I arrived at the airport by 2 PM and headed to the specified meeting point outside the arrivals gate, the blue phone. I felt a little jittery not knowing what to expect. All I knew was that there were going to be a total of eight volunteers on my program, none of whom I knew. Three women from Atlanta, two women from California (southern and northern), one woman from NYC, one young man from Miami and last but not least, myself. From our brief conference call two days before I left, I gathered that it was a diverse group and that somehow I fit in the middle geographically and demographically. It was going to be an interesting mix, that was for sure.
I was told to wear my navy blue CCS t-shirt stating loud and clear “Cross-Cultural Solutions International Volunteer” in big, chalky white letters but I chose not to. I wanted to blend in, not stand out. Plus I knew I’d find them, all standing there by the blue phone wearing the navy blue “International Volunteer” shirts.
I looked around, found the phone, but saw no navy blue t-shirt volunteers. I checked my notes. I was in the right place. I waited for a few moments in the hot sun, watched the chaos of the airport drop off scene in a third-world country (no need to say more) and finally got the nerve to test out my Spanish again and ask someone. Si, señorita (what an honor to be called that instead of señora!), I know who you mean. Follow me, the nice young Tico said. And he lead me to the CCS driver, Allan who brought me over to the big, green CCS van which said loud and clear Voluntariado Internacional in yellow and black, standout letters.
I got in the van and four others were already inside: Elena, a twenty-six-year-old from NYC, Brooke also in her mid-twenties from Southern California, Lindsey, a fun-loving adventurous young woman freshly out of school and from the Bay Area and finally Cassiano, our youngest volunteer who was finishing up his senior year in High School and from Miami. I was the oldest of the group, married and with two young children. Yet, I knew that there were three more ladies from Atlanta who were older than me and arriving that night. Thus I fit right smack in the middle, just like where I lived….the Midwest.
Our volunteer placement was located in the provincial city of Cartago, a sleepy, tourist free, laid back town, located about 14 miles (23 km) southeast of San Jose. Cartago is not a main tourist destination as there is nothing there to really see except for the divine Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, which brings in pilgrimages from all over Central America. However, Cartago has a very long, important history and significance to the Ticos because it was founded in 1563 as the original capital of Costa Rica. Cartago remained the capital for 260 years until Costa Rica won independence from Spain in 1821 and the capital was moved to San Jose. Today, Cartago is a quiet town of about 145,000 residents that is surrounded by rich, fertile farmland and the lush Irazu Volcano National Park. Despite all its beauty and appearance of high living standards, like other Costa Rican cities Cartago finds itself a place of complexity and contrasts. Many people there live a relatively comfortable, happy life however there are plenty of “have nots” who are lack education, jobs and money to provide for their families. These inequities have lead to an increase in prostitution, alcoholism, domestic violence, and removal of children from homes—-big social issues to tackle for such a Catholic country who is one of the leaders in Central America. The downturn in tourism has also greatly impacted the people of Costa Rica since many businesses and people rely on tourism for their main income. This has had a trickle effect for the people of Cartago who are even less tourist-based that the resort towns.
The trip from the airport took about 45 minutes, passing through a few towns until we finally reached the outskirts of Cartago, a multitude of windy, maze-like streets. The four strangers and I freely chatted away, comparing notes about our lives and hopes of our experience in Costa Rica. My anxiety dissipated as I quickly realized that these people, although we were all different, were somehow the same in a sense. We all love adventure, love travel and wanted to somehow try to make a difference in the world. That realization somehow made everyone at ease and the 45-minute ride passed us quickly by.
We arrived at the CCS Home Base (an old school converted into accommodations for the volunteers) and parked outside the heavy wire gates of the entrance. We couldn’t see into the building so it was hard to guess what it was like inside. Would it be livable for a week? was a question on everyone’s mind. What was the neighborhood like? another question we all wanted to desperately ask since there was no sign of life on our street: no people out walking, no stores, no restaurants, no bars….nothing, except houses hidden behind gates.
The driver rang the security buzzer and the gates slowly clanged open into the hidden courtyard of the building. Like many buildings in Costa Rica, they are completely enclosed from the outside with heavy gates and walls offering protection from the dangers of the outside world. Crime, especially petty theft and break-ins is rampant, so sadly most Ticos live in a prison-like fortress, equipped with gates, barbed wire fences, security and alarm systems. From the outside, you would never guess that people actually live inside and that there actually is a sun-filled, beautiful, peaceful courtyard inside. It is quite a strange cultural difference for a Midwestern gal who grew up rarely locking her front door. But this is a sad reality of life in Costa Rica as well as many other parts of Central America, that was important to see.
Once inside, we were welcomed by Jose, the Country Director for CCS as well as the rest of the staff, Lucy the Office Assistant, Olga and Ana the cooks, and Santiago and Oscar the security guards who maned the fort from sunset to sunrise. Everyone seemed extremely nice, sunny and laid-back, encompassing the true Tico cultural identity.
The CCS Home Base would be our home away from home while we were in Costa Rica. We would eat there, sleep there, and spend our free time at nights there (since apparently it was not recommended to leave alone at night especially without a male companion which there was only one out of all seven of us volunteers….this was something new for me which I will comment on more later!). The Home Base had seven rooms containing 6-8 bunk beds each meaning CCS could accommodate up to 40 volunteers. Since there were only eight of us total, I shared a large room of bunks with only one other volunteer. The others were equally lucky.
The Home Base also contained a large dining area, a gathering/living room, one male and one female bathroom with hot showers, and an long, open chair-lined courtyard for relaxing and reading. It was a nice, homey place and I knew that I would feel comfortable there for my week’s stay (except maybe for the lizards running across the bathroom floor or the Costa Rican spiders climbing on the walls….a norm for anyone living in Costa Rica).
After settling in, we had our first homemade Costa Rican meal and let me tell you, it was absolutely delicious. Everything of course was made from scratch. The arroz con frijoles, the yucca-based casseroles, the dripping, juicy papaya salads and the fresh, soft breads. I was in heaven and would be extremely well-fed for an entire week.
After stuffing our bellies, it was time for our first CCS Cultural training session given by Jose, the Country Director. Part of the appeal of volunteering with CCS is that they combine volunteerism with cultural learning and exchange. Thus, the morning part of the day is spent volunteering and the afternoon is spent doing a variety of cultural learning and training sessions such as Spanish language courses, Latin Dance classes, Latin cooking classes, city tour, and visit to a nearby volcano and national park. Although the schedule was crammed and we were busy every second of the day, it was the most intense, learning experience I’ve ever had and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
For the next hour and a half, Jose highlighted the political, historical and cultural nature of Costa Rica. It was fascinating even though we were all exhausted and stuffed! We learned about some of the main problems in Costa Rica such as illegal immigration from their poorer neighbors, sex trafficking in the resort towns, poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, and hopes for a better future. I felt like I was back in school again! I love to learn and especially enjoy hearing what is going on firsthand from a native.
We went over the schedule for the week and then around ten o’clock headed off to sleep. The three other volunteers from Atlanta had yet to arrive (their plane got delayed) and we had to wake up at 6am to start our day. Rumor had it that the three other volunteers were all Southern Baptists (one even a preacher!) so I was extremely interested in meeting them. The next day was going to be a treat!