While hiking through the jungle in Hacienda Baru, I saw millions of ants crawling through the dirt. Our tour guides warned us about the danger of army ants as we crossed into their territory. I cautiously watched my step and avoided their trails because I did not want to destroy their home.
We were surrounded by army and leaf cutter ants as we made our way towards our cabins. I was accustomed to small, pesky ants crawling into my space and taking over my food. These ants were bigger than the black ants that invade my kitchen and sneak into my jar of honey.
The leaf cutter ants grabbed my attention because some of them were carrying giant leaves on their backs. The green leaves on the jungle floor appeared as if they were moving by themselves because the ants utilized their entire bodies to carry the leaves back to their colony. I kneeled down to catch a better glimpse and saw that small black ants were running throughout the trail. These ants were checking the different types of leaves for fungi and our tour guide jokingly called them “quality control”. Their job was to make sure that the leaves did not carry any diseases that could harm and potentially eliminate their colony.
The bustling trail only consisted of female leaf cutter ants. The female ants were considered the workers within the colony. I was reminded of Beyonce’s uplifting song empowering girls throughout the world to take charge of their own communities. The female ants provided their colony with leaves, berries, and flowers that served as materials for shelter. They carried these materials to the queen who was the biggest and most powerful ant within the colony.
The workers gathered materials far away from their colony because they wanted to stay dry under piles of leaves that created a natural umbrella during the rainy season. Some ants travel approximately 1/2 mile in order to secure their supplies. I did not know that the ants were blind because their trail paralleled a crowded freeway in Los Angeles, California. I was reminded of a freeway because of their ability to create lanes for different directions and move at similar speeds. Some ants acted as policemen because they quickly removed any unwanted leaves that blocked the roads and disrupted the flow of traffic.
Before this trip, I knew nothing about my least favorite insect. In my mind, all ants were annoying and scary due to their ability to crawl into small crevasses. I carried my negative generalizations about ants into Costa Rica and I now realize that my lack of knowledge fueled my fears. The tour guides provided me with armor against my greatest enemy in the jungle because they explained the daily lives of leaf cutter ants. My newfound knowledge allowed me to see that they were hard-working and motivated insects trying to fulfill their purpose within their community. Regardless of size, every living being has a place in the animal kingdom.
The experience was like falling down a rabbit hole to a world that seemed obvious but utterly new at the same time. I’m talking about watching a sunrise for the first time in my life. Yes, a simple sunrise that has happened every morning of my life for the past 19 years.
Yet only 10 days in Costa Rica taught me how to slow down my life and revel in a lifestyle so different from my own – a lifestyle in which I wished to sit surrounded by nature as the sun rose at 5:20 AM.
Every morning, our guide, Marcos,would take a group of us to a nearby mountaintop just across from his farm (La Finca SIempre Verde) where we were staying. Siempre Verde was located on hills that were very close to the sun every morning. On the last day on La Finca Siempre Verde in Mastatal, I decided to join the group. I witnessed my first sunrise as I sat separate from the group, notebook in hand and senses awaiting. I thought the process would be simple enough, but it was so much more different than what I expected it to be.
At first, the light spread its wings of rays of sunshine across the mountain tops, blessing the green canopy with its powerful touch.
Slowly, the wall of light expanded, and its light became strikingly bright as it looked over the mountains.
Then, the blaringly beautiful yellow light dominated everything in its path, and only from the top of the quiet jungle hill could I see the full prowess of the rising force that was the Sun.
It illuminated the world for all to revel in. And for the first time in my life, I became a real witness to this creation of wonder. As I looked at my surroundings now and then, the sun rose faster and faster until it was almost 90 degrees above us.
Around me, I saw tranquil layers of hazed blue mountains in the increasing distance as mist rolled over them. All around me I also heard random soft cracks among the tall grass blades, the sounds of chirping birds and animals and crickets always in the background. I was then conscious of the fact that I was bathed in warm, powerful sunlight.
Costa Rica provided a consummate and natural “silence” – I say that in quotations because it is a silence that fostered loud sounds of life while still inducing a sort of quiet euphoria.
I easily jumped to the idea of the power of the exotic “Costa Rican sun,” but later realized the sun hadn’t changed, but my mindset had. I was finally able to acknowledge it, enjoy it, and to not take it for granted. Sunrises are universal.
In Costa Rica, immersed in a culture of simplicity, a loving community, and the world seemingly at my fingertips, I realized that the sun is not just a sight or a break to enjoy outside the office or classroom, but it is a fact of life and a reminder of the beautiful world in which we’re entwined.Otherwise, the sun’s true beauty went unseen, unwitnessed, unreveled. Costa Rica gave me time to acknowledge and appreciate the sun.
This simple yet almost transcendent experience reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the Harry Potter movies:
“Happiness can be found in the darkest of places, if only one remembers to turn on the light.”
This new mindset allowed me to really look closer at something which I normally took for granted. Yes, I enjoyed sunshine every day at Irvine, but did I care enough to watch it enter the day, and sit alongside it? I was always a bystander, never an intimate supporter.
Because of howI viewed the idea of time while back in school, I used to think of the rising sun asalmost as a burden – a signal of an accompanying groan to yet another fast day as I wake up to another alarm.
I never turned on the light – I never had the time, nor did I ever think to take the time out, to observe something so simple like the sun – why would I? Mornings weren’t exactly fun.
Only when I was in Costa Rica did I begin living for the mornings. I woke up with my eyes bright and ready, ears metaphorically perked ready to hear roosters, cicadas, and very loud morning birds. These sounds became the commonplace music I yearned to hear before I even opened my eyes.I lived for the early beginnings, the day-long bird chirps and morning hikes, always excited for the glorious sun which would shine all day long.
Now, when walking on campus and feeling the soft sunlight of California, I salute my fingers up to that almighty Sun, now a friendly figure which I have had the pleasure to truly meet. But it takes more than just one meeting to preserve a relationship and respect a friend. I may not be able to be atop mountains every morning at 5 AM anymore, or salute it in a yoga tree pose, but until then, I know the sun will be rising and setting for many days to come, and I vow to join it soon in quiet, shared solace once more.
Upon arriving at Siempre Verde Lodge, our home for the next six days and five nights, I found it interesting that I had to take off my tennis shoes to take my bag up a flight of stairs to where I would be sleeping. Little did I know that having to take off our shoes was going to be a common theme during the rest of our stay in Costa Rica. I did not think twice about removing my shoes once I was told to do so, but I did not expect to have to take our shoes off as much as we did. It seemed like a hassle to walk a short distance and have to take off our shoes again, such as walking the 50 feet from the lodge to the kitchen for breakfast.
Whenever friends and family visit my house in California, they are always told to take off their shoes when they enter the house, so that they do not track dirt into the house. They are allowed to enter the house with their shoes on, and take them off and place them inside the entrance of the house. In Costa Rica, we had to take off our shoes as soon as the dirt path turned into the concrete or tile floor, which was often a few feet away from the entrance of the house.
I understood why I had to take off my shoes when it came to entering a house or other enclosed structure because that is the same thing I would do back home, but I did not realize that this applied to open air structures as well. When I had the chance to experience how much it rained in Costa Rica and saw the dirt caked to all of the participant’s shoes all of the time, it began to make sense. Once our shoes dried it was difficult to get the mud off and I can only image what a hassle it would be to have to scrub the floor ever time it rained to get all of the mud that is tracked inside.
At all of the farms that we visited there were shoe racks for people to place their shoes and even fixtures for shoes to be placed upside down. These upside down shoe racks made sure that no bugs, spiders, or any other creepy crawlies found a safe place to sleep for the night. When our shoes were not placed on the rack, we were advised to shake out our shoes before placing them on our feet to knock out anything that might be hiding in there. This is not a problem that we have back home because our shoes are usually kept inside when we are not wearing them, where there is little chance for a creature to get access to hide in it.
Costa Ricans want to take care of their open aired structures as much as I value my house back home. No one wants to have to put in extra effort to clean if they do not have to. Doing something as simple as taking off one’s shoes is a sign that you respect that person and their belongings. As for now, sit back, relax and take your shoes off.
When the bus dropped Olivia and myself off at our homestay in Mastatal, I walked up to the house feeling apprehensive. Marcos wouldn’t be here to translate, nor would the other students who grew up speaking Spanish, and our home stay mom, Lisbeth, didn’t speak English. It was just Olivia, myself, and my Spanish/English dictionary. We introduced ourselves in Spanish, Lisbeth spoke slowly for us and we were able to understand her as she introduced herself and her eighteen month old son, Isaac. She was finishing up dinner so we hung out in the side yard with her litter of two month old puppies, watching the sunset over the valley.
After dinner, we sat on the couch and chatted with Lisbeth in Spanish, occasionally looking up words. The television was on and I noticed that some commercials had a sign language translator in the bottom corner. Pointing, I asked Lisbeth why the translator was there and she explained that there was a law that mandated all political ads to have ASL translators to provide equal access to the information for Costa Ricans. This information led to a much longer conversation about politics and the electoral system in Costa Rica.
Elections began around November with each of the thirteen political parties putting forward one candidate. In February, the Costa Ricans vote on the thirteen candidates and the candidate with the most votes wins the election and becomes president.
This year, two candidates received twenty five percent of the vote so another round of campaigning was in place, which is why we were seeing campaign ads on the television in March. The two candidates had until the second round of voting on April sixth to convince the Costa Ricans that their view for Costa Rica was best.
This multiparty type of political system was wildly different from that in the United States and I continued asking Lisbeth questions about the candidates and their campaigns. She explained to me that each of the thirteen parties had different stances which made it difficult to choose a candidate. As an avid follower of politics in the U.S., I am very aware of the finance laws that govern U.S. campaigns and I asked her how campaigns were financed in Costa Rica. She explained that there was an organization within the government that handled finances for the campaigns. At the beginning of election season, each campaign was given a set amount of money, paid for by the government. There was no outside funding and all of the candidates were given an equal amount of funding.
Hearing this, I explained how campaigns are funded in the United States. Her first question to me was, “Doesn’t that cause a lot of corruption?” I had to admit that I thought it did.
Staying with Lisbeth and her family was the first time that I had ever been put into a position where the option of communicating comfortably in English wasn’t available. Although I was extremely nervous at first to have to rely on the Spanish I had learned in school, I soon realized that I understood the majority of what she said and she was able to understand my Spanish, even when I used the wrong verb tenses (which happened quite often). Her patience with my Spanish and her kindness in teaching me new words (hormigas—ants, murciélago—bat etc.) gave me the confidence to keep speaking.
Our conversations ranged from the elections in Costa Rica to the protests in Venezuela to her favorite telenovela, Avenida Brasil. I will miss chatting with her and waking up to a soft knock on the door and Lisbeth calling “Buenos días!”
The textures, aromas, and flavors of Costa Rican cuisine left an indelible mark on my expedition to Central America. Despite how simple or complicated the dishes were, every plate of food was perfectly crafted to deliver a satiating meal. The portion that I loved most was the fruit present in every course. The variety of exotic and tropical fruits in Costa Rica was vast, providing my palate with an assortment of sensations. The extensive list of fruit we had the pleasure of tasting included, but was not limited to, water apples, cashew apples, guaba, papaya, pineapple, cacao, watermelon, avocado, and plantains. Every fruit was unique in its flavor; some were particularly sweet, while others were reminiscent of aged cheese. During my food-tasting venture, I came across two fruits that I thought to be unforgettable.
I was previously aware of how cashews were harvested, but I was always curious about the fruit that was attached to each nut. The cashew apple looked extremely similar to a jujube fruit, so I assumed the cashew apple had a crisp bite, as well as a mildly sweet taste. However, when I bit into my first cashew apple I was stunned to discover just how different it was. The fruit has a fleshy texture and the taste reminded me of cheese. The idea of a fruit tasting like a dairy product was slightly unsettling but astounding at the same time. The aroma that the fruit emitted was overpowering and had a slightly foul odor. By no means is the cashew fruit repulsive, I just happen to prefer fruits that aren’t savory. As unique as the cashew apple is, it is a fruit that I probably wouldn’t seek to try again. Nonetheless, it is a flavor and texture that is worth trying at least once.
The guaba fruit is encapsulated in bean-like pods that looked vaguely similar to misshapen boomerangs. While the fruit looked alien in appearance, the taste was amazing. The edible part of the fruit is found on the seeds within the bean-like pod. The texture of the fruit can best be described as airy and light when it first hits the tongue, but becomes a creamy consistency as you break down the fruit. I cannot find the words to describe the taste of this magnificent fruit. It is mildly sweet while providing textural contrasts that progress from airy to creamy to chewy.
Every piece or slice of fruit I had in Costa Rica tasted far better than its counterpart back in Irvine. The pineapples, watermelons, papayas, bananas, plantains, and avocados were all vastly superior to the fruits that we find in our supermarkets. The natural taste, color, smell, and texture of fruits can only be fully reached when they are left to ripen uninterrupted. I am extremely fortunate to have tasted and experienced the wonders of how delicious, fresh and natural fruit can taste when the proper amount of time and dedication is put into growing it.
The open air houses scattered throughout the rural areas of Costa Rica made me realize how separated the inhabitants of first world countries are from nature. Growing up in a metropolitan city and currently living in Irvine, the thought of a house with no walls sitting in the middle of a rainforest had never crossed my mind.
Open air houses are built through precision-based timber frame construction, where wood is used as the primary material. The people who build these glorious structures have not had any formal education in architecture or construction; however, they have learned through other people’s experience and trust their intuition. This reminded me that there are many different forms of learning aside from that which takes place in a lecture hall—the main form of education which I, as a biology major, have participated in thus far. College education is still essential for my career path (pharmacy), but now I fully appreciate hands-on experience-based learning and find value in alternative forms of education. Not everyone is suited for traditional classroom style learning, nor is it available to everyone, and being able to recite equations or answer textbook problems is only a fraction of what is required in real life scenarios.
To build open air houses, carpenters in Costa Rica collect unwanted wood scraps (those that do not meet the minimum size requirement from companies that export Costa Rican wood), and by doing so they are reducing the negative environmental impact of deforestation projects, as well as their cost of building. Often, small cylindrical wooden dowels are used instead of metal screws to keep the structures together—a perfect example of people making-do with what they have.
As a society, we don’t need flashy extravagant marble floors, glittery wallpaper, or large flat screen plasma televisions to build a comfortable home. To me, open air houses symbolize the simplicity of happiness, and the importance of being non-disruptive to nature. Swinging in a hammock while gazing out the magnificent mountains of La Cangreja National Park, being softly cradled by the warm humid tropical air, and listening to the sounds of nature has brought me more internal peace and happiness than any of my other traveling experiences, which I now find are excessive and selfish.
I am ashamed to have been that tourist, who had the privilege to travel to many different countries, only to live in 5-star hotels, eat, shop, and then leave the country without having made any positive impact on the local community or learned anything. I strongly believe that traveling is the only thing we can buy that makes us richer, but the way I traveled with my family in the past just showed me that money buys good food, convenience, and service, which had absolutely no impact on my self-development and appreciation for everything I have. Seeing how minimal, simple, and clever open houses are definitely changed the way I want to travel and live life: no more expensive hotels, no more dream-yacht, no more trading social responsibility for convenience.
The owner of Rancho Mastatal shared that his motivation for building open air houses is being able to apply his love and passion for sustainability to a project that will do the greater good, and having that tangible result that will house volunteers and other tourists for many years to come. The first step in building an open air house is to “site the building;” you need to determine where to put the structure, figure out draining, consider landslide risks, how the sun moves to maximize natural lighting, which is used to power solar panels and substitute for light bulbs. Next, the house needs to be designed around the information from the siting process; factors such as air circulation and how the rain falls are accounted for. To build the structure, a foundation is laid down first, and then the wood is soaked in termite repellent, varnished and sanded down before being used. The measurements have to be exact in order for the structure to fit and for the “raising” process to go smoothly. Everything is built on the ground first, then “raised” or assembled afterwards. There is a lot of attention to detail, which I believe is more admirable, fascinating and impressive than using computer software to do all the calculation and planning. Open air houses are works of art; the builder incorporates their personality and life perspective into the structure. For example, one of the houses was called “Sea Port,” and there were mosaics of sharks, boats, and turtles made of recycled glass, and there were boat paddles and buoys hanging on the exterior walls of the house.
Walls of homes are used to separate nature from humans, to keep the animals out; however, we often forget that we are animals too, and just because we are at the top of the food chain it doesn’t mean that we get to disrespectfully exploit other ecosystems by demolishing their habitats to build our own. Insects do not infest our homes, but rather we are living in their territories and killing them with bug spray when they are trying to co-exist with us. Ant infestations are good because they clean out food crumbs and dead bugs, and once nothing is left they will leave. Since the residents of open air houses do not store any packaged processed food, they don’t need to worry about bugs consuming their food.
Open air houses caught my attention during the trip because they symbolized how humans and nature can coexist comfortably, safely, and sustainably. They showed me a completely new perspective of simple living and making-do with what you have, which unfortunately the first world is unable to do. We heavily rely on third world countries for natural resources because we have depleted our own sources, and instead of curbing our own usage we exploit other countries’ sources.
The day started when our group headed to “La Casa de Tiburon”. It begun like every other day we spent in Costa Rica—the schedule was very spontaneous and I never knew what to expect. The beautiful walk up to “La Casa de Tiburon”, or Tiburon’s House, the path seemed so unreal with the road filled by green scenery and bamboo trees. As the sun beat hard overhead, I decided to wear my Ray Ban sunglasses. Although not the best idea
to take these glasses on the trip, it was hard to leave them behind after I had taken them with me to every destination I traveled to in college. Once we arrived to the house, I was amazed by the structure, seeming less like a house and more like a vacation home, made from bamboo and other locally cut wood from the area. The first thing I did was rush to take as many pictures from the home looking out on the picturesque scenery of La Cangreja National Park in the distance.
I decided to head over to the bathroom and by no surprise, there was yet another composting toilet!
This one was a bit different, however, and not because it actually had a toilet seat, but because when I opened the top, down below there was a dark, black layer of 2-3 inch large cockroaches! I was astonished and decided to take a picture. Little did I know, I had forgotten that I placed my sunglasses on my head. As I leaned forward to take a picture of the cockroaches at the bottom of the composting toilet, my sunglasses fell into the 4-foot deep composting toilet.
I stood in shock, not knowing how to react to the situation at hand. Our instructor, Jennifer called over Ryan, one our awesome tour guides throughout the trip, and he tried to get my sunglasses out. Minutes passed by without success. I was creating such a scene because I did not know what to do, when someone suggested moving the toilet and reaching in to grab the sunglasses. I looked at the people around me and their looks said it all.
“Diego, how badly do you want your glasses?” Someone asked from the crowd.
I wanted them back so badly, and I knew I had to reach in the composting toilet, surrounded by cockroaches, and grab them. I posed for several pictures as I reached in—I then realized this would definitely be a story for the books.
This experience taught me about willingness to do new things, and how effective it is to push boundaries I never thought could be reached before. Much like every activity on the trip, I was pushed to challenge myself in many ways that helped me grow and see things from new perspectives.
Sometimes there are invisible boundaries, which we set up for ourselves that makes us stay enclosed and allow us to live in fear. Never have I ever imagined myself reaching into a compost toilet for something I valued so much. This program and specifically this experience sparked curiosity in me and I have taken away the value of “willingness” to find new life experiences that at the moment may seem challenging, but will turn into memories shared with other individuals I can reflect and look back on.
Prior to our 10 day adventure, navigating the world of environmentalism and Costa Rican culture, the 2014 Costa Rica Program participants were casual acquaintances—students who just saw each other for 1.5 hours a week. Through our weekly classes, we learned about cultural competency, how to become more environmentally friendly, and the Costa Rican culture. The 10 weeks of preparation for the 10 days we would spend in Costa Rica quickly flew by and many of us were in shock that our time had come to actually apply what we learned. Leaving Irvine, we left the “old” self and entered an entirely new culture.
Although we prepared immensely for this trip and knew a tad bit about what to expect in terms of scheduling, the 2014 Costa Rica Program participants learned far more than what we planned on, in terms of researching, growing closer as a group, and becoming more connected to the culture of Costa Rica. From learning about the composting toilet and its benefits, to our homestays in rural Mastatal, to learning how La Cangreja National Park was established, to becoming one with our environment, we were very fortunate to take part in this program. Ultimately, we were able to feel a reality that often becomes overshadowed by our day-to-day lifestyle in America.
While in Costa Rica, I felt like I was at the right place at the right time, standing before the sunrise at 5:20 AM or laying upon a log at night to see the stars. All of my struggles from winter quarter vanished because I had found a stability in nature that no one could take away from me. And best of all, I knew the other participants were experiencing the same warm feeling I felt within each of the 10 days. When the last day of Spring Break arrived, I knew it was time for me to physically leave Costa Rica, and I was sad. However, when I found out that we would have to stay in Panama for one night and arrive at LAX on Monday afternoon, the feeling was bittersweet. Although I did not want this adventure to end, reality struck me and, I knew I was already conforming to my previous mindset—of scheduling, planning, going to school… My mind was wrapped around my responsibilities that I would have when I stepped back on US territory. Even though our journey would continue another night in Panama, and I should have been excited. I wanted to go back to the states because I didn’t want to be behind in lectures and my old life. Our airlines ended up giving us hotel stay at the Hard Rock Hotel. Moments after we entered the hotel, many of us were in awe at the cleanness of the hotel, the grandiose food at the buffet, and fell in love with the view of the New York styled buildings rising high above the ground. Watching my fellow participants adapt back to an American lifestyle scared me. I knew I would have to face my old life, but it came way too quickly. And knowing consciously that I was adapting back to this reality scared me even more. I didn’t want to go back to my old life; instead I wanted to relive what I had in Costa Rica.
Natural selection chooses the best to survive and reproduce. In order to be naturally selected, one must be adaptable. It is exactly four days and forty-two minutes since we arrived at Mesa Court from our Costa Rica journey. I know I am adapting back to the person I was before this trip, but I am fighting hard to keep the adaptation that I gained in Costa Rica. Each day that goes by, I search through the 30,000 students and faculty at this school to spot the 20 people I really I want to see. Each day that goes by, I see the unnecessary luxuries that this culture has and reminisce. Each day that goes by, I can recall the vivid pictures of the sunrise in the morning and the bright stars shining at night. Each day that goes by, I might say that I do not want to be here, but it is here where my love for Costa Rica and my experiences must be shared in hopes of enlightening others of the reality that I saw and will continue to see here because I have my memories. We, the 2014 Costa Rica Program, have grown so much in terms of our knowledge of the environment as well personal development. Although our trip only lasted 10 days, it will continue on in our memories about our perceptions of self, because now we are different from who we were.
On March 31st, seventeen University of California, Irvine students stepped back onto American soil from their spring break adventures in Costa Rica. The cool Southern California air was a shocking reminder that we were now thousands of miles away from the humidity and orchestrated sounds of nature that we had grown accustomed to over the past ten days. Despite being our home, the US felt strange and foreign to us—no more composting toilets or scarlet macaw sightings in the early morning.
To many, a spring break in Costa Rica sounds like a traveler’s paradise. Resorts, beaches, and sunbathing come to mind. But the participants of the Costa Rica Program take a much different approach to their vacation time—a road less travelled, but arguably more rewarding. We started our journey in the country’s capital of San José, visiting the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica (the country’s national museum). We had not even been in the country for a day and we were already surrounded by an array of wildlife, including a number of butterflies and exotic plants.
After spending some time at the museum learning about the history of Costa Rica and admiring the view from the top of the building, we made our way to a local market and ate lunch. Experiencing such a crowded marketplace would be a drastic contradiction to the community we were heading towards. There were stalls selling backpacks, jewelry, pastries, and poultry. Our group ate inside in a small restaurant with room for several other customers. By the time we arrived there, most of us were hungry from walking around the museum and taking in all our new surroundings. Soon after, we piled into our bus with our two guides, Marcos and Ryan, to travel two hours to Mastatal, a small community near Puriscal County, where we would stay for six days. By the time we arrived, it was dark (the sun rises at 5:20AM and sets around 5:30PM). Marcos, a local of Mastatal, led us to Finca Siempre Verde, his sustainable farm and environmental learning center.
Siempre Verde is a farm like none of us had imagined. The notion of a traditional American farm with a large red barn and haystacks could not have been further from the reality laid in front of us. Marcos taught us the values of organic farming methods. Built upon hillsides, crops were carefully tended to via multiple cropping, as opposed to the monocropping culture we see in the US. While on the farm, we had to be careful walking to and from our open-air rooms to the composting toilet just a short distance away. While odd at first, we all became accustomed to lacing up our hiking boots before trekking to the restroom in the middle of the night. Some might find it peculiar to be using a toilet with no real walls, overlooking the mountainside, but it was actually strangely tranquil.
Our stay in Finca Siempre Verde was enriched through our interactions with farm volunteers from around the US and Marcos’ family. Time was spent building relationships with one another, reveling in the new experiences we had during every moment of every day. We spent time helping with farm chores, like collecting cashews from cashew fruit, cleaning out the composting toilet and distributing compost to trees throughout the farm, and making starfruit jam. None of our activities while on the farm ever felt purposeless, and we felt the need to do more. Some mornings, participants would wake early to help milk the cows or cook breakfast. We were eager to learn and participate in the inner workings of farm life in Mastatal.
Throughout our time in town, we had many opportunities to engage with the local community—a small town of about 150 people. Our first night in Costa Rica, we walked to the community center, a large room in the middle of the town, for their bingo night. While some participants were fluent in Spanish, we were all still a little nervous as to how we would communicate with the townspeople. It was soon apparent, however, that they were kindhearted, friendly, and good-natured despite us not being able to communicate as clearly as a lot of us would have wanted.
Mastatal is nestled along La Cangreja National Park, just another reason we were in awe of all the wildlife we encountered during every hour of the day. From small walks into town from Siempre Verde to more strenuous hikes up and down mountainsides, we were surrounded by chirps and buzzing that we were so far removed from because of our lives in suburban areas of California. Notably, the team’s first long hike down the mountainside was rewarded with a cooling swim in three natural pools and a small waterfall. This was just a taste of the amazing scenery and environmentally stimulating experiences we would have during the rest of our time in Mastatal. All of us learned to overcome physical and emotional obstacles, pushing ourselves past our established comfort zones.
The team was able to tour several sustainable family farms in the town, including La Iguana, an organic chocolate farm! All of the team members got to interview the people they met on the farms and during daily interactions with other locals to complete their research projects. What was so impactful about these tours was not just the innovation and creativity each farm used in developing their agriculture, but the dedication from each family member to our environment. When one member of our team asked on one tour if the family had ever thought about using pesticides on crops, the son giving us the farm tour said of course not. Respecting their surrounding environment was not an option, but a mandatory and ingrained part of their daily lives. Seemingly tiny changes to our daily routines, such as turning off the water in our outdoor shower while we shampooed and scrubbed our bodies, broadened our mindset. Taking care of the environment we were immersed in no longer seemed impossible or time-consuming. It was second nature to the locals in Mastatal. And soon, we all began feeling the same way.
Aside from our educational experiences about environmental sustainability in Costa Rica, all group members participated in a homestay program for two nights with local families from Mastatal. This cultural immersion experience was an integral part for our team, as many of them had never experienced a homestay before. Most families only spoke in Spanish, which made it difficult for many of us in the beginning, but we began to open up and become more confident in our abilities to communicate with one another. Our host families took great care of us and welcomed us into their homes. As someone who took Spanish in middle school, I was surprised by the amount of conversation I could understand. My host mother, Lusmilda, cooks for the local primary school, so we were well fed each night! She even caught cockroaches in our room by her bare hands when we screamed in shock (a common practice for her, but a foreign sight for me and my two tripmates). Her daughter, Priscilla, told us about her favorite television shows and movies (Spongebob Squarepants and Twilight were on the list). I was able to play children’s games with Priscilla and her two visiting friends, Rosita and Jimena. Regardless of the language barrier, their ability to accept and teach me new things was extremely uplifting. When we all regrouped as a team the following day, we reflected on our unique homestay experiences. Ultimately, the team all realized that despite our tremendous differences in ways of life, we had a lot of commonalities that bonded us together. The kindness and compassion our host families showed us remind me that while national and cultural boundaries exist, the connection each person can have with another when we examine our mutual values is so much more important. We left the family with gifts that we thought reflected our personalities, but it seemed unfair, as they gave us so much more.
By the time we had to leave Mastatal and made our way to the coast, it felt like we were leaving our home. Nevertheless, we moved forward to continue our exciting journey. The next stop was Hacienda Baru, a wildlife refuge in Domincal on the Southern Pacific Coast. First, we took a boat tour to learn about the mangroves and its impact on the ecosystem. It was a relaxing change of pace to our jam-packed schedule.
After, we headed to Hacienda Baru where we took our hiking backpacks and hiked through the mountains to spend a night in the jungle. All of us were a little nervous, but we excitedly took in our new surroundings. We spotted lots of birds and several sloths high in the canopy of trees overhead. As darkness settled in, we reached the campsite and ate dinner together. The activity for the night was a night hike led by our knowledgeable wildlife guides. Many of us did not know what to expect—what insects and snakes could we run into? But, we were able to push aside our doubts and worries, allowing ourselves to fully experience the nature around us.
In the early morning, the group hiked back down the mountain to Hacienda Baru, where we learned about environmental sustainability and the history of one man’s journey to forming the wildlife refuge we were staying in. Overcoming some of our fears (my fear of height, to be precise), we hiked back up parts of the mountain to go ziplining through the jungle. Our wildlife guides cracked jokes as we made our way through the eight ziplining courses. They were happy and warmhearted through every question, squeal, and inquiry we tossed their way. It was just one reason why I understood Costa Rica to be the happiest country in the world.
Ultimately, my time in Costa Rica with such a tightknit group of students, surrounded by birds and bugs in the jungle was the first time I truly felt an overwhelming sense of freedom. The motivation, commitment, and consideration found in only the kindest of people back home was lurking in every individual I came across in Costa Rica. No one was ever in a hurry—never talking to you but not really listening to you. People mattered, and so did the planet. That, in essence, is the biggest lesson we learned during our whirlwind adventure. That no matter how small, every person matters and every contribution they can make to create a more inclusive, compassionate world is valid and valued. That it really does not have to be so dramatic or difficult. That change is possible, and making our world a better place is something we can all do together.
The next morning, we left Hacienda Baru and piled into our bus one last time, making our way towards the airport. We stopped several times along the way to take photos and see crocodiles (they are much larger than I thought they would be!)
We arrived at the airport much quicker than I anticipated. We eventually had to part ways with Marcos and Ryan, the two staples in our long journey, and we were overcome with a sense of sadness. Walking into the airport, we waited to go through the routines of airport security. However, we hit a snag in our itinerary, as the airlines told us we could not board on our scheduled flight home. Instead, we spent a night in Panama, continuing our adventures and gaining one more stamp in our ever-growing passports.
It was there where we finally came to terms with going back home. We realized that even though we were leaving such a wonderful place, we were taking back a lifetime’s worth of insight and experiences we would not soon forget. And most importantly, we have a community to return to and a new group of friends that we can now call our family.
I hope you stay tuned for more exciting and enlightening blog posts written by our student participants.
Spring Break: the ultimate college rite of passage. Despite this fact, most of us sleep right through this break, not knowing what might have been. This year, myself and 18 others took a chance to discover the Spring Break less-traveled on our trip to Costa Rica.
Stepping off the plane, we were met with a blanket of humidity that none of us had ever experienced and 90+ degree weather. Needless to say, this alone would have been enough to shock our Southern California palettes. Add in farm living, bugs the size of your fist, and cold showers and it was safe to say that all of us were well outside of our comfort zone…at first. It didn’t take long for us to realize that all of these new things were merely part of the great journey we were about to go on. None of us had any experience living or working on a farm, and yet by the end of the first couple days, we were shovelling compost like the pros. While farm work is hard, we all seemed to agree that it was far more rewarding than our desk jobs back home. Something about seeing a project from start to finish, like when we painted an elementary school in a day, gave us the sense that our tourist footprint would not be quite as large or harmful as many others who visited the country.
Even when we had moments of homesickness, the UCI Costa Rica program combated this by providing each of us with a homestay. Each homestay represented a pillar of the community; while I stayed with the elementary school’s cook, 2 other students got the chance to stay with a master wood-carver. Not only did these homestays provide us with a sense of home, they also showed us some rather extreme methods of handling any bug that was bothering us. My host mom even grabbed cockroaches by the wings and gave them each a kiss to help us be less afraid. In case it was not obvious from that last story, our host families did whatever it took to make sure we left knowing the real Mastatal.
By the end of it, all of us were dragging our feet to get on the plane. The universe clearly channelled our displeasure with having to head back to the USA so soon, and dropped us off in Panama instead. That’s right, our connecting flight from Panama to LA was pulled right out from under us! Initially, this thrust many of us into a panic of how we were going to tell our parents, boyfriends and friends that we wouldn’t be home when we had said. And this is when it all made sense. The uncertainty of not having an itinerary, not knowing what time it was, and not being able to control our surroundings in Mastatal had prepared us for such a moment as this. It was as though the whole week in Costa Rica had been the quiz, and learning to adapt to our change of plans was the final exam. Our patience and understanding was rewarded with a stay at The Hard Rock Hotel-Panama City and a fully paid buffet. By learning to handle whatever came our way in Mastatal, we had breezed through Panama without incident.
The very next day, we arrived back in LA, trying desperately to process all that had happened throughout our trip. Driving up to the place where our journey had begun just 10 days before felt foreign. Eating with 2 people instead of 20 that night somehow felt wrong. Not even a week back yet, and we are all still figuring out how to reconcile the amazing things we learned with our lives here. Though I don’t yet fully know how to do this, I take comfort in knowing that there are 18 others just like me, trying to figure it out.