The Handprints

One of the first things I noticed when I walked into the CCS Home Base in Cartago was the handprints. They were everywhere. Coated across every wall in every room (including the bathrooms!) and covering every single empty space, making them hard to miss and hard to resist.

Every single volunteer that comes through CCS Cartago’s door is invited to paint their handprint, artwork and a quote on the walls of the inside of the home base before they leave. The handprints represent the mark they made in Cartago and I found it truly inspirational to read them. Not an ounce of wall was free from art, quotes, poetry, songs, handprints and names of past volunteers. I could not believe my eyes and would spend any free moments I had during the week reading the walls and reflecting on what each volunteer had said. I also had to think about what I would want to say before I left and where in the heck I would put it since the free space was very limited.

Reflecting back, of course I was very skeptical about the impact I’d have on others in only a week’s time. However, by the end of my week volunteering I was pleasantly surprised to see that all my doubts were proven wrong. I knew I had made a difference in the smiles and hugs I received by not only the friendships I made at the Hogar Jesus de los Manus Nursing Home and Dona Melba’s foster children, but also in the cultural exchange and friendship I shared with the staff at all places including the CCS Home Base (Santi, Jose, Lucy, the cooks and the security guards) and the volunteers as well. However, by far the most surprising thing of all, was that I realized that I received a gift as well. The gift of an overwhelming sense of satisfaction, contentment and joy by the power of giving back. That is a gift that will forever change me and continue me on my path to somehow, if even small, make a difference in this world.

I thought about the quotes and what my week long volunteer stint had meant to me. It meant many different things. Beautiful, compassionate things about how one can truly make a difference, even if it is small, by just giving someone in need a smile or a shoulder to cry on. The fulfillment and joy received by helping people who can’t help themselves due to poverty, abandonment, disability, drug or alcohol abuse or simply old age. In our busy lives back at home in the States, yes of course we have problems, yet it is easy to loose sight of the bigger picture in the world and all those people who are suffering and could use our help. That is what my week volunteering in Costa Rica taught me. That anything is possible and that anything can help. I feel I can no longer travel without giving back, whether it be volunteering, making a new friend abroad or raising money at home to donate to a local NGO in the country I’m visiting. This is my new mantra and raison d’être. I can no longer be just someone passing through. When a place shares their country and all its wonders with me, I am obligated to give back something in return. That is the promise I made myself after Costa Rica. Now it’s time to start fulfilling my dreams!

Here are some of my favorite quotes that touched me deeply:

Handprints at the front entrance:

Handprints leading into my bunk room:

This is a photo of Cassiano and Lindsey, two fellow volunteers, painting their quotes on our last night in Cartago:

Their quotes:

Here is my quote:

Here is a picture of the entire volunteer group in Cartago:

More pictures of the volunteers:


P.S. For those who are wondering….where is she off to next? I am heading out April 15th to Rabat, Morocco to complete another international volunteer program with Cross-Cultural Solutions. I will be working with Moroccans and African Refuges on learning English. Stay tuned!

Central America Costa Rica SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

Holy Week on Speed

When I booked my volunteer trip to Costa Rica I picked the week that coincided with my children’s school Spring breaks. I would be coming home the day before Easter and that would be give us enough time to have a nice meal Easter Sunday and hid some eggs for the kids. I had no idea that the week before Easter, Holy Week, was one of the most important weeks in the Costa Rica, amass with celebrations, parades, religious processions, fireworks, theater and plays, all in the name of Jesus. Thus you can imagine my surprise and delight that first day I spent in San Jose, Palm Sunday, to see the true meaning of Holy Week on Speed! (Sorry if I offend the more religious types).

The entire week was full of celebrations. As I mentioned in an earlier post (“Fireworks at Noon”) fireworks and processions were huge, day and night. Santi and Jose told us that there would be events occurring every eventing in Cartago and San Rafael and they were indeed correct. A couple of nights we heard the approaching beat of a marching band and were delighted to see a candlelight processional right through town. We also went to a gorgeous candlelight quartet in the Cultural Center and viewed the masses of pilgrims coming to the infamous Basilica daily. It was quite an experience!

Towards the end of the week, San Rafael (the more religious part of town) set up and staged an entire reenactment of The Last Supper. It was held at 8 pm after the sun had set and all light up by candles and torches. Practically the entire town was there with children in tow, watching in awe. The play lasted over two hours and of course I couldn’t understand a word (it was all verses from the Bible in Spanish—a double whammy for me) except the Spanish “Jesus” over and over again. The grand slam of the week was supposed to be the reenactment of the Crucifixion. But I was going to be on my plane ride home to the States so I would unfortunately miss it. Here is a photo of the setting up of the stage:

What the most ironic thing of all about Holy Week was the ban on alcohol. I thought Minnesota’s laws were strict such as no alcohol sold on Sundays and no alcohol sold in grocery stores (not even wine!) but I was completely thrown off guard when I discovered how strict the Costa Rican’s view alcohol (even wine and beer) during Holy Week. All alcohol sold in restaurants, bars, and stores is completely banned from the Thursday before Easter until noon on Easter Sunday! I had never heard of such a strict enforcement anywhere (except of course the Middle Eastern countries which I haven’t had the opportunity to visit yet). The most ironic thing of all is that we were not allowed as volunteers to drink even a glass of wine throughout our week in Cartago, given it is a very religious town and it would not look good having the volunteers partying in front of the locals). However, once we hit Friday night we were free to do as we wished since the program was over. We searched and searched for a place, even a simple restaurant, where we could order a beer or just a single glass of wine and were refused everywhere. Not one single place in or out of town could serve even one glass. It was strictly enforced everywhere. It would have to wait until the plane ride home to the States!

Despite the alcohol ban, we of course still found other ways to celebrate. Friday afternoon, after our volunteer work was completed, Cassiano, Lindsey and I hired a driver to take us to the nearby Tapanti Rainforest. It was only supposedly only an hour or so away but wound up taking a lot longer due to the road conditions near the park (i.e. mostly gravel). But we didn’t mind, we were on an adventure and excited to see the flora and fauna that Costa Rica is world-renowned for.

Our drive took us to a beautiful lookout area above Cartago city. Here is a picture of the city laying within the lush, verdant valley:

As we headed towards the park, we passed through a small, lovely village called Orosi. It is about a forty minute drive from Cartago and home to Lucy, the CCS Office Manager. We stopped in Orosi to visit the beautiful, main church which was of course preparing for the upcoming Holy Week Festivities. Here are some pictures of lovely Orosi:
The town square (note the homes going up the hillside):

The main church:

The stage for the upcoming reenactments and plays for Holy Week:

After our visit to Orosi, we got back in the bumpy cab ride with our driver who didn’t speak a lick of English and continued along towards Tapanti National Park. We passed coffee trees going along the way and saw farmers harvesting the beans. Here is a picture of the coffee trees growing right along the road:

We kept thinking we were getting near the park but it was taking forever. We asked the driver how much further in our broken Spanish and he continued to say not much longer. To our dismay, it was getting close to three o’clock which was much later than we had expected. The paved road mysteriously ended and signs of civilization disappeared. The sun was lower in the sky and we were getting worried until we finally saw a sign for the park. We continued on a gravel, bumpy road for almost an hour, my stomach churning due to the motion, and then we finally saw it: Tapanti National Park. Relieved, we got out of the car to pay our entrance fee to the park and saw that the office was closed! The signs at the park said open until 4 pm. It was 4:05. After three and a half hours riding in a hired taxi cab, we were going to get in, somehow. Luckily, Lindsey knew some Spanish and with the help of our driver was able to convince the guard to reopen the park just for us. One hour, we promised, and the gates were opened.

Tapanti was indeed everything a rainforest should be, except the hidden monkeys (which we heard in the distance but did not see). It was lush, wet, and full of life. We walked around for our allotted time, snapped some pictures and enjoyed the silliness of our adventurous day. It was of course raining so we didn’t get much in the way of pictures but here are a few to give you an idea of the misty, secluded rainforest:

A giant mushroom:

The misty view of a hidden waterfall:

A rambling brook:

And finally, the gravel road leading out of the park at dusk:

We were back in the taxi by 5 PM and were not looking forward to our long drive back. Our adventure ended up costing us about $150 but was well worth the trip. We dreamed of having an ice cold beer that night but to our chagrin, the entire country was in an alcohol lockdown. It would have to wait until the plane!

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The House of Children

Volunteers were not needed Friday morning at the nursing home so instead Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) arranged another volunteer opportunity for the day. CCS works with a variety of different non-profits in Cartago and places their volunteers on an as-needed basis. When you sign up on a CCS volunteer program, you do not find out exactly what your assignment will be until two to three weeks before departure. You have an idea of what it may entail. Normally CCS volunteers work in nursing homes, hospitals, orphanages, centers for disabled children or adults, or teaching English. Thus, when you sign up to volunteer you know it will be one of the above programs. The in-country home base typically evaluates the needs in the community and at each agency to see what the best fit is for the available volunteers. For our week-long program, the nursing home was the best match for the given amount of time and number of volunteers. However, Friday we were not needed thus Santi and Jose found another, exciting opportunity for us: Taking the 35 foster children of Dona Melba’s foster home to the park.

Dona Melba and her husband were well-known throughout Cartago as a wonderful, caring couple who had established a foster home for unwanted, abandoned and abused children over 25 years ago. Their family began slowly, taking in a few children here and there who needed homes and over time grew into a large, close-knit family of adopted and foster children all under one roof.

We had received an update from another volunteer named Julia who was an early high school graduate from St. Louis, Missouri spending three months in Cartago volunteering with Dona Melba’s children. It was a chaotic household with children of all ages and varying degrees of emotional and mental stability living in a small house and being cared for by only Dona Melba and her husband. Occasionally, they would receive local volunteers and ones from other international organizations but most of the time they and their 35 children were on their own. You can imagine the work involved in caring for such a large household. Laundry was done all day long in a large room with piles of washed and folder clothing assorted by age (this was the easiest way for children to find clothing. No one had their own clothing. Everything was shared). Cleaning and work around the house was taken care of by the older children in the family. Cooking was also a shared job by the older children which took hours.

Having two young children of my own, I couldn’t even fathom how much work 35 kids would be! I asked Julia tons of questions on our ride to the home. Over the last three months working with the children, she had become extremely attached and was very concerned about leaving them soon. She knew the ins and outs of each child and told us some of the most devastating, tragic stories of their young lives before they were saved by Dona Melba.

One boy, Alain, had an alcoholic mother who never fed him as an infant and abandoned him barely alive at Dona Melba’s doorstep. There was not even a note. Obviously, he was in poor health and was seriously malnourished which had lead to brain damage. At age eleven, he cannot talk, cannot eat unassisted and struggles with his motor skills such as walking and catching a ball. I spent some time hanging out with him at the park and he was a lovely child who was fascinated by tearing off weeds and throwing them into the creek and watching them float away. He would smile, frantically jump up and down and grunt in pleasure. It was heartbreaking but at least I knew he was loved and cared for with Dona Melba.

Another girl was named Anita who had also been abandoned in a terrible state. Dona Melba found her completely battered up. In a rage, her parents beat her up at two years of age and hurt her so badly that they broke both of her legs. She was rescued by Dona Melba and would not speak or smile for years. A year ago, a CCS volunteer from New York worked with Anita and felt compelled to do something about her terrible situation. Fortunately, her father had connections with a surgeon in NYC and they were able to raise enough money to fly Anita and Dona Melba to New York for surgery that enabled her to finally walk! Although she isn’t perfect on her feet, at least this special little six year old girl can finally get off her hands and knees crawling and walk and play like the others! It was quite a story and brought tears to my eyes.

Then there was Cesar, another disabled child, who was in his teens but was mentally about the age of four or five. He loved playing ball with the volunteers and loved the special attention. To think that this child was abandoned and mistreated just because he wasn’t perfect made me sick. It made me realize that we are all humans.

The morning at the park was delightful. We played ball, chased balloons, ran after the children and enjoyed their imagination and laughter. It was a special day. In light of the horrendous stories and tragic backgrounds, these children had hope. The love and care that they received from Dona Melba, her husband and the endless amount of volunteers flowing in, lead me to believe in the resilience and hope of the human spirit.

Here are some pictures from our visit to the park. In order to provide protection for the kids, I will not include any of their names. The beautiful, serene park:

The beautiful children from the foster home:

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Life and Death in a Costa Rican Nursing Home

We spent our last day at Hogar Jesus de los Manos preparing for a big celebration. It was one of the resident’s ninetieth birthdays and as with all birthdays at the nursing home, it was celebrated with a grand ole party for all. A large sheet cake was ordered, balloons and decorations were put up, and music was played. Every able resident (save the ones who were bedridden or on their final days) was to attend and excitement was in the air the morning we arrived for our last day of volunteer work.

As we were preparing for the party we heard the sirens approaching. My heart sank. I knew only too well what that could mean. One of the gravely ill residents, Franco, had passed away. I knew it could happen. We were at a nursing home. Yet for some reason it caught me off guard. We were having so much fun with the residents that death seemed miles away even though many of the residents didn’t have much time left on this earth.

The day before Eduardo had us visit Franco, hold his hand and say our farewells. He was dying of cancer and the nurses ensured us that he wasn’t in pain. Yet there was something lost and far away in his eyes that made me deeply sad. His skin was pale and he was extremely frail. I searched his eyes for something but they were staring blankly into space. I grasped his limp hand, held it tightly and said goodbye. I have not idea if he felt anything yet I hope it at least gave him a little peace before he left. A priest was called to give Franco his last rites and floral arrangements were ordered for the chapel. There would be a funeral the next day, in the afternoon, after the birthday party and after we left.

The death put a more serious tone to the day yet the party was still to go on. While we were decorating the main foyer workers were simultaneously decorating the chapel for the afternoon funeral. The irony between life and death was uncomfortably present yet quietly accepted.

Throughout the day I reflected on how amazing it was that we were able to so quickly make wonderful bounds with the residents. I had initially thought a nursing home placement would be very depressing but I was completely surprised. The residents were very peaceful and were cared for by a very loving, caring staff. Each resident was treated with utter respect and dignity and love.

On the last day, we were able to take some photos of our new friends and I took the opportunity to get some of my favorite residents.
Here I am with Javier, one of my favorites.  He would go on and on about how he had traveled the world and was half American, speaking fiercely in Spanish and English.  His stories were always the same and he obviously forgot half the time that he just told you the same thing two mintues ago.  He was full of fire and life and truly made me laugh.  He grew a fondness of me and preferred to have me wheel him into the dining hall or entertain him.  He always wore his cap and would fold up his artwork (colored pages from a children’s coloring book) and hide them under his hat.  He also loved to keep a small ball under his cap as well.  He was one of the funniest residents I’d met:

Here is a picture of Javier alone.  His expression truly portrays his sarcastic, full-of-life attitude:

Here is a picture of our only male volunteer, Cassiano with one of the ladies, Carmen. I did a red manicure on her nails and she loved it.  She was very sweet and extremely quiet.   She also enjoyed coloring and doing crafts.

Elena with Lillian, one of the sweetest, cutiest grannies there. She married one of the residents and they always walk hand and hand, and smile. Love can happen anytime!
Me with the “primero el mundo” , the best boxer in his days in costa rica. He always loved to do his punches and he smiled a ton:

Me with Miguel, or Mike, as he liked to be called. He loves to dance thus when we put on the Latin music he would hold our hands and we would rock to the beat. He also spoke a little English.

The birthday celebration began mid-morning and it was quite an effort getting all 32 residents moved into the hall. It was nice that we were there to help the small staff as over half the residents are in wheelchairs while the ones that could walk needed assistance. The cake was cut and served and gobbled up much faster than lunch. Then the music began. Thanks to our earlier Latin Dance classes, we were able to strike up a beat with the residents. Costa Ricans LOVE to dance, regardless of age, ability or disability. We danced with the able-bodied men and women and even danced with people in wheelchairs. If the men were not able to dance, they loved to watch us dance as they still embraced the machismo culture despite their age. Men are men, young or old.
The residents smiles of joy were contagious and we had a ball. Here are some photos:
The residents loved to dance or watch us dance (if they were in a wheelchair). Me dancing with “La Cubana”, the cuban woman who loves to dance and still has her groove.
Here is a picture of some of the residents who sat around in a big circle, listening to the music and watching the dancing.  Note La Princessa, in pink. She is in her 90s and always wears make-up and was once very beautiful in her days.
We also sang La Bamba in Spanish to them and they loved it. Overall, the party was a big success and brought a little bit of sunshine to Hogar Jesus de los Manos.  Leaving was the hardest part.  We had grown attached in such a short time and felt like we truly made a difference.   After we said our goodbyes, I could hear Javier’s voice in the distance calling my name to come back.  Slowly his voice faded away until you could not longer here a sound except the rapid beating of my heart.

Costa Rica SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

A Visit to the Countryside

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. 

Here is a picture of Lindsey, one of the volunteers, preparing the mixture for homemade tortillas:Here is Santi showing us the sugar cane mold used to make agua dulce:

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.

View of the Costa Rican countryside with Cartago in the distance:

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.

Lost in the fog (where’s the view?):
Picture of the beautiful vegetation. The big round plant is known as the “poor man’s umbrella”…ha ha.

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:


A Burst of Color and Life

I woke up as usual to the song of the birds and wonderful, fragrant smells flowing down the long corridor from the kitchen. It was six o’clock on the nose and time to start day 3 at the nursing home. I was looking forward to it as I truly felt like we’d made a lot of progress in the last two days. Doors were open to friendships and smiles were freely exchanged. I realized that it was a humbling experience working with the elderly. In our country, there really is no respect for them. Nothing like there should be at least, in my humble opinion. In Costa Rica, the grandparents were sacred and highly respected. That is why the reason behind Jesus de los Manos was so tragic; the most scared part of Tico life is family and here these grandmothers and grandfathers were discarded and forgotten, like a child’s old toy. Yet the resilience and desire to live (pura vida mentality) kept these abandoned abuelas and abuelos alive and well, even happy. It was a beautiful thing.

When we arrived, there they were, as expected, lined up outside on the terraces to greet us. It was another perfect day with highs in the low seventies and a crisp, fresh breeze descending off the mountain into the Central Valley. Today we were going to work on more beautification of the grounds and of course entertain the residents. We started by gathering the old, rusty paint cans out of the shed. On our short walk to the shed, Eduardo pointed out the gorgeous mural that was painted the week before by a group of High School students volunteering for the week with CCS. It was extremely impressive and the residents loved it. Here is a picture of the completed in a week, piece of art:

We grabbed the scarlet red paint cans, a couple brushes and some plastic tarp to lay down on the pavement and began painting. We were painting the old, worn out garbage cans (YES garbage cans) from a dirty green to a brilliant red as Eduardo had asked. Why? For two reasons: First, so they would stand out and the residents could easily locate the garbage cans. Second, and most important, to make them look prettier. Eduardo was big into spicing up the nursing home and landscape in order to make it a nicer place to live. These people enjoyed the Pura Vida so anything to make their final years better was done.

After the cans were painted, we headed on inside to the large, rectangular recreation room where long tables and chairs were set up and our friends were awaiting. We were going to do coloring, card games and more handicrafts for the rest of the morning. It was ironic doing some of the same games and activities with the elderly as I do at home with my children. It reminded me of the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in a sense. The circle of life and how we all end up reverting to our infant years when we age and are no longer able to dress ourselves, feed ourselves or even color unassisted. I was expecting this realization to be sad but for some reason it was not. It was hopeful in a way to see how peaceful and happy you could be in your final years. Not the depressing, worrisome slow death that most people fear.

Each volunteer was quickly developing their unique friendships and attachments with certain residents. It was funny how that happened. There were preferences given to what volunteer would entertain them or which one would wheel them into the dining room. Each resident was so incredibly unique and had their quirks and their stories.

I had grown attached to a couple. Javier, the crazy, spit and fire Costa Rican man who claimed he had traveled the world and was half American, became one of my favorites. I also enjoyed spending time talking with a man named Juan Pablo whose English was excellent. Then their was the “best boxer in the world”, or “primero el mundo” as he would like to say. There was also Lilly who was a real sweetheart and actually recently married another resident the past month. The couple always sat side by side and they were the only residents to have a communal bed. Finally there was la Princessa who was simply lovely and Carmen who loved having her nails done. There were not just nameless souls. They were amazing, loving people with an entire history and life to share with those who listened and those for cared.

Here are a few pictures:
This picture shows the work involved in getting all the residents to the dining room and fed for meals. Since over half of them are in wheelchairs, it required at least ten to fifteen minutes getting everyone out of their rooms and moved into the dining room. When the volunteers aren’t there to help, it takes up to a half an hour to bring them to the dining room and back after the meal. Each resident also has their preferred seating (kind of like an assigned place that they assigned themselves). We quickly learned where each person went and who they sat next to. There were also about seven residents who needed to be fed and could not eat on their own. Thus, we hand fed these people just like I had fed my children as infants. It was a touching experience. You could see the appreciation in their eyes. It was very humbling.


Nightlife in a Sleepy, Catholic Town

As I mentioned in earlier posts, leaving the CCS Home Base at night was not recommended unless in a group or with a male companion. There was no going out to get a drink, no going to the club, just staying back at the Home Base eating a huge meal and hanging out with the group or reading. A big part of traveling for me includes the night life. I love to go out and have fun however I had to respect the circumstances of our volunteer commitment. Since there were no tourists in Cartago, we really stood out and going to the bars (if there were any) in a Catholic town would have looked really bad. I was to learn later just how strict the drinking policy was.

When Santi mentioned an evening outing a few of us practically jumped out of our seats with the opportunity to get out at night. Santi heard that the local Cartago Cultural and Music center was having a free performance in honor of Holy Week for whoever wanted to attend. I could hardly wait to check things out and have an escape.

We left after dinner and it was a perfect evening out. Fresh, light breeze and wonderful. The walk to the Cultural Center took about fifteen minutes heading down windy streets and passing through the center of town. There was not a whole lot going on. People were out and about, doing their business, yet I couldn’t see much in the way of nightlife.

The Cultural Center is a beautiful, traditional Costa Rican building set in the center of town with a gorgeous indoor courtyard full of fragrant flowers, plants and best of all, an opening up to the sky. The Cultural Center offers art and music courses to the people of Cartago at no charge thus you can see artists in residence painting and showing their art and music performances. That evening, we were attending a free musical performance by some of the students in honor of Holy Week. To my surprise, the lights were turned off and the entire piece of music was played by candlelight. It was a quartet of strings and absolutely magical. All the music played was catholic and had to do with Holy Week. There were slides played against the wall that complemented the music. It was very peaceful and put one in the spirit of the importance of the week, even for those who are not that religious.
Here is a picture of the lovely traditional courtyard of the Cultural Center:
After the performance, we walked back to the CCS Home Base and entered a nearby church that was just cleaning up after an evening service. Here are some photos of the outside and inside of the church:

Then, of course, we hit the grand-daddy of all churches, the Basilica light up at night and it was spectacular. Here are some photos:

It was a fantastic evening out and my eyes closed immediately once I hit my bottom bunk. I couldn’t wait for Day 3 at the nursing home. I knew that my friends would be lined up early, on the terrace, anxiously awaiting our arrival with delight.

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The Circle of Life

I woke up Tuesday morning at the crack of dawn, as usual. The pale light was shining through the curtain cracks and the birds were chirping away in beautiful song. It was 6 am, and time to start the day. The breakfast was cooking (I could smell the hot cooked meal along with the freshly roasted java throughout the long corridor, entering my bunk room) and it was time to get up and ready for Day 2 at the nursing home. I knew they were waiting.

We loaded the van with the usual supplies and headed off to Hogar Jesus de los Manos, ready to practice our improved Spanish and see our new friends. We passed the twisty, serpentine roads once again, alive with chatter and laughter, and arrived at the gates ten minutes later.

As expected, there they were, all 32 residents lined up outside on their sunny terraces (save the gardener who was watering the plants, the man with dementia who was pacing up and down ranting loudly, unintelligibly to himself, and two others on “their final days” in bed). They were all smiles as they patiently awaiting our warm greetings and their eyes beamed with joy as soon as we grasped their hand to say buenos dias. It was if we had been friends all along, it was unbelievable and I realized just how hungry they were for our attention, care, and compassion.

The residents were not neglected at all and instead received an enormous amount of love and care from the small staff at Hogar Jesus de los Manos. Unfortunately being a non-profit meant there was not a lot of money to hire enough staff so the small staff in place worked long, hard hours for little pay. Yet each worker showed enormous compassion for the residents and knew their individuals quirks and needs. For example, Juan Pablo always sits out by the red bench next to Dona Maria each morning after breakfast, and Fernando sits next to Lilly each meal on the first table facing the entrance of the dining room. The staff had a huge capacity for remembering these tiny like idiosyncrasies which I found truly amazing.

Our plan of attack for day 2 was twofold: First we would work on planting new trees along the sidewalk and second we would entertain the residents with cards, coloring and the long-anticipated manicure and pedicures for the ladies. Eduardo dreamed of having a lovely, tree-lined sidewalk full of flowing eucalyptus trees that would beautify the courtyard and bring joy to the residents. Last year, a group of CCS volunteers planted small eucalyptus saplings and they had already grown six feet tall.
Insert: Here is a photo of the trees planted last year.

We were to plant four more saplings to hopes that they too would grow and help line the sidewalk. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. The ground was hard as a rock and we were thankful to have a young, strong male volunteer with us to help dig the holes. Cassiano was a wonderful man, mature well beyond his years, and a perfect gentleman. We dug the holes as deep as we could and Cassi did the rest.
Insert: Here is a picture of the saplings.
Insert: Here is a picture of us volunteers, dirty and happy after a hard days work.

While we were digging, we noticed the same old man dressed in long pants and sunhat out watering and tending the garden every day. He couldn’t speak but he would acknowledge our presence with a smile and he loved caring for that garden.
Insert: Here he is, tending the garden.

Eduardo was proud of the gardens. He knew the importance of nature and also responsibility. Having a garden that residents could tend, love, and care for was an important way that they could feel responsibility. Eduardo hoped that someday future volunteers could help plant a vegetable garden where the home could grow their own fresh produce. We started the digging but ran out of time since the work was extremely hard given our meager tools. The ground was much too hard and we needed better equipment. The vegetable garden would have to wait.

Insert: Here is a picture of how the garbage collection is done at the home. A local women brings her bull with a cart and all the leftover food is carried away and then composted. She lives a few blocks away and keeps her bull, goats, and chickens right her yard, a common practice in Costa Rica.

Our next piece of business for the day was “entertainment”. Some of the volunteers had stayed back from the manual labor and had interacted with the residents. We arrived to see them coloring out of children’s coloring books (one of their favorite activities), and making beaded necklaces. Some of the men were coloring too and others were outside playing ball. They all very lively and jovial. However, the real excitement came when we walked in as the ladies knew it was time for a visit to the spa!

We set up a table with different shades of nail polish-scarlet reds, bright pinks, sassy oranges, earthy browns-and then lined the waiting ladies up. They could hardly contain their joy and excitement at getting their nails done. Like most Latin cultures, female beauty is highly important and even these elderly women wanted to look beautiful. Given their arthritic hands and low dexterity painting nails was not an option for them. Thus getting their nails done by volunteers was a treat and a highlight of their day.

Not speaking much Spanish did not matter. It was the loving touch and delicate work on their old hands and toes that truly mattered. I loaded up my hands with lotion and gave their sore arms and hands a massage and they closed their eyes in relaxation. It was beautiful and nothing I say here can express how touching the experience it was. One woman, who everyone calls “La Princessa”, had been a real beauty in her days and was even beautiful now in her nineties. She always wore pink and always wore makeup and lipstick. She couldn’t speak anymore yet her pleasure at receiving a manicure was undeniable. I learned that morning that even small acts of kindness and love can make a difference and mean the world to someone else. It was a good lesson.


Hogar Jesus de los Manos

We followed the windy, maze-like streets into Guadalupe Cartago leading up to our final destination, The Hogar Jesus de los Manos. Along the way, we chatted happily and the energy in the van was quite high. Everyone was excited and we all couldn’t wait to arrive. A new member of the Costa Rica CCS team had joined us, Santi, who was just as alive and cheerful as the volunteers. As the Program Assistant, Santi works hand and hand with Jose and typically accompanies the volunteers to the site each day. There are two other CCS volunteer sites in Costa Rica, in different areas of the country, so Jose cannot be with the Cartago group all the time. He frequently travels to the other offices to check up on the volunteers and see how they are doing. Santi was an equally knowledgable and compassionate replacement and we were delighted to have him with us and we especially enjoyed all his laughs.

Santi told us that the nursing home was created in 1992 as an NGO that provides loving care and assistance to abandoned and abused elderly Costa Ricans that have no family or other place to go. Like most Costa Ricans, the residents are highly catholic and their faith plays a large role in their life and viewpoints. We were also prepared with some details on the residents before we arrived. About half of them were disabled and in wheelchairs, a few were mentally incapacitated, and a few were on their “last days” as Santi put it. We had to prepare ourselves to deal with anything but most of all, to give compassion, understanding and companionship to them. They were desperately lonely and isolated despite the excellent care of the staff. They were craving attention, fun, entertainment and simply someone to talk to who would listen to their stories. That was all we had to do.

We pulled up to the big wrought-iron gate and Santi buzzed the security (something we were getting use to in Costa Rica). We waited anxiously for the gates to open and the van to be let in. From a distance, we could see them; all thirty-two residents lined up in chairs or wheelchairs along the outdoor terraces on the L-shaped building. They were there, just as anxious as us, awaiting our arrival. My stomach dropped and anxiety raced through my veins. They are waiting for us! I realized in shock and disbelief. Then fear set in. How would I relate to them? I barely even speak Spanish. I have no experience with the elderly save my 95-year-old Grandfather who was one-of-a-kind. And even more nervously I thought, What if they found me a nuisance. Someone who couldn’t speak a lick of their language, a privileged American who didn’t have a clue? Then what would I do? What would I do if I failed?

I didn’t have time to answer that thought because before I knew it the gates opened and in we walked. We were instantly met and greeted by Eduardo, the thirtyish-looking Director of the home. I could tell instantly that I would like him. He was confident, yet extremely humble and caring. He looked everyone in the eye when introduced and you could really tell that he gave a damn.

We didn’t have much if any time to prepare for our introductions to the residents who were all desperately awaiting our arrival. All 32 pairs of eyes were on us as we walked down the long corridor and one by one, were introduced to every single Abuela and Abuelo at Jesus de los Manos. Eduardo made the introductions, lovingly placing his hands on each resident’s back and bending inwards close so that they could hear him speak. It was amazing. The compassion. The warmth. The love. The respect that Eduardo showed these people was unbelievable. I was completely taken aback. This is a good place I realized, in awe.

Insert: Picture of the entrance of Hogar Jesus de los Manos

Picture of the long, L-shaped corridor, lined with outdoor terraces for the residents to enjoy nature.

I was also amazed and relieved to see how the residents reacted to our arrival. They were like little kids in a candy shop. The smiles, the boisterous talk and even the hugs of a few, made us all feel instantly welcomed and at home. I couldn’t believe how quickly they accepted us. They drank us up, every last drop, like an ice-cold drink on a summer hot day. Ok then, no worries about us not making any impact I instantly believed. It was going to be possible to make a difference.

After the introductions of each resident and staff member of the home, we moved on to a brief tour of the grounds and the home itself. The building wasn’t the least bit modern yet it wasn’t as rundown as I had imagined. Of course before you visit a place you, you always conjure up images and perceptions of what it is going to be like. Well, this place was only slightly what I had imagined. The rooms were fine; minimally furnished but clean. Each resident had their own space which was nice. There was a huge room used for entertainment (music, dance, birthdays, etc) and there was also another large room adjacent that was set up with card tables and chairs where the residents could do activities such as color, paint or socialize. In the corner of that room, there was equipment for physical therapy sessions as well. At the end of the L-shaped corridor was a large dining room lined with long tables and chairs. Finally, the upstairs of the building contained more bedrooms and an office space for the staff.

The best part of all about Hogar Jesus de los Manos was the location. The building was inside a walled-in lot set within the perfectly, lush and serene Central Valley. Nature surrounded you once you were outside, which explains why the residents spent much of their day outdoors on the terrace relaxing in the sun and gentle breeze. View of the green-blue mountains could be seen in the distance and the far end of the courtyard contained a large garden where residents could grow and tend plants and flowers. It was lovely and so incredibly peaceful. A perfect place to age (if there can be one).

After our tour, Eduardo spent a short amount of time listing the objectives for the week. The most important thing we could help with was the residents. Since the Jesus de los Manos was a non-profit organization, its funds were very limited meaning they had an extremely small staff for all the residents. Just taking care of the residents required almost all their time so unfortunately the residents often got a bit bored and depressed. That was where the CCS volunteers as well as other volunteer organizations could help. They could entertain the residents. Talk to them. Play ball with them (yes, just like the ball I play with my young children; tossing a ball back and forth). Color pictures with them. Make jewelry or art with them. And for the ladies, give them manicures and pedicures! (Yes beauty is very important in Costa Rica and the women absolutely loved having their nails done!).

Eduardo decided to split up the volunteers into two groups: One group would work with the residents and the other group would work on the grounds. They desperately needed some gardening and planting to be done in order to beautify the landscape. I chose the path of least residence, perhaps, for the first day and opted to do the dirty work: Gardening. We dug out weeds, planting flowers and tried to straighten things out in a garden that probably had not been touched in weeks. Some of the residents adore gardening yet needed help with it. That was where we stepped in to help their aging, arthritic hands to tend to the garden. It was a relaxing way to spend the first morning. Outside, with the gentle breeze coming off the mountains and touching my face. With a few, attentive residents smiling at everything we said (which they probably couldn’t understand). But sometimes smiles and gestures can mean much more than words, I discovered. Another thing I enjoyed that morning was one resident, an elderly man perhaps in his eighties, especially enjoyed to water the garden. He spent hours watering the flowers and tending to the garden, never saying a word but with a smile in his eyes. He wore a white floppy hat, long-gray pants and a red sweater, and every morning when we arrived, he was out tending the garden. It was quite special.

Insert: Photos of the garden and my favorite gardener:

The morning passed quickly and before I knew it, we said our goodbyes to our newly made friends and were loaded up in the vans. We heard the distant protests from some of the residents not wanting us to leave yet but they understood we’d be back tomorrow morning. We heard from Eduardo that day two was going to involve some other activities. Rumor had it that the ladies wanted a special treat. They wanted manicures and pedicures. They wanted to look “pretty” and feel young. The men, meanwhile, were looking forward to playing more ball and perhaps having a dance with the female volunteers. Once a man, always a man.

Central America Costa Rica SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

The Midnight Arrivals

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:

Central America Costa Rica SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

In Walks Seven Strangers

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!

In Cartago, the road leading up to the CCS Home Base:

The gates of the CCS Home Base and our van:

Central America Costa Rica TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION

Fireworks at Noon

I woke up Sunday morning feeling well-rested but still like my head was a giant, overly inflated balloon.  It wasn’t so much that I minded being so sick (yes it isn’t pleasant to feel like your head is going to explode but after ten days at home in bed trying to get rid of it to no avail, what was a worn-down Minnesota Mom of two, misbehaving kids to do?).  It was the thought of passing my nasty bug on to the elderly abuelas and abuelos at the nursing home that really concerned me.  I’ve become quite aware that the elderly do not have anywhere near the same immune system as younger people do so infecting them with a virulent virus was not something I wanted to do.  Thankfully I packed lots of Purell and intended to soak my hands in the antibacterial slimy gel as often as I could.  Cough in your elbow, not your hand, I reminded myself.  Don’t forget to wash your hands!  Oh the mother in me was coming out! 

The Hotel Presidente has a fantastic cafe that opens up onto the main pedestrian street, Avenida Central  and is attached to the bar I visited the previous night to calm my nerves before bed.  It was eight am and a glorious morning.  The Costa Rican sun shone brightly, lighting up the sky, and my pale, vitamin D deficient skin drank up its magnificent rays like a dehydrated child. Ahhhh….at last! 

I found a wonderful table on the terrace which afforded a perfect people-watching view of the main drag.  I ordered my first highly anticipated cup of Costa Rican java and was not the least bit disappointed in its velvety, rich, deeply satisfying taste.  As a coffee lover, I knew that I’d be in paradise for the next week enjoying some of the best coffee in the world. (I must secretly admit that even today I still order my coffee direct from Costa Rica.  It actually turns out to be a cheaper way of supporting my habit as the cost per pound is less than anything I can buy in the States or at least anything that is drinkable!  Try for yourself: 

The waiter brought me a plate and I helped myself to the buffet where I ordered my very own omelette from the happy smiling egg cooker and passed on the fruit (I didn’t want to take any chances of getting Montezuma’s Revenge and was warned not to eat fruit or uncooked vegetables.  Unfortunately my discretion only last a day and I found out the hard way why you should definitely NOT eat those gorgeous, juicy, delicious papaya).  The food was surprisingly good and I used my breakfast time to page through the guide book for some ideas how to spend the day.  It felt strange to be all alone, in a foreign country.  I hadn’t traveled solo abroad since my twenties and now in my late thirties it was a different experience.  I wasn’t a spring chicken anymore nor did I like to drink myself silly staying in youth hostels.  I was a mother for God’s sake, with responsibility!  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Thankfully, I seem to have an approachable, Minnesota nice (I don’t bite!) demeanor and seem to meet friends everywhere, almost to the point of ridicule by friends and family.   I struck up a conversation with the couple next to me and discovered that there was much to learn and see in Costa Rica.   In my opinion, meeting new, interesting people from all walks of life is part of the thrill and adventure of traveling.  Sharing the world and what you have found with others, even strangers, is half the reward and you can often learn a lot. 

I took their advice and set off for my day exploring San Jose, alone and not the least bit alarmed.  I took a deep breath, left the comforts of the hotel, and made a left on Avenida Central, the main drag, to began my exploration of the city.  It was a Sunday morning, and the streets were beaming with life.  Shops selling cheap clothing lined the street as well as fast-food restaurants (yes I even saw a KFC and of course McDonalds…just like North America) and loads of electronic stores jam-packed with well, electronics.  I instantly felt safe.  No one stared at the middle age blond-hair gringa.  In fact, no one even seemed to notice I was there so I was able to walk freely and leisurely allowing me to take it all in. 

I was about two or three blocks away from the hotel when I first heard the sounds and nearly dropped to the ground.  BANG BANG BOOM BOOM!!!  The loud, frightening sounds pounded the bright blue sky like thunder, like death.  I practically had a heart attack and felt all the hair on my skin raise in fear.  Trying not to panic, I looked around at the actors in the play (well, really the people on the streets that I had been secretly watching behind my dark shades).  No one stopped.  No one panicked.  No one seemed to even notice or hear the bangs.  It was like nothing out of the ordinary so at this point I was utterly confused.  What in God’s name was that noise? !  It sure sounded like gun fire.  Yet no one seemed to even notice.  Hmmm….

Another block later, as I nervously crossed the street, I happened to have that “ah ha” moment.  Had I visited a Latin country before I would have known what it was:  Fireworks!  Yes, fireworks were being light off and shot smack during the middle of the day.  And why I wondered?  It didn’t seem to make any sense.

 Then I saw it.  The large, colonial Catholic church and the masses and masses of people marching down the street in a religious procession carrying palms and some kind of burning incense that smoked the bright blue sky.  It finally dawned on me that it wasn’t just any Sunday.  It was Palm Sunday, which jumped off the start of Holy Week or Semana Santa, an entire week of processions, religious festivities and celebrations.  Ticos are CRAZY about Holy Week.  It is the biggest, most important holiday and religious week in all of Costa Rica, a country in which is almost 90% Catholic (aka very religious people) and I was about to discover firsthand how important Catholicism is to the Costa Rican people.  

I watched the procession trying to understand what they were saying and doing.  I practically kicked myself for not knowing more about Catholicism.  Yes, like many Midwestern Americans, I went to church every Sunday as a child yet even to this day must admit that I quite frankly don’t understand what a lot of religious rituals mean.  Oh well.  I’d have time to learn.  I was in a very Catholic country for an entire week, during one of the most important weeks of the year.  I was bound to find out!

 I spent the rest of my morning exploring some of the important cultural and historical landmarks in San Jose such as the splendid Teatro Nacional and the fascinating Museo del Oro Precolombino which is loaded with over 1,600 gold artifacts dating from 500 to 1500 AD and also has exhibits on the native culture before the invasion of the gold-greedy conquistadors in 1506 thanks to Christopher Columbus.  Although there is much more to see in San Jose, a city that is often overlooked and used as a launching off pad for the rest of the country, I unfortunately didn’t have the time.  I had to be back at the airport by early afternoon to meet my fellow volunteers and representatives from CCS (Cross-Cultural Solutions, my volunteer organization). 

While wandering about, one thing that I instantly noticed is the insane difficulty in finding your way around.  In Costa Rica, actual street addresses are seldom if ever used making finding a location equivalent to trying to following a treasure map in Arabic!   For example, most addresses are given like some kind of secret map code:  Our hotel can be found on the northeast side of Calle 3, between Avenidas Central and 1.  If they really want to mess with you or spice things up, they will even throw in some crazy landmarks and add the metric system to the equation (a DISASTER for us Americans who don’t know how to use the metric system!).  Here is an example:  This restaurant can be found by following Avenida Central 100 m. to the intersection of Calle Rose and Avenida 9.  Then take a left, head 250 m straight to the yellow house.  Turn right, etc etc).  For a barely speaking Spanish foreigner, finding an address in Costa Rica is completely by chance and for my first day in the country, I wasn’t going to find out the hard way.  I explored only a few main avendias, the main arteries of the city, and prayed I wouldn’t wind up lost.  It was almost two o’clock and time to head to the airport.   After a quick delightful gelato, I was back in the cab, striking up a half Spanish half I don’t know what conversation with the driver and was on my way.  I was looking forward to starting the volunteer experience which was the main reason why I was in Costa Rica.  Judging how interesting my morning went, I was confident that the rest of the week would be quite an adventure.  I also could not believe my luck at being there during one of the most important weeks of the year.  I was certain it would be a fascinating week, full of cultural learning and mishaps. 

Downtown San Jose, Main drag, where the walk began :

As I walked further, a little more Latin charm:

 National Theater:

Loaded of course with pigeons:

A sad sign of America….Ticos love their junkie fast food:

 And they also love Holy Week….here I witness a procession and prayer session:

 After the loud BOOM BOOM sound of the fireworks at noon, I finally found the source:  A Palm Sunday celebration and procession at one of the many Catholic churches in San Jose:

 Outside the church, the people begin to amass:

 Inside the church, beauty and peace at last:

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