is my age and was always checking on me to make sure I was comfortable. Lucía is my older brother’s age, and I admired her easy confidence. I had never had sisters before, and I liked the experience.
I had so much fun with my sisters. We played card games, we watched The Big Bang Theory and The Lord of the Rings movies in Spanish, they taught me vocabulary, and we simply enjoyed sharing about our lives and becoming comfortable with one another. The whole family made me feel at home and very welcome. This trip was such a great opportunity for improving my communication skills and for personal growth. I had to take risks, and leaving oneself vulnerable in such a way is both frightening and exhilarating. It left me feeling temporarily exhausted, but also extremely fulfilled. My mind craves more such opportunities for growth and fulfillment.
One of the most significant ways to achieve growth and that feeling of fulfillment is by connecting with others in your local or global community. While reading Everyday Ambassador by Kate Otto, I came across the concept of a disconnectivity paradox that is occurring within this technological generation. An Indonesian quote mentioned in the book states that “Technology is meant to foster closer human relationships between those who are far, not create distance between people who are already close.” And yet, in many instances today technology creates the very distance between people that it should be bridging. This idea reminds me of a tweet I saw (here is the link: https://twitter.com/TracySheaSimond/status/56771588732802 6624), but it also reminds me of the poem “The Paradox of our Age/Times”. There are multiple versions; one of the shorter ones is written on a scroll that hangs on my bedroom wall.
This experience has helped me to learn more about myself and about taking on leadership roles, connecting with different types of people, and trying new things. It has given me more confidence in my ability to communicate with others and the motivation to seek out new challenges and opportunities for growth. Of the everyday ambassador qualities emphasized by Kate Otto, I believe that I struggle the most with focus. I often become so overwhelmed with all of the things I want to accomplish that anxiety and frustration overcome my logical, rational side, and I end up accomplishing nothing. I tend to be indecisive and unsure of myself, but I am gradually learning to trust myself a little more. Traveling to Costa Rica, meeting so many new people and developing close relationships, and learning to challenge myself and to trust myself in the process was one very significant step in my journey towards personal success.
Benvenidos happens to be my favorite word in Spanish. Benvenidos translates to welcome. The melancholy thing that follows a welcome is the goodbye that tags along with it.
As I say goodbye to Guatemala, I can only recall how welcoming the people have been. During my entire experience people greeted me with warm hearts, smiles, and friendship. It’s hard to leave Guatemala, the place where so many memories have been made. I have a abundance of gratitude for the compassion expressed by the host village. The people of San Juan de La Laguna opened their hearts and allowed me to be apart of their daily lives. It was a honor to be welcomed into such a close knit community.
As I slowly settle back into my normal life, I’ve begun noticing a change within myself, a new type of happiness. I’ve began to enjoy the simple beauties of life, like a smile. I started smiling at people. While people around me probably think I’m acting strange, it is my method of sharing the same happiness I’ve experienced from the people of San Juan de La Laguna.
Moreover, happiness isn’t the only thing radiating from my heart. I also hold the desire to travel all around the world. The wanderlust within me has officially been released. But what can I say? I am a Wandering Scholar and and everyday a new journey awaits.
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Traveling has been a dream of mine ever since I can remember, but my family never had the financial resources to take the splendid vacations that punctuated the summers and holidays of my peers. I never imagined that an opportunity like this one would arise at this time in my life, but now that it has, I will make sure to take full advantage of all there is to learn and enjoy this experience to the fullest. Hopefully, this trip marks the start of many more to come.
I have been frantically studying up on my Spanish, flipping through any books, old essays, and television channels that might be helpful. I am eager to meet my host family, but that will have to wait until the third day of the trip.
I’ll admit that I’m a little stressed about getting through the airport and successfully transporting my luggage, but I’m also thrilled to be traveling, and I know the plane ride will be wonderfully relaxing.
This whole experience has been amazing. Meeting new people, researching topics that personally interest me, learning to love Twitter, and even packing have all been significant and enjoyable components of my preparation. But the most exciting part of the adventure has yet to come. This flight will end of the beginning of my journey, and then the true adventure will commence!
This will be my first international trip, but I’m sure that it won’t be the last. I plan to continue to broaden my cultural perspective and approach traveling from the viewpoint of a wandering scholar and not just a tourist. In terms of my current journey to Costa Rica and my long-term career as a wandering scholar. This is the end of the beginning and the start of a new, exciting chapter of my life.
Thank you Wandering Scholar directors Tamara and Shannon for this exceptionally special opportunity. I am also grateful to Marisa Mansueto for her support as my travel mentor, and to Elka Uchman, my Work Force Youth Program teacher-counselor, for informing me about this opportunity. And thank you to my fellow wandering scholars for your great advice!
There are mere hours left until my departure; less than a day remains.
Now the countdown begins!
“No matter how many pictures we could have taken, no matter how high the resolution, no camera could have accurately captured the breathtaking, luminous elegance of the beach sunset. This journey has stripped me of my predictable, surface humanitarian tendencies and aroused my inner global citizen. Now…how’s THAT for culture shock?”— Precious Ekeanyanwu, Costa Rica