The main reason why I chose Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) for my volunteer trip was its unique three-prong approach to volunteer service: Volunteer work, Cultural Exchange and Cultural Learning. I liked the idea that we would not only be doing volunteer work but also focusing on cultural exchange with the locals, residents and staff, and experiencing an assortment of cultural learning activities such as Latin Dance class, Tortilla cooking class, Spanish language classes, Costa Rica history and political class, Cartago city tour and tour of the countryside. This approach was fantastic because it enabled you to truly learn about the culture. The only downside was that it was extremely intense. Not a moment was free. Yet I felt like I had learned and experienced true cultural immersion in a very short amount of time. In fact, that week spent in Costa Rica felt like my entire summer spent doing an internship in southern France during college. In one week, I learned an incredible amount, much more than I learn traveling on my own for pleasure. It was similar to taking a college course. Amazing.
One evening we had a Latin Dance class at the CCS Home Base taught by a local Tico young man. Teaching in front of seven female volunteers, he truly enjoyed the attention he was receiving since he had quite an athletic build equipped with his own six pack and arms of steel. Apparently he was quite the ladies man in town and you could tell he just loved showing us American ladies salsa, tango, mambo, samba and meringue. Latin Dancing is something else. It takes guts and sex appeal to get your pelvis moving in such rhythmic beats, that’s for sure, and it actually is quite difficult. I had taken dance lessons as a child for many years yet there was no way I could master the crazy hip thrusts and multitude of turns required. We looked ridiculous and worked up a serious sweat after an hour lesson. But it was great fun.
We also did a short Costa Rican cooking class where we learned how to prepare fresh corn tortilla and the local drink agua dulce (sweet water) which is made from fresh sugar cane juice boiled in water. It was quite sweet (probably an acquired taste) yet of course worth a try. Ticos also use the sugar cane to make liquors.
I truly wished my Spanish was better because I would have loved to take home some of the recipes for the food we ate at the home base. However, most fruits and vegetables used in the recipes would have been hard to find fresh in the States. I enjoyed the mouth watering, overly ripe papaya beyond belief and and also truly loved having fresh pineapple and guava jelly on my toast each morning. Nothing was prepackaged. No preservatives. Everything was made that day and incredibly fresh. I wish there was some way I could spend hours in the kitchen each day to enjoy such natural, fresh food. It was paradise.
A highlight of our trip was our visit to the countryside and nearby Izaru Volcano. It amazed me that the city and the country were so close. Within fifteen minutes we left Cartago proper and were surrounded by lush, verdant green rolling hills complete with life. There were all sorts of vegetable farms and coffee farms along the way and it was incredibly beautiful. The countryside was so serene and so peaceful that it was hard to image you were so close to the city.
As we approached the volcano, the land became hilly and lush. You could see the farmers and laborers waiting alongside the road for their drive back to town and roadside sales of fresh produce that looked extremely enticing. What a life to eat such fresh, natural food! In the States, everything is so processed and it is difficult to get such fresh vegetables and fruit out of the summer season. It was a real treat.
We reached the Izaru Volcano in a carpet of thick, gray fog. I was so disappointed because the view of Cartago Valley was supposedly fantastic. Instead, we saw nothing except a nearby ocelot and the gorgeous flora and fauna blanketed in fog.
After our visit to the foggy volcano, we headed back to Cartogo with a stop at the infamous, legendary HAUNTED HOUSE. Per Santi, legend has it that the “Haunted” House was once a hospital for Tuberculosis patients back in 1914, then was turned into a prison later on. After the volcano erupted in 1963 the place was abandoned and has become a major tourist attraction ever since because locals believe it is haunted. We tried to go in it but it was closed due to a movie being filmed. The house reminded me of The Shining….It was very spooky looking, and the fog made it even more frightening.
Photo of the so-called Haunted House:
Santi also pointed out then the infamous Reina de la Noche, or Queen of the Night. Here is a picture of the sacred flowering plant below:
Supposedly it is an illegal drug that is smoked and gives hallucinations and quite an intense high. Obviously it isn’t very regulated. It grows freely along the country roads.
After the countryside, we headed back to Cartago and visited the enormous central market where you could buy all the wonderfully, fresh produce from the outskirts of town. Here are some pictures of the incredibly fresh and delightful market: