Day 1: In our short time here, we have already seen two volcanos, tried a new fruit (Cas), been smothered by the affectionate greetings of our host families, experienced the varied temperatures of a Costa Rican shower, and admired (and avoided) the dozens of adorably unpredictable street dogs. We have also spent more hours speaking Spanish in one day than we might otherwise spend in a whole week back home. We have exchanged height for humidity, pine trees for palms, and powder snow for the Pura Vida lifestyle. As the students finish their first morning of Spanish classes and fight the shakes from what may have been their first-ever cup of coffee, we are preparing for the afternoon's cooking and dancing lessons.
Day 2: I can now officially say that no Picadillo de Papa has ever tasted as good as one we enjoyed during yesterday's cooking lessons. With knives as sharp as their wit, the students peeled and diced with precision, turning whole potatoes and onions into ready-to-cook cubes and savory slivers, mixed with minced meat and sprinkled with garlic, cilantro, sweet chile, and a dash of the local favorite Salsa Lizano. They also kneaded dough into balls to be flattened in old-fashioned tortilla presses and then cooked on skillets. With rice and salad on the side, the meal would only be complete with a tres leches cake meant to celebrate one of our student’s birthday, the first of two cumpleaños on the trip.
I have also learned, as demonstrated so skillfully by Sr. Gordon, that a skier's (or snowboarder's) natural movements provide the perfect transition for learning Latin dances such as Salsa, Merengue, Samba, and even Zumba. With the sun shining bright, the ordinarily tame CPI basketball court became an afternoon blur of swiveling hips and shuffling feet, hand-held twirls and even a dip or two, as the rhythms took over, and every body in the area was swayed by the spirit of Latin music. It was truly a sight to behold.
The dancing was followed by a trip to the local bank to change money and a visit to Cosechas for natural fruit smoothies, followed again by a stroll through the gardens of a local church and a vigorous soccer match against some locals in the main plaza of our town, San Joaquin de Flores.
We also made our first foray into the struggling, immigrant community of La Carpio to begin our two-day community service project and learn more about the lives, hopes and challenges of the Central American region.
Days 3-4: While Costa Rica has enjoyed relative peace and prosperity since doing away with its military in 1948, the same cannot necessarily be said for the rest of Central America. In the 1970s, a series of events would come to devastate the economy and infrastructure of Costa Rica's northern neighbor Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, the neighborhood of La Carpio was formed clandestinely as the first major influx of Nicaraguan refugees illegally entered the country and established themselves on the hillsides between two of the country's most polluted rivers and the capital's largest landfill. Today the shantytown of La Carpio is home to nearly 40,000 residents.
Over the last two days, our group of VMS students and teachers spent many hours in this impoverished but colorful neighborhood, with the opportunity to see both its challenges (drugs, poverty, lack of recognition from the government) and its strengths (hope, a strong work ethic, a powerful sense of family and community, and a constant will to survive). We contributed in any way we could, mainly through the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, a key source of empowerment in the area. Much of our time was spent working in one of the foundation's four daycare centers and painting houses nearby, neither of which might seem like much, but both of which mean the world to local residents. By playing with and providing daycare for children we allow their parents to work, and make immediate and tangible improvements to the quality of life of the local youth. With our labor, we helped improve the condition of this collection of tin shacks to make them feel more like homes, and less like a temporary means of escape.
Days 5-8: Few things can stimulate the senses more than walking through a foreign marketplace. The brilliant hues of exotic fruits and unknown spices neatly arranged in their stalls, the smells of meats wafting through narrow corridors, the hurried pitches of vendors announcing their wares, the market is a nexus for sensory overload, and to the uninitiated it can be a wondrous place to behold. To help enhance their Friday afternoon experience in the Heredia indoor market, our students were given a scavenger hunt checklist, with such items as trying a fruit they had never tried before and determining the price of a kilo of shrimp.
Saturday was dedicated to exploring the natural beauty, gorgeous landscapes, exotic flora and fauna, and cooling waves of Manuel Antonio National Park. Though several hours away, the journey provided the perfect opportunity to look out the window and take in the rolling expanses of this amazing country, which despite its small size contains more than 5% of the overall biodiversity of the earth. Urban streets in the Central Valley soon gave way to jungle-laden hills, coffee and palm plantations, crocodile-infested rivers, and soon enough the azure reflections of the Pacific Ocean. Through our guides, Diego and Johnny, we saw and learned about some of the flora and fauna in the National Park -- the hanging sloth with its alkaloid diet, the creeping vines which thrive off the nutrients of the surrounding wild, the prickly flowers that the playful squirrels and capuchin monkeys use to preen each other's fur. With our guides protecting our bags from monkeys, iguanas, exotic birds and raccoons alike, we then swam at three consecutive pristine beaches, each more serene than the last. The third greeted us with rolling waves perfect for body surfing.
Sunday may have been the highlight of the trip for many, beginning with a visit to Costa Rica's famed cloud forest and the La Paz Waterfall Park and Peace Lodge. A naturalist's dream, the park offered the chance to get an up close and personal look at many of the most exotic species of the country. We toured a walk-through aviary, monkey enclosure, butterfly house, serpentarium, and several enclosures with gorgeous jungle cats lazing in the high mountain mist. A stone walkway also led to a series of thunderous waterfalls, surrounded by giant ferns and the tangled jungle canyon walls. After an endless buffet lunch, we continued into the hills for an exhilarating zip-line adventure, flying over rivers and soaring through the verdant canopy of the cloud forest.
Monday morning's activities included a trip to San Jose, the country's historic capital, where we visited the main squares and elaborately gilded National Theater, wandered the main pedestrian shopping street, ate stuffed churros to our hearts' content, and shopped at the local artisans' market, with its hand-crafted wares and souvenirs.
As the students now sit in their final afternoon of Spanish classes and prepare for "graduation," I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the past eight days. For all of us, teachers and students alike, the trip has been a complete educational and experiential success, one that the students will only grow from and hopefully never forget.