The Future of Ecotourism

Written by Olivia Carbonaro

Our trip to Costa Rica was many things for me. It was especially serendipitous in the sense that I found more inspiration than I could have ever bargained for in many unexpected places.  When thinking of all of the things that happened on our trip, there were a few people and moments that really resonate in my mind.

manuel3group

Manuel introducing his fellow classmates from La Gloria Secondary School.

Among these people include Manuel, a 15-year-old student from a secondary school called La Gloria. La Gloria is about a 40-minute bus ride from where we stayed for most of our trip in Mastatal (or 2 hours away when walking, which many of the locals do). The secondary school would be similar to what the United States considers to be middle school and high school combined—teaching students from ages 12 through 18 years old. La Gloria is known as a technical school, specializing in teaching students how to become eco tour guides.  As visitors, we could see that tourism is an essential part of the economy in Costa Rica and we were excited to get the chance to meet the future of ecotourism. Surrounded by lush flora and a diversity of fauna, La Gloria serves as a truly great place for students to learn how to become eco tour guides.

Manuel leading us on our tour through the trails behind the school.

Manuel leading us on our tour through the trails behind the school.

I was so excited when we were told that the students at La Gloria would be practicing their newly acquired tour guide skills on us. It ended up being such a fun and exciting experience to have our presence be beneficial in helping achieve their school’s learning outcomes. It was satisfying to be able to give them the practice they will need to be able to pursue careers in the field of ecotourism. I think the biggest source of help we could give was providing the students a chance to practice their English speaking skills with us.

When we first arrived to La Gloria, Manuel took the lead and introduced the group of his fellow students, welcoming us all to their school. Our group was soon split up into several smaller groups of 2-3 people, and we were led by 2-3 of La Gloria’s future eco tour guides. My group was lead by Manuel and 2 other students from their school accompanied us. Not all of the students we met at the school spoke English fluently, but Manuel spoke English so clearly and elegantly. It became very apparent to me that he really took it upon himself as his own personal initiative to learn English. An unexpected fact I learned was that Manuel was among one of the youngest in the group of students, which made him all the more impressive to me. I was really happy that he was leading our small group because it gave me a chance to talk to him one-on-one and get to know him better.

Manuel led our group and introduced us to the projects they had going at the school, including some that had plans for improvement. Among these projects included a pig pen holding little pink pings that reminded me of the pig from the movie Babe. He also showed us their chickens, which were all babies and still had their yellow fur.  He led us to an area which he said used to be the home of horses and bulls, but the school couldn’t continue to afford to keep those animals there. We talked through the woods on trails that seemed a bit off the beaten path, but Manuel always checked to make sure we were okay, warning us when we needed to watch our step while holding branches out of the way for us as we walked by. Then we walked to the Soda, which is a Costa Rican-style bar/restaurant where we all got juices and sodas. As we walked, Manuel and I got to talking and I learned that one of his favorite television shows is Friends, and he particularly likes the characters Joey and Phoebe. He also told me that two of his favorite American movies are Donnie Darko and Clockwork Orange.  It surprised me when he told me this, because La Gloria seemed so far away from the United States, and yet there we were discussing popular American TV shows and movies. This all just showed me how globalized we have become on this Earth—that even in a rural town in Costa Rica, American sitcoms can still be found.

Richard, Diana & I taking a photo with our ecotour guides for the day!

Richard, Diana & I taking a photo with our ecotour guides for the day!

As we walked back from the Soda to return to the school to meet the rest of the groups, I asked Manuel if we could all take a picture together. He replied saying “We will do anything that makes you happy, that is what we are here for” (or maybe he said we will do anything that brings me pleasure- I don’t remember exactly now), but he replied in such way that almost startled me. I was taken aback by his genuine desire to serve us while we were there, which wasn’t something I went in expecting. I went in thinking we would get a tour of the school and maybe practice English with the students- but we got so much more than that. It humbled me that Manuel and his fellow students really went above and beyond to give us a fulfilling experience at the school and put so much care into making us feel welcome and happy. When we returned to the school, we were further humbled by a delicious meal and a showcase of dances performed by the students. After this, we went to the schools indoor soccer field, where Manuel popped up in a green wig. It was so great to see him in a less formal setting, joking with everyone and running around playing soccer. He even ran up to me and called me his “BFF” (which stands for best friend forever) and we went on to take some silly photos together.

Manuel entertaining the group with his unique dance moves!

Manuel entertaining the group with his unique dance moves!

Manuel rocking his green wig with me on his left!

Manuel rocking his green wig with me on his left!

Manuel reminded me what dedication looks like. He reminded me in just one day what being a wholesome person looks like—someone who works hard, but also knows how to make time to play and be silly. Despite whether or not others were practicing becoming fluent English speakers, he went on practicing diligently and was able to hold great conversations with us. Manuel, despite being only 15-years-old, shined with potential and personality. In my eyes, Manuel is the future of ecotourism in Costa Rica, and I am honored I got the chance to meet him.

The Red Hot Chili Pepper

Written by Richard Hsieh

It was our fourth day in Costa Rica when we visited Villas Mastatal to learn more about their ways of sustainable farming. To provide some background, Villas Mastatal is situated right next to La Cangreja National Park and a short walk to the town of Mastatal, where we stayed. Villas Mastatal is an educational, organic farm that is deeply rooted in the local community, displays sustainable design and architecture, practices regenerative agriculture, and offers educational learning for student groups and individuals.

Even though all the farms we visited were unique, we still found commonalities amongst them, such as composting toilets. As we toured the farm, it was cool to hear about different strategies that they specifically implemented for organic farming. Unlike mass farming, organic farming requires a lot of attention on individual crops. For example, Javier, the owner of Villas Mastatal, explained that he would plant corn in certain places so the bugs will eat that instead of the other crops.

Just one of the plants on this huge and diverse property!

Just one of the plants on this huge and diverse property!

During our tour, smelling and tasting plants were nothing new for my peers and me. From cinnamon to mint to lemongrass, we smelled it all! It was really interesting to see the food we eat every day in its original form. Just when I thought that every plant or leaf tasted and smelled the same, boy was I wrong!  Javier pointed to some shiny red chili peppers and talked about the use of it. All I remember was being eager to try it because Javier said we could. Being adventurous, I like to try everything and seeing a beautiful chili pepper sure did not stop me from trying it too.

Initially, when I took my first bite, I did not think it was that spicy. However, things started to change and my throat, chest, and stomach felt funny.  In no time at all, I felt very sick. As we walked on to see more parts of the farm, I grew ill and weak. I remember that I could barely stand— my whole body began to feel frail and all of a sudden, my hands started tingling and grew numb.in the mouth It was crazy how quickly it all happened! After that, I remember Jennifer, Tim, Marcos, Ryan, and some of my peers taking me to a shady, grassy area to sit down. They cooled me down by taking off my shoes, fanning me, giving me water, and pouring water down my shirt. In addition, they fed me cookies and honey, freshly-squeezed milk, and a cool tea that tasted delicious! It all really helped me recuperate and get my senses back together. I felt a little guilty because I was spoiled with all this attention and food, but I secretly enjoyed it, nonetheless. Soon after, I was full of energy and excited to get back on my feet to continue on.  I felt like a new person!

This was a huge “ah-ha” moment for me because first, I learned that I should pay a bit more attention before shoving any type of food in my mouth. Second, I realized that I should not act so strong and stubborn at times and take more prudence before doing anything foolish; in other words, think before taking action, which I fail to do a lot. happy nowLastly, I realized how blessed and grateful I am to have so many caring and compassionate people along this trip who really supported and helped me during difficult times.  Although the spice and weakness I felt from eating the pepper overcame me, looking back, it is a reminder of the things I learned and risks I have taken in Costa Rica.

 

Flight of The Stranded Anteater

Written by Diana Alatorre

“You Californians are crazy!,” shouted Carlos Jimenez, one of our tour guides at Hacienda Baru, just as Kelly Florimon ran to jump off a platform only to be sustained mid-air by a cable and her harness as she zipped through the middle of a forest.

Christina enjoying one of the many zip lines on "The Flight of The Toucan".

Christina enjoying one of the many zip lines on “The Flight of The Toucan”.

Ziplining is a different kind of adventure-seeking thrill than ordinary roller coaster rides. On a roller coaster, you’re amongst many other people, but while ziplining, it’s just you, a helmet, a harness, a wire, and the environment. Those seconds spent hundreds of feet above ground, secluded from friends and safety, are truly spectacular. One moment you’re terrified about hitting a tree that seems to be approaching you at a speed that is beyond control, and the next minute you’re admiring the beauty of the forest and its numerous sounds.

Before we began the “Flight of the Toucan” ziplining experience, Carlos instructed us on how we would be strapped onto the cable, how we should position our arms, legs, torso, and most importantly, how to hold a camera so we could capture every moment of the experience. Though that probably wasn’t actually the most important part, it appeared to be what we wanted to know the most about. In the midst of all this chaos, Carlos told us what we would have to do in case we became stranded somewhere along the cable line. He said it didn’t happen often and that we shouldn’t worry about it, but that if it did happen, we were to remain calm and use our hands to pull ourselves forward to the end of the cable and onto the landing platform. It sounded easy enough, so I brushed the information aside and got ready to embark on the adventure of lifetime. Little did I know, I would need to use that information some seven cable rides later.

From the start of our time at Hacienda Baru, Carlos was a jokester. He did everything he could to make us laugh, scream, and become absolutely terrified. His jokes didn’t cease when we were hundreds of feet above ground with nothing to save us from a plunge into the forest. As he connected us onto the cable lines, he’d jokingly pushed us, assuring high-pitched screams from our group of girls. He laughed at our reactions, as did the rest of the group that had not just felt like they were about to take a dive into solid earth. It was all in good fun of course, and a bit of a rush. At some point during our flight, he decided I was a good screamer and became a target for his jokes. I knew he wouldn’t actually make me fall, but I was still terrified every time it was my turn to be strapped in. On cable ride number 8, the unforeseeable event happened. And although he had taught us what we should do in case we stopped moving in the middle of a cable, he didn’t mention it could also happen on the last and final cable where we would be taking the Flight of the Toucan backwards. I was already terrified by the fact that the only things (aside from my harness) keeping me from plummeting back-first into shrubs, clay-hard soil, trees, and probably bugs were Carlos’ hands holding onto my hiking boots, so what happened next should have left me petrified.

Diana making her way back to the platform.

Diana making her way back to the platform.

About two-thirds into the line, Costa Rica decided I would no longer be continuing my backwards flight. My speed decreased rapidly but before even coming to a stop, I somehow began to move in the opposite direction—forward. Insert confusion and shrieks as high pitched as imaginable here. Suddenly, I understood what was happening, not how or why, but what I should be doing. I instantly reached for the cable behind me just as Carlos had begun to yell out instructions to me. I began a slow, yet awkward, return to towards the end platform. With cheers, laughter, and weak arms, I made it to the end, un-petrified. Thanks to Carlos and everyone at Hacienda Baru, our entire team was able to make it out of the forest unscathed!

Happy Jack

Generalizations: we all make them from time to time, thinking we know a person’s story before they even open their mouth to tell us.  Perhaps one of the most prevalent generalizations out there is the one that the young generation puts on the older generation.  There always seems to be this idea that because of their age, the older adults are somehow stuck in old-fashioned or outdated ideals.  Jack Ewing of Hacienda Baru puts an end to this flawed set of assumptions by defying all expectations that the young have of the older generation.

Stopping to pose at a very old tree

Stopping to pose at a very old tree

Something about Jack reminded me instantly of my grandfather.  I do not know if it was the slight twang he had in his voice, or something about his overall demeanor that instantly made me think that he was a country-raised, “red-blooded” American, just like my grandpa had been.  Of course, I formed these opinions before I actually started listening to him, rather than just hearing.  Jack Ewing, property manager of Hacienda Baru, had come to Costa Rica on a temporary cattle-rearing contract back when the land was being used for cow-grazing.  He uprooted his growing family in the hopes of getting a change of scenery and an adventure before really settling down in the USA and starting a life.  For the first couple months, Jack felt no real attachment to his surroundings.

A million shades of green

A million shades of green

He was there to do a job, not to cohabitate with nature, and he did just that.  It wasn’t until he extended his contract in Costa Rica that he finally started to look around.  Without having realized it, Jack had been ignoring the slowly diminishing rainforest around him since his arrival in Costa Rica.  He had been too distracted with hunting and cultivating the land to form any attachment to it.

Once Jack began taking note of his environment, there was no possibility of turning back to any other life.  From that point forward, Jack poured himself tirelessly into making Hacienda Baru live up to its potential.  He began by reforesting the area with the seeds of trees that had become endangered.  In this way, he not only reforested large portions of Hacienda Baru’s landscape but also helped to reduce the risk of extinction for the formerly at-risk tree species.  Jack also helped in stopping hunting on the grounds of Hacienda Baru.  This change, in particular, struck me as a true measure of how far Jack’s thinking had come over the years.  From a man who hunted on Hacienda Baru, to a man that was willing to prosecute those who did, Jack Ewing’s mind had become forever changed.

Nothing but smiles at Hacienda Baru

Nothing but smiles at Hacienda Baru

 

When one of the participants asked Jack why he had chosen to switch to an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, he simply responded that after his mindset started switching, he would have felt false living any other way.  Going back to his cattle-rearing life of before would have made Jack incapable of looking his coworkers in the eye out of shame.  So in a way, it seems like the stereotypes about older adults are right in this case.  Jack Ewing is firmly stuck in his ways and will never change.  It just so happens that “the ways” he is stuck in are singlehandedly helping to create a healthier planet for the younger generation to live.  My generation might complain about how the older generation never changes, but at the end of the day, the world would prosper if more people like Jack were “stuck” in environmentalism.

When It Rains, It Pours

Written by Marissa Pham

I think it is safe to say we all faced some pretty heavy extremes during our trip when it came to weather. Being SoCal natives, we don’t know ANYTHING about rain or humidity when we’re encompassed in sunshine all day, every day. So feeling the rain for the first time on our hike back from the river during our second day in Mastatal is an experience I will never fully be able to capture again. As we trekked up the giant, red-soiled hill in the 85°+F temperature, these huge raindrops began to drop one by one, and by huge, I mean massive. These raindrops had to have been at least half an inch in diameter! The raindrops continued to come down slowly and gracefully. Once we had reached the top of the hill and come back down to the main road, there was a small section of concrete paved on the side of the dirt road where we could see the rain meet the pavement. The strange thing was the pavement looked completely dry as rain continued to splash on it. After watching closely, we realized that as the water hit the ground, the air around us was so hot, it was causing the water to almost instantly evaporate after contact! We could literally watch a raindrop hit the concrete, and watch the dark, wet mark slowly disappear within about five seconds. It was incredible to watch it happen so naturally. In an area where this is normal, we were all incredibly baffled when we realized this isn’t something we would ever see back at home.

 

2 puppies look out over the mist

2 puppies look out over the mist

Moments after we made it back to the farm, we realized how lucky we actually were. Just minutes after we had arrived, the rain started coming down in sheets. The power of the rain was unbelievable. The drops were coming down so forcefully, it sounded like hail as it hit any hard surface. But it wasn’t hail, obviously; they were huge raindrop pellets. Listening to the rain hit the earth was thunderous, and looking out, you couldn’t even see rain falling because there was so much and it was coming down so fast. But stepping out from shelter, we could feel the difference in nature from a different part of the world. Seeing, feeling, and listening to that rain was proof to me and proof to many of us that our environment is capable of more things that we can imagine.

Rain clouds looming over the mountains

Rain clouds looming over the mountains

As the rain came to a halt, the world around us seemed to be at some kind of ease and serenity. After hearing what sounded like constant thunder for about twenty minutes, everything seemed so peaceful, it was almost surreal. Looking out toward the hills from the kitchen, there was a strange fog rolling over that looked ready to devour anything it its path. It was scary at first, until we discovered that it was actually mist emerging from the evaporation of the rain from the heat. We were literally watching the effect of water evaporating before our eyes.

Painting a school in the rain!

Painting a school in the rain!

Needless to say, it meant the humidity level cranked up over one hundred percent. It was okay, though, because although we were drowning in the moisture in the air, we had witnessed a part of nature that many people would never get to experience. We discovered something new this day, and we all felt something beyond words.

The 2014 UCI Costa Rica Research Symposium

Written by Shannon Lee

The 2014 UCI Costa Rica Research Symposium was hosted on May 6th, 2014 from 4:30 PM to 7:00 PM in Pacific Ballroom A and B. The symposium allowed each of the seventeen program participants to share the overall impact of the program and the research conducted in Costa Rica. The first forty-five minutes of the symposium was allocated to a short presentation consisting of video clips on what the participants encountered while abroad and the meaning of “Pura Vida,” the slogan of Costa Rica, speeches on the impact of the program, as well as a formal thank you to stakeholders, coordinators, and guests. After the presentation, there was still much time for guests to walk around and see the research each participant conducted.  Guests were also free to take delicious, sustainably sourced food provided by UCI Catering.

Shannon Lee explains her research to 2 of the attendees

Shannon Lee explains her research to 2 of the attendees

Although the symposium was only two and a half hours, an immense amount of time and effort was put into making the event a success. After coming back from Costa Rica, participants hit the ground running to prepare for the symposium, including completing their research poster boards in an effort to showcase their works in just five short weeks. This year, the program’s symposium committee expressed a desire to articulate each detail that would be presented in the two and a half hour event in order to truly explain the experience and the impact. For instance, the food for the event was supposed to be 100% environmentally-friendly. Unfortunately, due to the high costs, this goal was compensated with Greenware, compostable plates, cups, and forks.

Some of the participants throwing up a Zot at the end of the symposium!

Some of the participants throwing up a Zot at the end of the symposium!

This showed the committee that sustainability unfortunately comes at a steep price in a country that is not as sustainable as the parts of Costa Rica we had been in just six weeks prior. In addition, the music of the event was partitioned into two time periods. At the beginning of the event and prior to the presentation, the music consisted of music commonly listened to students today. This was a representation of the seventeen pre-trip participants, who would soon be immersed in the Costa Rican culture and nature. The music after the presentation was limited to the sound of the rainforests, expressing a vision of Costa Rica and the natural sounds that we heard over the course of our ten-day trip.
Alongside those details, the main purpose for the symposium was truly for the participants to share their research and lessons learned. Students not only had the opportunity to be fully immersed in the Costa Rican culture and learn about environmental sustainability, but also had the chance the do a research project. Topics ranged from the benefits of Human Waste Composting to the importance of nutrition in primary schools; from the reasoning behind living a sustainable lifestyle to the overall change in perspectives of the seventeen participants after the program. Overall, participants used this time to share what they uncovered and even shared a bit about their personal experience.

Some of the attendees enjoying the delicious food at the event!

Some of the attendees enjoying the delicious food at the event!

Although the research symposium was a short period of time, the impact from the experience of the program, as well as the teamwork necessary to make the symposium a success will always be remembered. We hope that those in attendance had the opportunity to not only learn a little bit about Costa Rica and environmental sustainability, but also were encouraged to take action in their community to become more environmental-friendly and culturally-competent.

There’s a First Time for Everything!

Written by Kelly Florimon

Kathryn and Toni's first time composting human waste!

Kathryn and Toni’s first time composting human waste!

During a long walk (in the wrong direction), I had some interesting conversations with my fellow teammates. One included a realization of all the “firsts” we’d had on the trip so far and of all the ones that were still in store for us. I am still amazed at how, in such a short time span, it felt like I had experienced infinitely more than I had in the past few months living my routine lifestyle back at home. The following list is my attempt to compile and account for all of the exciting “firsts” I experienced on this trip (in no particular order):

1.) Having my passport stamped for traveling to a foreign country.

2.) Getting lost in a foreign country!

3.) Holding a wild snake, cicada, and crab (not simultaneously).

4.) Eating cocoa fruit, guayaba (not guava), water apple, cashew fruit, palm fruit, and an egg fresh off the farm.

5.) Going ziplining (and then going ziplining backwards)!

6.) Seeing a wild capuchin monkey, sloth, toucan, poisonous frog, army ant colony, scorpion, crocodile, bat, lightening bug, turkey, and iguana.

7.) Weaving a basket!

8.) Harvesting cashews.

9.) Using a composting toilet.

10.) Staying with a host family.

11.) Learning about and seeing an aquaponics system.

12.) Having a frog jump on my back (and not freaking out about it)!

13.) Painting the outside of a building.

14.) Allowing a huge cockroach to crawl on my arm!

15.) Catching a wild lizard (to let it back out, into the rain forest).

16.) Not having access to a phone, computer, or iPod for over a week.

17.) Not being in contact with my family for more than a week.

18.) Spending a night in the jungle.

19.) Learning how to properly milk a cow (and then actually getting to milk it)!

20.) Sleeping to the sounds of jumping fish (Tilapia).

21.) Purposely walking in the rain without a jacket (and not feeling cold).

22.) Waking up at five in the morning just to see the sunrise.

23.) Dancing at the request of strangers (the children at the primary school we painted).

24.) Dreading the idea of returning home.

Jeff's first time behind bars!

Jeff’s first time behind bars!

It was pretty hard to not to add an exclamation point at the end of every event on my list because they were all pretty exciting for me. Each one brought me a new kind of happiness that was somehow different from the last. After talking with more teammates, I discovered that our lists vary drastically in length, specificity, and what one might consider usual. Despite these differences, however, we’ve all had the challenge of facing new, and sometimes frightening, situations. We each learned to embrace the ambiguity of life during (and hopefully after) this trip, and accepted these challenges with hearts full of optimism and determination.

Cesar's first time using a power drill!

Cesar’s first time using a power drill!

Upon returning to the United States, many of us found it difficult to share our experiences with friends and family in a way that captured all of the beauty, adventure, intellectual stimulation, comradeship and inspiration that was present. Although, my words and photographs could never compare to actually living these experiences, I’ve found my list of “firsts” so be a great source of conversation starters. Each “first” provides a little insight into my own perspective on how valuable the trip was. I hope that we all come as close as possible in explaining our complete appreciation of these experiences with others so that, they too, can be inspired to take action in their own communities and learn more about the world around them.

Marissa's first time smelling this seed!

Marissa’s first time smelling this seed!

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from this experience is that it’s ultimately up to me whether I make the most of every moment or not. Life is too beautiful to become so busy and wrapped up in the superficial world that you forget what’s truly important— happiness. Sometimes all it takes is a little time in nature or a meaningful, face-to-face conversation with another human being to remind someone how lucky he or she is to be alive. I could waste my spare time playing mindless computer games or searching the web on my phone, or I could use it wisely and go outdoors to help my mom with her garden, learn a new recipe, or spend some quality time playing with Rocky (my dog)—the choice is really up to me.

Alyssa's first time painting a building!

Alyssa’s first time painting a building!

I was initially dreading the idea of returning to my home in California, where I was afraid I’d quickly get sucked back into my busy, mundane lifestyle. After some thought, though,  I realized that each and every one of us has the power to make our lives here in the States just as happy and peaceful as our short, but wonderful lives in Costa Rica. If we truly take the time to stop and appreciate the little treasures in life, we can find a paradise closer than we ever imagined—right here, at home. In an effort to do exactly that, I’ve taken up the challenge of extending my list of firsts with every opportunity I get. I can’t wait to explore my surroundings (that I’ve neglected far too often) and discover what new “firsts” await! Whether it’s as daring as trying to learn how to surf, as challenging as trying to learn a new language, or as simple as starting a friendly conversation with a stranger, adventure awaits!

Olivia's first time eating raw cocoa fruit!

Olivia’s first time eating raw cocoa fruit!

 

Tranquil Costa Rica- A Video Compilation

By Olivia Carbonaro

Even though it has been over a month since we have returned from our adventurous journey to rural Costa Rica, the impacts it made on me still carry on. It is difficult to articulate in a short conversation how this 10 day trip changed my life and left footprints in my heart and mind. And since it isn’t quite practical for me to attempt to express to everyone through daily conversation how much I enjoyed this trip, I attempted to compile my thoughts and feelings towards the trip in a short 5 minute video. I hope you will take the time to watch this video and indulge in the pure simplicity and tranquility that my fellow participants & I got to enjoy while on our Spring Break trip. Please feel free to share this video. GRACIAS! 🙂

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLzUyDfmagA[/youtube]

More Than Just Primary Painting

Written By Cesar Armas

Primary school is where we first learn how to interact with other students, learn to read and write, and start to find things we enjoy doing. Having the privilege to visit a primary school in Costa Rica gave me the opportunity to return to my childhood by playing a game of “Helado” with the local kids, all while making a difference in their lives. While visiting the primary school, we had the opportunity to paint it. Painting the school with 16 other UC Irvine students gave me the chance to impact the future of the community members of the small town that had allowed us to stay with them for a week.  

In our everyday tasks here in the United States, one doesn’t realize what it takes to paint a school, because for the most part, our Unified School Districts do that job for us. We hardly ever see the work and effort that it takes to maintain a school, nor do we stand up and appreciate the work that has been done. The children of the San Miguel primary school gave me a new perspective on the importance of the little things that make a school run.

We started off the day with scrapping paint and dust off the walls, allowing for the new paint to be absorbed by the cement walls. Painting the outside of the building, the only two classrooms they have, and the cafeteria was an all-day challenge. We each separated into different groups taking on different tasks that included everything from laying out newspaper to painting the walls. We all recognized the importance of our work and we were eagerly ready to take on whatever task was thrown our way.

While painting the outside building, we surrounded students trying to go on with their routine of learning the daily lesson. It was extremely difficult for us to concentrate on painting because we all wanted to interact with the kids and they wanted to talk to us. As we continued on our work, we then had the opportunity to rotate out of what we were doing to interact with the students. While some participants had lunch with them, other participants (including myself) got the chance to play a couple of games with them. When I got the chance to hang out with the kids, they introduced themselves to me without any nerves and wanted to know who I was. They quickly invited me to play a game of “Helado” (freeze tag) and I along with the other Costa Rica Participants didn’t hesitate in joining in.

As the day went on, we took a lunch break and the students eventually left for the day. After our lunch break, four Costa Rica Participants returned to finish the job we had started while the other participants went on to work on different duties around the farm. We returned and went straight to work trying to race against the sun to finish painting before it went dark. We quickly finished painting and as we left back to the farm, the principal of the school couldn’t stop thanking us. He was so pleased with all the work that we did and couldn’t put it into words how much he appreciated all that we had done for the school.

When I look back at the work that we all did, I can’t help but feel accomplished and in awe of how much was done in just one day. We were able to completely paint a school for students that helped us feel welcomed and we created an environment that will inspire them to learn every single day. When you look at the literacy rate of Costa Rica being above 96%, you can only imagine that their schools are some of the best in the world. In reality, the passion for teaching the students about the world triumphs that of the actual condition of the school. Many schools in Costa Rica are left to be handled by the people of the community, which can be a big burden as they try and support their own lives. This made our work that much more meaningful because we essentially gave the students something that they would not have otherwise received. I, along with the rest of the participants, know how wonderful it was to see the faces of the children smiling with glee because they had the opportunity to interact with us and also received a new update to their school. Seeing this project from start to finish made us realize that we were not leaving behind a bad taste of tourist in the community, but a great share of what it meant for us to give back and a “thank you” for allowing us to be immersed in such a beautiful culture. 

I SPY DURing an Eight-Legged Adventure

Written by Alyssa Collins

Throughout the process of landing myself in one of the most bio-diverse countries on the planet with eighteen other students, I always considered the possibility that I would see more wildlife in Costa Rica than I could possibly imagine. Little did I know that I would be seeing many creatures that I had grown up having a major fear of and it didn’t occur to me how many times I would be seeing them. Before departing for the adventure of a lifetime, we had gone over logistics in class about the trip. We were told we would probably see tarantulas, as well as many other creatures, and my immediate thought was, “oh, dear God”. Then I thought, “if I see one, bring it on because I have to conquer my fear one day”!

So, that’s what happened.

It was brought on and mostly in the beginning parts of our ten-day adventure. The second day we were preparing for our daily activities at our lodge in Mastatal.  In Siempre Verde, I felt like I was at summer camp. It was such a wonderful feeling. My fellow classmates and I were down near the hammocks underneath the lodge and were talking about what the day might consist of, when a big hairy tarantula was discovered hanging out inside one of my classmate’s sandal. Now, you might imagine, “okay, this is a tarantula and it means no harm. Its just trying to find a place to hang out and do whatever giant spiders like to do”, but imagine if my classmate had put his foot into the sandal! The tarantula would have gone crazy and bit his foot off, or so I assume! The spider was not visible from the outside at all. Kudos to my classmate who discovered it was there, which is in itself another mystery. After trying to get myself to a position and good angle where I could take a picture of the hairy monster, I wanted to cringe as soon as I saw it. However, I made sure I held back because it wasn’t worth losing my breakfast over. I thought back to when we were in class and thought, “I have now seen a very giant spider, I don’t need to see any more.”

Spider Shoes

Tarantula inside a shoe at the lodge at Siempre Verde in Mastatal. Isn’t he cute?

Later that day, my thoughts had been totally jinxed–thanks to the spider gods! We went on a lovely hike down to a river not too far from Mastatal. The coolest thing about this river was there was a pool with a waterfall coming into it and you could go under the waterfall and peer out from behind it. There were about four or five of us in this pool and I had just come out from underneath the waterfall when one of my classmates told me to not freak out, because something was just on my right shoulder.  She pointed to a big spider the size of a small child’s fist. I don’t know if it was because I was in shock, but there was definitely a delayed reaction. Then finally, I screamed and left the pool like my life depended on it. Paranoia set in and I kept checking my shoulder if it had bit me. After awhile when I got over the fact that a giant spider had just been on me, I realized maybe spiders aren’t so bad after all. However, it is still clear as day in my mind how I felt during this experience, and I could go without reliving that.

The river we hiked to not too far from Mastatal and not too far upstream was a small waterfall.

The river we hiked to not too far from Mastatal and not too far upstream was a small waterfall.

The next spider encounter we had was a couple days later into the trip. We were painting an elementary school and those of us who had gone back to finish the school were somewhat surprised to learn that underneath the refrigerator in the cafeteria was a six-legged tarantula sized spider. However, this time for some reason I wasn’t as scared as I would have normally been. The spider was blocking our paint job, but we decided to work around it as well as we could and I was a good distance from the spider keeping an eye on it while still getting my painting done. If this were me back in the United States before the Costa Rica Program, I would have immediately ran away and never looked back.

The spider we found when we moved the refrigerator to paint the cafeteria of the elementary school.

The six-legged spider we found when we moved the refrigerator to paint the cafeteria of the elementary school.

I look back at our ten-day adventure in Costa Rica and analyze how this trip transformed me in a number of ways, and I am so glad that this trip has reduced my arachnophobia by a long shot. Seeing very large spiders on an everyday basis exposes you and you just get used to them. I don’t feel the need to run away every time I see one anymore. I am thankful to the UCI Costa Rica Program because before going on this adventure, I would have never expected to conquer one of my biggest fears.