“Experiences like this are few and far between, the whole trip has been eye-opening and I don’t want to leave.” I wrote this in my diary a couple of days before I left Costa Rica, it had been full of highs and lows but overall the 2 months I spent there changed my life.
Not wanting to spend my summer working part-time behind a bar, I chose to volunteer in Costa Rica over summer 2010, in the capital city of San Jose. I lived with a host family in quite a large house, eating the food they ate and volunteering during the day at a local slum in a neighbouring town.
I was surprised by the standard of living, my host family had cable TV, hot showers and a big garden, not the picture I’d painted before I arrived. It was only when I got to the childcare project that reality hit me.
Only 20 minutes down the road from bustling San Jose and ironically situated next to a resort called ‘Hotel Paradise’ was a slum where I’d be working 4 hours a day 5 days a week. Stepping out of the minibus I was faced by one room houses, piles of rubbish and stray dogs, to say I was shocked is an understatement.
I was given a tour with my fellow volunteers but warned to leave everything of value in the minibus. Walking around the slum, on either side of me were houses made out of rusty corrugated iron, wood and plastic bags. The ground consisted of mud, rubbish, condoms and even human excrement.
Having never seen anything like this before, it was hard to keep it together and made me think about how much I took for granted back in the UK. We were invited into some of the family’s homes and offered food; even though they were obviously very poor, it didn’t seem to affect their generosity and hospitality.
I met some of the children from the project we would be looking after, they wore dirty clothes on their bodies but smiles on their faces. I remember one boy coming up to me, Esmeli who I became very close to over the weeks saying “I will remember you because my best friend is called Rachel”.
On the first day of volunteering, as a group of 8, we were given full responsibility of just under 40 children. With no solid plan, we sat them down in a circle to say “My name is…” and the numbers 1-10 in Spanish then English.
Despite almost all of them going to school, a great number of children I met couldn’t spell their own name but every morning sung “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes” like they knew English the whole time.
Over the next few weeks, it was a case of finding new things to keep the children entertained. Organising the days events was more challenging than first thought as resources like colouring books and pens, stamps, stickers and play-doh ran out quickly. And we couldn’t play outdoor games as the slum was too dangerous.
Safety on the whole in San Jose is a big issue; for most people, a house is something to be proud of, the only problem is, you can’t see the houses in San Jose as they are covered in bars and gated for fear of being broken into.
Fearing for my own safety also became a number one priority. A number of my friends were mugged at gun-point and there came a time when my host family told me to take separate money out in case I happened to be mugged. I had never been in a position where I was prepared to be mugged and looking back, I still can’t believe it.
Most people would be put off by the risk, but it’s a way of life and just shows how far people will go to be able to live. Contrary to this, 95% of the Costa Ricans I met were sweet-natured and valued living and family above all else.
People asked me when I came back what I brought away from the trip and I never knew what to say, how do you sum up an experience like this in a couple of sentences? As much as I would like to hope my few weeks drastically changed something, I know it won’t have. But looking long term, maybe it will if others volunteer? If you have ever thought about volunteering, do it now! It’s a once in a life time experience and you might well make a difference somewhere…
Here’s a link to the organisation I went through – International Volunteer HQ