I had slowly drifted off to a deep sleep, thanks to the cold medicine, and was out cold when I heard the gate buzz. It was pitch black in my spartanly furnished bunk room save the pale, low light shining in through the cracks of the open windows. It was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop making the opening of the gates sound like the crashing sounds of the weekly garbage collection. I pushed the light button on my watch and it flashed the time of 12:15 am. Judging by the noise and commotion, our three other volunteers from Atlanta had finally arrived. Of course I was happy they arrived safe and sound yet slightly unhappy about the fact that I most likely wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep again for hours. Unfortunately sleeping in new environments is not my forte thus I usually have trouble when I travel. That is where a good pair of ear plugs, an eye cover and a sleep aid come in handy.
Everyone was woken up and went out to meet the new arrivals: Beverly, Ophelia and Jo, all from “hot Lanta”. They were a gregarious, loud, cheerful group of ladies that came from the most opposite walk of life as could be. I had never met a Southern Baptist before and now I would have the opportunity to meet three! It was going to be interesting to see how their faith played a role in the volunteer experience as well as being in Costa Rica during the most religious week of the year. I realized that I would be exposed to a lot more culture this week than originally planned.
I woke up Monday morning around 6am as the sun slowly began to rise over the Central Valley. I could hear birds singing cheerfully, something I had dearly missed over our long Minnesotan winter. I laid in bed for a few minutes enjoying the beauty of the birds’s music and also trying to access how I felt. Tired, disoriented and still sick. Bummer. I truly didn’t want to infect any of the nursing home residents (luckily I packed plenty of Purell!) The smell of freshly cooked eggs found it’s way along the long narrow corridor and filled the rooms, making my stomach grumble. It was the first day of our volunteer work and I was looking forward to it.
One by one, the other volunteers began to rise and the once quiet Home Base came to life with movement and noise. Excitement was in the air about our new arrivals and the start of our work at our volunteer site. We did not have much information on the nursing home, just that it was located here in Cartago, not far from the Home Base and had about 40 residents, all abandoned abuelas and abuelos (grandmothers and grandfathers). To most Americans, nursing homes are a fact of life and perhaps the most common route for the elderly. In Costa Rica, however, the entire family structure is much different. Generations of families live together. Adult children are responsible for taking care of their parents as they enter the twilight years of their life. Thus most grandparents live at home with their children and grandchildren all under one roof. This is customary so you can imagine the stigma on the elderly people who are abandoned from their family and have no place to go. Hogar de los Monos de Jesus Nursing Home was established as a place for these kinds of people to live and be cared for in a loving, faithful manner. The residents had no family to visit them. They only had the staff and each other. That was why the volunteers were so important. Besides helping with various odds and ends around the nursing home, the main duty of the volunteers was to interact with the residents and entertain them. As we would learn, this was by far the most important gift we could give: Friendship, Companionship, Compassion and Love. This was how we would make a difference in only one week. Something that seemed impossible but was within our grasp.
Allan, our driver, pulled the van up outside the Home Base at 8 am. Jose told us to gather up a big sack full of supplies to bring to the nursing home so we loaded in markers, colored paper, balloons, beauty products (for the ladies), books, music and other miscellaneous items. We were all dressed in t-shirts and long pants, the uniform required for working in Costa Rica. Shorts or short skirts were not permitted nor were tank tops or flip-flops. We had to remember that Cartago was a very Catholic place and the nursing home was religious-based meaning we were expected to dress conservatively. I was curious to see what the nursing home would be like and had very mixed feelings about the placement. Would it be depressing? Would it be hard? Would I feel like we were having any kind of impact on the residents? Would we be able to make a difference in only a week? These were all thoughts that raced through my mind as we winded around the narrow, serpentine streets of central Cartago.
Here are some photos of the CCS Home Base:
Inside the building, the long corridor lined with lounge chairs for reading and relaxing:
Inside the entrance to the Home Base:
One of my favorite things about the inside of the Home Base, all the wonderfully, inspiring quote written by past volunteers. Each volunteer wrote a quote and added a handprint to the wall before they left Cartago. I could spend hours walking around and reading them. Here are a few of my favorites: