9th Grade Costa Rica Trip

VMS School News
April 22, 2104- Ninth graders spent ten days in Costa Rica to experience complete immersion in Spanish Language and a foreign culture. "Pura vida" is a characteristic Costa Rican phrase that literally means pure life, but that is used colloquially to describe the richness and depth of culture in Costa Rica. Embracing this idea, ninth graders lived with local host families, visited the rain forest, learned that soccer is more than just a game, and had the eye opening experience of performing service work in a community where most families live in makeshift structures with dirt floors. Mr. Behrendt kept the following travelogue that very eloquently captures the spirit and details of the trip.

Part I: Days 1-5
Imagine the surprise on the faces of the passengers of Frontier Flight 86 when 34 young, wintry faces filed down the aisle, bursting with excitement for the sun, embarking on a journey talked about for months both in and outside the classroom. We would take over much of that plane by the time they were all seated. Some of the kids nodded off through the midnight hours while others made a point to stay up, anticipating the 10 days to come, reveling in their anticipation of the unknown.

It was only when they disembarked as a group into the heat and humidity of a tropical Costa Rican morning that it fully hit that they had arrived, that the journey had begun, and it that was time for their immersion experience to begin. Making our way to CPI (El Centro Panamericano de Idiomas), we were first greeted by Guadalupe, our jovial guide and organizer, and led into the gated grounds of the school where mango and avocado trees shaded swathes of green grass and stone fountains. Two mesh hammocks swayed silently in the cool Costa Rican breeze, while an open grass soccer field, volleyball court and even a ping pong table caught the attention of boys and girls alike. Fresh fruit juice quenched the throats of the weary, while strong Costa Rican coffee brought a familiar smile to the faces of the teachers. With the mix of sleepiness brought on by the midnight flight and the excitement of finally being in-country, the students were then given language assessments to help organize them into appropriate classes they would attend over the next week.

After a stroll through town, a changing of money and a quick lunch (Chifrijo, a traditional pork dish, for some, Arepas for others), the students were back at CPI to meet their new host families. With that, the volleyball court became filled with smiling faces, tentative kisses on the cheek, long-practiced Spanish salutations, and the sound of suitcases rolling over cobblestones as the kids were whisked away to their hosts’ homes, to their first Costa Rican dinner, to encounters with new “family members,” and to a much needed long night´s sleep.

The next morning, after breakfast and a quick walk to a nearby park with a large Broncos sign (newly dubbed Broncos´ Stadium), the group took a public bus to the town of Heredia, capital of the Heredia province, and home to the National University of Costa Rica. Here we had our first glimpse of the area´s famed open plazas and parks, which are lined with palm trees and exotic plants, surrounded by churches, schools and monuments, and best enjoyed with a cold tropical smoothie or hand-shaved ice. We then spent some time wandering through the Heredia market, a series of narrow meandering passageways lined with stands selling fresh exotic fruits and vegetables (tamarindo, starfruit, guava and fresh coco seemed to be the new favorites); meats of all shapes, sizes and animals of origin (pigs´ feet were, unsurprisingly, not the favorite); and many trinkets and other daily-use products. After a lunch at a local Soda (small diner), the students returned for their first day of small-group Spanish classes. Though the VMS teachers stayed out of the way, the reports were overwhelmingly positive, with the kids having audible fun and continuing to expand their skill set in the wonderful world of Spanish language learning.

That night we fulfilled one of the most anticipated promises of the trip, watching Saprissa, one of the country’s top soccer teams, in all of their glorious action. Though the schedule had initially included a Sunday afternoon rivalry match between Saprissa and another top team, Heredia, Sunday happened to be the national presidential elections (Luis Guillermo Solis won in a landslide victory after his opponent reportedly ran out of campaign funds), so we enjoyed a less intense match-up between Saprissa and a lower-tier team Carmelita. With more than half the group dressed in new crimson Saprissa jerseys, waving Saprissa flags and cheering for Los Monstruos (as the Saprissa Dragons are affectionately known), the game did not disappoint with a rowdy crowd cheering on a top-corner, diving header goal at the 85th minute to give Saprissa the win.

Saturday was dedicated to exploring the natural beauty, gorgeous landscapes, exotic flora and fauna, and cooling waves of Manuel Antonio National Park. Though the kids were clearly tired from the night before, they had a three hour-drive to help sleep it off, or to look out the window and take in the rolling expanses of this beautiful country which, despite its small size, contains more than 5% of the overall biodiversity of the earth. Urban streets soon gave way to jungle-laden hills, palm plantations, crocodile-infested rivers, and soon enough, the azure reflections of the Pacific Ocean. Through our guide, Pablo, we learned about some of the flora and fauna in the National Park--the hanging sloth with its sedative alkaloid diet, the creeping vines which thrive off of the nutrients of the surrounding wild, the prickly flowers that the local squirrel monkeys use to preen each other’s fur. With the guide protecting our bags and belongings from monkeys, iguanas, exotic birds and raccoons alike, we then swam at three consecutive pristine beaches, each more serene than the next. The third greeted us with roiling waves perfect for body surfing. Though their energy never seemed to dissipate, even after such a fun-filled day, the kids would have every opportunity to get a good night’s rest, as they (and thankfully, us, the teachers) could enjoy a Sunday sleep-in the following morning.

Sunday's activities included a trip to San Jose, the country’s historic capital, where we visited the main squares and National Theater, wandered the main pedestrian shopping street, drank fresh-fruit smoothies, and ate stuffed churros to our hearts’ content. The day was capped by a visit to the local artisan’s market.

Today, Monday, marks the students’ return to Spanish classes, but already we have seen great strides in both their abilities and willingness to use the language and we can only expect it to continue from there. This afternoon they will also have both cooking and dancing classes here on the grounds of CPI, so be sure to ask them to show you their moves (and/or cook you a delicious picadillo de papa) upon their return. ¡¡¡Pura Vida!!!

Part II: Days 6-10
As a long-time language student and teacher, I can personally attest to the tremendously positive effects of daily hours of language learning in an immersive environment. Watching the students use their Spanish both in and outside of the classroom, I could already see some of those strong connections being created and the notable strides they were making even in such a limited time in this beautiful country. My primary goal as a teacher is to create lifelong learners and I can only hope that the students will bring some of their newly-found enthusiasm and motivation for the language back to the mountains with them.

On Tuesday, after their morning classes at CPI, we boarded the bus to embark on our service project in the impoverished, immigrant neighborhood of La Carpio on the outskirts of San Jose. La Carpio has an interesting history, much of which is closely tied to the workings of our host Gail Nystrom and her foundation, the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation. As Gail explained to us over lunch in the sweltering headquarters of CRFH, La Carpio first formed clandestinely in 1972 on the hillsides between two polluted rivers and a city landfill, growing rapidly as the first major influx of Nicaraguan immigrants illegally entered the country, escaping the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people, and the brutal revolution that followed as the country’s economy collapsed. With no other place to go, the Nicaraguans--in large part single mothers and their children whose husbands and fathers had been killed in the revolution or had turned abusive in the subsequent years--began building shelters and tiny shacks out of any and all materials they could find: wood scraps, torn sheet metal, strips of zinc, plastic sheeting, etc. Each “house” was built precariously one above or below the other as the neighborhood began to take shape, a veritable shantytown carving out a niche into the hillside. With only one residential street serving as an entrance into the area, the scrap metal neighborhood saw a quick growth before the Costa Rican authorities were even aware of its existence, and by then, it was too late to stem the influx. The Nicaraguan immigrant community had staked its claim.

Today the shantytown of La Carpio has grown to contain nearly 40,000 residents, and is still populated in large part by women and children who subsist on what little they can make working as maids, cooks, or in other low-paying jobs in the capital, if they are able to work at all. Many have no choice but to stay home and raise their children; others face a strong xenophobia in and outside of the workplace, as many Costa Ricans have not taken well to the Nicaraguan illegals. But still the grass is always greener, and their lives are much better here (with free education and many government-provided services) than the ones they left behind.

In the next two days we painted over a dozen houses in La Carpio, transforming expanses of exposed wood and metal into alluring walls of teal, violet and lime green, while others stayed back to play with some of the day-care children, thus allowing their mothers to work. To the residents of La Carpio it clearly meant the world, as they came out in droves to help us help them make their collection of tin shacks feel more like homes they could be proud of and less like a temporary means of escape. In fact, throughout La Carpio’s existence, residents who have become more financially stable have consistently chosen to improve their own shacks within the neighborhood rather than moving to a higher-end part of the city.

All said, we were certainly a sight to behold as thirty-four bubbling personalities filled the narrow streets with our buckets and paintbrushes, and even more so when the paint began to splatter and colorful hand prints began to appear on the t-shirts and faces of our students. Soon many of the neighborhood children were helping us paint as well, or at least doing their best to slap a wet painted hand wherever they could. Though poverty and struggle still reign in this invisible patch of an otherwise paradisaical country, we were happy to do whatever we could to enrich the lives of some of those who could use it most, and the days’ experiences went off without a hitch, a perfect combination of humility, helpfulness and fun.

Friday was without a doubt one of the most anticipated days of the trip, with the unique opportunity to soar through the canopy of Costa Rica’s high-mountain jungles via 22 individual zip lines and two rappels careening over 11 different waterfalls and whizzing through acres of untouched terrain. A jump and extended stay in a waterfall-fed swimming hole halfway through the course helped cool off our bodies from the sweltering midday heat, and the whole ride was followed by a big lunch with a mountain overlook that might just rival any such vista here in Vail.

Finally, as the trip wound down to its end and we took our last Costa Rican cold showers, the only thing left between our animated group of 40 and the snowy heights of our homeland was a 2am wake-up call for an early flight home. Oh, and the smoke from a Nicaraguan volcano that would detour our flight and force us to stop off in Houston for an hour and a half to refuel. Pura Vida!!!