It was finally nearing the end of Minnesota’s infamous brutally cold, never-ending winters. Winter has never been my cup of tea. It is two things: Too cold and too long. Sometimes winter can last almost six full months making it hard to believe that anyone would ever choose to live here. Yet, somehow, like other hearty Midwesterners, I manage to survive.
Spring does not arrive until late April or early May. Usually we would get a few teaser days when the temperature is well above average, and everyone is out and about enjoying the weather. The lakes start to thaw, the birds reappear, and the snow slowly begins to melt making messy, splashy puddles everywhere. But before you know it, winter magically reappears and people return to their long, lonely hibernation. The winter-spring dance normally goes on for weeks until the ice on the lakes finally breaks free, the vibrant green buds burst into leaves and people actually come out of their homes. It feels like some kind of strange, yet predictable rebirth as life once again returns to Minnesota.
It is usually around this time of year, in mid-to-late March, that every sane Minnesotan is beyond stir crazy and is desperately seeking sun and sand. Airplanes become packed with pasty, white, hearty Minnesotans heading south. Schools close. Homes become empty and there is no one around. Many prefer to vacation in Florida or some other tropical paradise far away from anything white and cold. Others prefer heading south of the border to some luxurious or cheap beachfront hotel in Mexico.
For me, it was something similar yet different as well. Like many others, I was also headed south, too, where I would happily be wearing my sandals and t-shirts that had been tucked away for months. I was going to Costa Rica, but not to sit a beautiful beach and drink every worry in my life away. I was going on a different kind of vacation. A volunteer vacation.
Volunteer vacation? What in the heck is that? friends asked, wondering how on earth the two words could go hand and hand. Was it some kind of mid-life crisis? friends secretly wondered. Or some kind of “desperate housewife” kind of deal? Was she going mad? Although they didn’t exactly ask me these questions, their confused, bewildered faces clearly indicated what they were thinking. They didn’t understand me. They didn’t travel. Well, at least they didn’t travel to the places I wanted to go. And, that was the problem. Even my own mother found the idea strange.
So, why did I decide to leave my husband and two young children behind for a week and volunteer in Costa Rica? Perhaps it was a little of all the above….mid-life crisis, desperate housewife, mad or so on. But the real reason behind my decision was simply because I wanted to. I had always wanted to.
Ten years ago I saw the article on global volunteering and read it with high hopes that someday I’d be able to do the same. The stories all sounded amazing: Working in orphanages in Romania, teaching English in Tanzania, building a school in Peru. Experiences that would last a lifetime, and would make you feel like you were doing something great in the world, not just earning a meager paycheck or climbing the corporate ladder. I dreamed of someday volunteering abroad but I knew that it was impossible at that point in my life. I clipped the article, kept it in my file cabinet, hidden away for years, hoping someday I’d be able to do it. The path I was following in my life was typical for a young, college-educated American girl: Work, building a career, marriage, and then finally kids. I continued to travel internationally throughout the years with my boyfriend, then fiancé, then husband, but due to the pure lack of American vacation, I never did a volunteer trip (vacation was only two weeks per year given at start of a job and taking more than a week off at once was highly frowned upon—those lucky Europeans!). It was only when I had my children, they grew a little bit older (well, 3 and 5) and more manageable, that somehow or another I was able to pursue my dream of volunteering abroad. My husband knew how badly I wanted to do it so he miraculously gave me the green light. He would take the kids to see his parents in Virginia over spring break allowing me to travel to Costa Rica to volunteer.
So, after ten long years of hoping and waiting, I finally found myself seated in coach on an American Airlines flight headed off to Costa Rica. It was the last week of March which was the perfect time to leave. All my love for Minnesota had dried up long ago and I was looking forward to seeing the color green once again, which had been absent for months. I had never been past Mexico so Central America would be an entirely new place for me to visit. I was extremely excited albeit a little nervous as well. I was traveling alone and would be staying with seven other volunteers (strangers) for the next week, working together. Who were they? What would they be like? What if I hated the experience? Worse yet, what if I never got over my miserable cold and remain sick in bed the whole time? All these questions racked my brain, making me feel even more anxious than before.
The one thing I kept reminding myself was the last words I heard before leaving the States: Go with an Open Mind. That was the one final piece of advice our program manager from Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) said before ending our volunteer conference call. Those were also the words I kept reminding myself of over and over again when I learned what our volunteer experience would be. Keep an Open Mind. There are several volunteer opportunities planned at each site, however, due to the short length of our trip, volunteers going on the one-week “Insight” volunteer program typically do not find out what they are going to be doing until two weeks before departure. This way CCS can ensure that the project or work can be completed in a week making the experience more worthwhile. Thus when you sign up for a program with CCS, you are taking a leap of faith not knowing exactly what you will be doing but having an idea that it may involve one of the following opportunities: Working with kids at an orphanage, teaching English to children or adults, working at a hospital or place for disabled children, or working at a nursing home.
I was fine with all the potential volunteer opportunities except one: Working at a nursing home. I didn’t want to admit it but working at a nursing home seemed like the most depressing experience possible. In fact, it scared me. I didn’t like being around elderly people in wheelchairs, watching them wither away and revert to their infancy. I’m not a religious person either so death scared me. My only experiences with nursing homes had been negative. When I was a girl, I was on a dance team who used to perform on Saturdays at the local nursing homes, trying to cheer the white-haired residents up. It was horrifying. Then, in my twenties I watched both of my grandparents die in dark, lonely nursing homes. The experience was always the same. Depressing. So I secretly hoped that I would get any other assignment than that.
Our program manager at CCS must have known that working at the nursing home was probably at the bottom of most volunteers list. So she spent time setting it all up, emphasizing that before she told us what our volunteer work was going to be, that she wanted us to keep an open mind. (Third eye, right?). Those words sent chills through my bones because before she even said it, I knew. We were getting the nursing home.
When I told my family and friends that I had received my placement and would be working at a local nursing home for abandoned abuelas and abuelos (Grandmothers and Grandfathers), I tried to sound as upbeat as possible. It would be great, I said a little too enthusiastically. But I had my doubts.
When I arrived in Costa Rica, one of the first and most important things I learned was the importance of the words: Pura Vida, which literally means “pure life” or “full of life”. However, the words have a much deeper meaning and can be used to describe a peaceful, tranquil life free from impurities.
For the Costa Ricans, pura vida means everything and is truly their raison d’être. At first I was surprised to learn how frequently pura vida is used in every day conversation. It is used for both a greeting and a farewell, to express joie de vivre or simple satisfaction, to offer a difference of opinion or an agreement, or just to say “cool”. How could one simple phrase mean so much and so many different things? I wondered in awe and mystery. During a week long stint volunteering and living with the locals in Costa Rica, I was about to find out.