Do you ever really know something without experiencing it first?
That is the question that continued to appear in my mind as I went through challenging, yet thought-provoking experiences. After flying all night and spending the day driving up and down beautiful mountain ranges on bumpy dirt roads, I still had no idea what was in store for me during my time in Costa Rica. I knew we would be staying on a farm, but what does that mean? Will we be living among the farm animals and fruit trees? Where would we sleep? How will I survive with so little sleep?
“And they don’t speak any English”, our tour guides said to us as we were being assigned to homestay families. I was frightened to say the least.
This was going to be the first time during the trip that I would be separated from the rest of the team, and I spoke almost no Spanish. Luckily, I was partnered up with Lupe, one of the student coordinators, who could speak Spanish. But I was still worried about being unable to connect with my homestay family. I didn’t want to bother Lupe by asking him to translate for me every time I wanted to communicate. On the other hand, I didn’t want to just remain silent and lose the opportunity to connect with the locals and immerse myself in Costa Rican culture. Continue reading “Beyond the Language Barrier”
The back of my throat was on fire as I tried to catch my breath and hold back my tears. My trembling hands held the quickly, scribbled note reading “it’s going to be ok”. The plane had left us and the panic was bubbling up to the surface, I looked at Claire and we both stared at each other in shock. My feelings of guilt, uncertainty, and fear were mirrored in her eyes. Here we were alone in the Mexico City Airport – just two foreigners with mediocre Spanish speaking skills, low funds, and limited knowledge in international travel. Needless to say, things weren’t looking too good for us. Despite the odds, we survived to tell the tale. So if you ever find yourself in this situation, here are some guidelines for survival.
Have you ever tried a food you’ve never had before or have you ever raced against a friend to see who was the fastest? Have you ever talked to a stranger or asked a random question in class? Have you have felt a bit of nervousness going into something and decided to do it anyway?
Our recent trip to Costa Rica was, well,… AMAZING to say the least. We laughed, we learned, we explored, but we were also challenged. We were challenged to be vulnerable and to really put ourselves out there. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily label myself as a “wallflower,” but I’m definitely one who enjoys observing more than participating, and enjoys listening rather than talking. That being said, when we first arrived in Costa Rica I was immediately faced with my first challenge of the trip.
My first real challenge happened in a park in the center of town. Many locals were sitting on the benches and enjoying their Saturday morning talking to each other, playing board games, people watching etc. It’s definitely not something you see often here in California. It was such a relaxing environment to be around and it felt like no one had any worries. Not only that, but there was a music festival happening as well. A live band came to play in the park where a rather large crowd of people gathered around to listen, dance, and enjoy the music. It was beautiful. I loved watching everything that was happening around me, but that was just it: I loved watching. I loved seeing the vibrant colors everywhere, listening to the music playing with laughter in the background. Continue reading “Travel Tips for the Wallflower”
As I walk down the plane aisle looking for my seat, I become aware of the low murmurs of Spanish conversation around me. Attendants greet me in Spanish as I pass by. I start to feel the slight beginnings of apprehension. This isn’t like Spanish class! People talk faster than I’m used to and from where I’m standing, I can’t hear one sliver of English dialogue at all.
It’s not until the attendants give flight safety instructions that I hear English again and it’s only a translation of the Spanish announcements. During the plane ride to San Jose, Costa Rica, it slowly begins to sink in that we’ll be immersed in Spanish for the next week and a half. It’ll be my first time in an environment like this for a prolonged period of time.
When I was 6 years old I played in my first soccer game. I will never forget the day I received my “team purple” shirt; the first soccer jersey I ever owned. The purple jersey was a tad large for my little frame, but it was absolutely awesome nonetheless. I remember wearing it the whole day and night before the game and imaging scoring a goal for the first time. To this day I have never been so anxious to get on the field.
Finally, the time came to play and the referee started the game.
The next hour or so ended up culminating in one of the single greatest memories I have of my entire life. I went on to score the winning goal in the last play of the game. Since that cool Saturday morning at my local city park, the beautiful game of soccer has continued to be the most positive influential aspect of my life, presenting me with lasting friendships, teaching me the importance of teamwork, showing me how to win and lose, and also guiding me towards opportunities that I could only dream of as a child.
Our second day in Costa Rica we were given the opportunity to hike in the jungle. In order to reach the cabins where we would sleep for our night in the jungle, we had to hike about two hours, led by local guides Deiber and Rigo. Once there the team split up into two groups: one group would embark on a night tour of the jungle, while the second group would stay and have dinner before going into the jungle.
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!